Confessions of a Red Guard, 50 years after China’s Cultural Revolution

Published 1:51 AM EDT, Sun May 15, 2016
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Story highlights

Yu Xiangzhen was a Red Guard during China's Cultural Revolution, which started 50 years ago

They were a proxy army of children and young adults that violently struck out at anyone not toeing Mao's line

She lives in guilt after denouncing her homeroom teacher

Editor’s Note: Yu Xiangzhen is a retired editor and was a middle school student when the Cultural Revolution began 50 years ago in May 1966. What follows is her story, as told to CNN’s Shen Lu, translated into English and edited for length and clarity.

(CNN) —  

I have lived a life haunted by guilt.

In 1966, I was one of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Red Guards. Myself and millions of other middle and high school students started denouncing our teachers, friends, families and raiding homes and destroying other people’s possessions.

Textbooks explain the Cultural Revolution – in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions more abused and traumatized – as a political movement started and led by Mao “by mistake,” but in reality it was a massive catastrophe for which we all bear responsibility.

How the Cultural Revolution changed China forever

’Closely follow Chairman Mao’

A recent photo of Yu Xiangzhen
Courtesy Yu Xiangzhen
A recent photo of Yu Xiangzhen

On May 16, 1966, I was practicing calligraphy with my 37 classmates when a high-pitched voice came from the school’s loudspeaker, announcing the central government’s decision to start what it called a “Cultural Revolution.”

It was my first year of junior high, I was just 13.

“Fellow students, we must closely follow Chairman Mao,” the speaker bellowed. “Get out of the classroom! Devote yourselves to the Cultural Revolution!”

Two boys rushed out of door, heading to the playground yelling something.

I left more slowly, holding hands with my best friend Haiyun as we followed everyone else outside.

It would be my last normal day of school.

Murdered for Mao: The killings China ‘forgot’

Sent to the cowshed

As Red Guards, we subjected anyone perceived as “bourgeois” or “revisionist” to brutal mental and physical attacks.

I regret most what we did to our homeroom teacher Zhang Jilan.

I was one of the most active students – if not the most revolutionary – when the class held a struggle session against Ms. Zhang.

I pulled accusations out of nowhere, saying she was a heartless and cold woman, which was entirely false.

Others accused her of being a Christian because the character “Ji” in her name could refer to Christianity.

Our groundless criticisms were then written into “big character” posters – a popular way of criticizing “class enemies” and spreading propaganda – 60 of them in total, which covered the exterior walls of our classroom building.

Not long after, she was sent to the cowshed – a makeshift prison for intellectuals and other “bourgeois elements” – and suffered all kinds of humiliation and abuse.

It wasn’t until 1990 that I saw her again.

During a class trip to the Great Wall, we made a formal apology to Ms. Zhang – then in her 80s – for what we had subjected her to.

We asked what had happened to her in the cowshed.

“It wasn’t too bad,” she said. “I was made to crawl like a dog on the ground.”

Hearing this, I burst into tears. I was not yet 14, and I had made her life a misery.

She died two years after our apology.

Zhang Jilan, Yu's homeroom teacher, with her class in 1990.
Courtesy Yu Xiangzhen
Zhang Jilan, Yu's homeroom teacher, with her class in 1990.

Discomfort and guilt

At the height of the movement in 1968, people were publicly beaten to death every day during struggle sessions; others who had been persecuted threw themselves off tall buildings.

Nobody was safe and the fear of being reported by others – in many cases our closest friends and family members – haunted us.

At first, I was determined to be a good little revolutionary guard. But something bothered me.

When I saw a student pour a bucket of rotten paste over our school principal in 1966, I sensed something wasn’t right.

I headed back to my dorm quietly, full of discomfort and guilt, thinking I wasn’t revolutionary enough.

Yu Xiangzhen, circled, and her family in the 1970s.
Courtesy Yu Xiangzhen
Yu Xiangzhen, circled, and her family in the 1970s.

Later, when I was given a belt and told to whip an “enemy of the revolution”, I ran away and was called a deserter by my fellow Red Guards.

That same summer I caught a glimpse of Chairman Mao – our Red Sun – at Tiananmen Square, along with a million of other equally enthusiastic kids.

I remember overwhelming feelings of joy. It wasn’t until much later that I realized by blind idolization of Mao was a kind of worship even more fanatic than a cult.

My father, a former war correspondent with state news agency Xinhua, was framed as a spy and denounced. But behind closed doors he warned my brother and I to “use our brains before taking action.”

“Don’t do anything you will regret for the rest of your lives,” he said.

Slowly I began to hate Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, who was a key leader of the Revolution, and I bowed grudgingly when my work unit had our mandatory daily worship ritual in front of the Chairman’s image.