The Saturday Profile: Hearts Still Scarred 40 Years After China’s Upheaval

Copyright The New York Times
June 10, 2006
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Shanghai
NIE YUANZI was an ambitious college professor whose “big character poster,” displayed on the grounds of Beijing University, was said to have ignited the Cultural Revolution, a prairie fire of violent purges and denunciations that quickly spread across the nation.
Wang Rongfen was a student of German at Beijing’s elite Foreign Language Institute who was imprisoned after writing a bold letter to Mao challenging his judgment in unleashing the self-destructive frenzy of his young vigilantes, the Red Guards.
Even today, the history of that time has been shunted into a dark corner. There have been no news reports or public memorials of the catastrophe, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and China’s economy was devastated. Yet four decades after the start of the Cultural Revolution in May 1966, there remains a compelling symmetry to the experiences and reflections of the two women who played such prominent roles at the outset of this disastrous era, and had their lives tragically derailed as a result.
However different, they were both, in the phrase of Ms. Wang, “bold and straightforward” women.
After the publication of an article criticizing Mao’s political rivals, Ms. Nie, then Communist Party secretary of Beijing University’s philosophy department, put up a poster that claimed the university was under the control of the bourgeoisie. Mao had the poster read over the radio, giving it his stamp of approval and encouraging attacks on authority figures.
Vaulted into the leadership of the Red Guard, she was detained only a year later after becoming disenchanted with its excesses, and was jailed for 17 years.
Now, she is an 85-year-old who survives on the charity of friends. Looking back, she insists that she had no idea that the poster she made would have such terrible consequences. “I didn’t know we were heading toward disaster,” she said, describing herself as a party loyalist who executed orders. “Once I understood, I stopped following them. I opposed them, and for that I was punished.”
Ms. Wang, then 20, was selected to attend one of the earliest mass rallies of the period at Tiananmen Square, when the Maoist personality cult was being whipped into a frenzy.
The speeches she heard there reminded her of the language of the Third Reich, and she watched, horrified, over the ensuing weeks as teachers committed suicide, students denounced one another and her own mother was assigned to forced labor. “I was transported to the time the Nazis took power,” she said.
Ms. Wang gathered her courage to write a fateful document of her own, a signed letter to Chairman Mao asking: “What are you doing? Where are you leading China?” It concluded with a judgment that the country’s leaders shy from even now. “The Cultural Revolution is not a mass movement,” she wrote. “It is one man with a gun manipulating the people.”
The letter, which has never been published, earned her a life sentence, which was lifted after 12Ω years, following Mao’s death in 1976, which also spelled the end of the Cultural Revolution.
THOUGH frail, Ms. Nie remains feisty. She recently published a book in Hong Kong about her experiences. She greets visitors with a bright red business card that bears her portrait. And she takes calls on a tiny cellphone every few minutes during days spent at her writing desk.
“The lessons,” she said, when asked what she drew from her experience. “Democracy should be really promoted so that each person can express their opinions about state affairs and the work of others. Even if an opinion is not correct, it must be allowed, and allowed to be contradicted. Even today, posters should be allowed.”
Ms. Nie readily acknowledges helping to visit suffering on others, like officials of Beijing University, the target of her poster. They were paraded around the grounds of the university in a dunce cap and signboard. Others, labeled reactionaries, were beaten or tortured by the Red Guards.
The greater culprit, now as then, she said, is the country’s system. “Back then, we believed the party was great and graceful and correct, and you were obedient to the party,” she said. “You went wherever it pointed you.”
Once the chaos set in, though, Ms. Nie came to regret her role. At a meeting of party leaders in August 1967, she tried to quit the leadership of the Red Guard, but was refused by Mao’s powerful wife, Jiang Qing. A few months later, she helped avert a gun battle at the university between rival groups and was arrested soon afterward.
Deprived of a pension until recently, closely monitored and unable to publish inside China, she has dedicated her life to overcoming the official silence about the Cultural Revolution. The leadership, she said, has buried the memory of this period because “it is afraid of losing power,” she said. “They would prefer for the Cultural Revolution to be forgotten.”
UNLIKE Ms. Nie, who insists that she was a pawn, Ms. Wang says she never had doubts about the consequences her letter would have. She simply felt she had no choice but to take a stand.
Ms. Wang left China days after the slaying of demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and has lived in Germany ever since, as a novelist and bureaucrat. Even today she weeps as she describes the suffering her actions brought to the people in her life ó from family members to her entire school, which became the target of purges and “struggle sessions” because of her letter.
She plays down her own courage, recounting matter-of-factly how, when it appeared she might be released in 1968 if she confessed, she surprised her captors. She told them the paper they were offering for her confession was not big enough. They asked what kind of paper she wanted, and she said, “big enough to write a poster,” which she intended to address to Mao, repeating her criticisms.
Only in a second telephone interview, when asked about it directly, did she speak of her own suicide attempt, drinking four bottles of insecticide on the doorstep of the Soviet Embassy in Beijing in 1966, where she was arrested. The note she had with her at the time said in part, “Poor motherland, what have you become?”
Though they were on the opposite sides of the political chessboard and have never met, Ms. Wang expressed support for Ms. Nie. “She is a tragic figure who was used by others,” she said. “She was hot for a year or two and then lived an inhuman existence for the next decade. I am glad she is alive to tell her story.”
Her only venom is reserved for Mao, still revered, and officially deemed to have been a force of good 70 percent of the time. “I’d say 30 percent good and 70 percent bad,” Ms. Wang said. “The purges, taking China to the edge of bankruptcy, so many deaths ó these are unforgivable. They’re not mistakes, they are crimes.”

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