My parents’ stories during the Cultural Revolution

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. I heard a story on my commute, saw a Youtube video from China Uncensored, later I saw some tweets. There are many stories about the Cultural Revolution, but none of them like the cognition my parents gave me. Both of my parents were born in 1950s, when they were teenagers, they were both sent to rural areas as Sent-down youth, also called “educated” youth, ironically, neither of them got junior high school level’s education.

I grew up heard many their youth-stories, which of course during the Cultural Revolution, but those stories are neither cruel nor horrible like most stories reported, at least they didn’t expressed in an extreme way. Those stories are more like personal routine life during a very special time. Let me start from my mother’s stories.

My mother’s stories

My mother is the 10th child in her family. Following Mao Zedong’s heroic mother’s call — — Learning from Russian mothers, give births as many as a woman can, to provide more labor force contribute to the new China, my grandma gave births to 11 children, four boys, seven girls. There was a girl died when she was an infant before my mother; a boy died during the Cultural Revolution. My grandma was from a Manchurian Eight Banners’ family, which might explain that why she had a big heart and a strong body. My grandpa was a blue-color Han Chinese, he was straight, tall, strong, and upright according to my mother; he was naive, importunate, and ruthless according to my grandma. I don’t have many memories of my grandpa, he died when I was little. Like most families during the Cultural Revolutions, there were two political sides in my grandma’s family, my grandma and my two older uncles were on one side, my grandpa and my oldest aunt were on one side, other people either didn’t take the revolution serious enough, or were too young. They called each other rebels. I really think their characters separated them more than their political reviews.

The uncle who died, my mother described him as the brightest, strongest, most handsome one, who had the most potential to become an officially important person in the family. He left home after argued with my grandpa, he got caught then sent to the county jail. He might be a leader of his group, I am not sure. My mom said, he was so strong, he break jail’s steel bars with his bare hands; he escaped, then got shot. He died in a hospital, he just got married that year. My mother told me this story many times, I don’t recall she was sad about her brother’s death, not even once. His death to her is a pity, more like a pity. The person who shot my uncle was a young man, he wasn’t charged, just like most people who committed real crimes got away during that period. My grandma said that she saw that guy couple times years later, he avoided her. I don’t know my grandma forgave him or not.

After my mother graduated from her junior high, she was sent to a close rural area with most of her classmates, I guess the area my mother went was less than 20 miles away from her town. Only a few classmates escaped this fate, one reason was they inherited their parents’ jobs in the county. Being an educated youth was a guarantee to get a job when they came back after years of farming in rural areas. My grandma told my mother, “if you decided to go, first, you cannot come home and cry about how hard farm work is, I have a family to feed, I don’t want anyone make any trouble; second, you cannot marry a rural area man, you have to come back.” So my mother went to the rural area with her classmates by taking tractors or similar transportations, they probably sat on straw. They lived together, dined together, and farmed together. Boys one room, girls one room, the middle room was their kitchen, they all slept together on one “炕Kang” — — a heatable brick bed. They became the closest friends, or more like siblings. This close connection extend to their entire life. I know most of my mother’s friends. They get together as much as they can. Some of them get married to each other, some of them have affaires, some of their kids get married to each other. My mother lived in that area more than 5 years. She told me many stories, mostly bragging about she was a hard-working woman, not afraid of anything. She wanted me to be tough just like her. One story she said many times, they had to earn working credits, like salaries, which can exchange to money. She wanted to bring home as much money as she can, so she worked her ass off. One time, they were cutting corns, corn leaves cut her hands, she was so focused on breaking off corncobs, she didn’t noticed her hands were bleeding, she thought her hands wet because she was sweating, she only noticed that till she felt her hands were sticky.

The working credit system wasn’t reliable tough; one year she worked so hard, earned a lot of credits, only exchanged to very less money, for saving money, she didn’t take a tractor, she walked back home. There were funny moments too, once she felt one of her knees was very warm, she reached to that knee, there was a mouse between her outside pants and cotton pants(like downpants to keep warm). The mouse ran away. When she told me this story, I felt like she didn’t want that mouse to run away so could keep her knee warm.

My father’s stories

I only remember two stories my father told me.

People danced in public areas together to express their love and loyalty to Mao Zedong. The dance was called loyalty dance. There was a lame guy in my father’s city, once they got together to dance, when that the lame guy danced, or rather to say hobbling up and down than dancing, people laughed and laughed. Then some people accuesed him was insulting Mao because of his funny dancing steps. That poor guy was convicted of anti-revolution. When my father told me this story, he stood up and mimicked how that guy danced, he laughed to tears.

Like my mother, my father wanted to earn as many working credits as he could. Different jobs had different rewards. My dad picked the most rewarded job — — digging feces. Restrooms have two levels in rural China, the upper level was about 2–3 meters from the the lower level. People stood on the upper level, feces were stored in the lower level. During winter, the temperature could drop to around -40°F, my father dug frozen feces like dug mine, but this was not the worst part. The worst part was if he woke up late, people started to use public restrooms or dumped their night feces, it could get really nasty. He had to wake up at 4am or even earlier to dig. That was the coldest hours in a day. That was the most nasty work I could ever imagine. I was super picky about hygiene when I was a kid, he described what he did to tease me sometime.

What my parents experienced during the Cultural Revolution were unbelievable to me. Those things made me think they are unbreakable, I would never be tough like them. I use their standards to exam myself when I feel weak when I was young. Couple years ago, I started to think more about the cultural revolution, the chaos, the impact on future, the educational gap, how it twisted that generation from authentic to apathetic people. My parents never reviewed the cultural revolution as a painful, unbearable, or terriable experience to them. I think it might be a good thing for individuals, what happened already happened, no one can change that, thinking too much may cause unnecessary pain. How about a nation? that history hasn’t been reviewed appropriately.

p.s. I contacted my mother to confirm how long she lived in that rural area, she asked me why I ask this question. I told her I’m writing their stories during the cultural revolution. I told her I’m writing in English, don’t worry. She said, don’t write anything not good for China. My mother and I had the argument about Mao Zedong couple times, now I know I should just avoid this topic. She believes that Mao was a great leader, even America confirms.

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