A Good Man? A Bad Man?

good-vs-bad-icon-bigI wrote in a post this spring about my mom’s re-connection with her college friends after 45 years. She said it was so heart-warming to see six 70-year-old men running on the platform hurrying to greet her as her train pulled into the station. They had a great time together.

Not every class from back then would have reunions like this. During the Cultural Revolution, especially in the beginning, there were usually lots of slandering, back-stabbing, beatings and persecutions among people from some classes that it was almost impossible to reconcile even today. For many others, those college years were full of pain and misery that the last thing they want to do now is to see those faces from this past life and relive the nightmare.

My mom’s class was different. They were relatively low-key and civil, and there were hardly any permanent bitterness among the classmates. Much credit should go to one man, the head of their class, who tried his best to resist the pressures from above and protect his classmates. Let’s just call him B.

For example, two people from their class were arrested due to some anti-revolutionary remarks. Instead of giving them a hard time by denouncing them publicly as expected, B secretly unlocked their cells at night and invited them to his place to have a good meal. Or when some misconducts from his classmates were reported to him, he would go remind them to be more cautious instead of sending them to the authorities to boost his own position. As a result, B received much criticisms over the fact that his class was too lay-back and lacked passion for the great revolution. He somehow smoothed those over and kept doing things his own way.

B was a good man. However, it was he who brought so much stress to my mom and almost ruined her. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer and knew he didn’t have much time left. When his old classmates went to visit him, he said to them, “If you ever find her (my mom), please tell her that I am very sorry. I am afraid I won’t have the chance to say it myself.” So they passed his words on to my mom during this reunion. I can imagine it must have been an emotional moment. I am sure my mom has forgiven him – carrying the guilt all these years was a punishment in itself.



Together at Last

My parents were married in May 1970. My sister was born 14 months later. Then I came to this world in 1974. My sister and I didn’t grow up together though. In fact, I only met her twice during the first six years of my life – once with mom and once with dad. Therefore, the four of us were never all together in one place until 1980. Unbelievable, isn’t it? This is just another example of how individual families were affected by national events.

A map would help to show the different places that were significant to my family.

NE map

  • Harbin (at the top) – the location of my parents’ university where they met and fell in love.
  • Beijing (at the lower left) – my mother’s family, about 1,200 km/750 miles from Harbin.
  • Changchun (southwest of Harbin) – my father’s family. We finally settled here starting 1980.
  • Siping (southwest of Changchun, in red) – a small city where my parents worked and lived from 1970 to 1979.

Our fates were totally altered by my grandfather’s great admiration of Harbin Institute of Technology. He decided to send his oldest daughter there for college education even though there were plenty of great universities in Beijing. The policy then was that college graduates would be assigned jobs in the city where they came from. So my grandpa thought that four years away from home wouldn’t be too bad for my mom. How could he ever know that the Cultural Revolution would disrupt his plan, and everything else pretty soon.

Neither of my parents’ family background was ‘red’ – my mother’s father was an ‘anti-revolutionary intellectual’; my father’s father was accused of being a spy for the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang). By the time they ‘graduated’ in 1970, going back to their home cities was out of the question, especially Beijing. So they had to take on jobs in the small city of Siping. The little 1.5-room shed they were assigned to live had no kitchen, no toilet, no sewage, was hot in summer and cold in winter. It was not a place to raise a child. And when everything was controlled by the state, there was no way of renting or buying a place even if they had the money.

This was why my sister was born and grew up in Beijing with maternal grandparents, while I was born and grew up in Changchun with paternal grandparents. During this time, I made two trips to Beijing and two trips to Siping while my sister never left Beijing nor met her paternal grandparents. My parents finally manged to move to Changchun in 1979 after persistently applying for quota, then my sister left Beijing to join us in 1980. The four members of my family could live together under one roof at long last.

There were lots of incredible stories during these early years of my life. I will definitely write about them in future posts.

My Mom and Table Tennis

Ping pongDuring the weekly video call with my mom this morning, she appeared to be happier than usual. She told me that new ping-pong tables were installed in the park where she usually does her morning exercises, and she played for an hour. A bystander who was watching said that she should enroll in their community contest and she would definitely be among the top 3. My mom said that as a 70-year-old, she had no interest in playing in matches, which led to the comment that she looked much younger than her age.

Yes, my mom plays table tennis very well, even though she only played once in a long while. It has always been a very popular sport in China and she took much interest in it since childhood. When she was a kid, she often piled up books (as a net) in the middle of the big dining table and played with her uncle. Then she started to play with classmates in school. She was naturally talented and became very good with much practice.

She was trained sporadically by a coach in high school, and she represented her class/school in contests and did very well. She believed her biggest advantage was that she never felt nervous in big matches. The more people watching, the better she played.

Shortly after my mom got into college, she enrolled in a tournament. The college team recruited her after watching her play in only one match. She received very formal and rigorous training there, and expected to represent the college, and then perhaps the city or province in future tournaments.

Then the Cultural Revolution began. As with everything else, the team was disbanded. My mom felt very sad, since she had only been trained on forehand by then, with the plan of backhand and spin to follow. Now she could never finish the whole skill set, and she wouldn’t have any chance to play in any tournaments down the road.

She still feels regret today, that her dream of being a first-class table-tennis player was not fulfilled. On the other hand, this is a sport that she still loves after so many years. Apparently she still plays much better than most people, despite her ‘weak’ backhand and spin. I am so glad that she has a chance to play everyday now. Who knows, she might even be a champion someday!

Big-character Poster

During the Cultural Revolution, a main form of “discussion” was thru big-character posters (dà-zì-bào). They were wall-mounted posters filled with large-sized Chinese characters typically handwritten using Chinese brush. The authors used these posters to pledge allegiance, praise the leaders, display political views, and attack whoever was the denunciated enemy at the time (usually with a red-ink-cross over the person’s name). The following picture is from the website From Mao to Now to give an idea of what they look like.


In fact, a key trigger of the Cultural Revolution was the publication of a dà-zì-bào on May 25, 1966, by Nie Yuanzi and others at Peking University, claiming that the university was controlled by bourgeois anti-revolutionaries. The poster came to the attention of Mao, hence started the revolution.

My mom was in the university at that time, and these posters appeared all over the campus. Everybody had to write and post something, otherwise he or she would be accused of passive resistence. So, like everyone else, she ‘published’ a poster on the wall in the dining hall. Two days later, as she was preparing for a show, someone called her to a meeting. She asked if it could wait till after she performed, the answer was no.

The meeting room was filled with important people – university officials and security personnel and Party investigators. It must be something really bad but my mom didn’t have a clue. It soon came out that someone saw a big red-ink-cross over Mao’s name (!!!) on a poster. And the poster happened to be my mom’s.

She felt dizzy and her mind went blank. She was nervous and scared. This was no joking. If they decided that she was guilty, she would definitely be condemned as an anti-revolutionist and her future and life would be over. After the initial shock, she argued that the poster was already out in a public place and hundreds of people had passed by or stood in front of it, anyone could have done it (say, at night, when nobody was around). It was a good argument but the investigators couldn’t let it go so easily. So they kept asking her questions – her whereabouts the night before, if she had any enemies, etc. The meeting went on for three hours and didn’t go anywhere.

As my mom took a closer look at the trouble-making poster, she observed something interesting. The red-ink-cross over Mao’s name looked different from the other red-ink-crosses (over enemies’ names) that she herself put on the poster. The color was a little off, and the strokes were different (Chinese brush strokes show the forces/movements/directions quite clearly). After she pointed this out to the investigators, they were satisfied that it proved my mom’s innocence and let her go.

After hearing this story, I admired my mom’s ability to keep a cool head under the stress, and chuckled at the fact that her final argument was not really any stronger than her first argument. I was glad that they didn’t give her a hard time, but realized that in those crazy times, there must have been many many cases where the victim was found guilty in the end and his/her life became a nightmare ever since.


A Book Project

David and I enjoy having walks together. If the weather is nice enough, we would walk to Panera Bread or Starbucks to have breakfast, or stroll around a nearby pond after dinner. As we walk, we talk about this and that, whatever comes to our minds at the moment. Some of our discussions were so weird and meaningless that we imagine the NSA people would roll their eyes if they had been listening in.

That said, these ‘walk talks’ generated lots of great ideas as well, such as the topic for a new book to write. David already has a long list of books waiting to be written, this one is for me. We even decided on a tentative title “China Interrupted”.

Our discussion started with my telling him about my mother’s family – my grandparents and their five children. My mother is the eldest and she got into college in the mid 60s. Then the cultural revolution began and lasted for ten years, during which the universities/schools were all shut down. As a result, the next three children – my three uncles – had no chance of getting college education. And when the cultural revolution ended in 1976, it was just in time for my aunt – the youngest of the five – to go to college. This sounds like the opposite of the Chinese tradition, where boys/men are expected to prosper in a household. My family story was not unique – it was only one of the millions of stories where a whole generation’s destiny was altered by history.

David thinks the book would be fascinating to the American audience, and resonate with the Chinese readers. I like the idea of writing down family stories. I mentioned this to my mom during a phone conversation, and she immediately started telling me stories. I should talk to each of my uncles and aunt, to get their perspectives. It would also be interesting to compare their lives with my generation – how we grew up, the opportunities we had, the one child policy, etc.

The plan is to start writing short stories on this blog, and organize them into a book later. I just started a new category, and plan to write one post every week. I am getting excited!

By the way, the photo below is a building in Shanghai’s Yu Garden, not my family home. 🙂