Helen Wang on Growing up during the Cultural Revolution (interview: part 1)

Helen Wang was born in Hebei province in Northern China, in 1960. She and her parents were forced to leave their home during the Cultural Revolution. Wang is now a retired English professor and still lives near the Beijing university where she taught for fifteen years. Here she reveals the hardship of life in China during the Cultural Revolution. 

I was born in a very small town. Life was very simple. When I recall my life when I was a child, I feel I didn’t know anything much, even about China. I’d never been anywhere except my hometown, until I entered university.

What was day-to-day family life like?

Life was very boring to me, when I think about it now, because every day we worked for food. We starved all the time. I didn’t really have a childhood because I worked all the time, even when I was a child. For example, picking up broken glasses, toothpaste, waste paper, and getting a little money in return. When I was very little we didn’t have piped water, so even getting water I started very young. I carried two buckets everyday. I don’t have much memory of playing with other kids. I think every child at that time was working. I began to sew when I was six or eight years old, because my mother sewed for every member of the family. She worked, so she’d tell me “you do this: when I come home, you have to finish.” So it almost took me the whole day to finish, so I didn’t have time to get out. Like Mo Yan’s story, [we spent] everyday looking for food. Looking for food in the trees and in the fields, when all the crops were gathered, [we took] what was left. I grew up fed on potatoes and sweet potatoes, that was the main food for me. When I was in primary school, my classmates often took me home because I starved and fainted in the classroom. I was very thin. I never grew fat in my life.

What was the community like where you grew up?

I lived in a high school. My parents were teachers so I didn’t really get far out of the school. We lived in school and I learned in school and my parents worked in school. My grandparents were real farmers. So in summer and winter vacations, I did farm work. But when I began school, [it was] already the Cultural Revolution [1966-76]. So we didn’t really learn anything. Most of the time we were having meetings about class struggle and working in the farm fields. We lived at the farmer’s home. We did military training and work in factories when we were very, very small. At that time, there was no college entrance examination, so the main thing we learned, everything we tried was to find a job.

A photo of Helen proudly displayed in her Beijing apartment.

When I was in junior high, when I was twelve or thirteen years old, I was thinking, “what should I do? There’s no reason for school, so what should I do?” So I began to learn to play musical instruments. I thought that would be good, because learning other subjects was no good. My father learned in Tianjin conservatory, so it is natural that I learned to sing, I learned to play, I learned to listen to music. But my father said, “no, this is no good for your future.” Most factories didn’t need people who could play a musical instrument. So, I began to learn to play basketball. I was in a basketball team. I was tall when I was young, but now I am just a normal person. I played for more than one year. I actually did very well because my motivation was to find a job, not to enjoy playing. So I did long distance running, I was a marathon runner. I really did very well in that small county. I was always number one when I was running the marathon. It was a very large county in Hebei province, now it is a small scale city.

I was chosen to play basketball at a higher level, at district level in Baoding, very close to Beijing. I was chosen to play basketball there and I was very happy. I thought I could probably get even higher if I played well so I really worked very hard. In Hebei province they wanted someone who could play well, so I went there too. They said: “let your parents come”, so my parents came. My mother was really very short. They said: “you have no future, you won’t grow any more.” So that was a disappointment, because I worked really hard toward finding a job and I couldn’t go any further because of my height. The other players were really tall women, they were like 180 [cm]. I was 168.

So I was thinking about doing something else, and in 1976 I graduated from high school. It was still the cultural revolution. At that time people were still having the meetings, and all of the country people were doing a lot of criticism on Deng Xiaoping. They needed people who could write Chinese characters, larger characters, on the boards, on the street. So I began to learn writing with brushes. I did that pretty well, and a factory needed such a person. I began to do this in a paper mill. They needed me because I could use a brush, but I was not a regular staff at the mill. I worked in the paper mill for two years until Deng Xiaoping started the college entrance examination.

I began to prepare for an education. But I couldn’t do the math and the science part. It would have taken me two or three years to make up for the loss during the Cultural Revolution. I said I would learn Chinese as my major, but they said I had to take the math test. I looked at English; you didn’t need the math test if you study English. But I didn’t learn any foreign language during the Cultural Revolution. At that time China was the enemy of the United States, the enemy of Russia, so I didn’t learn any foreign language. But the only way it seemed I could enter the university was by learning English. because for others I had to take the math test. So I began to learn by myself. It was a very strange English becuase I spoke English based on Chinese characters. Like, ‘cup’ I would say ‘ka – pu’. Luckily I passed the test. That was the beginning of my formal education. But before that my education, I don’t think it was called education at all. We weren’t learning anything, we were just in the countryside, in the army, in the factory. Most of the time in the army; like three or four months a year.

What was your military training like as a child?

We did very simple things, we were very young. At 12 years old, we learnt to walk very evenly, everybody doing it at the same time. It took a long time to become like this. We did how to sit, how to stand up quickly, like an army. We learned how to rescue wounded soldiers, so how to carry them and how to bandage their wounds. We did short distance fighting, with knives. Also with real guns, one time. But because we were so young, we might have made mistakes. I don’t think I could shoot well. Most of the time we did short distance fighting, with real knives.

Do you think your family life was typical of China at that time?

Not very, because my childhood was during the Cultural Revolution and my parents were teachers. Teachers had bad luck during the Cultural Revolution. If my parents were workers, it would probably have been very normal, except being very poor. Everybody was poor. But my parents, being teachers…

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s wife represented one party and premier Zhou stood for another party. Everybody had to take sides, but children, like me, wouldn’t. Adults had to take sides, whether you stood on this side or on the other side. My parents chose the wrong side, Zhou’s side, not Mao’s wife’s side. But my eldest sister chose the right side. My other sister wasn’t home for several years, because they hated my parents for being on this side. They argued, all the time, they really argued. I don’t think my elder sister, still, now, is very close to my parents, because of that.

My eldest sister is twelve years older than me, so when I was very little she was already a red guard. She was very lucky during the Cultural Revolution. She had almost everything.

Before I entered school, when I was about six or seven years old, one night a student came to my home [in the school] and told my father: “you have to run away, because they want to arrest you.” So that night we ran. We didn’t have anything. Took one quilt, my parents and me. We didn’t even have a bicycle, so we really had to run, on foot. We ran for the whole night, and we ran to a very remote countryside. It was s isolated from the world, nobody knew about the cultural revolution, so we stayed there for two or three years. I was late for the first year of primary school because I was there. I remember that time very well, because we starved all the time. What food could we eat? My parents didn’t work. If the farmers gave us some food, we had food. If they didn’t give us food, we didn’t have food.

I remember my mother sewed a lot of pockets into my coat. I’d put on the coat with a lot of inside-out pockets and go to the fields and take some food in the pockets and run back quickly so that they had food.

I did that very very often when it was harvest season. Everyday I went to the fields. A lot of farmers, if they saw me, they would tell the brigade leader and she would use a whip to punish me, because I am taking food from them. So I had to run away quickly. The farmers were not rich either. Everybody was poor. A lot of people starved to death. So that was life. We couldn’t take a bath. We didn’t have clothes to change, because we ran away on foot and couldn’t carry much. My mother was a math teacher so she taught me some math before I went to school. We used sticks on the floor, we didn’t have paper and pen. I even wrote a story when I returned to school, about what the landlady was like. An old woman, I remember her well because we lived with her and everyday you had nowhere to go, nothing to do. For me, I went to the fields. I ate there, got full, so the food I carried was all for my parents. I wouldn’t eat at home. Eat in the fields, and get food for my parents. This went on every other day, for three years. Later on we moved closer to school, but still we couldn’t enter school because we worried there would be a change for the worse. So, we lived closer to the school but we still lived at another person’s home. What did I do? I was about seven years old and I worked for the landlady. She sold noodles. Everyday I helped her, so she let us live there for free. My mother also helped, by growing sprouts to sell. We lived there for two years I think. Until finally, in 1973-4 we entered school. It was a kind of migrant life, but worse.

My parents didn’t have a salary for ten years and they didn’t make up for that. When we were home, they had broken open the house and nothing was left. My elder sister brought some stuff for us.

What happened to your other sister?

My other sister was ‘sent down’ to the country side. She was very young, only two years older than me. Because my grandparents were farmers, and since she had togo to the countryside, my parents decided that going to her grandparents home would be better than going to a strange place. So she lived with my grandparents. She was safe but she was a farmer at that time.

What did it mean to be a girl during the Cultural Revolution? Was there a difference between girls and boys? 

The idea at that time was: girls should be like boys. This was said by Mao. You can’t be weak, you have to be strong like girls. If you look good, then it is a symbol of bourgeois, so we looked like men. Last year I watched the exhibition from Poland. Poland was a socialist country at that time, I think it was very similar. Women at that time dressed to deliberately look bad. If you looked good, you’d be accused of being bourgeoisie. So we did the same work, we did as the boys did, heavy work. Actually we couldn’t have nice clothes. Even if we wanted to we didn’t. No girls wanted to look good. But I actually really wanted to look good. So you know what we did? We did our collars. If we all dress in blue and grey, everybody dressed in blue and grey. We had some flowers on the collar, so you can just see a little bit of this. If you really turned the collar out, people would see it, so we didn’t show it.

Also, we would plait our hair and tie it with a little bit of coloured ribbon. That was as much as we could get away with. I was the youngest. The youngest usually wears the clothes that the elder sister had. When they grew up, they give them to you. So my pants always started very long, but quickly got too short. Because I was thin, my mother just had to add to the length. I had the same pants. Every time they got too short she added more, in different colours!

I had a relative from Tianjin. My relatives were sent by the government to work in Hong Kong. So when they came back, they gave us gifts, like an automatic umbrella [mimes opening an umbrella] pah! – it was really curious. They dressed so well, and they gave me some clothes. So I put them on at home. When I went to school I put on my blue coat but at home I wore my beautiful dress.

Of course, boys and girls – we were still conscious that we were different. So boys and girls would draw a line in the classroom at school and neither could cross the line. Girls played with girls; we played separately. But, secretly, I would hear boys say: “hey! You have big bright eyes.” But not loudly. [laughter]

Read on: part 2 of this interview coming Saturday 12th November

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