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Through the Eyes of a Child: How I Remember the Chinese Cultural Revolution

I was born in China. Around the time I was born, the founder of Communist China, Mao Ze Dong, started a cultural revolution. Hundreds of historical sites and statues were destroyed; thousands of books were burned. Mao claimed, “The First Emperor only buried 460 scholars alive, while we’ve buried 46,000, a hundred times over.”

The Chinese cultural revolution lasted 10 years, until Mao died in 1976. It was the darkest hour in Chinese history, 10 years of turmoil, bloodshed, hunger, and stagnation. In my childhood, I never had candies, toys, or children books. Instead, since very young, children like me started to experience hunger, trauma, and fear.

“Scavenging” for food with my grandma

My grandma was born in an affluent family during the last emperor’s dynasty. While her parents had to follow the customs and bound her feet cruelly, her father hired a private tutor to teach her reading and writing. When she married my grandpa, her father gave her a big dowry including beautiful jewelries, silk clothes, and artistic collections of Chinese porcelain.

At the beginning of the cultural revolution, gangs of youngsters donning red armbands rushed into my grandma’s house and destroyed almost everything. The revolutionary mobs, the so-called Red Guards, denounced the beautiful items of my grandma’s dowry as products of the disgusting feudalism.  They claimed that what they destroyed was to clear away the evil habits of the old society, namely the “four olds” – old ideas, old customs, old habits, and old culture.

During the cultural revolution, Mao ordered all individuals to devote their lives to the communist regime. Mao had ambitious goals, such as that China would surpass the United States in five years in heavy industry. To follow Mao’s call, my mother left my grandma, moved to the capital city, and began working in a steel mill, while my father joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and left my mother to go to the southern part of China. I spent most of my pre-school time with my grandma in the countryside.

Farming conditions in my grandma’s village were very bad because of saline-alkaline soil, but the crops yields were getting worse after China adopted the Marxist economic system – no private ownership of farming land was allowed and everybody was to receive an equal share of the harvest. Corn and sweet potato were the most shared food from harvest every year. My grandma always worried about food; in today’s American lingo, we had food security issues.

The shared portion of the harvest was not enough for a family. In the wintertime, grandma often took me to the deserted fields to dig the frozen ground and look for “leftovers” such as little peanuts that did not grew well, “baby” carrots, and  discarded, broken sweet potatoes that looked they had been decapitated. “Scavenging for food” with grandma was my childhood adventure, exciting but sometimes frightening.

One day, grandma’s cousin visited us. I was jumping happily up and down between the kitchen and the bedroom/living room, as I knew grandma would prepare “delicious” food when guests came. Grandma smiled when she was talking with her cousin, but in the kitchen, looking at the empty pot, she cried. “Let’s go,” grandma said, and took me out the door.

It was a sunny, winter day. Grandma took me to the peanut field first and gave me a little spade. We dug about half an hour before collecting a small bowl of peanuts. Then, we moved to the carrot field. As we were looking for carrots, a group of four or five men walked toward us shouting. When they came closer, we saw them holding big sticks. The head of the group yelled at my grandma, “Do you know you are stealing the property of people?” I was frightened, trembling and trying to hide behind grandma. Grandma stood firmly on her small bound feet, looked at the leader of the group sternly, and said in an assertive tone, “We are starving to death and we are the people who farm here day and night.” I do not remember what else grandma said. My only recollection is that the men left, and grandma and I brought home peanuts and carrots for the guest.

Witnessing counter revolution trials in stadiums

When I was six years old, my mother took me back to the capital city, and asked her sister, my aunt, to look after me and my brother. We lived three blocks away from the Forbidden City – the palaces of emperors in the ancient time. The streets surrounding the Forbidden City used to have beautiful names; some were named after famous people during the emperors’ time, but during the cultural revolution, those street names were changed for revolutionary ones.

The Red Guards smashed and burned the hundred-year-long street plaques. I heard some stories that elderly people told about the original names of those streets but could not recall. Today, it is even difficult to find a book that records the history of the streets.

At that time, we did not have telephone or TV. Radio was the only technology device; it was expensive. Every morning, the loudspeakers mounted on trees or streetlight posts started broadcasting Mao’s orders and revolutionary songs. Through the loudspeakers, we learned the news, all good news, such as a great harvest, high yield records in heavy industries. Occasionally, the loudspeakers announced anti-revolutionary public trials and required all residents to go watch in the district stadiums.

My aunt often took me and my brother to watch the trials. I vividly remembered – when the PLA soldiers held guns and pushed the anti-revolution “criminals” up onto the stage, the audience always shouted slogans like “Down with counter revolutionaries,” “Long live the Communist Party.” Each “criminal” knelt in front of us, with a big plaque hanging in front of his or her chest. My aunt taught me to read the three black characters “counter revolution.”

“What does it mean?” I often asked my aunt. I wanted to know what crime they had committed. My aunt always gave me the same answer, “They are bad people; they are thugs; they will be sentenced to death.” The public trials always ended with the PLA soldiers pushing the “criminals” up onto a truck, an extra-large-sized pickup, moving to another stadium for another show trial. The last stop of the truck was the place where the “criminals” were shot to death.

Each time I came back from the show trials, I asked my aunt to stay by me at all times including my trips to the bathroom. I was afraid of being alone, especially at night.

Cultural revolution in China – a symptom of collective schizophrenia

One day in 1976, the loudspeakers suddenly started broadcasting funeral music and then we heard a man’s voice in a heavy and sad tone, announcing, “Our greatest leader Chairman Mao passed away.” At that moment, my parents were on the roof trying to fix the leaks before the rain season came. They had to stop what they were doing, for the government ordered everyone to stop doing whatever it was they were doing and started grieving and mourning Mao’s death.

The next day, when I went to school, our teachers asked all students to stand in the classroom and cry to express our grief. A couple of students secretly laughed; they were caught by their teachers and later punished.

In the 1980s, China finally ended the cultural revolution and opened its doors to the Western world. Little by little, we started talking about politics at home, but not outside. According to my mom, during the cultural revolution, if a woman wore pants that showed her body shape, mobs of youngsters would stop her and use scissors to cut her pants into pieces, condemn her for standing for evil culture, and then shame her around in her community. Women could not have curly hair or loose hairstyles, otherwise, their hair would be cut in an ugly way in public.

In the 1990s, as a more democratic culture slowly began seeping into China from Europe and the United States, we finally felt somewhat freer to comment on political issues. My mother said, “The cultural revolution made everybody suffer from schizophrenia.”

Rebirth on the Fourth of July

The darkness of the Chinese cultural revolution affected me all the way through my adulthood. I lived in fear constantly. I had no dreams and even felt hopeless… until one day I got the opportunity to come to the United States. I remember an American friend who listened to my experiences in China told me: “Live your American dreams!”

My life has been transformed because of America – Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. For years, I tried to block the horrible memories of my childhood; the nightmare of the Chinese cultural revolution finally faded away. Little by little, I saw my rebirth in this country – the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Sadly, the recent political atmosphere in the US has brought back my childhood memories. Some extremists are violently protesting against America and what she stands for, and want to push Marxism and socialism in the United States. As someone who experienced that schizophrenic cultural revolution, I would say to the Silent Majority:

Please, do not remain silent; speak up against the evil forces trying to tear the country apart! America’s demise will not be caused by the actions of those who seek to destroy her, but rather by the silence of those who claim to love her.

For the sake of your children, keep America great!

2 replies on “Through the Eyes of a Child: How I Remember the Chinese Cultural Revolution”

I am enjoying your blog. I have read books about people living under communism or other tyrannies but having met you makes it more devastating to consider.

Thank you so much, Margaret! Happy Thanksgiving! I thank God for giving me this opportunity to come to this great country and meet so many great Christians. I love USA, God’s promised land. I will keep writing about how Christians are persecuted in the Communist China and hope more Americans to defend the values of this great country. God bless you.

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