‘I killed my mother and disobeyed the Chinese code on human relations within the family’
The story of one of the many families destroyed by the Cultural Revolution
In April 1970, as a 15-year-old Red Guard in the Chinese town of Guzhen, Zhang Hongbing did something he has regretted ever since. After his mother, Fang Zhongmou, angrily criticised chairman Mao, he reported her to the authorities and she was executed by firing squad on April 11th.
Now a successful lawyer, Zhang has lived with the repercussions of his decision all his life. He has made his peace with his family and cleared his mother’s name of the charges against her. Now he wants her grave declared a landmark.
“I killed my mother and disobeyed the Chinese code on human relations within the family. I am tormented by this,” he said in an interview.
The Cultural Revolution was a catastrophic period of upheaval that is still off the official agenda, which destroyed millions of lives.
Waving their little red books containing the thoughts of chairman Mao, Red Guards, leftist students and schoolchildren, roamed the streets attacking intellectuals, forcing them to wear dunces’ hats, beating them up and sending them to the countryside.
The Cultural Revolution declared war on bourgeois culture, capitalist roaders and class enemies, but many believe it was primarily a bloody purge aimed at entrenching Mao’s hold on power and maintaining the cult of personality built up around him. He had been sidelined politically and it was a brutal reminder of just who was boss.
The education Zhang received at the time was the orthodox education that children received during the period, which was based on total dedication to the party and rejection of the family.
Zhang was so taken with revolutionary fervour that he changed his name from Tiefu to Hongbing, which means “red soldier” aged 14.
He starts to sing a song from the period: “Mother is close and father is close. But they won’t be as close as chairman Mao.”
‘Cult of personality’
“Mao’s ideology was that revolution was a treasure, and it was completely built on a cult of personality. When my mother said she doubted chairman Mao, she was no longer my mother. She became a class enemy, like a monster with fangs,” he said.
By some estimates, millions died in the ideological frenzy of those 10 years and China still bears the scars of the Cultural Revolution.
The Communist Party describes the Cultural Revolution as a disaster for China and its people, and it is often referred to as “the 10-year catastrophe”. However, the party denies responsibility for what happened and chairman Mao still looks out over Tiananmen Square and gazes up from every bank note. The Great Helmsman is described as 70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad.
The events of the Cultural Revolution are blamed on a conspiracy around Mao, led by marshal Lin Biao and the Gang of Four, which included Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and three other leftist hardliners.
Zhang’s father Zhang Yuesheng had suffered at the hands of the Red Guard during “struggle sessions”. His older sister died of meningitis in 1966 aged 14 during a visit to Beijing to hear Mao speak.
From 1955 to 1965, Zhang’s mother worked for the Huaiyuan People’s Hospital. She worked tirelessly.
She was angry at the way the Cultural Revolution was destroying her family. She asked her husband and son: “Why is Mao creating a cult of personality?”
She said she would rip down the propaganda portraits in the house. Her husband and son were scandalised, and Zhang’s father went to report his mother.
“But I was even doubtful whether he really did it. I quickly wrote down what my mother said and signed it. And then went to the home of the leader with my badge and a letter to report my mother by myself.” He put the letter under the door and his mother’s fate was sealed.
The authorities came to their home. Enraged, his mother locked herself in a room and set fire to a portrait of Mao and some of his key works, as well as some commemorative stamps. She was brought out of the room and Zhang was ordered to beat her, which he did. A soldier took her away, and after a brief trial she was found guilty of “attacking chairman Mao Zedong ” and executed.
While Zhang attended a mass trial in the town, he did not go to the execution ground to watch her be shot by firing squad. His father had divorced her days before the execution.
This kind of zealotry was common during the Cultural Revolution, and many people still live with the shame of denouncing their parents, criticising their relatives and shaming their teachers.
Destroy ‘old thinking’
Part of the Cultural Revolution education, which first appeared in an editorial by arch ideologue Chen Boda in the People’s Daily in June 1966, was to destroy the “four olds” – old thinking, old culture, old customs and old habits – and cultivate the “four news” – new customs, new culture, new habits and new ideas.
“I was 13 years old in 1966. All family affection, friendship and kindness were considered as four olds and destroyed. Between 1966 and 1970, all kind things were replaced by class thought,” said Zhang.
“The 10 years of cultural revolution included a lot of problems. Some people on the internet are calling for a new cultural revolution, but I think if we are going to have social progress, we need to reassess the Cultural Revolution and learn a lesson from it,” he said.
“I don’t know what the government should do. As a normal person, I experienced the Cultural Revolution. I think I should use my mother’s unjust case to remind people that we shouldn’t forget history and we should learn our lesson to avoid a reprise of the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution is rarely mentioned in the books. I should tell the truth that under Cultural Revolution, I hope this living example can make people understand the Cultural Revolution,” he said.
He was driven to call for a reassessment of the Cultural Revolution by the actions of the purged Chinese leader Bo Xilai, who, during his time as Communist Party secretary in Chongqing, called on people to sing red songs and other throwbacks to the Cultural Revolution.
“When I heard about Bo Xilai’s campaign to sing ‘red songs’ and crack down on gangsters, I decided to use my experience to fight against what looked to me like a rehearsal for a Cultural Revolution on a smaller scale,” said Zhang.
Bo is currently in detention awaiting trial, and his wife Gu Kailai and former lieutenant Wang Lijun have already been sentenced to jail terms for various crimes, including the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood.
“I don’t have a positive opinion about Bo. I think if Bo really got into the standing committee of the politburo that he would one day do the same thing all over China.”
He speaks of his love for his country, using a poem by the poet Ai Qing (father of artist/dissident Ai Weiwei) to express his feelings: “Why are my eyes filled with tears? Because I love this land deeply.”
“For this land and people’s happiness, I would love to tell the truth of Cultural Revolution in order to avoid a repeat. My hope is that our descendants can grow up happily in a normal society, with law like other countries. We should not use class struggle to separate people and provoke hatred. It should light up every corner with human nature and humanity.”