I’ll change her name to Ms. Wang, so she won’t risk retribution from the government. On an overcast November day, Ms. Wang, early forties, guided me through one of the historically important cities of central China. She was poised, professional, competent, but slightly pre-programmed in her commentaries about the landmarks of the ancient city. She was much more fluid of thought and speech when I asked if her family had been affected by the Cultural Revolution. It turned out that yes, they had been, very much so. As we rode in a taxi from one site to another across the city, she was patient with my questions and told me some of her family history.
In the 1960’s, Ms. Wang’s father, an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army, was transferred from his home in central China to Aksu, in Xinjiang province, the far west of China. His assignment there was to help build factories. On a home visit during his early years there he met his future wife and took her with him back to Aksu.
During the Cultural Revolution, Ms. Wang’s father was imprisoned in Xinjiang as an “anti-revolutionary person” because he was well educated. He was locked up in 1969, at the tail end of the worst part of the “revolution,” and was released in 1974 when the Gang of Four was ousted. Originally 185 centimeters tall (just over 6 feet), after his incarceration he was significantly shorter; he could no longer stand up straight, his vertebrae having been broken during repeated beatings on his spine with poles and hammers. Later as a free man, whenever the weather changed, he would be the first to know, in his bones. He told his daughter he was more accurate than the weatherman.
Who beat Ms. Wang’s father in prison? The youths of the Red Guard—the violent social movement of young people unleashed by Mao. They would tell the prison chief that they needed to ask technical questions of certain prisoners to make sure the factories could keep working. This was their excuse to interrogate selected prisoners, and to beat them. Torture seems the appropriate term here. Ms. Wang illustrates their questioning by pointing at the headrest of the taxi driver in front of her: “What color is this?” they would ask. “It’s grey.” “No, it’s black. Now look again. What color is it?” “It’s grey.” “No, it’s black.” They would punish the victim until the “right” answer came out.
After his release from prison Ms. Wang’s family was compensated for her father’s five years of incarceration. They received precisely the salary he would have been paid during those missing years, nothing more.
Although Ms. Wang’s father remained in poor health after his release, he did return to work. At age fifty-nine, in the late 1990’s, he died of a heart attack. His fate was not as bad as that of many of his fellow inmates, though: several committed suicide while in prison. Ms. Wang tells me that her father was brave, perhaps trying to explain to herself why he did not also kill himself. She is unsentimental in her tone as she says this.
I ask if other families she knew also suffered during this time. The father of Ms. Wang’s close school friend was forced by the Red Guards’ threats to flee to nearby Pakistan; only several years later did he return to his family. Ms. Wang said she was told that other family acquaintances were murdered during this period.
I ask if Ms. Wang’s father was angry after his imprisonment. “Yes.” And her mother? Less angry, but she was worn down by the poverty of their life in Xinjiang, which Ms. Wang was too young to remember. (Doing the math, if her dates are correct, Ms. Wang was born shortly after her father was imprisoned.) According to her mother, who continued to work during her husband’s absence and was paid a very basic salary, they subsisted on cabbage and tofu and little else. Cooking was done in a mud hearth in the corner. No electricity, so oil lamps were used at night. “It was a very hard life, my mother told me.”
Ms. Wang says Deng Xiaoping is the real hero for China, because of his “economic opening.” She adds that “Chairman Mao is still liked by many people, but Zhou Enlai [premier under Mao] was the better leader. Mao liked pretty girls. He had many wives, like an emperor.” Ms. Wang’s mother had to read Mao’s Little Red Book and recite from it. Ms. Wang even remembers a couple of lines and says teachings like “Good is the commune” sound funny to her now.
According to Ms. Wang, rich people in China can have more than one child, contrary to the well-known rules about one child per family. The rich simply pay to beat the regulations. She described how it works: the parents hand over about 30,000 Yuan (US$ 4,800) to a doctor in a hospital to certify that their first-born child has a medical disorder that permits them to have a second child. Ms. Wang says corruption like this, in other settings, is commonplace. It is obvious she is not a rabble-rouser or activist—merely speaking the truth after a long day.
Ms. Wang herself has only one child, a daughter in the final year of high school. The daughter wants to go to Shanghai or Beijing for university studies, and to pursue economics, finance or architecture. Ms. Wang sometimes must travel within China for work, but after a few days on the road she always wants to get back home to see her child.
I wonder how much Ms. Wang's daughter knows about her family's history during the Cultural Revolution. Within China, the topic is banned from textbooks and censored on the Internet. If Ms. Wang's daughter knows the family history, then she also knows it is forbidden to discuss it openly. On the other hand, if she doesn't know the history, perhaps because Ms. Wang wants to protect her daughter from the awfulness of it, then daughter and mother live, in a way, in parallel worlds. In either case, there is a wall of silence that is replicated across the millions of Chinese families who suffered in similar ways during this devastating “revolution."
I later discussed this with a thoughtful Chinese man from Beijing who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He says that the topic is banned because of the divisions that might occur if the people who suffered were to seek retribution. I counter that the Chinese Communist Party probably bans it because the facts are so damaging to its reputation. He doesn't respond to my assessment, but gravely acknowledges that denial carries a big danger; if the horrors of that period of national madness are never recognized, then young people will never learn the lesson of the tragedy—which is the first step toward repeating it.
Victor Robert Lee is the author of the espionage novel Performance Anomalies, published by Perimeter Six Press in 2013.