My Days in the Cowshed

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

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.

The full text of this memoir is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in