“People want justice”

Memories still linger: (Above) Red Guards at a “struggle session”. (Right) Wang Guangmei, wife of Liu Shaoqi, former Chinese President, being taken away. Photos: courtesy Wang Youqin

Memories still linger: (Above) Red Guards at a “struggle session”. (Right) Wang Guangmei, wife of Liu Shaoqi, former Chinese President, being taken away. Photos: courtesy Wang Youqin  

Forty-five years on, victims of China's Cultural Revolution are fighting to preserve the fading memories of those that they lost during that turbulent decade. ANANTH KRISHNAN

T he morning of August 5, 1966, Wang Jingyao recalls, began like any other. His wife, Bian Zhongyun, the vice principal of a girls' middle school in west Beijing, got ready for another day of work. She got dressed, and bade goodbye to her husband with a matter-of-fact handshake. But as she stepped out of their small apartment that day, Wang knew his wife should never have left.

Bian had come home the previous evening shattered and bruised, after facing hours of torment at a “struggle session” organised by Mao Zedong's “Red Guards”. Two weeks earlier, Mao's increasingly influential wife, Jiang Qing, had summoned Beijing's students to a mass rally at the Yan'an Garden, where they had been organised into cohorts of Red Guards and encouraged to weed out “class enemies” in their schools and neighbourhoods. She told them to spare no one. Jiang openly incited violence, assuring them that “it served them right if bad people are beaten by good people.”

Mobilising students

That May, Mao's Communist Party had passed a circular calling for a “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” declaring war on all “counter revolutionaries”. Less than two months on, no one quite knew what Mao really meant, but it was, however, clear that that vague term had a useful — and worrying — broad scope. It included anyone who was deemed a “Capitalist roader”, “Rightist”, “intellectual”, or “landlord” — essentially, anyone Mao perceived as a threat in his bid to consolidate power.

The “revolution” had strangely begun by mobilising Beijing's students. They were, after all, an easy group to organise, and their teachers — who, Mao deemed, were “intellectuals” — were an easy target to kick-start a political campaign. Exhorted by Jiang Qing, the older students from Bian's school — many of who also happened to be the daughters of top Party cadres — leapt into action. They began organising struggle sessions aimed at discovering the “enemies” in their midst. At their first meeting, they declared that Bian, their vice principal, was “born into a big landlord's family”. She became their first target.


When Bian and and her husband came home one evening, they found that students had broken into their apartment. Their rooms had been ransacked by Red Guards in search of “evidence” of their “landlord” status. Threats were posted on every door. “Upright your pig's ears and listen carefully!” said one message to Bian. “We'll hack you to pieces if you dare act wantonly against our will!” Another taunted her about earlier struggle sessions. “On the struggle meeting with the shouting of accusations, you trembled all over, legs paralysed, holding a tall hat in your hands, having been poured with cold water, with mud in your mouth, just like a pig in the water,” it read.

The first struggle session had quickly gotten out of hand. Jiang Qing's incitement had appeared to whip up the impressionable young girls. At the first meeting, one woman leapt out of the crowd onto the stage where Bian faced their accusations, grabbing her hair and hitting her. No one intervened. At another session, a crowd of students, some armed with bats, lunged at their teachers, swinging at them without holding back.

Wang Youqin was only 13 when the struggle sessions began at Bian's school. She was, however, old enough to feel outraged at watching her teachers face a daily humiliation. For her, it was simply unthinkable — teachers have, through much of Chinese history, enjoyed unquestioned respect. Yet, within weeks, a centuries-old belief had been so easily turned on its head by Mao. Wang watched Bian being beaten in one session. The Red Guards, led by older students, all girls, unbelievably accused their teacher of plotting a coup d'etat against Mao. Disgusted by the scene, Wang left. Later that evening, she would hear her classmates laugh at the humiliation they meted out to their teachers. One girl boasted that boiling water had been poured all over one teacher at a neighbouring school. But even Wang was unprepared for what would unfold on August 5.

The night before, Bian had come home exhausted, showing her husband bruises on her back from beatings from the previous evening. Her husband Wang Jingyao suggested they immediately leave Beijing. But Bian was unfazed. “I have done nothing wrong,” she told him. She insisted on going back to school. The next morning, the Red Guards organised a parade across the middle school, calling to “bring down the sinister gang.” That afternoon, Wang Youqin saw her classmates dragging out a group of teachers across the playground, dousing them in black ink.

Some students, Wang saw, had broken into the carpenter's room, and emerged with the legs of chairs and planks of wood with nails protruding from their ends. Wang saw her vice principal lying on the ground, held by a group of students and covered in ink. Bian was forced to scream, “I'm a capitalist roader! I deserve the beatings!”

The girls set about attacking her, parading her around the school and beating her with wooden clubs. Bian was finally dragged to the girls' washroom. Barely conscious and bleeding, she was given a broom and asked to clean the floor. She was left there to die. When found by another teacher, the vice principal was dead, bleeding and foaming at the mouth, and covered in her own excrement, the first victim of Mao Zedong's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.


Wang Jingyao recently turned 90, but looks a healthy 65. He lives in a small apartment in west Beijing, not far from his wife's middle school. A portrait of Bian Zhongyun hangs in his small living room, standing below a painting of “The Last Supper”. When I meet him one July afternoon, he is reluctant to talk about his wife ahead of the 45 {+t} {+h} anniversary of her death. The country, he said, had no interest in his story, swept up, in recent weeks, in the grand celebrations of the Communist Party's 90th anniversary. I first heard about Wang when I came across a remarkable documentary by a Chinese filmmaker, Hu Jie, who decided to tell Bian's story. Hu's film, “Though I am Gone”, is banned in China, but has brought Bian's forgotten story to many. In the film, Wang recalls the events of August 5 telling Hu he wanted “to keep the record of history true to history.”

Far from unique

Wang tells me this is a history that has no place in China today, and a history that will soon be forgotten. In the summer of 1966, Bian's story was, unbelievably, far from unique: hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese school teachers faced her fate in the first days of the revolution, brutally left to die at the hands of their own students. Tens of thousands of others also took their own lives in that decade, humiliated and denounced without reason. The Cultural Revolution's horrors find no mention in Chinese textbooks today, barring a brief admission that mistakes were made. Its victims, however, are all but forgotten.

Wang Youqin, a student of Bian's who was a first-hand witness to those horrors, has spent her life trying to right this wrong. Over the past decade, she has travelled all across China, interviewing more than a thousand families who lost their loved ones. Wang, now a professor in the University of Chicago, has documented the stories of 659 victims in a remarkable personal history of that turbulent decade.

“People want justice,” she tells me. “They want to talk. But they cannot because they are still in fear.” In the year 2000, Wang opened a website to serve as an online memorial for the victims. Within weeks, she began to receive hundreds of e-mails from across China, from husbands and sons and daughters who wanted their stories told. One woman wrote in with an old photograph of her mother, a high school teacher in Hunan, who, like Bian, was brutally killed by her students. In 2002, however, the emails stopped — the Chinese government had blocked her website.

Wang believes the Communist Party's attempts to draw a line over the incident have done little to heal wounds. After Mao's death, leaders like Hu Yaobang and Deng Xiaoping, who himself suffered during the revolution, embarked on what Wang describes as history's greatest ever exercise of rehabilitation. Families of victims were given 420 yuan, and a letter saying their loved ones had been “wrongly” punished. The Party felt that looking forward, and burying history, was the easiest way to heal the scars. Mao, who bears a direct responsibility for the thousands of deaths, according to Wang, is still celebrated as a national hero whose portrait hangs on Tiananmen Square, with history rewritten to blame his associates.

Today, neither the victims, nor the perpetrators of crimes, want to confront the past. In recent years, a few of the Red Guards have sought out the families of their old teachers to apologise. They are, however, in the minority. “The victims,” Wang says, “will become our next terracotta warriors — silent, with forgotten stories.” What was particularly traumatic about the tens of thousands of deaths, Wang says, was that they took place in schools and homes, carried out by people who knew each other, and who had to go back to torn apart lives as if nothing had happened once the horrors ended. “Mao mobilised people to turn against each other,” she says. “This was not like Stalin's labour camps or Hitler's death camps, where the State was the perpetrator.” Here, ordinary people became murderers.


A few years ago, Wang ran into Song Binbin, a Red Guard leader from her middle school who, Wang says, was present at Bian's struggle sessions. Shortly after Bian's death, Song was given the honour of presenting a red armband — the Red Guards' badge — to Chairman Mao. “Does your name [Binbin] mean courteous?” Mao famously asked her. “Yes,” she said. “Be violent!” he told her. Song refused to talk to Wang about those days.

When Bian's old middle school recently celebrated its 90 {+t} {+h} anniversary, Song was honoured as an outstanding alumnus. A picture of her with Mao, as a young Red Guard, was put up on the same playground where Bian met her death. Wang told me that Bian's husband Wang Jingyao was enraged. He wrote a letter expressing his distress, saying it was an insult to the memory of his murdered wife. “Song's red armband,” he wrote, “was soaked in his wife's blood.” However deep history is buried, Wang says, memories will always linger.

“The victims will become our next terracotta warriors; silent, with forgotten stories.” wang

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