China’s Cultural Revolution: 50 years on, memories are vivid
Chairman Mao Zedong’s ideological purism shook China and scarred its people
A student puts a red scarf on a statue of Chairman Mao Zedong in the Chinese Heroes Statues Plaza at Jianchuan Museum Cluster in Anren, Sichuan Province: Monday is the 50th anniversary of the start of his brutal political movement, but no official commemorations are planned. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
“During that dark period, there were all kinds of people. Good people swallowed insult and humiliation silently, while the bad ones were savage.”
Stories from those who lived through the period still make people cry.
Zhang (76), who is partially deaf, sits in a wheelchair in a Beijing park watching other retirees dancing. He worked as an engineer in a state-owned factory in Xicheng district.
When the Cultural Revolution began, Zhang’s foreman urged his work unit to “Grasp Revolution, Promote Production”, one of the key slogans of the movement. He also ordered them to avoid any fighting or undisciplined activities.
As Zhang walked home from work one evening, he saw two men fighting. They were picked up by several Red Guards and brought to a school near Tiananmen Square. One of them was beaten to death on the spot, his blood splashing the walls.
“It was very frightening,” Zhang said. “People didn’t even know why the Red Guards did that.”
Some two million people are estimated to have died in the Cultural Revolution. Many millions of lives were destroyed, which is why the period remains difficult for the ruling Communist Party to discuss – even half a century later.
Fearful that the party was turning against him, Mao took aim at his allies and launched a bloody purge on bourgeois culture. He targeted his rivals, who he branded “capitalist roaders” and class criminals.
Zhang witnessed how these “class criminals” were treated when he saw their makeshift jails in schools, with a dirty bucket of mouldy bread for them to eat.
One of the key targets in a campaign of “big character posters” was Liu Shaoqi, who was then president. Liu’s comparatively moderate views and reformist economic policies cost him his life. He is said to have died after being beaten and locked in a bank vault.
“Students didn’t have class,” Zhang recalled. “Many factories and shops were closed. I saw parades attended by hundreds of students every day. There were many ‘big character posters’ on walls, saying “Overthrow Liu Shaoqi” or things like that.”
The Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death and the take down of the Gang of Four, a political faction composed of four Communist Party officials (including Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing) who were blamed for the excesses of the period.
“The Cultural Revolution made China fall behind at least 10 years,” said Zhang. “The Gang of Four was hateful. It’s such a shame so many revolutionary leaders were persecuted and died, like Liu Shaoqi.”
“However, even at that difficult time, the people had no resentment, because they believed that the party was leading them to do the right thing. But the Cultural Revolution was different,” he said.
Zhang said chairman Mao shouldn’t have launched that revolution. Mao should have protected all the old revolutionary leaders, rather than let the Gang of Four harm them.
“Nonetheless, president Mao was old and couldn’t command those people. In the army, there were two divided groups. One was standing for the old revolutionary leaders, and the other was controlled by the Gang of Four, who got the real power.”
Crying now, Zhang said: “The old revolutionary leaders will live forever in my heart.”
Ma was 22 when the Cultural Revolution began. She worked as a saleswoman in a state- owned shop in Xi’an. For her, the biggest change was the way everyone was suddenly divided into factions.
“They debated from morning to night, even fought with each other,” she said. “It was horrible.”
In Ma’s shop, everyone had to follow the ritual known as “Ask for instruction in the morning and make a report in the evening”: You told Mao your plans for the day in the morning, thanked him for his kindness at noon, and reported back at night.
Waving their “Little Red Books” of Mao’s thoughts, Red Guards, leftist students and schoolchildren were told to destroy the “Four Olds” – old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. They attacked intellectuals, forcing them to wear dunces’ hats and sending them to the countryside. They smashed Buddhist temples and beat monks.
“We held the Little Red Book in front of our hearts as we recited quotations from chairman Mao,” Ma said.
As a saleswoman, her reports would include the attitude of customers when she sold them goods, whether she made mistakes, and so on.
Another mainstay of her everyday routine was the “Loyalty Dance” to show her fealty to the Great Helmsman. Ma had long hair, but was required to cut it short as braids were not allowed.
“The ‘big character posters’ were everywhere and were updated very frequently,” she said. “They insulted well-educated intellectuals and capitalist roaders.”
“People were afraid of saying something wrong because of the horrible punishment, which required the criminal to wear a dunce’s hat and stand on a chair. People would then surround the person and throw rocks at them,” Ma said.
When the wudou (violent struggle) began, Ma fled with her daughter to Chengdu. The train didn’t leave for days due to faction fights among the passengers about whether or not it should run.
“As a consequence, many passengers begged the driver to leave, and then the train ran,” she said.