Red

By Lihua Zhang

 

In 1963, I was one of a handful of third graders who were the first to join the Young Pioneers on June 1, International Children’s Day, at a Shanghai elementary school. Wearing a bright red scarf around my neck, holding my right arm high with fist level with my head in salute, I stood next to my best friend, Pei Linlin, and took an oath in front of both the five-starred national flag and the Young Pioneers Red Flag. Red meant excelling in studying, helping others, behaving well. I fell in love with the color red. I liked the wind to blow to make my scarf wave; I liked to jump to make my scarf sway. I fully enjoyed schoolmates’ envious glances and parents’ or other adults’ praise, at school, on the playground, in the dining hall, in the neighborhood. Shortly after I joined the Young Pioneers, I was promoted to a Pioneer officer of the highest rank, wearing on my left arm a badge, 6.5 centimeters wide and 8 centimeters long, with three red bars on it. At every flag-raising ceremony and every important Young Pioneers event, I was a model, the center of attention.

Every night, I carefully took off the red scarf, folded it, and placed it under my pillow. Every morning I spent most of the time in front of the mirror, meticulously arranging the scarf around my neck and making a tidy knot. The first time I had to wash my red scarf was one day about six months later when I accidentally spilled some greasy soup on it. I soaked it in water, but burst into tears when I saw the water absorb the red color. I did not want to see all red water drain away, and could only find a cough syrup bottle to save a little bit of it. That evening I stayed awake in bed for a long time, playing with the bottle filled with red water. I held it up against the light; I shook it; and I rolled it on my face. I did not know when I fell asleep, but I slept so soundly that I could not wake up when my mother pulled me out of bed. The bottle cork had popped out; the red water had dampened my bed.

In the summer of 1966, shortly before I graduated from elementary school, Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. With the slogan “Destroy the old and establish the new!” temples emptied, classic books burned; and with the slogan “Down with forces of evil!” the homes of former landlords, rich peasants, and capitalists, reactionaries, bad elements, rightists were searched and ransacked. Adults lost their smiling faces. Often my parents did not come home until midnight; and they had secret talks in their bedroom with the door closed. Middle and high school students became extremely busy in joining the political movement. Often my sister stayed overnight somewhere and came home only for some food or clean clothes. Since all schools were interrupted, I could not go on to middle school.

Like my schoolmates, I was called by the elementary school to participate in a special meeting. At the meeting, I was given a red armband with three characters on it that said “Little Red Guard.” The wearing of a red Young Pioneers scarf was condemned as following the Soviet model and thus had to be abandoned. I no longer wore my red Young Pioneers scarf. Since middle, high school and college students were “Red Guards”, we were “Little Red Guards”. I did not understand the difference between a red scarf and a red armband. I looked at my classmates and became puzzled: Why did my best friend Pei Linlin, who had worn a red scarf before, not wear a red armband? Why did Wang Hong, the school-wide famous troublemaker, wear a red armband? Pei Linlin’s head was down, and she was crying. When the meeting was over, I went to the administrator who distributed the armbands to us.

“Why doesn’t Pei Linlin have a red armband?” I inquired, “She was a Young Pioneer too.”

“She has a bad family origin,” replied the administrator.

“What is family origin?” I asked.

“Her father was a rightist,” answered the administrator impatiently.

I did not understand what a “Rightist” was, but I had heard the term on streets when people shouted “Down with the rightists!” I felt extremely sorry for Pei Linlin that she had a “rightist” father, and I felt so fortunate that I did not have a father like hers. The color red meant having a good family background. I was Red, but Pei Linlin was not Red.

A week later, I was told to attend a political meeting. Upon entering the school gate, I saw a circle of several boys and girls, scolding, “Your father is a rightist, and you are a little rightist.” Between two girls’ shoulders, I caught sight of Pei Linlin, who was squatting on the ground, sobbing with her head between her arms.

“Little stinky rightist! You are smelly!” Wang Hong, the troublemaker, shouted while touching Pei Linlin’s head with a stick.

“What is he doing?” I asked a girl in a low voice.

“The stick has dog shit on it,” she said.

I started trembling all of a sudden and lost all the courage—the courage I used to have as a leader of the Young Pioneers—to confront the troublemaker. I left the circle quietly with my mind stirred by the thought: How unfortunate Pei Lilin was to be her father’s child.

Political meetings were held one after another, either to study political documents or to criticize “forces of evil”. At one meeting, Yan Fang, my favorite music teacher, who had graduated from the Shanghai Normal College, was accused of being a bourgeois element because she had an uncle who resided in America. I could hardly recognize her when she was brought onto the auditorium stage. Her two long braids had disappeared, and her hair was shaved in a yin-yang style—half bald, half short hair. She was ordered to confess how often and why she had contacted her uncle, and what they discussed with each other. She said there had been no contact. One voice shouted, “Leniency toward those who acknowledge their crimes but severe punishment of those who stubbornly refuse to do so!” Another voice yelled, “Let her go on the airplane!” Her upper body was pushed down, her arms pulled up like airplane wings, her hair pulled back so that she was still facing the audience. “Down with Yan Fang!” A voice roared from the crowd. The crowd followed the voice with arms and fists held up, high or low. Although I did not want to echo, out of fear for being accused of having sympathy for the “bad element,” I raised my fist as high as my shoulder, and my lips moved mechanically. I feared making eye contact with the music teacher whose eyes were downcast. I could not forget the time when she taught me to play the piano, and how I had stood next to her playing the piano and singing in front of the entire class. I hid my body behind the person in front of me.

Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Mother had become too busy to cook, so we had to have all three meals, instead of just lunch, in the government dining hall, and Mother had her meals in her work unit. The government dining hall, located in a yard surrounded by three brick-with-cement walls and one metal gate, was not big, with ten or twelve traditional eight-seat tables. Its entrance was facing south. We all had our own meal tickets distributed by my mother weekly, and we stood in line and bought our own meal. Father never helped us even if he stood in line before us, nor sat with us at the same table. He was making avail of every chance to stay in close contact with the masses.

One early morning, I headed there for breakfast. As I stepped through the door, people ceased talking, and children ceased playing and giggling. They all stared at me, even those whom I knew and who knew me. I was shocked to discover that just overnight every wall of the dining hall had been covered with big Chinese character posters condemning my own father. Some had the phrase “Down with…” followed by my father’s name upside down, crossed out with red ink; others were articles criticizing my father as a dog running on a capitalist road. The one next to the food windows targeted my father’s children—including me. We were accused of being “bourgeois children who had only to open their mouth to be fed and hold out their hands to be dressed.” I was embarrassed, ashamed, scared. In order to run away immediately, I bought a piece of steamed bread and some pickles, but no rice puree, which usually was part of my breakfast. Mother had already left. I endured the longest day ever, upset, crying. I was scared of scathing condemnations, spittle, dog shit. As soon as Mother came back, I followed her into the kitchen and told her what I had seen that morning. Mother said calmly, “I know.” I questioned closely,

“Is my father a good person or a bad person?”

“Every government officer is under investigation.”

“If my father is a bad person, what will you do?”

Mother threw me a glance without a word.

“Divorce him!” I said, very serious and determined. Mother kept chopping vegetables, louder and louder, as if I were not there.

For about three months, I seldom went out, only playing with kids who were facing similar situations. My red armband slept quietly under my pillow. Having been investigated for several months, Father was found not to be a traitor during wartime, nor guilty of “any mistakes” during previous political movements, so he was identified as a reformable government officer. After everything, he was deemed to be not a bad person.

Students were urged to “resume school to carry on revolution” one and a half years after the beginning of the Culture Revolution. I was able to enter the same middle school as my sister. Like other “Little Red Guards,” I was promoted to “Red Guard.” The red armband was wider and the golden characters were bigger. I felt one inch taller. The armband slid onto the left sleeve and was secured with a safety pin; I only needed to redo it when I changed my outfit.

Each classroom had a spare blackboard and each class used it for exchanging ideas and thoughts from political study. I was appointed to be in charge of a team responsible for deciding and publishing classmates’ articles on the blackboard biweekly. One Saturday afternoon, I went to my teacher’s office to pick up some colored chalk for copying articles onto the board. In the hallway, I saw a janitor slowly sweeping the floor near my teacher’s office. When I walked closer to the office, I got a closer look at him. “Principal Hou,” the name dawned on me but did not come out. He had been the middle school principal, my father’s old friend. I had heard from my sister that the principal had been criticized for having promoted bourgeois educational policies. He was condemned as one of the black elements in the school. Our eyes met. He stopped suddenly, and then lowered his head, quickly sweeping, but randomly. I blinked my eyes hard as if I was trying to clear some irritant from my eyes, and disappeared into my teacher’s office. A “Red” person was not supposed to converse with “Black” elements.

After only three months, in response to Chairman Mao’s call, another mass movement started—a movement of educated urban youth moving to the countryside and mountain areas to obtain new education from poor and lower-middle class peasants. One of the pioneers was my older sister, who left Shanghai for Northeast China. I was six months into middle school when the movement reached its peak. I, like other younger students at the middle school, felt a hot current coursing through my body that demanded to go and settle where conditions were hardest. Because there had just been a battle between China and the Soviet Union over Treasure Island in the Northeast, I zealously volunteered to join a production brigade that was located near Black Dragon River in the Northeast near the Soviet border. Upon hearing my decision, Father, who had been loyal to whatever Chairman Mao said for all his life, was supportive without a single word, but Mother was very distressed. When I asked her for our family residence registration booklet because I needed it to change my residence from Shanghai to the Northeast at the local police station, Mother poked her index finger into my forehead.

“You are crazy! Once you move out of Shanghai, you won’t be able to come back,” Mother said furiously.

“I don’t care, because I am a revolutionary youth!” I retorted.

“Your sister is already so far away. You shouldn’t go at all,” Mother did not give up.

“She is she, I am I. I have my red heart for the revolution too.” I did not draw back.

“It is a backward place over there; it is wild and not many people live there…” Mother tried to discourage me as she hurriedly turned to leave for work.

“You are more backward than that place!” I yelled at my Mother’s back, tears welling up. I sat on my bed, distressed, hoping nobody would know that my mother was holding me back. All of a sudden, I jumped down and searched for the residence booklet. It was not difficult to find. I rushed to the local police station and had my name crossed out in the booklet. Mother, who would never have thought that I would be that daring, could do nothing but shed sad tears after learning what I had done.

In November, my classmates, schoolmates and I, with big red paper flowers pinned on our chests and shouting loudly “To strike root in the frontier region for our lifetime,” left Shanghai for Northeast China. I was 16. After traveling three days and nights by train, one day and night by bus, one day by horse-drawn cart, we arrived in a village that none of us had ever heard of before. The village with about forty families was located on one side of Black Dragon River, the other side being the Soviet Union. It was winter, and it had been snowing for several days. Each of us wore a grass green cotton-padded jacket and trousers, a grass green cotton-padded marten hat and a pair of rubber shoes with cotton-padded uppers. The government provided all of these free, as no families could afford them with the rationed coupons for clothing. No longer wearing a red armband, I had asked my uncle who was a military officer for a red star. I had attached the red star in the front and center on my hat. Due to the battle between China and Soviet Union over the island, the West portrayed us as military troops sent by the government to the border. They would have felt ridiculous if they had discovered the childish faces under bulky hats.

In that region, the red indicator on the thermometer often fell below minus 45 degrees Celsius during winter. It was so cold that I had to wear two cotton-padded jackets when I was outside. Winter lasted about six months. After winter, spring came and went in haste. In the summer, it was very hot during daytime, but cool in the evening. Like spring, autumn only stopped long enough to say hello. Wheat, corn, soybeans, millet were the major grains produced in mass. Because machinery was scarce, a large-scale labor work was required from sowing to harvesting, which was extremely hard for me. I held back my tears and gritted my teeth. Soon it was winter again. The year’s work made my skin darker and rougher and my hands callused. My strength was enhanced, my willpower was tempered, and I proved myself a true Red youth.

One morning I was assigned to clean our collective restroom with a local peasant. The restroom was a pit, 8 meters long, 2.5 meters wide, and 1.7 meters deep, surrounded by vertically standing white birch trunks and the openings between trunks were covered by dirt. A number of four-meter long trunks spaced one-third of a meter apart bridged both sides of the pit. In the middle, a few trunks were piled one on top of the other to separate the men’s half from the women’s half. Under the trunk wall, there was no gender difference…substances flowed freely. The pit filled up quickly since more than a hundred people used it; it was completely full by the time the annual cleaning began. The winter was the best time to empty the pit since the excrement was frozen. Given such a task, I was vexed inside. The peasant showed me how to use a pick to break frozen excrement and where to start. Afraid of frozen excrement spattering on my clothing, I tried to hit it as far as the pick could reach. I could hardly break anything. The peasant noticed this and said, “This job is indeed dirty, but this is revolutionary work too. This is a good opportunity to test your soul. We all carry out the revolution in our innermost soul.” The words hit the nail on the head. The blood raced through my body and rushed to my head. I bent over to shovel broken pieces out of the pit to hide my flushed face. I exerted all my strength to hit the frozen excrement. A few moments later I was perspiring. When I licked my lips, it tasted salty, sweat blended with excrement specks. That day, although my clothing gave off a strange odor, I had a very merry heart.

The tension between China and the Soviet Union became worse and worse. Our brigade was ordered to engage in war preparations. The entire village was reorganized as a militia company composed of three militia platoons: a “rear-area militia platoon” of older people and youngsters; an “unarmed militia platoon” consisting of the majority of young and middle-aged people; and an “armed militia platoon” consisting of thirty young people in three squads, one of which was ten women. After having gone through a rigid check on family background and personal performance, and—thanks to my parents who had granted me a red background and thanks to myself for striving to maintain the redness with the help of the peasants—I was chosen to be one of the ten women.

At a village meeting, the company commander handed me a submachine gun made in America, seized from Americans during the Korean War. Standing seventh in the women’s line, I marched to the drill ground, where we endured intensive training, day after day, from sunrise to sunset. Taking the gun apart, cleaning parts, putting parts back in place; carrying the gun and clips and running; practicing marksmanship and throwing hand grenades. One morning, the thirty of us stood armed in a half circle on the drill ground while our trainer, a regular military officer, demonstrated the steps for exploring a pillbox with an explosive package. As soon as he finished, he said, “Okay, now look at the pillbox there.” Following his direction we saw a simulated pillbox 20 meters or so from us.

“Who is willing to give it a try?” asked the officer.

Nobody responded.

“Who is willing to give it a try?” the officer raised his voice.

One second, two seconds, three seconds.

“I will do it!” I moved forward. The officer looked at me and then at the others.

“I want to do it!” I repeated firmly.

“Take this package and come with me!” I followed the officer to the pillbox with a squared explosive package. We both lay on the ground in front of the pillbox mounted with rock and wood, two-meters high and one-meter wide. I found a blasting fuse and leaned the package against the pillbox. When the officer handed me a box of matches, his hands were shaking. I struck a match, but broke it, struck the second, and broke it again. The fifth match finally lit. When I touched the fuse with the match, my hands were shaking too. The fire went up along the fuse quickly. When I stood up to run, the officer was already running. He ran before me! When I just reached the original position, I heard “BAM!!!!!!!!”

“It exploded! …”

“It exploded! …”

Gasping for breath, I turned my head and saw pieces of rock and wood hurtling into the sky and then showering down. My heart was pounding faster and harder.

After a month of intensive training, we then spent half the day in the fields and half the day in military training. During summer, the hot bare ground dried our sweat-soaked clothing. During winter, snow soaked our clothes through the layers. Like all my comrades, I stood sentry, day or night. Often in the middle of the night, we jumped out of bed and searched for spies in the woods. I wrote to my parents about my experience and concluded, “I am a Red militiawoman, please be proud of me!”

 

About two decades passed. The incident was over and the circumstances were different. I was no longer in that village. While celebrating my aged father’s birthday, I suddenly burned with the desire to learn some details about my parents: their childhood, their first meeting, and their marriage, as well as what they did during wartime and during various political movements. One day, my mother told me a shocking story:

“In late 50s, a lot of people starved to death during the nation-wide famine. Your grandfather (your father’s father) and grandmother (my mother) both left their villages and joined our family for food. However, the government hadn’t acknowledged the condition. Encouraged by the guiding thought ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend,’ I expressed the truth at a meeting that several people had already died in my hometown. In about two months, I was told to attend a meeting at which a few others and I were condemned for being rightists who had expressed anti-government opinions …”

The word “rightist” electrified me. I held my breath.

“What? Were you criticized for being a rightist late 50s?” I wanted to make sure Mother was talking about herself.

“Yes. I was removed from my work and ordered to sweep the campus and raise pigs.” She confirmed. I was stunned, asking,

“What did Father do about that?” I added, “This would have implicated the whole family.”

“I knew that. Your father, honest and unpretentious, was worried. I was prepared for the moment that he would propose divorce, but he didn’t.” Mother became silent for a few seconds, and then continued:

“When the government called on its officers to lead a mass production at the agricultural front, your father was the first to give up living in the city and go to the backward countryside. He opted for this radical action to show that he was loyal to the government and was qualified to educate and reform me. Although you four kids were very small, which made living in the countryside more difficult, I didn’t dare to disobey the move.”

“Was this exposed during the Cultural Revolution at all?” I asked.

“I was worried all the time. Within my work unit, I made public self-criticism over and over again. Because I was not a high-ranking person, because there were too many people just like me, because your father was good, I wasn’t a major target.”

“How come you didn’t tell us?” I asked.

“You know the answer,” Mother replied in a gentle voice. I realized that she did not forget my reaction to my father’s being investigated during the Cultural Revolution. It had never been out of my mind either despite my regret. I felt I owed my mother an apology, but her kindly face and wisdom made any apology unnecessary.

Mother’s words about her turbulent experiences reverberated in my mind. I knew that Mother had suffered from a nervous breakdown for a number of years during the Cultural Revolution but I did not know the cause. Although Mother was rehabilitated, although being Red was no longer important or even considered ridiculous after the reform era began, I had strange and ambivalent feelings. The fact was I had not been as Red as I had thought and I had been the same color as Pei Linlin, my best friend.