Cultural Revolution Stories


My fathers stories about the Cultural Revolution were mostly about food. Stories about being sent as a student to work as a farm laborer in the countryside: how the peasant farmers used so much vinegar that the students couldnt choke down their noodles, and how during the watermelon harvest everyone sat in the fields and ate watermelons until they couldnt stand up. My mothers stories about the Cultural Revolution were almost nonexistent.

My parents grew up during the Cultural Revolution, but I didnt know what that meant. As a kid, I thought the Cultural Revolution was a time period, that my dad would say, during the Cultural Revolution, like my friends parents would say during the Kennedy Administration, or during the 70s.  It wasnt until I was older that I understood that being sent down to the villages wasnt a normal thing that every Chinese student did as part of their education, that saying during the Cultural Revolution was actually more like during the war.

Years later, my mother finally told me the story about how she watched her classmates tie up and beat her favorite teacher. She alluded to how my grandfather was accused of being, if not an outright counterrevolutionary, problematic enough to be criticized and their family forced to move across the country. Swept up in the patriotic fervor of the times, she changed her name from white flower to for the Chinese.

When I was 20, my mother found an old copy of Maos Little Red Book, and some Communist Youth League badges that she had worn in school. She burned the book and smashed the badges, efficiently and emotionlessly.

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What China’s Leaders Want Us to Forget About Tiananmen

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed at 2 am on June 4, when I saw an article on “12 Photos From the Tiananmen Square Protests China Wants You to Forget.” Most of the photos were of things like burning tanks, bloody students, bodies in the streets. Scenes of confrontation and conflict, students vs. soldiers.

Images like these were what I had always pictured when thinking of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Images of the crackdown. Of Tank Man. Of student hunger strikers sitting in the square, strips of cloth marked with slogans wrapped around their heads, cloth shoes on their feet.

This was how I thought of Tiananmen until last year, when I found a black film canister inside an old shoebox I had inherited from my parents. Inside were photos that my uncle, an art student in Beijing, had taken in the weeks before the Tiananmen Square massacre. He had hidden them away and somehow gotten them out of China to my parents. Then they sat there for 25 years, waiting to be seen.

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The World of Extreme Happiness Is Extremely Unhappy

As I walked out of the theater after watching The World of Extreme Happiness, I was reminded of the time eleven-year-old me tried to watch Schindler’s List by myself because I thought it was necessary for my moral education. I only made it as far as watching the old one-armed man get shot.

The World of Extreme Happiness is a play by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig that just ended its run in Manhattan after playing in London and Chicago. It stars Sunny Li, a girl who is born in rural China, and then literally tossed into a bucket of pig slop to die, because her parents want a boy, and, as her mother says, the life of a girl is misery. It’s implied that her parents have disposed of at least four other girls this way, and that the village midwife habitually kills baby girls as well. Sunny survives because her sunny smile unexpectedly softens her father, who rescues her from the bucket. Continue reading


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June 5: A Day For Tank Man and Reimagining History

Jeff Widener, AP

Jeff Widener, AP

Also known as the “Unknown Rebel,” Tank Man is the nameless protagonist of a stand off with a column of Type 59 Chinese tanks.  His stance, encapsulated in time on Beijing’s Changan Avenue, is determined. He is slight, wiry in the tradition of a wushu hero perhaps. We’ll never know his face: only the set of his shoulders, and his angry strides.

Tank Man is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, and of course one of the ones most closely associated with the Tiananmen Square Massacre. All over the Internet I’ve seen people attributing the image to June 4th: as if he stood at the front of the Square while the tanks rolled in. Actually, June 5th is his day. And I think it’s important that we remember the distinction. Why? Because June 5th was the day of bald-faced, daylight violence. It was the morning after tanks and troops rolled through Beijing, clearing the Square and shooting residents in their neighborhoods. It’s important because Tank Man saw all of this and stood up anyway. Continue reading

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Never before seen Tiananmen Square photos found in shoebox

It was a black film canister, rattling around the bottom of an old Naturalizer shoebox labeled “photos.” I opened it, wondering if it was a roll of unused film. Instead, I found a twist of white tissue paper wrapped around tightly rolled black-and-white negatives. I held them up to the light. At first I saw…legs.

Tiananmen legs

Then, people with bicycles.

Tiananmen bicycle people

Wait, that looks like the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Is that Tiananmen Square? With banners? Tiananmen monument

Next, a white form rising above a crowd, holding…a torch?


Oh man, is this what I think it is?

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I’m a Consequence of Tiananmen

Goddess of Democracy

Built by students, the 33′ high Goddess of Democracy was assembled in Tiananmen Square on the night of May 29-30. Shelley found this picture in a shoebox.


The words “惊天” (today) are blocked on Weibo right now. Because we all know what today is. If you’re on this blog, you know what today is. Even the least attentive have been counting down to it while going about our daily lives. And now, the time has finally come to take stock, 25 years later.

My entire life has been lived in the looming presence of the Tiananmen Massacre, but I didn’t understand that until I grew up. It’s not just my life, either. All of China lives there, in the shadow of it. The current regime constantly fights to censor it and keep it suppressed, but even where the Party line succeeds you can still see it from the emptiness: the space where it should be. Sometimes I feel like if I traced my finger back along the origins of any crackdown or power struggle in contemporary China I would end up in the Square on June 4th, 1989 every single time. Continue reading


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Mom’s American Dream

For Ying’s fifth birthday, our parents bought her a Power Wheels Barbie Beach Patrol. It was a white jeep with bright pink wheels, a pink steering wheel, and a phone where you could press a button and talk to (and hear responses from) Barbie. It could seat two, if you were both five years old. It cost $250, so it was the only present she got that year. It was also the most money our parents had ever spent on a toy.

Ying couldn’t wait to take it home, drive it around the neighborhood, make a splash with the other little girls in her social set. The only problem was, the giant honking battery under the hood had to charge for 24 hours. So when we finally take it out of the garage for the first drive, anticipation is high. We drag it out to the street, Ying gets in, she’s playing around with the steering wheel, and then she puts her foot down on the pedal and with a jerky, high-pitched whine of the battery, she just takes off.

So we live on a cul-de-sac and mom and I are following Ying as she’s tooling down the street, taking a few tries to make the turn at the end, and coming back up. And she is having the time of her life, as only five-year-olds can. She’s posing for pictures, talking on the phone—I can see her smile from all the way down the street. And then mom turns to me and goes, “You should take it for a drive.” I look at her. I am 12 years old. I may still play Barbies with my sister, but I am not interested in driving a Barbie Power Wheels jeep down the street. In public. Continue reading

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