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China’s Brave Underground Journal—II

In downtown Beijing, just a little over a mile west of the Forbidden City, is one of China’s most illustrious high schools. Its graduates regularly attend the country’s best universities or go abroad to study, while foreign leaders and CEOs make pilgrimages to catch a glimpse of the country’s future elite.

Founded in 1917, it has been lavishly rebuilt over the past few years, with a sleek new gym, dining hall, and classrooms—a monument to a rising country. But to many Chinese people of a certain age, the Experimental High School Attached to Beijing Normal University conjures up another image—that of a group of fanatical girls torturing their vice-principal to death.

China’s Brave Underground Journal

Ian Johnson from New York Review of Books
On the last stretch of flatlands north of Beijing, just before the Mongolian foothills, lies the satellite city of Tiantongyuan. Built during the euphoric run-up to the 2008 Olympics, it was designed as a modern, Hong Kong–style housing district of...

For years, the event has been of interest to foreign scholars of the Cultural Revolution; it is a Lord of the Flies story that has attracted academics investigating female violence, filmmakers trying to document the mindset of violent Red Guards, and researchers trying to piece together how many people were killed, by whom, and how. In China, the story is more veiled. In official accounts it is usually mentioned as an example of the chaos that the country should avoid, and it is heavily censored to conceal the fact that many of the young women were children of the Communist elite, and today are prominent members of society.

But this is changing, part of a broader movement intended to shift discussion of sensitive questions from the private into the public sphere. Led by samizdat publications like the online journal Remembrance,1 accounts of violence—including the vice-principal’s killing—are being published and passionately debated. More remarkably, people are even apologizing publicly for their actions, setting off long-overdue discussions about how China should deal with its violent past, especially when many of the victims are dead. Is it best to forget, which the country has largely done, or is there merit in digging up the past? And is it possible to have a cathartic confrontation with the past in a country with no real public sphere?

Over the past year, the apologies for wrongdoing have come in rapid succession. One man in Jiangsu wrote in a magazine about how he had informed on his mother, leading to her execution. In Beijing, an editor wrote an account of how he’d beaten a peasant who he thought hadn’t shown enough enthusiasm for Mao’s ideas. And in Shandong, a man took out a small advertisement in a magazine, saying that he had beaten and spat on teachers but now, approaching old age, “I cannot forget what I have done wrong.”

The most widely reported was last year’s apology by Chen Xiaolu, the son of a famous general. Chen said that he had led a Red Guard–style police unit but failed to protect teachers at his school from being humiliated and beaten savagely by students. Chen was widely praised for his apology, but after about a month censors closed down discussion—taking the relevant blog pages off line—because the issue was too sensitive. In an interview, Chen said one motivation for speaking out is his fear that many behavioral patterns haven’t changed in China. “In 2011, people were beaten during the anti-Japanese protests,” he told me. “People still have that violence, that anger.”

None of the apologies has touched a deeper nerve than one made earlier this year by a reluctant sixty-five-year-old woman—one of the girls who had stood by as her vice-principal was sadistically tortured to death. Song Binbin had been one of the school’s student leaders as the Cultural Revolution unfolded starting in May 1966. The daughter of a famous general, Song Renqiong, she participated in writing vitriolic “big character posters” denouncing the teachers and administrators of what was then an all-girls school. Taking their lead from China’s god-like leader, Mao Zedong, she and other classmates concentrated their attacks on authority figures, who Mao said had betrayed the Party.

In the girls’ school, this meant that the top suspect was the school’s vice-principal and Party Secretary, Bian Zhongyun. A fifty-year-old mother of four, Bian was a staunch Communist who had joined the Party in 1941 and worked in a guerrilla base before the Communist takeover in 1949. She was seen as formidable, in charge of discipline.

At the start of the summer, Bian had been beaten by some young people but the violence had eased. Mao had left Beijing, and moderates had tried to get a grip on the situation by sending “work groups” to factories and schools to restore calm. But when Mao returned in July, he recalled the work groups, and urged students to resume their attacks on authority. Bian was beaten badly on August 4. That evening she told her husband that the girls would kill her. He urged her to somehow escape, but she was proud and certain she was a good Communist. The next day when she left for the school, she formally shook her husband’s hand, as if to say farewell.

Bian was tortured all day. In Though I Am Gone (2006), a moving and detailed documentary on the killing by the director Hu Jie, witnesses say the girls wrote slogans over her clothes, shaved her head, jabbed her scalp with scissors, poured ink on her head, and beat her until her eyes rolled into her head. When she started foaming at the mouth, they laughed and ordered her to perform manual labor by scrubbing the toilets. She collapsed and died there, her clothes soaked in blood and feces. Hours later, some students carted her away in a wheelbarrow. When students mentioned Bian’s death to Party officials, they brushed it off as not inconsistent with Mao’s orders.

Song’s direct role in Bian’s killing is unclear. She has never been credibly linked to the beating, but as one of the student leaders, many assumed she must have at least known about it. Still, all accounts show that it had been an anarchic and confusing day, and she might not have done any worse than the scores of other girls who were in the school at the time but did nothing to stop the violence.

Song Binbin pins the armband of the Red Guards on Chairman Mao Zedong at a rally in Tiananmen Square in August 1966.

What makes her case special is what happened in the next few weeks, and how she dealt with it in the following decades. At a mass rally of Red Guards on August 18, she met Mao on the rostrum of Tiananmen Square, pinning a Red Guard armband on the seventy-two-year-old’s sleeve. Mao chatted with her, asking what her given name meant. Song replied that Binbin meant “refined,” “gentle,” or “elegant,” and Mao suggested she change it to “Yaowu,” which means “be militant.” Photos and films show Song beaming as she talks to Mao, ecstatic that she has been allowed so close to the great leader.

The next day, an article under the byline Song Yaowu condoned extremism, saying that “violence is truth.” Schools across China were renamed “Yaowu” and Song became one of the most famous Red Guard leaders, just as one of the most violent phases of the chaotic decade began. In Beijing alone, 1,772 people were killed that August, with Vice-Principal Bian’s murder usually reckoned to be the first. For years, many believed that Song killed Bian as well as others.

Like other Red Guards, Song was eventually sent to labor in the countryside when Mao decided that their chaos had gone too far. Her family connections, however, ensured that she didn’t suffer as badly as others. Many urban youths were able to return home only after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. But like other children of top Communist officials, such as Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Song returned to Beijing in the early 1970s to attend university.

In the 1980s, she emigrated to the United States, changed her given name to Yan (which means “stone”), earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked as a civil servant in the Boston area, and married a wealthy businessman. In 2012 a Bloomberg News investigation showed that her extended family had gotten fabulously wealthy over the past decades, typical for the aristocratic clans that stem from the founding generation of Communist leaders and now dominate the country. In 2003, she returned to China.

Song remained famous, but steadfastly refused to give interviews (including several requests from The New York Review) though she did give some hints about her views of the past. In the 2003 film Morning Sun by the U.S. filmmaker Carma Hinton, she consented to be interviewed, portraying herself as an unwitting girl who had been almost tricked into meeting Mao on the rostrum. She also said she didn’t write the article condoning extremism, and generally abhors violence. Hinton, who grew up in China and participated as a Red Guard at another Beijing school, was a gentle interviewer: in the film, she doesn’t ask Song about Bian’s killing, and she filmed Song in a dark room so that her face was obscured. Instead, Bian’s death was discussed by one of Song’s classmates who had not been present at the school that day. She started her account by saying that Bian had been in poor health, implying that this was an important reason for her death.

That same year, Song threatened to sue the University of California Press for a book, Chinese Femininities, Chinese Masculinities: A Reader, that made several assertions about Bian’s murder, including that Song “led” the students in torturing Bian to death. The two sides reached an agreement, with Song not pursuing legal action in exchange for the press issuing an erratum to the book and promising to make corrections to the second edition. The editors and authors also issued an apology for presenting Song “as responsible for violent acts that occurred near the start of the Cultural Revolution. Including these statements in the book was a serious error in judgment.”

A few years later, Song again surfaced in the media. To celebrate its ninetieth anniversary, the experimental high school published a picture book of famous alumni, including Song, and prominently featured the picture of her meeting Mao on the rostrum. Almost perversely, the facing page has a picture of Bian, with no mention of the link between the two women. Pictures taken at the anniversary event show a banner that Song’s classmates made for her that flew outside the school. It is adorned with photos from her youth, including the picture with Mao. The photos were widely circulated in China, eliciting scorn and anger among many victims of Mao-era violence.

But friends close to Song say she was troubled by being associated with violence, especially Bian’s death. That led to the involvement of the underground magazine Remembrance, whose editor, Wu Di, decided to get involved.

Earlier this year, when Wu and several writers who contribute to Remembrance met at an apartment in a northern suburb of Beijing, they spent the day debating history, especially the recent wave of apologies. The apologies, they said, had triggered an outpouring of anger and empathy that was so overwhelming that the government eventually banned the topic from official media.

Wu told me that Song had long wanted to speak out about the violence but was discouraged by her husband. When he died two years ago, she participated in a roundtable discussion that was reprinted in Remembrance. Later that year, the magazine also published a piece by her called “The Words I’ve Wanted to Speak for Forty Years.” In it, she recounted the circumstances surrounding Bian’s death, explaining how she urged her classmates not to be violent. The article went on at length about how Song hated the given name “Yaowu” (be militant) and had suffered for being associated with violence. Reading Song’s essay is an unsettling experience. One senses that her feelings are honest but muddled, a misguided attempt to equate her sufferings with the atmosphere of terror and violence that she helped create.

Song’s article was criticized as an attempt to whitewash her role in Bian’s death. Wu and Remembrance, too, came in for criticism for giving her a platform. Wu told the group of us at the table, however, that this had been his goal. By giving Song a place to air her views, he hoped to open up the discussion on responsibility.

“What I had hoped for was a Willy Brandt moment,” Wu said to the group, and the writers nodded at the reference to the former West German chancellor who in 1970 fell to his knees before a monument to the Nazi-era Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a signal moment of penance in Germany’s postwar rehabilitation. “But it became more complex than I thought.”

As Wu had hoped, the discussion heated up after 2012. When Chen Xiaolu, the general’s son, apologized last year, Wu urged Song to take the next step and apologize formally herself. Several classmates said they would join her, and several teachers from that era, now in their nineties, agreed to participate.

In January, Song returned to her old high school, where a bronze bust of Bian stands on a pedestal in a conference room. Bowing before it with several other classmates, Song pulled out a written apology, saying she felt “eternal regret and sorrow” for her actions. At first, Song largely reiterated her 2012 article, saying she’d tried but failed to disperse the girls.

But then she went further, trying to explain her actions that day. She said that she had been scared. People who had sided with the moderates were being accused of not following the correct political line. Worried about the consequence for herself, she “followed those making errors…. For this, I have responsibility for the sad death of Principal Bian.”

Wu also helped to organize a conference to discuss the violence at the girls’ school. Song sat hunched over a MacBook Air, and gave her account again, as did numerous other participants. A few weeks later, Wu dedicated an issue of Remembrance to Bian’s killing, including essays by Song and some of her classmates describing their experiences that summer, the violence, and how it happened.

In some ways the apology was remarkable. Unlike the statement by the general’s son, Song’s apology is more detailed. She describes her actions and how, in effect, she had been too cowardly to defend her teacher—a plausible enough explanation given her age and the totalitarian atmosphere at the time.

But Song wasn’t entirely convincing. Crucially, she doesn’t explain why she had assumed that the girls wouldn’t beat Bian when they had disobeyed her once before, or how she could not have known that Bian was being beaten after she left the girls—the campus is not that big and other eyewitnesses say that the atmosphere was so tense that people hid during Bian’s ordeal. In essence she explains these points by alluding to the fear that possessed her, and one can read between the lines and understand that she probably knew what was going on but didn’t act. Yet her circumspection left many observers dissatisfied, especially in view of her previous history of avoiding discussion of Bian’s death and even celebrating that era.

Bian’s widowed husband, for example, rejected the apology. Now infirm, he could not be reached for comment, but Chinese media reprinted a statement attributed to him calling the apology “hollow.” Many liberal intellectuals in China and abroad chimed in, primarily questioning Song’s claims that she had pleaded for calm. One of the online parodies that circulated did not mention Song but showed a cartoon of a tear-shedding crocodile in a Red Guard’s uniform. Another had a police officer asking a group of people why they’re admitting to having aided in torture and murder—are they here to turn themselves in? “Oh no,” they say. “We came here to apologize.”

From the government’s perspective it was more unwanted publicity about who did what during the Cultural Revolution—a not obscure topic given that Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other leaders came of age in that era and that some may have participated in the violence. One of Deng Xiaoping’s daughters, for example, was one of Song’s classmates, as was a daughter of Liu Shaoqi, another former leader. After a brief flurry of reports, the government issued a circular to editors banning news of Song’s apology, and ordering websites to take down posts about it. What had started as a way to put Song’s conscience to rest had the opposite effect, turning into a public debate that the government has had to squelch.

Wu is happy about the resulting public discussion but not about how Song was attacked. “I thought liberal intellectuals would applaud us for trying to get this discussion going,” he said to our group. “But after all this criticism of Song Binbin, who’s going to apologize again in the future?”

The writers gathered around the table began talking at once. Some supported Wu, saying he had done his best. Others said they could understand the unwillingness by some to accept Song’s apology, noting that she and her friends still wouldn’t say which of them actually had beaten the vice-principal. The group argued back and forth.

“The point is if they were Red Guards they were under Song’s control.”

“They know who did it—why don’t they say?”

“What purpose would that serve? It would end in suicide.”

“She excused herself but she did apologize.”

“Higher levels don’t want this because they think it’ll cause conflicts. That’s why no one reports on the apologies anymore.”

“Don’t forget that Bian was the highest Communist Party official at the school. If you put it this way—they beat to death the highest Communist Party official at the school—haha, so if you think of it like this, the West can accept it. The people who beat her to death were anti-Communist heroes!”

Everyone stopped and looked at the person who had made that dark joke. He looked down a bit embarrassed. “Just a jest, sorry.”

After hours of discussion, the meeting was almost over. The tea leaves were spent, and the teapot only yielded a weak brew. Dai came in and handed out some banned books that had been printed in Hong Kong and shipped up to China. The men figured out who owed what for the books and settled up. Soon they would disperse, heading back from this faceless subdivision to Beijing, where the Cultural Revolution had started nearly half a century ago.

But first Yin Hongbiao spoke. He is a Peking University international relations specialist who also writes on student violence. Like almost everyone who contributes to Remembrance, Yin holds no official position in this field because universities, even famous ones like Peking University, discourage or ban research and teaching of recent Chinese history. But he has written extensively on the subject, and the others listened attentively. Yin reminded them that people like Song had been teenagers at the time.

“Children can commit crimes, but you have to ask, who raised them?” He spoke slowly, and looked up at the others who had gathered around the wooden table. “Who encouraged them?” he continued. “We want them to apologize, but shouldn’t others, too?”

The room went silent. Then they started speaking, incoherent but passionate and urgent, as memories of the past collided with questions about the future.

—This is the second of two articles.


  1. See my previous article, “China’s Brave Underground Journal,” The New York Review, December 4, 2014.