CONTENT WARNINGS: VIOLENCE, SELF HARM
As a child, I remember sneaking into my parents’ storage closet to look at piles and piles of documents and photos. What I didn’t know then was that among all of those forgotten memories sat a family heirloom that held generations of pain and trauma.
They were a pair of Qing dynasty ceramic plates, yellow glaze falling off and the flowery patterns fading. There was a small, square stamp on the bottom with unintelligible Chinese characters. When I asked my mother about them she said they were very valuable and that they’d belonged to my great-grandmother. They were part of her dowry. They were all that was left of her dowry.
My great-grandmother was a wealthy lady and part of Chinese old money. She married my great-grandfather, a small-town boy who had, through hard work and determination, managed to go abroad to study mathematics under Fréchet in France. He returned to China after achieving his PhD to do research but their peaceful life was violently disrupted when the Japanese invaded China. The day of the invasion – the Marco Polo Bridge incident on the 7 July 1937 was the day of my grandmother’s birth.
Like much of the rest of China’s population, their family was forced to relocate, from Qingdao to Hunan to Chongqing, and finally to Shanghai after the Japanese were defeated in 1945. Throughout this timeline, Chinese soldiers fought off the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War, then fought each other in the immediate resumption of the Chinese Civil War.
All through these years of suffering, my great-grandfather never lost his spirit. He refused the lure of politics and continued his role as a professor and mentor to younger generations. When they settled down in Shanghai he became the head of the mathematics department at Fudan University. Unfortunately, this peace would soon prove to be short-lived.
In 1949, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China and became Chairman. His long journey from son-of-a-farmer to revolutionary leader and finally to founding father of the PRC was admirable to the people but wasn’t enough for himself. He initiated the Cultural Revolution in 1967, most likely to satisfy his ever-growing megalomania. On paper, however, its aim was to “preserve true communist ideology” by purging the remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. The target was the “Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.
Students all over the country joined together to form the Red Guard. With them, they carried their little red books, quotations from Chairman Mao and attacked churches, schools, universities, libraries, museums and temples. They roamed the streets and created an atmosphere of mass hysteria as they broke into the homes of teachers, cadres, foreigners and others with “bad class backgrounds” to seize and destroy old books, genealogies or art treasures. As such, my great-grandmother’s inheritance of “old money treasures” were seized. The rumour in our family is that there were many valuable items but all that is left are the two plates.
In 1966, a People’s Daily editorial wrote, “With the tremendous and impetuous force of a raging storm, the Red Guards had smashed the shackles imposed on their minds by exploiting classes for so long in the past, routing the bourgeois ‘specialists’, ‘scholars’, and ‘venerable masters’, sweeping every bit of their prestige into the dust.”
It was also during this time that the cult of Mao grew almost exponentially. My mother said she watched her neighbours scramble to show their appreciation and enthusiasm for the great Chairman. One man even attached a Mao pin onto his bare arm. Because my mother’s family lived in a university community, it is hard to discern whether these people truly worshipped Mao to such an extreme extent or if they simply put on masks to distract away from their personal views. The Red Guards pledged their allegiance to the little red book and thus threw away all other interpersonal relations, seeing loyalty to Mao as the only objective. Students were encouraged to tell on their teachers, neighbours encouraged to tell on each other and even children were indoctrinated to report any anti-revolutionary rhetoric at home. One mother was snitched on by her son and publicly executed for making an offhand comment at home that went against the communist ideology.
Schools all over the country were closed and up to 12 million people were sent to the countryside to learn how to be revolutionary from the peasants. My aunt was one of the many students who had participated in this program and I suspect it is for this reason that she seems to be the most distant family member. My grandmother still has a difficult time speaking about this. It was distressing for her to separate from her youngest daughter for years, knowing that my aunt’s education was sacrificed and replaced by manual labour, but at the same time, perhaps the rural environment was preferred to the mass hysteria in big cities like Shanghai.
Many intellectuals were sent to rural labour camps as well and the ideology at the time meant almost anyone with skills over that of an average person was made the target of political struggle. It was like a national witch-hunt. Naturally, my great-grandfather had become a target. He was seen as part of the old establishment and since he was relatively well off, they’d labelled him a corrupt landlord, accused him of conspiring against the country by taking part in spy organisations and stripped him of his ranks in the Communist Party.
It is impossible to assess the damage done to Chinese culture and tradition during the Cultural Revolution. Many of my friends’ families lost their old genealogy books during this time and this is only one of many Chinese traditions that have since fallen out of practice. Religion was shunned, as Buddhism became a symbol of dangerous superstition. Even to this day, the Chinese people disapprove of any sort of religious practice. The cemetery of Confucius was among the hundreds of thousands of invaluable Chinese temples and treasures damaged or destroyed, despite Confucius’ teachings being the cornerstone of Chinese principles.
The Cultural Revolution not only ruined China’s past but also cursed China’s future. It destroyed culture without attempting to replace it with anything else. It became a vessel for the destruction of social trust. Its aftershocks continue to resonate in Chinese society today, and as such, it is often difficult for Chinese families to talk about their histories. There are scars that run deep into the early decades of the 20th Century and wounds that are still healing from the years of Mao.
For my parents and my grandparents, these wounds are still very much fresh. In my mind, my family’s history is foggy and pieced together, like a jigsaw that doesn’t quite fit. It’s a topic that often comes up during family dinners, but is always immediately averted, as so many family members still have strong memories of those days. My grandparents still hold a deeply suspicious attitude towards everything.
It is an integral part of Chinese culture to be proud of our history: “What are America’s 500 years of history compared to China’s 3000?” many will scoff. Of course, every country is proud of their path to the modern world. But I’ve found that China’s pride in its history has become somewhat of an empty mantra.
I am lucky to have grown up in a warmer society, but nevertheless the pain is still there in China everywhere you look. My only hope is that in a few years, more will be able to talk about the shared pain of our history and those old family heirlooms, hidden in the back of basements and storage closets, can finally be taken out of the dust and displayed proudly.