My grandparents survived the Cultural Revolution: have I inherited their trauma?
Shayla Love’s mother and grandparents lived through China’s Cultural Revolution – now she wants to know what biological traces of their trauma she carries within her today.
One night in February 1970 in eastern China, 16-year-old Hongbing Zhang washed dishes and idly listened as his parents squabbled over how they knew a man who stopped by to play chess. Suddenly, his mother spat out a dangerous opinion: “The verdict should be reversed for Shaoqi Liu.”
Shaoqi Liu had been one of the most powerful men in communist China. But he disagreed when Mao allocated farming land to the production of steel, contributing to a famine that killed at least 30 million people. Liu was criticised, beaten and put under arrest a year after the start of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1966. By the end of 1969, he was dead.
Zhang had been taught that only a class enemy would support a denounced figure. In his eyes, his mother transformed into a monster: her face turned green and her teeth grew into fangs, dripping with blood. “You traitor,” he said. “Shaoqi Liu was a public mortal enemy and was executed and you’re still defending him!”
“Mao Zedong is the traitor and public mortal enemy,” his mother replied. She told him the party had changed and that Mao was promoting individual worship. “Son,” she said, “you don’t know about class struggle.”
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Zhang’s father threatened to turn his wife in, but it was Zhang who found a piece of paper and wrote: “My biological mother, Zhongmou Fang, is related to a landowner. Her father was a counter-revolutionist. She tried to reverse the verdict for Shaoqi Liu and viciously attacked Chairman Mao.”
It was snowing as he walked to a military representative’s house and slipped the note under the door. When he got home, his uncle was pleading with Fang to take back what she had said. She knocked down Mao’s portraits from the walls and slammed the door to her room. The family smelled burning paper.
“Open the door,” Zhang’s father said. “Beat the counter-revolutionist!”
Zhang used a rolling pin to hit his mother on the back. It was now midnight. His father found a party official, who tied up Fang’s arms and legs and escorted her out of the house.
Zhang’s father began to burn all her pictures. Soon, the ashes of her photos joined Mao’s in dusty piles on the floor. Zhang thumbed through every book and shakily painted over his mother’s signature with black ink.
Less than two months later, Fang stood on a stage made from elementary school desks in the centre of town. Most of her teeth had been knocked out. A party official yelled, “Execute the counter-revolutionist Zhongmou Fang!” One of her black leather shoes fell off as a soldier dragged her away. Zhang watched her go, the wind blowing her matted hair and the death flag on her back.
“When the gun fired,” Zhang told me, “she must have thought about my silly face.”
“He thinks you’re really strange,” my mother said, teasing.
I looked over at Mr Chan, the driver I had hired to take us from the airport to China’s only – albeit unofficial – museum dedicated to the Cultural Revolution. The museum was somewhere in a scenic park on the outskirts of Shantou, a city of 13m in Guangdong Province. Mr Chan, a Shantou native, knew where it was but had never visited.
A former deputy mayor, Qian Peng, built it in 2005. Since the government rejected official requests for a memorial, Peng raised $5m of funding and built his own. He told the press after it opened that they have few visitors because they aren’t allowed to publicise its existence.
A desire to forget the past might keep people away even if they knew the memorial were there. My mother was born in 1961 and lived in Chengdu until she moved to the USA in 1980. The Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, consumed the majority of her years in China. When my grandparents found out I was writing about the effects of the Cultural Revolution on subsequent generations, my grandmother was upset. “Why can’t she write about something good,” she begged my mother over the phone. “Tell her to write something good.”
In 1966, Mao thought he was losing control over the government, in part because of the misuse of land that contributed to the Great Famine. The Cultural Revolution was his attempt to tighten his grasp on the country and its people. It resulted in the persecution of anyone who disagreed with him, including senior party officials, teachers and mothers. He encouraged the cult that grew around his image and used it to provoke violent behaviour.
Children and adults were sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’, people turned themselves or friends and family in as counter-revolutionaries, and Mao ordered the burning and destroying of ancient Chinese heritage. An estimated 1.5m to 2m people died.
“It’s not always about death, it’s about fear and loss,” says Frank Dikötter, a historian of modern China and a professor at the University of Hong Kong. “Buying a potato on the black market could see you condemned. Your closest colleagues and friends and families are obliged to turn against you, denounce you in public, because you poked a hole by accident in a Mao poster. That’s all quite traumatic.”
Back in Shantou, Mr Chan drove up a curving mountain road to a promising cement sign quoting Karl Marx: “For men to clean their sins, they have to speak the truth of their sins.” A huge mural celebrating the end of the Cultural Revolution welcomed us. It spanned the entire length of an empty parking lot. My mom asked Mr Chan if he wanted to come with us. He didn’t look up from his cellphone. No.
The museum was all outdoors. Steep stairs brought us breathlessly up a mountainside onto flat plateaus with clusters of statues and murals. My mom translated engraved stories of those who were wrongly persecuted and of people who were killed.
It was an impressive space, but lonely and tall. We met two other people, but they were there only to exercise up and down the steps. The paths were overgrown and my voice echoed in the emptiness between the stone walls. Each time we ascended to the next height, the air was thinner and it felt more barren.
There was nothing there, nothing brought into the open. There was information, but no people, no memories. We had travelled 8,000 miles to see a memorial no one knew about and no one cared about. It was just a bunch of hard rock.
My breathing was heavy when we reached the top. As I looked down the mountain and out to sea, I asked my mother what she thought.
“It’s totally abandoned,” she said.
I heard Zhang’s story a few days after we got back from China. I tracked him down, and we talked by email. Like most Cultural Revolution stories I’ve heard, Zhang’s passed through the filter of my mom: she translated my English into Chinese, and his Chinese into English. Though it was his life that I learned about, it was in my mother’s words.
Zhang doesn’t talk to his daughter about his mother, even though he has lived in agony since the day she was killed. His fear, he said, is that his pain will be passed to his daughter and grandchildren. But a family’s past can impact the next generation even when it’s concealed.
In 2005, Haydée Faimberg, a psychoanalyst in Paris, wrote a seminal book on trauma transmission called The Telescoping of Generations. She claimed that one family member’s experiences could slide into or pass within another’s, like the cylindrical sections of a collapsible hand telescope. When the children of Holocaust survivors came of age in the 1970s, psychologists realised that they felt the trauma of their parents’ experiences even though they hadn’t lived through them. The theory of trauma transmission has since extended into genetics. It’s still controversial, but scientists may be finding physical evidence of multigenerational trauma in the gene expression of descendants of trauma survivors.
Zhang told me his 35-year-old daughter suffers from extreme anxiety. She’s a law school graduate and in 2003 got a job at a pharmaceutical company. She would spend most of her time at home crying, feeling useless and that no one needed or liked her. Since 2012, she has been a stay-at-home mom to her two children. Her anxiety has decreased now that she doesn’t have to interact with others.
Is Zhang’s daughter anxious because of the Cultural Revolution? It’s impossible to say.
Yael Danieli, a clinical psychologist living in New York, interviewed Holocaust survivors and their families for more than two decades before she published the International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma in 1998, a comprehensive look at suffering around the world. Trauma transmission wasn’t just taking place in Holocaust families, but also among survivors of Japanese-American internment camps, the atomic bombs in Japan, the occupation of the Dutch East Indies during World War II, the genocide of the Armenians, the genocide in Cambodia, the war in Vietnam (especially veterans), the ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia, trauma experienced by indigenous people in Australia and America, the Stalinist purges in Russia, apartheid in South Africa and the persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran.
For a country with so much suffering, China was notably absent. When I was growing up, I also knew very little about my mother’s trauma. It seemed as foreign to me as the strange language my grandparents spoke.
As a girl, my mother would make dolls out of wet mud for her and her sister to play with, but they cracked into dust under the sun. Her neighbours and parents raised a dog, and it was her job to feed him. Once grown, he was meant for dinner. Mao’s famine had just ended and meat was scarce. The neighbours fought over who would get the legs. My mother can’t remember if she ate him or not, just that she was sad to lose a friend.
These tales were sprinkled onto my own childhood memories, like seasoning on a bland plate of food. For all the details I know of these two anecdotes – grainy sand between a child’s fingers, watching a neighbour kill a dog with a hammer – I know almost nothing of the rest. My mother and I have the same roundish face and small nose, but she is Chinese and I am not. My father is American and my race is ambiguous, both to others and to me. I have never been able to describe my feelings of loss surrounding the Cultural Revolution, but I’ve always known they are there. And I have a hunch that they exist in others my age too.
Even if parents never speak of their trauma, psychoanalysts have found that children can pick up on gaps in their narratives and become worried about something unspeakable. This anxiety can be passed through a heavy pause at the kitchen table, or disguised in an off-putting bedtime story.
There is also another definition of ‘telescoping’ that I learned while researching Faimberg’s book. It is a biological term for a type of reproduction that can occur in insects that don’t need a male to reproduce. Female aphids can generate their own offspring, though they are essentially clones of themselves. Before they are born, these offspring then create their own children inside themselves too, so a single aphid houses its children and grandchildren in one tiny body, a ‘telescope’ of generations.
This also occurs in some species of mites, but the young hatch while still inside their mother. They begin to mate and get bigger, and want to leave. They eat their way out of their mother’s body, consuming her from the inside out. She is left torn to pieces by her descendants, who are all trying to escape her. The image haunted me, as I imagined trauma dripping down like pesticides on family trees, invisible and toxic.
In 1983, a psychotherapist at the Sigmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, was lecturing in Canton when a colleague pulled him aside. “The inviting professor of psychiatry told me a secret,” Alf Gerlach says.
“Before the Cultural Revolution, there were 64 psychiatrists in his province. And 53 of them committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution due to the fact that they were ashamed in public. I felt terrified when I heard that.” This was Gerlach’s first encounter with the Cultural Revolution: in the whisperings of the Chinese psychiatrists he was training.
Gerlach began an official psychotherapy programme in China in 1997. Half of his first participants talked to him about how they witnessed their parents being tortured, being accused publicly or being sent away from their families to other provinces. “We never pressed them to talk about it,” he says. “We used examples from our own past, or only from our patients, here in Germany. But the Chinese people, they turned it and integrated their own selves with the Cultural Revolution.”
In 2000, Tomas Plänkers, another psychotherapist at the Sigmund Freud Institute, joined Gerlach in China. He gave a lecture on World War II and German silence. The attendees immediately discussed why China didn’t talk about the Cultural Revolution. The next day, a doctoral student asked him, “What did you give a talk on last night? There was a big storm of discussion on the internet!” The lecture had gone viral.
In 2003, Plänkers began to do research for a book, which was first published in 2010 and then in English in 2014 as Landscapes of the Chinese Soul. It includes one of the only studies that examines Chinese parents and children as pairs, looking for trauma passed between them. The six groups studied had varying biographies, but he did find common themes of shame, suffering and violence in their narratives.
“I think it’s not possible to make psychological generalisations for millions of Chinese,” Plänkers says. “But what is, I think, realistic to say is that a greater part of the population has been severely influenced by the Cultural Revolution and they transmitted these experiences to the second generation.”
He emphasises that there can be no ‘diagnosis’ of multigenerational trauma, and that establishing one wasn’t his intention with the study. “What I tentatively would say, with such a big mass of people, is if they function with a general attitude of not reflecting their past, they are cut off from their own history,” Plänkers says. “What we can do, or what we should aim [to do], is to bring these individual experiences into the open.”
Ying Wu sat across from me and shyly pushed at a Caesar salad. Her black hair was pulled back and her cheeks were flushed pink, the same blushy hue as her sweater. She is a 29-year-old mother and a wife but exudes a girlish youthfulness. We were eating at a hotel in Chengdu, where she now lives with her husband and son.
Wu told me she was very anxious until she went to college. She would spend hours crying and worrying about her grades or her dad’s job security. Her anxiety peaked when one night, while studying for a difficult maths test, she started stabbing her arm with the pointed tip of a compass as a bloody reminder not to make any mistakes.
A Red Guard killed Wu’s father’s grandfather in a random act of violence. Her father now distrusts strangers and is suspicious that people will try to hurt him. “As a result I hardly talked to people,” she said. “I only invited my friends to my home once. My friends usually go to each other’s homes and even stay overnight, which was impossible for me.” When she went away to study in London, she started to wonder if it was her parents’ influence that had caused her anxiety.
Another woman I met had paranoid parents: Juliette Hoffman, a 33-year-old born in Shanghai. One of her mother’s neighbours named his wifi network ‘FBI Man’ as a joke. Hoffman’s mother was sure the government was watching them. She has secret hiding spots behind shelves and nooks in the walls. If the apartment receives a wrong number call, she thinks they are being watched. “The paranoia isn’t just surveillance, it’s like her whole life philosophy is about what people are saying about us, or her, and what people think,” Hoffman said.
My grandmother discourages taking taxis because she is scared I’ll get kidnapped. When I am in China, she tells me to speak less, because if a “bad person” hears my English, I will be killed or taken. Though I don’t believe her, it sometimes causes my throat to tighten if a driver takes a wrong turn; I don’t feel completely safe any more.
Hoffman told me that the idea of an “escape plan” has always been salient for her and intensified once she had children. “I remember on late nights, with either of the babies, thinking: What would I do if someone were to break into my house right now? Who would I grab first? How would I do it? How would I escape?”
I also fear intruders, not ones who will steal my things, but who will enter my home intentionally to hurt me. Hoffman and I talked about the home purges, when cadres would storm into private homes to loot and kill. We don’t actively think about them, but we decided we must have some echo of them in our minds. It felt good to talk about these issues. I hadn’t realised until Hoffman said the words out loud that I too imagine escape routes.
As psychotherapy becomes more acceptable in Chinese culture, many therapists are asking young people to voice their experiences and connect the invisible dots between past and present. I went to the Shanghai Mental Health Center to meet one of Plänkers and Gerlach’s former trainees, Xu Yong, to hear what was being said in these sessions.
“Some of my patients’ parents suffered and they become emotional very easily or lose their temper,” Yong said. “The children cannot understand why. One of my patients, her father is very scared, very cautious because he was affected by some events in his family. His cousin was criticised and some relatives were sent to the prisons for many years because they were accused of being an anti-revolution group. So he became very cautious and even a little bit paranoid.”
That paranoia can have ripple effects, Yong said. But he said the Cultural Revolution has been a factor in creating another, stronger kind of anxiety in their children that he sees frequently: an intense desire to be successful and make up for a parent’s past.
“Many young people wanted to be a scientist or they wanted to be some doctor,” he said. “But they had to follow Mao Zedong’s call. Then, they went to the countryside. So after that, they failed. They are used; their time was wasted. We psychotherapists think they put their wish onto their children. Maybe we can answer why some Chinese parents have such high expectations or demands on their children.”
That sounds like the case for Yiting Shen, a 23-year-old college student who grew up in the USA. Her dad wanted to be a doctor, but after years in the countryside he’d missed his chance to go to school. His dream when he had Shen was for her to become a doctor instead. Her whole childhood revolved around that solitary axis.
“I remember at one point, I questioned whether I really wanted to be a doctor, and my father said something along the lines of: ‘If you don’t want to be a doctor, then everything we sacrificed for you has gone to nothing, has come to nothing,’” she told me.
Shen said she had no social life, and that her life was about grades. If she got anything below a 97 she would begin to feel sick. “It probably doesn’t even sound rational any more, but I just remember finding it hard to breathe, feeling really dizzy,” she said. “It’s really hard to explain. Almost like it was the end. I remember whenever I got these ‘bad’ grades, I would just hide them. I wouldn’t show them to my parents. I would hide them in the sofa.”
Yong said that many of his patients are extremely sensitive to what others think about them: about their work ethic, achievements and career. It makes sense – what others thought of you meant everything during the Cultural Revolution. It was literally life or death.
When I met with another of Plänkers’s students, Jie Zhong, an associate professor of psychology at Peking University in Beijing, he told me he blames not only the Cultural Revolution but all the combined trauma that preceded it. The famine, the civil war, the Japanese invasion, the Opium Wars – China has been a tumultuous place since the fall of the Qing dynasty.
“It’s like a special flower that they give to the second generation, the third generation, the fourth, the fifth,” Zhong said. “It’s hard to say the same problem was transferred, but we can find the dynamic [in everyone]. There is a kind of fear, a very deep fear that people cannot bear and they try to use ways to cope with it, the fear. This fear is very deep and strong. It’s related with feelings of being persecuted, being diminished, or feeling you’ll be killed, death, you cannot exist.”
Sitting in Zhong’s office in Beijing, I looked out the window and saw my mom waiting for me in the cold. I felt a wave of affection wash over me, and then, I felt a little angry.
It wasn’t her fault, I thought. She didn’t mess up raising me; she didn’t force her wishes on me. I didn’t want these tales of anxiety to point to ancestral trauma, because I didn’t want to blame my mother for anything. I’d thought China was silent about the Cultural Revolution because of the government or because of the old. That’s partly true, but the young have a stake in it too.
It was late afternoon and the sun came in through the window, shining directly into my eyes. I averted my gaze away from my mother until the light was positioned right behind Zhong’s head. It darkened his face, and produced a blinding halo around him, with strands of light pulling in all directions. As if he knew what I was thinking, he issued an ominous warning.
“If consciously we cannot talk,” he said, “unconsciously, we act. That’s the difference. So if we are not allowed to talk in public, we act. That’s more dangerous.”
I had gathered up all these anecdotes and they were heavy with meaning. But my hunt for ancestral trauma still felt frustratingly intangible. With the stories I’d heard fresh in my mind, I turned my search from psychology to biology.
In August 2015, Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, published a paper that seemed to show evidence of pre-conception trauma inheritance in Holocaust survivors’ offspring. A media frenzy followed, and requests from members of the public for transgenerational trauma DNA tests started rolling in.
Those looking for such a test will have to wait for a long time. “If you think you have inherited trauma, you have it,” Yehuda adds, wryly. “I don’t know what any test is going to tell you.”
Biologists used to think we only inherited what our parents passed down in their DNA sequence, a fixed code of nucleotide pairs. But DNA is highly regulated. A variety of chemical groups can attach to DNA, or cause it to change shape, affecting which genes are turned on or off – this is called epigenetics.
One of the most studied epigenetic mechanisms is when methyl groups attach to DNA. Higher or lower levels of methylation can repress or stimulate surrounding genes. Imagine you get a book as a present. As you’re reading it aloud, you find that some of the pages are glued together. You can’t access the information on those pages. In other places, an appendix has been added in, giving more attention and detail to certain topics.
Epigenetic changes can manipulate DNA in this way, and the concept has added a layer of complexity to genetics. Evolution had been thought to be a long, gradual process, but these are genetic changes that can produce dramatic effects within a generation and – potentially – then get passed on.
Now-classic studies by Frances Champagne and Michael Meaney from McGill University in 2004 and 2007 showed that rat mothers that licked their babies changed the methylation on a gene in the baby rats’ brains, lowering stress responses and causing them to lick their own pups when they grew up.
It was a powerful nod toward the importance of early-life events: what other genes were getting turned on and off in response to the environment and actions of others? Since then, an explosion of research has explored possible epigenetic links to autism, stress, obesity and mental illness. But there is much scepticism about how robust the evidence of epigenetic inheritance really is, and exactly how it might work remains unclear.
In 2014, Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler from Emory University exposed rats to acetophenone, a chemical that smells very good. They administered a mild foot shock at the same time, and eventually the rats became fearful of the smell. Then Dias bred the rats. The next generation, though they’d never smelled acetophenone before, seemed to fear it too.
When the researchers looked at the rats’ genes, they found what they were looking for: methylation changes that made a specific odour receptor more sensitive to acetophenone. The changes were in the sperm of the male mice, and got passed on to the pups. To me, it was like the babies had inherited the fears of their parents. What did that mean for children of trauma survivors? But Dias says that his study doesn’t show the passing of fear, just sensitivity.
“It’s just a sensitivity, and what we do with that sensitivity, I think, depends on the environment we find ourselves in,” he explains. “If every individual whose ancestor was traumatised is going to bear all the imprints of that trauma, we’d all be a pretty screwed-up race. By and large, we are not. Which implies to me that we’ve buffered ourselves from the insults that our ancestors went through.”
Dias says that current epigenetic studies often focus on one specific gene and may be missing a larger picture – other genes could have been affected in addition to the single olfactory gene they examined. For now, scientists have to do gene-specific examinations, usually in animals, but the knowledge built from those kinds of studies could inform the future.
“I think the die is not cast at all,” he says. “The beauty about epigenetics is that it’s very malleable, but at the same time that poses a conundrum for us studying it.”
In her paper, Yehuda focused on FKBP5, a gene associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. For the first time, she found evidence consistent with epigenetic inheritance of trauma in human subjects. She studied 32 Holocaust survivors and 22 offspring, and among them found different levels of methylation on FKBP5 compared to a smaller number of control subjects of the same age and background who hadn’t any exposure to the Holocaust.
The finding is both profound and meaningless. Yehuda doesn’t know what the changes mean, except that they indicate some epigenetic connection between parent and child. For now, the results tell her what to look at in more studies.
“I can’t even tell you sitting here today whether the epigenetic change is a positive adaptation or something that contributes to vulnerability,” she says. Yehuda has worked with Holocaust survivors and their children for 25 years. She’s heard trauma survivors and their offspring complain about loss and their upbringings for decades, but their testimonies alone weren’t able to tell her why they felt the way they do. This study might not have all the answers, but it hints at there being a greater biological reality behind the transmission of trauma.
Still, Yehuda has no idea when the epigenome is affected: whether in the womb, in early childhood, through the sex cells, or some combination of these. With human trauma, it’s even more complicated when famine, physical abuse, malnutrition and other physical and environmental factors come into play. It all goes into the epigenomic stew. Once the stock is made, it’s hard to pick out the flavours of each vegetable.
For all her study can’t tell, she hopes it at least starts more communication about trauma. Psychology and genetics differ on many points, but on this they seem to agree. “One of the things we absolutely learned treating Holocaust survivors is that the stories that don’t get told are just as traumatic as the ones that do,” says Yehuda.
“The transmission of silence is not protective. I think that many parents keep silent for that reason. And while it is horrific to hear about horror, if horror occurs, you’ve got to hear about it. The conspiracy to suppress traumatic material does more harm than good. You can’t solve a problem you don’t know about. You can’t deal with an unspoken enemy.”
The point to remember about epigenetics, Yehuda reminds me, is that it’s not your DNA sequence; it’s not imprinted forever. “This is what resilience looks like,” she says. “Resilience is about change. Resilience is adaptation. Because what that means is that if we change to events we didn’t ask for, we can change to events that we create. Beautiful. We’re not victims.”
Zhang studied to become a lawyer, his professional aspirations driven by the desire to prove his mother’s innocence. By August 1980, he had changed his mother’s verdict to ‘not guilty’ because of “serious lunacy that made her talk nonsense”. In 1987, a court removed any mention of insanity. The final papers called her execution “wrong and unjust”.
Since 2011, Zhang has petitioned the government to make his mother’s tomb a protected cultural relic. “Only when I act, can I wash the blood off my mother’s face,” he said. In March 2015, his appeal was rejected. The government said that her grave was built in 1982, and so is too young to be considered a cultural relic. The more disturbing reason given was that Fang’s case is just one of so many from during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Zhang sometimes sees his mother in his dreams. He runs to her, begging for forgiveness on his hands and knees. “But she doesn’t answer me,” he said. “In many dreams, she never talked to me. I believe it is her punishment for me.”
Before leaving China, I ate lunch with my grandparents in Chengdu. My grandmother, my popo, never sits down during meals. She made sure my mom and I had enough to eat and arranged the bowls and plates carefully on the table.
The meal was an equal expression of excess and frugality. There were many dishes: fried eggs and scallions, baked tofu, Chinese lettuce, sweet potato, broccoli, red carrots, rice. Those who live through a famine don’t throw a single bite away. The leftovers are combined indiscriminately into bowls for the next meal – everything we ate was a blend of yesterday and today.
Only when we had eaten our first course did Popo fill a bowl and eat quickly, still standing, her chopsticks darting from the dish to her mouth. We’ve never been able to communicate with each other, and so the way my popo talks to me is with food. For dessert, plates of peeled and sliced apples, oranges, pears and kiwi appeared, their naked flesh oxidising slightly in the air.
I forgot to put on my slippers as I walked to the kitchen to clean my plate. This upset Popo because my feet could get cold on their slick tile floors. I felt a pang as I looked over my shoulder at her, desperately chasing after me with a pair of fuzzy slippers.
The only words in Chinese I know are from when I lived with Popo and Yaya, my grandfather, as a baby. They are words fit for a child: ‘food’, ‘water’, ‘bathroom’, ‘clothes’. But they are also words of survival. Life stripped down to its basic necessity. I have a feeling that this is what life was like for them then, all other vocabulary unused, discarded. I put on my slippers, and touched my popo’s arm: it’s OK now, it’s OK.
After lunch, my mother and I tried to find her childhood home. Chengdu has always been the largest city in Sichuan, but in the past ten years it has developed into a modernised capitalist centre. When we got to her block, a department store stood in its place.
“But look across the street,” my mother said. “That’s where you lived with Popo and Yaya when you were a baby.”
We went into an older courtyard. Someone had hung meats out to dry, like crusty stockings on a stretched piece of twine. My grandparents’ old apartment was on the second floor and had blue windowpanes and rusted frames. I don’t remember being there, but I’m glad it’s still standing.
On our walk, my mother told me more about her childhood. My grandmother was sent to a labour camp. My grandfather had to work long hours, and was overwhelmed raising a toddler on his own. When my mother cried, he didn’t know what to do. He would begin to weep too, and they would sit in the apartment alone, crying at each other.
When my mother was in high school, the army came to recruit students. My mother was athletic and smart, and about to be sent to the countryside. If she joined the army, she would be spared. My mother and grandmother met with soldiers and asked to join.
I could see the path materialise for her as she retold the memory, as if she were walking it again. She said she stood by as my grandmother pleaded the soldier to enlist her daughter. “It made me sick to see my mom beg,” she said. “I knew I had to work hard to be independent so that my mom would never have to beg again.”
It was a 15-minute experience that changed her demeanour for life. My mother has worked extremely hard every day of her life since then. I had always known that about her, but now I had a reason why. It helped me understand her, but I still was at a loss about myself.
When I try to explain how the Cultural Revolution has affected me, even after all I’ve learned, I feel like a fraud. I have no memories of it, nothing concrete to offer as proof. No wound to point at to say, look: I am hurt. Do I have an invisible methyl group bound to a stress-inhibiting gene, or do I have buried subconscious memories of the past? I still don’t know for sure.
I do know that I’ve always been anxious. My resting state is one of unease. I very often feel unsafe, or so anxious that there’s a constant buzzing under my skin. In the rare moments when I forget my fears and forget the past, there’ll be an errand to run and I’ll find myself riding the subway downtown through Chinatown. An elderly Chinese man or woman will get on the train holding an orange plastic bag of produce, and perhaps a newspaper. Their skin might be leathery with age, or they might have tired eyes. They might look a little lost or their English might not be that great.
This person will fill me with grief. It will start at my toes and fill me up until I am shaking. I tell myself how stupid it is. I don’t know them or their life. And what would they think if they saw me, a stranger, crying on the downtown N train. “I don’t look like you,” I want to say. “I’m not family. I can’t speak your language. But look: I am hurt.”
For the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 2016 there was no official statement, holiday or event. Some people have petitioned for an official museum or tried to memorialise it in other ways. All requests have been denied. A few weeks before the anniversary itself, the museum I’d visited with my mother was closed, the names covered in concrete, the memorials with posters and scaffolding.
There is one kind of memorial for the Cultural Revolution, however, and it’s not in the mountains of Shantou, at a mother’s grave or at my grandmother’s kitchen table. It’s in Beijing, in Tiananmen Square: Mao’s body. You can visit his preserved corpse from 8am to noon in his mausoleum, a huge temple-like building constructed in the months after his death.
My mother and I went and stood in a long line, three people wide. Before the entrance, my mother was sent away because she had a purse with her. I continued on alone.
The entrance hall was an explosion of colour. Bright red carpet and walls clashed with hundreds of pots of flowers, and a mural of primary green and blue landscapes. A white marble statue of Mao loomed in the centre, and people placed yellow flowers on an altar, bowing three times.
Everyone was completely silent. A guard gestured at me to remove my hat. For the first time since arriving in China, I didn’t see a single cellphone. We filed slowly down a long hallway, and I suddenly became nervous.
Mao’s body is laid in a crystal casket, wrapped in a red blanket with a yellow hammer and sickle. A wall of glass surrounds the casket. I was standing, at most, two feet away from his body. His features were so familiar, it was like I knew him already from the shirt buttons I used to find on my grandparents’ bedroom floor.
The immediacy of his figure alarmed me. It didn’t look like he died 50 years ago; it was as if he died yesterday. Tension and electricity filled the room. People were reverent, silent, mournful. A few older men saluted, their arms jerking and falling back into place. I’d spent so long hunting for the Cultural Revolution. A part of me still felt as if it never happened. The stories were like fables, or nightmares. But now, here it was: proof that it happened, it was real.
The armed guards moved the line at a steady pace, but I got at least ten seconds of standing directly in line with Mao. My ears were burning and my face was flushed. When my turn was over, I continued past the casket and out onto the street. I let out a huge breath of air. I hadn’t realised it, but I was holding my breath the entire time.
This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.
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