Memories of the Cultural Revolution

05/26/2014 01:24 am ET | Updated Jul 25, 2014

Yifu Dong and Yi-Ling Liu share their relatives' experiences of a tumultuous era

Yifu Dong

My grandmother was born in Xinmin County, Liaoning Province in late 1932. She joined the Communist Youth League on July 21st, 1949 and became a Party member on March 24th, 1951. She can recall these dates as quickly as she can recall family members' birthdays. Back then, becoming a Party member was a sign of excellence, and grandma was ready to live up to the promise of that distinction. "Do what the Party says, and devote my life to the construction of socialism; the post-liberation atmosphere was just like this." She would say this with a hearty smile, her tone far from mechanical. For her it was a simple but adamant belief, and it still is today.

Grandma's brilliance and loyalty to the Party paid off in the 1950s, when she was promoted to important positions in the Communist Youth League in the three schools that she worked in. Finally, in May of 1960, grandma became the principal of the Experimental Elementary School in the city of Fushun, Liaoning Province. She was only 28 years old. For the next six years, she worked closely with teachers to improve the quality of education. She can still talk about the methods and axioms of teaching as if she has just retired. Besides advanced teaching methods, grandma also fostered an environment of discipline and respect. Today, she is most proud of the fact that her students learned how to behave decently.

In August 1966, the Cultural Revolution struck at the peak of grandma's career.

There was "immense cultural destruction, enormous social upheaval, widespread violence, tremendous catastrophe." For individuals, the Cultural Revolution was "a nasty trick" that destroyed people's lives and careers.

Top leaders asserted that the bourgeois had infiltrated the top positions of institutions across the nation, and proletarians must challenge the bourgeois in leadership positions through class warfare. As soon as Cultural Revolution kicked off, the Red Guards, or "rebels," as grandma called them, started torturing her. They demanded confessions of crimes from her, but she only admitted she had mistakes, not crimes. Grandma said she would correct her mistakes if the rebels could prove any, but reasoning had no place in their conversations. Soon the rebels marched grandma on the street, the very first of hundreds of marches that were to follow in Fushun. She marched from her school to district government and city government like a prisoner, carrying a tag that read "Official On Capitalist Track" and wore a pointed hat.

Even after such humiliation, Grandma considered it a mere prank, because she was certain that she had done nothing against the will of the Party. However, such brutal "pranks" showed no stopping. Across the nation, schools were closed as irrationality and chaos presided over the Cultural Revolution. Unlike her, grandma's students could not continue elementary school. Adding to the "pranks" was dictatorship. Politically untrustworthy teachers, such as ex-rightists (though many were unjustly accused) and award-winning teachers were under the dictatorship of other teachers, who were each given a big bat to settle their own hatred and jealousy under collective slogans and righteous revolutionary objectives. Fortunately, grandma herself did not receive too much beating. Still, she felt terrible when she had to bring my father, who was only four years old, to the "bullpen" where she was forced to "confess." What had the child done wrong to deserve such a punishment? Curiously enough, however, when my father played with other kids, he would yell, "Down with the pointed hat!"

Compared to Grandma, my grandfather suffered much more. He had already left his post of headmaster at Fushun No. 6 Middle School, but after the Cultural Revolution kicked off, he was called back to the school to "be under the rule of dictatorship of the proletariat." My grandfather was born in southern China but had to flee home at a young age after Japan invaded. His mother died of illness and his younger sister died of hunger on their way to survival. He attended schools, joined the student movements against the Nationalist regime, and eventually joined in the cause of Communist revolution. He firmly stood behind official doctrine and devoted his entire life to service.

It is curious how a staunch Communist like my grandfather, who even plays "red songs" on his Windows 8 computer today, could be deemed a counterrevolutionary and enemy of the people. However, as soon as Cultural Revolution started, he was labeled "the devious backstage for niu gui she shen" (literally translated as "a ghost with a cow's head and a snake's body" and used to describe evil people) because he had been defamed and investigated in the Anti-Rightist movement in the 1950s. He was immediately under the "dictatorship of the proletariat," and sent to the "bullpen" in the countryside for eight months.

Under dictatorship, grandpa was forced to recite pieces written by Chairman Mao, whom he had worshipped all his life. He knew the required pieces by heart, but received beatings whenever he stumbled or hesitated. He has no complaint against the requirement; he only argues that coercion did not help memorization.

What was even wilder was that grandpa and other inmates at times were even required to beat each other. Most inmates were reluctant, but a few did start throwing punches at their former colleagues. A Red Guard asked why my grandfather didn't return punches. Grandpa simply replied, "His beating me is wrong. Now you are asking me to return punches, but don't you know that two wrongs don't make a right?" For a moment the Red Guard was stunned by grandpa's reasoning and gave up his demand.

Aside from severe beatings, which left him with chronic pain and to which many people succumbed, inhumane humiliations - the conquest of the soul and the decimation of the will - played a major role in my grandfather's sufferings. During the Cultural Revolution, ordinary people were forced to "talk" to a portrait of Chairman Mao twice a day: inform him of one's plans in the morning and tell him how things went at night. However, "niú guǐ shé shén" like my grandpa did not have the right to talk to the Chairman's portrait. Instead, he and other inmates had to make confessions in the morning, at noon and in the evening. For these tri-daily confessions, they would line up in front of the gate of No. 6 Middle School, with huge signs saying either "niú guǐ shé shén" or "sān fǎn fèn zǐ" (people who were anti-Party, anti-socialism and anti-Chairman Mao) hung over their chests. The idioms for the accusations were lively, succinct, ambiguous and vicious - the Chinese language at its nastiest and darkest moment. The signs were made of the heaviest wood board the Red Guards could find and thin wires surrounded their necks and cut into their flesh. Grandpa would bend forward and confess his "crimes," thrice a day. A slight slip of tongue would incur harsh whipping. As if the exhibitions in front of the school gate were not enough, big banners that read "Down with sān fǎn fèn zǐ," followed by many names, my grandfather's among them, were in many public places like the city stadium, where my father happened to see the signs at his school's sports meet.

Years of hard labor followed eight months of "dictatorship of the proletariat." Besides the usual items, Grandpa had to climb roofs without protection and drive tractors without learning how. Once his tractor lost control and dived downhill, and he escaped just in time to save his own life. Even if he died, grandpa reasoned, it wouldn't have mattered much, and his torturers would probably regard his demise as a sign of cowardice and a way to evade his indictment. "Self-pity" is not part of grandpa's vocabulary; in retrospect, he is simply stunned by the powerlessness of life in that bygone era.

Grandpa describes that even criminals under formal charges were given days off during holidays, but he never rested during years of hard labor. He recalls a great irony that during Civil War, he and other Communist soldiers were cold, but no one robbed the Nationalist prisoners of their heavy coats because they believed in human dignity. But during the Cultural Revolution, no one respected his dignity. What keeps bewildering grandpa is that the obvious enemies of the Communist Party, like criminals and the Nationalists, were treated with humanity, while he, an enthusiastic disciple of Mao and the Party, had to undergo inhumane sufferings that aimed to decimate his body and soul. It was not until 1987, 11 years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the Party finally officially renounced the false charges against my grandfather.

Today, in their 80s, my grandparents exude no anger when they recount their sufferings. My grandmother still has tears to shed, not for herself, but for the destruction of values and lives. My grandfather usually avoids talking about his torture, and he still does whatever he can to serve what he believes is the Communist cause: blogging on education and repeatedly petitioning for better preschool education in the city.

Undoubtedly, to actually pull through the Cultural Revolution, the survivors needed more than what we can imagine. It is difficult for anyone in today's world to truly comprehend the magnitude of their physical and mental torment through mere testimonies, but equally necessary to ensure that nothing entailing such suffering of innocent people should ever happen again.


Yi-Ling Liu

My Dad was not yet 8 years old when the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, studying at an elementary school in Changchun, Jilin Province. The revolution permeated every aspect of his life. He didn't learn anything at school but words from Mao's little Red Book and lines of propaganda. "Long Live Chairman Mao, and Perpetual Health to Lin Biao" was one such a slogan. Once, my Dad, still a naïve second-grader, pointed towards a photo of a Lin Biao and commented earnestly "but he doesn't look very healthy to me," only to be met by the stern words of his own father - "don't say that, or you'll get locked up.

Despite the tightly controlled environment of Mao's China, my Dad somehow taught himself a skill that was perhaps most condemned at the time - English. One day, he came across The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at the house of one of his mother's friends, Mr. Wang, who once was an English teacher. Every week, he would visit Mr. Wang, and learn the basics of grammar and pronunciation in exchange for gifts and liquor over the holidays. He lugged a Chinese-English dictionary around with him all day and memorized words. In the evenings, he sat in front of the short-wave radio that they had at home. Listening to the Voice of America was taboo - like eavesdropping on a private conversation, or watching pornography.

In 1969, he went down to the countryside with his parents for the first time. This was a part of Mao's "Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside" movement, initiated to send the urban population to the rural areas to be reeducated and learn the way of the peasants. He returned to Changchun in 1971, only to be sent back to the countryside again in 1975. He was supposed to go two years later, after graduating from high school. But my Dad tried to beat the system. The whole purpose of being sent to the countryside was to forget everything he had learnt at school in the city, so what was the point of going through of two years of schooling that would only be forgotten? He decided to go early.

Here, he worked all day, seven days a week. In the summer, they would rise with the sun at 4:00 am and come home as the sunset. Since the sun rose and set late in the winter, they would go back to the fields again to work in the evenings as the moon rose, guided by its glow. He lived with seven boys and seven girls in three rooms. The kitchen was in the center, the girls' room on the right and the boys' on the left. Everybody slept on the same kang, warmed up by each other's body heat, and the smoke that came from the kitchen through a tunnel that was connected to the bottom of the kang. They were like family.

It turned out that his decision to go early was a miscalculation - after two years of labor, the Cultural Revolution had petered out, and Mao's policy of sending students to the countryside was discontinued. My Dad had effectively wasted two years of his youth, and had to catch up with what his peers learned in two years. And yet, he says that in retrospect, those two years on the field was the most valuable experience that he had during his formative years. The effect of tot having primary and high school education was marginal in comparison to the way going to the countryside shaped his experience.

"I was able to achieve a level of self-confidence that if I could go all that adverse circumstances unscathed, I could go through anything unscathed," he said. "Later in life, it is this level of self-confidence that to a large extent enabled me to rise up to the many challenges I have encountered."


Anonymous oral history of a parent of a Yale student

On the destruction of culture and knowledge:
"Schools were no longer places for learning. Turning in blank exams was heroic, and denouncing teachers patriotic - that was what school kids did all day long. Books and historical monuments were labeled 'Si Jiu' and destroyed. The only 'art' existed in the form of propaganda: patriotic songs, chants and politically charged plays. There was no love but love of the Party... How inane were the passionate songs about the merits of Communism. How silly were the people who danced to such songs like puppets. But at that time no one realized it. The feverish atmosphere swept them along."

"There was a teacher at my school (call him W) who was a close family friend. We knew him, affectionately, as 'Uncle W' and liked him. One day, he was denounced as 'unorthodox' and shamed in public. I saw him being paraded down the street with a cardboard sign on his neck that read '打倒W' ("down with W"). I was frightened to see someone I knew so well being jeered and called a criminal. When I met him a few days later, he greeted me and gestured me to come closer. I ran away screaming 'Down with W!' I didn't really know what it meant at that age, but I felt an inexplicable fear when I was near him..."


Yifu Dong is a freshman at Yale University. Contact him at Yi-Ling Liu is a freshman at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact her at

This article also appears in China Hands.