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The Cultural Revolution and My Coming of Age: In Memory of My Grandfather Yan Cangshan*

December 30, 2013

One day in 2008, my 13-year-old daughter Lingling saw me organizing my grandfather Yan Cangshan's belongings. "Who is this?" she asked. "Was he very famous?" "He's your great-grandfather, my paternal grandfather," I responded. "He was a famous doctor of traditional medicine in Shanghai, and his father, my great-grandfather, was also a very famous doctor of traditional medicine." "What did the father of your great-grandfather do?" Lingling asked. I answered: "His father was a famous artist, his name was Yan Ming, he was a very good finger-painter, that's when you use your fingertips the way you would a paintbrush."

I lowered my head and continued to organize the material.

Lingling seemed to think of something and asked: "I've heard you say that your grandfather committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution. Why?"

I said "People commit suicide because they want to end their unbearable suffering by cutting their lives short."

"The year he committed suicide was 1968. I was only 14 years old. I was in Beijing, and my grandfather was in Shanghai. But even if I were in Shanghai, it wouldn't have made a difference . . . . This kind of helpless and brutal situation is hard for your generation to understand."

"What was the Cultural Revolution? Even an author and poet like you can't explain it clearly?" Lingling asked.

"That was a man-made catastrophe worse than a natural disaster. Everyone was drawn in. No one could save himself or herself—no one except for one person who really enjoyed directing this disaster, and he often wrote poems," I said.

Lingling asked: "Write poems? Directing? Directing disaster?"

I said: "Yes, writing poems. This man threw many of his close friends into the abyss. Many of these people also committed suicide. I believe that characterizing the Cultural Revolution as a manmade disaster is accurate. He even said: ‘A movement like the Cultural Revolution should come every seven to eight years.’ So, this was not only conducting, but planning."

"Oh," Lingling sighed. "So who was he?"

I said: "His name was Mao Zedong. You can look him up on the Internet. Many people worshipped him because he overthrew the corrupt Nationalist government and, in 1949, established the People's Republic of China. But history always needs many years to sort out achievements and mistakes. To determine his achievements and mistakes still requires some time. But the verdict on the Cultural Revolution is clear: it was an immense catastrophe!" 

Lingling finally asks: "What was the Cultural Revolution trying to do?"

I said: "Culture is the experience of civilization accumulated from thousands of years of human living. With this experience, humankind could continue to raise the quality of life, articulate and achieve excellence, and get rid of the dregs. From this concept of historical progress, the cultural part of the revolution had to do with getting rid of cultural dregs to facilitate better development. But the reality of China's Cultural Revolution was a terrifying turn backwards, backwards to the point of people turning a man into god and worshipping him as god—and they took this to its extreme. In terms of slogans, it wanted to overturn old, backwards things. But what was new and excellent? In fact, it was a movement of beating people up, using people to beat other people, then letting another gang of people beat those who did the beating, and then letting those who were beaten to retaliate against those who had beaten them. Anyway, there was a lot of beating back and forth. The reason for all this beating was to produce a real proletariat. It was precisely this real proletariat who were the master of society, and could conduct the beating of people.

Lingling said: "I don't understand. This sounds a little crazy. What is the proletariat?"

I said: "It means that whoever were the poorest were the best people."

Lingling asked: "Then, when the Cultural Revolution started, your grandfather had a lot of money?"

I said: "He didn't have money; he was a doctor, and the house he lived in belonged to the government. His salary was a little higher than others, because he had skills to treat people. Patients in urgent cases would knock on his door even in the middle of the night to be seen. His interests were Chinese culture and art, so he had a collection of ancient calligraphy paintings. He may have had some 1,000 works of calligraphy paintings from the Ming and Qing dynasties and the Nationalist era. His own calligraphy was also very good. In addition, his grandfather was a Qing dynasty painter and our ancestors all had this love of art, so he spent a lot of money on collecting calligraphy paintings.

Lingling said: "We don't have these calligraphy paintings anymore. Where did they go?"

I said: “I'll tell you what really happened.”

The cruel fire of the Cultural Revolution spread to my grandfather's home on an August night in 1966. At that time, my parents were working in Beijing and they sent me to Shanghai when I was one year old, to be raised by my paternal grandparents. When I was 12, one year younger than you are now, in fifth grade, the Red Guards who came to raid our house began by burning antique calligraphy paintings. Your house was raided because your social make-up was bad—you or your ancestors were landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements, rightists, academic authorities, or had foreign relatives or had been government officials. This was “class struggle,” to distinguish people's social status. Theoretically, these people were bound to have in their homes’ things passed down from before, including books. At that time, these things were collectively known as the "four olds" [Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas]; whatever was part of the four olds had to be destroyed. Therefore, right after they rushed into grandfather’s house, they began burning calligraphy paintings and books, and they did it for four to five hours straight. They even smashed some ancient pottery. It was popular at that time to make every person in the raided houses wear dunce caps, with names like counterrevolutionary, landlord element, spy, capitalist, reactionary academic authority, etc., written on it in ink. Our whole family had to wear these dunce caps, on them was written: counterrevolutionary, reactionary academic authority, etc.

In those days, you were guilty by association. That is, if your direct or even indirect relatives were considered to be bad elements, that shadow would be cast over you too, and you would lose your most basic dignity as a human being. Even though I was only 12 years old, I also had a dunce cap put on my head. I stood there too afraid to move. My hat began to slip, and I took a small step toward the mirror to fix the hat. Right then, I got a hard kick in the butt. A Red Guard said: "You're wearing this hat and you're worried about looking pretty? This shows the exact nature of the bourgeois class." After he was done cursing me he kicked me twice more.

In the months after August 1966, my grandfather's house was raided five times. Every time I was scared to death. What were they looking for? They wanted to find evidence of counterrevolutionary activities. What constituted evidence of counterrevolutionary activities? Something as simple as an old newspaper, old photograph, old book or magazine could constitute proof of a crime. As long as it was from before, or even after, 1949, when the Communist Party came to power, or was related to rightists in the subsequent Anti-Rightist campaign. If you had anything to do with a rightist or were related to a rightist or had social connections with one, you would also be in a lot of trouble. As to the Anti-Rightist campaign, it happened in 1957. You can go on the Internet and look it up—that was another wrong as great as history has ever known.

Before my grandfather's house got raided the first time, a few neighbors' houses had gotten raided already. My grandfather's wasn't the very first. As he heard news about the raids and what happened, he started hiding things, mostly photos, taken with other people. For instance, if one person in a group photo of five or six people was considered a counterrevolutionary, then all the people in the photo would have a problem. Conversely, if they thought you were a counterrevolutionary, then all the people in the photo with you would be implicated. Under this terrifying logic, the best thing to do was to destroy all your group photographs, to avoid others implicating you or you implicating others. And because of this logic, my grandfather burned many photographs and books before our house was raided. I even helped my grandfather tend the fire in the small yard. I remember the smoke made me tear up, and my grandfather handed me a towel to wipe the tears away, telling me that the burning would be done soon . . . . Not until now do I suddenly realize how he must have felt when he said those words to me.

Another great crime my grandfather was accused of was that he had treated many "bad people," as if it were a physician's job to distinguish between good and bad people, instead of just diagnosing illnesses. As a result, he was locked up at the end of 1967. Not long afterward, on April 14, 1968, he just killed himself. He was 70 years old. Before he was detained, in the middle of 1967, he had family members send me from Shanghai back to my parents in Beijing. The last thing he said to me was: "I can't protect you any more, go back to your parents in Beijing."

Lingling opened her mouth wide and asked: "Does suicide hurt? How do you do it? I heard classmates say that the famous Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung committed suicide by jumping from a building. That must have hurt a lot."

I said that there are many reasons that people commit suicide. But those who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution were forced to do so by those who were abusing their power. No one dared resist. Those who did resist were either arrested or executed. At that time, people who committed suicide were said to have "committed suicide to escape punishment." That is to say you committed a crime, but you don't want to admit the crime, so you commit suicide to escape punishment. This was considered an act to continue to oppose the people and the government, which could also implicate family members. At that time, if your family came from generations of poor people, peasants, or workers, you would be considered the best kind of person. Whoever was a famous intellectual was considered a problematic counterrevolutionary.

Talking about my grandfather, Yan Cangshan, what moved me most about him was his passion for life. Not just passion for human life, but passion for the natural world too. I became aware of this from the time I was five-six years old until I was 13, when I left him to return to Beijing. In my memory, in his small courtyard he raised all kinds of animals and plants. He had white rabbits, yellow canaries, multicolored goldfish, green grasshoppers, a white Pekingese dog, a white cat, even turtles and crickets. I was frequently instructed how to feed them. Among the plants he raised were cactus, Japanese banana, chrysanthemum, Chinese roses, asparagus fern, and orchid cactus. He paid special attention to the orchid cactus, which opened only once a year, at night. It became like a religious ritual for him when the flower bloomed. On such occasions, he invited relatives and friends over to drink alcohol and admire the bloom.

The chrysanthemums—they were occasion for grand ceremony. Every year in deep autumn, a whole row of all different colored chrysanthemums ready to bloom would be laid out in a row. When they flowered, he would stand for a long time, admiring them, almost as if he was quietly talking to them. I’m sure of this: my grandfather's passion for animals and plants was related to the love of nature in China’s scholarly tradition. This tradition also included music, chess, calligraphy, and painting. So he also wrote calligraphy and painted, and loved collecting calligraphy paintings.

 Of course his greatest passion was for human life. Rescuing the dying and healing the wounded were his life's work. I saw many patients healed by him come to visit and thank him, heard their laughter, and saw too many times the gifts and flowers they brought as expressions of their gratitude to him. I also remember knocks on our door in the middle of the night by sick people seeking a doctor. In his robe, he took their pulse and wrote prescriptions for them. Some patients were sent by him straight to the hospital for emergency treatment. Our house had all kinds of emergency life-saving medicines in all kinds of bottles and containers, ready to be administered to those in need, as it was difficult to buy medicines in the middle of the night. I remember my grandmother sighing about patients recommended by friends: "How pitiful. No money but sick like this. Let's not take any money." My grandfather of course agreed not to take any money.

 My grandmother believed in Buddhism. Early every morning, she would burn incense at the altar of Guanyin, the goddess of compassion. I woke up to the fragrance of the incense every morning. That's a beautiful memory. My grandfather's family was a big household. My two uncles and aunt on my father's side also lived there. Another two of his sisters lived along Huaihai Central Road [downtown Shanghai]. On Sunday when everyone gathered together, the atmosphere was very festive, and we told jokes nonstop. That was a period of blissful family life that I can remember. But it was suddenly disrupted in 1966. For many years afterwards I didn't have this kind of warm feeling again. What I had was sadness and endless suffering. Because my grandfather was tormented into committing suicide, every time I think of him, I would attempt to imagine what his state of mind was. I wanted to describe this state of mind and understand how a cool-headed person guided his life to break out of this humiliation. But I failed. I know that unless I was really in that kind of sinister environment and committed suicide after describing my pre-suicide state of mind, I would not be able to duplicate it! But what I did understand was how much he loved life. He went to the next world in order to preserve the last bit of dignity and purity of life.

What happened with my grandfather before he committed suicide was even more painful for me. Before his suicide, he wrote on scraps of paper that were stuffed into his bedding. This illustrates his situation at the time—it was difficult to even find paper. And his crooked handwriting revealed his spiritual pain. He knew that the authorities would for sure find these pieces of paper after his suicide because, as someone who had had his house searched many times, he knew too clearly that there was nothing that they couldn’t find. Even if there really wasn't any evidence, they would make something up and plant it! So in order not to implicate his family after his suicide, he made a note praising the political system and its highest-ranking leaders. He was trying to use his last bit of wit to create a scenario that would not involve his family after his suicide. But this last bit of wit was no longer wit. It was the result of the mental contortion caused by atrocity. The logic of those in power was very simple: Why commit suicide if you praise the political system and its leaders?

Among his last words was a small piece of paper for my uncle (his son Yan Shiyun). It said: ". . . Say it was diabetic poisoning, coma, then death. That will be better for everyone." That was to say: don’t tell people it was suicide. Because suicide was an escape from punishment, you were still an enemy of the people and the government. That would implicate your relatives. His sole legitimate reason for committing suicide was to maintain his dignity and not to continue being humiliated by the bad people. He had an upright and unyielding character. He had healed the sick for so many years. He understood human anatomy so well, but didn't realize that human nature could be twisted to this extent. Even more, what he didn't realize was that his death could never be claimed to be diabetic poisoning, and that those in power immediately labeled it "suicide to escape punishment," a label that they continuously used to humiliate his family members. As a result, in the decade following his death, my grandfather’s family members continued to be persecuted by those in power and they were labeled the relatives of a "black five element."

It was my father, Yan Shijing, who was treated the worst. In the beginning of 1968, he went to his work unit's—the National Science and Technology Committee's—cadre labor farm in Hunan province. In late 1970, he was taken away from the farm. We had no word for four years during his custody and we weren't allowed to visit or told where he was being held. But he persevered and didn't commit suicide. Four years later, when he was released, he was already very ill from his incarceration. We treated his sickness at home for six years but could not overcome the force that dragged him toward death. He passed away in 1981.

The relatives of the “five black elements” were people stripped of many of the basic rights of a normal existence. At that time, China had too, too many of this kind of people. As a result of this kind of beyond-the-pale, unimaginable atrocity, immediately after the death of the top leader in 1976, people arrested the Gang of Four, his inner circle. The Cultural Revolution was thus brought to an end by many people who couldn't take it anymore.

After another two years, in 1978, my grandfather was rehabilitated. In one stroke, he metamorphosed into a good dead person. In a great hurry, I conveyed this news to my grandfather in a poem, in the voice of a blood relative. I hoped that now in heaven he could breathe easier. The Cultural Revolution concluded in 1976. It became known as the decade of catastrophe. So why did it take two years for rehabilitation? This was because too, too many people needed rehabilitation. For many others, it dragged on far longer than two years before they were rehabilitated. And rehabilitation did not mean compensation. Because the degree of brutality left nothing on earth that could amount to compensation. So, in general, rehabilitation of one's reputation counted as compensation.

 In the decades that followed, some people, too aggrieved or idealistic, insisted on pursuing justice for victims of the crimes of the Cultural Revolution. For example, the writer Ba Jin wanted to construct a national Cultural Revolution museum. And there are those victims without siblings or children—who is going to tell them about their posthumous rehabilitation? I believe that's the role of literature. From that era's "scar" literature to all kinds of memoirs of the Cultural Revolution today, these words serve to pass on this historical experience to the next generation. They are also a sacred torch, which will not let the darkness of the Cultural Revolution to again befall us!

English translation by Human Rights in China.

*A longer Chinese version was originally published online on April 4, 2013, at:

Yan Li

Yan Li (严力) is a Chinese avant-garde poet, novelist, and painter. Born in Beijing in 1954, he was associated with the Stars Group of artists and writers, and the Misty Poets in the late 1970s. He moved to New York in the mid-1980s, where he founded the poetry journal First Line (Yi Hang). His writings have been translated into many languages, and his paintings have been exhibited in the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai.

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