My Uncle Was a Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution—He Isn’t Sorry

Lishui is the nickname for my uncle, a farmer who has lived all his life in the suburbs of Tianjin, a big city in northeastern China. Whenever people talk about Lishui, my mother’s older brother, they always say: “Lishui is a nice guy, honest, always in a good mood.” As a young child, when I heard him coming to visit, I would rush out of the house, climb onto his shoulders, and pull his ears.

The more I think about Lishui, the more I am confused by the fact that he was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, a movement from 1966-1976 led by then-ruler Mao Zedong that caused great upheaval and pain among China’s people. Most confusing to me is the fact that my kind and honest uncle says he doesn’t regret a single thing he did—not even today, when the Cultural Revolution is widely acknowledged both outside and within China as a massive historical mistake. (In June 1981, the Party passed the “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China,” which described the Cultural Revolution as a “mistake.” That was the closest the Party has ever come to apologizing. Meanwhile, the last several years have seen a wave of public and in-person apologies from individuals who used to be Red Guards, the young enforcers of Mao’s insane vision.)

For this article, I spoke with Lishui about his experience as a Red Guard on two occasions, once in April and once in November 2015. I also spoke with other family members about their recollections of Lishui and the Cultural Revolution that shaped him. Lishui’s story began in in May 1966, when he was 18 years old. He told me he heard a government announcement on the village loudspeaker: “Some representatives of the Bourgeoisie have creeped into our party, our government, our military, and our cultural departments. They are a group of counterrevolutionary revisionists and they are waiting for the right moment to seize power.”

One night not long after the announcement, when Lishui’s father was putting on a shadow play under candlelight for his younger children, Lishui heard the sound of drum, gongs, and voices, chanting, “Down with the landlords and their bastards!”

“What’s that?” Wang’s young brothers and sisters asked.

“Red Guards,” said their father.

Not long after, Lishui told me, he found that almost every young person around him had become a Red Guard. He soon joined them, for reasons he could not articulate clearly. “It’s like being pushed by a flood,” he said. There was also an intitial attraction to the position. There was less work to do at Lishui’s village production team, because so much time was spent on political activities. His younger siblings did not need to attend school.

One day, the Red Guards received a “high command” that they should clean away all the “Four Olds”—old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Their first step was to search people’s houses and confiscate any property that fit any of these broad categories; it could be a traditional painting, or a table.

Terrified of severe punishment, the old man handed over his collection of books and paintings before those young people, including his own grandsons, would find them.

One of the first targets was Lishui’s grandfather’s house. Terrified of severe punishment, the old man handed over his collection of books and paintings before those young people, including his own grandsons, would find them. The Red Guards piled the books and paintings and burned them. To show his sincerity and to avoid further punishment, my great-grandfather used the fire to boil water in front of the guards.

Lishui also followed the other Red Guards to the west end of the village, where the village’s ancestral tombs lay. Dozens of the young guards dug up tombs, broke coffins, and looted graves for jewelry, leaving the bones in the dry grass. Our family tombs weren’t spared.

But Lishui isn’t sorry about that either. He told me he followed guards to the tombs many times, but insists he did not take anything. “It was the leaders” who took the jewelry, he said, “although nobody knows what they did with the golden earrings and bracelets.” Lishui told me what they did was “not totally wrong,” because its intent was to convert the land so it could be used to plant grain.

Red Guards also banished Peking Opera, a once much-beloved art form, from the village. One day, after they’d finished destroying part of the local temple, Lishui and his fellow red guards broke into the village stock of opera stage settings and costumes and burned them. My uncle says he did think for a moment about how his father loved Peking Opera, and memories came back to him of old days when his father would take him onstage and let him practice reciting the lines of a small role.

I never had a chance to ask my grandfather—once a frequent Peking Opera actor in the village, who until the last day of his life still held his radio to listen to famous opera performer Mei Lanfang—about how it felt to see his own son burning those cherished parts of his life. But I know my grandfather stopped singing Peking Opera for many years while the classic plays were banned and only eight “model operas” were permitted.

Over time, Red Guards turned from attacking physical objects to attacking people. My uncle says he could feel the turn happening, but he could not stop it, or stop himself.

Whenever the Red Guards and the “people’s militias” chanted slogans outside, the young children of my family would run out and see what was going on. Then one day, the chanting stopped outside a nearby house, home to a lady who was more than 60 years old. Her husband used to do business when they were young, so the woman became “old white hair,” a target. The Red Guards found a pair of golden earrings hidden behind some photos frames. The old woman was dragged out and beaten by wooden sticks as thick as arms.

That same winter, my grandmother told me, a man surnamed Fu, one of the few landlords in the village, was found to have engaged in conduct before the founding of the People’s Republic of China that was “extremely guilty and evil.” So Red Guards dug a hole in the frozen river, tied Fu to a big stone, and pushed him into the hole. At first there was a cry and the sound of struggling in the water. Then everything was quiet except for the wind.

My great-grandfather, Lishui’s grandfather, was afraid for himself. Although he had already gambled away his property, it felt like hundreds of pairs of eyes were staring at his past: that of a young master, educated in Confucianism, who kept a concubine and was the village head during the nationalist Kuomingtang’s pre-Communist regime. He had negotiated with the occupying Japanese army when they passed through his village, giving them nice food and gifts in exchange for their mercy.

My mother once had a conversation with my great-grandfather. “They did not kill anyone when they lived in our village; isn’t that the result of my hard work?” she said he told her. “They killed so many people in our neighboring village. I don’t think I was wrong.”

None of that mattered during the Cultural Revolution. My great-grandfather was forced to step on stage and accept criticism, wearing a “high hat,” which looked like a dunce cap, enumerating his crimes. Lishui worried about further retaliation against my grandfather, so Lishui visited his grandfather’s house to help him write self criticisms.

“He was old and his eyes were diseased, so he told me his stories, and I wrote them down,” Lishui told me. “I also guided him to write what the Red Guards would like to hear. I remember a few lines: ‘I was born in 1899; at eight years old I started studying the Four Books and Five Classics taught by private teachers. I will reflect deeply and profoundly on my past.”

We were loyal, and we were following Chairman Mao’s guidelines, and what’s more important, we believed we were doing things that were good and meaningful.

But Lishui won’t blame Red Guards for his grandfather’s torment. We were loyal, and we were following Chairman Mao’s guidelines,” Lishui said, “and what’s more important, we believed we were doing things that were good and meaningful.” He added that Chinese socialism was “facing great challenges from counterrevolutionists back then.”

But in 1976, everything ended. That July, an earthquake killed many people in Lishui’s village and destroyed the already shabby houses; that September, Mao died; and that October, my uncle heard another announcement from the village loudspeakers: the Gang of Four, a powerful political faction driving the Cultural Revolution, had been struck down, and the Cultural Revolution was over.

The spell broken, Lishui found himself a farmer once again. A photograph from that time shows him young and happy in a white shirt, green army trousers, and an army hat.

Things have not gotten better for Chinese socialism, or for my uncle. He is bitter that China has cast off the values he fought for and for which he sacrificed his youth, the kind of socialism where the workers and farmers like him were the masters of their country. In his youth, Lishui believed in a socialism in which there were no classes. He remains proud that he was what he calls a “good student” of Chairman Mao. (During the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous and famine-inducing policy Mao implemented in the late 1950s to spike economic production, Lishui was one of the children who pushed their parents to donate their iron tools, including farming implements, so they could be melted down to make steel. Even today, he never addresses Mao Zedong by name, but always as “Chairman Mao.”)

But in today’s highly unequal China, it seems, the joke is on Lishui.

But in today’s highly unequal China, it seems, the joke is on Lishui.

My uncle now lives as a farmer in the Tianjin suburbs, and says he has nothing more than the $15 pension he receives each month from the government. He still likes to talk politics. “The aim of the Cultural Revolution was good,” Lishui insists. “Our society now lacks some of the positive spirit of the Cultural Revolution.”

Lishui is serious about that contention. “During the Cultural Revolution, nobody dared to abuse their power like today,” he told me. “Farmers and workers were like the real masters of the country. Look at today: officials are the lords, and this country is full of capitalists. I dare say 99 percent of the village officials in China,” some of which are chosen via a quasi-democratic process, “gave bribes to get themselves elected.”

Around early 2013, when Chinese president Xi Jinping started a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, his portrait appeared on my uncle’s wall. Lishui was excited, and in conversation he used to link the campaign to an earlier Mao-led movement in 1963, the Four Cleanups, meant to remove “reactionary” elements from Chinese politics. But to Lishui’s disappointment, a new Cultural Revolution hasn’t followed. On my most recent visit to my uncle’s house, Xi’s portrait no longer adorned the wall. Lishui is still waiting.