Red scarf girl: a memoir of the Cultural Revolution, Ji-Li Jiang

An insight into the life of a Chinese girl in Shanghai, Ji-Li Jiang, during the years 1966-1967 of the so-called Cultural Revolution when she was between 12 and 14 years of age.

She belonged to a tightly-knit family, was devoted to her Grandmother and her parents. They stayed in an upmarket apartment compared to most of the population. They had their own bedrooms, indoor plumbing and bathroom. Parents had good jobs; Ji-Li was a top student in her primary school. They enjoyed relative comfort in terms of the food and clothing they could afford. In most respects their lifestyle was bourgeois. They even had a pet cat. Ji-Li collected stamps, read children’s stories like Snow White and Aladdin and had started reading Jane Eyre.

But all that made them a target of the Red Guard fanatics once the Cultural Revolution commenced in June 1966. It began with the order to destroy the Four Olds – old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. Familiar signs were torn down and replaced by revolutionary ones. Anything that referred to capitalism and revisionism was torn down – the Great Prosperity Market in Ji-Li’s neighbourhood was one such target.

Peace Theatre became Revolution Theatre. Innocent Child Toy shop became Red Child Toy Shop. The word ‘innocent’ was viewed as lacking in class awareness. Within days all shops in their area were renamed. Revolution, it was believed would bring peace after the removal of enemies of classlessness. Old ideas and practices were holding back the roll-out of communism. “I knew the movement was vital to our country’s future and did not understand how Mom and Dad could not be interested in it,” wrote Ji-Li (p 27).

Knowing no better and eager to comply with whatever the demi-god Mao ordered, Ji-Li, like millions of other school children embraced the Cultural Revolution – until it persecuted and almost destroyed her family. The ferocity of the Revolution showed the extent to which their lives were ordered and controlled by the communist party. Student Inspectors would apprehend anyone whose clothing was deemed to be Western. Persons whose trouser legs were narrower than eight inches or were wearing fashionable two-tone shoes were publicly subjected to having their trouser legs cut open and their shoes broken. The victim would then be instructed to “take his fourolds home” and “to remould” his “ideology.”

The school syllabus was subordinated to intense study of Mao’s Little Red Book so as to produce a fanatical desire to join the Red Successors. Each class had to elect representatives. But one’s prospects and fate would be determined by one’s background. To her horror, Ji-Li found out that her Grandfather had been a landlord. In terms of her class status, she was branded a ‘rightist’ and a ‘reactionary intellectual.’ Those details were made public by the Neighbourhood Party Committee. At school, Ji-Li was taunted because of her social status. He aunt who lived in the same alley had her house trashed by Red Guards, was publicly humiliated and required to sweep the alley daily. One by one, each dwelling in their neighbourhood was searched by Red Guards. Anything and everything that could be categorised as one of the ‘four olds,’ was either smashed or carted away. “We must eradicate these relics of the past….We must not allow reactionary forces to hoard their treasures….” (p80).

Neighbourhoods which had been stable and mutual were turned into fear and hate zones. Suspicion permeated neighbours as group-think readied them to denounce whoever the Red Guards attacked. “There was no laughter in the alley – just a growing, choking tension” (p87). The entrance to the alley was marked by a huge propaganda wall. Portraits of Mao abounded. A ritual was introduced: morning repentance and evening report took place in front of the propaganda wall where the latest victims of the purge of counter-revolutionaries were forced to recite mantras in praise of Mao before confessing their guilt. The exercise was presided over by the Neighbourhood Dictatorship Group. Constant surveillance was maintained over inhabitants suspected of belonging to the Black Category, that is, their forebears were landlords or exploiters.

Age meant nothing to the Red Guards as Ji-Li witnessed an elderly neighbour dragged out of his residence, kicked and made to kneel indefinitely on a washboard in the heat of the day until he fainted. Similar treatment was subsequently meted out to Ji-Li’s grandmother. Teachers suspected of not being revolutionary enough were made to climb a tall factory chimney, regardless of the heat of the chimney or its height.

Ji-Li’s father was arrested and taken away and beaten. After three months Ji-Li managed to see him where he was being “remoulded” by having to perform heavy manual work. He had been charged with “serious counter-revolutionary crime.” Ji-Li’s Mother was also a target. The Workers Revolt newspaper dredged up an elaborate story about Ji-Li’s family – the Jiangs – how they had once been wealthy landowners. Ji-Li was put under huge pressure to denounce her parents and to become a daughter of Mao. “You can’t choose your class status but you can choose your future,” said Mao (p215). She refused to oblige.

Inevitably the Jiang residence was subjected to a Red Guards search. They ransacked the place. What they did not smash they took leaving the household with no furniture, no beds and very few items of clothing. Her father subsequently spent time in a labour camp. In 1980 he was finally cleared of the charge that he was an “escaped landlord.”

In the Epilogue, Ji-Li states (pp265-66):

“I did not hate Chairman Mao in those years. We were all brainwashed. To us, Mao was God. He controlled everything we read, heard and learned. We believed everything he said. Mao was blameless. It was only after Mao’s death that I knew I was deceived. It was only after Mao’s death that people woke up. We finally learned that the whole Cultural Revolution had been part of a power struggle at the highest levels of the Party. Our leader had the advantage of our trust and loyalty to manipulate the whole country.”

(Harper, New York, 1997)

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