PRAGUE — Forty years ago, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution. The Propaganda Department of China’s ruling Communists have now issued an order banning any kind of reviews or commemoration of this disaster as part of the party’s bid to make the Chinese forget about that lost decade.
But in condemning the Japanese for neglect of the Nanjing massacre, Chinese officials proclaim that forgetting the past betrays the people. But, for the Chinese, the Cultural Revolution was itself a betrayal, one that continues to this day. All the terrible events since then — the Tiananmen Square massacre, persecution of Falun Gong and repression of civic activists — are the evil fruit of that uncleansed original sin.
The Cultural Revolution marked the climax of class extermination practiced by the party during the 1960s. The survivors of all the previous political movements, now enthralled by Mao’s personality cult, were free of all constraint, able to kill and seek revenge with impunity. As Mao summed up this psychological state: “Now is a time of upheaval, and I’m just happy about the chaos.” In his instruction called “Regarding Biting Incidents,” Mao asserted: “So what? Good people get to know each other by biting each other and it serves bad people right if they are bitten by good ones.”
Friends of my generation invariably comment when I mention that I was born on Aug. 18: “Hey, that was the anniversary of Chairman Mao first receiving the Red Guards.” But the following months and years have been selectively forgotten, particularly by the Red Guards themselves. These are people who, like the Hitler Youth, turned over their bloody page of history and never looked back.
According to Wang Youqin, author of “Victims of the Cultural Revolution,” after Mao received the Red Guards and instructed them in the “militant fight,” more than 1,700 people were beaten, drowned, or scalded to death. Another 100,000 were driven from their homes.
Within months, an all-out movement, under the banner of “revolutionize Chinese culture” and dedicated to the aim of “breaking away from old culture, old traditions, old thoughts, and old customs,” was raging throughout the country. Those who had been born “landlords, rich farmers, reactionaries, bad elements, and rightists” were among the first to be victimized. Desperate to save their lives, families voluntarily smashed their properties and pulped their ancient paintings and calligraphy.
Episodes of “burning books and burying intellectuals alive” had occurred before, but none was more radical than the destructive force unleashed by Mao. Soon, ancient sites would be ruined. Corpses of historic figures, such as Zhang Zhidong, a high-ranking official in the Qing Dynasty, were exhumed, with the decaying bodies left hanging in trees.
Eventually, anybody — from the president to average citizens — could be criticized, labeled an “ox-demon and snake-spirit,” persecuted and listed for death. People killed others to safeguard Mao, and those who were executed shouted “Long Live Chairman Mao” on their way to death.
In Guangxi province, where some of the worst violence occurred, nearly 100,000 people were killed during July and August 1968. In the official “Memorabilia of the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi,” many infants appear on the death list. The author Zheng Yi reported that in Wuxuan County alone, more than 100 people were eaten, because devouring enemies was the only way to prove one’s love for Mao. Livers, eyes, or brains were removed while victims were still alive.
Mao set off yet another wave of persecutions in 1968. In countless “suicides,” many people were simply bitten to death, or took their own lives when the suffering became too much to bear. In Beijing, deaths occurred mostly in areas with trees and lakes. Wang Youqin reports that on Nov. 4, four bodies were found floating in the lake of the Summer Palace. A total of 63 people were killed at the prestigious Beijing University.
Mao died aspiring to exterminate Chinese culture. His Cultural Revolution alone killed as many as 2 million people, shattered traditions, uprooted spiritual and ethical values, and tore apart family ties and communal loyalties. People who experienced it seal off the memory, for the pain, worse than a bullet to the heart, overwhelms souls.
Worst of all, Mao’s crimes against civilization, unlike those of, say, Hitler, are ongoing. The Communist Party still uses his brainwashing methods, and his legacy continues to be officially revered. His portrait and body remain on display in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and his face appears on bank notes in the wallet of every Chinese, many of whom saw parents, children, and other loved ones die under his knife.
The Chinese people, unsurprisingly, regard politics with a mixture of caution and dread. Public figures spend a lot of time and effort to avoid offending the party, openly endorsing indifference as the foremost tool of survival. Last month, I watched a TV show featuring Han Meilin, a famous painter. In his closing remarks, he announced his words of wisdom to viewers: “Long live those who don’t care!”
Han Meilin was badly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. His declaration was greeted by a roar of applause from the studio audience.
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