Vol. 4 No. 20 · 4 November 1982

My Days in the Cowshed

Zheng Peidi remembers the part she played in China’s Cultural Revolution

3818 words

It was a gloomy afternoon in early spring, 1968, Peking, China. I was taking a nap with my new-born baby when somebody knocked wildly at the door. It was a group of Red Guards, in green army uniform with red armbands. They were students from my department at Peking University, the Department of Western Languages and Literature, where I was a teacher of English.

A tall young man came up to me with a serious air: ‘Hey you, come with us to the University. We have some questions for you to answer!’

Bewildered, I said: ‘Can’t I answer them here?’

‘Certainly not.’

According to Chinese habit, a new mother should be confined in her room for the first month after the birth of the baby. Old people like my mother-in-law believed that should the new mother step out of doors, she might catch cold or contract some other illness which could last all the rest of her life. But it seemed useless arguing with these youngsters. I had to follow them, venturing into the open air.

I didn’t expect that there would be a truck waiting for us at the corner of the street. I was pushed onto it rudely. We waited for some time, and I learned later the rest of the Red Guards were ransacking the whole flat for evidence of ‘reactionary activities’. They didn’t find any, of course, but they took away all my diaries and letters. The truck speeded off through the western suburbs, with a cold wind whistling by. I shivered a bit. The Red Guards were stern and cold. They didn’t look at me. It was as if I didn’t exist. This silence gave me time to think about things that had happened in the past.

Since the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, two different factions had come into being, not only in the University, but also in the society at large. Students and staff might belong to either faction, and both factions contained Red Guards. The two were known as the Sky and Earth factions, since they were associated with the Aviation and Geology Institutes respectively (my side was Earth). These factions were like real enemies, though their ideological differences now look very remote: they were not on speaking terms, they would fight over trifles. Most of the teachers could not join the Red Guards if they were not of ‘working-class’ origin, while the Red Guards could do anything they wanted: bullying, beating, cursing, ransacking. Their slogan was: ‘If the father is a revolutionary, the children are heroes; if the father is a reactionary, the children are scoundrels.’ These Red Guards were heroes, of course. But still I was puzzled. I had not done anything wrong, had I? Well, I was not a member of the faction to which these Red Guards belonged, and which was led by a woman, Nie Yuanzi, who was the most powerful person in the University and a close associate of Madame Mao.

Suddenly the truck came to a stop and interrupted my thoughts. As soon as I was ordered to jump down, a canvas bag was thrown over my head which blinded me and made it hard to breathe.

‘What are you doing with me? What’s the matter?’ I protested.

‘Shut up, will you? Hold this!’ With the voice came a club into my hand, the other end held by someone else. ‘Get a move on!’ I grasped the club tightly, staggering along. I used to play blindman’s buff when I was a child – it was fun: I had never noticed walking could be so difficult when you were blindfolded. It seemed to be a long way before we stopped.

‘Sit down!’ A familiar voice broke the silence. I recognised Zhou, the leader of the other faction in the department. He had been a cadre in the department for years and years, knew nothing about foreign languages, and was in charge of the personal files of the staff members. Perhaps there was hope for me to reason, I thought. I tried to untie the canvas bag, but before I could touch my head someone hit my hand with a club – perhaps the same one I had just held onto.

‘Sit still,’ came Zhou’s voice. ‘Now tell me, what did you say to Chen about Comrade Jiang Qing?’ I realised what sort of questions they wanted me to answer.

Chen grew up in Shanghai, so she knew that Madame Mao was only a third-grade film actress in the early Thirties. And I had been eager to tell her that Madame Mao used to be the mistress of my mother’s cousin, who became mayor of Tianjin after the revolution. It was he who helped Jiang Qing to join the Communist Party. We gossiped about this when we shared a room during our student days. That was in 1961, five years before the Cultural Revolution took place, and Madame Mao was as yet behind the scenes. Who would have expected that she would suddenly become the standard-bearer of the Cultural Revolution? That anyone who said anything against her would be labelled ‘counter-revolutionary’, no matter whether it was a fact or not? Now my turn had arrived as a result of Chen’s ‘betrayal’. With the bag still covering my head, I told them what I had said to Chen five years ago.

‘Is that all? Okay. Sign your name and take your thumb print.’ So they had been noting down what I was saying.

After the bag was removed, I immediately recognised that the room was in a building where I had spent five years of my student life. It was not far from the main entrance – and I had thought it was some far-away place where I had never been. The room looked bleak and gloomy, with litter everywhere. A portrait of the great leader looked down upon me from the wall. Was he offended or was he sympathetic? It used to be a cosy room for us girl students, who filled it with flowers and laughter. Now it had become a place for interrogation. They shoved a piece of paper in front of me, on which my statement was written. I signed and pressed my thumb into the red ink paste. After all, I didn’t deny what I had said to Chen. The policy of the Red Guards was ‘leniency to those who confess their crimes and severity to those who refuse to’. If what I had done was considered a ‘crime’, might I go home to breast-feed my baby? At this they flared up: ‘Go home? You are a counterrevolutionary now! What you said is sheer rumour. Your spearhead is pointing at Comrade Jiang Qing, at Chairman Mao himself! Now you’re under arrest.’

I was thunderstuck. I tried hard to explain to them that it was not a rumour, it was a fact. I had heard it from my mother when I was a little girl. I meant no harm, was just showing off, when I told Chen. And all that happened a long time ago. Ever since Jiang Qing became a prominent figure in the Cultural Revolution I had never said anything against her. All my efforts proved futile. They locked me up in another room, where there were only two bare bunks. No mattress, no blanket. Nothing. They bound me with ropes, hands and feet together. I was thrown onto the bed. Dim light could be seen through the barred windows. They had actually turned the whole building into a prison of solitary confinement.

It was getting later and later. My breasts were full of milk which made them as hard as stone. With both hands bound, it was impossible for me to squeeze out some of the milk. In the darkness, I imagined I heard the crying of my hungry baby.

My husband and I had been fellow students. We got married after we graduated and he was posted to Army work far from Peking. My son was the eldest grandson, and he meant a lot to my widowed mother-in-law. She had come all the way from Canton to look after the new-born baby. The family began to call her ‘granny’ after the baby was born. He was healthy and handsome, giving delight to us all. Who could have foreseen this?

I woke up in the morning to find my blouse wet with milk. Someone was bending over me – I recognised her as a student of the German section. Her nickname was ‘Buddha’, I remembered. She had brought me some food and told me I could feed the baby in the afternoon. Several young men came in to loosen the ropes, I managed to move my numbed limbs, but could hardly swallow the dry corn-cake. Tears choked me whenever I thought of my son.

At last I stepped into the bright afternoon sunlight. The sky was dazzling blue, a warm breeze with the fragrance of spring flowers welcomed me. My dear campus! I had grown up in this picturesque place, familiar with every single tree, every piece of lawn. But all this meant nothing to me now I had lost my freedom. I was flanked by Red Guards, not allowed to lift my head or look around.

They frogmarched me to an apartment occupied by one of my colleagues and his family. I was put into the smallest room, with a single window, barred from outside. Granny and the baby were waiting in this sparsely furnished room. I took my son into my arms at once. He looked thinner and had lost the lustre in his eyes as a result of starving. What a sense of relief, and delight, when I breast-fed the baby!

From then on, I was under house arrest. I was not allowed to set foot outside the house or to see anyone from outside. The baby could stay with me, but Granny could not. There was just a single bed in the room. Granny was put up with someone else, and was allowed to bring me meals.

The apartment building was one of the 13 buildings inside the University campus. The barred window was my only opening to the outside world. Three times a day, I would see Granny come up with the lunch box in her hand. She told me that my parents had also been interrogated, and their house ransacked for evidence of counter-revolutionary activities. Although the Red Guards found nothing wrong, they took away all my mother’s jewellery and other valuables.

The woman in charge of my case was a tough one. She would burst into my room without any warning, just to see what I was doing. Once she walked me away to have a picture taken in front of a tree. I was told later that the picture was enlarged and put up as a poster, both inside the University and out, to show the victory of the other faction. They had captured a real counter-revolutionary from the opposite side, which proved that that whole faction was rotten. Sometimes she would take me to a mass meeting to be criticised for my ‘crime’. My colleagues and students were kept in the dark as to what I had actually said in the past. They were told that I had spread vicious rumours against ‘Comrade Jiang Qing’. Nobody was entitled to ask for the content: it was ‘too vicious to be repeated or spread’. Down with anyone who dared to say anything against Comrade Jiang Qing! That gave people enough grounds to criticise me.

During those days, the ‘counter-revolutionary’ elements were paraded in front of the people. They would be flanked by two Red Guards, who twisted both arms of the ‘criminal’ behind his back and bent his head low to an angle of 90 degrees. That was called the ‘jet plane’ style. We would stand there in such a position for hours on end until the meeting was finished or we collapsed – only to be kicked to our feet. We used to practise the position in our spare time, so as to be ready for the ordeal.

One day in mid-June I was pushed to a place where many other ‘counter-revolutionaries’ were already standing. Each of us had a broad placard inscribed with ‘Counter-Revolutionary So-and-So’ hung round our necks. I bent down as low as possible, sweat dripping onto the ground. People surrounded us, mocking, kicking, pushing and pinching. Suddenly someone put a piece of plank on my back with some bricks on top of it. ‘Make sure not a single brick falls off!’ someone was shouting at me. Another person put a rock into my hands: ‘Hold it steady.’ No matter how hard I tried to keep my balance, in the end the bricks would roll down. I was kicked, whipped, sneered at. I didn’t know which way to turn.

Later all the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ were marched through the campus while Red Guards and the ‘revolutionary masses’ stood on either side of the road with clubs, branches, whips, anything they could lay their hands on. The blows tore through my blouse and exposed my bleeding back.

Why should they treat me like this? I had no ill feeling towards Jiang Qing personally. I grew up with the new People’s Republic. I joined the Pioneers – an advanced children’s organisation rather like the Boy Scouts here, and I later became a member of the Communist Youth League. I was of a vivacious character, singing and laughing all day long. But now nobody dared to show sympathy with me, or even to talk to me.

At last, the torture session came to an end, both sides exhausted, the torturers and the tortured. I did not shed a single tear during the day – only bit my lip till it bled. I had done nothing wrong, my conscience was clear. On seeing my tattered blouse and bruised back, Granny could no longer hold back her tears. While I was feeding the hungry baby, she bathed me with warm water: ‘Your parents’ hearts will break if they learn about this!’

Not long after this, Zhou came to ‘visit’ me in my confinement. He ordered me to move to the ‘cowshed’, where other ‘counter-revolutionaries’ were staying. The ‘cowshed’ used to be a teaching block near the Democracy Building, where my department was located. The Red Guards had cordoned off the block with reed mat fencing, turning it into a courtyard. It was guarded day and night. Anyone of the opposite faction was liable to be thrown into the ‘cowshed’. The former Chancellor, the vice-chancellors, heads of department, professors, scholars, ordinary teachers, were all locked up there.

My mother-in-law entreated them to let me breast-feed the baby: she almost went down on her knees. They would not listen to her, but walked me to the university hospital, forcing me to have an injection to stop my milk. After running a fever for a whole night, I could not squeeze out a drop of milk for my son, and Granny had to see me packed off to the ‘cowshed’. Later, she was forced to leave Peking with her grandson.

In the ‘cowshed’, we slept on the earthen ground with straw as a mattress. No beds, no chairs, no desks. I shared a room with ten other women prisoners. We were pestered by flies and mosquitoes. There was one cold-water pipe, with several taps. The toilets were holes in the ground.

Early in the morning, a whistle would wake us up. We had to gather in the yard as soon as possible, falling into ranks. All the prisoners were divided into groups according to their sex and the category of their crimes. Everybody had to carry with him the ‘treasured red booklet’ – The Thoughts of Chairman Mao. We had to open it at the frontispiece, Mao’s portrait, with our heads bent. We had to apologise to Chairman Mao for the ‘crime’ we had ‘committed’. Then one of the Red Guards would announce which paragraphs we were to recite that day.

The day was spent on various kinds of hard labour: building roads, cleaning boilers, transporting coal, planting seedlings, weeding. In the afternoon, when the sun was blazing down, the Red Guards would ask us to sprinkle water on the ground to keep them cool. The worst time was the ‘reprimand’ after supper. We were exhausted after a hard day’s labour under the scorching sun. It would have been nice to sit down and take a rest, but no such luxury for us. We were herded together in the courtyard, with heads bent, in a fixed posture, for hours on end. The Red Guards would pick out someone to recite the appointed paragraphs. This was no problem for people like myself, with a good memory. But for the elderly professors, some of whom had studied abroad in the Thirties or Forties, it was an ordeal to go through. One of them, Professor Hsu, a Cantonese, had gone to the States as a labourer when he was a teenager. He was self-taught in English, had financed his own studies and had become a professor of English. With the birth of the new China, he came back with his whole family and had been working as a teacher of the language. His English was much better than his Chinese – his Cantonese or Mandarin. If he had been asked to recite the quotations in English, he would not have failed so disastrously. He stood in front of all of us, his grey head bent low, one of his legs swollen from rheumatoid arthritis. He stammered inaudibly, making mistakes here and missing words there. More often than not, he would simply give up. Then the Red Guards and other onlookers would mock, scold or push him. Once he was made to kneel down on a washing-board with a bowl of water on top of his head. He died not long after he was released from the cowshed.

This was a time when children ran wild. Those whose parents were ‘revolutionaries’ were allowed to enter the cowshed whenever they liked. They didn’t understand our real story but just enjoyed bullying us. When we stood still, listening to a reprimand, they would take us by surprise, pinching, spitting, stamping on our feet. Once when I was having a bowl of corn gruel, a child picked up a rotten tomato from the dustbin and threw it into my bowl.

I lost all connection with the outside world. I was not allowed to go back home or to write. I remembered it was time for my husband to have his home leave soon. We had been able to see each other once every other year since we graduated from the University. One Sunday afternoon my husband suddenly appeared before me in his army uniform. The Guards didn’t stop him as the PLA men were considered to be revolutionaries in those days. I looked up in astonishment and joy. Emotions choked me. He quickly told me that he was on leave again, and that he would ask the authorities to let me join him. He told me that my father and brother had been locked up in their respective work-places, my mother criticised every day. Before he could finish, some Red Guards came up and surrounded us. We had to stop. They pushed him away out of the courtyard.

I didn’t have a chance to talk with him again for a month. He did go to the department office to see Zhou, but the answer was no. I was not permitted to leave the cowshed as I was a ‘dangerous counter-revolutionary’ who would spread rumours against the ‘proletarian headquarters’: my husband had better leave Peking as soon as possible. Nobody could answer for his safety since ‘the righteous indignation of the revolutionary people knew no bounds.’ He then left for Canton to see our son, whom he had never seen before.

Life in the cowshed went on as usual. I got used to all the bullying, hitting, scolding and cursing. Regulations insisted that we bend our heads all day long. For a long time after I had regained my freedom, I couldn’t change this habit.

Towards mid-August news came that Mao was not pleased with the situation in schools and universities. Things were totally out of the control of the central government. A Worker-Peasant-Soldier Propaganda Team was formed and set out to take over the Red Guards. Blood was shed. Finally an agreement was reached between the Propaganda Team and the Red Guards that the two sides should strike up ‘a grand revolutionary alliance’. POWs were to be exchanged at a certain place on a certain day, and I was lucky enough to be included in the first batch. I did not know about this until the morning I was ordered to pack up my things in five minutes. I trudged along with my belongings on my back – no one would give me a hand. I joined other POWs at the other end of the campus as our names were read out. ‘Comrades’ from my faction welcomed me back.

For the first time over these hundred days I saw friendly smiles on people’s faces. One of the faction leaders shook my hand: ‘You have been wronged, I am sorry. You didn’t say anything against Comrade Jiang Qing, did you?’ I was petrified. I told him honestly that I had said something which I should not have said. He withdrew his hand abruptly. His smile vanished.

I turned to a woman who was apparently some VIP in the propaganda team: ‘Do you mean I am free now?’

‘Why, yes,’ she was smiling.

‘May I go home right now?’

‘Yes, do.’ She was a bit surprised.

I started running towards the gate when I heard the woman calling behind me: ‘Comrade! Comrade! Your things!’

I only waved in answer for I was choked with tears. ‘Comrade’ is the most common form of address in China but is used only among ‘revolutionary’ people. For the past hundred days, I had been a ‘counter-revolutionary’, and no one had called me ‘comrade’. During that time, I had tried to swallow my tears with clenched teeth. Now I had my freedom, when I was addressed as ‘comrade’ the tears welled up.

I jumped on the first bus going to town, and was among ordinary people again. Nobody in the bus would know I was a ‘counter-revolutionary’. I was going to see my mother, who would never believe that her delicate daughter could be as tough as that. She would be proud of me. Through my tears I could see the dear old Peking which I loved so much. Freedom, I would treasure you more than anything else in the world.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences