An Experiment in Human Nature

As a young boy growing up in communist China, Gao Jianhua (b. 1952) dreamed of becoming a great writer. He loved literature, and his teachers commended him for his essays and poems. In 1964 he gained admittance to the Yizhen Middle School (YMS), not far from where his family lived. Located in the town of Yizhen, several hundred miles north of Beijing, YMS was labeled a “key school”—over 90 percent of its students went on to college. It was difficult to get into and quite prestigious. At YMS, Jianhua was a quiet and studious boy; he had ambitions of graduating in six years with a top record, good enough to get into Beijing University, from where he would launch the writing career he dreamed about.

Students at YMS lived on campus, and life there could be rather dull, since the Communist Party regulated almost every aspect of life in China, including education. There were daily military drills, propaganda classes, manual labor duty, and regular classes, which could be rigorous.

At YMS, Jianhua developed a close friendship with a classmate named Fangpu, perhaps the most zealous communist at school. Pale and thin and wearing glasses, Fangpu looked the type of the intellectual revolutionary. He was four years older than Jianhua, but they had bonded over their common love of literature and their desire to become writers. They had their differences—Fangpu’s poetry centered on political issues; he worshipped Chairman Mao Zedong and wanted to emulate not only his writings but also his revolutionary career. Jianhua, on the other hand, had little interest in politics, even though his father was a respected communist war veteran and government official. But they enjoyed their literary discussions, and Fangpu treated Jianhua like a younger brother.

In May of 1966, as Jianhua was engrossed in his studies, preparing for the final exams to end his second year, Fangpu paid him a visit, and he seemed unusually animated. He had been scouring the Beijing newspapers to keep up with trends in the capital, and recently he had read of a literary debate started by several renowned intellectuals that he had to share with Jianhua.

These intellectuals had accused well-known, respected writers of hiding counterrevolutionary messages in their plays, films, and magazine articles. They based these accusations on careful readings of certain passages in the writers’ work that could be seen as veiled criticisms of Mao himself. “Certain people are using art and literature to attack the party and socialism,” said Fangpu. This debate is about the future of the revolution, he said, and Mao must be behind it all. To Jianhua it all seemed a bit tedious and academic, but he trusted his older friend’s instincts, and he promised to follow the events in the newspaper.

Fangpu’s words proved prophetic: within a week, papers throughout China had picked up the story of the raging debate. Teachers at YMS began to talk about some of the newspaper articles in their classes. One day the school’s Communist Party secretary, a paunchy man named Ding Yi, called for an assembly and gave a speech recounting almost verbatim an editorial against the counterrevolutionary writers. Something was definitely in the air. The students now had to devote so many hours every day to discussing the latest turns in the debate.

Throughout Beijing, posters with large headlines had appeared everywhere attacking the “antiparty black line,” meaning those who were secretly trying to put the brakes on the communist revolution. Ding supplied the students with materials for making their own posters, and the students happily threw themselves into the task. They largely copied the posters from Beijing; Jianhua’s friend Zongwei, a talented artist, made the most attractive posters of all, with his elegant calligraphy. Within days, almost all of the walls of the school were covered with posters, and Secretary Ding roamed around the campus reading them, smiling and approving of the work. To Jianhua it was all quite novel and exciting, and he loved the new look of the campus walls.

The campaign in Beijing focused on local intellectuals everyone knew, but in Yizhen this seemed rather distant. If China was being infiltrated by all kinds of counterrevolutionaries, that meant that they had also probably infiltrated the school itself, and the only logical place for the students to look for such class enemies was among their teachers and school officials. They began to scrutinize their lectures and lessons for hidden messages, much as the intellectuals had done with the work of famous writers.

The geography teacher Liu always talked about the beautiful landscapes of China but hardly ever mentioned the inspiring words of Mao. Could that mean something? The physics teacher Feng had an American father who had served in the U.S. Navy; was he secretly an imperialist? Li, the teacher of Chinese, had fought initially on the side of the nationalists against the communists during the revolution, but in the last year had switched sides. The students had always trusted his version of events, and he was Jianhua’s favorite teacher because he had such a flair for telling stories. But in retrospect he seemed a bit old-fashioned and bourgeois. Could he still be a counterrevolutionary nationalist at heart? Soon a few posters appeared that questioned the fervor of some of these teachers. Secretary Ding found this a trivial application of the debate, and he ordered a ban on all posters attacking teachers.

By June the movement sweeping Beijing, and soon all of China, had acquired a name—the Great Socialist Cultural Revolution. It was indeed Mao himself who had instigated it all by setting up the newspaper articles, and he was to be the ongoing leader of the new movement. He feared that China had been slipping back into its feudal past. Old ways of thinking and acting had returned. Bureaucracies had become breeding grounds for a new type of elite. Peasants remained relatively powerless.

He wanted a wake-up call to revive the revolutionary spirit. He wanted the younger generation to experience revolution firsthand by making it themselves. He proclaimed to young people that it was “right to rebel,” but the word he used in Chinese for this was zao fan, which literally means to turn everything upside down. It was young people’s duty, he said, to question authority. Those who secretly worked to pull China back into its past he called “revisionists,” and he implored students to help him uncover the revisionists and root them out of the new revolutionary China.

Taking these pronouncements of Mao as a call to action, Fangpu created the most audacious poster anyone had yet seen—it was a direct attack on Secretary Ding himself. Ding was not only the school’s party secretary but also a veteran of the revolution and a highly respected figure. According to Fangpu, however, his prohibition on criticizing teachers proved he was a revisionist, bent on suppressing the questioning spirit Mao had encouraged. This created quite a stir. The students had been reared to unquestioningly obey those in authority, particularly respected party members. Fangpu had broken this taboo. Had he gone too far?

A few days after the appearance of Fangpu’s poster, some strangers arrived on campus from Beijing. They were part of “work teams” sent to schools around China to help supervise and maintain some discipline over the bourgeoning Cultural Revolution. The work team at YMS ordered Fangpu to publicly apologize to Secretary Ding. At the same time, however, they lifted the ban on posters that criticized teachers. As in schools around China, they also suspended all classes and exams at YMS. Students were to devote themselves to making revolution, under their watchful eye.

Suddenly feeling free of the yoke of the past and all the habits of obedience drummed into them, the students at YMS began to brazenly attack those teachers who had demonstrated less than revolutionary zeal or had been unkind to students.

Jianhua felt compelled to join the campaign, but this was difficult— he happened to like almost all of his teachers. He did not want to seem, however, like a revisionist. Besides, he respected the wisdom and authority of Mao. He decided to make a poster attacking Teacher Wen, who had criticized him once for not being sufficiently interested in politics, which had bothered him at the time. He made his criticism of her as gentle as possible. Others took this up and went further with their attacks on Teacher Wen, and Jianhua felt bad.

To satisfy the students’ growing anger, some teachers began to confess to some minor revolutionary sins, but this made the students feel they were hiding even more. They had to apply more pressure to get them to reveal the truth, and a student nicknamed “Little Bawang” (bawang meaning “overseer,” referring to his love of giving orders) had an idea on how to do this. He had read Mao’s description of how during the revolution in the 1940s peasants had captured the most notorious landlords and paraded them through their villages with enormous dunce caps on their heads and heavy wooden boards—with inscriptions describing their crimes—hung around their necks. To avoid such public humiliation, certainly the teachers would come clean and confess. The students agreed to try this, and their first target for such treatment was to be Teacher Li, Jianhua’s favorite.

Teacher Li was accused of faking his switch to communism. Stories began to come out of his telling other teachers about his visits to brothels in Shanghai. Clearly he had a secret life, and Jianhua now felt disappointed in Li. China before the communist revolution had been a cruel place, and if Li was working to bring that back, he could only hate him. Unwilling to confess to any crimes, Li was the first to be paraded through school with the dunce cap and board around his neck. Along the way some students poured a bucket of poster paste over his head. Jianhua followed the parade from a distance, trying to repress his uneasiness at the humiliation of his teacher.

Led by Little Bawang, the students imposed the same fate on more teachers, the dunce caps becoming unbearably tall and the boards heavier. Imitating their revolutionary brothers and sisters in Beijing, the students initiated “struggle meetings” in which they forced certain teachers into the jet-plane position—a student standing on either side, pushing teachers to their knees, pulling their hair back with a jerk, then holding their arms out and back, like the wings of a jet plane. It was a most painful position, but it seemed to work, as after an hour or two of this, with students jeering at them, many teachers began to confess. The students were right in their suspicions—the school had been teeming with revisionists, right under their noses!

Soon the students’ attention turned to the vice principal, Lin Sheng, who they discovered was the son of a notorious landlord. He was the third-highest official at school, which made this bit of news all the more salacious. Jianhua had been sent to his office once for misbehavior, and Sheng had been quite lenient with him, which he had appreciated at the time. The students locked Lin Sheng in a room, where he was to stay between the struggle meetings, but one morning Jianhua, serving as the guard on duty, opened the room to discover the vice principal had hung himself. Once again Jianhua struggled to repress his discomfort, but he had to admit the suicide made it seem as if Lin Sheng was indeed guilty of something.

One day, in the midst of all this, Jianhua ran into Fangpu, who was bursting with excitement. Since his forced public apology over his poster attacking Ding, he had been laying low. He had spent his time devouring the writings of Mao and Marx and plotting his next move. Word had come from Beijing that the work teams were to be withdrawn from all schools. Students were to form their own committee, choose a school official to be its head, and run the school itself through the committee. Fangpu planned on becoming the student leader of the committee. And he was going to wage open revolution against Secretary Ding. Jianhua could only admire his bravery and persistence.

Through Little Bawang, who had forced more and more confessions from teachers, Fangpu learned that Secretary Ding had had affairs with at least two female teachers, revealing his audacious hypocrisy. He was the one continually ranting against Western decadence and was always admonishing the male and female students at Yizhen to keep their distance from each other. Bawang and Fangpu ransacked his office and found that he had been hoarding food coupons and possessed a fancy radio and bottles of nice wine, all hidden away.

Now posters attacking Ding filled the walls. Even Jianhua felt indignant at his behavior. Soon Ding Yi was paraded through school and then through the town of Yizhen, on his head the most enormous dunce cap, decorated with drawings of monsters, and a very heavy drum hung around his neck. As he drummed with one hand while holding the cap with the other, he had to chant, “I am Ding Yi, ox demon and snake spirit.” Citizens of Yizhen, who knew Secretary Ding, gaped at the spectacle. The world had indeed been turned upside down.

By the middle of the summer, most of the teachers had fled. When it came time to form the committee to run the school, only a few remained to serve as chairman of the committee, and with Fangpu as the student leader, a little-known and rather harmless teacher named Deng Zeng was named chairman. Now the work team left YMS, and Deng and the committee were in charge.

And as the students progressed in making revolution, Jianhua began to feel increasingly excited. He and his friend Zongwei carried old spears and swords as they patrolled the school looking for spies, and it was just like in the novels he loved to read. He and the other students marched in columns into town, waving enormous red flags, carrying large posters of Chairman Mao and copies of his little red book, chanting slogans, banging on drums, and crashing cymbals. It was so dramatic, and it felt like they were indeed participating in revolution. One day, they marched through Yizhen tearing down store and street signs that were vestiges of prerevolutionary China. Mao would be proud of them.

In Beijing, some students had formed groups to support and defend Mao in his Cultural Revolution; they called themselves Red Guards, and their members wore bright red armbands. Mao gave his personal approval to this, and now Red Guard units began to appear in schools and universities around the country. Only the purest and most fervent revolutionaries could be admitted to the Red Guards, and competition was fierce to join their ranks. Because of his father’s illustrious past, Jianhua became a member of the Red Guards, and now he basked in the admiring glances of fellow students and local citizens who noticed the bright red armband that never left him.

There was one wrinkle, however, in these exciting events: On a visit home to see his family in the nearby town of Lingzhi, Jianhua discovered that local students had accused his father of being a revisionist. He cared more about farming and economics than about making revolution, said the students. They had gotten him dismissed from his government position; he had had to suffer through various struggle meetings in the jet-plane position. The family was in disgrace. Although he loved and admired his father and worried for him, he could not help but feel anxious that, if news of this disgrace reached his school, he might lose his red armband and be ostracized. He would have to be careful when talking about his family.

When he returned to school several weeks later, he noticed some radical changes that had already occurred: Fangpu had consolidated power. He had formed a new group called the East-Is-Red Corps; he and his team had kicked out Chairman Deng and were now running the school themselves. They had started their own newspaper, called Battlefield News, to promote and defend their actions. Jianhua also learned that another teacher had died under suspicious circumstances.

One day, Fangpu visited Jianhua and invited him to be a star reporter for Battlefield News. Fangpu looked different—he had put on weight, was not so pale, and was trying to grow a beard. It was a tempting offer from his friend, but something made Jianhua put him off, and Fangpu did not like this, although he tried to disguise his annoyance with a forced smile. Fangpu was beginning to frighten Jianhua.

Students were now joining the East-Is-Red Corps en masse, but within a few weeks a rival group, calling themselves the Red Rebels, emerged on campus. Their leader was Mengzhe, a student whose parents were peasants and who advocated revolution that was more tolerant, based on reason and not violence, which he felt was the purer form of Maoism. He gained some adherents, including Jianhua’s older brother, Weihua, who was a student at YMS. Mengzhe’s growing popularity infuriated Fangpu; he called him a royalist, a sentimentalist, and secret counterrevolutionary. He and his followers destroyed the Red Rebels’ office and threatened to do worse. It would certainly cause a complete rift with Fangpu, but Jianhua contemplated joining the Red Rebels. He was attracted to their idealism.

Just as the tension between the two sides was escalating into outright war, a representative from the Chinese military arrived on campus and announced that the army was now in charge. Mao had dispatched army units throughout the country to take control of schools. The increasing chaos and violence that was engulfing YMS was going on all over China, not only in schools but in factories and government offices as well; the Cultural Revolution was spinning out of control. Soon thirty-six soldiers arrived on campus, part of an army unit known as the 901; they ordered that all factions disband and that classes resume. There would be military drilling and discipline would be reestablished.

Too much had changed, however, in the eight months since this had all begun. The students could not accept such a sudden return to discipline. They sulked and did not turn up at classes. Fangpu took charge of the campaign to get rid of the soldiers: he put up posters accusing the 901 of being enemies of the Cultural Revolution. One day, he and his followers attacked one of the army officers with a slingshot and wounded him. Just as the students feared reprisals, the 901 unit was suddenly recalled from campus without any explanation.

The students were now completely on their own, and it seemed a frightening prospect. They quickly allied themselves with one of the two groups. Some joined the East-Is-Red Corps because it was larger and offered better positions; others joined the Red Rebels because they hated Fangpu and Little Bawang; and others thought one group or the other was more revolutionary. Jianhua joined the Red Rebels, as did his friend Zongwei.

Each side felt certain it represented the true spirit of the Cultural Revolution, and as they yelled at one another and argued, fistfights broke out, and there was nobody to stop them. Soon students were bringing bats and sticks to the fights, and the injuries mounted. One day some members of the East-Is-Red Corps captured some Red Rebels and held them prisoners. The Red Rebels could not find out anything about their fate.

In the middle of this tense moment, the Red Rebels discovered that one of their members, a female student named Yulan, was actually a spy for the other side. Infuriated by such tactics, they tied Yulan up and began to beat her, to find out if there were more spies. Much to the dismay of Jianhua, who considered this a betrayal of their ideals, they battered and bruised her, but she revealed nothing. Soon Yulan was exchanged for the prisoners held by the East-Is-Red Corps, but now the antipathy between the two sides had reached a breaking point.

A few weeks later, the East-Is-Red Corps suddenly left school en masse and established their headquarters in a building in town that they seized. Mengzhe decided to form a team of guerrilla fighters who would operate in Yizhen at night to keep an eye on the Corps and do some sabotage work. Jianhua was assigned to them as a reporter. It was an exciting job. As they encountered the enemy in town, battles with slingshots erupted. Then the Corps captured one of the Rebel guerrillas, named Heping. A few days later, he was discovered in a hospital, dead. The Corps had taken him for a ride in a jeep in the desert, with a sock in his mouth, and he had suffocated along the way. Now even Mengzhe had had enough and vowed revenge for this horrible deed. Jianhua could only agree with him.

As the skirmishes spread throughout the town, citizens fled and entire buildings were abandoned, and looters scoured them for goods. The Red Rebels were soon on the offensive. Working with local craftsmen, they manufactured the highest-quality swords and spears. Casualties mounted. Finally the Rebels encircled the Corps’s stronghold in town and prepared for a final offensive. The Corps fled, leaving behind a small band of student soldiers in the building. The Rebels demanded their surrender, and suddenly, from a third-floor window, there was the young student Yulan screaming out, “I’d rather die than surrender to you!” With the Corps’s bright red flag in her hand, she shouted, “Long live Chairman Mao!” and jumped. Jianhua found her lifeless body wrapped up in the flag on the ground. Her devotion to the cause astounded and impressed him.

Now in control, the Red Rebels established their headquarters at the school and prepared their defenses for a counteroffensive from the Corps. They built a makeshift munitions factory on campus. Some students had learned how to make grenades and various powerful explosive devices. An inadvertent explosion killed several of them, but the work went on. Zongwei, the artist, had had enough; somehow the noble origins of the Red Rebels had been lost, and he feared the expanding violence; he fled Yizhen for good. Jianhua lost respect for his friend. How could Zongwei forget those who had been injured or died for their cause? To give up now would be to say it was all in vain. He would not be a coward like his friend. Besides, the East-Is-Red Corps was downright evil and was capable of doing anything to take power. They had betrayed the revolution.

As life at the school settled down and the Red Rebels built up their defenses, Jianhua visited his family, whom he had not seen for a while. When he finally returned one night to school, however, he could not believe his eyes: his Red Rebel comrades were nowhere in sight; their flag was no longer flying above the school. Everywhere there were armed soldiers. Finally he found a few comrades hiding in a school building, and they told him what had happened: Mao was reasserting his authority once and for all; he was picking sides in various local conflicts to help create some order; and the military in the county had come down on the side of the East-Is-Red Corps as the more truly revolutionary group. The repercussions of this could be awful.

Jianhua and several other comrades decided they would try to escape and regroup in the mountains, where Mengzhe had apparently fled, but there was a blockade throughout the county and they were forced back to school, which had become more of a prison, overseen by the East-Is-Red Corps.

Now the Rebels could only expect the worst. To the Corps, they were a bunch of counterrevolutionaries who had beaten and killed their comrades. Then one day, as the Red Rebel members on campus were huddled together in a room, the leaders of the East-Is-Red Corps, including Fangpu and Little Bawang, entered with grenades tied to their belts. Fangpu carried a blacklist of all those who were to be taken from the room, clearly for some nefarious purpose. Fangpu appeared friendly toward Jianhua and told him it was not too late to change sides, but Jianhua could no longer see Fangpu in the same light. His friendliness made him seem even more sinister.

That night they could hear the screams of their blacklisted comrades from another building. Then news reached them that Corps members had found Mengzhe, beaten him up, and marched him back to school, where he was under arrest as well. In the room next to where Jianhua and his friends now slept, they observed Little Bawang and his team covering the windows with blankets. They were transforming it into a torture chamber. Soon they noticed former Red Rebels limping about on campus, afraid to talk to anyone. Then it was Jianhua’s turn to be taken into the room. He was blindfolded and tied to a chair in a most uncomfortable position. They wanted him to sign a withdrawal statement, and as he hesitated to do so, they began to beat him with a chair leg. Jianhua screamed, “You can’t do this to me. We’re classmates. We’re all class brothers. . . .”

Little Bawang would have none of this. Jianhua had to confess his crimes, the part he had played in the various battles in town, and name names of other Red Rebels hiding somewhere on campus. The blows on his legs became more intense, and then they began to hit him over the head. Still blindfolded, he feared for his life and in a panic suddenly spilled the name of a fellow Red Rebel, Dusu. Finally they carried Jianhua, unable to walk, out of the room. He quickly felt intense regret that he had named Dusu. What a coward he had been. He tried to warn Dusu, but it was too late. The torturing of other Red Rebels continued in the room next door, including his brother Weihua, beaten to a bloody pulp. Mengzhe had his head shaved, and when they saw him next, his face was covered in the most hideous bruises.

One day Jianhua was told his old friend and comrade Zongwei had been captured, and when Jianhua went to see him he was unconscious, his bare legs full of large punctures, blood oozing everywhere. They had flailed him with steel hooks for refusing to admit his crimes. How could the rather harmless Zongwei inspire such savagery? Jianhua ran to get the doctor, but when they returned it was too late: Zongwei died in his friend’s arms. The dead body was quickly carted away, and a cover story was created for how he had died. Jianhua was ordered to remain silent. A female teacher who refused to affirm in an affidavit the official East-Is-Red Corps version of his death was beaten and gang-raped by Little Bawang and his followers.

In the months to come, Fangpu extended his powers everywhere, as he essentially ran the school and classes resumed. Battlefield News was the only newspaper allowed. The school itself had been renamed East-Is-Red Middle School. With the Corps’s power secure, the torture chamber was dismantled. Classes largely consisted of reciting quotes from Mao. Every morning they assembled before a giant poster of Chairman Mao and, brandishing their little red books, chanted to his long life.

The East-Is-Red members began a scrupulous rewriting of the past. They held an exhibition to celebrate their victories, full of doctored photographs and fake news reports, all to bolster their side of events. An enormous statue of Chairman Mao, five times larger than life, was now installed at the school gate, towering over everything else. The former members of the Red Rebels had to wear white armbands that described their various crimes. They were made to kowtow before the Mao statue several times a day while classmates kicked them from behind. The former Red Rebels had become like the reviled teachers, cowed and obedient.

Jianhua was forced to do the most menial labor, and having had enough of this, in early summer of 1968 he returned to his hometown. His father sent him and his brother to a farm deep in the mountains where they could be safe and work as laborers. In September, determined to finish his studies, Jianhua returned to school. The few months away had given him some perspective, and now when he looked at the East-Is-Red Middle School, it appeared in a very different light: everywhere he saw signs of unbelievable destruction—classrooms completely torn up with no desks or chairs, the walls full of peeling posters and crumbling plaster; the science labs devoid of all equipment; piles of rubble around the campus; unmarked graves; the music hall blown up by a bomb; and hardly a reputable teacher or official left to resume their education.

All of this destruction in a few short years, and for what? What did Heping and Yulan and Zongwei and so many others die for? What had they been fighting over? What had they learned? He could no longer figure it out, and the waste of their young lives filled him with disgust and despair.

Soon Jianhua and his brother joined the army, to escape the school and bury their memories. Over the following years, as he drove an army truck delivering stone and cement, he and his comrades watched the slow disassembling of the Cultural Revolution, all of its former leaders falling into disgrace. After the death of Mao in 1976, the Communist Party itself finally condemned the Cultural Revolution as a national catastrophe.

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