Some of my favorite meetings in China were with the “old guard.” Over drinks I would ask them to trace their personal journeys, always most interested in the Cultural Revolution.
Writing in the Guardian, Lily Kuo does just that, contributing 5 brief portraits in: “Chaos, hope, change: stories from 70 years of the People’s Republic of China.”
Zhu Xindi was getting ready to take university entrance exams in Kunming in the summer of 1966 when the Cultural Revolution “fell suddenly from the sky”, she says. Exams were cancelled, and universities and schools shuttered.
Zhu, who had been top of her class and planned to take a degree in science and engineering, instead went to the countryside to help build “a bright red new world” like many other youth.
The Cultural Revolution, a decade of social and political chaos kicked off by Mao in an effort to reinvigorate the socialist spirit of the country, is one of the least understood events in China’s modern history.
Even two decades later it is hard for Zhu to make sense of it. She spent a year farming and living among the Dai, an ethnic minority group, in a village in Yunnan province, near China’s border with Myanmar. She woke before daybreak and farmed all day. Most of the young people she found herself with had never farmed before. Their initial revolutionary spirit soon faded.
“Everyone thought we were about to make great contributions to the nation, that we were going where the country most needed us to build a new socialist countryside,” she says. “When you were actually there, it wasn’t like that. We wanted to leave, but we had no choice.”
Zhu eventually left, trekking to Myanmar in the hopes of aiding communist insurgents. Turned away, she travelled throughout Yunnan, getting sick and almost going blind in one eye. “For three years, I roamed. I didn’t have food to eat. I was considered mangliu,” she says, referring to herself as a “blind migrant”.
Zhu’s family also suffered. Red Guards, overzealous youths tasked with rooting out counterrevolutionaries, beat Zhu’s little sister and forced her to shave off her hair. Zhu remembers how the family decided to take a family portrait in case they were separated.
Each person snuck out of the house one by one, so as not to arouse the suspicion of their neighbours, and they met at the photo studio. Afterwards, her mother gave each of them a copy to keep. “In case we lose each other, we’ll be easier to find,” Zhu remembers her mother saying.
After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 and schools reopened, Zhu finally took the national exams she was meant to take years earlier. She went to university at the age of 30, studied medicine and became a dentist. Retired for the last 10 years, she now lives in Hangzhou.
She doesn’t feel angry about the years that were taken from her. “It was very difficult and every day I didn’t know if I would make it to tomorrow,” she says. “Looking back, you can say many things were ridiculous, even absurd and irrational. But at that time, the whole country was irrational.”
She said: “For the generation now, you have choices, and when many choices are put in front of you, you feel lost. But for us, we didn’t have any choices. My whole life, I didn’t have choices, and I did the best I could in the tiny space I had to make choices.”