Many visitors to China will undoubtedly notice – even physically experience – pushing and shoving on public transport. Someone may squeeze, or rather barge, past the seat you’re occupying and not think of apologizing.
In the countryside, poor education helps explain such annoyances. But in the wealthier cities such as Shanghai, whenever I’ve felt a hand or two pushing me, the intruder invariably was a person of the Cultural Revolution generation.
That generation – now aged roughly between 60 and 80, but two decades younger back when I was getting to know Chinese people while working as a teacher and then a businessman in Wuxi and Shanghai – displays other idiosyncrasies.
Many are set in their ways, for example. A teaching department head sent to the United States for an exchange year hated everything she encountered. A website designer I know heard from another member of the generation that his designs were “not Chinese enough.”
Mao Zedong, long since having gone to meet Marx, must enjoy looking down on some of the politicking in Chinese offices. Some say the viciousness of it is a result of what he started, and so do I. To gain the upper hand over imaginary rivals, he transformed the country into a nation where people turned on each other.
The psychological damage persists.
Chaos and calamity
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution did change the culture of China, undoubtedly for the worse. It was a time of utter chaos and calamity that started in 1966. When it ended is less clear. It would seem to have been at its most severe before 1970. It was definitely over in 1976, the year of Mao’s death.
Having become alienated from the Communist Party, Mao managed to launch a campaign going over the heads of people like party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, directly inciting Chinese to “rebel.”
Anything “old” was liable to be attacked. Only Mao stuff was allowed in cinemas and bookshops. A great number of city people were sent to the countryside to do “real” work.
Teaching was an unfortunate profession to be in. You can buy souvenirs in Shanghai depicting a struggle session in which a pupil yells at his teacher, who is humiliated. The teacher’s on his knees and wearing a dunce’s hat.
In 1999, as a newly arrived college teacher who had been exposed indirectly to some of the horror stories about the period, I wondered when I would first hear a first-hand account.
My initial such experience seemed, at the time, mundane. On the first day of the term at my college in Wuxi, in the queue for lunch, I found myself standing next to the head of the English department. A man in his fifties, he gave me a knowing smile that I would come to identify as an expression peculiar to older and presumably wiser Chinese people – a smile that appears to make a statement of inner calm and vast knowledge.
He asked if I knew what to say to the woman working in the kitchen of that teachers’ lunch room. “I can barely count to 10 at the moment,” I said. He told me that I would need to speak to people if I wanted to hear Mandarin, as most would only speak Wuxi dialect to each other. “I can speak Cantonese,” he added.
“Really? How come?”
“Do you know about the Cultural Revolution?”
He almost casually told me that he had been sent to Guangdong Province when he was about my age.
I was uncertain how to reply. How much freedom of speech was there in China? I didn’t know.
It didn’t seem to weigh too heavily on the mind of my colleague though. What he was describing was simply something university students his age had been forced to do.
The succeeding generation seldom bothered – or maybe seldom dared – to ask parents about the Cultural Revolution. At least, this is what many have told me. It seems to have been a matter of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
This I found to be a common approach with politics-related subjects. Feelings are bottled up, but in private many let it all out and those in attendance hear someone or a group vent their feelings, unable to hold anything back.
Cultural Revolution memories are especially painful – and for an unfathomable number of people. Even Deng Xiaoping was a number of times subjected to the dunce’s hat treatment.
Setting it apart from many other events in living memory, the Cultural Revolution has official recognition as a disastrous period. This would appear to give credence to thinking that few were left unaffected by it. Whereas some of the current leadership have something to hide with Tiananmen Square, with the Cultural Revolution they largely do not.
Finding a pattern
As my knowledge of the matter progressed, I found it gave me a strangely pleasing feeling to be able to posit reasons when someone told me his story of woe.
When a good friend from Shanghai told me that his mother had been forced out of middle school and had sat around at home for two years before being able to start work, I ventured a guess: “Did many previous generations of your family go to university or own businesses?”
I informed him of my general inference that during the Cultural Revolution a perverse form of reverse discrimination or snobbery existed, with those from a more educated “class” forced into the perceived worst jobs.
Need it be said that something is wrong with a society or country if having brains is seen as a bad thing? His mother found a job in a department store. This was seen as a very low-status job at the time – quite an irony considering China’s later drive to a market economy and obvious commercialism.
That friend also told me that, overall, his extended family’s stories were quite typical for Shanghai and southern Jiangsu – commonly known as Jiangnan. But the following story about his aunt is perhaps slightly different from “normal” Cultural Revolution stories, if there is such a thing. The aunt was in a military university, studying in order to take up a technical position in the army after graduation. Because of the family’s educational and business background, she was expelled from university soon after the Cultural Revolution started.
The question “What if?” always bothered her. When her son reached college age, she made him enroll in a highly specialized advanced computing course at the same military university she had been thrown out of. She wanted him to succeed where she had not been permitted to.
Her son’s life afterward consisted of staying in the barracks most of the time, and with a monotonous routine to boot. He seldom met anyone or saw any new faces. He got two weeks of holiday per year, every time visiting my friend’s family home. They used to give him clothes as a gift, but gave up doing this. “What use are these to me? I’m in uniform practically all the time.” Matchmaking attempts during his two free weeks were unsuccessful. What would he have to talk about? Who would want to be an army wife?
It’s common for a Chinese to have at least one relative whose health was irreversibly harmed by the Cultural Revolution. Annoyed with most of his colleagues, Mao encouraged “struggle” against senior party members. I have a friend whose uncle might have become mayor of Shanghai. His political career on the rise at the wrong time, he was expelled because he was a senior Communist Party member. Shanghai is where the Cultural Revolution started, so he was one of the first to suffer.
Shanghai is now a bastion of capitalist China. You can’t talk about “communist” or “socialist” and keep a straight face nowadays. Pay a visit and you’ll understand why the central leadership never uses the first of those words and is rather embarrassed to use the second. Like Deng, my friend’s uncle returned to power – but in his case with seemingly ceremonial duties due to his poorer health.
It was typical for several members of each family to be required to go to the countryside. An aunt of one of my friends went to Anhui province and said that it “spoiled” her looks, but she didn’t want to go into it any further.
An uncle went to Henan province, one of the poorest in Eastern China, returning to live in Jiangsu after 30 years away. “It’s just a typical story of spending many boring years in the countryside, wasting time,” this friend told me.
It got me thinking: What kind of a world does a person live in when such wasted lives become the norm? Even if people are used to nothing else, they still feel on a human gut instinct level that it’s totally wrong.
A good friend of mine told me her father’s uncle had been beaten to death by Red Guards. Their relatives had been landowners before being liberated of their land.
The deceased man’s second wife hadn’t gotten on well with the son of his first marriage, so the boy had raised by his grandmother in Jiangsu. This son later became a university teacher of French in Shanghai. While teaching there, he fell for one of his students in a big way. He found it difficult to rotate his head during lessons so as to appear to be addressing all students present in his class.
The Cultural Revolution inevitably found its way into their university, and the time came for each family to have one sibling go to the countryside. Students were obviously prime targets, and the only way the teacher could save his girlfriend was by marrying her early. She was allowed the choice of staying in Shanghai or working in the fields a long way away. No prizes for guessing which option she chose.
It’s not unusual for a family in Eastern China to have had someone killed in the Cultural Revolution – or a relative escape to Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States or Canada. Hong Kong was a passing-through point. When I visited a Hong Kong beach, I saw shark nets that were the apparent legacy of up to 1,000 people a week swimming across from the mainland during the Cultural Revolution.
Perhaps the strangest effect of the Cultural Revolution was revealed to me by a woman friend.
I’ve been in some smelly toilets in China. But my friend had a separate issue with them. During a German lesson I was giving her at a café, she needed to be excused for five minutes. When she came back, she had a pained expression on her face.
“The smell?” I asked.
It wasn’t really that, but the fact that few shut their cubicle doors.
“Yeah, happened in the men’s too,” I said, assuming that was the end of that subject.
“There’s more to it, though. During the Cultural Revolution, people used toilet doors to scribble graffiti expressing their discontentment. So, they were banned and all taken down. Because of this, many of a certain age don’t even close them now.”
Ceaseless snooping on each other during that era is why people of that generation frequently ask rather intrusive questions. Some might stand over you to look at what you’re eating and have little idea why you get annoyed.
You never know what may bring back a memory. Don’t ask, don’t tell, mentioned earlier, is maybe because the memories are too painful. An American friend of mine, a teacher, prompted this train of thought when he told me about a student of his. The student was a woman in her forties who was a sculptor. As you can guess, she was a prime target.
According to my friend’s description, she told it all almost like a confession at an AA meeting. She’d been dragged away from her studies and forced to work in the countryside. For maximum humiliation, and to drive home some kind of warped point, she was forced to spend her time shoveling dung with her bare hands. Her treatment improved over time, but her time in the countryside lasted for several drawn-out years.
Most students were generally under 30, so hadn’t had similar experiences. The question that had set the woman off wouldn’t have aroused such emotion in them. But after the woman had told her story, my friend said, he’d never seen a group of people look so shocked. They knew that generally things had been bad, but this story was particularly sad, with the ability to reduce the victim to tears after all that time and seemingly at any given moment.
Once she had finished, the room was silent. Getting it out seemed to help her, and the teacher said, “Thank you for telling us, I’m glad you’re in my class,” which I think was an excellent choice of words.
I know innumerable people who had their homes barged into by Red Guards, and had anything deemed to be bourgeois or anti-Mao taken. Many burned their traditional “family tree” paintings. A great many families disposed of jewelry and art or had it taken. Many suffered beatings, their way of life attacked on the grounds it was “wrong” somehow. They were all encouraged to turn on each other if need be.
Those who have been to China and had time to do more than have their photograph taken in front of the Great Wall may have noticed that there are frequent arguments in the street. It didn’t take me long to notice this, riding my bike around the backstreets of Wuxi.
It was two years before I thought aloud to a group of friends: “Have you noticed that the people you see arguing are more often than not about the same age? I mean, they usually seem to be 40 to 60 years old.”
All listeners nodded their heads. Our many collective stories of encountering extreme unhelpfulness and getting wound up ourselves had involved antagonistic members of that age group.
Things can sometimes take on a comical tinge for the onlooker. An American friend of mine said he saw a pedestrian and a cyclist yelling at each other. The pedestrian had been crossing the road and the cyclist had almost fallen off trying to avoid him. There was a lot of waving and shouting. The pedestrian thought the cyclist was exaggerating matters and after a couple minutes decided to walk away. Infuriated by this, the cyclist picked up his bicycle and threw it at the pedestrian. Fortunately, he missed.
I was walking to work one morning and turned a corner to go past a small dumpling and noodle restaurant. There were two pork dumplings lying on the pavement just outside the restaurant’s front door. One of the cooks and a fat man, both in that difficult age group, were standing with their fingers pointed at each other. They were standing almost close enough to pick each other’s noses. They were also both shouting exactly the same thing to the other in Shanghai dialect: “Nong ge pi!” “Nong ge pi!” This is the rough equivalent of “You’re full of shit!”
One autumn (2000, I think) I was walking along the platform to get to the assigned carriage of my train to Wuxi. I saw two men with their fists flying at each other. Their wives, arguing about which of the men had started the fight, started whacking each other with their handbags. Finally, to make it an all-family affair, both couples’ young sons – of the age when you don’t know to form a fist to hurt the other more – joined in.
While amusing perhaps, those incidents illustrate the nature of an argumentative generation of Chinese. Despite the term’s having become a cliché, I get a sense of a “lost” generation. The inference that their frustrations are taken out on strangers because of experiences from the Cultural Revolution is hard to resist. Many had the course of their lives changed for the worse – ruined, even – and feel they have nothing to be thankful for.
Some journalists expressed worries about Hu Jintao when he was set to take over as paramount leader from Jiang Zemin in 2002. It was mentioned that, although younger than those he would replace, he was of the Cultural Revolution generation. Therefore, there was concern that he might be too strict or harsh.
The Cultural Revolution’s brutalization of society created some discipline-mad people – perhaps as a reaction to the relative lawlessness of the period, but also because everyone back then spent a major part of the day either ordering others around or being ordered around.
Maybe it’s because the Cultural Revolution was started in Shanghai that many in that city say that Mao started it. They still say, “He wasn’t so bad you know.” It is nevertheless no secret that he’s not as popular as he was during his lifetime.
My most tragic tale from the period directly concerns Mao. When I was making a sales call to a Singaporean human resources manager, during my post-teaching period working for an international relocation company in Shanghai, she recounted to me a story she’d been told by one of her employees. I can’t remember how or why we got to talking about it, but it concerned someone whose uncle had been in a mental hospital for most of his adult life.
It all stemmed from one incident. Dutifully holding Mao’s book of sayings in his hand, he went to the toilet, which was basically a bucket. He slipped and got stuck. When people came to his aid, one of them started ranting about his disrespectful attitude to the Chairman. Holding Mao’s “little red book” and sitting in shit was representative of his opinion of Mao and required rectifying.
Taken to a prison doubling as a mental hospital, he was forced to confess his “illness.” I was told that the treatment he received ended up making him mentally ill.
One thing all this has taught me is to make allowances when an older Chinese gets unreasonably and illogically argumentative. One almost has to take on a new value system because of the very real possibility that the person who’s in your face was humiliated and had his or her life ruined by events that took place in the late 1960s.
The Cultural Revolution generation in China is a psychologist’s and a sociologist’s laboratory dream. And even if victims of the Cultural Revolution haven’t passed the entirety of their very natural anger and bitterness along to their children, lessons have been inherited. A friend’s mother taught him that most people “can’t be trusted.”
Born in England, Peter Mitchelmore went to China in 1999 after his university graduation and lived in both Wuxi and Shanghai, learning Mandarin while working first as a college teacher and then as a businessman during his four years in the country. Currently he is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, as an energy industry joint ventures specialist and business consultant. This article is an edited excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Trouble with China.