A portrait of late Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong and a photo of Chai Ling, one of the student leaders during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, at a museum in Hong Kong, April 2014
A portrait of late Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong and a photo of Chai Ling, one of the student leaders during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, at a museum in Hong Kong, April 2014
Tyrone Siu / REUTERS

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and the United States and the start of China’s “reform and opening up.” In the late 1970s, China was still emerging from the shadows of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which had swept away most of the country’s social and political institutions and had brought its undeveloped economy to its knees.

China has made remarkable progress since then; today’s China bears almost no resemblance to the China of that period. But the experience of the Cultural Revolution—a chaotic and brutal time of social upheaval—is still fresh in the memories of those who lived through it, including myself and many members of China’s contemporary ruling class. Although most of them rarely discuss it publicly, the Cultural Revolution had a defining impact on many of the people who now lead China and the country’s biggest firms.

Two schools of thought about how to govern China and manage its economy emerged in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. Some senior party leaders favored limited political liberalization and market-friendly reforms. Others insisted on the suppression of dissent and unwavering support for old-school, statist policies. This debate still roils China and serves as the main prism through which most foreign observers view Chinese politics. But outsiders sometimes fail to grasp how the debate itself has been shaped by the participants’ shared experience of the Cultural Revolution. Living through social disorder has left a profound mark on many Chinese elites. It has led them to a wide variety of conclusions about what kind of society China should be. But to understand their thinking and their competing visions, it helps to have a sense of what life was like in those dark, intense times. My own experience was fairly typical.


It was the early summer of 1966 in the western suburbs of Beijing. I was 12 years old and preparing to graduate from elementary school. All through the broiling hot days, cicadas sang their unrelenting songs. I spent the afternoons studying for my final exams.

In the past few months, there had been chatter about the Cultural Revolution. In a document that my father showed me, I read some remarks that Mao had made, excoriating the educational system. Mao said teachers treated students like enemies and exams were like “surprise attacks.” He said that such a system discouraged creativity. Mao claimed that the most accomplished emperors in Chinese history were not well educated and that the most highly educated ones turned out to be failures. He also said that students should be allowed to whisper to one another, exchange notes, and check their textbooks during exams. These remarks were music to the ears of impressionable students, including me and my friends. But the revolution still seemed slightly distant to us—until, one day in June, it did not.

Gao Jianjing, a class leader in my school, took charge of a group of students who had decided to march down to Beijing’s City Hall. They went in the name of revolution, so none of our teachers or principals dared stop them. I stayed behind: I was too focused on studying for the final exams to be distracted by all the whispers around me.

Later, Gao and others told me that they had watched as crowds of people harangued the mayor and vice mayors. They heard people give speeches about the necessity of revolution. And they witnessed a group of revolutionaries assault Ma Lianliang, an opera star who was one of the most accomplished performing artists in China but who had been condemned in the state media as a “poisonous weed.” (Ma had recently appeared in a production that Mao believed implicitly criticized him.) Ma’s leg was broken and he passed out; before the end of the year, he would die of his injuries.

Gao told me that the revolutionaries who were shouting slogans, making speeches, and beating people were called Red Guards. It was the first time I had heard that term.

This was all much more exciting than studying for final exams. There was something thrilling about the fact that school authorities had done nothing to prevent my classmates from marching to City Hall. The school even sent a bus to pick them up and bring them back. We heard that in some schools, particularly middle schools and universities, students had rebelled against their teachers and refused to take final exams.

Soon after the trip to City Hall, a few of our teachers accused some of their colleagues of being huai fen zi: “bad elements.” Overnight, someone’s reputation could be transformed. Someone put up posters around the school declaring that a cook in the dining hall was a “bad element.” His crime was having a deck of playing cards featuring pictures of naked women, which he had brought back with him after serving as a chef at a Chinese embassy overseas.

The school quickly descended into chaos. We students learned that many of our respected teachers were, in fact, huai fen zi. We all loved the school nurse, until we learned that she had worked as a nurse in the nationalist army during the civil war. Now, she was a class enemy. At mass assemblies attended by both teachers and students, people took turns criticizing and humiliating such “bad elements.”

One day, I joined a group of students who broke into the dormitory room of Teacher Cai, an art instructor. Young and attractive, Teacher Cai was popular with students, who loved her classes. But we knew that she had a small statue of a half-naked woman on a table in her room. It was clearly a capitalist object. And times had changed: we were now revolutionaries. We stormed into her room and broke the statue. She dared not utter a word, in spite of her usual authority. We all felt excited and proud. But I also felt a pang of sympathy for Teacher Cai when I saw tears in her eyes. (Only much later did I realize that the statue was a miniature replica of the Venus de Milo.)


Schools were hardly the only places where the Cultural Revolution had turned everything upside down. By the end of the summer, the country’s judicial and law enforcement systems had ceased functioning. Policemen disappeared from traffic stands; pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles could move freely, without anyone directing traffic. There was a serious proposal to change the traffic light system entirely. Why should people stop at a red light, the symbol of revolution? No. Red should signal go and green should signal stop.

Still, the role reversals at schools seemed particularly dramatic. Later that summer, a few friends and I went to the nearby No. 13 Girls Middle School to watch a mass meeting known as a “struggle session.” Such meetings were now being held everywhere in Beijing, including in almost all of its middle schools. Red Guards hauled onto a stage people whom they had identified as “counterrevolutionaries,” including school administrators and teachers. The counterrevolutionaries were forced to confess their crimes; Red Guards placed tall white-paper dunce caps on their heads and heavy wooden plaques around their necks, listing their names and their misdeeds. One by one, students took the stage to denounce their teachers.

Before long, the action had settled into a monotonous pattern. My friends and I snuck out of the struggle session and walked around the campus. It was dark, with just a few lamps glowing. In the corner of the sports field, we saw a shapeless lump on the ground, covered by what appeared to be a blanket. Someone told us that it was the body of the school’s principal. A group of teenage girls from the school—all Red Guards—had apparently beaten her to death earlier that day. The angry crowd was simply too busy to dispose of the corpse.

As we were leaving the campus, we heard shouts coming from a nearby building. Curious, we peeked through a window. In a dimly lit room, we saw four or five girls standing in a circle, each one swinging a large leather belt. In the center of the circle knelt an old woman who appeared to be in her 60s. Her head and body were covered with blood. She was in great pain, moaning and crying in a weak voice. The girls took turns striking her with the belts. They beat her relentlessly. Later, I learned that the woman was the school’s vice principal. She did not survive that night.

Mao had promised that the Cultural Revolution would bring “great chaos leading to great rule.” But I had begun to think that it was leading only to more chaos.

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