Ever had a book that you bought, maybe read a few pages, then put on the shelf to collect dust – only to take it down years later and really read and be amazed by what you were missing? Red-Color News Soldier by Li Zhensheng has become such a book for me. Li in words and photographs tells his own story of being both a participant in and a victim of the Cultural Revolution in China. And since the government wanted “negative” photographs of those years destroyed, Li’s collection of photographs, which he hid under a floor, is a rarity. (This book may not be easy to come by as well. When I checked on Amazon, it was not available.)
I will say Red-Color News Soldier is no substitute for broader study of the Cultural Revolution, but if there is a better slice of life of the time, I am unaware of it.
One of the more poignant characteristics of the time as told by Li is how guilt was inherited and assumed:
Guilt in the Cultural Revolution, like in the anti-rightist campaign of the 1950s before it, was hereditary. Sons and daughters of alleged counterrevolutionaries and revisionists – like the sons and daughters of the accused capitalists and rightists before them – were tainted by their parents’ crimes and frequently shared their fate.
Li tells of an infamous case in his city of Harbin in Northeast China, that of Ouyang Xiang. His father was the most powerful man in the province and therefore a chief target of the Red Guards. Ouyang wrote an anonymous letter to the provincial revolutionary committee professing his father’s complete support of Mao.
The letter was deemed a crime. When Ouyang was found out, he was labeled a counter-revolutionary. Much guilt during the Cultural Revolution was simply accusation by label, such as “capitalist,” “capitalist-roader,” “counterrevolutionary revisionist,” “black gang element,” etc. Such labels and accusations were usually equal to a guilty verdict. Combating them would just make punishment harsher. One was expected to bow the head in submission and shame with a placard of the “crime” hanging from the head while being accused often for hours.
But Ouyang Xiang was one of the few who would not so submit. When he tried to proclaim his innocence in part by trying to shout, “Long live Chairman Mao,” a glove was stuffed into his mouth.
A few days later he was pushed out a third-story window. His death was recorded as a suicide.
More personal was the experience of two young women in Li’s life. He wanted to marry Sun Peikui. But as Li tells it, “During the Cultural Revolution her mother was condemned for being brought up in a landlord family and, tormented, committed suicide.” Sun in turn was “criticized” and condemned with consequences for her career and housing. “It didn’t matter that her mother, who would be rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution, hadn’t come from a landlord family at all.” Thus guilt, however false, was passed from generation to generation to generation.
Sun did not want Li to share her fate and therefore refused to marry him. She left without a good-bye and instead left a note: “It’s because I love you that I don’t want to destroy you. I want us to part – I want you to forget me.”
Li caught a train to try to change her mind. She would not.
Eventually, he married Zu Yingxia. But ten months later her father also committed suicide after being accused of being a “reactionary academic authority.” Even though she hid her emotions and denounced her father immediately after his death – she had little choice – she was demoted at the newspaper where Li and Zu worked even though she was thought one of the best editors.
At this point, the reader may already find the Cultural Revolution’s methods of guilt by heredity, guilt by identity, and guilt by accusation all too familiar. For these are all too frequently used by cancel culture, Critical Theory and related woke ideologues. However, it would be an error to equate these with the Cultural Revolution. For that upheaval resulted in the deaths of 400,000 to 3 million and perhaps more. (To this day, estimates widely vary.) And it began at the impetus of Mao who wanted to regain control after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward weakened his authority. The current push of woke ideologies instead began, not in government, but in academia and has taken longer to gain strength although the change in our culture may seem sudden. And if these ideologies are forms of Marxism, they are certainly different than the more pure and ruthless Maoist version.
Nonetheless when people are assumed guilty of racism and of possessing “white privilege” simply because they are white, when “reparations” are called for on the basis of ethnicity and crimes that may have been committed by ancestors, when denial of racism is automatically rejected and brings about being slapped with the smear of “white fragility” and of being all the more racist, when identity is put forth as the chief basis for guilt and victimhood, for who should be listened to and who should shut up with a virtual placard of guilt around one’s neck, then it is right and needful to push back. Especially so when such woke versions of accusation and guilt infiltrate the church.
That such misguided evils are not merely academic “analytical tools” but can result in even greater evils is too well confirmed by history – as Li Zhensheng personally experienced and documented.
Afterword: As I was writing this, I discovered that Li Zhensheng died just this past June at the age of 79. May he rest in peace.
The photographs are his from Red-Color News Soldier.