THE BATTLE OF THE CLASSES
One night when I was 9, I was awaken by loud and fast knocks on our front gate. I heard someone yelling: "Red Guards. This is a raid. Open up immediately, or we'll enter by force!"
A few months prior to that night, Chairman Mao Zedong had launched the Cultural Revolution. His intention was to 'purify' and 'solidify the Communist ideology, and purge capitalist and other Western ideology from the Party and Chinese society at large.
Mao alleged that intellectuals, such as professors, scholars, doctors, teachers, and authors, had been infiltrating the government with capitalist ideology and introducing bourgeoisie ideas to weaken the will of working class people and the poor. They were accused to be conspiring to overthrow the Communist Party and transform China into a capitalist society.
Mao called these intellectuals capitalist devils and demons. He incited the working class people to down these devils and demons, by force and violence. He called it the battle of the classes.
The working class people and their offsprings responded to Mao's paranoia by forming Red Guards. Across the country, Red Guards, in army green uniforms and a red bandana wrapped around their left arm, raided homes of the devils and demons, seized their personal properties by force, tortured them, and humiliated them in front of their families and in public. Military representatives had garrisoned the factories, schools, and institutions, and were in charge. The bloodshed and chaos would last a decade.
Grandfather, Dad, and Mom were all classified as the devils and demons.
During his lifetime, Grandfather saved countless lives and cured rare cases which other doctors deemed incurable. As a little child, I often heard Grandfather’s patients and their families say, with tears in their eyes, that Grandfather saved their parents, siblings, children, or themselves. I remember clearly that one of these patients, a young woman, told Mom that she would get into intolerable pain during her menstrual cycle, and she wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. She went to numerous doctors, but none could cure her. She just wanted to die to be relieved of her monthly torture, she said, until someone told her about Grandfather. Grandfather diagnosed she had a rare medical condition, to which there was no readily available cure. Grandfather came up with a unique Chinese herbal medicine mix that cured the young woman. She told Mom that she wouldn’t be here talking to Mom if it were not for Grandfather.
The Red Guards said the money that Grandfather earned and saved by curing countless suffering patients via his private practice was the evidence that Grandfather exploited the working class people. They ordered Grandfather to voluntarily hand over his savings, or it would be taken by force. He was tortured by Red Guards into a coma. He never regained his consciousness. Dad would tell me later that Grandfather recorded many extremely valuable and life-saving herbal medicine mixes from rare cases he cured. Red Guards burnt them all to ashes.
Dad was classified as devils and demons for his criticism of the Communist Party for controlling people’s minds, and for his refusal to join the Party. Those were Dad’s most serious charges.
Dad was also in the devils and demons class for his fondness for Western arts, cultures, and lifestyles. Dad collected records of Western classical music, knew how to waltz on ice, and took us to Moscow Cafe, the only restaurant in Beijing at the time that served European food. As a charming young professor, he always commanded respect from intelligent young men and attracted attention from beautiful young women, both before and after he married Mom. He was always the life of the party.
Dad’s students loved him. In addition to teaching his students physics and engineering, Dad also opened his students’ eyes to the outer, modern world, to cultures and ideologies that were different from traditional China and the Communist Party. His students also loved Dad’s characters and sense of humor. They looked up to Dad. As a result, the Red Guards accused of him eroding the minds of his students with petty bourgeois sentiment.
Mom was classified as devils and demons solely because she was married to Dad. Because Mom is from a coal miner's family and grew up poor, the Red Guards ordered her to ‘draw a clear line’ between Dad and herself, and expose Dad’s ‘crimes’. In doing so, they would allow her to ‘come back’ to the working class, the class that ruled at the time. Mom refused flat out. In a time where countless husbands and wives were persuaded or intimidated to turned on each other, Mom firmly stood by Dad. This would irritate the Red Guards to no end. She would pay dearly for her ‘loyalty’ to Dad.
In my mind, Mom is simply a very decent human being. She kept her characters no matter what life threw at her.
After losing her dad and her brother to mining accidents, and seeing her sister-in-law abandon her young nephews, 15-year old Mom grew up overnight. She practically became the head of the household. Her mom, my grandma, whom I never met, was illiterate. With her middle school education, Mom maintained the household and raised my cousins on her own. These cousins treat Mom as their real mother. They refused to visit their biological mother and their step siblings. The only time they visited was when their biological mother asked for them on her deathbed. My cousins told me that they didn't shed a single tear at the funeral, even though traditions had them kneeling and weeping. The hurt of abandonment never lessened, especially after mom showed them what a real mother would do with her children.
Some of my favorite times growing up were spent with these cousins.
Mom and the cousins told me all kinds of stories about when they were growing up. Some stories were happy ones, like when the older cousin got his first paycheck, he took his brother and mom out for dinner spending half of his paycheck. Other stories were sad, like when local bullies tried to get fresh with Mom, the cousins beat those guys senseless.
After marrying Dad, Mom became more and more cultured and sophisticated, acquiring elegant tastes for the finer things in life. But she remained down-to-earth, kind-hearted, and caring for the less fortunate. She would not betray Dad, even though she knew fully well she could avoid hard labor and humiliations otherwise.
Mom and Dad knew Red Guards would come to raid our home. It was just a matter of when. They slept fully clothed in anticipation they would come while we slept. The ax could come down any moment.
That night when I was 9, they came knocking. Dad barely opened the gate when 5 or 6 Red Guards pushed through. These were students from Dad's university. Mom told brother and I to stay quiet in bed. I wrapped myself into a ball and sat in a corner of the bed, trying to make myself invisible.
The Red Guards searched the whole house and the courtyard, digging holes through the floors and walls, tearing down the plaques from the walls and smashing them into pieces. They ordered Mom and Dad to stand in the middle of the house to watch. When they found money or anything else of value, such as arts by famous artist, antiques and other collectables, they ordered Mom and Dad to pack the items in boxes.
From my corner of the bed, through the paned windows, I watched the dark sky slowly turning gray and cloudy. They were finally leaving, taking the packed boxes. I was grateful that they didn't handcuff Mom and Dad right there and right then, to take them away to be imprisoned in cowsheds. But this was not to last.
Mom and Dad's university, along with all universities across the country, had closed down all classes. Many of the students joined Red Guards. They turned classrooms into 'war rooms'.
Every day, Red Guards would force their former professors and staff to write down how they had tried to corrupt their students by stilling capitalist ideology and bourgeois ideas into their minds.
One of the most devious strategy of Chairman Mao was to get people turn on each other and spy on each other. No one was safe. If you expressed the slightest doubt about the revolution or Mao, even behind tightly shut doors and windows, there would always be someone who had heard you and who would report you. The next day Red Guards would be at your door to take you away.
At home, Mom and Dad never talked about their days at the university in front of us kids. They would wait after Brother and I were at sleep. They always whispered when they talked. Every night, I would pretend at sleep but perk up my ears to try to listen to their conversations. Some nights I got caught by Mom, some nights I couldn't stay awake, and some nights, I heard what was going on at their work.
One day Mom came home with her half face swollen. She told us she was being careless and fell on the ground. That night, after I went to bed, I pretended falling asleep as usual. I closed my eyes and slowed down evened out my breathing. After Mom checked on me twice, she told Dad what happened that day.
Red Guards interrogated Mom that day, urging Mom to tell on Dad. Someone had told the Red Guards that Dad made a short-wave radio, a then banned device, and secretly listened to The Voice of America.
Mom denied the charge. The Red Guards kept yelling at Mom to 'draw a clear line' between her and Dad. When Mom would not change her response, one of the Red Guards, a former student of Dad, jumped up and slapped Mom on her face, hard.
When Mom whispered the name of this former student-turned Red Guard, I almost screamed "No". I was devastated. I knew this person well.
Prior to the revolution, this student, I'll call him Hai, was among Dad's several brightest students. Dad used to give these students extra lessons at home on nights and weekends, as the regular classes could not satisfy their intellect.
Among this group of students, Dad always said Hai was the most promising. Hai was extremely handsome, and was very good with us kids. After the lessons, he always stayed a few extra minutes to hang with me. He would carry me on his back and run around the courtyard, neighing all the way. I even developed a little girly crush on him in my little innocent heart. I was resolved to marry someone just like Hai when I grew up.
That night, my little heart was broken. My innocence was stolen from me.
After the revolution ended, Mom told me one day that she ran into Hai. Hai showed shame seeing Mom, and apologized for slapping Mom on the face. Mom accepted his apology. I still had this pain deep in me and told Mom I could never forgive him. Mom said that as one of Dad’s favorite students, Hai was under tremendous pressure to ‘draw a line’ from Mom and Dad, otherwise he would be kicked out of the Red Guards and be classified as devils and demons. It was a devastating time for everyone, Mom said, and everyone had to protect themselves. I supposed Mom was right, but I knew I didn’t want to marry anyone like Hai.
CONFISCATION OF OUR HOME
A few days later, we again heard loud knocking on our front gate. Dad told us to stay inside and went to open the gate. I heard a woman's loud voice saying something about she and her family were moving in. I peeked from behind the curtains, and saw a short, heavyset woman probably in her 40's. She exaggeratedly waving her left arm, with a red bandana wrapped around it. She was shouting and spitting, exposing her yellow teeth. Standing next to her were a quiet tall man and 4 school-age kids.
I recognized the woman. She was the head of Neighborhood Watch Committee, which had sprung up all over the country to monitor the devils and demons.
She said her family was tired of living in a cramped room and she was not going to put up with it anymore. She said the move was permitted by Chairman Mao, and protected by the Red Guards patrolling the neighborhood. This family occupied the north side of the house that night. In a four-in-one style residence, the suite facing north is the most desirable, as it’s cooler in the summary and warmer in the winter.
Their family name was Li.
The father of the Li family was a steel worker. He was very tall, mild mannered, and introverted. We rarely heard him talking. I believed he was a good person. The mother of the family, the short, heavyset, and loud woman, was a housewife. I could see she called all the shots in the family.
All over the country, children like us were referred to as the bastards of devils and demons. The Li children loved torturing us and insulting us. But Mom and Dad would repeatedly tell us to try to keep peace and not get into arguments or fights with the Li children. This way, at least Mom and Dad didn't have to worry about our physical safety.
One of Li children's favorite games was to not let us get water. Back then we didn't have indoor plumbing. Everyone living on the property drew water with buckets from a single faucet in the yard. The Li children would often 'guard' around the faucet, forbidding us get water. They said the bastards of devils and demons did not deserve clean water. If we needed water, we could get it from the outhouse. When that happened, Mom would tell us to simply wait to get water until they were at sleep.
We tried our best to avoid the Li children. We didn't want to add more anguish to what Mom and Dad were already going through.
One day I was washing clothes in a basin in the yard. One of the Li sons came out and started looking for fights. He said with pride that you dirty little bastard would never be clean, no matter how much you wash. I just kept washing without looking up, as though he wasn't there. When he saw he couldn't spark any reaction from me, he started insulting Mom, with the ugliest language one could use on a woman and a mother.
I felt blood rushing to my face, and I blurted out: "My mom is not fat, loud, and obnoxious like yours." My voice was still in the air when I felt his fist on my face. Blood started rolling down my nose. I yelled, "You coward! I know you don't dare to pick on someone your size." Before he could hit me again, his dad came out and dragged him inside, but not before he kicked over my basin. The water and clothes flew out toward me before falling on the ground.
No sooner than Mom came home that night, the Li woman knocked on our door. Mom opened the door and invited her to come in and sit. She refused. She stood by the open door and loudly told Mom how I dared to insult her son and herself. Without missing a beat, Mom apologized, saying she knew it was my fault and she would discipline me for sure.
After the woman left, I waited for Mom to scold me. But Mom was quiet. I said, "Mommy, please don't be too mad at me. I didn't start the fight." Tears started swelling up in Mom's beautiful and loving eyes. "I know. Of course I know. I know not only you didn't start the fight, you also would have tolerated insults to yourself. He must have insulted me and your dad. I'm heartbroken that you had to go through all this. Childhood should be a happy time." I wrapped my little arms around Mom's neck, and we both just sobbed. At that moment, I couldn't love Mom more. Her chest was my safe harbor. I was resolved to never get into fights again regardless what those kids say or do, so Mom wouldn't have to worry about my safety.
MOM AND DAD IMPRISONED
Most devils and demons were imprisoned in 'cowsheds', similar to sheds for raising cows. Red Guards forced their former professors and teachers to build these by hand, quickly. Then the professors and teachers were imprisoned in these sheds.
In the cowsheds, the imprisoned were subjected to torture, persecution, and hard labor. They were forced to acknowledge they were anti-Mao and anti-Communism, to admit they conspired to overthrow the Communist Party, and to turn on their peers to reduce their own punishment.
After our home was raided, Red Guards allowed Mom and Dad to come home at night. A few months passed. One day Mom and Dad came home looking even more distraught than usual. Mom must have been crying as her eyes were red and swollen. They sat my brother and I down.
"Starting from tomorrow, we have to live in the cowsheds at work for a while." Mom said with a futile attempt to put on a smile. "You kids don't need to worry about us. We will be living there with many of your aunts and uncles." I knew by aunts and uncles, Mom meant their colleagues and friends. We used to visit with these aunts and uncles and their families around Chinese New Year and other holidays. I knew many of their kids. Mom was trying to make it sound like a party, not the prison it was.
I bit my lips to not cry. I did not want to add to Mom's anguish.
"You kids would have to take good care of yourselves. Hopefully, we don't have to live there for too long," Mom said.
Dad turned to my brother, aged 11. "You'll be the man of the house and keep your little sister safe."
Mom and Dad gave us 20 Yuan, which amounted to a little over $2. It was a huge sum to Chinese standard at the time. It was our monthly live expense.
I was determined to stay awake that night so I could spend the last few hours with Mom and Dad.
I wished time would stand still. I wished the earth would stop turning. I wished tomorrow would never come.
At some point, I fell asleep. When I woke up, Mom and Dad were already gone.
A HOUSEHOLD OF TWO YOUNG CHILDREN
Brother and I innocently decided to split the 20 Yuan evenly between us, so we each could buy whatever food we liked.
I headed over to the local grocery store to buy grocery for myself.
I had gone to that little store many times before to buy this and that for Mom and Dad. The store sold cooking basics such as rice, soy sauce, and salt. It also sold candy and other treats for kids. My favorite treat was these chips that were fried plain flour dough, garnished with black sesame seeds. It costed 10 cents per gram. Mom knew how much I liked those chips. Sometimes when Mom sent me to the store, she would give me an extra 10 cents for the chips. I could never wait to get home to eat these chips. I always ate the chips as I walked home from the store. Not every kid in the neighborhood had the luxury of these treats. I would have a small crowd of kids following me to watch me eat enviously with their mouths watering.
That day was my first time to go to the store with my 'own' money to spend 'freely', without Mom and Dad told me what to buy. I remember feeling a sliver of excitement and pride. I felt like a big kid who was independent, and was able to be responsible for my own money.
In the store, I took a long time to browse each item in the treat counter, like I always did when I was there. I had fantasized many times that when I grew up and made money, I would come here and buy every variety of the candies in colorful wrappers, the cookies of different shapes, roasted peanuts and sunflower seeds, dried fruits, and all the tea eggs I could eat.
That day, I seized the opportunity. I decided to get a little bit of everything. As I was telling the friendly lady behind the counter what I wanted, her eyes grew bigger and bigger. Finally she asked me: "Do you have money to pay for all of these?"
I nodded, while taking out my 10 Yuan bill, placing it in my hand, and stretching out my little hand proudly to show her. The lady quickly closed my hand and looked around. She said in a hushed voice: "Put the bill back to your pocket quickly so you won't get pickpocketed." She again glanced around the store: "Where did you get that kind of money?"
"Starting from today, my brother and I will live on our own. This money is my monthly living expenses," I said proudly, trying to make it sound like it was not a big deal.
"Where are your mom and dad?"
"They have to live in cowsheds and confess their crimes now."
The lady shushed me before saying sympathetically, "You shouldn't spend your money on these treats. You should use the money to buy rice and flours and vegetables so you can eat lunch and dinner."
"These treats will be my lunch and dinner."
The lady sighed and shook her head slightly. "All the treats you want will cost you nearly 3 Yuan. You still have a month to go. You really shouldn't spend that much for one day. You will be starving later."
I knew she was kind and just wanted to watch out for me. But I had my heart set on the treats. I told myself I would skip meals later. I bought the treats and went home bouncing and skidding the whole way. The fact that Mom and Dad wouldn't be around had not completely sank in.
When the newness of my 'independence' and 'freedom' subsided, I missed Mom terribly, often waking up from sleep crying for Mom. Mom always came to my dreams but when I reached out to her, she would disappear.
One day, I heard knocks on our front gate, then I heard the voice I had heard so often in my dreams. I heard Mom calling my name. I ran to open the gate, fearing it was another dream. When I opened the gate, I knew it was not a dream. I saw two Red Guards standing on Mom's each side. I dashed forward toward Mom. One of the Red Guards stretched out both arms to stop me. I staggered back. "No one is allowed to touch the inmate," he said sternly. A pair of handcuffs hanging from his belt. Mom must have pleaded to not let us see her being handcuffed.
Mom's head was half shaved, with hair on one side and bold on the other side. I had seen this happen to other people. This was one of the ways that Red Guards publicly degraded and humiliated the devils and demons. Mom's beautiful face did not show embarrassment. In stead, Mom's face showed dignity and grace. Mom was as beautiful as ever. Maybe even more beautiful now.
I bit my lip to hold back my tears. I didn't want to give the Red Guards the satisfaction of seeing this bastard of devils and demons cry. I bit so hard I tasted a little blood seeping out.
The Red Guards walked Mom to the courtyard. The Li woman and her children ran out. The children started giggling. The woman walked up to Mom and said loudly to the Red Guards: "I'm the Director of the Neighborhood Watch Committee. I'll make sure the inmate does not try any funny business."
With dignity and poise, Mom calmly 'thanked' the Lis for helping take care of my brother and me, and keeping us safe. Of course Mom knew fully well they'd been doing just the opposite. I watched Lis' faces for any signs of sorry. None.
Mom asked me why I was so skinny. I didn't know how to respond to Mom. I certainly would not tell Mom I spent my 10 Yuan in the first week, mostly on sweets and treats. I had been skipping meals on some days, and eating a bowl of rice on other days. Seeing I was hesitating, Mom did not ask again. I knew Mom guessed as much. Mom's eyes got red, but she did not cry. Mommy and I were connected heart to heart. We both were determined to not give these people the satisfaction of seeing us cry.
I suddenly realized that I needed to eat regularly and stay healthy for Mommy. I kicked myself for being so irresponsible for myself and for adding worries to Mom's cowshed days. I was resolved to do better in the future.
Mom turned to the Red Guards: "As you can see these children can't really take care of themselves without adults. Please allow me to send them to stay with my relatives for a while." The Red Guards pondered a bit and agreed, but they had to accompany us to our relatives.
I didn't want the relatives see Mom humiliated like this. "Mommy, we'll be fine at home. I'll eat regular meals everyday and won't buy candies and treats anymore."
To my surprise, before Mom could answer me, one of the Red Guards said to me: "You should listen to your mom and go stay with the relatives, so your mom will know you are taken care of." They are not totally animals, I thought to myself.
When we got to our relatives' house, the couple quickly sent their kids to play outside. Mom calmly explained why we were there. When she was finished, the relatives readily agreed to take us in.
The whole time, they did not acknowledge the Red Guards. And they pretended not noticing Mom's half shaved head.
After Mom and the Red Guards left to go back to the cowshed, the husband and wife sent us to play outside with their kids. After a little while, the husband called us in and told their children to keep playing outside. Looking at their serious expression on their faces, I had a bad feeling. "You kids need to go back home, today," the husband said. "We cannot possibly let you stay with us." They told us they had nothing against us kids, but they were too afraid to be connected to Mom and Dad. "We have to 'clearly draw a line' from your parents'. Mao had asked people to 'clearly draw a line" to separate themselves from the devils and demons.
I was about to open my mouth and ask why they had agreed to let us stay when Mom was here. But I immediately realized that they must have pretended to agree to get Mom and the Red Guards leave. They must have desperately wanted to avoid catching their nosy neighbors' attention.
Our relatives insisted on accompanying us to the bus stop. They made sure we got on the bus. They waited for the bus to pull away before they left the bus stop. I knew they wanted to make sure we did not wander back to their house.
My brother and I lived on our own for 2 years, until Mom was allowed to come home. Dad was being held for several more years.