The Red Guard and the Landlady

From cultural revolution to rent collection – by Alec Ash


It's always a pleasant surprise when my landlady drops by unannounced at eight in the morning. I'm familiar with the early bird rap tap on my door by now, and the first thing I do before opening the door is put on the kettle. Sometimes she's there to collect the rent. Sometimes it's to check the heating came on, or to write down the electricity meter digits, or to switch off the water supply to the roof so it doesn't freeze in the pipes during winter, twiddling with hidden knobs under the kitchen sink.

This time, rap tap tap, it was just to have a chat. She had ambushed my downstairs neighbour while he was still in bed, to collect rent he hadn't yet prepared, having just got back from a trip. He said to give him an hour or so to shower and wait for the bank to open. So she came up one floor to pass the time at mine, and have a natter. 64 year old Beijing landladies tend to assume that everyone begins their day as early as they do.

I live in a dazayuan or "miscellaneous courtyard" in the hutongs, inside one of a myriad of doors tucked away behind the street entrance. Mine is on the third and top floor of a compact new building inside, which was knocked up in the summer of 2012, just before I moved in. I've written about my landlady before (Tales from the Hutong) and I like her. She's friendly, trustworthy, and hasn't hiked up the rent yet. In that respect, given some horror stories from Cuju bar just down the hutong, I'm lucky. She's also relatively willing to talk about her life – and I'm by nature nosy.

I was still in my pajamas when she knocked (thick winter cottons, fortunately) and threw on a ratty dressing gown for decency's sake. She stubbed out her cigarette in the narrow stairwell that connects up to the roof, and kicked off her sneakers before coming in. It wouldn't do to get ash or dirt on her property.

The first thing which happens when my landlady visits, as I am well used to, is a short survey of what I've done with the place. A new shelf, a painting on the wall, different fish in the tank – any change is commented on with either "hao" (good) or "bu hao" (not good). No further explanation is offered, and her criteria for judgment are ever a mystery. This time she asked what the contraption behind the sofa was. I said it was a movie projector, and pointed at the blank wall opposite it. After a nerve-racking pause, she said "hao".

Looking to fill the silence, which she was more comfortable in than I was, I showed her some photos of my family back in Oxford. As usual, we talked about my romantic prospects – she's keen to see me settle down with a nice Chinese girl, and reminded me with a hand on my shoulder that it's good to marry early, "or else when you're old who will you have to give your money to?". I changed the topic and asked after her newest grandson, Chen Jiaming, who will be one next week and whom I gave an English name (Jamie).

We talked about young Chinese today, something I'm always interested in hearing older generations on. "They haven't eaten bitterness," she replied, a familiar refrain. "They just think about eating, drinking, smoking, clothes." The kids these days – if they weren't kenlaozu (the "bite the old tribe", living off their parents) they were yueguangzu, spending all their monthly wages. And then she started talking about her own youth.


Auntie Wang (as she likes me to call her) was born in the spring of 1949, and grew up together with the People's Republic of China. Her family is from Jiangtai in northeast Beijing, an area which is now home to the fashionable 798 art district and the expensive Lido hotel. Back then, it was mostly farmland, and she helped her parents to plant and harvest wheat each year.

Her memories of those years were of hard times. Her family was very poor, she said, and could not afford enough wool for new clothes. She was pulled out of school during the famine of the Great Leap Forward (Auntie Wang is illiterate, as I had discovered to my embarrassment when we were first looking at our contract), and said she had very little to eat. When I ask further, she simply said "let's not talk about it" (bie tile). As a teen, she joined the Red Guards and cut short her hair, which then reached her waist. She never grew it out again.

I asked Auntie what she did as a Red Guard. She waved vaguely in the direction of the hutongs to the south. "We struggled against landlords." They would hang heavy wooden signs over the landlords' necks, denoting them as capitalists, and make them take the "airplane" (feiji) position. That means body bent forwards from the waist at a right angle, arms back stiff and straight behind you, each hand clasping the other. Then ... da si tamen. Beat them to death.

It was said in the same tone, with no special weight. If she saw the shock in my eyes, she didn't let on. Auntie had all but directly admitted participating in murder, but to her it was just another part of the story of her life, told to pass the time while we waited. I didn't say anything.

So she just went on. She remembered Zhou Enlai's death, in January 1976, and how everyone cried. She remembered Mao Zedong's death, nine months later, and how that was not so sad – the people, she said, remembered how poor they had been in those years, how his rule impacted their lives. The Cultural Revolution ended, and in 1978, at the age of 29, she married. She met her husband through a friend's introduction – he was 35. The space I was living in was his, and when he died four years ago, she inherited it from him.

Now she was old, and forgetting things. The changes of the last decades were fast. Her two comments on China today were how expensive health care is, and that there are too many cars. In the evenings, she said, she couldn't remember what she did that day. But the more distant past was still clear.

I saw an opening to make the obvious point. "The changes really are big," I said. "Before, you were struggling against landlords. And now you're a landlady ..."

"No I'm not," Auntie said, simply. "I'm not a landlady, I just collect your rent."

The thought was alien to her, rejected simply and with ease. She was a landlady, of course. I had seen her name on the property deed. But whenever I would hand her a fat envelope of rent cash, I had also felt her unease. I had figured it was because of prejudices against landlords ingrained during the Mao years. To her it was a class, not an income source.

We chatted some more, and then my neighbour knocked on the door, back from the bank. Auntie Wang put on her sneakers and went downstairs, telling me she would drop in again sometime with the rest of her family, to show me little Jamie. I said I would be sure to be up early, in case.


China is, of course, full of stories like this. Everyone over middle age has one. I find it difficult to connect the broader horrors of the Cultural Revolution as we read about it to those people, whether they were victims or perpetrators – and the line between the two, I suspect, is not so clear. I'm also fascinated by the collective amnesia which allows society to put such recent crime behind it and go on.

But the individual acts and their repercussions are still there in living memory. Just the other month, an eighty year woman told me and a friend that she was sent to Sichuan for hard labour for ten years, along with her three sons, all because her husband was from a "bad family background", with Qing dynasty officials in his bloodline. The author Yu Hua describes, in China in Ten Words, how as a schoolboy he and his vigilante classmates ambushed a young peasant who was illicitly selling food coupons, pushed him to the ground and hit him over the head with bricks until he was bloody.

I have so many questions for my landlady I didn't ask, out of something between shyness and politeness. To face up to a past like that, whether out of trauma or shame or both, is unimaginable – let alone to a generation who has no understanding of those times, such as your children's (and you certainly wouldn't share it with a foreigner). Does her daughter know what she did? Will Jamie?

My distance from it all means there's little comment I can give. I don't feel I have the right to judge Auntie Wang, or rather that any sense of disapproval is muted, a dull banging behind heavy insulation. I still like her. What I do feel is ever deeper respect for those Red Guards who have publically apologised for their actions. Like Chen Xiaolu, son of a high ranking general, or Liu Boqin, a former Red Guard from Shandong. Liu even tracked down some of his victims to to apologise to in person. He's in his early sixties, so like Auntie he was in his teens during those years. Here's what he wrote in his magazine article:

"I want to apologise to all victims and their families to obtain psychological relief. An open letter is simple and clear. ... I was naive, easily bamboozled, and never distinguished good from bad. ... As I grow older, I have a more profound understanding of the sins of the Cultural Revolution. I cannot forget what I've done wrong."

Alec Ash is a writer and freelance journalist in Beijing