Beijing woman defies Party to blog horrors of Mao's revolution
Yu Xiangzhen tells why she decided to ignore the warning of her family and write of events that China would rather forget
Thousands of teenage hands rocketed skywards as the Great Helmsman stepped down from the rostrum in Tiananmen Square to greet the shock troops of his revolution. It was the summer of 1966 and Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution - a catastrophic political convulsion that would catapult China into a decade of heartbreak, humiliation and deadly violence - was under way.
"When we saw Mao Zedong wave his hand, we all went berserk," recalled Yu Xiangzhen, then a 13-year-old schoolgirl, whose bright red armband marked her out as one of millions of loyal Red Guards. "We shouted and screamed until we had no voices left."
Fifty years after the start of the Cultural Revolution in May 1966, Yu, now 64, has been blogging her memories of the period in a bid to prevent history repeating itself.
China's communist rulers have remained silent over the anniversary of the devastating political mobilisation, which scholars estimate claimed somewhere between one and two million lives.
But since the start of this year, Yu has been trying to use her blog to tear down the wall of official silence surrounding the events of that bloody summer.
"If our descendants do not know the truth, they will make the same mistakes again," she wrote in the introduction to her series of online reflections.
"I want to use real experiences to prove that the Cultural Revolution was inhumane."
Even half-a-century on, Yu, a retired journalist, says she is still trying to fathom the horrors she witnessed that summer and to understand how she was radicalised into becoming one of Mao's "little generals".
"We became Red Guards (because) we all shared the belief that we would die to protect Chairman Mao," she said, over a cup of tea in a Beijing cafe.
"Even though it might be dangerous, that was absolutely what we had to do."
She said that everything she had been taught told her that Chairman Mao was closer to Chinese youth than their parents.
"Without Chairman Mao, we would have nothing," she was taught.
Yu's attempts to remember the mayhem of 1966 began in January, when she began composing short online dispatches on an ageing desktop computer at her home in China's capital.
"When I started to write, I didn't have a plan," she said. "I just wanted to write down what I experienced in those 10 years of Cultural Revolution. I didn't even have a title for my series of articles."
The former Red Guard started at the very beginning, focusing her first essay on the closure of Beijing's primary schools in May 1966.
"For me, the Cultural Revolution started at that moment. (So) that was the first article I wrote," said Yu, who was a student at Beijing's Chongwen Number 49 middle school at the time.
Subsequent posts chronicle Yu's journeys through a world that was at once exhilarating, bewildering, comic and horrifying. She remembers the vicious persecution of her teachers, the lynching of suspected class enemies, the hysterical mass rallies and how Red Guards roamed Beijing, setting upon those with supposedly counter-revolutionary footwear, clothing or hair.
"We thought that if you wore skinny trousers you were a monster," said Yu, recalling how scissors were used to lop the tips off pointy shoes, slice open excessively fashionable trousers or shear off locks of hair.
In one post, Yu recalled the excitement of boarding public buses with her Red Guard comrades and spending entire days reading extracts of Mao's Little Red Book to commuters. "It was quite fun," she recalled, leaning over the table in laughter. "I still remember the words in the book today.
"'Revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture or doing embroidery. It can't be done elegantly and gently.'"
"I believed it," Yu went on. "I thought Mao Zedong was great and that his words were great."
Other memories were more painful. As the summer of 1966 progressed and a period of so-called 'red terror' began, the thrill of having been let out of class and let loose on the Chinese capital faded and was replaced by an atmosphere of fear. Red Guards marauded across the city, ransacking and looting homes and staging public "struggle sessions" in which victims were savagely beaten, tortured and sometimes killed. At least 1,772 people are known to have been murdered in Beijing alone. Some targets committed suicide to escape the relentless persecution.
As violence engulfed the capital, an editorial in the Communist party journal, Red Flag, fanned the rapidly spreading flames.
"The Red Guards have ruthlessly castigated, exposed, criticised and repudiated the decadent, reactionary culture of the bourgeoisie... landing them in the position of rats running across the street and being chased by all," it read, according to Michael Schoenhals' seminal book, China's Cultural Revolution.
One night Yu recalled being unable to sleep because of the ferocious beating being inflicted on one of her teachers. "Each time we fell asleep, the screams woke us up.
"The screaming never stopped."
Later, towards the end of August, Yu recalled seeing a severely injured man dragging himself across the road towards her after he had apparently been subjected to a savage Red Guard attack.
"There was blood all over his face," she said. "He looked like a ghost."
After fellow Red Guards ordered her to pummel a group of prisoners with a belt, Yu said she decided to flee. "God bless me, I didn't beat anyone back then. If I had beaten anyone, how could I have lived with myself all these years?"
Yu's reflections on those days of chaos have earned praise from many readers.
"People who stand up to tell the truth are so rare these days," one fan wrote on her blog. "So we look forward to more people like Teacher Yu coming out to tell the truth. I really appreciate what Teacher Yu has done."
But Yu admitted that her decision to revisit such a traumatic period had also provoked a backlash, with some critics accusing her of attempting to smear China's Communist party by dragging up a painful past. "You don't deserve to be Chinese!" wrote one commenter.
She denied that her blog was intended as an attack on the country's rulers.
"Some people say I am anti-Communist party. This is wrong. I'm not against the party at all. I want it to be great. I'm not interested in trying to open the old wounds of the Communist Party."
Yu also shrugged off the concerns of friends and relatives - including her son - who warned that she might get into trouble.
"Some people have said the government will arrest me. But I've never told a single lie. Everything I've said is based on the truth. They can arrest me but I've said nothing that isn't true."
She said her blogging was partly therapeutic; a way of coming to terms with the shocking things she had seen. "I feel at peace when I write," she said.
But its main goal was to educate those who had not lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and had not been allowed to learn about them at school, where the topic remains largely taboo.
Yu said memories of the period were now fading as many of those with first-hand knowledge of its turmoil entered their final years.
"Telling the truth is the right thing to do. Only when people find the truth can they find the solution," she said.
"This has happened in other countries. Why can't we do it here?"
Additional reporting by Christy Yao