Qiu's corner

Confidence from the Cultural Revolution

In the early days of the Cultural Revolution, one of the commonly seen scenes in China was that of “revolutionary mass criticism” staged against “class enemies.”  

There was no official definition for the nationwide movement. To begin with, it had little to do with “criticism” in the proper sense of the word. It came close, if anything, to public denunciation and humiliation of the target in question. Among the generally accepted rationales for the movement, one of them was to rally the proletariat and to demoralize the “class enemies,” which could also bring in a variety of interpretations. In the light of Mao’s class struggle theory, the struggle between socialism and capitalism exists throughout the long period till the final realization of communism. For the proletariat, the class enemies consequently include landlords, rich farmers, counter revolutionaries, bad elements, and rightist in the late 1950s, and then for the expanded category during the Cultural Revolution, capitalists, unreformed intellectuals, historical counter-revolutionaries, and capitalist-roaders, a newly coined term then in reference to “the Party officials pushing along the capitalist road against Chairman Mao.” For the long and the short of it, those were class enemies of the broad mass of people, consequently, the target of the proletarian dictatorship.

As a rule, the format of revolutionary mass criticism involved the class enemies being marched onto a temporary stage or an open space under a large portrait of Mao, with their heads hung low in repentance, weighed down by blackboards hung around their necks with their names written and crossed out, and for possible variation, further demonized with tall white paper hats symbolic of evils of the netherworld. Organizations like Red Guards (in schools) or Worker Rebels (in factories, but commonly referred to as Red Guards as well) made indignant denouncements on the stage, with the revolutionary mass audience shouting slogans in thunderous response and raising their fists high in the air. A real example may well illustrate it. Liu Shaoqi, the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, then seen as the arch rival to Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, had to face revolutionary mass criticism just like that, and that with his wife Wang Guangmei groveling aside, wearing a badly-torn, bosom-revealing mandarin dress and a fake necklace made of ping pang balls—the dress and necklace both being emblematic of bourgeois decadency. Liu Shaoqi died afterward, but it was not the worst. At the heat of the revolutionary mass criticism, some of the class enemies were savagely beaten, and quite a number of them to death there and then.

Before 1949, Father ran a small perfume factory, hence a “capitalist” in Mao’s class system, even though with his factory gone in the movement of “transferring private-owned enterprises to the state-owned” in the mid-1950s, and with the hardest physical job for a lower-level worker at a state-run factory. So at the beginning of Cultural Revolution, he had to go through revolutionary mass criticism there. At first I had little knowledge about his ordeal at the factory. But back home one evening, he lurched with a sudden limp, almost fell, and another evening, his face showed undisguisable large bruises like a rotten persimmon. With all of us gone to bed, he still had to work and rework on something called  “guilty plea,” under the broken lamp late into the night, three or four evenings a week.

The ritual of guilty-plea-writing came as a new development against the class enemies, who had to repent their sins and crimes, and in his case, with the focus on his exploitation of the workers before 1949. That would not have been too difficult, I imagined, since the contents must have been so familiar to him. Basically, he paid the four or five workers much less than himself and pocketed most of the profit or “surplus value,” a term I had just learned in school, and that’s all about it. But the Red Guards, instead of letting him off the hook that easily, would demand him to denounce the “atrocious crimes” from the bottom of his black heart, times and again, until to their satisfaction. 

In the third year of the Cultural Revolution, he broke down with acute retina detachment, so the “revolutionary committee” of the factory told him not to come to work anymore. He left not without a touch of relief. No more revolutionary mass criticism there.

But that gave rise to another problem. In the light of the proletarian dictatorship, the sick leave benefit was possible only for the proletariat, not for a capitalist like him. In other words, no pay, nor medical insurance. Because of his class status, Mother’s pay got reduced too, far from enough for the whole family. Half way back home, he came to the realization that he had to have the eye surgery as soon as possible—and then to go back to work.

He managed to check into the Shanghai ENT Hospital. Presumably just one or two days for the surgery, and then about a week or two for recovery at home. Nevertheless, he would have nothing to worry about revolutionary mass criticism for that period at least. 

But things at the hospital turned out to be so different those days. With a considerable number of experienced doctors and nurses condemned as “black monsters,” the remaining ones were too busy struggling for survival. As a result, those patients there had to go through an unexpectedly longer waiting period for operation due to the staff shortage.  

On the third day, a message came home through the neighborhood phone service: “The family member of the Bed Seventeen hurry over to the hospital for revolutionary mass criticism.”  “Bed Seventeen” referred to Father, his bed being so numbered in the hospital ward. The message was from a Red Guard organization called “Expelling Tiger and Leopard,” with its name derived from a Mao poem. That threw our whole family into panic.

How could he have gotten into trouble in the hospital? And for that matter, why should the family member also go there?

Mother had recently suffered a nervous breakdown. My elder brother Xiaowie was practically paralyzed, and my younger sister Xiaohong was too young to help. So the job was up to me. The realization hit home with a splitting headache. Having heard stories about the family members being mass-criticized together with the targets, I shuddered at the prospect. A “black puppy,” I had long given up any dream of becoming a Red Guard, going to college, or getting a decent job, but those would be the worries for the future, nothing like the revolutionary mass criticism for the present.    

Mother served me a bowl of mint-flavored green bean soup, my favorite in summer, but it helped little with my headache. I rose to leave for the hospital with reluctance  bordering on resentment.                   

Along the way, I tried to figure out the possible cause of his trouble. The Red Guards at the factory unaware of his surgery, they could not have reported his class status to the Red Guards at the hospital. He should have known better to reveal it to the pople there. I cudgeled my brains out without a clue, sweating in a bus packed like a bamboo steamer of tiny soup buns. At the hospital stop, I stumbled down, drained like one of the broken buns. 

Instead of heading to the ward, I paid a visit first to the office of the Hospital Revolutionary Committee.
As it turned out, Expelling Tiger and Leopard was an organization consisted of the patients rather than the hospital staff members, who, like “the clay images drifting across the river” in a Chinese proverb, were hardly capable of protecting themselves. The revolutionary organization came into existence in response to Mao’s call that the Proletarian Dictatorship has to be enforced into every corner of the society. The Red Guard head that gave orders from the next ward, on Bed Thirty Five, was a patient surnamed Huang, wearing a red armband on his T-shirt sleeve, and a white gauze pad around his throat. It was said that Huang suffered from esophageal cancer at an advanced stage.

“It’s our Party’s policy to be humanistic even toward the sick class enemies, but not for an unremorseful one,” Huang began, his voice hissing with a sudden metal sharpness. “Not until he truly repents his crimes to the full, he deserves no medical treatment here. Don’t ever think he could get away so easily.”

“You’re absolutely right,” I said in a hurry. Under the normal circumstances, it might not be a too  big deal for him to write and rewrite for a couple of times more, but the lacking of Huang’s approval meant that no doctor would be allowed to perform the surgery on him, and as a result,  Father had to stay here for weeks, or even months. As it was, we could hardly make the ends meet at home, not to mention all the hospital expense. 

I kept nodding like a wound-up robot. It was an indescribable humiliating role to play, and I was not a real robot, still feeling.    

“Instead of repenting the bourgeois life style of his,” Huang continued huskily, as if whistling through a broken steel pipe, “he brags and boasts about it. He has to write a new guilty plea.”

“Yes, I will help him write a soul-searching statement. Please give me some specific details, Comrade Huang, so I can make him dig deeper into his black heart and come to terms with the root of the evil.”

“Well, he talks as if he alone knew how to make milk powder drink,” Huang said, “thanks to his extravagance in the old society. Who is he to look down the working class people?”

Siren pierced through the back of my mind. At home, Father had told us little about himself before 1949—for fear of “advocating the bourgeois life style.” The grudge we children bore against his brining us into the black family background made it more difficult for him to open up. More often than not, he wrapped himself in a cocoon of silence. During the so-called three years of natural disasters, with over thirty million Chinese people died of starvation, however, he was staved into delirious recollection over a special Russian restaurant meal plan he had enjoyed in the mid-1940s. According to the plan, he could have as much milk as he liked, seven days of a week. Not necessarily fresh milk there all the time, he caught occasional glimpse of a blond waitress making milk powder drink behind the counter. But that appeared even more exotic to me, as I listened to it at the time like a fairy tale, mouth-watering. I did not have a bottle of milk for the whole year.     

But by the side of Bed Seventeen, however, I could not bring myself to complain at the sight of a changed Father, unshaven, blindfolded with some liquid dropped in prior to the surgery. Fumbling, he failed to take my hand, let alone a pen.  That’s one of the reasons Huang wanted me to come to the hospital to help, I realized,  noticing a jar of milk powder on the bedside table for the patient on the next bed.

I drew in a deep breath, trying to gather from him the details of the trouble-causing incident. Those days, milk powder became even more of a rarity, a jar of which Bed Eighteen was lucky enough to get, but he did not know how to properly mix it, resulting in an inedible mess. Father told him the knack of stirring with a little cold water before pouring in hot water, mentioning his experience in the Russian restaurant by way of explanation. Sure enough, it made all the difference. Bed Eighteen talked to others about it in such a great gusto, it spread out of the ward. The same evening Huang made inquiries into it, and detected the problem with his ever-present alertness for class struggle.

But the more pressing issue for me at the moment was how to rewrite the plea, which had to be an acceptable one. It would not do by just adding apologies, however truthfully contrite, for the bourgeois decadence in a cup of milk powder drink. I reexamined Father’s ejected piece, which began, rather bookishly, about how he had dreamed of a college education, but upon high school graduation, he had to find a job to help the family, working as an accountant for a Dutch trade company.  As the company folded without warning in the late 1940s, he was offered, in lieu of a severance pay, an unsold case of perfume essence. Failing to land another job, he turned to the essence as the last resort, struggling through an English booklet on perfume manufacturing. After experiments by adding water and alcohol and whatever liquid imaginable, and mixing them with all the  makeshift equipment available in the shikumen courtyard, he succeeded producing a tiny bottle of cologne, on which Mother put on a label “flower-dew-water,” smiling, sweating beside the moss-covered sink. A company started up just like that, pushing out a new popular brand of perfume among the upper-middle class Shanghai wives.

Now that part of his pre-1949 experience he had never shared with us before, I actually learned for the first time in the hospital ward that afternoon. The pen trembling in my hand, I came to see the problem for the plea—in the eyes of Huang. Father appeared to be a victim through the fortuitous circumstances, an accidental capitalist,  so to speak.

The “capitalist” started dictating for the new piece, but I chose not to follow him too closely. The way he was trying, it was bound to be rejected again.  In the school, in a big-character guilty plea posted on the front wall, one of my “black monster teachers” condemned himself eloquently, I recalled, like a Sichuan chef ever so generously throwing in handfuls of peppers. “I am totally rotten, black from heart to toe… For my crime, I should be trodden underfoot, unable to turn over for hundreds of years... For fattening myself on the poor people, I deserve to be cut for thousands of cuts.”  

As it goes in a proverb, a dead pig does not have to worry about the scaling water, which cannot make it any more dead. Why should I care about piling up those revolutionary or counter-revolutionary clichés?

I included that milk powder part, of course, as the early but unmistakable sign of his decadent indulgence. So his eventual turning into a capitalist was anything but accidental. 

About forty five minutes late, I finally plodded into the conclusion, jotting down an exclamation mark, nodding to myself, when I heard an announcement coming through a loud speaker in the ward, “Bed Seventeen and his family member come out to the hospital reception hall.”

There, the first thing I saw was a long red banner stretched across the half- deserted hall: The Hospital Revolutionary Mass Criticism.

Apparently, Huang seized upon my availability to have the event arranged in addition to the guilty plea, for Father, blindfolded, was unable to go through the ritual without somebody taking him by hand.  I turned over the plea to Huang, who stuffed it into his pant pocket without taking a look, and gestured me to take my position beside Father, whose neck was presently weighed down with a heavy blackboard showing his name crossed out in color chalk. There were two other patients standing aligned with him, each sporting a blackboard round his and her neck.  

“Lower your heads and plead guilty to our great leader Mao!” Hung hissed out the command.  

Standing aside, I found my head hung lower in spite of myself, though without a blackboard around my neck—the only difference between father and son. The humiliation overwhelming, he soon became too week to stand still, putting a hand on my shoulder for support.

I tried imagining myself into a human crutch, stiff, motionless, unbreakable, without thinking or feeling. It was not that successful.

It was perhaps because of his throat problem, Huang did not say anything else there, stepping off to return with a chair and sitting stiff there through the ritual.

At the end of the longest hour imaginable, he waved us away. 

I decided to stay on by Father’s side, believing there would be more rewriting for me to do. There’s no point going home and then hurrying. I felt so exhausted. But by the time I finally left the hospital around nine thirty that evening, I still heard nothing from Huang.

No message the next morning. Around the noon, I double-checked with the neighborhood phone service. Inexplicable, still no phone message from the hospital. On the third day, a phone message came:  Father was being sent into the operation room, and he would be released home the next day.

So Huang must have given approval to the plea; failing that, the doctor would not have moved ahead with the surgery

It was surely to my credit then—the new guilty plea with all the creative words and phrases thrown in without Father’s knowledge.  

But then some other possible scenarios came up. The Red Guard Huang might have relented at the sight of a kid trembling aside like a broken reef during the mass criticism; alternatively, he could have suffered an unexpected turn for the worse in his own condition. Whatever interpretations, against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution engulfing the whole country, it was after all nothing but the storm in a cup of milk powder drink.

“You have done the mission impossible,” Mother said, subscribing to the  scenario that held out the laurel to me.

It’s the first time that I gained confidence for myself, of all things, in writing. 

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