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.