To my generation, the Cultural Revolution is the name that older generations always talk about at the dining table but we can never truly understand what it is. “I am the kind that is not suitable for politics.” As my maternal grandpa said this to me about his experience as a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, I was surprised by his optimism towards that crazy decade.

Since I was raised up by my maternal grandparents, I had heard stories about their early years including those of the Cultural Revolution.  The Cultural Revolution was a social-political movement led by Chairman Mao Zedong within the People’s Republic of China from 1966 to 1976. At the beginning of this movement, my grandpa volunteered to join a pro-Mao faction and became a Red Guard who followed Chairman Mao’s command “Bombard the headquarters,” which called for the overthrow of the corrupt bureaucracy. As the movement progressed, the situation turned worse in 1967 due to the army’s intervention which escalated the movement into a bloody campaign between the revolutionary and the conservative. Armed skirmishes broke out throughout the nation and countless peasants and students were killed or injured simply because of their allegiances. At present, the bloody campaign has been censored by the Party itself and those who experienced it avoid addressing this tragedy. I felt embarrassed when I called my grandpa for this interview. Surprisingly, my grandpa calmly accepted and insisted on being interviewed face to face. Though I was surprised by his demand, I agreed conducting the interview during the fall break. On October 16th, 2015, I interviewed my Grandpa in my dorm room. When my parents arrived at school with my grandparents on that morning, my grandma heard about the interview from my grandpa and wanted to engage as well. After me begging her not to participate, though I seemed spoiled, she accepted my proposal. Before the interview took place, I asked my roommate to leave the room and let my grandpa sit on his chair. As he seated, he took off his cap and tidied up his grey hair. Though wrinkles made his face look aged, his eyes remained young and vivacious. As we both seated, I placed my phone on the table near him and started recording.

“Grandpa, as I have told you, I will interview you about your experience during the Cultural Revolution.”

“Ok,” he replied while adjusting his sitting posture.

“The Cultural Revolution started in 1966 when Chairman Mao Zedong rallied the people, especially the students, to overthrow the corrupt bureaucracy. This catastrophe lasted for 10 years. I experienced many events and tragedies during that decade, so what event or period do you want me to tell you about specially?”

“From the time you became a Red Guard,” I responded.

“Ok, so now I know where I should start.”

He cleared his throat and started telling the story with a slow but clear voice.

My grandpa, Zonggui Zhao, was born in Harbin under Japanese-controlled Manchuria in 1943. When he was two, the Japanese surrendered and the Soviet Red Army conceded its authority in Manchuria to the communist-led Liberation Army commanded by Chairman Mao Zedong. He attended elementary school in the same year the People’s Republic of China was founded. During his 16 years’ school life, he witnessed life improving, encouraged by the victory from the front line in Korea. He was educated to become a skillful communist to help strengthen the mother nation. He became a faithful communist and was accepted to the nation’s best mathematics institute, Harbin Institute of Technology, to study advanced mathematics. Coincidentally, he skipped one year of college and graduated the year before the Cultural Revolution began. “I feel lucky that I graduated earlier, or my life would be ruined like those of my classmates,” he responded with sadness every time people asked about his college life. When Chairman Mao rallied the students to rebel, my grandpa just finished his graduation internship at the oilfield in Daqing, Heilongjiang Province. He was transferred back to Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, and worked for the research institute affiliated with the ministry of machinery and electronics industry to develop high-tech weapons for the army land force. After hearing Chairman Mao Zedong’s order to “bombard the headquarters,” those who just graduated including my grandpa gathered together and planned to “bombard” the government.

“What was your role in the faction?”

“Since I received a college education and was good at composing articles as well, I was elected to be the vice commander of the faction and my responsibility was to organize public rallies, writing denunciatory posters against the government, and most importantly, organize the daily routine of the faction.”

“Have you experienced any life-endangering situation and how did you respond?”

My grandpa paused for a moment.

“It was early 1968, the party shifted towards the far-left and chaos escalated into armed skirmishes. The military authorities were involved as well. In Jinzhou, the local military authorities chose to side with the conservatives and us, the revolutionaries, became their targets. During that period, the revolutionaries were also armed by the infantry academy which sided with us. When we had public rallies on streets, I was holding a rifle tightly and my eyes kept sweeping the surroundings because I was afraid of being attacked by the conservatives. In the middle of the year, the situation deteriorated further and the conservatives were planning on attacking our headquarters which was the commanding point of the city. When notified of their plan prior to the attack, I decided to withdraw my people from the headquarters and flee to Beijing, the capital city where no armed skirmishes took place. Though we survived, unfortunately, at least two of my colleagues who chose to stay died soon after our retreat. Even though the officials claimed they committed suicide, I suspected that they were shot by the conservatives and then hanged to pretend that they committed suicide.”

I stopped for a moment and did not know what to ask next because I have never expected my grandpa experienced such danger. The room was as silent as an empty one.

After I recovered from the shock, I decided to choose and ask questions with extra caution.

“What was the worst part of your experience?” I asked.

“It was during the Class Cleansing Movement and I was imprisoned illegally in a faction-owned prison for four months from August 17th to December 17th.”

“Why do you remember the date so precisely?”

My grandpa paused for a moment and took a slow but deep sigh.

“I was beaten by the man in charge often and was forced to do heavy labor work during the day. Life at the time seemed like hell.”

“Why did they finally free you?”

“Because after months of thorough investigation on me, they did not find any evidence that I had any ‘Three-Anti’ actions.”

“What do you mean by ‘Three-Anti’ actions?”

“‘Three-Anti’ is a campaign against corruption, waste and bureaucracy.”

My grandpa paused again for a few seconds, stared at the ground, and elaborated.

“Before I was freed, the chief secretary asked me to confess the crimes that another leading member of the faction had done and I told them absolutely nothing because he did not do anything against the party and Chairman Mao. However, by telling them nothing, I risked my chance of gaining freedom because they might keep beating me until I confessed.”

“What are the most vivid memories that stuck with you throughout your life of the Cultural Revolution?”

“During the Cultural Revolution, the evil side of mankind had been revealed directly and starkly.”

With a sigh of sadness, he continued.

“In order to avoid taking responsibility, my fellows gave up all the crimes they had committed to me.  I bore those charges instead of planting them on someone else, then I was put into a ‘Struggle-session’ that lasted for three days and nights with no rest at all.”

I could not believe what I heard and I could not imagine what my grandpa had suffered. After pausing again for a moment, I decided to end this interview by asking my grandpa the last question.

“How did your experience change you as a person?”

“It made me realize that I am the kind not designed for politics. I stayed away from any political movements and became devoted to my research.”

Before leaving for Los Angeles, my grandpa told me, “It was right to not let your grandma engage in the interview because she does not even know those experiences of mine which I shared with you.” I did not respond; instead, I prayed to God for not letting my grandma know her beloved husband’s tragic experience since it is hard to bear witness. Let it be sealed eternally.

I had been proud of my grandpa since I was a child and was glad to have this opportunity to know what he had experienced when he was my age. At the beginning, I was shocked by the atrocity he has witnessed, but my shock gradually vanished as the interview progressed and I was surprised by his strong optimism and determination during that chaotic decade. Instead of making him depressed, his experience motivated him to devote himself to his profession and achieve his great reputation in his profession. As the ancient Roman poet Horace stated, “Adversity reveals genius, fortune conceals it.” The catastrophe did not ruin my grandpa; instead, it promoted him to a great future.