In summer 1966, China's Great Leader Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. The ten-year upheaval marked a period of silliness, anarchy, and utter devastation in modern Chinese history. I, a nine-year old girl, was caught in its whirlwind.
Overnight, Da Zi Bao—the posters written in big Chinese characters—mushroomed all over the country. Building 11, a four-story apartment complex in which my family lived, was no exception. One morning, I stepped out of the building to face layers of Da Zi Bao glued on the entrance door and spilled over both sides of the building, reaching as high as the second story. Beneath a headline "Petty Bourgeois Sentiments" I saw our second floor neighbor Aunt Wang's name. A caricature showed her with her signature perm and high heels. A short, stylish woman in her mid-30s, Aunt Wang loved to wear high heels. Forever on the go, she walked up and down the stairs in her high heels; the click, click sound echoed behind her. Until then, it had never occurred to me that Aunt Wang was a pompous woman; that she cared too much about her looks; that she indulged in petty bourgeois sentiments.
Another Da Zi Bao condemned the Yu family, who lived on the third floor. How dared they name their firstborn Chang Sheng, "long life"? A familiar scene zipped through my head: a sea of arms waving Mao's little red book, shouting in unison, "Long live Chairman Mao! Long live the Communist Party! Long live the people!" But young as I was, I knew why the Yu family chose Chang Sheng for their long-awaited child: Mrs. Yu had suffered several miscarriages before she finally had Chang Sheng. How could anyone fault them for wishing their son to live, or survive?
As my eyes continued scanning the Da Zi Bao, I saw it: my mother's name written in big black characters and crossed over with red ink. Mama had been our building’s manager shortly after we moved from Shengyang, where my father used to work, to Changchun in 1965. Building Manager was an unpaid position, a volunteer job; its chief goal was to serve the families living in the building. Mama was more a facilitator, reconciling neighbor problems and spousal disputes. She was also in charge of collecting monthly sanitary fees and distributing ration coupons. Some of them were issued monthly, such as coupons for cooking oil, matches, meats, and eggs; others were issued quarterly, such as coupons for sugar, liquor, and salt; a few were issued annually, such as coupons for cloth and cotton. I did not have the heart to read what had been written about my mother. I turned away and hurried to school.
Soon afterward, my entire school shifted into full revolutionary gears. Classes were suspended. Our daily routine consisted of learning Chairman Mao's teachings. We studied his famous articles, memorized his speeches, and recited his poems—yes, our Great Leader was a gifted revolutionary poet. Since many of his poems had been set to music, we learned to sing them as well. We also read his teachings in English translation—my earliest exposure to English. At the countless political debates, we outdid one another by pledging allegiance to Chairman Mao and the Communist Party.
One day, someone suggested that we hold a denunciation session against Teacher Xu, a Fourth Grade Math Teacher. She was in her early-50s, of heavy build; her tiny feet struggled to support her weight. It was rumored that Teacher Xu was her husband’s third concubine, his favorite. He had been a capitalist banker in the old China. By all accounts, they had lived a rather decadent life. We had often smelled the exotic perfume Teacher Xu had on, said to be imported from Paris. The couple certainly belonged to the enemy camp, we chattered among ourselves. Hastily, a desk was pulled over. Some older kids dragged Teacher Xu onto the desk, pushed her down on her knees, and ordered her to denounce her husband and their rotten life style. I looked up at Teacher Xu and could hardly recognize her. Her shoulder-length hair dangled in front of her face, blocking her vision. Very soon, her speech became blurred; she gasped for air. That evening, I told Mama what had happened to Teacher Xu at school and expected her approval of my active involvement in the movement. She looked at me for a long time, but did not say a word. I saw only sadness in her eyes.
By early 1967, I became one of Mao's million-strong Little Red Guards. We took our oaths seriously: to spread Chairman Mao's teachings; to safeguard Mao's Great Leader image; to serve as his eyes and ears against any of his enemies. Soon Little Red Guards Propaganda Troupes were organized all over China, and I joined one in our neighborhood. We rehearsed with fervor, singing at the top of our voices, reciting Mao's poems, perfecting our dance moves, and practicing our Peter Pan jumps. We got on trams and buses, visited neighborhood parks and markets, bringing Chairman Mao's teachings to the masses.
Indeed, the entire country seemed to have been caught up in some kind of rituals. At six in the morning, millions of Chinese would line up in front of their city halls, town and neighborhood centers, bow three times to enlarged-Mao-photos, seeking his guidance for the day. At seven in the evening, people would gather again to report back to the Great Leader their day's activities. No one dared to miss those daily rituals.
Our next-door neighbor Uncle Zhu was too sick to perform the rituals. He was battling pancreatic cancer at the time. Accused of being a traitor to the Communist Party, Uncle Zhu was denied any medical treatment. Auntie Liu, his wife of more than 30 years, happened to be a nurse and did her best to care for him. But Uncle Zhu could not escape the frequent denunciation sessions railed against him, held either in front of or inside their apartment. At these sessions, Auntie Liu was forced to join the crowd, shouting, "Down with Traitor Zhu Bao Lin!" Oddly enough, the few times I happened to stand near her, I could not catch a sound coming out of her mouth.
However, an image I caught of her one day had etched on my mind. After school one afternoon, I walked up to our apartment as usual when I saw Auntie Liu dash out of our door and disappear inside her own, closing the door quickly behind her. “What is going on?” I wondered as I walked in. Seeing my puzzled look, Mama told me in a soft voice, “Your Auntie Liu just came over to borrow some money. Uncle Zhu developed a fever overnight.”
In June 1969, our city held a pre-execution rally at the People's Square. Eighteen convicted counterrevolutionaries were propped up on six trucks, with their arms tied up behind them and big heavy signs hanging down their necks. Hundred of us Little Red Guards stood sentry from afar, our red armbands dazzled against the summer sun. The bullhorns blared out the offenses and verdicts of each criminal. Then the trucks began slowly circling the square before heading out to the execution site. The crowd closed in and hustled to catch a glimpse of the condemned, dragging me along. Suddenly, a sharp pain shot through my right foot. I had tripped over a plank and stepped on a rusty nail. For the next two weeks, I resigned myself to bed confinement and the twice-daily penicillin shots. Just like that, my Little Red Guard days were over. I waited anxiously to the arrival of fall and the start of middle school, when I could become a member of the elite Red Guards.
Weihua Zhang received a DHS from the University at Albany in 1996. She lives in Savannah, Georgia. Her poem "Are You My Mother?" appeared in Offcourse #28, Fall 2006. Her personal essay Daughter of the Middle Kingdom is included in the anthology Shifting Balance Sheets: Women's Stories of Naturalized Citizenship and Cultural Attachment, Wishing Up Press 2011 and her book Dream Variations: A Journey Across Two Continents was published in 2012.