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Three people deeply imprinted on my memory

April 8, 2001

This essay, penned for the 12th anniversary of June Fourth, reflects on three people who died unjust deaths at different moments in the course of the last 50 years. Its author, Ding Zilin, is the coordinator of the Tiananmen Mothers group that is campaigning for a proper accounting for the 1989 Beijing massacre. Ding’s 17-year-old son, Jiang Jielian, was shot dead by army troops, and this devastating loss made her reexamine her own history and that of others she had known in her life.

  • Every year around June Fourth and Qingming Festival I always remember three people: my primary classmate Gu Shengying (a pianist), my schoolmate in high school and university Lin Zhao and my beloved son Jiang Jielian. They were not in the same generation, but they all died within the five decades of the second half of the 20th century.

    Gu committed suicide in 1966 under unbearable humiliation during the Cultural Revolution. Lin Zhao was shot and killed at the Shanghai Longhua Airport by the Chinese Communist Party. And my beloved son died in the bloody massacre of June Fourth, 1989.

    Gu and Lin were later rehabilitated by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and People’s University of China respectively, but those people who caused their deaths were never punished by law, just as those who committed crimes in the June Fourth massacre remain unpunished although 12 years have passed since my son died.

    The reason why I always remember the three people is that they all shared the same fate. Whenever I remember them I remember the tragic days of the past, and scenes that make me tremble come into my mind one after another. As time goes by, my state of mind is a bit vague and my memory sometimes connects and sometimes fails. But one thing is certain: there is an impulse deep in my consciousness that forces me to tell all what I know and think to every one in the world.

  • First I want to tell the story of my primary schoolmate Gu Shengying. I found out the news of her death only 23 years after she died. It was after the June Fourth massacre in 1989. When I read this familiar name, Gu Shengying, in the Digest News, I felt a blow in my heart and I was about to faint.

    I felt I had returned to the Shanghai of 40 years ago and to the little primary school located at Rongjia Road in Xujiahui—the Chinese Western Girls’ High School Affiliated Second Primary School. In a large, bright classroom, one little girl, smaller and younger than me, sat straight in front of me. We were all lined up in rows. This was my classmate Gu Shengying.

    It was the fall of 1944 when I enrolled in grade three at that school. When I first knew Gu, she looked like a lovely doll. She dressed neatly and beautifully with a big bow flashing behind her head and always wore a humble smile on her face. Soon I knew she was not only lovely but also very clever. She did not spare any time to play around as she had to attend piano classes several times a week, but she still scored an “A” on every subject. It impressed me so much that every time a teacher asked a question, she was the first one to put up her hand bravely and to give the correct answer. She was gentle and quiet. She did not talk much and never quarreled with other classmates. Others in the class liked her very much.

    The Chinese Western Girls’ High School and its Affiliated Second Primary School were famous Christian schools in Shanghai and charged high fees. All pupils came from rich families except me. At that time, Shanghai was occupied by enemy forces. My father had been laid off and was staying at home after the German Zhongqing Coalmine Company he worked for closed down. Since then my family’s situation deteriorated, as we had to survive without my father’s income. Yet my mother still insisted I had to receive the best education and spent her private money, as well as sold some jewelry in order to pay my school fees.

    The Affiliated Second Primary School was not big but it had comprehensive facilities. The school was strict especially in teaching English. All students starting from grade three had to learn English using hardback English books imported from the United States, even for the most elementary, learning to read with the aid of pictures and children’s stories. All those books were really fascinating. Since I joined the class in the middle of the course, it was hard for me to cope with the homework. Gu, who sat in front of me, helped me a lot and our friendship started to flourish. Gu was a very considerate girl. Perhaps because she knew about my difficulties, she would turn around during breaks and ask if I had understood if a teacher had been teaching us something difficult. Whenever I shook my head, she would patiently give me an explanation. After this happened a few times, whenever I patted her shoulder, she would turn around and whisper to me. I am not sure how, but I came through that transition period with the help of Gu and gradually I developed deep friendship with her.

    Apart from discussing our homework, I did not share much time with Gu because she spent most of her time at piano lessons. Everyday after school at one o’clock in the afternoon, her parents would come to take her home in their private car. At that time in the school, most of the pupils were driven home in family cars, but few were collected by their parents like Gu. Her parents were very fond of her. But Gu never talked about her parents nor showed off about her family. Although we were good friends, I knew nearly nothing about her family. Her parents simply gave me the impression of a gentle, well-dressed, middle-aged couple.

  • I spent only about three years with Gu. In spring 1947, my family had to move to Suzhou so I tearfully had to leave the Affiliated Second Primary School. I will never forget that when I was about to leave, my class teacher held a farewell party for me at the home of Gao Suming, one my classmates, and invited many of the others to come. They all wrote some words in a memorial book for me.

    I kept that book after leaving Shanghai, both before and after Liberation [1949]. Yet when the Cultural Revolution and being sent to the “May 7 Cadre School” (named after Chairman Mao Zedong’s May 7 Directive of 1966) were over, the book had disappeared. I cannot remember what Gu wrote for me, but only her name written neatly in ink, Gu Shengying, still sticks in my memory. At the farewell party, many classmates brought me little gifts, either hand-made or things they had bought. I kept them all as I moved from place to place throughout the country, from Shanghai to Suzhou, from Suzhou to the Northeast, from the Northeast to Beijing. Only Gu’s gift could not be kept. It was a jeep made of chocolate nearly one foot long. For a very long time, I did not eat it though I loved chocolate. When the hot weather came, my mother let me put the jeep into a cool room downstairs. Since we did not have a refrigerator in the house in Suzhou, the jeep began to melt when July, the hottest month, came. Then I let my younger siblings share the jeep with me. I was only able to keep it in my memory.

  • Nineteen forty-nine was a turning point for our generation. The replacement of the Guomindang by the Communist Party was not only a change of dynasty, but also brought dramatic changes to many families. Most members of my large family moved to Taiwan under the leadership of my uncle Ding Wenyuan, who was the chairman of Shanghai Tongji University and a parliamentary representative in the Guomindang era. Persuaded by the then central government, he followed many famous academics to Taiwan. Only my father, together with a younger uncle’s family as well as my elder aunt (widow of geologist Ding Wenjiang), stayed in the Mainland. I heard that some of my best friends in Shanghai also moved to Taiwan with their families. Yet Gu’s family stayed in Shanghai. Not long after, my family moved to Beipiao Coal Mine in Rehe, in the Northeast (now Liaoning Province), joining the expansion of the coal industry. Since then, Gu and I were separated, and never met again.

    I did not hear Gu Shengying’s name again until the 1950s, after my family moved to Beijing. I read reports that Gu had won an award in the 1957 Piano Competition at the World Festival of Teenagers and Students in Moscow. I was delighted by this good news. In the coming few years, I heard she won several more awards. But since we had not seen each other for some years, I could only offer her my congratulations in my heart.

    I just could not imagine how an outstanding young woman and pianist such as Gu would end her own life under such intolerable circumstances. Only when I learned of her death did I find out more about her family and what they had been suffering.

    Gu’s father had been an entrepreneur in Shanghai before 1949, or a so-called “progressive capitalist” in Communist terminology. He had reportedly helped the Communist Party when it was underground, before Liberation. However, during the elimination of counter-revolutionaries campaign in early 1950s, he was accused by the Communist Party of being a secret agent for the Guomindang and jailed. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Gu herself got into trouble. Some reactionaries at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music accused her of being one of the “bad younger generation” of “three kinds of famous people” and “three high ranks,” and criticized and denounced her publicly. She suffered both physically and psychologically and found it intolerable.

    After sending a last parcel of chocolate to her father who was in jail outside Shanghai, she committed suicide by taking sleeping pills and turning on the gas. Her uncle, her mother’s only brother, also committed suicide in the same way. After the Cultural Revolution, Gu’s father was rehabilitated and set free and went back to Shanghai. It turned out that he was the only one in his family left. Not long after, his life also ended. A good and happy family had silently disappeared from Shanghai.

  • I could say nothing on hearing of Gu’s death, but only cry silently. A girl like her—highly educated, talented, with high aspirations, full of dignity, did not deserve to die like that. She was only 29 years old. She should have had a long life ahead of her. However big, the country had no place for her. Her leaving silently not only destroyed her life and her family, but also her creativity and aspirations, and most importantly, the most valuable thing in her life — music.

    Facing a direct threat to your life really needs courage. It is the same when one faces humiliation. Delicate and fragile as Gu was, she chose to die to defend herself rather than to beg for mercy living on humiliation. How brave she was! There is an old saying: “A gentleman can be killed, but not humiliated.” Gu used death to preserve her respect and dignity.

    I always remember the chocolate jeep she gave me in these years. I never imagined she would use the same thing to express her love for her father in the last moment of her life. Quiet as she was, she used this way to represent and express all her love, to family and friends.

    There was nobody left in Gu’s family. I tried to find out where she was buried, but in vain. I do not know if she has a tomb or where it is. This is a familiar regret for our generation. I can only silently pay my respect to her when I visit my son’s grave every Qingming Festival, hoping she may feel more at ease after death.

  • Many people know Lin Zhao’s name. She died so miserably. After she died, it is said, an officer from the public security bureau even went to her house to ask her mother for five cents to cover the cost of the bullet.

    Lin Zhao was my schoolmate in high school and in university. Though we were in the same school and lived in the same dormitory, we did not get to know each other. If Gu’s death left me endless regret, then Lin’s death left me endless guilt and sorrow.

  • Still, I only learned about Lin’s death after the June Fourth massacre. After my son died, some of my old schoolmates in Beijing came to visit me one after another trying to comfort me. The news of the death of my son reached the ears of some other former schoolmates who were living in other provinces and places.

    Later, one of them wrote me a letter of just a few words, and enclosed a thick wad of pages of an article published in the magazine Democracy and Law several years ago. The headline was “The death of Lin Zhao.” From this I discovered that Lin had studied journalism in Beijing University and was labeled as “rightist” because she was sympathetic towards her “rightist” schoolmates [denounced after the Hundred Flowers] in 1957. In 1958, the journalism courses of People’s University of China and Beijing University combined together and Lin came to the complex of our university with her fellows from Beijing University....

    Since she suffered from lung disease, Lin was granted “special permission” to “work under supervision” in the reference room of the Department. At that time, we lived in the ninth floor of the dormitory while Lin lived alone in a small room a few steps down the staircase of the ninth floor. In those two years we were in the same university but I knew nothing about this. Even after searching through my memory, I found no evidence that I was aware of this.

    Sometime later, the old schoolmate who worked in another province came to visit me during a trip here. Feeling guilty, I asked about Lin. The old schoolmate did not castigate me in any way, but showed a magnanimous attitude, merely saying: “You might not have noticed her at that time.” “To rightist guys like us, Lin was our good friend. We admired her talents and called her ‘Little girl Lin’.”

  • Then everything became clear to me. Though Lin and I lived in the same dormitory, we actually lived in two totally different worlds. I lived in a “shiny” unreal world build up by the Communist Party using all the white lies while Lin and my other “rightist” schoolmates lived in a dim world compressed by lies. Yet only the latter was real. Although those who lived in this real world were severely trampled on, they preserved their integrity and true human qualities, their sympathy and love of humanity.

    I do not want to excuse myself by claiming to be childish or na?e. In my student years, we had high aspirations and desire to achieve. During that time, we did not study hard enough, but spent a lot of energy on launching campaigns. It would be a very great honor if a leader labeled one “an activist.” In order to win that title, one would whole-heartedly “listen to the Party and follow the Party line,” being “the Party’s obedient tool.” Those who we lived side by side with everyday but who pursued different goals, we treated with stupid arrogance and terrible indifference. When they were hurt, we would run away from them without feeling guilty, and even give them a disdainful look or cold-shoulder them. When a person really behaved like this, one might think he was pursuing his own high ideals, instead of considering this as evil, a way of destroying civilization or abandoning one’s own humanity and conscience.

    I am grateful to my old schoolmate for letting me know about Lin’s history. This woke me up from my life of indifference. Yet this waking up is painful. And only this pain could shake off the yoke on me and let me find myself. This really saved my soul.

    Soon after my son died, I was suffering the hardship of pain and sorrow, feeling as if I were hovering between life and death. I earnestly desired to know more about Lin. I thought maybe I could gain courage and support to live on by knowing the sufferings of people of the same generation. But since then, I have not been able to find any more written information about Lin for quite a long period of time.

  • Just recently, I chanced upon a memorial article written by Lin’s younger sister, Peng Lingfan. Until then did I know that Lin was at the same high school as I was—the Suzhou Jinghai Women Teachers College Affiliated High School. Lin was four years ahead of me. In spring 1947, after arriving in Suzhou from Shanghai I was admitted into the Affiliated High School though I had not yet completed my primary education. The school was famous in Suzhou, and was run by the same church that ran the Chinese Western Girls’ High School Affiliated Second Primary School in Shanghai. When Lin graduated from high school and devoted herself to “revolutionary work,” I entered grade two in junior high school. Three years later, I arrived in Beijing after being in several other places, and joined the “revolution.” I was admitted into the Department of Journalism of People’s University of China. Lin studied Journalism in Beijing University at an earlier time but transferred to People’s University of China. We both left the same high school as a starting point and at last arrived at the same university but had totally different experiences and fate.

    Lin Zhao stayed at university until her mother came to bring her back home to Shanghai for the sake of her health. At that time, I had already graduated from university. Later, Lin was sent to prison on the charge of “organizing a counterrevolutionary group” because she had contacts with some “rebels.” Since she refused to confess, she was given an even longer prison term and suffered from all sorts of inhumane mistreatment, and was finally executed. She was only 36 years old. She never got married. After Lin was first arrested, her father, who lived in Suzhou, committed suicide out of grief and indignation. Her mother suffered badly from this blow and went crazy and was beaten to death by “Red Guards” on the street during the Cultural Revolution. Yet another family that disappeared without trace in Shanghai.

  • In the past few years, I asked many of my friends where Lin’s grave was and eventually found the rough location of the place. I was told that it was built and paid for by some of Lin’s old schoolmates and located in the countryside outside her hometown, Suzhou. Yet no part of her body or bones lies beneath the stone, just a strand of hair and some of her belongings.

    At Qingming this year, I looked for Lin’s tomb with my husband and finally found it among the public graves at the foot of Lingyan Mountain outside Suzhou. Under bushes of cypress stood her tombstone with the words: “Lin Zhao’s grave” stating clearly her lifespan, from December 16, 1933, to April 29, 1968. On the back of the tombstone is carved one of her poems:
    Phosphorescent green light never goes out

    And lighting up souls every night

    Preserving the soul

    Letting go the crippled body

    Burning into ashes in misfortune

    Someday with a red flower on the head

    Recognizing the blood stains

    Just as copying a bright red flower

    Impossible to paint the real color

    I stared at the moss around her tomb without saying a word. I was filled with grief and sorrow at the unpredictability of this world and the vicissitudes of life. It seemed that everything had come to an end, or nothing had begun. If Lin were alive today, she might not be so optimistic. If she is still aware of these things in her afterlife, she will certainly not have been able to put down this heavy burden.

  • From the Cultural Revolution to June Fourth, in the past 50 years two generations have suffered the same pain. The oldest of them was 36 years old and the youngest was only 17. They all celebrated the birth of the New China or flourished in the New China, but were all swallowed by this New China. The only thing they did wrong was to look for freedom and dignity in their motherland in the wrong place.

    April 8, 2001

Translated by Virginia Lai

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