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A Letter from China
March 27, 2001

Letter from China

14th in a series by Ernest Pinson

"Hong Wei Bing Yi Shi"(Who Were Red Guards?)

The following is a real interview between a former member of the Red Guard and his daughter who is 24 years old and was not even born at the time it happened. What is now referred to as the "Cultural Revolution" occurred between 1966 and 1977. There are two main theories as to how and why Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Communist Party and principal leader of China, unleashed literally millions of youths, soldiers and later adults, male and female against the historical, educational, artistic, musical, and cultural institutions and the people of China.

In the mayhem, parts of museums, universities, and libraries and their books, statues, even the Great Wall of China were destroyed. While Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and most of the rest of the world looked outward to world trade, modern living conditions, and industrialization, China tragically was not only turned inward, but was destroying itself from within. The destruction seemed to come by bands, first of youths 15-17 years old, second with large waves of factory workers 20-30 years old, then with the Chinese army itself, all sanctioned, abetted and often orchestrated by Mao himself and the Communist leadership.

Here’s the story told first-hand by one who lived through it and, indeed, was one of the early 17-year-old city and provincial leaders.

Daughter: I am a 24-year-old daughter of Mr. Nie, of a city of 6 or 7 million people. I will take you back to a time before my birth at the end of 1966, and give you the words and events of my father and mother’s life, some of which I am hearing for the first time myself. I will translate his Chinese.

Father: on May 16, 1966, at a meeting in Beijing of Communist party leaders, some members in the control government were trying to head China into capitalism. This splinter group headed by Mr. Liu, a vice-chairman of the Communist party, was thought to be turning against socialism by Mr. Mao, then Chairman of the Communist party and President of the P. R. China. The insurrection was crushed and Mr. Liu was put in prison. When Mao learned that many of Mr. Liu’s supporters were college presidents, educators, artists, and members of the intelligentsia, he exposed them to the public. This step set off a revolt against education and culture that began in the middle schools (high schools) of Shanghai and quickly spread to Beijing, Nanjing, Hangzhou and other eastern cities, and finally took in all of China like fire spreads quickly in grass.

Daughter: What was the composition of this revolt, that is, who were members and how were the leaders chosen?

Father: the Red Guard at first were only middle school students who could not have any connection with land owners, industrialists, educators or relatives living in Taiwan, Hong Kong or foreign countries. A leader was first elected by each school class, then the class leaders chose a school leader, then the school leaders chose city leaders, county leaders, district leaders and finally national leaders who had to be approved by Mao and the army.

Daughter: Then support came directly from the army?

Father: Oh, yes, the army supplied money, food, often transportation and hotels, fake weapons and encouragement. It was easy to just walk into a hotel, point to the red armband and get free food and a place to sleep. There were 2 main groups that developed -- one called the Maoist Red Guard was more radical and violent; the other called the Minds of Mao’s Red Guard were more conservative and open. I, myself, was picked as a class leader from the 10th grade (I was 17), and then found myself chosen as school leader. The army gave me a gun (not loaded) and we carried sticks and clubs as we left the school never to return until months later. In fact, in 3 years time I would guess we attended only 1 year of classes.

Daughter: What were you doing all this time?

Father: We would have huge marches down town, pasting Mao’s words on walls and posts, tying banners in city centers and on main streets, and looking for certain things to destroy. We were told to destroy four types of things: 1 - anything of the old feudal culture (relics, statues, monuments); 2 - anything connected to capitalism; 3 - anything related to the development of the mind (libraries, old university buildings, art, classical musical instruments); 4 - traditional Confucian customs, symbols, philosophy and education. We destroyed gold rings, necklaces, beds, chairs, books, art works, diplomas, etc. Whenever Mao gave a speech, we would have a march, stop people on the street and force them to recite his words. We would never wear anything bright except the armband and tried to look all the same in dress.

Daughter: How did you travel, sleep, and eat?

Father: By train, bus, cart, walking and wherever we stopped we were fed and given a place to sleep.

Daughter: All free and uncontested?

Father: Yes.

Daughter: Then what happened?

Father: Then the workers took over and we were told to return to the classroom. They had real guns; more power and they took control and were more destructive. Finally when the movement had spread all across China after 10 years and when things seemed to get worse, the army stepped in and took control and things began to wind down. But it’s hard, I guess, for westerners to realize the zest and energy and patriotic fever we experienced in that movement. We felt we could change the direction of China, change its fate, and in our hands was China’s future. We had a strong will to offer the world and were caught up in a dream of idealism like the "Long March" led by Mao in the 1930’s. Whenever Mao gave a speech or announcement we were eager to carry it out. We were crazy about Mao’s ideas and would copy his words down and make banners and flags to wave.

Daughter: Dad, what was your most exciting moment?

Father: I remember my blood’s fast flow when I had power, when I was elected as a leader by my classmates, when I carried the flag in my hands, and when I was decorated by the army and told I was "equal to the mayor of the city." It was grand feeling to be a commander as a 17-year-old boy.

Daughter: What was your most horrible experience?

Father: That would be when a fight broke out between two groups. One of the more radical groups of the Maoist Red Guard came from Suzhou and challenged the authority of our group in Nanjing. We faced each other with bayonets pointed at each other and shouted slogans and both sides were saying "It’s either us or you -- which?"

Daughter: What happened?

Father: The older workers from our group showed up and we escaped to an area under the bridge [over the Yangtze River]. I think our side won but it was a real fight with real knives. That was in 1968.

Daughter: Where did you go?

Father: From 1969 to 1972 I worked in the countryside. Chairman Mao ordered all of us to go help the farmers.

Daughter: You said Liu died in prison; how?

Father: Well, it wasn’t exactly prison. It was "house arrest," but he got sick and they wouldn’t give him medicine, so he died.

Daughter: How, then, did the whole thing end; did it just wear out?

Father: No, what really happened is that the Maoist wing of the Red Guard had become so violent and radical in their zeal and desire to reform Chinese culture that Mao had to call in the army to stop their destruction. It had gotten out of control and counter-productive among the common people.

Daughter: What did you do afterwards?

Father: I stayed in the farm and rural area. After a while I got a job in a machine factory and gradually worked myself up until I’m now a sort of Vice-President of a huge tractor making company.

Daughter: Well that's quite a story. Thank you, Dad, for telling me and also others of your experience. I learned some "new" things about my "old" Dad today.

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Next time, a Chinese English teacher tells his own story; join in.


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