Awakening the Individual Consciousness

This essay is part of “What Kind of China do We Want?,” a project of the Foreign Policy Initiative to inform the American public about the ideas and goals of China’s intellectuals, activists and dissidents. 

It was noon on a summer’s day in 1966.  The weather was hot, so my grandmother took us to have lunch under the shade of a tree.  Just as the food was being put on the table, a foul burning smell came from over the horizon, making it difficult to swallow our food.  We followed the stench to its source, and came upon a place where the multicolored costumes of a local theater troupe were being burned out in the street—a host of brightly colored dresses, skirts, sashes were being consumed by the long, lapping tongues of the flames.  Occasionally, fluffy balls of silk would roll by our feet, covered in filth.  These beautiful headdresses and embroidered shoes were the focus of many of my childhood memories.  My mother had always loved the theater, and so my siblings and I had many opportunities to follow her to see the old costume pieces about “emperors and courtiers, talented youths and beautiful maidens,” although for my part I had never been able to understand the meaning of their stories.

The burning of the theater troupe’s costumes at the beginning of the “Breaking down the Four Olds” campaign remains my earliest memory from the events of the Cultural Revolution.  At the time, my family was living in a local government compound, and a beautiful girl from one of the neighboring families participated in the burning of the theater costumes.  She always wore the same dark corduroy outfit, with her hair in two braids, and a constant smile, which broke into two deep dimples whenever she laughed.  She had an elder sister named Xiao Mao, so everyone called her “Xiao Mao’s Little Sister.”  She must have just been entering high school at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution.  When it came, she quickly donned the armband of Mao’s Red Guards and strutted around full of purpose, her head held high.  She was the first person from our courtyard to go to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and she was among the group that was given an interview with Mao, the Great Helmsman of the Revolution.

When Chairman Mao Zedong dubbed these school children “Little Generals of the Revolution,” they found their status within their families and communities suddenly elevated.  Their parents began to pay them close attention.  They began to feel special, as though they were masters of the universe.  Once “Xiao Mao’s Little Sister” joined the Red Guards, she quickly became a celebrity in the courtyard. In my young eyes, the Red Guards seemed like a troupe of “divine soldiers and generals” of the kind that I had seen in theater troupe performances.  It was as if they had suddenly descended from somewhere on high, charged with a divine mission.  This was not my own make-believe.  In fact, they were in command of a special vocabulary that conferred on them a special status and powers that forced everyone to defer to them: Slogans like “The enemy must surrender or be annihilated,” and, “The world is ours; if we do not act, who will?” and “Fearing neither Heaven nor Earth.”   They reminded me of mythical characters from my storybooks, the Monkey King and Marshall Naja, as they went tumbling and scrapping through the vaults of Heaven, looking down on the mortal world.  But they did not merely look down on the world—they glared at it with contempt.

The Red Guards had been charged with uncovering “enemy activities.”  It turned out that these had been going on all around us, and that the “traitors,” “class enemies,” and “capitalist roaders” that the Red Guards ferreted out were none other than our own parents, or those of our schoolmates. 

And then there were also certain strange, incomprehensible terms like “class enemy.”  Once, when we heard a rumor that someone had been distributing packages of Daqianmen cigarettes with slogans reading “Long live Chiang Kai-shek” tucked inside, my older brother took me out after dark to hunt around under the streetlights to try to find one.  We wandered about the streets checking discarded cigarette packets, hoping to uncover a secret, but also afraid that we wouldn’t know what to do if we actually found one.

The events of the Cultural Revolution played out right on the streets of our community.  Colorful banners with people’s names written upside-down and crossed with X’s.  Big character posters some of which conveyed messages that “children shouldn’t see,” such as the ones telling how many concubines a certain man had kept prior to the Revolution.  Large portraits of people alleged to  have “taken the capitalist road,” with the words “capitalist dog” scrawled over their faces.  One of my young school companions and I were out on the street watching the commotion when she called out to me, “Hey, your dad’s name is on that one!”  When I hurried over to see, I found one with her father’s picture on it as well, and so we both quickly left the scene.  On one street, the local “Propaganda Brigade for Mao Zedong Thought” had erected a stage on which they gave performances both day and night, thronged about by large crowds.  They performed songs and dances that were calculated to express a sense, not only of anger, but also of grief, indignation, and abandonment.  For example, there was the famous song “Flying Geese,” about a group of Red Guards who were besieged by their enemies and helplessly abandoned.  In the evenings, people would spill out onto the streets to celebrate the arrival of newly promulgated instructions from Chairman Mao.  The loudspeakers that had been strung up everywhere blared all at once, broadcasting their messages over and over again in slow, solemn tones that sounded like voices calling down from Heaven.  Listening to them, one always felt small and insignificant.  A documentary film about Mao Zedong’s meeting with the Red Guards in Beijing was being broadcast in towns all around the country, with voiceover commentary performed by a female Red Guard whose high, urgent voice conveyed a sense of resigned loyalty and self-sacrifice.

No one was able to resist the allure of these performances.  I was too small to understand the content of the big-character posters, but I learned all of the popular revolutionary songs.  The brassy songs flowed into our bloodstreams, shaping our thoughts and feelings with their uncompromising tone and vigor.   As a result, most of us can remember the shock that we felt the first time that we heard the Taiwanese singer Deng Lijun perform in the 1980s.  That was the first time that it occurred to us that one could sing about feelings or love, or that there were different styles of singing.

Of course, we had our share of troubles during those years, too.   Sometimes we had to get up in the dead of night to queue up to buy coal, which was always in short supply, or to buy one of the new badges with Chairman Mao’s portrait on them.  And when our parents had been placed under “supervision,” which actually meant detention, and our nanny and grandmother both driven out to the countryside, my siblings and I had to take charge of all of the household chores, shopping for food and cooking meals during the daytime, extinguishing the coal-burning stove and shutting up the house at night, and taking warm clothes to our parents in wintertime.  For over a year, we handled the duties of daily life.  My thirteen-year-old brother had to drag me along wherever he went, since there were no adults at home to look after me. 

My father’s family was a classic example of a Chinese “rural gentry” household.  This class of people fell somewhere between the Emperor and the common people.  They were defenders of the established order of rural society. According to my family’s genealogical records, my grandfather was responsible for establishing the first primary school in my village; this is an example of the role that the gentry were expected to play in rural social life. 

After the Communists came, my father was classified as a landlord and therefore a member of the “exploitative class,” even though he and his three brothers and their aunt had all joined the Communist Party.  In 1952, when the Communists began confiscating property and giving it to the peasants, my father and his siblings searched the family home for things they could turn over.  They were indifferent to their family’s wealth, believing a better future could only be realized if everyone were to give up their selfish personal interests in favor of the common good.  This sense of self-sacrifice was part of their communist ideology, but it also had roots in China’s Confucian ethic. It was within this muddled and obscure intellectual tradition—part Confucian and part Communist—that I grew up. 

In 1974, I graduated from high school.  My family was being persecuted.  Both of my brothers were locked up in a cowshed because of our family “background,” and I joined lots of other “sent down youth.” I went to a village in the Sheyang district of coastal Jiangsu to plant cotton.  I consider myself lucky.  My sojourn in the countryside lasted only three years.  Among my work-group colleagues there were some students who had left school in 1966, and who for more than a decade had been deprived of the opportunity to pursue higher education.  In 1976 Mao died.  The Cultural Revolution waned and students returned to the cities. 

In 1977, I was admitted into the first class of students to enter the university after it reopened.  My first few years of college life were spent amid an enthusiastic atmosphere of intellectual liberation that prevailed during the early post-Mao reform era.  I had only been in school a few days when, in March of 1978, the State Council re-opened the National University of Science and Technology, renewing its commitment to science and the status of intellectuals in Chinese life.  Hu Yaobang, Mao’s successor as General Secretary of the CCP, launched an effort to rehabilitate those who had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.  History and facts that had been hidden away were beginning to come to light.  My fellow students and I thirsted to read the latest works by writers like Wang Meng and Zhang Xianliang, who reappeared after having been banished to labor camps as “Rightists” for years. Our professors would occasionally digress from their lectures and engage in extended discussions about formerly hushed-up events like the Great Famine of the 1960s.

In 1978, at the age of twenty-two, I was just entering the formative period of my intellectual development.  Every day, my classmates and I were making new discoveries, uncovering truths, opening new topics of discussion, and experiencing new hopes and aspirations. A poet of about my age described the way many young people felt.

I am walking down a long, long hallway…

—Ah! Facing me is the dazzling light of the sun coming from a window on the far wall;

The Sun and I are standing together!

—Ah! The sun is so fierce that it stops people in their tracks and cuts off their breath.

All the light of the entire universe is concentrated right here in this place.

—I do not know what else exists outside of myself,

I stand for ten seconds, ten seconds in the sunlight,

Though it seems like a quarter of a century.

Finally, I rush down the stairs,

Open the door,

And run out into the light of spring.

My experiences growing up during the Cultural Revolution and in its aftermath imprinted two things on my mind.  The first is that truth is buried away underground and does not necessarily prevail.  On the contrary, it is something that requires the active support of committed people, who face great opposition if they pursue it.  The second thing is the fact that China went down a very twisted path during the Cultural Revolution, not only introducing new and specious “truths” that ultimately turned out to be nonsense, but also adopting and distorting the intellectual foundations of China’s traditional Confucian culture.  Traditional Confucian culture possessed a sense of understanding and sympathy for the sufferings of common people, even though it tended to regard poverty as part of the natural background of the social order, rather than as a man-made phenomenon for which everyone in society shares collective responsibility.  The Chinese term ren-min (the people) is comprised of two components that refer to mutually exclusive social groups: the former are educated, active, and deserving of respect, while the latter are uneducated, passive, and perceived to be incapable of exercising individual autonomy.  The term “common people” that my father used to explain his Communist ideals to us as children carried a sense of sympathy and understanding toward the lowest classes of society, even at the same time as it served to distance him from them.  The difference between my father and the “common people” that his use of this term implied was the following: that there were certain things that he was capable of understanding which were outside of the control and understanding of the “common people.” 

When the revolutionaries moved to the cities they perpetuated their privileged place within the social hierarchy.  They looked on all of the various privileges that accrued to them as a result of their position within the social hierarchy as being no more than what was properly their due as compensation for their years of revolutionary work.  Their privileges proved to them that they were of special value.  Afterward, they rarely ever looked outside their immediate social group, and they came to believe, whether consciously or unconsciously, that the outside world was unreliable, corrupting, and potentially dangerous to them.  This grafting of Communist values and power onto Confucian attitudes reinforced the notion of a “society”  in opposition to the “state.” 

At the same time, the Communist elites arrogated to themselves an identity as the “vanguard” class.  Unrestrained, they now act like wild beasts rampaging among the people, beasts which no power can suppress and upon whom no laws are binding.  Protecting their position, they defend the status quo and look down their noses at ordinary people, assume that their own wishes and aspirations correspond with those of the broader public, and are prepared to ruthlessly use the lives of millions of others as tools to further their own causes.  Although the national ministries were originally established to help resolve problems faced by the common people, they have now become one of the major sources of the nation’s problems.  The loss of any sense of universal moral values or responsibility has become the defining characteristic of our national spirit.  And all of this now serves only to guard the privileges of a small minority of society. China’s history—intellectual and revolutionary—has left the Chinese people with the urgent need to develop themselves as individuals.  During the early 1990s I first encountered the writings of Havel's about individual conscience.  I came to feel there were both moral and personal imperatives at stake.  By awakening one’s individual conscience, one could achieve liberation from a state of individual paralysis and restore one’s personal identity, independence, and sense of individual responsibility.  It is only on the basis of something called the “individual” that we can speak meaningfully about the ideal of “treating all people with equal respect.”  It is only after a person has become self-consciously aware of his own opinions that he can slowly learn to listen to the opinions of others and recognize them as being worthy of respect.

For a long time in this country, the term “individual” has carried connotations of dangerousness and even criminality; “individualism” was seen as a form of Western corruption, and it was commonly believed that all individual needs, interests, and ways of thinking must be purged in favor of a commitment to the “public interest.”  This situation gave rise not only to a loss of individual interest and individual freedom, but also to a habit of shirking responsibility and a tendency to push all problems onto other people.  Whenever anyone encounters anything unpleasant in life, they assume that it represents a failing on the part either of the government or of the broader society.  Under a totalitarian state, all problems reflected upon the Party and the state, further alienating the individual from personal responsibility.   

In China today, although we have, in Havel’s terms, the freedom to choose among different brands of refrigerators and television sets, political topics are banned from public discussion. While the number of topics on which people may express themselves has grown, the ability to link solutions to the political system is still denied.  The people are not allowed to voice their own opinions about current social trends or to offer their own proposals about how best to resolve the conflicts in today’s society.  If they try to do so, they quickly find themselves charged with crimes and end up facing harsh treatment by the authorities.  Under these circumstances, people’s energy naturally chooses the areas where official resistance to open debate is weakest to find its release.

Intellectuals participating in public life must work constantly to expand the range of topics that are open to free public discussion.  They must not shy from addressing politically sensitive questions that inevitably come up in the course of examining topics where official resistance to open discussion is weaker. The Chinese people are still developing as individuals, something that their history has made difficult.  The cost of doing this can still be quite high, even if the extremes of punishment and ideological fervor have ebbed.  It is a gradual process, but a vital one.

© Cui Weiping. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Kyle Fry. All rights reserved.