I’m taking a quick side-step on my discussion of Barry Li’s book The New Chinese: How They Are Changing Australia to briefly discuss the Cultural Revolution. This event, from 1966 – 1976 is significant in the lives of the next two generations Li covers in this chapter – those of the Chinese Gen X and the Chinese Baby Boomers. Understanding the way in which the Cultural Revolution shaped the lives and mindset of millions of Chinese is important in understanding how they act today, and the manner of influence they have on the younger generation.
The Cultural Revolution is well within living memory. Those born at the beginning of it, and lived their first ten years with it, have only just turned 50 in 2016. Both my parents are born in 1966 (although in Australia) and they are still active in their careers, paying a mortgage, being very much part of society. The same too can be said for those born in China in ’66. Any Chinese over 50 who has immigrated within the last forty years could well remember it. Getting someone to open up about it, especially if you don’t know them that well, or if you are not Chinese yourself, could be a different matter.
Last Christmas Eve, an elderly Chinese lady shared with me and some other foreigners her Cultural Revolution story. Her English was not quite fluent but understandable enough, though there were a translation errors that called for a few laughs. All in all, it was a sobering story, although she – May – told it matter-of-factly without self-pity or anger. It wasn’t that she could convey expression through her English (she was an actor and she could more than display exaggerated emotions). It was more that she spoke with simple acceptance that this was a part of her life – everyone’s lives – and that one could only look forward, not back. She had lived in Beijing nearly her entire life. She has once remarked to me that in Winter, as a child, the snow blanketed on the ground. Nowadays it hardly snows; perhaps it was something to do with all the cars, she thought.
May grew up as the eldest within her family, with a younger sister and twin younger brothers. Because they were boys (and twins) her brothers received better food than her and her sister. She said for four years the main diet for her sister and herself was the grounded husks of corn/grain. What food this made, I’m not too certain. Her father was taken away, deemed as an ‘intellectual’, and sent to a labour camp. At seventeen years of age, because she had nearly finished high school, she was also sent out to the countryside to learn from the peasants. For two years she picked cotton. She said the peasants laughed at her and the other city girls because they were so slow and unused to the work conditions. After a couple of years, May was noticed for her social skills and additionally became a reporter for the local radio/intercom, going out to interview workers about their lives. While working in the field one day she saw six cars coming towards the village. May said she would never forget that sight; seeing one car was unusual enough, six meant something big. It was big – it was some doctors and professionals coming from a university in Beijing. There was a shortage of medical staff and a shortage of people who had completed enough education for university entry. Those who had come from the city were lined up in a shed, and from them she was selected to return and train for the medical profession. I don’t know the exact dates of May’s story, but from them I can guess perhaps that her ‘countryside re-training’ took place under the Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement of the Cultural Revolution, of which upwards of 15 million youths were sent to learn from the farmers.
Under Mao, the Cultural Revolution had the vision of removing all capitalist and traditional Chinese influences within the communist country. All those suspected of having foreign influences, of worshipping in old ways and not completely conforming to Mao’s Communist ideology risked imprisonment, torture or death. I’ve read that those with glasses were seen as ‘intellectuals’ and therefore dangerous to the new ideology. The ‘simple’ life of the peasant farmer was venerated while landowners were criticised and attacked. The ‘Red Guard’ – political youth – and Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ – Mao’s own writings taught as scripture – appeared during this time. Over ten years, the Cultural Revolution undertook many different movements which are too long to explain here. As a positive outcome, the Cultural Revolution improved access to education and healthcare for many rural people. Overall though, even the Communist Party later declared it to be the largest national setback.
Photo taken in Wanning, Hainan, January 2015. Not a photographer – just going through the photos I have and finding a new purpose for them.