Pink Flower. Growing Up in Mao’s China by Amei Li & Rafe Champion
First Mate Publishing 2022
RRP $32.99 (PB)
Reviewed by William Coleman
This strongly felt memoir recounts how the Cultural Revolution shattered the lives of the author and her classmates at the Beijing Fifteenth Girls High School.
Amei Li was born in 1950, and grew up inculcated with a faith in the “New China”. Her social position was, however, perilous; her father before 1949 had manufactured top hats. Despite this contemptibly bourgeois occupation, Li senior had optimistically received the regime. When his business was nationalised in the 1950s – and his position reduced from owner to manager – he declined the compensation offered him. For all that, he and his children were still members of a “Black” family – those families who were landlords/owners, rich peasants/farmers or counter-revolutionaries. All such families, banned from the military, the civil service, and university study.
High school remained open and, shortly after, Li entered the Fifteenth Girls High School; a selective, a new-built school, with “spacious classrooms” and “excellent teachers”. It was in her second year that the formerly orderly atmosphere grew unsettled and increasingly oppressive, as children of “Red” families were pitted against those of Black, and “good friends stopped speaking to one another”.
The gathering storm broke with Mao Zedong’s mythic swim in the Yangtze July 1966, which, by flourishing a classic “sign” of the charismatic ruler – an amazing physical prowess – confirmed his Mandate of Heaven. “Don’t be afraid of chaos,” declared Mao: the “Cultural Revolution” had begun.
A few days later, Li’s father disappeared. On 5 August 1966 eight “Red Guard” class mates “raided” the Li family home, and emptied it of all possessions. This hit squad was nominally led by “plump girl”, with parents in the Party, Lu Gul; but the real leader was a “wholly working class” figure, “Sali”. In the following weeks, Sali grew “more brutal”, and her “star rose as she became more violent”.
Shortly afterwards, Li witnessed in a school room what she believes was the attempted whipping murder by Sali and Lu of a classmate, Xi Cong, whose “flagrantly reactionary” father was serving a 17-year prison sentence. In the event, Xi survived and was conscripted to clean the school toilets.
On 25 August while on the way to school, Li saw a 15-year old Red Guard class mate, Mei Hua, whipping to his death a 52-year old small businessman, Li Wenpo. Mei was subsequently received by Mao on China’s National Day, and congratulated for “the achievement of Red Guards in home raids in Beijing”; Li Wenpo’s wife had been executed a few weeks before.
On reaching school that day, Li and her school mates were forced to watch their chemistry teacher, the “upper class scholarly” Wang Xui, being whipped raw; while the school principal Mrs Liang – a “Kuomingtang bitch” – was forced to drink urine and lick vomit. At the end of the day, girls of Black families were detained in the school overnight and had the benefit of hearing the screams of Mrs Liang – the School’s Party secretary but now a “capitalist roader” – while she was being murdered by Red Guard students.
With schools wrecked by prowling Red Guards, Mao adroitly ordered all students – Red, Black and “grey” – out of Beijing, to engage in a spell of “revolutionary travels” across China. Li enjoyed this period of trekking about the People’s Republic; the abominations she had witnessed in the months before had perplexed her faith in the New China, but had not broken it.
On their return, the school was placed in the hands of the army; its students were “learn from the PLA [People’s Liberation Army]”, and learning was soon taking place in an army camp. This experience was rigorous but not brutal. Normalcy appeared to prevail within the PLA.
At the completion of her high school in 1968, all students were to be thrown “permanently into society to be workers peasants or soldiers”. Sixty girls of Black families were ordered to remote villages 900 km to the south-west of Beijing. Li with 23 others were assigned to Bai Chi, or “White Pond”. In Bai Chi, Li encountered a society that survived the surrounding chaos – a traditional society. There was no radio, marriages were arranged, and the Kitchen God was venerated.
At Bai Chi, Li’s faith in the New China finally wilted. This began with the welcome on their arrival. These city teenagers would be of little apparent aid to a struggling village. But the mayor received them respectfully, frankly, realistically. “This man was telling the truth.” This liberating honesty was reinforced by the guardianship of the practical and responsible village patriarch, Old Lang. How did the Old China compare with the New?, Li asked. “It was better,” he replied. “We used to eat our own wheat. Now … we have to eat corn that used to be fed to the animals.”
Li’s emancipation was completed by her pupilage with two resident scholars, of whom the villagers spoke “with admiration and respect” – “Old Sir” Sun and “Old Sir” Jia. These men, looking in their 70s though in fact in their mid-50s, had in 1956 been banished to solitary exile in Bai Chi for “rightism”; their families were forbidden to visit, and their wives encouraged to divorce. Sun showed Li what she thought might be his sole letter from home: “Dad, I hope you are trying to return to the side of the Party and people, Your daughter.” Jia, Li notes, treated her like a daughter. He told her that “despite his education, Mao’s knowledge is limited and knows nothing of labour, modern industry and economics. Mao was an educated peasant and wrote poems to express his ambition to be a great man like an emperor”.
Li’s guest membership of the “backward” society of Bai Chi was the key formative experience of her youth and perhaps her life. From the peasants she “learned tolerance”, and found a respect for learning and a love of nature, while the scholars introduced her to literature and political skepticism. She writes that Bai Chi was “my unique private university”. Belief is more a social transaction than a private creation; beliefs are organisms that perish and germinate amid a social ecology, and much as biological organism do amidst a biological one.
Distant political machinations reverberated in the village. The accusaton in 1973 of Lin Bao as a traitor, and the purge of his associates, had left gaps in the bureaucracy, which were now filled by “outs”, who exercised their new significance to extricate their young relatives from the villages. By early 1974, only two of the original 24 – the blackest of black? – remained in Bai Chi. They were Li and Chi Jin, whose mother had been killed in a seven day torture session by her Red Guard class mates in 1966.
Li’s salvation lay in the re-opening in 1974 of universities to a small number of “Worker-Peasant-Soldier” students. The village was awarded a single place, and it was allocated to Li. She gave it to Chen. In the following year came a “miracle”: the villagers announced, “The Lord of Heaven saw what you did for Che Jin last year, and so he offers you another opportunity.” Li could leave.
With Mao’s death on 9 September 1976, the whole of China’s governing class seemed to exhale a silent breath of relief and began to dismantle his works, small and large. A month or two later, 10 years after he vanished, there suddenly appeared at Li’s family front door her father, a “thin, short, fragile old man”. In 1966 he had been assaulted by a “revolutionary committee” at his factory and confined to factory grounds, along with “Uncle” Shan, a brother figure and life-long family retainer. Shan refused to condemn Li senior, and hanged himself in the tool room. Li endured ten years as the unpaid factory toilet cleaner, “surviving mostly on leftovers from the canteen”.
Li senior returned home to discover the household was now imperiously governed by his daughter-in-law, Lan. The child of a railway worker, Lan had failed university entrance, but had successfully importuned Amei Li’s brother into marriage, and otherwise busied herself with “fighting counter revolution”. Upon learning that Li Senior had received ten years of back pay outstanding, she demanded he give it to her. “I am working class. I AM working class!” Li senior calmly turned her out of the house.
This dramatic episode neatly encapsulates the restoration of order and justice, and the overthrow of perversity and evil. Some may see the hand of a God of stern justice in the later suicides to Sali and Lu. All will see, in of the Cultural Revolution, a landscape of total ruination “as if a hostile army had invaded our peaceful country”. Perhaps the leading moral of this episode is the ultimate disastrousness of charismatic rule; something with total power but feeble capacity. Such a thing could not create and so could only destroy. Thus, the bizarre nihilism of the Cultural Revolution – sport was stopped, music lessons halted; knife sharpeners driven from the streets, holding hands forbidden.
While leading the raid on Li’s house, on 5 August 1966, Sali had vigorously searched the Li library for “counter-revolutionary” writings. Finding nothing “in frustration she grabbed a beautiful antique jar and threw it on the floor with all her strength”. Here in this memory of one survivor is the Cultural Revolution in miniature.
William Coleman is the author of Their Fiery Cross of Union: A Retelling of the Creation of the Australian Federation, 1889-1914.