T Nation

Story of a Friend During the Cultural Revolution

There was a request that I share the story told to me by a friend who was in China during the Cultural Revolution. Since this is probably one of the few you will run into, I thought I’d share it. Anyone else have or know of such stories?

I met my friend, F. while I was a student. She was studying on full scholarship from the Chinese government at a US university. This was during the mid 1980’s when the Chinese were just starting to study abroad. Our university was one of the first to have an exchange program. Her story starts with her father in France during the 1930’s. He trained as a cardiologist and became extremely well known. During WW II he moved back to China to help the Chinese against the Japanese. He met F.'s mother and they married. F.'s mother was blind. This will be important later.

Fast forward to the 1960’s. Mao has won the revolution and because the father had training abroad, the family is under suspicion – not just him, but the whole family. When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, her father was imprisoned in the hospital. Since he was one of the best cardiologists in China, they could not just shoot him. So he became effectively a slave in the hospital treating high ranking party officials. She hinted that he was one of Mao’s physicians. At home, F. and her sister were the object of harassment from the Red Guard. Her mother, being blind, required help which was seen as bourgeois, so under almost daily threat, the mother told her assistants not to come back. F. and her sister were probably 12 or so at the time.

The mother feared they might end up in a loagai (concentration camp) with her, so F. and her sister then decided to flee. This was easy since children could ride the trains for free and go to any of several Worker’s cafeterias for free food. Many other children whose parents feared for them were there too and the singularly haunting image of masses of defacto orphans cruising the railways and sometimes being arrested by the Red Guard or forced into joining is a hard one to shake. After a few years (most of the schools were closed down and a lot of the children remained illiterate), F. and her sister went home.

Not long after, they were arrested and sent to re-education camps. F. ended up in Mongolia in a collective and her sister was sent to a farm along the Yellow river. F. related several interesting stories of her time in Mongolia (mostly about Mongol culture), but one of the most intriguing was near the end of her time there around 1976 when she was thrown from her bed. This turned out to be the massive Tangshan Earthquake where over 500,000 people lost their lives. F. heard almost nothing of this at all for some time. Her sister witnessed the direct aftermath of the earthquake in the form of a massive flood, then helped pull people from wrecked buildings. Almost nothing was officially said for a years, although this turned out to be the second or third most destructive earthquake ever recorded. It was only through her sister’s account that F. knew of this at all.

Once the Gang of Four (the 4 officials who were accused of causing the Cultural Revolution) were jailed, F. suddenly found that she was in favor again. It seems that her father (who was forced to endure cleaning toilettes while being taunted by re-educators and was given virtually no protein for several years, hence was in very bad shape) had taught her & her sister some French and a few other things, so she was sent to the US. Her mother had passed on, alone, while F. was marooned in Mongolia. Her father was very elderly, well over 80, and expected to still treat Party officials. F. and her sister were both abroad and were working on the sly to earn money. She had to pretend to want to return to China because the Chinese Student Organization had at least one spy who it turned out was one of my office mates in Grad. School. He sent regular and pretty well damning reports about everyone back to Beijing, including one that was a pack a lies about F. just to get her in trouble. It seemed that several of the students there had pieced together she had saved some money, so he confronted her about that and told her she had to buy a car for the other Chinese student’s use (and he’d keep the keys safe). When she balked, he filed his report and it apparently got her in a lot of hot water.

Last I heard she finished her Masters and was heading off for a doctorate at another university. She and her sister (also in the US) were waiting for their father to die and once that were to happen, they would officially declare themselves defectors. I lost track of her not too long after that.

I hope her life improved. She was a sweetie and had tragedy upon tragedy heaped on her.

– jj