My cultural revolution: a child’s memory

China in the mid-1960s plunged into a social ferment lasting a decade. The experiences of those directly affected may be complex, as this recollection shows.

Temtsel Hao
17 May 2016
1971 Guangxi school textbook. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

1971 Guangxi school textbook. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.Fifty years ago, on 16 May 1966, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily published an official statement which would come to symbolise the start of the decade-long mass convulsion known as the "Great Cultural Revolution". The "5.16 resolution", as it was later known, called for a purge of the so-called "capitalist roaders" within the party, in order to avoid a repeat of the "revisionist" path taken by the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev's abandonment of Stalinism following the death of Stalin himself in 1953. 

The cultural revolution, usually dated as lasting from 1966 to 1976, has been compared in its atrocities to what took place in Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa. It has become a stereotyped image of communist evil and craziness. Frank Dikötter’s new book, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (Bloomsbury, 2016) uses evidence from Chinese archives to illustrate how ordinary Chinese were affected by the political turmoil.

I asked professor Dikötter, when he came to London recently to launch the book, whether it portrays a darker and grimmer picture of the event than most people who had personal experience in the decade after 1966 in China might themselves recall.

After all, suppose a person went to browse the criminal archives or records kept in official registers or Scotland Yard, and writes a book about life in London decades ago. The result, targeted on one short period, may intensify the person’s feeling and views on the subject. Apart from this, a child’s observation and childhood memory can offer a different and also useful supplement to the collective memory of a historic event or period.

A purge and its ripples

I was born in 1965 in Inner Mongolia, China, and the cultural revolution started as I began to be aware of the world around me. In 1968-69 both my parents (doctors working in different hospitals) were accused of being members of a non-existent Mongolian nationalist party and put in detention for a year, during which they experienced interrogations and torture. My father lost his hearing as a result of physical torture. The purge affected our extended family too. My mother’s father was tortured to death, my mother’s elder brother committed suicide in detention when the torture was too hard for him to bear.

I remember the bitterness and suffering, and have no reason to sanitise the leftist, radical, political furies of the time. But like most other children at the time, my boyhood memories were not completely without joys and excitement. I remember after my father was released from detention and was restituted, I felt a bit disappointed to know he was not actually a spy for the revisionist Soviet Union and Mongolia as he had been accused, because it meant he did not have a pistol hidden somewhere secretly at home.

I grew up in a hospital compound; some of my childhood friends’ parents served in the Chinese army and experienced war. One kid’s father fought in Korea, going to Seoul with his army unit in the Chinese army’s third campaign. Those kids all felt very proud of their fathers’ military past, and showed off what army souvenirs they got, such as a leather pistol holster, Soviet Russian-style army cap, or medal. I had nothing to show off; my father had been educated in outer Mongolia and worked as a doctor all the time, without any relations with the Chinese military. For a boy in the time of revolutionary fervour and worship of the military, even a father who worked as a special agent for the enemy would be still something better than a complete civilian.

The purge of Mongolian 'nationalists' stopped in 1969. The official death-toll among Mongolians is 50,000, but many Mongols believe the true figure is much higher. To pacify the discontent of the Mongol victims of the purge, the authorities at the time gave various forms of compensation to their families. My parents received a family trip to Beijing and Shanghai for a health check and treatment. I spent a few months living with them in a hotel in Shanghai, where we met many other long-term resident guests, many of whom who, permanently maimed in industrial accidents, were on medical trips paid by the state. At the time, Shanghai was the only big city where the radical leftists had taken complete control, while in other places they were checked by the army. I remember walking past the Shanghai workers' militia headquarters and seeing militia sentry standing outside holding automatic rifles with shiny bayonets.

Among those work-related-injury cases was a pretty young woman who, as a factory worker in a faraway northwest province, had lost her sight in an accident. She always wore sunglasses with her pink or purple blouses. One day an official from the factory came to visit her. During his stay of several days in the hotel, this child-loving middle-aged man became friendly with me, 6-years-old at the time. One day he kindly offerred me a piece of the watermelon he had bought. Instead of saying "no thank you", I jokingly said his offer was “sugar-coated bullets”, using a well-know political term at the time. (The slogan read: “the bourgeoisie's sugar-coated bullets are of two kinds: material and spiritual…”).

Looking back, it made him really nervous. I could have given the poor man a heart-attack. Imagine that a factory official was accused of having "bourgeois" influence on a 6-year old boy, a living example of the standard propaganda plots of the time. After the incident, the man went to see my father and seriously explained he did not have any bad intention at all. My father admonished me, and said politics was never a joking matter.

Some memoirs of the cultural revolution comment that the line between victim and perpetrator was often blurred. I myself briefly played the role of perpetrator as a pre-school-aged boy. Once, three of us little kids were playing together. Suddenly one of my companions wanted to share his enlightened views with us. He pulled us aside and said confidentially: “I will tell you both a secret. You know what Chairman Mao really is? He is actually nothing but a fur ball!" ("Mao" in Chinese can also mean "fur" or "hair").

At the time, Mao’s name was everywhere, all day, on the radio, blaring from public speakers in every propaganda outlet. This must have puzzled the little kid, and set him thinking. But in trying his best to understand, he had come out with a risky piece of wordplay that gave me handy leverage over him. Whenever our friendship soured, I would threaten to report him to the authorities over this defamatory remark about the great Chairman Mao. The kid was so scared of being revealed as a counter-revolutionary, that he gave in before me every time. Later, we all grew up a bit and came to know better that, even in a time full of political slandering and defaming, small children were unlikely to be held responsible for innocent quips about political leaders.

During those days, my parents sometimes told us about their suffering in detention. My father told me the most feared interrogator was a Mr Zhang, a worker in the same hospital and a member of the so-called "worker propaganda team" which helped to guard and interrogate detained ethnic Mongols. Mr Zhang was feared for his ingenuity in finding effective torture methods. He sometime put tiny wooden blocks between my father’s fingers, then squeezed the fingers, causing unbearable pain. 

After my parents' release and restitution, Mr Zhang – who lives not far from us – apologised to my father. He was forgiven. He was a keen gardener, and often visited our courtyard to admire our garden's flowers. Sometimes he came to trade some pot flowers with us.

I remember a boy a few years older than me, Liu Junior, who came from a worker family living in a house behind ours. I heard that he was taken away for punishment by the red guards at the start of the cultural revolution, after someone informed them that Liu had put two thumbpins on a portrait of Chairman Mao, one on each eye. Liu explained to the red guards that he had placed the shiny thumbpins on his eyes because he had heard the official propaganda saying that “Mao has a clear vision and heart”.

Nothing serious happened to Liu Junior, probably because of his youth and his background. It could have been different if he was from a so-called bourgeois family. The kid later suffered much worse in a non-political encounter. One day his father asked him to return a butcher knife to the lender, after the father had butchered a pig he had raised himself. Liu Junior forgot to return the knife in time, and put the sharp blade in his schoolbag intending to return it after school. That day, he had a fight with another boy in the class, and responded to the latter's threat to kill him by handing over the knife and daring him to do it. The other boy backed off, and carelessly threw the knife back, piercing some vital organs.

A layered past

During the early 1970s the leftist political slogans were as loud as before, but the revolutionary fervour was running out of steam. Most high-school students had been sent to the countryside to learn from peasants. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, since November 2012 the heads of China's party and government, were among the generation sent from the cities to become (in Mao’s words) “morally, intellectually and physically well developed socialist workers”.

I was then still a primary-school pupil, and like most of my peers at the time spent few hours at school and had little homework to do. We spent most of our spare time fooling around. It was a happy time for kids, except that we all lived on low rations, with each household able to buy only one or two kilos of meat each month. We always craved food, and meat and sweet treats meant paradise for us. Often we collected or even stole pieces of metal and glass to sell to the recycle-collection point for much needed pocket-money. 

Once I stole some metal parts with another boy called Pan from the large-scale boileryard which provided central heating and hot water to the local hospital, medical college and residence compound (Pan's father was the electrician in the hospital). Each of us carried a heavy pipe elbow, trying to make it to the recycling place. We managed to carry them to the fenced wall of the hospital compound. We had to begin by pushing the metal parts through the sewage holes underneath the wall before crawling through ourselves.

Pan went first, but just as the electrician’s son protruded his head on the other side of the  wall, I saw his head being stepped on by a big suede leather shoe, and heard an adult's shout: "You little scoundrels, stealing state property…!" Immediately I retreated and ran away without know what happened to my little comrade after he was caught by the man from the worker militia.

I still remember the diary entry I wrote that day in panic: "Pan was arrested". In fact he was not. I guess he was brought to a local police station or militia headquarters, before Pan’s father was summoned to take his son back. The worst Pan received would be a beating from his father after they got home.

My boyhood memories of the cultural revolution, like many of my generation, contain adventures, sometimes falling victims to bullies, occasional mischievous behaviours, and even excitements and joys during those hard times. Looking back, my parents have much more bitter memories of the period. They suffered far more. Yet there were no less craziness and absurdities in adult politics than in our childhoods.

Moreover, just as it is hard to separate the good memories from the bad, it is hard to paint a black-and-white picture of the period. It is hard to imagine the Chinese setting up a Nuremberg-style trial to judge the cultural revolution. Fifty years on, what Deng Xiaoping said after he took power in the late 1970s – let bygones be bygones – has almost worked, but mainly for the Chinese authorities. To forget probably is the easiest way to handle this sensitive and controversial period of history.

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