Monday, 16 February 2009

Life in early Cultural Revolution

The years between 1966 and 1976 are a period in China defined by a special term “the Culture Revolution”. The country ran through a turbulent historical course with unprecedented chaos, which touched upon the populace with massive forces and caused devastating results in many cases. People’s experiences of this period vary wildly, but overwhelmingly negative, as summarised by the later official verdict under the Deng leadership from the late 1970s. The surging rise and tragic fall of elite social groups and various individual players have made many refer to this period with utter disgust, and a bitter taste in mouth when the term “Cultural Revolution” is mentioned. It however needs to be pointed out that the suffering of the people in general and the missed opportunities of the country during the nation-wide infighting are in importance well above the random personal sorrow and sense of vengeance of certain intellectuals and learned people.

It is undeniable that great expectations emerged at the outset of the mass movement when Mao called for struggles against those in power, bureaucrats, corrupt officials, inert cadres, etc. In addition to Mao’s intention to wage power struggles internally, the political party in power operated in general less satisfactorily after years in charge of state affairs. Mao’s early calls for rebelling against the establishment, except himself and a group of trusted leaders, were received with enthusiasms from young and perhaps naïve people who took the future directions of the country seriously. It is a kind of confusion that instructions in fact came from the very top, while the movements and activities against those in power at different levels of government were mostly spontaneous and from the grassroots. People were sort of mobilised, but they also rose to take part in the movement willingly. There were idealists, opportunists, and potential leaders, those who would not have been able to demonstrate their talents in certain areas under normal, orderly circumstances.

When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, I was in early primary school years, at a stage of fast changing social environments. The first school year passed quietly, no drama, but routine early age, basic learning. That was 1965 and things did not show much excitement. My first school locates in the eastern district of Beijing, and the district sports facilities there provided training sessions for students. I was picked to play table tennis at one centre near Wang Fu Jing commercial streets, and one day every week we walked there to have about two hours playing with instructions from coaches working there. I learnt to use back hand playing table tennis and got quite used to it. The following weeks would be the time to learn and practice the right hand playing, the most common way people play the game. But we were told one day that due to some changes all these free training sessions would end. On the way home, I did not know what happened to the sport programme and could not expect much to change in life. The following year came with the news and scenes of the Cultural Revolution, which disrupted all life routines, including my table tennis training. From then on, I have been particularly good at back hand table tennis playing, which surprised friends numerous times, but my right hand playing is weak and terrible, which is also notorious. All these can be blamed on the political movement raging in the nation at that time.
In the second year, it was a time when many pupils changed their colours from Young Pioneers (similar to scouts in western cultures) to Little Red Guards, with red collar ties being replaced by red armbands, with three Chinese characters on them. It made little difference to me and to many of this change, since people who were active would be supposed to join Young Pioneers or Little Red Guards early than others, and pupils with so-called leadership qualities and tendency to show-off would be appointed as leaders in Young Pioneers or Little Red Guards later. I was from the beginning not part of that group favoured by teachers, so getting permission to join Little Red Guards became a delayed process.
Pupils, like other groups of people at the time, were hyper active, not only at frequent public rallies, but also in cases of fights against teachers, especially head teachers and principals at those rallies. It was a routine that we marched to some places to attend rallies condemning some senior teachers, and in the afternoon or the next day attended some other activities supervised or led by those same teachers. Status of those teachers changed dramatically in a day, and it is a question how most of them maintained the sense of dignity and courage to face their pupils after being paraded in humiliating manners at rallies. I remember that one leading teacher stood to receive public speeches attacking him, and later on yelled at some undisciplined pupils to make them behave, not to run down and up the stairs. His authority remained while he was not forced to walk up the stage. These were just little boys, so making them listen was still possible by adult teachers, unlike those high school students who were already tall and physically matured. As far as I can remember as a small boy at the time, physical abuses to teachers did not occur at rallies I attended; a routine practice was to hang a square wood sign with condemning capital Chinese characters around the neck of a teacher, which forced the person to bow low. The only dead people I saw with my own eyes was an old man hanging himself in a room at the next courtyard, who was identified as a former large landlord before 1949, a political crime highlighted in those hectic years. That was a suicide, with one burned out piece of coal in each of his hand, for the purpose of fainting him with the burning pain in order not to feel the short breaths from suffocating hanging with a tight rope, subsequently depriving him of the deep fear of the incoming death.
There were often lines of trucks screaming past the streets, loaded with excited people shouting political slogans. They had different purposes and thus had conflicting slogans, normally with “oppose such and such” versus “defend such and such”. To outsiders, these were quite some shows, and few considered the consequences to their lives if one of these groups won over the others. The key point is not to raise questions about their loyalties to Mao and other remaining leaders not yet named as counter-revolutionaries. As time went by, the list of names at the top became shorter, with some purged one day or another, but the loyalty towards the top two, Mao and Lin, was demonstrated by all different groups rallying and performing daily.

I soon moved to dormitories at my parents’ institute in the west of Beijing, at the National Institute of Ethnicities, a place for teaching and studies of the 51 (now 56 officially recognised) minority ethnic groups of the country. My parents came from the same university in Sichuan province in the south, both of them from families of medium-sized landowners, but they got into tertiary institutions after 1949, having passed political examinations of their family backgrounds, seemingly acceptable to the government at a time when China urgently needed people for the reconstruction after decades of political disintegration and wars. They were selected to move to Beijing to do research work at two different institutes. Their major subjects were history, however, not much to do with the actual building of the nation, only literary enquires on issues of the past. In those times, people well known in literary and humanities fields enjoyed great prestige and took up top and key academic positions. The head of the later National Academy of Social Sciences was a celebrated poet and revered historian on early Chinese history, especially on reading scripts carved on animal bones two thousand years before Christ. University presidents also mostly came from humanities faculties. A prominent dean at my mother’s institute graduated from an Australian university with a Doctor degree, Sydney perhaps, and was regarded the ultimate authority in anthropology and sociology in China. Most of the deans at my father’s institute of history in that National Academy had already enjoyed reputation beyond national borders in their relevant academic fields before 1949. These were the people you should look up and pay great respect to, with thorough knowledge and wisdom not to be casually challenged. A short essay from one such authority in academic value is worth more than a couple of books university researchers now publish. That was a time of authentic academic research and education, for the purpose of these two alone, unlike the situation today when economics professors and business experts command the show, giving people an unmistakable impression that they lack depth and are too market smart to be true scholars. And there is now a sea of worthless publications around every year.
I was not daunted by the prospect of meeting those great scholars at the time; the more obvious and attractive fact was the institute itself. It was located in a quiet part of western suburbs, midway to the Summer Palace, after passing endless green fields, giving one deep impression of getting into the countryside. The road leading to the institute was divided, with one way traffic on each side, separated by an up to ten metre high hill running all the way to the far north, until it met the famous Beijing University campus. Dense woods grew on the hill, making it an ideal place for boys to play and charge up and down the hill at will. The whole area surrounding the institute was green through and through, an ideal area to have spring time outings and picnics. All those natural setting is now gone, replaced today by annoying endless motor traffic, crowds and plain buildings of concrete. The institute was a beautiful place to live for thousands of students annually, with most of the buildings coming to the existence in the 1950s under Russian influences. The remaining influences of this kind of architecture can still be seen today at the grand Friendship Hotel, not far from that institute and initially for accommodating Russian experts. The ground of the institute is expansive, wide boulevards separated by large and elaborate gardens, lined by rock solid buildings of high ceilings and ornate entrances. Universities established decades later certainly lack this kind of luxury in design, space, building materials, and attention to details. Especially the Grand Hall, as shown in the picture of its grand entrance, it was massive with deep back stage, several dozens rows of comfortable seats and elaborate decorations around, and four more entrances by its sides, fit for lavish concert and opera performance. The institute is, was, itself a magnificent garden and designed and built to last.

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