At the beginning of Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao issued directives to burn all literature and books, except for books by himself and by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, the forefathers of Communism.
Three decades prior to Mao's book burning, Hitler also burned books. Although books they burned might be different - the first books Hitler burned were books by Karl Marx, who was one of the few a uthors Mao directed to keep - their motivations were evident - wiping out from their people's minds all ideologies opposed to their own, Nazism for Hitler and Communism for Mao. They both airmed to control and 'purify' their people's minds. But just as the blind author Helen Keller wrote to German students: "You may burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on."
Prior to Cultural Revolution, a tremendous amount of Western classic literature was translated beautifully into Chinese. These translations were not just literal translations. They were recreations of art, preserving the essence, linguistic style, and feel of the originals. These included world's literary treasures from Renaissance period's Dante and Cervantes, Age of Enlightenment's Rousseau and Goethe, Romantic era's Byron, and Hugo, Realism period's Gogol and Tolstoy, to contemporary authors Hemingway and Faulkner.
Under Mao's directives, across the country overnight, Red Guards closed down libraries and burned world's literary treasures to ashes.
Slowly, some foreign literature that survived the burn started secretly circulating underground among a small circle of young people. I was very fortunate that my brother belonged to this circle. He would bring these books home for me to read.
This was playing with fire. These books were strictly forbidden. We could only read these books behind our parents, teachers, and society at large. Anyone got caught possessing or reading these books could be arrested. But we were so barren spiritually and mentally, and we had no outlets for our young energy, we took the risk to let these books filled the void. We absorbed the literature like a dry sponge to water.
Generally, we only had 24 hours to finish reading the book so they could be passed on. These books were so rare and so in demand, the turnaround time had to be kept to minimal.
For shorter titles, such as Stendhal's The Red and The Black and Hugo's The Man Who Laughs, it was easy to turn around in 24 hours; for lengthy titles such as Galland's One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Tolstoy's War and Peace, I would stay awake and read for 24 hours straight. During the day, no one was home so I could read freely. At night, I would finish reading it under the cover with a flashlight. Over time, this reading trained me to speed read, but it also ruined my eyes. I became severely nearsighted in my early teen years.
Of course most of those books were not intended for an early teen, but I devoured these all the same. They were my lifeline. I still consider this extensive reading my real education. I learned so much about different cultures and customs, world histories and origins, different political ideologies and philosophies. These books opened up the world for me. My life continues to benefit from these literatures till this day.
We became very creative to disguise what we were reading. We used Chairman Mao's books' covers to pretend reading his books. That was very risky though. If one got caught tearing the covers off Mao's books, or possessing a copy of Mao's books without covers, the action itself was a seriously punishable offense.
This practice had a huge and long lasting impact to my psyche. Years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, one day in college, I was reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky when a young teacher asked me what I was reading, I automatically blurted out that it was Das Kapital by Karl Marx. As soon as I said that, we both started laughing. The young teacher totally got it that I still had that fear long after the revolution ended.
THE LITTLE RED BOOK
In middle schools and high schools across the country, teaching was stopped for math, chemistry, physics, and literature. All textbooks had been burned. Instead, we read the Little Red Book day in and day out. The Little Red Book contained thousands of quotations from Chairman Mao's books, articles, and lectures. One example quotation would read: "The Chinese Communist Party is the core of leadership of all the Chinese people. Without this core, the cause of socialism cannot be victorious."
We were required to memorize the quotations by heart. If, when asked, a student could not recite a quotation word for word, they would be kept at school after school was out. They must write a self reflection to acknowledge their serious offense, and their disrespect of Chairman Mao. They must guarantee in writing they would never forget another quotation from Chairman Mao. They would then be required to copy the quotation again and again, until the student was able to recite the quotation word for word. Otherwise, the student was not allowed to go home. It was not uncommon for the students to have to stay at school overnight. The parents would be too afraid to protest.
A GIRL'S PRAYER
In those days, parents and teachers never talked about sex. Any mention of sex was considered "yellow', 'dirty', or lewd. Students were prohibited to date, period, regardless if sex was involved. Dating, reading about sex, or talking about sex was a punishable offense, which could get you expelled or even arrested.
Of course the more the authorities prohibited it, the more curious we got about sex. Manuscripts of imagined sex stories started circulating underground among the young. One of the most famous was a manuscript titled A Girl's Prayer. It was about a young girl and young boy's secret first time. The writing was crude, laced with typos and grammar errors. But the author was either very imaginative or knowledgeable about sex. Everybody was anxious to get ahold of a copy.
The army representatives in schools, officials, parents, and police monitored closely who was reading the manuscript. They also asked all students monitor each other, and report immediately of any sighting of this manuscript. Simply possessing a copy was considered a crime, let alone reading and circulating it. Kids getting caught were sent to police station to be intimidated and interrogated.
I was such a kid who got caught, before I even got my hand on a copy.
One day, I was called into an office at school. There were 3 men, a policeman, an army representative, and a teacher. They all stood. There was a single chair in the room. No other furnitures. It was an interrogation room.
"Sit down. Don't be afraid. Everything will be OK if you hand over A Girl's Prayer immediately," the policeman said with a fake smile on his face. "If you do, we'll let you go off easy. You just need to write a confession, stating why it was a serious wrongdoing to possess such a book, and give us your guarantee that you'll never commit another offense like this."
I absolutely had no idea what he was talking about. "I don't have a copy of that book, and I have never read it."
Immediately, the expression on the young policeman's face changed. With a frown, he raised his voice: "Don't play hard ball with us. We know you have a copy."
The teacher in the room could see I was genuinely confused. He whispered something to the policeman's ear, who nodded slightly. The policeman pulled out a letter from the front pocket of his uniform. "We know you have a boyfriend who's not even a student here. We'll deal with that later. Now we need to stop this lewd book from being circulated among students in our school."
He read the letter aloud. I started having some faint ideas what this was about.
One day not too long ago, two of my best girl friends and I ventured out to a public park, which was a famous hangout for young people secretly attempting to meet opposite sex. It didn't take us long to catch the attention of 3 boys. Older boys. Young men really. We struck up a conversation with them. We told them which school we were in, and they told us where they worked. At some point someone mentioned A Girl's Prayer. None of us had read it. We ambiguously promised to pass along the book if we landed a copy. At the end of the day, the boys asked for our contact details so they could keep in touch with us. Of course we refused and parted ways with them.
Apparently, one of the boys sent me a letter to my school. School officials opened and read the private letter. In the letter, the dim witted boy asked me to send him A Girl's Prayer. Sounded like to me he didn't grasp our simple conversation at all.
"Why did you open my letter?" I protested softly, knowing fully well why they did. "We've been monitoring you closely", the policeman said. "We know you read a lot of prohibited books. And you dared to tell your schoolmates the stories from those books. Your parents are devils and demons. You spread toxic, bourgeois ideas among your schoolmates, corroding the minds of working class children. We've been trying to decide how we should deal with you. We want to make an example of you to show other students what they should not do." He continued: "Now you dared to have your boyfriend write you to school. You just voluntarily delivered yourself to us."
I knew I was in a shit load of trouble. I was mostly concerned that Mom and Dad would be called to school and scolded for not disciplining me properly. Dad would be so disappointed in me, and Mom would be heartbroken.
"I don't have the book, and he's not my boyfriend", I casted my eyes to the floor. "I admit I befriended boys not from our school. I admit I tried to spread ideas and propaganda from the West. I was terribly wrong. No punishment of me would be too excessive. I just beg you to please not call my parents."
"How dare you to ask us not to call your parents!" The policeman barked. "But if you hand over A Girl's Prayer, we might consider it."
I thought it was worth it for me to falsely admit l did have the book, if it could spare Mom and Dad the anguish that was sure to come. But I really did not have a copy of the book. Finally, I sad: "I did commit the crime of reading the book, but I burned it after reading as I was afraid to be discovered."
The policeman hit the wall with his fist, startling me. I looked up. He shouted: "Stop playing games with us! No book, no leniency. We will be calling your parents today!"
When I got home that day, mom was lying in bed fully clothed, her eyes red and swollen. Dad had a solemn expression on his face. I knew right away school had called.
I hated myself for putting Mom and Dad through this, as though they hadn't gone through enough for me.
I told Mom and Dad to please not believe everything the school was saying. Yes, I made inexcusable mistakes. I went to that lewd park and talked with older boys. I deserved any discipline actions coming my way. But I never read A Girl's Prayer. The boy who wrote me was not my boyfriend. Mom motioned for Dad to leave the room. Mom asked me in a whisper: "Did you let him touch you? Are you still a virgin?"
I cried out loud. I used all my strength to held back tears during the interrogation that day. Now I couldn't hold it anymore. "No mommy. I didn't let anyone touch me. You know I'm not that stupid." Mom nodded. "Of course I know that. I just have to make absolutely sure. You know with your prosthetic leg and all, if you lost your virginity, no man would ever marry you."
"Mommy, I'm so so sorry for putting you through all this and giving you so much grief. Why can't I follow all the rules like the other kids, and give you and dad the peace of mind? What's wrong with me?"
Dad slowly walked back. "I'll tell you why," he said in a low voice. "You are intelligent and cultured. The crap they teach at school bore you. You needed outlets for your energy. I don't want you to think your actions were right, because they were not. You will be disciplined. But I understand you. I wouldn't be able to sit still myself if I were a kid in this environment. However,” Dad emphasized, "I would have learned to restrain myself and adapt. You need to that too.”
I loved my mom and dad, so much.
When I 'graduated' from high school, all graduates from the urban areas were sent to farms and mountains to be 're-educated' by peasants. At that time, all agriculture work was done by hand. It was extremely rare for a village to own a tractor, a mute, or a horse. Because I wouldn't be able to work a lot in the field, the villagers refused to take me in. They did not want to add a mouth from a useless person to feed with their already scarce food.
So I stayed at home. No job aspect. No possibilities. I became what were called unemployable youth.
In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise. I filled my time with non-stop reading of both Western and Chinese literatures. When possible, I went back and reread some of the most notable classical literatures that I read but did not totally comprehend in my early teen years. My real education continued.
WHO DO I THINK I AM
One thing that Mom worried the most about me was whether I would find someone to marry me. In general, the handicapped were considered unmarriageable material. In order to find marriage prospects, I would need to have something worthwhile to offer the prospect to exchange for the benefit of marrying me. Although in big cities marriage was no longer arranged by parents, parents still considered it their responsibility and obligation to find the 'right' mates for their grown children. Even an educated professional like Mom was stilling thinking this way.
One powerful bargaining chip for marriage was the right to live in Beijing. As the capital, Beijing had the best of everything. The whole country provided for and supported Beijing. A residency in Beijing was a highly enviable privilege and a hot commodity.
At that time, we had no freedom to choose which city to reside in. No one born outside of Beijing was allowed to migrate to Beijing without explicit permission from authorities. One way to get around this regulation was to marry a Beijing citizen, not unlike the green card in America.
Another bargaining chip for me in finding a husband would be having a full time job. Mom's thinking went, if I was not employed, I'd be just a 'useless' mouth to feed. But if I had a good job, I would become 'useful', especially to those young people who had been sent to remote areas to be 're-educated', as I would provide an opportunity for them to come live in Beijing, and even though they would have no potential of finding employment, I would have my income to support the marriage. Or so Mom thought.
So Mom cast her sight to outside of Beijing, while Dad pulled out all the stops to find me a good job.
Mom and Dad did not tell me they were busy finding me a husband. They knew me well. They knew I was not even remotely thinking about marriage. They knew I would be upset with their meddling. They figured if they screened and found a prospect that was really strong and met their criteria, I would have no reason to say no.
One day, Dad came home excited. One of his connections was able to secure a bookkeeper position for me in a small neighborhood kindergarten. In return, dad would teach their kids as schools were not teaching anything. This was no small feat. Millions of youths would kill for a job like this. It was mental work, not manual labor. And it was in Beijing, no less.
I could get this job solely because Dad had something so valuable to offer to his friend's children, a real education.
I really don't know what possessed me that day. I simply could not talk myself into taking this job. I told Dad I did not want to be a bookkeeper in a kindergarten. I might not win a Nobel prize in my lifetime, I said, like Madame Curie did, but I sure wanted to use my life to accomplish more than keeping books at the local kindergarten. I would be bored sick and rot in there.
Besides, I didn't want Dad to go school some grade schoolers so I could have this job that I didn't even want. It just didn't add up to me.
Dad of course was furious. "Who do you think you are!" Dad shouted. "You think this job was easy to get? You think it's beneath you? You think I want to school those children? I've got news for you. You are not that smart. You are not that special. This opportunity might be your only chance to be employed and earn a living for yourself. You can't count on your mom and me to be here forever to support you."
Mom intervened. "You don't have to be so hurtful," Mom said to Dad. "Reason with her. She is not unreasonable, You know that."
"I say these things to her to clear her head and bring her back down to earth," Dad said. "We always tell her she's smart and she's special, and at's why she's being a stubborn spoiled brat. It's time for her to realize that whatever she's thinking is just an empty dream. If she really doesn't want to be 'useless', she needs to seize this opportunity. In the current situation in our country, once the opportunity is lost, it'll never come back.
Later Mom asked me If I felt hurt by Dad's speech. I told Mom that I knew Dad did not mean to hurt me. He was just giving me some tough love and wanted me to face the reality. I told Mom I knew I was probably making a big mistake, but I simply couldn't make myself to take the job. I needed to know what else was out there. Mom said she would talk to Dad.
In the end, I did not take the job.
A NOT SO SMART LITTLE UGLY DUCKLING
Growing up, Dad almost never praised me for anything. When I got the highest score in my class exams, I would go home excited to tell Mom and Dad. Dad would always say: “Don’t be complacent. You simply did what you were supposed to do. Nothing special.” Sometimes, guests visiting us would say things like "This girl is more and more beautiful," or "This girl is so smart." After the guests left, Dad always said to me: “Those uncles and aunts were just being polite. You are not that smart" or "You are just an ugly little girl."
So I always thought I was ugly and I was slow witted. If I was the only one raising my hand to answer teachers’ questions in class, I would think it was only because the question was so simple that no one else even bothered to raise their hands to respond. I was being a shallow show off again. I would put my hand down, embarrassed. In exams, if I had the answers right away, I would immediately think I must have misunderstood the questions, as the exam couldn’t be this simple even I knew the answers right away. I must have missed something in class or didn’t truly understand the lessons.
Sometimes I asked Mom if Dad really thought I was ugly and slow witted. Mom explained that that was Dad's way to keep me on my toes. He wanted me to be humble. He said that if they praised me too much, I'd grow into an arrogant and pretentious woman. He never wanted me to think I was the best at anything, as he did not want me to stop learning or stop striving for the better.
So, I was stunned when I came across something Dad wrote. It looked like Dad wrote it upon hearing the news of the accident while still incarcerated in the cowshed. In it, Dad said his heart had just been broken into pieces, and his world had just fallen down. He described me as "stunning" and "brilliant", things I would have loved to hear him say.
One day around that time, a young man came knocking on our door. I was alone at home and reading. The young man told me that he was in the same cowshed as Dad. He said when they talked about their families after a day of hard labor, Dad always couldn’t help telling them how smart and pretty his daughter was. He would say he could never stop feeling amazed at my resilience after the unfortunate accident. He would tell them his daughter was the cream of the crop. He would say he was certain his daughter would accomplish big things. The young man said Dad talked about me so much, he knew he had to come to see me and get to know me after he was released. Dad never said any of that to me.
I know Dad’s way of raising kids is very different from the mindset here in America. Here, parents want their kids to think they are beautiful and smart, they did good work, and they are special. The uttermost important thing is to build self-confidence in kids.
I think both ways of raising kids have its merits and drawbacks. Kids need to know no matter what they look like or what they are capable of, they are always beautiful in their own ways, and if they try their best, they should feel happy with themselves. On the other hand, sometimes I do see kids unable to take reasonable criticism, or could not handle failures. It was indeed a tough balance for me while raising my daughter Anna.