Apology from former Red Guard stirs painful memory in China

Red Guards at a “struggle session.” Photo Courtesy: Wang Youqin  

A prominent former Red Guard who played a key role in some of the first “struggle sessions” at the start of Mao Zedong’s violent Cultural Revolution in 1966 has conveyed a rare public apology over the death of one of her teachers, Chinese State media reported.

Song Binbin, the daughter of Song Renqiong, one of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) top revolutionary generals, was handpicked by Mao and his wife Jiang Qing to lead groups of Red Guards in Beijing in the summer of 1966, which marked the start of the decade-long terror that tore apart China.

Ms. Song, who is now living in the United States, was known to have been present at some of the earliest “struggle sessions,” where ordinary Chinese deemed often arbitrarily as “Rightists” or “landlords” were brutally humiliated.

The first sessions targeted school teachers, beginning at Ms. Song’s school in western Beijing, where students were exhorted to turn against their educators. At one particularly brutal encounter, the school’s principal, Bian Zhongyun, was beaten to death by her own students, marking the first death of a teacher during a decade that would see thousands of others face the same tragic fate.

Some former students gathered in the middle school on Sunday and paid a tribute to Bian, bowing before a bust that was belatedly set up to remember her death.

“Please allow me to express my everlasting grief and apologies to Principal Bian,” Ms. Song said in a speech, reported the Beijing News on Monday. “I failed to protect the school leaders, and this has been a source of lifelong pain,” she said.

Ms. Song (64) is not the first former Red Guard to apologise. In recent years, several former students who were involved in the Cultural Revolution’s chaos have tendered public apologies to their teachers for the abuse and humiliation they suffered. Last year, Chen Xiaolu, another former Red Guard head who was the son of a Party leader, apologised

Ms. Song’s apology has triggered particular attention because she was an especially prominent Red Guard as the daughter of a CPC official.

Days after Bian’s death, Ms. Song was publicly honoured at a rally by Mao, during which she famously tied a red armband – the symbol of the Red Guards – around his left arm. At the rally, Mao asked her to change her name from Binbin – which means refined – to Yaowu, which has a more violent resonance.

Wang Youqin, who was a student at the same school in the 1960s and is now a professor at the University of Chicago who has painstakingly documented stories of more than 600 victims of the Cultural Revolution, told The Hindu in an interview in 2011 that Ms. Song was present at some of the struggle sessions where Bian was tortured (see “People want justice”, The Hindu Sunday Magazine, August 6, 2011).

Whether Sunday’s apology will heal wounds remains far from clear. Ms. Song said it was “everyone’s desire” that “those who made mistakes during the Cultural Revolution” and “did harm to their teachers and classmates” can “reflect on the Cultural Revolution, ask for forgiveness and achieve reconciliation.” “I believe this is everyone’s desire,” she said.

However, she did not reveal what role she played in Bian’s death.

The move by the Beijing school to remember Bian 47 years after her death will also be seen by her family as a belated one. During recent celebrations to mark its 90th anniversary, the school celebrated Ms. Song as one of its most outstanding students, highlighting her famous encounter with Mao, a decision that angered Bian's husband, Wang Jingyao, who is now in his early 90s. “Song’s red armband,” he wrote in a letter, “was soaked in my wife’s blood.”

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 12:07:01 AM |

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