Why I teach ‘Post-Cultural Revolution Chinese Literature’ at a British university by Li Ruru, Translated by Thomas Markham

Why I teach ‘Post-Cultural Revolution Chinese Literature’ at a British university[1]

Li Ruru

Translated by Thomas Markham

This is the full article. An abridged version was published in the 2017 edition of EAST Magazine. We at EAST would like to thank Thomas Markham for his translation, and Ruru Li for allowing this article to both be published and to be published in its abridged form in the 2017 Magazine.

50 years ago, the May 16 Circular saw the whole of China sink into chaos. That period of history made me who I am today – along with the people of my generation and even China itself. I think everyone who grew up during that period has not, and will never forget those ten years. Yet for all kinds of reasons, many people are not willing to, or are not able to, reflect upon those days.

Since 1988 I have taught at the University of Leeds in Britain, and in this way, I have had the opportunity to put my ideas into my teaching and pass this on to my British students who previously had no knowledge about the Cultural Revolution at all.

The finalist reading course: ‘Post-Cultural Revolution Chinese Literature’

Chinese studies students at Leeds University learn written and spoken Chinese from scratch. It is, therefore, no small feat to ask these Western students who have only studied around three years of Chinese to read these short stories which I have chosen for this ‘Post-Cultural Revolution Chinese Literature’ module. And yet, those who choose to do the module all devote themselves to this notoriously difficult class.

Studying the Cultural Revolution is not just important for Chinese studies students because it has had a deep impact on today’s prominent political, cultural and scientific leaders, as well as people who have caused all sorts of social problems. After having tried nearly 20 different works, I finally decided on using the following three: Liu Xinwu’s Class Counsellor, Feng Jicai’s Ah! and Wang Meng’s The Wind on the Plateau.

These works concretely and vividly demonstrate the rapid development of China’s ‘new period’ (i.e. post-Cultural Revolution) literature. Since he was writing at an early stage, the author of Class Counsellor can’t help but express himself using Cultural Revolution-style language. However, despite being published just a few years later, Ah! and The Wind on the Plateau present completely different styles. Ah! was written from a realistic angle and puts the students right into the midst of the Cultural Revolution – immersing them in this truly frightening period where the normal order of things was upturned – when political campaigns claimed to be able to touch one’s very soul. The Wind on the Plateau, however, adopts the new ‘stream of consciousness’ method. In 1986 the writer presents to the readers his feelings on the impact of the economic reforms that had just started. The protagonists of these three stories are all Chinese intellectuals, a group which went through all kinds of experiences in the course of the 20th century. Indeed, it is these people’s stories which truly bring to life the turbulent upheavals and countless political campaigns which China underwent after the 1950s.

However, when one considers that these students are around 21 years old, and the majority have been brought up in well-off middle class families, it begs the question – how can one help them to truly experience the reality of these three stories? It’s very difficult. What does ‘touching one’s soul’ mean? Is it physical or mental? The protagonist of Ah! Wu Zhongyi, in the language of the time, is one of the ‘cows, ghosts, snakes and spirits’ (that is, a perceived class enemy and counter-revolutionary). He is tortured severely by Red Guards whilst being temporarily incarcerated in a so-called ‘cow shed’. However, when he is released, he is informed that he has been ‘liberated’, i.e. he is now no longer a class enemy but rather a mere ‘internal contradiction’. The story describes his reaction:

At this point, Director Hao of the Revolutionary Committee of the Institute of History walked towards him and pinned a Mao Zedong badge on his jacket and gave him the Selected Works of Mao Zedong. Surprisingly, Hao even shook his hand. Wu Zhongyi felt so warm inside that he suddenly raised his arm and bellowed the slogan “Long live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!” He jumped in the air as he cried out, almost as if his feet were aloft from the ground – tears of exhilaration streamed down his face.

I often ask my students whether this is Wu Zhongyi’s genuine reaction or whether he was simply bluffing in order to portray himself as a genuine revolutionary. If we say it that it was indeed what he truly felt, then why did he, and how could he have performed this way? How could he have completely forgotten the physical and mental torture that he had experienced? The third short story is called The Wind on the Plateau. In the novel there is a superb teacher in his mid-fifties called Song Chaoyi. He confesses his feelings of ‘weightlessness’ in the face of the economic reforms and the countless new ideas of the early 1980s. As an old intellectual, he had spent many years repenting and reforming mind – body and soul to conform to Communist party ideology – but all of this is suddenly rendered void. My students would normally ask ‘Why would it be regarded as a bad thing if you could articulate well and if you could think logically in 1950s China? What does this even have to do with bourgeois ideas or class exploitation?’

Indeed, how can we let these students understand this distortion of human nature? I chose these three stories because I was deeply touched by them and because they echo my personal experiences. I decided that I should try to be a bridge between these young British students and post-Cultural Revolution Chinese literature. After all, is it not one of the objectives of a Chinese studies degree to explore how China was led to this strange and grotesque phenomenon?

My experiences

The Author as a child with her mother Li Yuru
The author as a child with her mother Li Yuru

My mother was a celebrated Beijing opera performer called Li Yuru. Of course, this meant that she was declared to be one of the ‘cows, ghosts, snakes and spirits’ during the Cultural Revolution. At the beginning, I truly believed my mother was a leading reactionary and bourgeois artist who opposed socialism and the Communist Party. I was determined to put a clear line between her and me, and I should devote myself to the Red Guards and to the Party. However, as a ‘child of dogs’ (a term for the children of perceived class enemies) I was excluded from the ‘revolution’.

At Shanghai No. 2 Girls High School where I studied, of the 52 students in my class, only three were from bad families – besides me, the other two were daughters of a businessman and a petty proprietor. In their revolution, the communists sought equality – the ultimate aim of their ideology was the unity of the whole world – and yet, the Cultural Revolution actually brought about the most severe hierarchical system imaginable. Some of my classmates were first of all identified as being from the so-called Five Red Categories: ‘workers, poor peasants, lower-middle peasants, revolutionary soldiers and revolutionary cadres’. These children became red guards and were allowed to sit at desks. Classmates from ordinary families could sit on chairs, but we three were made to sit on the ground. We would go to school and every day we would be made to read out a self-criticism for having come from a ‘black family’. This hierarchical concept and the oppression of those at the bottom by those on the top is exactly what the author of Class Counsellor, Liu Xinwu, attacks in his story. This was no kind of proletarian revolution!

Before too long, my mother was not allowed to come home. Instead, she was locked away in a ‘cow-shed’ – a room where Red Guards would put supposed counter-revolutionaries together to study Communist ideology or to confess their supposed crimes. Here she was ‘quarantined’ and interrogated. At this time, my elder sister was a student in the Directing Department at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. Our housekeeper was driven away, so there I was in Shanghai entirely on my own at 14 years old.

I had once been a completely spoiled girl – I was not even allowed to strike a match.  Now I had to teach myself how to make the bed, to wash clothes, to do the shopping and how to cook for myself. One of my mother’s colleagues at the Beijing Opera Company in Shanghai had a close relationship with the Company’s Red Guards. At this time, the Red Guards had the power to give people the right to live in others’ homes, and so they allowed this person’s family to live in my home. I didn’t want them to know that I couldn’t strike a match so I would always let them cook first and then use their gas hob immediately afterwards.

My mother’s monthly salary used to be nearly 300 yuan until it was reduced to 95 yuan. After paying the rent of 40 yuan we would be left with 55 yuan for the living expenses of our family of three. Every month when I would go to fetch the salary, provided I got permission from the Red Guards, I would be allowed to see my mother, and I vaguely remember having a few big arguments with them. I would always leave 20 yuan behind for my mother because at that time she smoked two packets of cigarettes a day. I would post 18 yuan to my sister, leaving me with just 17 yuan. Once I had paid gas, electricity and water bills, I was left with 8 to 9 yuan (about 1 pound of today’s money) per month to pay for food.

At that time I loved summers because I didn’t have to switch the lights on too early. I would also make huge pots of tomato, pickled vegetable and shredded potato soup which would last me for several days. In the summer, food would go off quite quickly (the refrigerator we had at home had been sealed up and we were not allowed to use it, but actually even if I could use it, I wouldn’t be able to pay the electricity bill!). Life taught me that as long as you boil food it will keep for two or three days, even in the hottest days. By living on 9 yuan per month, I really learned how to lead life thriftily.

There were many frightening things in my life at that time, almost exactly the same as Feng Jicai described in Ah! I think that three things had the greatest impact on me when I was 14 years old.

First story: my teacher Ms. Wang and my classmate Guan

We had a biology teacher named Ms. Wang. Her son Guan was my classmate, and we were in the same class together for five years in primary school. In our class, Guan was always the best at everything. However after taking the exams to move up to high school, we were shocked to discover that none of the good schools, both in our district and in the whole city, had accepted him. Instead, he went to a comparatively bad school. Later on, the rumour spread among the students that he didn’t get into a good school because his family background was bad. His father used to be a squad commander (or perhaps a platoon commander) in the Nationalist Party’s army, so he was regarded as a counterrevolutionary and was sent to a labour camp in Qinghai province. He had many siblings and all of them lived in a room rebuilt from a garage of an old Western-style house in Shanghai.

On one summer morning in 1966, there was a peculiar atmosphere as I arrived at school. Later, I heard that Ms. Wang committed suicide by hanging herself in the  toilets. Then, a big-character poster was hung up saying that she had been a member of the Nationalist Party’s youth league and therefore even death would not be sufficient punishment for her crimes. I liked Ms. Wang, not because she was Guan’s mother, but because she was the very picture of a ‘people’s teacher’ – she was short-haired, wore glasses, spoke quietly and calmly, and yet she had the ability to captivate us teenage girls with what would otherwise be the most uninteresting world of microorganisms.

Gradually, we heard more about her suicide. As well as being ‘struggled against’ (that is, publicly denounced) in school, when she went home, her son Guan would lead his younger brothers and sisters in criticising her. The night before her suicide, Guan and his younger siblings wrote their criticisms on a big character poster and stuck it on the ceiling above their mother’s bed. They obviously wanted their criticisms to penetrate the very soul of this ‘anti-party element’, so that she would have to remember them even in her dreams.

In 1968 I was sent to the countryside in northern Jiangsu province to be ‘re-educated by peasants’, I heard Guan had been assigned to the Shanghai Yimin Confectionary Factory, as he was the only one in the family who could earn money to bring up his siblings. In 1969 there was a big fire in Wenhua Square in Shanghai, after which I read in the newspaper that my classmate Guan had become a martyr. In order to save the famous oil painting ‘Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan’ from the flames, he held it and jumped from the top floor of the building – both he and the portrait were shattered on the ground below. However, my classmate had made his statement to the people and to the party: he was an outstanding revolutionary young person who loved the party and loved Chairman Mao – regardless of the fact that he was the ‘child of a dog’ from a black family! Guan’s sacrifice made me understand why he put up the big character poster criticising his mother. I also deeply understood why he jumped from the building. This story helps my students understand the relationships between people described in Ah! – such unfathomable complexity, beyond explanation.

Second story: my maternal grandmother

On one day at the beginning of September 1966, six Red Guards from the Beijing Xicheng District Team, all of them girls, suddenly appeared at our home. They announced that my maternal grandmother Li Yuxiu had died on the 31st August in Beijing. ‘Where are her ashes?’ my mother asked quietly. ‘Why do you need that? She was an old counter-revolutionary!’ The Red Guard’s sentence left us speechless. These six Red Guards lived and ate in our house for a week. They tried to search through our house to seize our possessions, but since my mother’s opera company had sealed all the rooms, they were forced to give up. The Cultural Revolution Working Group at the opera company warned my mother that if anything went wrong to these six Red Guards then she would be held responsible. After two or three days, one of the girls gradually opened up about how my grandmother passed away.

The story went back to 18th August that year. On that day, Chairman Mao reviewed the Red Guards in Tiananmen Square and the whole capital entered into a frenzy as the ‘Destroy the Four Olds’ campaign reached its climax. Some people went to smash the two small stone lions in front of my grandmother’s own courtyard house in Beijing at No. 17 Yufuyan. When she went out to stop them, over twenty Red Guards gained entry to her home and stayed there for around two weeks. My grandmother’s aristocratic Manchu ancestry was revealed, and they also found out that my mother had been a famous and wealthy Beijing opera performer before the foundation of the People’s Republic.

Back in the 1940s, someone had stolen some of my grandmother’s belongings and had incited nationalist soldiers to rob her. Ultimately this man was put in prison, but his children bore a grudge against my grandmother, since they believed she had reported their father to the police. When the Cultural Revolution broke out, they took the opportunity to take revenge against her.

In my grandmother’s house, the Red Guards dug up the floor and discovered a lot of money including foreign currency and jewellery. During the two weeks when the Red Guards were living there, they kicked my grandmother and beat her with clubs and belt buckles to force her to say where she had hidden things. In response, my grandmother refused to eat to express her resistance. Later, she asked for some water, but she was refused this. Finally, the Red Guards forced my aunt to beat her… having listened to all of this I was speechless. It was the first time I had spent 24 hours a day with the Red Guards – when I saw how violent they were, how frighteningly savage they were, I wondered how I had ever wanted to be a Red Guard. There is a Chinese saying ‘man at birth is good in nature’ – so where had this evil come from? To this day we have never found out where my grandmother’s ashes are – all we could do was to make an empty tomb where we displayed her photograph, and where we could honour her during festivals.

Third story: ‘I want to live’

The Author's Mother Li Yuru with Tong Zhiling in 1977
The author’s mother Li Yuru with Tong Zhiling in 1977, both of whom were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

The third incident took place at around the end of 1966. One day, my mother, who had long been imprisoned in a ‘cow shed’ and interrogated, was given permission to come home to get some clothes. I could see how difficult it was for her to walk, and I guessed that she had been tortured by the Red Guards. Many of the young ‘revolutionaries’ in the art scene had had physical training before, so they understood how and where to beat and kick people in order to make them feel the most pain. My mother and another famous Beijing opera singer, Tong Zhiling, had been forced to remove their trousers and were beaten directly on their flesh until they could not walk. What humiliation they endured!

On that day, my mother seemed distracted until she told me, suddenly, that she had to discuss something very serious with me. She said that an actor in the Shanghai Opera Company had been beaten to death – the body was sent to my mother’s opera company and the Red Guards arranged the scene as though he had committed suicide. Then, the Red Guards brought all of the ‘cows, ghosts, snakes and spirits’ together and delivered a speech to them in front of the dead body, threatening them to confess to their supposed crimes. That scene made my mother remember her own mother’s death. She then told me that ever since her colleagues Jin Suwen and Yan Huizhu had committed suicide at the start of the Cultural Revolution, she had thought of dying all the time – it was only her duty as a mother that had stopped her. But after today’s affair she felt that she simply could not bear to live any more. Instead of being beaten to death by other people, she’d rather end her own life. It was only her concern for her child that was holding her back.

So she tried to persuade me, saying ‘we won’t do it like Mrs. Yan – hanging is too painful. I’ve saved up a lot of sleeping pills – we could take them and turn on the gas. I’ll hold you just like when you were young, and very soon you won’t suffer anymore.’ These words filled me with dread. I was determined not to agree – I cried out that I wanted to live – I hadn’t truly seen the world! It was in this way that I, a fourteen-year-old girl terrified by death, saved two lives. I let my mother find the true love that she was looking for her entire life. After the Cultural Revolution my mother met my step-father Cao Yu, and their relationship brought these two elderly people much happiness. My mother also left behind many useful articles and works for Beijing Opera. This also meant that I was able to write this article today, and within the past 28 years I have taught over 1000 Chinese studies students in the United Kingdom.

Wenzhou, 1980
Wenzhou, 1980. Cao Yu takes a photograph of his wife Li Yuru, whilst, unbeknownst to them, they are captured by another photographer.

At the end of 1966 I went to the north of Jiangsu province to work on farms and then to the countryside in northern Anhui province. During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution I was a peasant, a worker, a trainee of Anhui provincial drama company and then became an actress. In a word, I was away from my home for ten years, right up until the higher education system was re-established. I passed the entrance examination and became a student of the Department of Drama and Literature at Shanghai Theatre Academy – it was in this way that I returned to my home town.

Li Ruru in coat
In 1970, Li Ruru took a special trip from the countryside of northern Jiangsu province back to Shanghai to bid farewell to friends leaving to go and work on farms. In this photo she is posing with an overcoat belonging to one of her friends.

The nightmare of ten years and myself

In 1972 the cultural revolution
In 1972 the Cultural Revolution was beginning to wind down, the author’s mother had already been ‘liberated’, elder sister Li Li had graduated from the Central Academy of Drama and the author herself had left the countryside of northern Anhui province, becoming a worker at a pharmaceutical factory and performing revolutionary operas.

I must point out, my experiences during the Cultural Revolution were not any worse than other people from ‘bad’ family backgrounds. Many people had endured more tragedy than me, their families were broken apart, their relatives died. Many were pushed to the very bottom of society and have never recovered. There was not just turmoil at the start of the Cultural Revolution with the ‘destroy the four olds’ campaign. The movement to send urban youths down to the countryside, which began in 1968 (and the subsequent tide of these people returning to the cities after the Cultural Revolution) led to countless broken families and numerous social issues. All of these things have had a great impact on today’s China. Regardless of whether you are Chinese or not, as long as you want to be associated with China (or simply want to make money there), you must understand the Cultural Revolution. Otherwise you will not be able to understand Chinese society, and will therefore not be able to truly succeed.

Of course I hope we had never had this ten-year-long nightmare. My health would definitely be better, and I wish that I could be ten years younger than I am. That way, I would be able to experience many more of life’s wonderful things, but one can never turn the clock back. At the same time, I also ask myself – without those ten years, would I still be who I am today? I love life, respect culture and I respect human beings, I love people, and also I am quite empathetic. I am tough. I am fussy. I always do things very carefully, as though I’m walking on egg shells. Sometimes I make myself unwelcome. I think all these features, good and bad, have all come from my experiences during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution. It is these experiences which have formed who I am now.

I use my own methods to commemorate this important period of the history of contemporary China. This is why I decided to teach ‘Post-Cultural Revolution Chinese literature’. I have sought to let my students understand what truly went on during that period. More importantly, I wanted them to think, where is the root of those nightmarish ten years? How should we live and how should we think today?

A few words from Ruru before she steps into a new phase of life

EAST Magazine has kindly invited me to write a few words; your invitation made me think of my experience of the past three decades.

By 30 April this year I will have been in this country for 29 years and by the time I retire on 31 August, I will have taught in Chinese Studies for 28 years and 334 days. Britain was the very first foreign country that I had ever been to. When I first arrived, I didn’t know how to use a bank machine, nor did I understand what ‘do the door’ meant when the person was actually asking me to open it! Leeds has now become the place I have lived longest in my life. I regard Chinese Studies as my parent in this country, because it taught me how to teach Chinese as a foreign language and how to live and work in Britain. I certainly enjoy working with students because you lot have often surprised me with your tremendous creativity.

Recently I’ve been reading Qu Yuan (c.340-278BC)’s long poem Lisao (On Encountering Sorrow). May I use two couplets from the poem as a motto for all of us to remember?

For the ideal I hold dearly to my heart, though I died nine times I should not regret it. (亦余心之所善兮,虽九死其犹未悔。)

The road is boundless – cultivation so distant, I shall explore it from the beginning to the end.(路漫漫其修远兮;吾將上下而求索。)

I know I’ve been regarded as someone ‘notoriously strict’ in teaching

– am I? Indeed the words ‘ideal’ and ‘explore’ in the couplets above link with the ideas of ‘curiosity’ (好奇) and ‘a child’s mind’(童心) with which I’ve bothered your ears on so many occasions. I truly believe they together will keep me young and will bring all of you a very bright future. Let’s enjoy our lives!

[1] This is a translation of the BBC article 《我为何在英国大学教“文革后的中国文学”?》available at http://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp/indepth/2016/06/160606_views_teaching_chinese_literature

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