On the day that she died Bian Zhongyun shook hands with her husband before she left for work. She knew the violence that awaited her at the prestigious girls’ school in Beijing where she was a vice-principal, if not the full extent of the tortures that lay ahead. It was 5 August 1966, the beginning of the decade of murderous terror that came to be known as China’s Cultural Revolution, and she was about to become its first victim.
Paranoid and politically weakened by the failure of his Great Leap Forward – a disastrous scheme launched in 1958 that was meant to transform China into an industrial powerhouse, but instead led to a famine that killed as many as 45 million people – Mao Zedong had turned to the masses. The ageing leader wanted to root out his enemies and reassert his control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but he dressed it up as a valiant campaign to eradicate the “revisionists” who wanted to thwart the country’s socialist revolution. The movement started with a directive that was circulated among party members in May 1966, warning of a secret plot to establish a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”. The campaign went public the following month, as Chinese citizens were urged to sweep away the “horde of monsters” supposedly hiding in their midst. By August, which became known as Red August, the real violence had begun.
“The Chairman’s ground troops were the Chinese people – and, most of all, China’s youth,” writes Tania Branigan in Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution. “In the first phase of the revolution the children of the party elite became Red Guards: groups of young zealots who swept through Beijing, and then other cities, launching vicious and sometimes murderous assaults.”
Branigan, a Guardian correspondent who was based in China from 2008 to 2015, tracks down some of these former Red Guards – the high-school and university students who wore red armbands and wielded Mao’s “Little Red Book” as they hunted down “counter-revolutionaries” – along with those who suffered at their hands. Her book examines the legacy of the Cultural Revolution for those who lived through it, and perpetrated its atrocities, and the absence of any large-scale reckoning in China with that past.
“People could be persecuted for no reason at all,” Yu Xiangzhen, who was 13 when she became a Red Guard, tells Branigan. “The Red Guards could just go into their houses, beat them and take away their belongings.” Yu recalled how she had watched a mob beating people who were accused of being capitalists. She insists that she did not join in the violence herself, but she also did not try to stop it. “I went with the flow and didn’t give much thought to whether what we were doing was right or not,” she explained. “I still thought it was right, because everything I heard was that we needed to break the old world to build a new one.”
Bian Zhongyun was an obvious target for the Red Guards. The 50-year-old mother of four was responsible for discipline at a school attended by the children of the party elite, who formed the early vanguard of the movement, and as the daughter of a banker she came from the wrong sort of class background. She was singled out as a suspected “counter-revolutionary”. A group of Red Guards broke in to her home, where they burned her books and left behind posters threatening to “rip out your dog heart, lop off your dog head”. At school Bian was subjected to what were known as “struggle sessions”, along with other teachers, where they were beaten and humiliated by their students.
“Girls dragged her onto a stage in shackles and forced her to kneel while they kicked and struck her, beating her with iron-banded wooden rifles they used for drilling,” writes Branigan. “When she fell they hauled her up by her hair and began again.” She narrates the teacher’s final hours in unflinching detail, recounting how the girls beat Bian with nailed clubs and then forced her to clean the toilets, laughing as they tried to make her drink from the dirty mop; how they loaded the dying woman on to a rubbish cart and left her to lie beneath the hot sun, foam dripping from her mouth, while some of her tormentors went to buy ice lollies. She records too how Bian’s widower, unable to stop the killing, bought a camera to document it. He photographed their four young daughters standing next to their mother’s corpse, “lined up by size, Von Trapp style, behind the battered body of the woman who once fed and soothed them”.
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There is not a shortage of books about the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Branigan credits earlier works including Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals’s Mao’s Last Revolution and Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History among her source material. Other valuable accounts include The World Turned Upside Down by Yang Jisheng, The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China by Guobin Yang and Fractured Rebellion by Andrew Walder. Red Memory does not try to replicate these prior volumes – rather it asks how the scars of China’s violent past run through its society and politics today, and how those who committed the most egregious acts live with what they did.
This includes Zhang Hongbing, a man who, as a 16-year-old, denounced his own mother (he changed his name to Hongbing, or “red soldier”, in 1966). He recalls watching as the authorities dragged her out of their house to be tortured, and later shot. Over the decades since, he says he has often dreamed that he is trying to apologise to her: “She never speaks to me.”
“What made China’s slaughter unique was that people killed their own kind, and that the line between victims and perpetrators shifted moment by moment,” concludes Branigan. The Cultural Revolution has been compared to the brutality in William Golding’s fictional Lord of the Flies, but Branigan argues that it was worse. “No plane crash, no desert island was required; this happened in the midst of civilisation,” she explains. “The teenagers who killed Bian Zhongyun were not feral as much as well drilled. The party had raised this generation to fear the enemies of the people.”
Indeed, Song Binbin, a student leader at the Beijing girls’ school where Bian was killed (she has denied playing any role in the violence) was feted by Mao less than two weeks later at a mass rally in Tiananmen Square on 18 August 1966. A grinning Song, who would have been 16 or 17 at the time, pinned an honorary Red Guards’ armband to Mao’s uniform in what became one of the most famous images from the period, signalling his enthusiastic support for their actions. As many as two million people died during the decade that followed, before Mao’s own death in 1976 brought the campaign to an end.
Among those who suffered during the Cultural Revolution is China’s current leader, Xi Jinping. As a 13-year-old boy in 1966 he was chased through the streets of Beijing by Red Guards and was reportedly denounced by his mother. His father, who had been a senior official, was detained and beaten. His elder half-sister is thought to have killed herself. In 1968 he was among the millions of young people who were “sent down” to the countryside to “learn from” the peasants. (By this stage, even Mao had realised the situation was slipping out of control and ordered the military to restore order, although the purges and the persecution of select enemies continued.) Xi worked in the fields and slept in a cave-home on a flea-infested bed.
Yet Xi’s experience during the Cultural Revolution has been co-opted and transformed into what amounts to his foundation myth. As he tells the story now, those years formed the basis of his character and his subsequent political career. “When I arrived at the Yellow Earth [the village of Liangjiahe, where he was sent, was close to the Yellow River], at 15, I was anxious and confused,” Xi wrote in an essay published in 1998 as he ascended the party ranks. “When I left the Yellow Earth, at 22, my life goals were firm and I was filled with confidence.”
The Chinese Communist Party’s own verdict on this period, formulated in 1981, acknowledges that it was a “catastrophe”, brought about by a leader who was “labouring under a misapprehension”. But the party has always been wary of dwelling on the memory of the tyranny perpetrated by its founding father, and the decade-long tumult has been reduced to little more than a passing reference in official discourse since. Even more so than his predecessors, Xi has cracked down on any challenge to the CCP’s version of history, launching a campaign against what he called “historical nihilism” shortly after he took over the leadership of the party in late 2012.
As she researched this book, Branigan found that the ground was shifting beneath her; the few remaining memorials were being sealed off, websites were vanishing, people were becoming more reluctant to talk. “This book could not be written if I were to begin it today,” she concedes. In today’s China Xi is only interested in the past as a tool that can serve the party and cement the future of its rule.
Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution
By Tania Branigan
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £20
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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con