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The Independent Culture
Thirty years ago this

week, Mao Tse-Tung

detonated the

explosion of fanaticism

and mass hysteria

known as the

Cultural Revolution.

A whole generation is

still traumatised,

reports Teresa Poole

In May 1966, Lu Chen, Yao Zhongyong and Li Jiang were 12-year- old schoolboys in Peking. Today they are all 42 - a private investigator, a journalist, and a property developer respectively - with all the differences in outlook and experience that one would expect the passage of time to have wrought. But, like people in their early forties all over China, they still have one thing in common: the defining experience of their lives began that month and, three decades later, remains vivid.

For Lu Chen, it is still almost too painful to talk about. "It happened a long time ago," he says - and starts to sob. From 1966 to 1968, it emerges, his father was detained as a "Capitalist Roader". Lu's mother was away from Peking at the time, and Lu, an only child, was left to fend for himself alone in his family's house. "I just ate noodles," he remembers. "But one day, I had a meat sausage. The Red Guards saw me eating it in the courtyard." Not long afterwards, his father was allowed home for a brief visit. "One night, father came and knelt down by my bed. He begged me not to eat in front of other people any longer. It was so shocking. For a very long time, when I picked up a bowl of food I felt scared."

Yao Zhongyong remembers how he and his brother wandered the streets of Peking. "We could go to Houhai Lake to see people committing suicide. Some wrote their wills in chalk on the ground. One could often see corpses in the lake. When someone killed themselves, the news spread quickly. We children had nothing to do, so we went to see. It was very depressing."

Li Jiang is haunted by one particular afternoon. "I remember clearly," he says. "In an area near our school, there was a wife of a landlord. We went to the house, to take the property. But the old lady was quite tough. At first she screamed and tried to push the Red Guards out of the house - because at that time, people did not know how violent the Red Guards could be. And then we pushed the old lady on the ground and beat her for one hour with our belts. And she died. I was one of the beaters."

THIRTY YEARS ago this week, Chairman Mao launched China's Cultural Revolution. The "16 May Circular", issued by the newly established Central Cultural Revolution Group, called for the unrestrained mobilisation of the masses against the "bourgeoisie", who had "sneaked" into the Communist Party as "counter-revolutionary revisionists". Ostensibly, Mao's aim was to purify the revolution; in reality his goal was to re-assert his control over the party and purge his political rivals.

To this end, he unleashed a decade of savagery and chaos, encouraging a whole generation of teenagers to run riot in a frenzy of mass violence so fanatical as to be scarcely credible. At first, it was just the children of high officials who put the calls of the 16 May Circular into action by forming groups calling themselves the "Red Guards of Chairman Mao". Encouraged by Mao, however, the movement quickly spread. Soon schools and universities had suspended all classes, and Red Guards were taking to the city streets in an uncontrolled outbreak of mob violence. Teachers were often the first victims, locked up in schools and in many cases tortured. "Bad elements" were beaten to death, by teenagers wielding metal-buckled belts. No one knew who would be targeted next as neighbours and workmates turned on each other in vicious denunciations and "criticism sessions". Over the next decade, hundreds of thousands - or probably more than 1 million - died.

Li Jiang and Yao Zhongyong both attended the prestigious No 4 Middle School, where the pupils were the offspring of party officials or academically bright. Lu Chen knew Yao from primary school. The experiences they talk about are, for Chinese of their age group, commonplace, and when they talk about the impact those experiences had on their subsequent lives, they could be talking for an entire generation.

Li's parents were party members and officials, so when the Cultural Revolution started he was deemed to belong to the Five Red Classes: revolutionary officials, soldiers, workers, peasants, and revolutionary martyrs. "So I became a Red Guard," he says. "At first we tried to make classifications among our classmates. After I knew some were from a bad background, I made a division between me and that classmate, even though we had been friends before."

Yao's father was a teacher who had been persecuted as a rightist in the purges in the Fifties; Lu's father was a Government official, but was none the less detained on 15 June. Both boys were therefore deemed to belong to the Five Black Classes: landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad factors and rightists. They did not qualify as Red Guards. Even so, their schooling came to a halt, except for endless study of Mao's works. "Classes were completely in chaos," says Li. Hordes of Red Guards stormed around the city putting up Big Character Posters, denouncing teachers, intellectuals and officials by name. On 18 August, more than 1 million Red Guards crowded into Tiananmen Square to listen to Mao, in the first of a series of intoxicating mass rallies. The Red Guards were told to smash the "Four Olds": old thinking, old culture, old customs, old habits.

"After that, the Red Guards erupted out of the middle schools," says Li. "Every day for three or four months there were beatings." He remembers one of the first occasions when someone was beaten to death, a student at the No 13 Middle School. "Those Red Guards were frightened and went to the Public Security. But the police said this was a revolutionary action, and was understandable. From then on, the Red Guards began to act very violently." Yao's family home was ransacked three times. "Before the Red Guards came, we ourselves had burnt the books we thought unsuitable," he says.

Yao's most vivid memory is of the scene in the garden of an old Qing dynasty palace, where a group of Red Guards was dumping belongings ransacked from people's homes. "At the back door was a pile of books, all very precious. There was a line of 'bad factor' people, also known as 'cow ghosts and snake spirits'. They were beaten by the Red Guards along the way, and forced to carry the ransacked things. Pages from these books were blowing in the wind."

What was going on in the minds of these teenagers who had set themselves up as revolutionary scourges? "There were two kinds of feeling," says Li. "I thought that the beatings were correct, and in order to express that we were revolutionary, we must beat other people. But this kind of thinking contradicted the moral education I had previously been given. In our hearts we also felt frightened. Because of this fear we were eager to take part in the revolution. The main feeling then was fear."

FEAR WAS increasingly compounded by confusion as the Cultural Revolution spread through society. No one could be sure they were safe. Many "Red Class" families themselves started to be persecuted as the movement became factionalised. Towards the end of 1966, Li's "Red Class" parents fell from grace and were attacked as rightists, and he could no longer be officially classified as a Red Guard. This was common; of the 100 youths in his Red Guard group, he says, 80 saw their families turned upon. Such teenagers then formed their own gangs, and often roamed around China looking for Red Guard activities in which to participate; the definition of who was or was not a Red Guard became less precise.

The chaos gave free rein to personal vendettas and settling of old grudges. Standard humiliation rituals evolved for the public criticism sessions. For instance, Li's father was forced to stand in the crippling "airplane position" for hours, bent over with arms stretched out behind, and made to wear a dunce's hat and a placard detailing his crimes around his neck. Women often had half their head shaved. Death came not only directly. "In 1968, after a criticism meeting, my father had heart failure and died," says Li. Yao's teacher father was imprisoned at his school and persecuted by the pupils for six months, but survived.

By this time, the whole country was engulfed in violence. Armed battles between Red Guard factions had taken place in major cities across China. Many factories had closed, foreign trade collapsed, transport systems were over-run by millions of Red Guards on the rampage around the country. Food was in short supply.

In mid-1968, alarmed that he was losing control of the situation, Mao disbanded the Red Guards and realised he must rein in the teenage gangs, a move which inaugurated one of the biggest mass migrations in history. Over the next year or so, 16 million urban teenagers were sent into the countryside for "re-education" by the peasants. This highly organised logistical feat illustrates one of the most striking aspects of the Cultural Revolution. The rule of law had completely broken down, yet the Communist Party apparatus could still exert complete control over the population.

Among those who boarded the trains were Lu, Li and Yao. "We were very happy because we thought we were responding to appeals from Mao," says Lu, who in September 1969 was dispatched to Shuangyashan village in the far north-eastern province of Heilongjiang. His group included 12 boys and 12 girls from Peking. "We were sent in equal numbers, with the idea that we could build a family there. At that time, I did not know that there would ever be a possibility of coming back to Peking."

On arrival, these urban teenagers were shocked. The living conditions and physical work were unlike anything they had known. Lu was set to planting vast acreages of wheat and corn by hand, herding cattle, and labouring. The bones in his left shoulder are permanently deformed from carrying water and 80kg bags of corn. "Some youths committed suicide; some were killed by the hard work. But the psychological hardship was worse than the physical pain. There was only work, no schooling. But we had to read Mao's works every day."

The persecutions continued. "We used to be called on by local party officials to join in criticism sessions against local 'bad factors'. I remember one engineer, Ye Tingchang. The group planned to hold a criticism meeting against him, and went looking for him. We found him and beat him. Ye said: 'I should be beaten. I deserve that.' I can never forget this incident. Even now my conscience torments me. Some day I will go to the tomb of Ye." (Ye died some time later when a wall he had been told to take down collapsed on top of him.)

Li and Yao were dispatched, separately, to the opposite corner of China, an impoverished town called Ruili on the border with Burma. It was a rubber plantation and farming region. "Living conditions were very poor, quite different from what the propaganda had taught us," says Li. "I remember on the third day, I and four other youths were chosen to cut wood. It was 20km each way. The logs were so heavy on our shoulders, our skin swelled up. I felt so thirsty and tired. I saw water in a rice paddy, with cow dung by the side. But I drank it anyway."

Li's first doubts about Mao's enterprise started in September 1971 when, on a visit to Peking, he heard about the downfall and death of Lin Biao, Mao's number two, accused of plotting against the Great Helmsman. "I began to have suspicions about politics in China, and to suspect the authority of Chairman Mao. In the past, I had adored Mao without limit. But by that time I had lived in the countryside, and I found the difference between the reality and what we had learnt in school was enormous. So the death of Lin Biao aroused all my feelings and suspicions and made me think."

As the years passed, the Cultural Revolution started to wind down. In 1974 Lu and Li were allowed to return to Peking. Back at home, they were both able to take lessons - from Yao's father, who once again was free to teach. Yao himself was still toiling in Yunnan.

After Mao's death in 1976 and the subsequent arrest of the Gang of Four, China finally set about a process of material and spiritual repair. Lu joined the Public Security Bureau and became a successful detective; he now works as a private investigator and is trying to qualify as a lawyer. He married one of those 12 girls in his re-educated group: "One good thing to come out of the experience," he smiles.

When the universities re-opened in 1978, Li won a place to study history in Peking, went on to be a journalist and publisher, and is now in property development. Yao, at that point still in Yunnan province, passed the exams for teachers' training college, where he met his wife, a local woman. Later Yao also took a BA degree in Chinese literature and worked in a city education bureau in Yunnan; he did not return to live in Peking until 1990. He now works for the City Environment Paper. Lu and Yao joined the Communist Party; Li did not.

How do the three men feel the experience affected them personally? Lu is the one most visibly still pained by his family's experiences, and, although he is friendly and frank, we can talk very little about the years from 1966 to 1968 because it is too upsetting. Instead, as we sit in his investigator's office, he expresses sadness about lost opportunity. "I only finished primary school education formally," he laments. Li, on the other hand, sits poised and confident in his book-lined study at home, an intellectual trying to make the most of business opportunities in modern China. But, he reflects: "Now, I feel that there is no real authority in the world. In that period, all the teachers, officials, parents whom I respected, all lost their dignity. My respect for humanity was totally smashed."

Yao, who spent by far the longest time out of Peking, is the most tense and serious on first meeting, dressed very neatly, and rarely smiling. He says: "I can face any cruel reality without being astonished. But that does not mean I am numb to life. It also wasted a lot of time, and made me miss a lot of chances." His great wish now is a more fulfilling job. "Most of my generation are not very successful," he says sadly.

Just as significant to all of them is the legacy of the Cultural Revolution to Chinese society as a whole. "The wound on the heart of my generation is too deep," says Lu. "The feeling is quite complicated. Towards the Heilongjiang people, I loved them, and still like to think about them. But the way educated youths were treated, whenever we think about that, we feel very angry." He points out how everyone had to mouth slogans, and play their part in the terrible drama, to have any chance of surviving. "From that point, everybody learnt how to lie." He has many friends with similar experiences although, apart from his wife, he has no contact with people from his old group. "We do not want to see each other any longer. It is too hard for us," he says. But he still exchanges gifts every year through the post with his old villagers.

Li believes his generation finds it difficult to be very close to other people. "My family and those of my classmates were quite friendly with each other. Suddenly they began to attack each other, and talk about the secrets and private lives of other people. So it made my generation feel you cannot really trust anybody, cannot believe people." He says the experience "makes the concept of family very weak in our minds."

Yao sees things differently. "People of my generation, they cherish time and themselves much more than other people. We pay more attention to communication between people, the closeness, affection between people." He also has many friends of the same age. "People with this same experience are more reliable."

During the turbulent years, the persecutors often became the persecuted, and in the end there were no easy divisions between the guilty and the innocent. These days, few are honest enough publicly to recall their role as protagonists as well as victims. Do these three men feel that more people should have been punished for their crimes? Lu, after years in the police, says: "The influence of the Cultural Revolution was too wide. Almost everybody has some black mark in their history. It is not possible to punish them all." Yao agrees. "The crimes were witnessed by a lot of people, but it is not practical to punish all the murderers. Some deaths were caused directly, some indirectly."

This week's 30th anniversary of the 16 May Circular is not one that will be marked in China. A few years ago, Ba Jin, a well-known writer, suggested that a museum about the Cultural Revolution should be set up, but the authorities blocked any such project. With Mao still lying in state in Tiananmen Square, the true history of that period is still far too politically sensitive.

Even in private, people do not usually talk very openly about their experiences. According to Lu: "That period is a kind of scar on Chinese history. Like a scar on somebody's body, they do not want to expose it."

In contrast, in Peking's curio markets, foreign tourists can be seen browsing through Cultural Revolution memorabilia, bargaining over old copies of Mao's little red book, or kitsch reproduction statuettes of revolutionary opera characters. These are not mementos locals want to buy. Yao says: "Chinese people still feel very deeply about that period and are uncomfortable to know that foreigners, as spectators, like the art and artefacts of the Cultural Revolution. Everybody should know that it was a tragedy."

Li concurs: "We should remember the period. It was not only a disaster for one nation, it was a disaster for humankind. It destroyed human nature, just like Hitler destroyed the Jews." !