Shawn Lei

My Grandfather the Red Guard

(Via Wikimedia Commons)
(Via Wikimedia Commons)

In March 2012, politburo member Bo Xilai was sacked for conduct contrary to party principal and law. According to an op-ed in the state-run Guangming Daily, Bo’s political failure implies that any action to revive the Cultural Revolution, which wracked China from 1966 to 1976, is doomed.

A decades-long shadow

As former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao reiterated during the 2012 legislative session, “the Cultural Revolution’s errors and feudal influence still remains in China. Without comprehensive political reform, they will live again.” Chinese authorities are especially alert to a possible comeback of the Cultural Revolution, not only because it could put the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling legitimacy on the line, but also because it lies a pole apart from current mainstream values.

Despite its potential to upset the apple cart, talking about the Cultural Revolution is no longer a matter of political taboo. Chinese people can tweet about it online or pen articles about it without being censored. As a result, more Chinese are coming out to either deplore the Cultural Revolution or reexamine it.

But a dilemma lies ahead. People who experienced that horrible ten years are beginning to pass away, while most young Chinese still know very little about it, or choose to avoid it. Will the Cultural Revolution be forgotten before it can be deeply examined?

Fortunately, some of those who saw the Cultural Revolution first-hand are standing up to tell their stories. A retired deputy mayor named Peng Qi’an from a provincial city in Guangdong has spent ten years building the first museum dedicated to the Cultural Revolution.

More recently, a 61 year-old retiree and former “Red Guard” Liu Boqin posted a personal apology this month in the advertising section of a respected Chinese print magazine Yanhuangchunqiu. Red Guards were a “paramilitary social movement of young people” who inflicted a great deal of torment during the early period of the Cultural Revolution (1966 and 1967) in the name of re-making an ancient society. Liu wrote that he was “immature and ignorant” in those years. He apologized for the “harassment” he delivered upon “school teachers, classmates, and their families; “upon painful reflection in my later years, [I realize that] although I was wrapped up in the environment of the ‘Cultural Revolution,’ my personal responsibility for my own evil actions will never vanish…I apologize to all of you.“

The story of Lei Zhangting

When I saw Peng and Liu’s stories online, I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather’s own record as a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. Not long ago, I talked to him about his experience. In the main, his feelings are similar to Peng and Liu; the Cultural Revolution was not a good thing, and it is never too late to say sorry to the people you hurt four decades ago.

My grandfather’s name is Lei Zhangtang. He was born in 1938 in a remote village called Xiaoping. The majority of those living in Xiaoping had the surname Lei. My grandfather became an orphan at age two, and was labeled a “poor farmer” in the 1952 Land Reform, which ultimately entitled him to join the Red Guard. In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, he was one of 15 agricultural production team heads.

“Chairman Mao was too influential to resist; that is why I joined the Red Guards and the related political campaigns,” my grandfather said. “However, Mao disappointed us, because he abused our loyalty to him.”

My grandfather’s involvement in the Cultural Revolution was deep; he joined campaigns to criticize and interrogate so-called landlords, the rich, “reactionaries,” “rightists,” “evildoers,” “running dogs,” capitalists, and teachers. He helped his peers remove the commune head, paraded and scrutinized teachers in order to express his loyalty to Mao, and persuaded his younger brother, Lei Ansheng, then still in high school, to join the Red Guard.

A movement finds its target

Authorities determined that the “evil people” in Xiaoping village were Peng Jianye, the Commune governor, Lei Zhangzhi, the village head, and Lei Enzhan, a teacher.

Peng was removed in October 1966 by the commune Red Guard head, Zhou Xiaohui, an illiterate man who was the commune’s judicial executive. Zhou summoned the Red Guards in the commune to parade Peng on the street. Afterwards, Guards set up an open-air wooden stage, bound Peng’s hands behind his back, and put a pointed white paper hat on his head scrawled with characters reading “capitalistic dog Peng Jianye.” Zhou stood on the stage, reading aloud accusations of Peng and pounding him with his fists.

My grandfather was there shouting slogans, but says he didn’t beat Peng. It was clear to most that Peng was a good public servant. So why did they tolerate these campaigns? My grandfather explained that those who did not attend would be labeled “negative [toward] the revolution.” In his case, he might have been deprived of his favored Red Guard status.

There were carrots as well as sticks; those who joined the campaign could get gong fen, points which translated into food coupons. Holders could be allocated rice, meat, and sugar. Every time the village head announced a campaign, my grandfather took my grandmother to the scene for more gong fen. The head of the village’s Red Guards, Lei Songqing, was also present at the rallies with his wife.

As the village head, Songqing had to strike a balance between political struggle and farming. Unlike factory workers and students, who were compensated in gong fen for striking, farmers were not subsidized for launching independent political campaigns.

“On the whole, the village was very calm [in the struggle years],” Songqing told me. “No one had spare time to join political struggles, because farmers’ lives were not good, and we needed to labor to feed the family.”

Turning people into labels

My grandfather, like so many in the Cultural Revolution, was encouraged to apply labels to those around him. He classified the 15-year-old boy next door — who actually had no land or money — as a “landlord” because his father owned land before the Communists took over.

Another victim was Lei Enzhan. Enzhan bore three labels – “landlord,” “reactionist,” and “extreme rightist” – because his father had been branded a landlord in the 1952 Land Reform, and Enzhan was an ex-Kuomingtang leader and a teacher. My grandfather was ordered to scrutinize Enzhan; as a result, Enzhan couldn’t attend the Red Guard activities, talk to others, or even walk around the village. All he could do was labor in the fields.

Enzhan described his restrictive life in two sentences when I interviewed him. He said, “When I opened my eyes in the morning, I was happy to still be alive; but it also meant another painful day had begun. When the sun set, I was very happy too, because I had peacefully made it through the leader’s scrutiny another day.”

Things fall apart

In November 1966, my grandfather began to sense deviations from the Red Guards’ normal routine. He regretted having recruited his brother Ansheng; as more were named Red Guards, their behavior became increasingly thuggish, and infighting engulfed many of them.

The village head Lei Zhangzhi, a Red Guard backbone, was removed by his son-in-law, a railway worker named Li Gentai who was fired for fighting. Upon returning home, he wanted to become village head, but Zhangzhi would not let him. In response, Gentai accompanied other Red Guards to corner Zhangzhi in his house; they nailed white big-character posters on his front door calling him a “capitalist dog.”  Lei had to creep out of his house from a dog hole.

Li Gentai said to his father-in-law, “I know you are my family, but you are more our class enemy than my father-in-law.”

Meanwhile, at school, Lei Ansheng started to go on “strike.” He took free trains to cities in Hunan like Changsha, Xiangtan, Zhuzhou, and Yueyang, where he would stay for several days with free room and board. He abused his Red Guard privileges for personal gain. He said he didn’t know what a Red Guard was; he just wanted money to have fun.

These new trends horrified my grandfather. In the spring of 1967, Chairman Mao suddenly called a stop to all Red Guard activities. My grandfather had gained nothing but had made many foes in the campaign.

Too late to say sorry

Now, my grandfather is aging. His foes are either aging or dead, and they talk to each other very little. Lei Enzhan, the “rightist” teacher, once said that he didn’t care who treated him badly four decades ago. But my grandfather still feels much regret. In fact, he wants to say sorry to Lei Enzhan.

But Enzhan passed away several months ago. Now, my grandfather will never have that chance.

Maybe the history of the Cultural Revolution needs more people to say sorry and apologize.  The more who stand up, the smaller a shadow it will leave. Time waits for no one.

Jump To Comments

Shawn Lei

Shawn Lei spent two years as a fixer for Dan Washburn, managing editor of Asia Society Online, and has interned for the New York Times Shanghai office. He is now a reporter for a broadcasting company.
  • Alec

    Enjoyed this article. Thank you for sharing your grandfather’s story!

  • Paul Schoe

    Yes, as Alec said: thanks for sharing this personal account.

    For virtually all foreigners the cultural revolution wil remain an unfanthomable period. The sacrifices; the unimaginable levels of distrust, even among family members; the draconic results and poverty. We read about it, in an effort to understand, but it remains more abstract then what happened during wars anywhere in the world. Part of this is because the topic is hardly discussed over here. Even within families themselves.

    Yet, while accepting my limitations in understanding, I also recognise something in the appeal to say sorry in order to reduce the shadow and to release the moral weight a little bit. The fact that this period is not discussed and that apologies are not issued reminds me of Japan with their problems in admitting their role in WW-II, in apologizing for what they then did to others.

    Maybe realizing how much it means for Chinese victims to get an apology from the Japanese, would make former Red Guards realize how much their current neighbours and fellow citizens would be happy or relieved with a sorry for the atrocities that happened during the cultural revolution.

    But I get the impression that it would be difficult for both perpetrators and victims to raise the issue, as it remains a ‘period-that-does-not-exist’, A period that people seem to banish from their minds as much as possible and that they certainly seem not to be willing to talk about.

    • Kerry

      Thank you Shawn for your transparency and courage to tell this story. Thank you also Paul for stating much more eloquently then I could, my thoughts which mirror yours. I have lived in Taiwan for 5 years and travel to the Mainland on business quite often. I have many friends that have lived through the dark days described above. I have just finished reading “Mao: The Unknown Story” by Chang and Halliday. It may not be accessible in China, but retells in rather graphic detail the “story that is not spoken” throughout China. I agree that a great place to start would be a sincere apology from the Japanese for the atrocities inflicted.

      Changes are coming to China…good changes I think. I am impressed with the openness and…if I can use the expression…the free spirit of the younger generation. There seems to be vitality for life that is infectious, and I think that bodes well for the future.

      • Paul Schoe

        HI Kerry,

        Indeed, for persons who have visited the mainland over the years, there is one thing worthwhile noticing more then anything else, and it are not the new sky-lines of the cities, or the economic boom, without which what you mention most likely would not have happened.

        It is what you mention so well; “the free spirit of the younger generation“. The economic boom, combined with the growth of the Internet in China where blogs and (group-)chats have become muhc more important then in the West, has created an environment where young people set their own goals, set their own ambitions.

        The environment is not easy for them. They don’t have the downturn of the West, but they come with tens of millions in an economy that cannot handle them so quickly. But their attitude towards life is one that is indeed infectious and (luckily) less formed by the circumstances that their parents and grand-parents had to endure.

    • TH

      This is very moving to read. Many members of my family suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution. My mother, as an Asian-American, who immigrated to the U.S. just before the McCarthy era, had little communication with her family in China and never discussed the events happening in China with us during her lifetime, as Paul states. Not only do the young Chinese not know of this period, in a double blockage, I, as an American, was also blocked from knowing about this period, which happened when I was a teenager. I am only now beginning to understand and mourn what happened to members of my extended family (most of whom are still alive) as I have been able to talk with them in China about what happened. Some are old now, and I am grateful that I am still able to hear first hand of their traumas. Thanks to Shawn for writing the article.

  • 迈克


  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    would make an incredibly powerful documentary, these interviews .. and would be healing for the entire culture ..