Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution

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Born Red is an artistically wrought personal account, written very much from inside the experience, of the years 1966-1969, when the author was a young teenager at middle school. It was in the middle schools that much of the fury of the Cultural Revolution and Red Guard movement was spent, and Gao was caught up in very dramatic events, which he recounts as he understood them at the time. Gao's father was a county political official who was in and out of trouble during those years, and the intense interplay between father and son and the differing perceptions and impact of the Cultural Revolution for the two generations provide both an unusual perspective and some extraordinary moving moments. He also makes deft use of traditional mythology and proverbial wisdom to link, sometimes ironically, past and present. Gao relates in vivid fashion how students-turned-Red Guards held mass rallies against 'capitalist roader' teachers and administrators, marching them through the streets to the accompaniment of chants and jeers and driving some of them to suicide. Eventually the students divided into two factions, and school and town became armed camps. Gao tells of the exhilaration that he and his comrades experienced at their initial victories, of their deepening disillusionment as they utter defeat as the tumultuous first phase of the Cultural Revolution came to a close. The portraits of the persons to whom Gao introduces us - classmates, teachers, family members - gain weight and density as the story unfolds, so that in the end we see how they all became victims of the dynamics of a mass movement out of control.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In Born Red, Gao Youan, a former Red Guard . . . tells us what it was like to be one of Mao's children in a provincial town four hours by train south of Peking. It is a terrible story, demonstrating that Mao and his crazed coterie were able to cripplee Chinese society for ten years, as well as cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, because they had plenty of help from the masses."—Politics

"Gao's moving account, which is surprisingly even-handed, viividly captures the pervasive sense of fear and uncertainty that washed over China during the tumultuous period from 1966–1969."—Houston Chronicle

"The most detailed account of those difficult years I have read . . . Incredible as the events may seem, they are believable."—New York Times Book Review

"Gao tells his story well; it rings true with details of family life, stories of Red Guard treks around China, etc. . . . A fine account."—Library Journal

"A detailed and fascinating autobiographical account of China's 'Cultural Revolution' . . . Well written."—CHOICE

Library Journal
An autobiographical account of a young man from a provincial town in North China who became caught up in the excitement and struggles of the Cultural Revolution (1966-69). As a teenager boarding at the top local high school, Gao found himself pulled in opposite directions: At school he exerted every effort to bring about the revolution by challenging authority, while at home his father, the highest official in the county, was a target. Gao tells his story well; it rings true with details of family life, stories of Red Guard treks around China, etc. The book, however, differs only in Gao's personal circumstances from many similar accounts, including Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro's Son of the Revolution ( LJ 2/15/83), and Yue Daiyun and Carolyn Wakeman's To the Storm ( LJ 11/1/85). A fine account, but not an essential purchase. David D. Buck, History Dept., Univ. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804713696
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/1987
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 446,860
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 8.53 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Born Red

A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution

By Yuan Gao


Copyright © 1987 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-1369-6


The Hold of History

Early one morning in the spring of 1966, I awoke to a rocking sensation. I opened my eyes to see the bare bulb that lit my dormitory room at Yizhen Number One Middle School swinging like a pendulum. My roommates and I scrambled out of our quilts and spilled outdoors in our underwear. Little Mihu knocked over the urine-filled chamber pot on the way out.

At this time of year, it was still cold on the North China plain. Little Mihu began to shiver. I assumed an earthquake had roused us, but the buildings on campus appeared intact and no cracks had opened up in the ground. After milling around for a while, students began to disappear back into their dormitories. I went back to my room to put on the long-sleeved knit shirt and thick, cotton-padded pants and jacket that I wore from late October to early April.

Later in the day, with schoolmates clustered around me, I tuned in a Beijing news broadcast on my homemade transistor radio. A quake measuring 6.7 on the Richter Scale had struck a county a hundred kilometers to the south, killing thousands of people and leaving thousands more injured and homeless. The People's Liberation Army was conducting relief and rescue operations, and Premier Zhou Enlai himself had flown in by helicopter to comfort the survivors.

We officially learned of the earthquake at an outdoor assembly after dinner. Vice-Principal Lin Sheng, speaking from a podium set up between two red pillars on the porch of the Teachers' Building, called on us to donate clothes and bedding for the victims, and instructed us to form stretcher-bearing teams to meet injured people who were coming by train and helicopter to the Army Hospital in Yizhen. I brought my buckwheat-husk pillow to the collection station set up at the school's main gate and helped chop branches from trees to make stretcher poles. My classmate Yuanchao, whose father ran the Army Hospital, had brought a real stretcher to school for first-aid training, so he and I paired up to carry it. Most of the stretcher teams set out in a torchlit procession to the railroad station. Yuanchao and I went with a smaller group to a flat area behind the hospital. Guided by campfire light, five helicopters landed in succession, the wind from their rotors raising dust and scattering embers. Medics passed an old woman with a crushed leg onto our stretcher, and we carried her into a ward.

Students had almost stopped talking about the earthquake when the aftershocks came a couple of weeks later. For one night, we were advised to sleep in our clothes with our feet toward the door. The next day, Vice-Principal Lin announced that a regional earthquake alert was in force. Every class set to work building wooden shacks to sleep in. As a precaution, we carried our desks, chairs, and blackboards out of our classrooms and had classes outside.

As far as we students were concerned, all this was an exciting diversion. Some of the townsfolk of Yizhen took the earthquake more seriously. Although most of Yizhen was untouched, the quake had snapped off the tip of the Wooden Pagoda, one of four ancient pagodas in town. Local people saw this as an evil omen.

One of the superstitious diehards, as we called them, was the white-bearded man who climbed our school bell tower every morning to ring the wake-up bell. He claimed that history already had proved that earthquakes portended disaster. For instance, he said, after a strong quake in the year 8 A.D., General Wang Mang usurped the throne of the Western Han dynasty and wreaked havoc throughout China. Not until seventeen years later did a relative of the Han emperors, Liu Xiu, kill Wang Mang and set up the Eastern Han dynasty to carry on Han rule.

If you had the slightest doubt about the truth of this story, the old man would remind you that Liu Xiu had stopped in Yizhen on his way to fight Wang Mang. The head of Yizhen county, recognizing a bright young man, convinced Liu Xiu to marry his niece Guo. After Liu Xiu's victory, Guo became empress. If you still were dubious, the old bell-ringer would add that, at their wedding, Liu Xiu and Guo had cut a gourd in two and each had drunk wine from one half to express their love and loyalty. And where did they buy the wine? At the very tavern now called the Empress Guo Wineshop, on Four Harmonies Street downtown. By this time, how could you not believe the old man?

Just to be sure, I went to the school library to look up the old man's stories in the county chronicles. I found accounts of everything he had said. He had failed to mention one important fact, however. Empress Guo's good luck did not last very long. Soon after Liu Xiu set up his dynasty, he took a fancy to another beautiful woman, demoted Guo to concubine, and made the other woman empress.

Such tales were common in Yizhen, a town more than twenty-five centuries old. Civilizations had risen and fallen here so many times that you could dig up broken bricks three meters deep in the ground. Yizhen was still surrounded by an old city wall, now collapsing and overgrown with bushes and shrubs. A stream circled the wall on three sides like a silver belt. The Hutuo River lay to the south. To the west ran the highway, still unpaved, and next to it the tracks of the Beijing—Guangzhou railway. The town itself was a blend of ancient cultures. Besides the quartet of traditional Chinese pagodas, there was a Gothic-style cathedral, once presided over by a powerful Catholic bishop and now used by the Army Hospital as an auditorium, and an onion-domed mosque where local Moslems still worshipped. A favorite playground was Dafo Temple, a walled compound near the town's east gate. Its scores of shrines and halls included the hall of the Goddess of Mercy, whose statue was 22 meters tall and had 42 arms.

In recent centuries, Yizhen had attracted all kinds of people, from Jewish merchants to American missionaries to Japanese invaders. In 1900, the allied troops of the eight Western powers had come all the way here in pursuit of people who had burned churches during the Boxer Rebellion. The town had changed hands nobody knew how many times. When I happened on a rusty spearhead or arrow point in the fields outside the city wall, I could almost imagine ancient soldiers swarming over the battlements. The last fighting in the area had been in 1947, when the People's Liberation Army had stormed the town and wiped out a whole Kuomintang division.

Yizhen carried on many ancient customs and trades. Virtually everybody knew how to make firecrackers from scratch. The townspeople even made their own nitrate, scraping soil from the surface of local reed ponds and then boiling and filtering it. They mixed the homemade nitrate with sulfur and charcoal to make gunpowder. The men liked to hunt hares, and peddlers plied the alleys at night selling pot-stewed hare meat. It was said that the base of the sauce they used for stewing had been handed on since the days of Liu Xiu. Each time the sauce got low in the pot, they added to it, but they never threw it out.

Every household in Yizhen contained treasures centuries old, from Shang tripods to Ming vases to the eighteen types of ancient weapons. And the old folks, like the man who rang our school bell, were full of tales. They talked about the prime minister the town had produced for the Ming dynasty and the various native sons who had become ministers in the Qing court. But the favorite figure of all was the heroic general Zhao Yun. Armed only with spear and sword, Zhao Yun had broken the siege of an entire army to save the son of Liu Bei, a descendent of Liu Xiu, who later became emperor of the state of Shu, one of the Three Kingdoms.

Yizhen was Zhao Yun's hometown. His birthplace was thought to be a mansion on Perpetual Victory Street. One of the girls in my class lived on that street. Her surname was Zhao and she claimed to be Zhao Yun's descendant. I accepted her claim readily. People said Zhao Yun had watered his war-horse and sharpened his Green Iron Sword at the stone trough in Dafo Temple. I believed that, too, until workmen who turned the trough over to repair a crack discovered an inscription from the Tang dynasty on its bottom. The inscription showed the trough was thirteen hundred years old, four centuries too young for Zhao Yun to have used it.

Yizhen was not my hometown. My three brothers, one of my two sisters, and I had all been born in Shuiyuan, a town in the Taihang Mountains just inside the Great Wall. My older brother, Weihua, had arrived at the beginning of the Korean War, and his name meant "safeguard China." I was born two years later, in 1952. My name, Jianhua, meant "construct China." My first younger brother was Zhihua, "command China," and my second, Xinghua, "make China flourish." These were all common names for the time. My younger sister Meiyuan's name suggested refinement and beauty. Our littlest sister, the only native of Yizhen among us, was named Yiyuan after the town.

My father, Gao Shangui, whose given name meant "mountain laurel," had led a guerrilla unit against the Japanese aggressors in the Taihang Mountains. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, he was named head of Shuiyuan county, already a Communist base area. In 1955, the Hebei provincial government assigned him to head the criminal division of the province's high court. He preferred discussing farming with peasants to reading legal documents, so before long he asked for a transfer back to a county post. In 1957, he was appointed head of Yizhen county, which then had a population of 350,000 people, and he and Mama moved to the county seat.

We children stayed in Shuiyuan with Mama's father for another two years. That was the time of the Great Leap Forward. To me, Chairman Mao's dream of entering the industrial age overnight was personified by a man astride a rocket, the man I saw in billboards captioned, "Surpass England in Fifteen Years!" I spent several days helping Grandpa smash the family's iron pots and strip the front door of its handsome brass fittings to provide scrap metal for the homemade neighborhood steel furnace. Swept up in the mass mobilization, Grandpa went to work as a cook in some neighboring houses that had been turned into a public dining hall. All the villages around Shuiyuan were merging into the new people's communes. People were saying that true communism was just around the corner.

Grandpa and the five of us rode to Yizhen in the back of a pickup truck late in 1959. We brought along our rice bowls and chopsticks. Grandpa got another job as a neighborhood cook. We quickly discovered who the town hero was, and every night we begged Grandpa to tell us stories from the classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, especially the parts about Zhao Yun.

One day, the neighborhood dining hall suddenly closed, and we had to buy new pots to do our own cooking in. Soon, everything began to run short. For the first time, we were issued ration coupons to buy such daily necessities as grain, oil, cloth, coal, even matches. As the economic difficulties spread, townsfolk and peasants from the surrounding countryside began to dismantle Yizhen's city wall. People pried the bricks off the rammed-earth core and sold them or used them to build pigsties and privies. Papa became very concerned about the destruction. For one thing, the wall was one of the best-preserved city walls in the province, and Papa wanted to maintain it as a historic artifact. For another, he knew the wall was important for flood control. Sometimes during the rainy season, the Hutuo River overflowed its banks, but so far the wall had kept the water out of the town itself. Papa issued a directive forbidding any further vandalism to the wall. The notice was posted on buildings all around the town, with Papa's bold, rough signature at the bottom.

The directive halted the destruction, but it also got Papa in trouble. At the next meeting of the Yizhen County Party Committee, the Party secretary, Han Rong, accused him of issuing a decree without approval of the Party leadership. Papa, also a member of the Party Committee, argued that he had acted within the scope of his responsibilities as county head. Other members of the committee supported him. But Han Rong did not give up there. He sent a letter to the Provincial Party Committee charging Papa with forming an anti-Party clique. Papa had criticized Han Rong in the past for being autocratic. In private, Papa also complained about his womanizing. Now Han Rong was getting back at him. The provincial leaders removed Papa as county head, decreased both his official rank and his salary, and had him transferred to work as an ordinary laborer in a steel plant in the prefectural capital, Shimen.

Our family continued to live in a quiet neighborhood of Yizhen. Yiyuan, the sixth child, had just been born. Mama cut short her maternity leave to return to work as an accountant for the local tax bureau. Grandpa took care of the household. We five older children attended Democracy Street Primary School.

The years 1960—62 later came to be called the "Three Difficult Years." During that period, I often came home from school so hungry that I could no longer stand. I would lie down on the stone steps in front of the house. At mealtime, Grandpa would dish out thin gruel and distribute steamed bread made of cornmeal and sweet-potato flour among the six of us, with portions determined by age. Weihua and I each got two buns; Zhihua, Xinghua, and Meiyuan one-and-a-half ; and Yiyuan one. Grandpa would remind us that "Kong Rong gives big pears to his elder brothers." Kong Rong, a descendant of Confucius, had lived during the Three Kingdoms. One story about him said that as a child, he chose the smallest pear because he was the youngest in his family.

Grandpa's tales made meals as pleasant as possible under the circumstances, and we never fought over food, even though we rarely finished a meal with full stomachs. Zhihua would lick his bowl several times to make sure he got every drop of gruel. Sometimes we went foraging for wild plants for the table. We added boiled willow and poplar leaves to our bread dough. We peeled elm bark and chewed it ragged. We tried a recipe whose main ingredient was ground corncobs, which resembled meat in texture but not in taste. We grew algae in jars of water set out in the sun; this was supposed to be a good way to manufacture protein, but we abandoned it after one batch because it tasted so awful. We ate insects whenever we had the energy to catch them. We would tie a female dragonfly to a string and flaunt it around the reed ponds, enticing the males and then catching them as they were mating. We also caught cicadas on the tip of a pole primed with glue.

Sometimes we went scavenging for cooking fuel. When our coal rations ran out in the spring, Grandpa would take us to the cotton fields in the southwest part of town to dig roots out of the thawing, muddy ground. In autumn, we put dry leaves and grass into the stove. As for clothing, it was not exactly as Radio Moscow claimed—"one pair of pants for every two Chinese"—but we were in rags, and even our patches were patched.

Because of his demotion, Papa's income had dropped from 130 yuan a month to less than a hundred. Mama's salary was 42 yuan a month, the same as it had been for a dozen years. Inflation during the Three Difficult Years was so bad that the price of a persimmon soared from less than three fen before 1960 to 50 fen (or half a yuan) by 1962. So the family's total income was worth only 280 persimmons a month. Luckily, the government had kept the price of rationed grain stable.

Meanwhile, the cost of just about anything that was not edible went down. People sold incense burners, porcelain, figurines, jewelry, and other family heirlooms on the street at ridiculously low prices. You could buy museum-quality antiques for a couple of yuan. Even such bargains moved slowly, for there were far more sellers than buyers in the market. One day when Grandpa was out buying food, he saw a Ming dynasty porcelain bowl at a peddler's stand. The dappled brown bowl was in perfect condition, just big enough to cup comfortably in the hands. An imprint on the bottom testified that it had been made during the reign of Emperor Xuande, in the early fifteenth century. The price was 50 fen, the cost of a persimmon. Grandpa bought it without even bothering to haggle.

My big brother Weihua was intrigued by street-corner salesmanship and decided to try his hand at it. He took a camelhair sweater to the marketplace and stood there for a day, refusing to budge from his price of fifteen yuan. He came home with the sweater. He went to the railway station the next day and again failed to find anyone who would meet his price. Grandpa recommended that he abandon the effort; after all, if people would not buy a two-thousand-year-old bronze tripod for two yuan, how could you expect them to buy a used sweater for seven times that much?

Papa had never spent much time with us children because of the demands of his work. Now, even though he was no longer an official, we still saw little of him. When he came home from the steel factory, he would lock himself into a run-down little shrine near our house. The place belonged to Old Liu, a retired army officer who supplemented his pension by growing corn on a vacant lot on the western edge of town. Old Liu felt Papa had been wrongly dismissed and let him use the dilapidated shrine whenever he wished. We finally learned what Papa had been doing in that shrine one day in early 1963, when a messenger arrived with a piece of paper saying that County Head Gao Shangui had been rehabilitated. Papa had been writing petitions to the Provincial Party Committee and the Central Committee, and they had reexamined his case.


Excerpted from Born Red by Yuan Gao. Copyright © 1987 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
The Hold of History,
Learning to Be Red and Expert,
The Thirty-Six Stratagems,
Hidden Messages,
Ox Ghosts and Snake Spirits,
Winds and Waves,
The Degenerate and the Worn Shoe,
The Red, the Black, and the In-Between,
Smashing the Four Olds,
Cleaning Our Own Nest,
Picking Up the Pieces,
Rebels and Royalists,
Going to See the Great Helmsman,
Sending Off the Monsters,
Defending the Mountain Devil,
The Carpenter-Spy,
Reply from a Socialist-Roader,
On the Road,
Rocks Down the Well,
A Long March, by Hook or Crook,
Spring Festival Visitors,
The Capless Official,
Smears and Skirmishes,
Spring Buds,
Arrival of the Cadets,
The Grand Alliance,
Uncommon Laughter,
Victory Fish,
The First Martyr,
Summons by Subterfuge,
Storming the Enemy Stronghold,
Spies in the Marketplace,
Family Skeletons,
Playing with Fire,
The Obstinacy of Truth,
On the Run,
From Victors to Vanquished,
Living in Limbo,
Class Brothers Take Revenge,
The Radiance of the Setting Sun,
Three Loyalties and Four Boundless Loves,
Hostage for a Hobby,
The Twelve-Force Typhoon,
The Irretrievable Past,
The Way Out,
Appendix B - Glossary,

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