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.