Yang Nainming was 14-years-old when his school was shutdown in Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province in northeast China.
It was mid-way through 1966, the beginning of a decade’s worth of chaos formerly known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
“The craziest parts of it were during the early years,” said Yang, now 66 and living in Thailand.
“All the schools closed on the order of Chairman Mao Zedong,” said Yang. “The students had a new task, we had to rid the education system of antirevolutionary elements,” he said.
“It was a movement that began in the schools with the students targeting their teachers,” Yang said in reference to the young militant Red Guards sanctioned by Mao.
The principle and the school secretary were among the first to be paraded around by Red Guards who subjected them to “struggle sessions.” A stage was set up in the playground where rallies were held and where struggle sessions were conducted.
“A very good sports teacher was severely beaten by Red Guards and later he committed suicide by jumping off a high building,” he said. “He couldn’t bear the pressure. It wasn’t just limited to the school. It was everywhere and his family were tormented by Red Guards,” Yang said. “Two other teachers at the school were also badly targeted by the Red Guards to the extent they also committed suicide.”
Chanting slogans and cursing the enemies of the revolution was done on a daily basis at the school. Many of those found to be class enemies were sent to detention centers to a fate unknown.
“I wasn’t a Red Guard by choice — you had to go along, and if you didn’t you were suspect,” Yang said. “There was a lot of pressure. When the people were in the stage getting criticized, cursed, and beaten I was frightened to death,” he said.
“If a student didn’t want to be Red Guard and didn’t want to participate, they would end up being accused of being a counter-revolutionary,” he said.
“It was all about struggle. It was all about fighting,” he recalled.
Yang’s younger brother and his three sisters were scared as well. At home, they would discuss what occurred at their respective schools but they’d never argue if it was good or bad, or question the ideology behind it.
“No one would dare to say something critical of the Communist Party, they would not say anything even in their own home. Anyone could denounce them, even families. The walls had ears,” Yang said.
“But we didn’t even think about it,” he said. “We were brainwashed to think the Chinese Communist Party is good. In that environment, even those who were killed even loved the party. The people didn’t dare to think otherwise,” Yang explained. “Even if someone was killed, we had to think that this action was right.”
As part of being a Red Guard, Yang also traveled with his classmates to six other cities were they compared notes with other Red Guard groups on carrying out Mao’s orders in fighting the enemies of the revolution. All expenses of these missionary-like trips were paid by the state, Yang said.
‘Root out class enemies’
Then China’s broader society, including elements within the Communist Party itself, became targets.
“We had to root out class enemies which were categorized as the black five,” said Yang.
Landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad-influencers, and rightists, made up the list of five that Mao identified as enemies of the revolution.
“Soon it just wasn’t just children or university students — everyone in society was affected and took part in the Cultural Revolution,” Yang said. “Everyone wore red arm bands. From kids up to the elderly,” he said.
Struggle sessions and classes on Maoist thought were now being held at his father’s factory.
Mao and the Party Central additionally ordered the Red Guards to violently do away with the “Four Olds” — that being old habits, manners, customs, and culture. Only through struggle could a new socialist society be built on the ashes of the old one, the young militants were told.
“The harm that was done to traditional culture in Shenyang was immense,” Yang said. “They damaged and shutdown Buddhist and Taoist temples and Christian churches. Old books were destroyed, and they ordered monks and nuns to enter the secular world.”
Mao himself was no longer viewed only as a leader; the “great helmsman” was being promoted as a divine being whose wisdom was divulged in his Little Red Book.
“Everyone carried Mao’s Little Red Book everywhere,” said Yang. “If you didn’t have it on you, you were considered one of the black five categories.”
Like all other homes, his family had a portrait of Mao hanging up. His parents worshiped it.
“This was life for us, this was the reality of it then,” he said. “Every house had a Chairman Mao portrait on their wall and it was worshiped during the Cultural Revolution.”
Anything deemed anti-revolutionary was banned. Playing sports was replaced with the loyalty dance, an expression to show one’s devotion to Mao and his revolutionary ideals.
Everyone had to hand in non-communist literate. Anything deemed western or bourgeois was forbidden.
It was also taboo for people to wear clothes that were non-proletariat. “If people were dressed too well — they had their clothes ruined and their hair cut. They cut the high-heels off women’s fancy shoes,” said Yang.
“Even the board game mahjong was banned. Everyone had to hand in their boards and they were destroyed. If they caught you playing it they’d kill you.”
It was not until the 1980s that Yang again saw a mahjong board.
‘All-round Civil War’
Yang father’s factory closed in November 1966 and his whole family aligned with a faction called “Steel Revolt.”
As occurred across much of China, different revolutionary groups and factions in Shenyang began fighting each other, some over who was following the most correct version of Mao’s ideology.
The following year, 1967 was known as the “All-round Civil War” period during the Cultural Revolution.
Yang joined Steel Revolt when they attacked another faction.
“Thousands from Steel Revolt and other groups went in trucks. They were armed with iron poles and bricks. Some had firearms stolen from the army,” said Yang. Upon arriving at the factory they attacked the other faction. Yang said he didn’t participate and after ten minutes he went back home.
“Things were getting too violent,” he said. “This type of activity occurred a lot, but I just did it once. One of my classmates was killed in a fight, he was shot to death,” Yang recalled.
“The city was very dangerous. The whole country was a dangerous place,” he said. “This period lasted for one year and you could hear shooting day and night.”
Most of the time Yang and his family stayed at home.
Life in the commune
In late 1968 Yang and thousands of other Red Guards were sent to work in the countryside. Living on a commune, Yang labored hard for five years. Despite being 18.6 miles (30 km) out from Shenyang, he was only allowed to go home and visit his family once or twice a year.
At the commune, Yang witnessed plenty of struggle sessions targeting people accused of being one of the black five. There was of course plenty of Mao veneration and re-reading of the Little Red Book. “When you got back to the commune the food was placed on a table in front of a portrait of Mao,” recalled Yang. “But you couldn’t eat until you did the loyalty dance with the Little Red Book in your hand,” he said.
“I didn’t think about it, I just did it. Everybody did the dance. If you didn’t do it, you didn’t eat. To not do it would be dangerous. If you didn’t do it, others might report on you and you would be classed as one of the black five,” he said. Yang did the loyalty dance before every meal for three years and then three years after that only on various occasions. “Enthusiasm for it began to die out,” he said.
In 1973, Yang left the commune and went to work in a factory in Shenyang. Three years later Mao died of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 82-years-old.
Upon hearing the news of Mao’s death, Yang said he was genuinely distraught.
“I showed loyalty everyday, I didn’t understand why Chairman Mao was dead. I cried baldy. I was brainwashed. I thought he was a God. How could he die? I worshipped him,” admitted Yang.
“Even those people who were attacked and criticized during the Cultural Revolution cried badly. Even those who didn’t want to cry dared not to, they had to show loyalty to the party, so they cried too.”
Not long after Mao’s death, the Cultural Revolution came to an end.
Nation of fear
Looking back on the Cultural Revolution, Yang, now a grandfather, said that the worst thing about it was how it destroyed people’s morals.
“Our Chinese civilization was badly damaged, if not destroyed,” Yang said. “If you wanted to be a good person during those times it was dangerous. To protect themselves people would inform on others. To protect yourself you would have to do something bad,” he explained.
“Morals were discarded and replaced with fear,” he said. “Society was censored by fear.”
Having an opinion in such an environment, he said, was very dangerous, even among family members. “A father could go against his child. A wife against her husband. Relative versus relative,” Yang said. “Most families didn’t stay unaffected and few lived in harmony,” he said, adding that his family managed to stay together because they all followed the Steel Revolt faction.
“Our society didn’t recover. Fifty years on and I don’t think it can ever recover from what occurred really. It was that bad.”
It is estimated that between two to three million people were killed during the Cultural Revolution. One of Mao’s earlier political movements — the Great Leap Forward 1958 to 1962 killed around 45 million people. During the 1980s the Communist Party called the Cultural Revolution a mistake, but Mao remains revered by the party as modern China’s founder.
Built in 1970, one of the largest bronze statues of Mao remains standing in the center of Shenyang.