Photograph courtesy of Xujun Eberlein
By the time I left China, I had either thrown away or lost my childhood collection of memorabilia from the Cultural Revolution—Chairman Mao buttons in various sizes and shapes, embroideries of Mao’s poems in his flying calligraphy, albums full of photographs of Mao at various stages of his revolutionary career. Nonetheless, a newspaper clipping of a black-and-white photograph of Mao found its way into a drawer in my American home.
The photograph was taken on July 16, 1966, and features Mao in a bathrobe waving from a boat. As a child I first saw this photo on the front page of China’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, under the headline “Chairman Mao Enjoys a Swim in Yangtze.” At Wuhan, the seventy-two-year-old Mao had allegedly swum fifteen kilometres in China’s longest river. Like all the other kids in my fourth-grade class, I applauded our Great Leader’s superior health and strength, unaware that this action sent a powerful message to his political enemies and signalled the high tide of the Cultural Revolution. Nor did I have the slightest idea what this event would mean to my family.
In my family photo album was a picture taken almost exactly two years after Mao’s famous swim. Mao is again waving, this time as a life-size statue in the background. In front, a teenage girl wearing a Red Guard arm band and paramilitary uniform is holding a volume of the Great Leader’s writings, her braided pigtails stretching out like paintbrushes. The teenage Red Guard is my big sister, Ruo-Dan. She was sixteen.
At the height of the Cultural Revolution in Chongqing, an industrial city in southwest China at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers where we grew up, the Red Guards split into two factions, both sides pledging to fight to the death to defend Chairman Mao. Ruo-Dan’s faction was called “8.15” because it was started by a group of students at Chongqing University on August 15, 1966. 8.15 was the first and most radical Red Guard faction in the city; it was also the faction that controlled the government institute my father headed. Each day, he went to his office and received denunciations from his ex-subordinates. Unlike Ruo-Dan, who was rarely home those days, I had the misfortune of witnessing the 8.15 faction members humiliating my father by placing dunce caps on his head or forcing him to kneel on high tables. Once an opposing faction, “Crusher,” was established, it was natural for my parents and me to join.
By the summer of 1967, ruthless fighting had broken out under a scorching sun in Chongqing, one of China’s four “oven cities.” Each faction had obtained weapons from one or another of the city’s many large military factories. Machine guns, artillery pieces, and tanks were no longer part of surreal scenes from war movies. The noise would keep me awake at night.
Until then, my family had been living on the south bank of the Yangtze, in a western-style two-storey building at my father’s institute. From my bedroom window, I often contemplated the river during the day and the lights on the distant bank in the night—until one night in August 1967. I was leaning out the window excitedly watching a Crusher gunboat chugging up the Yangtze, when a bright red line streaked past my eyes. A shell from the gunboat ricocheted off our building and another hit the institute’s thick iron gate, leaving a huge dent. We were not killed only because the shells lacked detonators and therefore did not explode—they had been made in factories controlled by competing factions.
From that night on, my mother forbade us to even approach the window facing the river. Soon after, an 8.15 Red Guard group took a fancy to our scenic institute and occupied it, forcing all the residents to move to a compound in the Central District across the Yangtze.
A week before this narrow escape, Ai Shu-Quan, my sister’s close comrade, was killed. He was a leader of the armed fighting group “Fishing Boat” in Ruo-Dan’s troop. Ruo-Dan and her friends buried him in the Red Guard Martyrs Cemetery in Sha-Ping Park. They vowed to carry forward his unfulfilled wish, to see the Cultural Revolution through to the end. Each of them scooped up a handful of earth to cover his coffin.
On August 10, 1967, Ruo-Dan wrote in her diary:
Armed fights intensified, whatever weapons are all used: automatic rifles! Cannons! Tanks! Even the military supplies for aiding Vietnam! I’ve always disliked and objected to armed fights. Now the death of Ai Shu-Quan has made me hate the fights even more. But the fights have started, if we don’t carry on, I’m afraid our Sha-Ping District will be lost. I feel I must do some work in the rear.
The hot wind of July 1968 blew the smell of blood across Chongqing. After a brief break, the factional warfare escalated to a new height. With all the schools closed, Mother, an elementary school principal, spent most of her time at home. Worried by the armed fights, Mother sent my two other sisters to hide in Grandma’s home village more than four hundred kilometres down the Yangtze, and prohibited me from wandering the streets. She was, however, at a loss as to how to protect her oldest daughter, Ruo-Dan, a Red Guard in the Third Middle School.
When Ruo-Dan returned home one Saturday night in mid-July, I was overjoyed. She hadn’t been home for several weeks. All day Sunday I shadowed her, while she avoided being alone with Mother. She showed me a sword dance she had recently learned. She showed me how to jump up onto a table while keeping both feet together. When night fell and she was about to leave again, I asked her:
“Are you going to be back next Saturday? ”
“I’ll see… Oh yes! I have pictures to show you! I just took an entire roll last week but it will not be developed until Monday.”
My eyes widened. How did she take an entire roll of pictures? I knew only a single way pictures could be taken, one at a time—by sitting on a bench in a photo studio.
“My troop has a 135 camera now and I got to play with it,” she added proudly. I was going to ask if she could bring the new toy home next week when Mother interrupted, calling Ruo-Dan by her baby name:
“Little Jia, with all this shooting going on, perhaps you should stay home…”
Ruo-Dan cut Mother short: “Ma, don’t worry. I’m not in the armed fighting group. Besides, didn’t you urge me to be active in the movement? ”
I walked with Ruo-Dan to the Number 2 bus line. I waved to her as the bus pulled out and told myself a week isn’t that hard to pass.
Two days later was July 16, the second anniversary of Chairman Mao’s famous swim, but I did not remember that. Those days I was exchanging paper-cut patterns with the neighbourhood kids and going to stationery stores to buy different colours of cheap waxed paper. Kids could always find entertainment, even in such a revolutionary storm, where practically everything was regarded as one of the “four olds”—old thought, old culture, old tradition, old habits—and had to be denounced. With the same fanaticism with which we had collected Chairman Mao’s photo buttons a year before, we now made, collected, and traded paper cut-outs of revolutionary heroes, flowers, animals, and landscapes. We would use a pencil to trace patterns on the back of pieces of waxed paper, then place the pattern on a wooden board and carefully cut along the lines with a woodcutting knife. We would show off our collections to each other. The one who collected the most patterns got the greatest admiration, regardless of which faction his or her parents belonged to.
I did not take a nap that day, as I was concentrating on making paper cut-outs of a scene in the ballet The Red Detachment of Women. I did not know that twenty-four kilometres away, Ruo-Dan also went without a nap. Unlike me, she remembered the day’s significance.
That morning, when her fellow Red Guards cheerfully responded to her proposal to swim on this special day, Ruo-Dan’s plan was to go right after lunch. The walk from the school to the Jialing River would take about half an hour, which would warm them up before jumping into the cold water. It was a peaceful noon in the Third Middle School of Chongqing. No gunfire had been heard since the previous week’s battle in a nearby factory ended with the victory of my sister’s faction. Now there were only the chirps of cicadas under the bright summer sun. In the dining hall where the students were having lunch together, the boys said they would go after taking their noon siesta. It’s not good to move a lot right after a meal, they argued, and it would be cooler later on.
Ruo-Dan had no patience for their excuses. She surely could skip a nap on such a special day! Since Chairman Mao’s call to Chinese youth to “go into the big rivers to be tempered,” she had been teaching herself to swim in the school’s pool, but the pool was child’s play compared with big rivers. What could be more meaningful than to go into a river for the first time, to show her determination to follow the Great Leader’s call?
It took little effort to convince her three roommates. After all, they had swum in pools before. Why did they have to wait for the boys? The four girls walked out of the schoolyard full of daring and vigour, red silk bands on their left arms, faded green People’s Liberation Army uniforms covering their swimming suits. They crossed the sleepy streets in the quiet noon, taking a shortcut through the Architecture College campus and out onto the trail down to the river. They walked past fields of vegetables, barren hills, and a factory, before at last approaching the bank of the river. They felt a gust of cool, moist air, heavy with the smell of earth, breaking the day’s intense heat, as the great expanse of water came into view.
The river looked different on that day, wider than normal. There were no boats in sight. The usually clear and calm current was muddy and swift. Broken tree branches swirled past. Even the inexperienced eyes of these sixteen-year-old girls could tell that the water was rising. A big rock the boys used to jump off had almost disappeared completely. The waves washing upward along the dirt bank did not look as kind and fun as they remembered.
The girls surveyed back and forth trying to find a good spot to enter the water. A small inlet where tips of long grasses were waving near the banks looked calmer than elsewhere. Ruo-Dan decided that this was the place and the others agreed. They took off their shoes. They took off their uniforms and stood there in their swimsuits. They looked at each other; no one moved.
Ruo-Dan read hesitation in her friends’ eyes. She was a leader. A leader should always be at the head of her people. “All right, ” she said, “I’ll go first. I am going to measure the water’s depth and signal you. Okay? ”
“Perhaps we should wait for [the boys],” one girl said with an unsure tone.
“No,” Ruo-Dan responded. In a blink, her entire body sank into the water, her shoulder-length black hair floating behind her. The other girls watched Ruo-Dan’s black hair fade in and out of the water. Soon there was no sign of anything but the yellow-brown waves.
The girls waited. They waited for Ruo-Dan’s face to spring out of the water again and for her to signal to them. They waited until panic set in. One girl burst out, “She’s gone!” As if hearing a command, all three of them started to cry. They sat on the dirt, screaming “Ruo-Dan!” again and again. No one heard their cries.
Half an hour later, exhausted with crying, the girls finally got up and left the river. Along the same path that Ruo-Dan had led them earlier, they staggered back to school like drunks. Not until another half-hour had passed did the others, just up from their nap, hear the shocking news. As a frantic crowd ran to the river, one boy shouted at the three numbed girls:
“Did you call the workers in the factory? ”
The girls’ vacant expression made it clear that this possibility had not crossed their minds. The boys pleaded for help from workers in the same faction at the riverside factory. Hundreds of men and teenagers spent the rest of the afternoon searching for any sign of Ruo-Dan, in the water and along the riverbank. Night fell. They did not find her.
At ten the next morning, they found her body under water, only a few hundred metres from where she had gone in. Grass was tightly twined around one of her feet, preventing her from either floating up or being washed away. She looked as if she were sleeping.
Later I tried again and again to guess what had been going on in Ruo-Dan’s mind when she slipped into the river. Among the hundreds of Chairman Mao’s quotations that I could recite, this was the one that echoed in my ear: “Be resolute, fear no sacrifice, and surmount ten thousand difficulties to win victory.” A famous musician even made this statement into a song, which was broadcast over loudspeakers by both factions during every armed fight. Whenever we heard this song, we ran inside and tightly closed the doors. Was this the song playing in Ruo-Dan’s head when she walked into the river without another word?
My parents were told and they immediately rushed to Ruo-Dan’s school, leaving me home alone with no instructions. The next morning, as soon as I opened my eyes from a night of strange dreams, I got up and walked to the bus station where I had left Ruo-Dan four days before. I waited in the line for a long time to get on a bus. The crowded bus took more than an hour to get to the Sha-Ping terminal. I did not cry. I hadn’t cried since I heard about Ruo-Dan’s death the day before.
I ran across the dusty street to the gate of the Third Middle School, once the best school in Chongqing. Inside the gate I ran toward the statue of Chairman Mao, then turned right, in the direction of the classroom building. In the building’s second-floor meeting room, I saw my parents sitting silently, surrounded by teenage girls and boys. Mother’s eyes were swollen. My parents stared at me blindly, their faces and bodies motionless. I looked around but did not see Ruo-Dan’s body anywhere.
“Where is my big sister? ” I demanded loudly.
A girl I recognized as one of Ruo-Dan’s close comrades pulled me into the hallway and whispered that Ruo-Dan had been buried the previous afternoon.
“No—!” I screamed. “Where is her grave? Take me there! I want to see her! I want to see her!”
The girl started to weep. I charged into the meeting room again and shouted to Mother: “I want to see Big Sister! Take me to see her!”
Father responded in a low roar: “Stop it! Your mother hasn’t slept the whole night! Don’t make her cry again!”
Then I heard Mother’s trembling voice, “My Third, your sister’s coffin has been nailed. You can’t see her any more.”
“I am going to pry the coffin open!” I said firmly. Mother choked up with sobs; tears streamed down her cheeks like a broken chain of beads.
Ruo-Dan’s comrade came to me and looked into my eyes. “Little sister,” she said with an earnest tone I’d never heard from anyone before, “your sister is a hero. If I could exchange my life for hers, I would rather die myself.”
She didn’t understand. I didn’t want a hero; I didn’t want anyone to die. I just wanted my sister.
Not until much later did it cross my mind that all of these middle-school students, my sister’s comrades, were in the opposite faction from my parents and me.
That day I got the prints from my sister’s final pictures. There she was with Chairman Mao’s statue.
Mother went half insane after Ruo-Dan’s death. She would just sit there, empty-eyed, and chatter, “I shouldn’t have named her ‘Little Jia’… then the Jialing River wouldn’t have taken her back…” Or she would say with a blind smile: “What a strong child, like a calf… ,” as if her Little Jia were still alive. She kept all the windows in the house open, day and night. If I went to close them, Mother would scold, “Stop! How can your sister find a way to get back inside? ”
My sister’s comrades buried her in the backyard of Chongqing Normal School, on a small hill next to a stream that served as the border to a farm area. Near the grave, a wooden bridge spanned the stream.
Two weeks after Ruo-Dan’s death, her comrades came to tell Mother that they were going to move her to the Sha-Ping Park Martyrs Cemetery. This comforted Mother. She waited and waited; her life seemed to gain more meaning in the waiting. But the relocation never happened. Year after year, I went to that lone dirt tomb with Mother on Ruo-Dan’s birthday, until my young heart could no longer bear Mother’s endless tears and I stopped going.
The armed fighting stopped after my sister’s death. In late July, after quietly watching the fights across China for almost two years, Chairman Mao finally stepped in and ordered the rival factions to cease fire. He said, “If they insist [on fighting], detain them. This is the gentle way. In a worse case, send the army to encircle and suppress them.” Mao’s most famous statement at that time was: “Now it’s the young Guards’ turn to succumb to errors.”
The Great Leader’s order was promptly carried out. In November, two men who had been commanding Chongqing’s armed fights, one from each faction, were jailed. As “heroes” turned into criminals, history was inverted once again. The sacrificed Red Guards were no longer called “martyrs.” Their graves, scattered throughout Chongqing, were left untended. Most of them were overgrown or built over in the years that followed.
My childhood ended at twelve, in July 1968. It became my duty to guard my grandmother, who was already seventy-five, from knowing that Ruo-Dan was dead. Mother thought it would kill grandmother, and I knew how much she loved her first granddaughter. Ruo-Dan’s death also had to be concealed from my little sister because you can’t prevent a six-year-old from speaking the truth. When Grandma and my two sisters came back from the countryside a month later, my mother and I told them Ruo-Dan had joined the army and was stationed in faraway Xinjiang, a province in the northwest of China. Mother asked me to compose letters from Ruo-Dan and to read them to my illiterate grandmother. Writing those imaginary letters from a dear sister I had just lost filled me with resentment that I could not quite articulate. For years I was bitter, but I never failed to carry out my duty.
Probably because I never saw her body, never had a chance to say goodbye, I often dreamed that Ruo-Dan was rescued downstream on the Jialing River, and that when she came back home she looked exactly the same as the last time I saw her. When I awoke I would be outraged at the girls who went with her but didn’t ask for help from the nearby factory, at the boys who didn’t go with her right after lunch, at my mother who didn’t keep her at home. I thought of a thousand ways her death could have been avoided, but one thing is certain—her death was not entirely accidental. It was not an isolated tragedy. It would be another decade or two before I understood that the senseless waste of young life for the sophistry and charisma of a “great” leader is a recurring theme in history. As long as blind fealty to a purportedly divine and infallible ruling power exists, there will be tragedies like the one that befell Ruo-Dan.
In the fall of 2001, having lived in the United States for over a decade, I read an article from the China News Digest called “Youth Graveyard of Chongqing’s Armed Fights.” “This is the only Cultural Revolution graveyard remaining in China,” the author claimed. “113 tombs burying over 400 victims of armed fights. Among them were a fourteen-year-old girl, a female middle-school student known as the “school flower,” and a young mother. More were men—sons, fathers, and husbands who died fighting with guns, iron sticks, knives and daggers.” The article did not mention that this was also 8.15’s graveyard. The hundreds or thousands of dead in other factions do not have a graveyard. This was the graveyard where Ruo-Dan’s Red Guard leader, Ai Shu-Quan, rested. And this was the graveyard to which Ruo-Dan’s friends had planned but failed to move her tomb. The article reminded me that the wound in my heart had never been healed.
I revisited my home city in the spring of 2002. My American husband and our thirteen-year-old daughter went along. In Chongqing my younger sister, who did not learn about our sister’s death until she was grown up, gave me Ruo-Dan’s diary, and we set out to find Ruo-Dan’s grave.
The Normal School had become the Normal University and had many more buildings than I remembered. The stream was still there, but we were told that it had changed course because of a big flood that had washed out the old wooden bridge. On the new concrete bridge, farmers were selling lunch to university students. No one could tell us the original position of the old bridge, so we had lost our only clue as to the location of Ruo-Dan’s grave.
Disappointed, I turned to Sha-Ping Park, a short walk from the Normal University and the Third Middle School. My family quietly followed. In the park I found that the Red Guards Martyrs Cemetery had been renamed the Cultural Revolution Graveyard. The way these Chinese words read, this could be interpreted as either a graveyard that buried the Cultural Revolution or a graveyard that was built during the Cultural Revolution. Its continued existence was a strange miracle, though, like the Cultural Revolution itself, the Red Guard graveyard remained a sensitive subject for the authorities. I had read reports about overseas Chinese scholars being arrested while visiting the mainland for researching the Cultural Revolution.
Inside the cemetery’s ivy-covered walls, over a hundred large granite tombstones stood like a grey forest, with weeds and wild trees encroaching. The engraved calligraphy of Chairman Mao’s inscription “Long Live Martyrs” could still be seen on many of the weathered stones. There were wilted bouquets of flowers left on some of the tombs. Only a week earlier, on April 5, was the Qingming Festival, the traditional time for mourning the dead.
I did not hold out much hope for finding Ai Shu-Quan’s grave, as many of the gravestones either had no name or the names could no longer be read. So it was consoling when I saw the engraved characters “Martyr Ai Shu-Quan” on the base of one tombstone. But the word “martyr” had lost its glorious connotations. I felt the urge to scrape it off, and remember Ai Shu-Quan by his name alone.
I never met him, but I had heard his name and read about his death in my sister’s journal. On August 3, 1967, Ruo-Dan wrote:
This afternoon, just as I walked to the Red Building after nap, I heard someone saying Ai Shu-Quan died. I didn’t believe it, thought they were making a bad joke. But shortly after, Fishing Boat returned with Ai Shu-Quan’s body. How everyone was in extreme grief and indignation! The boys shot bullet after bullet to the sky. How could this be real? Just the night before yesterday he was well, chatting with us about the current situation…
The next day she wrote:
I did not go to bed until 2 a.m. This morning, learning that the martyr’s family had arrived, I hurried to the troop’s office. Sorrowful cries came out of the room before I reached it. They were from Martyr Ai Shu-Quan’s mother, sister, and father. It broke my heart. Ai Shu-Quan was a leader of our troop; he got along well with everyone; he was always smiling. He treated revolutionary work earnestly, seriously, actively, and responsibly. He will be missed by everyone. We are waiting for his brother before burying him.
Ai Shu-Quan’s elder brother arrived. He is a student of Tianjin University. He stood in silence before the martyr’s body for a long time, touched him, then took off his own picture button of Chairman Mao and his [Red Guard] arm band and put them on his brother. At this point his father could no longer hold his tears and cried loudly and bitterly. To avoid breaking the old man’s heart further, he turned around and shed tears behind his father. How could I stop my tears…
It was almost as if I had found Ruo-Dan’s grave. Ai Shu-Quan was one of the four students in the Third Middle School (two from each faction—an ironic symmetry) who died in armed fights. It was the school’s luck that it did not see as many deaths as other schools; it was our five families’ misfortune that the deaths that did happen, happened to us.
I did not see any flowers at Ai Shu-Quan’s tomb. Was he forgotten by his family? Or were they ashamed to visit him now? It hurt to realize that I hadn’t brought flowers for him either. It hurt more to admit that his life, and my dear sister’s, were wasted, however brave they were. For some time I stood in front of Ai Shu-Quan’s tomb. The wind was still, the distant river running silent, but I knew that could all change in an instant.