Stories from the Cultural Revolution Era - Part 1

In yesterday's post, the subject was about a book that was likely to be banned in China.  The subject of that book is the anti-rightist campaign of 1957.  Now I don't have a copy of that book yet, but I happen to be reading something from the Cultural Revolution era -- Yu Qiuyu (余秋雨)'s <<Lend Me A Life (借我一生)>>.  The section that I am reading is particularly poignant because of the apparent lack of rancor when there is every reason to do so.  

I am going to re-tell this short story, but this will not be a precise translation.  The author writes too well, and it would have been a major project to render a good translation.  Instead, I want to communicate the personalities and histories involved.

At the time, my father was being incarcerated for mass criticisms as a reactionary.  He stayed in a room, but he got to come out every Sunday because the guards had that day off.  The criticism sessions were originally held once every three days.  But because they were too monotonous and repetitious, they were eventually held only once a week.

But the most horrible thing was that my father's work pay was suspended.  When that happened, the work unit only gave the family 26 yuan for 'living expenses.'  At the time, all targeted individuals were given the same 26 yuan standard 'living expenses' all around the country.  I have no idea which department in Beijing made up this figure.  I have gone through all sorts of documents from the Cultural Revolution era and I cannot locate this source.  This is a bitter number for me, because I keep thinking about it over and over.  What sort of person took the thirty days of a month, subtracted the four Sundays and then gave one yuan per day?

Of course, they had figured that it was a single person.  But did they not know that many targeted individuals have families with many members?  And that the targeted individuals may be the sole wage earner in the family?  Moreover, did they not know that people have to eat on Sundays as well?

For my family, the 26 yuan per month was needed to sustain the following people:

There were eight of us and we had no other source of income.  We obviously had no savings -- nobody did at the time.  On the average, we got ten cents per person per day.  After subtracting the rent, water and electricity, we got seven cents per person per day.  This was not extra spending money -- this was our entire daily personal budget.

Relatives who live in extreme hunger should not be together.  Looking at the little food on the table, we would always offer it to the others.  My mother would say that she ate already.  My grandmother would say that her stomach did not feel good.  Those were all lies.  Even my eight-year-old little brother could see through them and he put down his chopsticks too.


I went with my cousin and my younger brother to visit my father.  He looked tired.  He stared at us for a while.  He called out our names.  It frightened me to hear him say next, "I am okay.  The uncle in Anhui province will help with the family affairs.  You must obey your grandmother and your mother."  Then he smiled again and he instructed us, "Please bring the khaki uniform with the paint stains on the shoulder the next time.  I would like to wear it."  

It was clear to us that my father intended to commit suicide.


My father had seen that the longer the criticism sessions go, the more problems will emerge.  The only way to shorten the duration was to commit suicide.  After a suicide, there is usually a mass session held in front of the body but that is liable to pass by quickly as attention goes towards new targets.  He was hoping that his children would get by while the world forgets about him.

My father had figured that he was already forty-five years and he has lived long enough already.  None of his eight siblings had lived past 30 years old.  His little brother in Anhui was a lot younger than him.  He was only waiting for news from this brother, whom we had not heard from for more than two months.  

He did not dare to write his brother about how bad things were here in Shanghai.  If things were going well in Anhui, then such a letter would spoil things; if things were not going well in Anhui, then a letter would only make it worse.  He hoped that things were well over there.  If there was someone to look after the family, he can leave quickly so that people can forget about him.  So when my mother went to see him again several days later, he asked for that khaki uniform  again.  He had intended to leave the world wearing it.

While my father waited for news from my uncle, my grandmother and mother waited at home.  They did not know if they should write my uncle.  Finally, one day, my grandmother said, "We are going to all starve to death if we don't write."  So I ended up writing the letter to my uncle and I mailed it out.


After about a week, I went home.  When I entered, I sensed that something was terribly wrong.  My grandmother and my mother both rushed over to meet me.

My mother blurted out the first words: "Your uncle has passed away."

"What!?"  I was stunned.  My mind went blank.

"It was a stomach problem."  My grandmother's voice came from far, far away.

I woke up suddenly and I turned to look at my grandmother. This was the face of a mother of ten children who had just lost her youngest son!  I was at a loss for words.

My grandmother added: "Your mother and I went to Bangbo (Anhui) to retrieve his ashes."  I thought that she might cry, but she did not.

It was obviously not a stomach problem.  My grandmother and my mother were both really bad at lying.  I got my grandmother to sit down and I said to my mother, "Tell me!"

Briefly, my mother told me that my uncle had committed suicide.  My grandmother realized that suicide was a crime in those days, and did not want to tell us.

My uncle was just an ordinary technician.  He was hardly an authority figure.  Why did they pick on him?

My mother told me that when the Cultural Revolution began, they were looking for the "forces of evil" and the "reactionary academic authorities."  But Bangbu was just a tiny place and there were certainly no academic authorities there, so they picked on my uncle.  He had said that he liked the novel <<Dream Of The Red Chamber>> and he was therefore poisoning the people.

<<Dream Of The Red Chamber>>?  I could not believe that it was over this book.  My uncle did not let me read that book, because he insisted that it was too "pessimistic."

My mother told me that they hauled him onto the garbage truck and paraded him around the city.  When they got back, he continued to argue with the rebels that <<Dream Of The Red Chamber>> was an excellent classic.  For this, they said that he had a bad attitude and they paraded him around the city again.  In the end, he slit his wrists with a razor blade.

For the Yu family, this was an earth-shattering event.

My father immediately realized that he no longer had the right to commit suicide.  Without our uncle, he could let our family go without any support.  He  could not let our grandmother lose her youngest son first and then her only remaining son now.

My cousin and I applied to every school in order to go to the countryside so that we can live on our own.

My oldest brother was 18 years old already; he would join a fishing fleet and help out the family.

My mother would take care of the two young boys.  Later on, I found out that she went to perform manual labor at a small factory.

My grandmother would stare at the sky everyday and say her Buddhist prayers.

Eventually, the Yu family survived the Cultural Revolution, with the exception of the uncle.  How will the uncle be remembered, if at all?  This was another story, and it involved a very strong-willed woman.  Millions of people actually saw the memorial ceremony on Chinese television but they probably never realized the personal significance.  That will be the subject of Part 2.