On Weibo: Cultural Revolution Suicides

As people across China took part in the June 1 Children’s Day campaigns to, among other things, remember the millions of “left-behind” children in the countryside, some netizens on Weibo spent the time reflecting on another, seemingly bygone, era. Trending on Weibo right now is a black and white photograph, depicting two rather austere-looking couples—on the top, Fu Lei, an art critic and translator and his wife, and on the bottom, Jian Bozan, a prominent Chinese Marxist historian, and his wife. Both couples were among the many prominent intellectuals and cultural icons at the time who were subjected to the harsh attacks of the Anti-Rightist Campaigns and the Cultural Revolution. Many of them were subsequently driven to take their own lives.

The photo was posted by Weibo user “Shi Dan Shi Yan” on May 31, and as of June 1, it had been reposted 4,696 times and received 1,131 comments. The image was accompanied by the following text (with descriptions added):

Of the people who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution, some were lovers who made the decision to walk down the road to death together—further evidence of the immense suffering and cruelty of the time. These included the prominent couples: Mr. and Mrs. Liu Shousong (a prominent scholar of modern literary history), Mr. and Mrs. Jian Bozan (a prominent Chinese Marxist historian and Vice-Principal of Peking University), Mr. and Mrs. Yang Jiaren (head of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music), Mr. and Mrs. Fu Lei (a famous translator and art critic), Mr. and Mrs. Tian Baosheng (an important international law scholar), Mr. and Mrs. Chen Zhengqing (a well-known Party photographer and former Chief of Communications at Xinhua), Mr. and Mrs. Huang Guozhang (Professor of Geography and Director of the Geography Department at Beijing Normal University). Furthermore, there were whole families that took their own lives: the family of Xiao Guangyan (a U.S.-educated scientist and research fellow of the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics), the family of Zhang Zongying (son of prominent Chinese philosophy scholar and public intellectual Zhang Dongsun), the family of Gu Shengying (a world-renowned pianist), and the family of Lei Chunguo (an instrumental figure in establishing Sino-Myanmar relations in the 1950s). As Deng Tuo (former editor-in-chief of People's Daily who himself committed suicide in 1966) wrote: “The intellectuals' passion for debate—for that, they even sacrificed their heads.” Ahh—the pain!

In response, netizens are seizing the opportunity to discuss for one of the first times the long-proscribed topic of the Cultural Revolution within the (seemingly) unmediated and open forum of the microblogging site Sina Weibo. The result has been an outpouring of confessional-style comments, a reflection of the extreme degree of sensitivity that has been accorded to this deeply complex—and long hushed-up—period of history.

As “Tie Shizi Fen de Qiezi” writes: “I had no idea old Mr. Huang Guozhang from our geography department was also a victim of the Cultural Revolution. It turns out that on September 6, 1966, Professor Huang and his wife, foreign language instructor Fan Xueyin, after having their house raided by Red Guards, later that evening took their own lives in humiliation.”

Other Weibo users have responded by relating their own personal stories. “Lonely Dimsum O,” for example, commented: “Because my grandfather studied abroad in Japan and worked there for nine years, during the Cultural Revolution, he was accused of having illicit relations with a foreign country and as such, was often criticized and publicly humiliated. All four of his children were sent down to work in the countryside—two of them were underground Party members. Not only were they not able to escape, but they were also labeled as counter-revolutionaries and often paraded through the streets. My grandfather had saved many antique calligraphy and painting books. In one night, these were all burned. In the end, my grandfather died a miserable death, his mental spirit broken after having endured the persistent and long-term horror.”

Despite the relative detachment with which many Weibo users are discussing this particular chapter of Chinese history, however, there are some who point out that the Cultural Revolution is but one chapter in an ongoing narrative, the main protagonist of which was and still is the Chinese Communist Party. As Weibo user “Zai Jia Ju Shi Le Youyou” writes: “Most of the so-called intellectuals who died at that time also sang Red songs in support of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. But in the end, even singing songs didn't save them from death. Wouldn't you say those that did survive are still singing Red songs today?”

That the thread has (as of yet) not been censored is perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of the discussion as a whole. If it is allowed to continue, it may be another example of what East Asia correspondent for the Globe and Mail newspaper, Mark MacKinnon, calls an emerging “official tolerance for a thriving online discussion of the articles [about the Great Leap Forward], which has seen thousands of Chinese Internet users debate the history, share their own memories and—inevitably—question why the facts were kept from them for so long.”

If indeed China's dark history is being brought to light, then it can be expected that many new stories and details will soon be unearthed. Because, as Vice-President of New Oriental Education and Technology Group Inc., Bob Xu, commented: “Every family in China suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution. But they still won't let us speak of it!”

Cultural Revolution