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Victims of the Cultural Revolution, and the complications of memory in China

Wang Jingyao

I wasn't sure why at first, but this moment lingered longer than the rest: Wang Jingyao sat at a small breakfast table in his apartment and stared at me for several seconds. Two small plastic fans whirled next to the wall. There was a bouquet of fake flowers, a collection of cookie tins, and some old apples in a bowl.

We'd been talking for a while and sipping tea, working our way slowly to the subject of his wife, who was mercilessly beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution. I thought that Wang, 89, was just gathering his thoughts. The old man, wearing shorts and a white T-shirt, was in fact thinking over a question before asking it.

He'd been the central character in a 2006 documentary about the murder of his wife, Bian Zhongyun. It is a powerful piece of film in which Wang repeatedly looks straight into the camera's eye and talks plainly about Bian, a mother of four, being bludgeoned by teenage girls until she died in a mess of her own blood, urine and excrement in 1966.

So now he had a question for me: "How much influence has this movie had in America?"

I tried to step around the issue by explaining that I haven't lived in the United States since 2004, and don't always have a good sense of public sentiment there. Wang was having none of it -- he said in a slow, sure voice, that he wanted to know if people in America had seen the film, and whether they cared. I stammered, looked around and said that I just didn't know.

Wang was polite enough to let the matter pass, but we both knew the answer -- not a whole lot of people in the United States or the world have viewed the documentary, and in China both its distribution and presence on YouTube were blocked. (The first of 10 sections of the movie can be found by clicking here.)

"The Cultural Revolution is a crime committed by Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist Party of China, which has refused to admit his crime," said Wang. "So the party has prohibited its citizens from watching this kind of movie."

I wonder now if Wang was thinking of how hard it was to discuss such a terrible event, and what, if anything, came from doing so. In a country where the government strongly discourages critical exploration of its complicated past, what is achieved by speaking up?

Another person I interviewed for my story on the subject, a former student at the school where the murder took place, has written a book and compiled a website dedicated to naming the individuals killed during the Cultural Revolution. Now a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago's Chinese language program, Wang Youqin happened to be in Beijing with a group of U.S. students when I started reporting. We met in the small dorm room where she was staying, and Wang explained that she thought it was important to remember the ordinary people who died during the chaos and bloodshed of the period.

"The Cultural Revolution without the victims is just a philosophy exercise," she said.  A few days later, we spoke by phone. Wang was back in Chicago, and I had the sense she'd mulled over our conversations. There are many in China's government who'd like the past to disappear, because of both the legacy of Mao and their own actions at the time, Wang said. Listening to her, I recalled a comment she made in our earlier interview: "History is just telling the truth, but they don't feel comfortable because of the truth I told."

After the story published last night (it can be found by clicking here), I sent it around to a few people who follow China news. One of them wrote back that his father-in-law committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution by throwing himself in front of a train in 1968. When the family returned to the scene last year, wanting to dig up his remains and give the man a proper burial, "the villagers asked how we'd know whose bones they were, since dozens of people had jumped in front of trains those days, in about the same place."

There was nothing left to do after taking some snapshots of the landscape. The bones stayed in the ground, wherever they were, and the family went to lunch.



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Tom Lasseter

Hi Dave,

Millions of Chinese died from starvation and violence during the Great Leap and the CR.

More than half a billion Chinese were lifted out of extreme poverty between 1981 and 2005.

Best, Tom

Dave Palmer

I wonder how much the reticence to discuss the Cultural Revolution has to do with a desire not to reopen old wounds, and how much it has to do with the fact that much of what Mao and the Red Guards (and especially the "ultra-left" elements) said has, in fact, turned out to be true.

They said that there was a danger that the capitalist class would re-constitute itself from within the upper ranks of the Communist Party itself. Mao believed that, if this took place, China could end up as a "fascist" country. Therefore, he believed that a major upheaval was needed to flush out these "capitalist road" elements.

The history of China after Mao has essentially confirmed his fears that the upper levels of the Communist Party leadership would become capitalist in nature -- with consequences that have in many ways been disastrous for China.

Although I would not go so far as to say that post-Mao China is "fascist" in nature (as Mao feared would happen if the Communist Party leadership embraced capitalism), and without wishing to minimize serious crimes which occurred during the Cultural Revolution such as those discussed in this article, it could be argued that the human cost of the Deng Reforms has been many times greater than that of the Cultural Revolution.

Discussion of the Cultural Revolution in the West tends to treat it as an "outbreak of madness," ignoring or dismissing the political context.

Of course, if one were to look at any revolutionary period in history while ignoring its political context, it would appear as an inexplicable string of violent incidents. Many "ordinary people [...] died during the chaos and bloodshed" of the American revolution, the French revolution, etc. We just don't think about it because it happened more than 200 years ago. Perhaps this distance allows us to view the political context more clearly.

I think the political context of the Cultural Revolution explains why the current leadership of the Communist Party would prefer that it not be discussed.


That's not really a fair question for him to pose, as I believe that the youth in America in general knows more about the atrocities that occurred during the cultural revolution then people of equal age in China. We gloss over what happened then to focus on what is happening now - either China growing to fast or still having serious human rights issues, and for us it isn't something that we need to look back on and understand how it happened. The Chinese are the ones that should be looking into their past as they move forward, and that is where the push for spreading this information should be focused. I understand his desire for the rest of the world to know his story, but where it is most important to be heard is right here in China...


Culture revolution is about one group of neighbor killing another group, a witch hunt on a grand scale. The cycle can easily continue, especially in 1976 when killing is part of the national culture.

It is the wisdom of the Chinese leadership not to dig the wound. Isn't forget and move on the ultimate Christian value?


Very powerful story and introspective blog .I imagine reporting events like this make you feel deeply moved as both a journalist and a man.

Wei Wang

Let the truth be known is the first step towards healing. But as far as I can see, the Chinese Communist Party wants to deny that as much and as long as they could.

Tom Lasseter

Hi Greg,
Thank you for the comment. As with the legacy of Stalin in Russia -- though they had the Khrushchev speech -- I am struck here by the many directions and levels in which the legacy of the CR and Mao continues to affect things.
I think a broad documentary with the oral history of both the victims and aggressors would be a profound thing.
Best, Tom


huge emotional healing needs to happen around this issue, for the victims, sure, but also for the perpetrators ...

end-of-life summing up ... i think a huge documentary needs to be made, interviewing those still alive, about their thoughts now ...

it was perhaps larger than the holocaust ...

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"China Rises" is written by Tom Lasseter, the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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