Wednesday, April 25, 2007
I was too young – but all my three older siblings joined the Red Guard right away – in those first enthusiastic months (1966) of cultural revolution.
There wasn’t any formal organization – and it wasn’t a branch of the “young pioneers” or the other groups that led up to party membership – it was it’s own popular movement – begun in the Beijing university and then spreading down to the high schools – across to other cities – and eventually to other classes beyond just the educated elite.
To join, you wore an armband with the three Chinese characters of “Red guard” – that’s all you had to do – and then join in the excitement of making revolution against the “old ways”.
For students, that mostly meant rebelling against the educational system – that strait-jacket of memorization, testing, and subsequent hierarchies. The teachers – but especially the school principals –were at fault – and they were humiliated, beaten, and sometimes driven to suicide or beaten to death. There was so much excitement in the air (just like among American youth of the time).
My siblings were in the thick of it – but they were too shy to take leadership roles. They just followed their peers and usually watched others to do the yelling and beating. Besides physical violence, Red Guards also did a lot of debating among themselves.
A frequent topic of debate was the assertion that “if you were born into a good family then you would be a good person.” I remember how one response ran like this:
Dragon gives birth to dragon
Phoenix gives birth to phoenix
Mouse knows how to dig holes at birth
We all agreed that this theory is 100% correct, since we were considered from a good family. (but this was before my father was arrested!)
Overall, my Red Guard siblings had our parents’ approval – because this was just another movement – like the “Great leap forward” – that had periodically marked my parents’ life since they first joined the red army 20-30 years earlier. But my mother was not happy about the hard language – the swearing language – that her suddenly tough little daughter brought home on weekends – and , of course, she opposed the beating of teachers.
I don’t think any of my siblings actually struck a teacher – but once my sister took her turn in holding back a teacher’s arms while she was forced to confess her crimes against the revolution. And recently she just confessed (for the very first time) that in the course of that interrogation, she picked up a small stone and threw it at the teacher’s face – breaking the skin. My sister is usually a quiet, shy person – and this teacher had been notably kind to her students, sometimes even feeding them. But when the teacher refused to confess: “I have done nothing wrong!” , my sister joined the others in venting their righteous frustration.
Very quickly, the schools were closed – and then these bands of these inspired youth roamed throughout the city to scourge the remnants of the “old rich” still cowering in their homes. My sister ran with a band of girls – my brother with a band of boys – and first they would visit the local police station or neighborhood committee to get the addresses of appropriate targets for punishment.
How were these lists compiled ? Were they based on family history – or personal grudges – or rumors of bad behavior ? Probably all three --- and once they had the address, the righteous children would smash down the door – dragging the occupants out for a beating and their possessions out for a burning.
The Red Guards were looking for gold bars, other valuables, and deeds for land or properties owned before the Party took over. This was hardly ever found – but they were beaten anyway and forced admit that they were enemies of the people. Then everything they owned was burned or destroyed – and and I saw many such bonfires in the streets of our neighborhood (in these first idealistic months, nothing was stolen -- but eventually that changed.)
The next step was to spread the revolution to other cities – and like everyone else in the movement, my siblings got free train rides to wherever they wanted .
My sister’s group took a train all the way west to Xinjiang (on the Silk Road) – where they were put up in school buildings and fed by the community. She remembers how the non-Chinese local people thought she was one of them (since she looks a bit different from other Han people) – and she remembers that the food was different, but very good – this being an area known for its tasty lamb stew. They stayed there two months – but this turned out to be her only trip. Meanwhile, my second oldest brother ended up making three trips --- to distant places like Shanghai and Canton – where language was a big problem since the dialects were nearly incomprehensible to students from Beijing.
Before they left Beijing, mom gave each of them about 15 to 20 Yuan for pocket money – while their food, and boarding were provided by the local government. I remember how my sister brought raisins back from Xinjiang, just like dad, who had brought back 10 kilos when he went to the same area on a business trip a few years earlier. We had raisins for a long, long time.
Similarly, students from other areas came to Beijing in mid-1967 –and after my parents were forced to abandon half of their apartment, the other half was assigned as temporary housing for up to 30 students. They had come from less developed areas of the country – and made a terrible mess . They had never even used a modern toilet – they were used to squatting not sitting -- so you can imagine in what condition they left the lavatory ! —and they had gotten far too accustomed to spitting on their dirt floors back at home.
We helped mom to wash down the staircase with hot water from our bath room.( She was afraid that we’d track all their spittle back into our apartment and get sick.) . The smell was horrible. Mom even had to teach them how to use the toilet.
During this time – nobody that we knew personally got killed – but still we saw some horrible things.
One day, as my mother was walking home from market, she heard a heavy sack crash to the pavement just behind her. Well, it was no heavy sack, it was a woman --- and looking up, she saw the open fourth floor window from which she had jumped. Frightened, my mother rushed home and told what happened. She told me to stay inside – but I have always been stubborn and curious – so I went down the block to take a look – and there was that poor woman crumpled on the pavement – still breathing. That was the first time I saw a person die, and I was scared.
Another time, we were at home, and heard terrible screams coming from an apartment in an adjacent building – their second floor balcony could not have been more than 20 feet away – and we saw a beaten, bloody man stumbling out to the balcony and try to lower himself over the side. There he was, grasping onto the railing, while his tormentors were kicking at his hands until he let go and fell. Then he got up and ran – but they were right behind him, and cornering him up against a wall ,continuing with his terrible beating.
All of those men were in their twenties – advanced engineering students living in a special dormitory for technicians – but we later learned that the victim was Korean – and his attackers accused him of being a spy. (or maybe he just talked funny ?)
It was autumn of 1966, when my sister began to take her second trip – and after a lot of pestering, she had finally agreed to take me lalong with her.
Beijing was full of student travelers, and it took us several hours to squeeze into a bus – but suddenly we heard someone calling our names just as the bus door was closing. It was my oldest brother, who told us to please get off at the next bus stop.
It turned out that my father’s ministry received the message from Chairman Mao that the time for the Red Guards to travel was over. This communication was only sent to high officials and the rest of the country would not be affected for several months.
I was so mad, and sad, because I never got a chance to travel with my sister again. But I think mom and dad were relieved, since some students had been killed during all this massive traveling – and I was only 13 years old.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
There’s no avoiding it any longer, the big event in my life – in my entire generation’s life – was the cultural revolution.
It began in 1966 when students from Beijing University petitioned Chairman Mao about the need to overcome “the old ways” that the earlier revolution had not yet eliminated. Mao approved of their complaint – possibly because he was losing power and needed to re-establish his authority over other top leaders.
And so the cultural revolution began among the top 3% of Chinese youth – i.e. those who had been admitted to university – and enthusiasm soon spread to high school students as well – including my older brothers and sister – each of whom attended the top, or next-to-top, high schools in Beijing.
I was too young (still in my last year of grammar school )– but my older siblings were caught up in the excitement – especially after their schools closed – and all schools, at every level, soon closed – and would stay closed for two years. ( universities stayed shut for five years !)
It was a youth movement – and just like the hippies in the West – it had its own dress code – so my sister cut her hair short (like a soldier) and everyone from a good family background (military, officials, workers, or intellectuals) had to wear old military uniforms – showing that they were not from a bad family background (landlords or merchants).
My parents’ old uniforms had long been discarded – but some uncles and aunts were still military, so mother asked to borrow their old clothing on behalf of her daughter and sons,
So that was the fashion: old army jackets with red arm bands – and except for the short hair – they would have blended quite well on an American college campus of the late ‘60’s. But there was certainly none of the “make love not war” mantra of the young Americans . My sister was 16 – but dating and romance were unthinkable among her generation (where boys and girls attended separate schools) , and she made a very beautiful arm band for herself:
red silk that was embroidered with three Chinese characters in black silk thread. (Mom has kept it all of these years, for what reason I do not know)
My oldest brother was a very quiet person – but my second brother (who was among the top students at the best school for boys – ominously called “Number Four”) was something of a ringleader – and many times he would bring a band of student red guards (5 to 10 strong ) to stay in our apartment over night – and mother would welcome them.
During the early days when the school had just closed,, they broke into the school library and picked their favorite books to take home. (My brother claimed that he did not participate in the break-in, but he did bring some books home, and later mom asked him to return them to whoever took them.)
They were well behaved, smart and handsome young fellows, and I even had a secret crush on a few of them (but I’ve never told anyone until now!)
(I was talking with my sister recently – and we agreed that mother enjoyed the company of boys much more than girls. They picked up her spirits – while girls, like my sister and I, usually just made her cranky, especially me, since I hardly ever lived at home. Plus she was very bitter about how little attention she got while growing up, even though she was the only girl in her family. Girls were not appreciated in her time – and that’s probably still true in the many areas in China.)
One time, the boys talked about beating their teachers – yes – amazingly, this kind of thing happened: students criticizing and beating their teachers – but my mother firmly reminded him that a teacher had once saved his life –so he should never touch them.
It had happened back in my brother’s first year of middle school – when the class took a trip to the nearby countryside to work with farmers for a week. Rural hygiene being what it was, my brother caught dysentery and eventually passed out. No transportation was available, so one of his teachers carried him unconscious, late at night, on his back for several miles to the nearest medical facility, where he was unconscious in the hospital for the next 7 – 10 days. Doctors had declared that if he had arrived even a few hours later, he might have been dead.
And you may notice that my mother was the only parent involved with our lives – since my father worked so late and was hardly ever home.
This was, by the way, one of the few times that I lived at home with my family – since all the boarding schools were now closed. We spent the time reading many of those books that my brother’s friends had liberated from the school library – including many Chinese translations of European literature. He enjoyed reading each book and then telling us all about it. It was fun not going to school –especially since my recent change of schools (the one I ran away from) had left me straggling behind the rest of the students.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Her oldest brother, the farmer, took the train to Beijing once a year, around New Years, where he visited us and the rest of the family, loaded with things he had grown.
There were beans, peanuts, and my favorite: long, sweet yams, which we in Beijing could only buy in late Fall.
( Then, yams were cheap: only 2 fen for a half kilo. Mom boiled them in a big pot, and the best (very sweet) kind had an orange-red color and were not too dry inside. But my sisters liked the ones that were white and dry inside.)
My uncle would watch us eat his potatoes and outspoken person that I am, I once asked him why he didn’t eat with us. He told me he didn’t like potatoes at all, since he had to eat them every day during harvest season. He did not own the farm where he lived, but was given a very small piece of “self kept land” where he could grow anything he wanted and keep it all.
In return, my mother and his other siblings gifted him with cash whenever he visited, maybe 15-30 Yuan (an ordinary month’s wage) which was a significant source of income for his family. He stayed with us about four or five days, and I remember how he chain smoked, rolling his own cigarettes with newspaper that my mother had collected for him.
I don’t know if anyone ever took a bath in the countryside. They only had an out house, (and underneath it, the pigsty) . When he visited, Mom always had him bathe or shower and she washed all his clothes, sometimes needing very hot water to kill all the fleas. He was a big eater, managing two or three large bowls of noodles, enough to feed our entire family. (Mom always said that he could even eaten even more, but he was too shy to admit it.) He was very tall – just like all my uncles - about 6 feet high.
Mom’s second brother, the general, also lived in Beijing, and had been an artillery officer in the Korean war – where a nearby explosion had left him deaf in one ear. When he returned from the war, he enjoyed something of hero-status , and that’s when he met his young wife who was a very pretty, high-school aged patriotic volunteer from Wuxi (a location near Shanghai, known for it’s small, delicate, and very beautiful women)
They soon had four children, three boys and finally one girl, and had their own courtyard in Beijing, to which they also invited his mother (my grandmother) to live (my grandfather had been dead almost 20 years by then)
The oldest son was two years younger than me – a very tall, handsome fellow, who is now a judge in the Beijing Supreme Court. The number two son was even taller ( 6’5”) and was recruited for the military basketball team. His military career did not go anywhere, and he ended up working in a Beijing factory, married to a tall woman basketball player. ( they have a daughter, and you can imagine how tall she must be, but so far I’ve never met her) The youngest son lived with us for a few years, since mom did not work any more, and she could baby sit. He was a normal boy, but at the age of two, a high fever left him with a disorder on one side of his face. It took him a long time to find a wife, but finally, at the age of 40, he married a country girl who lived in Beijing. They have a beautiful daughter.
My uncle had a good life, but his career often took him away on duty -- and a beautiful young wife does not stay lonely forever. Eventually she began to entertain a young soldier, about seven years her junior. My grandmother, living at home, saw the young couple meet behind the closed bedroom door – but as a guest of her daughter-in-law, she felt she should say nothing.
A Chinese proverb tells us that “paper cannot wrap fire” – and true enough, eventually my uncle discovered the affair. Adultery is a very bad thing in China – but so was divorce – so it put my uncle in a tough position. I remember overhearing the hushed conversation he had with my mother about these troubles – how he felt like such a failure – and how my mother told him to divorce her.
The divorce was processed and my uncle, who was 38 at the time, was given custody of their three sons, while the two lovers were severely punished by losing their rank, their jobs, and their residency in Beijing.
Residency in the big cities was no small privilege – and it was nearly impossible to come by for those who didn’t have it. In the countryside, people eat what they grow – but in the big cities one needed food coupons – and nobody got them unless they were official residents.
I think the coupons system started in late 1950’s or early 1960’s., and some of the coupons, like those for grain and oil, lasted until early 1980’s.
Different cities had different types of coupons, and they were not interchangeable, which was one reason why very few people traveled during those years.
One year, dad traveled to Shanghai to investigate a major anti-party crime. Unfortunately his team was not able to solve the crime, and he had to stay a few weeks longer. There was one special coupon that converted coupons from one city to another for those who had the documentation of an official business trip, but dad had run out of Beijing coupons, and he wrote a letter to tell mom asking her send some. She sent him enough coupons to last for a month, but he never got them. It turned out that she had used a regular letter, and, of course, a hungry mail man kept them. It took my family many months to recover, and Mom had to cook with elm leaves or vegetable leaves from our front yard. I remember how my older sister and I climbed to the top of an old bunker in our complex to reach the elm bushes, and we picked the new tender leaves as mom had instructed. Mom then cooked them with corn meal, and I loved it. Mom laughed at me and said that I always enjoyed poor peasant food.
So the two adulterers were sent back to their home villages – with no prospects for employment.
My uncle’s ex-wife got piece-work assembling match boxes at home – on a starvation wage – with the assistance of her young daughter of whom she got custody. The daughter was a beautiful young girl – just like her mother had been – and it truly pained my uncle to lose her – but there was nothing he could do.
Eventually, her lover, the young soldier (now a hometown factory worker) was able to send for – and marry her, but my uncle’s daughter had to stay behind where she was cared for by extended family until she was old enough to marry another orphaned boy in the village – just in time to upset the plans of her desperate father, who had finally gotten the paperwork to get her residency in Beijing. But it was impossible to get residency for her new husband as well -- and so it goes….
The daughter’s young husband turned out to be abusive and the marriage didn’t last very long – but eventually she settled down with a factory job and second husband and things were looking much brighter for them.
Meanwhile my uncle’s ex-wife and her new husband were unable to have children – so they adopted a son – which occasioned the somewhat bitter remark from my mother that “having abandoned four children – why adopt another?”
My uncle soon found another wife – this one a college professor who had never been married – and she became the mother in his family, eventually bearing him another son.
My mother’s third brother was a great favorite with us children because he was very generous and always brought gifts whenever he came over, including some enormous pears we always kept on top of the armoire. He was very close to my mother - since she had played a maternal role in his life. My father helped get him get a good job with the army – and later he entered an industrial bank, where as level-17 cadre he served as a bank manager.
Among my mother’s uncles, I’ve already mentioned the ones who were traditional doctors – but there was also one who rose up to cadre-7 in the finance ministry.
That’s very high – he got his own courtyard in Beijing – the government provided his family with a cook and maid, a private driver and a car. In the late fifties, he owned among the very first television sets in China. These were Russian made devices that picked up the two hours of programming available every day – and there were, needless to say, quite expensive – about 800 yuan –which would have been about two years of ordinary factory wages. ( My family did not own a television for another twenty years) Making an annual visit to their home reminded me of the comical Granny Liu visiting Prospect Garden (in “Dream of Red Chamber”) – i.e. we felt like country bumpkins. (even we were much better off than most Chinese people.)
And then there was an uncle’s daughter whose husband moved to Texas to work in a plastic bag factory. The owners were Chinese, and they got him a green card to come to Texas to fix their machines. He was a professional engineer , but he was paid about $15/hour. He was quite frugal, and saving his meager wages, he brought his wife over in 4-5 years – and finally even had enough cash and credit to purchase new machines from China, bring them to Texas, and open his own factory, employing Mexican workers. Sort of an American immigrant success story, I suppose – as each wave of immigrants rises to the top on the backs of those who come next.
Still another uncle moved to Canada (he is a couple of years younger than me, and I never called him “uncle”) – and he is the family expert in traditional behavior – knowing all the proper forms of social interaction between generations. His family had lived in Beijing for many generations, and they speak a Beijing accent that even I don’t use.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Some more regarding my parent’s life at that time–
My father was a quiet, studious man - and he was always reading those old books with old Chinese characters that I couldn’t understand. He liked calligraphy and practiced an hour almost every day. And he liked to walk – an hour every morning until his eighties.
He didn’t socialize much with peers at the ministry. His friends were old comrades from the army – and several times a year they would come over for visits. We entertained their drivers in one room, while I served tea and candies or fruit to the officer and his wife. (it wasn’t the custom for visitors to stay for dinner – since all food was rationed – but sometimes my father would insist “stay, please stay” Unlike today, children stayed far in the background when adults were getting together – but I was more outgoing than my siblings, so I got to serve the guests – and it was my special skill to peel an apple so carefully that apple and peel could be reunited for presentation. Liquor was never served – except when dinner was offered.
As for my mom, I remember when she quit her factory job -- or actually my dad called the factory and told them we had moved to the complex next to the
( she told us that a lot of it reflected her own family when she was growing up) I don’t think either of my parents were exposed to the Western literature at all..
After mother left her government job, her party membership got her elected supervisor of the neighborhood clothing factory – a kind of participatory entrepreneurial project – where local women got together with their sewing machines and made clothing whose sale would provide them all with a little extra income. For some single mothers, the 10-yuan a month they could earn was all they had – and they lived on the edge of starvation. To give you some idea of relative incomes, my mother, as supervisor, made 30 yuan, while my father as a level-12 cadre made 180 – so we were very well off – and mother contributed cloth as well a big pots of noodles to the workers in her shop. At 5’6” tall, , she towered over the rest of them – but like everyone we saw, she was thin --- all Chinese were thin (and when she visited
We hardly ever socialized with our extended family – and maybe it’s time to talk about what they were doing.
My father had two younger brothers – and the older one lived in Tien Jing. But 100 miles was a long trip back then, and I didn’t take the train to visit that uncle until I was a teenager. He worked as a store clerk, and had a very low income. His entire family lived in one room – with curtains separating the beds – and when I went to visit, I slept with my aunt. This was the brother who had gone home to help my grandfather work the farm, while my father went into the army. It wasn’t until many years later that he moved into a larger apartment – purchased with cash sent by the third brother who ended up in
That third brother’s story is very different – because he was sent to a Catholic school in
It was a very sudden and secret decision by the school. My uncle was 18 at the time, and he mailed a letter to my father – the first line running something like:
“Dear big brother: by the time you get this letter, I will no longer be in
My father was shocked and felt betrayed. He handed the letter over to the Party and disowned his brother – but even though he tried to be loyal to the Party, this relationship would haunt him throughout his career – and especially during the Cultural Revolution.
(note: he later told me that he even offered to shoot the traitorous brother himself -- but despite his many years in the army then the security ministry -- I don't think he ever fired a gun at anyone)
Eventually this brother was selected for the priesthood, and a higher education in
(In 1989, after more 40 years, he was finally allowed to come back to Beijing and meet his brothers.)
Meanwhile, my mother had three younger brothers. One became a general in the PLA, marrying a very beautiful young woman who had clerked in his office. Unfortunately, though, she soon ran off with another officer, and my uncle had to find another wife. Another brother became the financial officer of an investment bank – becoming a level 17 cadre --- and the third returned to farming after dropping out off the army during the revolution. He had gone home for a visit – and his wife convinced him to stay. So he spent his life in rural poverty.
But my mother also had several uncles – and some had distinguished careers – one of them as a prominent physician of traditional medicine who specialized in setting broken bones. His income in the 50’s was over 300 Yuan/month from the Navy hospital – and before the Communists took over, his services had required 3 silver coins just to make a house call. His son and grandson also became physicians at
Unfortunately, however, his great reputation served him poorly with the Red Guard. They broke into his courtyard – gave the old man a beating – and smashed his 2000 Yuan coffin into pieces. The next day he died.
( the family courtyard was taken and many other families moved into their courtyard, After the Cultural Revolution, many years later, the government returned the entire courtyard back to the family.)