Red Mark

My childhood during the Cultural Revolution – by Jianguo Wu


In my early days at nursery school, in the late sixties, my teacher was Mrs Nian. She was a kind person. When the nursery school couldn’t offer any food to the children except boiled water, Mrs Nian sometimes brought fruit from her own home for us. But later she was denounced by the other teachers and was forced to stop teaching. I saw a meeting taking place in the school office, where Mrs Nian was standing at the front with a board hung around her neck.

Afterwards we often saw her performing manual labour jobs around the school. One day we were following our new teacher, Mrs Feng, through the school garden. When we saw Mrs Nian doing building work in the grounds, we shouted "Hello Teacher Nian!". "Good children, good children," she answered. Mrs Feng didn’t say anything outside, but when we were back in the classroom she shouted at us. "Do not call her ‘Teacher Nian’ again,” Mrs Feng said. “She is a bad person."

Later, Mrs Nian was sent to the countryside and we didn’t see her again. In class we were taught about class struggle and class enemies by Mrs Feng, even though we were just four or five years old. But I was confused by this political education and I couldn‘t understand who was our enemy. Mrs Feng also told us that we were born in a new China under the red flag and how happy our lives would be, and that we should remember two thirds of the people in the world were still suffering and we must work hard to liberate them.

One day some children from other classes told Mrs Feng that one of the children in our class had said something bad about Chairman Mao. So Mrs Feng launched an investigation. She called us in one by one and asked if we knew which child said a bad thing about Mao, exactly what was said, where it had been said and who was present. The important thing was not what the child had said but who taught the child to say it. I did not find out the result of the investigation.

In the spring of 1971 I began primary school. My teacher there, Mrs Peng, was a very sincere, bespectacled middle-aged woman. Because her class status was not good she had also been denounced in the crazy early years of the Cultural Revolution. Most of the time she kept silent among the other teachers. Although the primary schools had re-opened, many factories were still closed or half closed and we had to wait for some time before we could get textbooks.

There was still a very strong political atmosphere in school. Every morning before class, we had to stand up to give a salute to Chairman Mao, thanked him for giving us such a happy life and wished him good health forever, then the same for the Vice Chairman of the Communist Party, Lin Biao. Both of their portraits were in our classroom. The first text in our schoolbook was, of course, "Long live Chairman Mao". After lessons finished, we gathered together and assembled in lines according to the street where we lived. The teacher checked which line had the best order and let them go home first. Outside, we still kept in good order and could not leave the line until we arrived home.

The lessons at school were very simple and I was a good student. We all tried to be ‘Little Red Guards’ as it was an honour for a primary school student. Although I was not the Number One student in my class, I thought it would still be no problem for me to join the first group of Little Red Guards. But then something disastrous happened.

Since Chairman Mao had quite long hair, I had always thought Mao was a woman. One day I incidentally let it slip to my classmate Ai Lin.

"A man!" Ai Lin argued. "I could show you a photo in my home."

From that time Ai Lin held it over my head. When we had an argument, he threatened to report me for what I had said about Chairman Mao being a woman. I didn’t worry too much about his warning because I still thought that Mao was female. But around the time when the school would appoint the Little Red Guards, he did report me to Mrs Peng. She called me and Ai Lin into the teachers' office. From Mrs Peng's serious face I realised that I must be wrong and that Chairman Mao was indeed male.

"Did you say that Chairman Mao was a woman?" asked Mrs Peng.

"No! I did not say that." I had to deny it.

"Yes you did!" said Ai Lin.

"I just said that Chairman Mao was a human being the same as us."

"It's not your business to say that!" Mrs Peng shouted, and then she cursed me in front of Ai Lin. Today I can understand that Mrs Peng had to curse me, otherwise she would have been in trouble if Ai Lin had reported it to the other teachers.

The next afternoon, Mrs Peng read out the list of Little Red Guards in our class. Everybody straightened their backs and listened. The first name was a boy whose mother was an official as well as a Communist Party member, even though he was not so good a student. I thought that I would not be on the list because of Ai Lin’s report. Among fifty-six students in our class there were eight students who were picked, and my name was called seventh. Ai Lin was also on the list. I was very excited.

Later, Mrs Peng told me separately that she had discussed me with the head teacher of the school, Mr Liu. She said that I was a good student but had said something wrong recently.

"What did he say?" asked Mr Liu.

"I heard from a student that he said Chairman Mao was a woman."

After a moment’s hesitation Mr Liu had said, "Carry on, include his name on the list."

On June 1st, Children's Day, we put on red scarves given to us by our teachers and became Little Red Guards. We were told that the scarf was a corner of the national flag and the red colour was the blood of martyrs.  Afterwards we performed a reading in front of the school, saying together "We want to be workers, peasants and soldiers".

When I went back home that night I was greeted by many children. I was one of only two students who were picked as Little Red Guards on our street. I felt very proud that day, and lucky that my insult to Chairman Mao had been passed over.

Jianguo Wu is a freelance writer in Melbourne. He is a survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and in 1991 he came to Australia as a political refugee. He has published articles inThe Australian, as well as a novel Meandering Stream and a play Beyond the Gate of Heavenly Peace