As China's future leaders, we must understand the hope — and the danger — that idealism brought to China's founding generation.
- By Yifu DongYifu Dong graduated from Beijing No.4 High School and is now a student at Yale University.
“How have you been recently?” I asked my paternal grandfather, Yao Guoxiang, during my summer vacation this year.
“Very bad,” he answered on the other end of the phone. “Not a single doctor can cure my humpback and lower back pain.” The chronic pain was not due to his 86-year-old joints. Rather, it was a lingering symptom of the beatings he’d suffered during China’s Cultural Revolution.
Fifty years ago, mass violence broke out across the country after Chinese leader Mao Zedong issued a call to arms to the nation’s youth to root out “secret capitalists” and “class enemies.” On August 18, 1966, Mao addressed a crowd of students at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, encouraging the use of force against the alleged infiltrators. Revolutionary paranoia swept school campuses across China, and students grouped into militant cliques called the Red Guards. Schools and teachers were among the hardest hit in what later became known as “Red August” — after the Red Guards, red terror, and the color of blood.
Thus began what many of my generation, born in the 1990s, well after China had launched its meteoric ascent to prosperity and global power, view as the defining catastrophe of a lifetime. My grandparents, all four of them school officials in 1966, were immediately accused of “taking the capitalist road,” and endured persecution for the next decade. My grandfather Yao suffered the most. Yet he, as with many of his generation, seems strangely content with his lot, showing little bitterness towards his past. Grandpa Yao reads a lot of news online, and sees the internet as a potent tool to express his thoughts. It was only after I read his unpublished memoirs, compiled in a blog he set up himself, that I understood why he seems at peace with an era that left him with physical pain and emotional scars, and began to glimpse the gulf that separates my generation from his.
Grandpa Yao served as the principal of the No. 6 Middle School in Fushun, a coal mining boomtown in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province. As soon as Red August’s purges began, Red Guards stripped him of his title and took him into custody. Each day, he had to make three public confessions outside the school gate; he and his fellow prisoners would bend forward 90 degrees, confess, and ask for leniency. A wood board inscribed with his crimes hung around his neck by a razor-thin wire that cut into the back of his neck, leaving thin red scars. A slip of tongue during confessions would warrant a whipping from Red Guards.
For Grandpa Yao, the physical abuse was harder to take than humiliation. After Red Guards beat him in a hotel room, he saw stars and barely remained conscious. Later, when he was exiled to the countryside for hard labor, beatings were routine. His body was frequently covered in red and green bruises. Once he was hit so hard with a spade that the handle broke. A Red Guard once even ordered the prisoners to beat each other up. As some prisoners started throwing fists at their former colleagues, my grandfather retorted angrily, “Aren’t you already accusing me of a crime? Isn’t beating people a crime added to a crime?” The man suddenly found himself tongue tied, so he dropped the demand.
Hard labor was not just physically trying but outright dangerous. Grandpa Yao worked on roofs without any protection, barely escaped a tractor accident, and toiled in a petroleum factory in the dead of winter during the Chinese New Year holiday, a time for celebration and family reunion. “If I succumbed,” my grandfather concluded, “it would have been no big deal, and maybe some would even have framed it as suicide.”
Even as he recounts these horrors of the Cultural Revolution on his blog, my grandfather still plays “red songs” – Communist-era ditties praising Mao — on his computer every day, and writes other entries extolling the ruling Communist Party. At first, I couldn’t understand this. Didn’t Mao and the party subject him to beatings and humiliation during the Cultural Revolution? Didn’t they steal years of his life away by forcing him into hard labor in the countryside? To understand Grandpa Yao’s almost conciliatory attitude towards this dark history, I set out to learn more about his life.
What I learned was that the Cultural Revolution was only one in a long series of national tragedies that Grandpa Yao personally experienced. He was born in 1930. The next year, Manchuria fell to the Japanese. China’s war against the Japanese invasion began in July 1937, two years before Hitler and Stalin divided up Poland. As Japanese forces swept into southern China Grandpa Yao was forced to flee his hometown of Hangzhou with his family, becoming war refugees. They faced hazards almost unheard of in China today. He lost his mother to typhus and younger sister to fatigue, and buried them in unmarked graves. Even my grandfather almost succumbed to exhaustion on multiple occasions. By the time fighting ended in 1945, 15 to 20 million of his countrymen had perished.
But the bloodshed wasn’t over. The alliance between Chinese Communists and Nationalists soon fell apart, plunging the country once again into civil war, and Grandpa Yao took sides. His older brother, a prominent underground Communist, cultivated my grandfather’s communist ideals. In July 1947, at the height of the conflict, my grandfather went up north to Nationalist-controlled Beijing, where he enrolled in college but was soon expelled for repeatedly publishing anti-Nationalist propaganda and starting his own library with collections of Communist pamphlets. Upheaval continued to occupy my grandfather’s late teens until Mao and the Communist Party declared victory on October 1, 1949. It would have been impossible to imagine then that, less than 20 years later, my grandfather would be again made to suffer.
Chinese society today shows hardly any traces of the circumstances that shaped my grandfather’s worldview. The China I know is fully transformed from the war, disease, and chaos that characterized China’s path through Japanese invasion, civil war, and the Cultural Revolution. My parents are among China’s growing middle class, living in spacious apartments, drinking Starbucks, and shopping online. Many in my generation receive such good education in China that we are able to study in world-class universities abroad. We lead lives my grandparents could scarcely have imagined. They feel not just fortunate to have survived; they are grateful for what China has become for their children and grandchildren.
It’s gratitude that I sense in Grandpa Yao when he refuses to pity himself for the abuse he experienced during the Cultural Revolution. But it’s more than that too. For my grandfather’s generation, communist ideals had offered a convincing alternative to the darkness and despair of their earlier lives. Those ideals inspired millions of Chinese like my grandparents to devote themselves to building a brighter future. Those loyal to the Communist Party were initially rewarded, before Mao’s political campaigns betrayed them. But Grandpa Yao, just like many other loyal party members who suffered under Mao, simply refuses to believe that the cause to which he committed so much turned out to be an illusion. He believes, instead, that individuals – but not Mao — subverted communist ideals for personal power and gain.
Though young Chinese still receive communist indoctrination in school, we have never shared in the miseries of our grandparents’ childhoods. We can no longer understand exactly why those ideals matter or how they are relevant to the materialistic society that China has become.
Sometimes, though, despite the distance in age and experience that separates us, I see in my grandfather echoes of the same questions about our shared history that trouble me. “I still wonder,” Grandpa Yao said of those who made his life miserable in the name of Mao’s revolution, “why they picked up the same inhumane tactics as the Japanese and the Nationalists to torture us.” I see it as cautionary tale – even ideas we believe in can betray us, if the power to wield them remains unchecked and unlimited. I hope that my generation, as we gradually rise in the ranks of our nation’s leadership, can remember the lessons of our grandparents.
China Photos/Getty Images