The first thing I noticed about the Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution reading was how hard the author’s life was from the very start. Gao Yuan was born in the village of “Yizhen” (in the preface Gao mentions that most village names he mentioned have been altered) in the year 1952. Gao Yuan lived there with his mother, father, grandfather, and five siblings, of which he was the second oldest. As he was growing up, China entered the period of its Great Leap Forward. According to Gao, the reaction of the people at first was excitement. Finally, they said, China would become a truly Communist society. Gao’s family even donated their pots and metal to the steel furnace that the town handcrafted. However, as we learned, the Great Leap Forward ended up being a failure, causing the horrific suffering and death of millions of Chinese people. From the years 1960 to 1962, Gao writes that he remembers eating ground-up corn cobs, tree bark, and even bugs just to have something in his belly. The entire village was in the same situation as Gao and his family, so much so that many were selling their extremely valuable heirlooms for mere pennies. Gao’s grandfather was able to buy a Ming Dynasty-era incense burner for only 50 fen, the same price as one persimmon.
Gao’s recollections of his village and family during this time reminded me of what we learned that China as a whole was experiencing. Both Yizhen and China were very optimistic and excited for the Great Leap Forward to happen. Both were willing to make sacrifices for the cause, Gao and his family in the form of their metal donations and China in the form of their homemade backyard furnaces. However, both parties were met with bitter disappointment and terrible consequences via extreme food shortages and poverty. It is so awful that all of those innocent people had to experience those terrible conditions when their only ‘crime’ (so to speak) was being hopeful and working towards what they viewed to be a better future.
Unfortunately, that better future was far from appearing, even after the end of the Great Leap Forward. Gao continues his story, recounting how he was enrolled in a middle school soon after the close of the Great Leap Forward (around 1964-1965). Gao remembers the classmates he met and the teachers he befriended, particularly a teacher named Li. For a while, it seemed that Gao was relatively happy and comfortable in his situation. However, the paranoia and terror of the Cultural Revolution soon began to leach into his school. When essays were published in several newspapers criticizing the Communist government, Gao and his classmates were tasked with creating large posters denouncing the three authors (also known as the Three Family Village) and those associated with them. Slogans that they wrote included “Down with the Three Family Village!”, “Smash the black gang!”, “Down with the antisocialist cabal!”, and “Carry the revolution through to the end!” They ended up spending multiple days on this project, covering their entire campus in their work. Another incident that occurred not long after involved a picture of Chairman Mao, who one student claimed was mocking him as it depicted him with only one ear. This caused other students to see anti-Communist messages everywhere, with some saying that they found a snake painted onto a portrait of Lenin and others sure that a picture of Mao had a sword hanging over his head. Both of these things turned out to be false, with the former being nothing but a shadow and the latter revealing itself to be a painted beam. However, the suspicious attitudes of the teachers and students at Gao’s school were basically the mood of the whole nation.
Reading this part of the book really helped to put the reading that I did for my blog post into perspective. Although it still boggles my mind that literal school children could commit the horrible acts that they did, it was good to read the context for how they got to the point they did. In my mind, I had this image of normal children immediately becoming violent and dangerous almost overnight, whereas the reality was that the situation had a much slower build up. In fact, it seems that this build up was mainly orchestrated by the teachers at the school. This was especially interesting to me, as I had been very curious as to where the students had been getting the motivation and information to do the things they did. However, I am not at all trying to say that what happened to the teachers was somehow deserved. The Cultural Revolution had a horrible impact on all those involved, regardless of their age, rank, or social status. The fear and terror that permeated Chinese society during this time was crippling to the entire society and victimized millions upon millions of terrified, innocent people.
Gao, Yuan. Born Red : A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987
Notes: I read from chapter 1 to chapter 11