4 decades later, China still isn't discussing Cultural Revolution

Bian Zhongyun became an early victim of the Cultural Revolution in August of 1966, a movement that would eventually kill or injure millions of Chinese in the decade ahead, after she was slapped, punched and then beaten by students at her school, pictured here, in Beijing.
Bian Zhongyun became an early victim of the Cultural Revolution in August of 1966, a movement that would eventually kill or injure millions of Chinese in the decade ahead, after she was slapped, punched and then beaten by students at her school, pictured here, in Beijing. Tom Lasseter/MCT

BEIJING — The schoolgirls slapped and punched their vice principal, then grabbed table legs with protruding nails and beat her unconscious. Bian Zhongyun was left slumped in a garbage cart in the Beijing high school's courtyard. She'd urinated and defecated on herself, and died with blood and spit drooling from her mouth.

On that afternoon in August 1966, Bian became an early murder victim of the Cultural Revolution, a movement that would leave millions of Chinese dead, injured or mentally broken in the decade that followed.

Although 44 years have passed since the "Red August" that unleashed the floodgates of violence in the capital and across the nation, there's never been a complete public accounting in China about what happened. Bian's killers have yet to be named.

"Even after all these decades, their crimes are still being covered up," said Wang Jingyao, 89, Bian's widower. Wang has kept the bloody, soiled clothes that Bian wore the day she was killed. He wants to know who killed his wife.

"But it's very difficult to find out in China," he said.

Unlike South Africa or Chile, which set up truth commissions to exhume painful pasts, China remains tight-lipped. The authoritarian government in Beijing has discouraged domestic attempts at critical examination of the legacy of the Cultural Revolution.

So even as analysts across the world speak of China's bright economic future, at home this August there remains a page missing from the country's past.

Observers say the reason is obvious: Mao Zedong, who fanned the flames of the Cultural Revolution out of fears that the government was growing too moderate, is the historical bedrock of the Communist Party. To delve into the destruction Mao wrought could lead to a questioning of the political system itself.

Chinese official histories acknowledge that the period was bloody and chaotic, but they give little detail about what happened, especially when it comes to individual murders. State museums often don't mention the event at all.

The Cultural Revolution formally began in the spring of 1966 with notifications at the Politburo, but the wider bloodshed began that August after Mao, dissatisfied with the government for not acting boldly enough, urged more radical action. Red Guard units attacked those with "bad class backgrounds" with impunity, universities were shut down and millions were sent to the countryside to do manual labor.

Other leaders later took the blame for the chaos, starting with the "Gang of Four," which included Mao's wife, but veneration of the "Great Helmsman" continued after he died in 1976.

"The Cultural Revolution changed the life of our generation completely, and it wreaked havoc on China. It was a catastrophe," said Wang Duanyang, who as a teenager led a Red Guard group in Tianjin, a city southeast of Beijing. "I feel regret. ... I have done a lot of things that you may think ridiculous and insane, but those things were done in a particular context."

Wang wrote a book that described the humiliation and beating of his school's leaders and local officials that he witnessed, and in 2007 he paid to have 1,000 copies published. In the forward he apologizes "to the people who I've hurt." He handed out the volume to friends and acquaintances, but commercial distribution wasn't an option.

"According to the Chinese government, any (unauthorized) book related to the Cultural Revolution is not allowed to be published," said Wang, whose own father, an author, was denounced as a "rightist" during the movement.


"You should ask the Chinese government," he said.

Beyond Mao's legacy, the history is sensitive because those involved in assaults on their fellow Chinese almost certainly included future leaders of business and politics.

Looking over pictures of himself with fellow Red Guards in 1966 and beyond, Wang pointed to young men who grew up to be a vice minister, an influential party official in Shanghai and the director of an important state history museum.

Wang Youqin, a former student at Bian's school who's written a book about the Cultural Revolution, named a prominent Chinese bank executive and a senior administrator at a Shanghai university as having knowledge about Bian's death.

"They have become people with power and with money," said Wang Jingyao, Bian's husband. "The central government wants to cover up for them and protect them."

The high school where Bian died was one of the best known in the country. The daughters of the general secretary of the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, and the head of state, Liu Shaoqi, attended the school. (The two men were named enemies of the party during the Cultural Revolution; Liu reportedly died in a jail cell, but Deng later became the country's leader.)

Despite the school's visibility, there's been no official investigation of Bian's murder on Aug. 5, 1966.

A Chinese filmmaker produced a short, powerful documentary about her death in 2006, but authorities forbade showing it in China. Wang Youqin, who's a senior lecturer of Chinese language at the University of Chicago, has created a website and ongoing research project about Bian's death and the Cultural Revolution, but Chinese authorities blocked the site.

"If there was a trial I would go to the court and give evidence, but there is no trial," Wang Youqin said. "They say that generation was fed by wolves' milk; they never really understood that what they did was wrong."

A moment later, Wang corrected herself, saying that there are former Red Guards who are sorry for their actions, but "for some people who were Red Guards, they don't want you to expose their bloody past."

During the afternoon of that Aug. 5, Wang said, she saw students pour black ink on administrators' faces and drag them around and then "people went to the carpenter's room and got broken table legs with nails in them." At that point, Wang said, she left the scene.

Bian already had been subjected to "struggle sessions" in which students kicked and beat her with wooden training rifles. They plastered her house with signs that accused her of party disloyalty and taunted that she'd "trembled all over" while getting doused with water and having her mouth stuffed with mud "just like a pig."

The day before her death, more than a half-dozen students whipped Bian and another teacher with belts and buckles.

One of the senior student leaders present the afternoon of Bian's murder, Liu Jin, agreed to talk with McClatchy about the experience. Liu was joined by a friend, Feng Jinglan, who was also there that day.

The pair, now in their 60s, recounted the political history of the Cultural Revolution and gave a chronology of events at the school; but after an hour of talking, neither of them had described a specific act of violence. Only when pressed on the murder did the two women say that Bian and four other administrators were frog-marched around the schoolyard and beaten. Both said they were in another part of the school when it happened.

So who, exactly, was responsible?

"It was a group action. A lot of students beat Bian Zhongyun, maybe just hitting her on the back or slapping her," Feng said. "But her death is not the responsibility of any one individual."


Wang Youqin's site The first section of the documentary film about Bian Zhongyun


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