‘Anyone could accuse anyone’

By Wendy Chen

Early in the morning, masses are lined up in front of a department store, waiting for the doors to open. Finally, workers tumble out of the store. The people outside come to strict attention, and the workers lead them in a dance. Rows after rows of bodies move in sync, trying to copy the movements of the other. They must perform a ceremonial, almost ritual-like dance before they can enter the store. People file into the store, having completed a show of loyalty, a salutation to the new regime and its head, Mao Zedong.

Ge Yuanwen was 24 when she picked up the newspaper and learned that Mao was launching a new period of China’s history. The year was 1966; the Cultural Revolution, which was to last 10 years, had begun.

Mao launched the revolution because he feared that the nation was losing sight of his ideals, Wen tells me. Some people were becoming too prosperous, posing too great of a threat to the Communist Party. Mao wanted to retain his power in the party and also return China to how he envisioned it as: a classless society. In his desire to reshape China, Mao brought chaos upon his people, Wen says. Her light voice does not quite mask her bitterness.

Before the Cultural Revolution, Wen and her family were well-off, living a relatively good life. Wen had recently graduated from university and was working as a chemist at China’s Academy of Science. When the revolution started, life broke down. Schools stopped teaching, and groups of the Red Guard began to hunt down the enemies of Mao. Among Mao’s enemies were capitalists, and Wen’s father was one of them.

“My father had loved his country,” Wen recalls. “He did anything his country asked him to. But when the revolution began, every day, my father was questioned and apology letters needed to be written.”

The Red Guard came to his textile factory and questioned him about his loyalty to the country and accused him of unfairly making money from the workers he employed.

Wen’s father treated his workers fairly. He denied the allegations that said otherwise, and he denied that he was disloyal to the country. Still, the Red Guard came to question him on a weekly basis. They even interrogated his workers, some of whom eventually made false accusations about how he treated them. Wen said that during those times, anyone could accuse anyone else of anything without any evidence. Her father, being accused, had to write confessions and apology letters, which were posted by the Red Guards on public walls to humiliate him.

Wen’s father, like many others, was seen as an enemy of the state. As a result, the Red Guard broke into their home.

“I never blamed the Red Guard. They were young; they didn’t know what they were doing. Young people can be manipulated.”

Wen was forced to quit her job and work in the factories. When she was not working, she was participating in the spread of propaganda.

Wen remembers how the government pried into the lives of the people and obliged each person to fully learn the government’s ideas. Everyone received a red book, filled with Maoisms, or the words that Mao spoke.

“They say that every one sentence of Mao is worth 10,000 words,” Wen recalls. “They treated Mao like a god.”

Wen knows that her family was better off than some.

“Many people just committed suicide,” Wen says.

For her personally she said, “It was a waste of my life. Ten golden years all wasted.”

The Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death. Change in China didn’t begin until the late 1970s however. And Wen, fearing another time of craziness, left for America. By the time Wen was planning to leave China, she was already married and had a family. Her husband had a working visa in the United States, and had come back to China to get the rest of the family. In January 1986, Wen, her husband and two children boarded an airplane that took off from Shanghai.

Landing in New York, the bright city lights overpowered Wen’s eyes. She had never seen so much light at once. A million dots of light was an awesome sight.

It has been 25 years since Wen came to this country. Life in China has improved drastically. She wonders at how a country can change so much in the span of 50 years.

Last year, I visited China, the country my family had come from. Walking through the busy streets of Shanghai, cars honking and people crowding the sidewalks, I can hardly tell it apart from any other big city.  It’s a lively place. There’s always the smell of cigarette smoke in the air when I take a walk outside along colorfully tiled lanes.  People are everywhere, street vendors, workers or normal people like me, trying to do the impossible: catch a taxi. When I’m in China, I cannot tell that it hadn’t always been this way. 

To me, the traces of the Cultural Revolution have been wiped from the surface, pushed under and buried with passing time, yet still alive in the memories of its survivors.

Ge Yuanwen’s tale of her family’s life during the Cultural Revolution is only one story of many more.

Her story is one that will be passed down and has been passed down. From her to me. From grandmother to granddaughter.