My Youth in China

by Yafei Hu & L. James Hammond
© Yafei Hu 2003
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I was born in the city of Hefei, which is in the province of Anhui, in eastern China, slightly closer to China's southern border than to China's northern border. Hefei is the capital of the province of Anhui, and has about 500,000 inhabitants. Anhui is a poor province; most of the young women who come to big cities to do menial work, such as housekeeping and baby-sitting, are from Anhui.

At 4 months old, with my mother and brother.

My father grew up in Shanghai, and also went to college there. While my father was going to college in Shanghai, the Sino-Japanese War ended, and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party — that is, Guomindang — started fighting with the Chinese Communist Party. Although Shanghai was then controlled by Guomindang's army, the Communist Party's influence among Shanghai's college students was considerable.

During my father's sophomore year in college, he joined the Communist Party. During his junior year, he was expelled from college because of his participation in the Communist Party's activities.

After he was expelled from college, he went to a part of China that was controlled by the Communist Party. While he was traveling to that part of China, he changed his surname from Hu to Wang, in order to conceal his identity from Guomindang. After the defeat of Guomindang, he continued to use the name Wang.

My paternal grandfather, however, didn't want my father's children to have the name Wang, he wanted them to have the name Hu, so that his name would be perpetuated. And he wanted my brother to be named Guangzong, which means "glorify your ancestors". My parents thought Guangzong smacked of feudalism, so they named my brother Jianwei, which means "build the great country".

My brother, with my paternal grandmother.

My name, Yafei, means Asia-Africa. There was a conference of Asian and African nations in the year of my birth, and I was named after this conference. I know several people my age who were also named Yafei. I also know people born during the Korean War who were named Yuanchao, which means helping the Koreans, and Kangmei, which means fighting the Americans. And I know people who were named Haiyan, which means seagull, a reference to a poem, "The Seagull", written by the Russian poet and exponent of socialism, Maxim Gorky.

With my friend Hong-yu (Red Universe),
in front of the People's Hall, in Tiananmen Square.

My younger sister was named Yamei. Thus her name differed from my name, Yafei, in only one letter. This is a custom in China; parents often give younger siblings a name that is related to the name of their older sibling.

In 1949, when the Communist Party defeated Guomindang and gained power over all of China, my father was sent to Hefei by the Party. In Hefei, my father and mother met and were married.


When I was born, the Chinese Communist Party had been governing China for several years. I grew up with the idea, instilled in me by the Party, that my childhood was happier than that of the children in pre-communist China. If this is true, the children in pre-Communist China must have been very unhappy indeed, since my childhood wasn't a happy one; in fact, I feel like crying whenever the memory of my childhood is brought back to me.

When I was born, my parents were Party members, and were devoted to communism. My father was studying telecommunications in a college in Beijing, so I didn't see him often during my early years. After four years in Beijing, he came back to Hefei and became the head of a telecommunications bureau, a bureau for which my mother also worked. Because my parents were deeply involved in their work and in politics, my maternal grandmother looked after us children.

Before my maternal grandmother came to Hefei to look after us children, she lived in the countryside near Hefei. When she came to Hefei, she left my grandfather alone in the countryside.


My poor grandfather! Later I learned that my grandfather didn't come to Hefei with my grandmother because he was a criminal. Before the Chinese Communist Party came into power, my grandfather had been a landlord, and landlords, in the eyes of the Party, were criminals. My grandfather owned an estate, which was enclosed by a high wall; at each corner of the wall there was a watchtower.

After my grandmother came to Hefei, my grandfather earned his living as an itinerant carpenter. My mother never tried to bring him to Hefei, and she never mentioned him to me or to my siblings. I learned that he was a landlord when I caught sight of my mother's identification card, on which was written, "family background: landlord".

I don't remember seeing my grandfather, but I must have done so, since I have a picture of him in my mind. His forehead was furrowed, his back was bent, and his smile was forced.

In my whole life, I heard about my grandfather only twice. The first time was when I visited one of my mother's sisters. She told me that my grandfather was not cruel to his tenants, hence he was not punished by the Communists when they seized power in China.

This aunt, incidentally, who told me about my grandfather, had helped my mother to escape from her family and to go to school. Before the communist revolution, girls were not supposed to go to school, not even to elementary school. Hence many old Chinese women are illiterate. In fact, many young Chinese women, especially those who live in the countryside, never go to school and are illiterate, although hardly any young Chinese men are illiterate.

The second time that I heard about my grandfather was when he died. He was alone at the time of his death. According to Chinese tradition, my mother and my uncle should have attended my grandfather's funeral, because my mother was the first child of the family and my uncle was the only son of the family. Because my grandfather was a landlord, however, my mother wanted to conceal her relationship with him, and she didn't go to his funeral. My uncle disapproved of this, and there was friction between my uncle and my mother.

Since my grandfather was a landlord, and thus, in the eyes of the Party, a criminal, my mother felt that she had to work harder than her colleagues. As for my grandmother, she too tried to compensate for her association with a criminal; she humbled herself in front of my father, and treated him as her boss.


Perhaps everyone's earliest memory has a certain significance, for the very reason that it is their earliest memory. At any rate, my earliest memory is of being left alone, when I was three years old, while my parents and my brother went to an opera. My mother gave me cookies as a consolation.

In 1960, relations between Russia and China turned sour. Russia recalled the technical experts that it had sent to China, and demanded that China repay loans that Russia had made to China. So there was poverty in China, and food was scarce.

My brother and I weren't living with my parents. My parents were busy with their careers, so they sent us to a boarding school. Meals at the boarding school were meager. I remember that teachers at the boarding school asked young boys to climb trees and to shake the branches, so that flowers would fall to the ground. The flowers were then collected and sent to the kitchen, where they were used to supplement our meals.

During the winter, our school had no heat, and neither did my parents' apartment. To keep warm, we wore heavy coats in the daytime, and at night we put coats and sweaters and pants on top of our quilt. The coats and sweaters and pants would gradually fall onto the floor during the course of the night. If we were cold during the night, we'd get up and re-arrange our clothes on the quilt.

As a rule, my brother and I went home only on weekends, but one day my brother knocked at my window when I was napping, and suggested that we go home and get an apple. When we got home, my parents were having their mid-day nap, a custom in China. We woke them up, and they gave each of us an apple. Then we went back to school.

With my mother and brother.

Once, when I was six, my gym teacher left the room, and I suggested to my classmates that we push the desks together, form a stage, and perform an opera. My classmates liked my suggestion. While we were performing the opera, the gym teacher returned, and asked, "whose idea was this?" I confessed that it was my idea, and the gym teacher struck me on the head, since he wanted us to do exercises while he was out of the room.

I was a good student in elementary school. When I was in third grade, my teacher nominated me to be a member of a group called the Young Pioneers. Although members of this group were supposed to be nine years old and I was only eight years old, I became a member.

My family.
I'm on the left, my younger sister is in the middle.


In 1964, my parents were sent to Beijing in order to do intelligence work. I was excited when I heard that we were moving to Beijing, and my friends were also excited, since we had heard so much about Beijing.

We arrived in Beijing on February 24. We were met at the train station by an official of the intelligence institute, and driven to our new home. Our new home was in the intelligence institute; in China, one's home is usually in or near one's place of work, and one usually rents one's home from one's employer.

When we were approaching the brightly-lit institute, my brother thought that we were in Tian An Men Square, where we had been hoping to see Chairman Mao. Our school textbook told us that one could see Chairman Mao standing on the balcony in Tian An Men Square, and we thought that Chairman Mao stood there perpetually. My brother and I were disappointed that we arrived in Beijing late at night, since we knew that Chairman Mao would not be standing on the balcony in Tian An Men Square late at night — he would be asleep, like everybody else!

The institute where my father and mother worked was located in a suburb west of Beijing. It was surrounded by rice fields, and our neighbors were mostly peasants.

The peasant children didn't go to the same school as the institute children. A wide gulf separated peasant children from institute children, a gulf that persisted when we grew older. When peasant children encountered institute children, fights and rock-throwing often occurred.

As soon as I entered primary school, I discovered that a child from a little city like Hefei was given little respect. To make matters worse, I myself was little for an eight-year-old. I was seldom included in my classmates' activities. I was not listened to when friends got together. I was not elected the head of a group of Young Pioneers, although my teacher thought that I deserved to be elected.

Another factor that contributed to my inferior position among my classmates was the position of my parents in the institute. The position of one's parents in the institute affected one's own position in the school. Those whose parents were important people in the institute were important people in the school, but my parents weren't important people in the institute.

I wanted to do everything that the other girls did. Since the other girls cycled, I wanted to cycle, too, but I didn't know how, and my family didn't own a bike on which I could learn. Day after day, I borrowed a bike from a friend, and practiced cycling. Finally my father bought a bike, but it was a large bike, made for a man, with a horizontal bar from the handlebars to the seat. I rode this bike with my leg under the bar; I became so proficient at this that I could carry a friend on the back of the bike.

Since the other girls swam, I wanted to swim, too, but I didn't know how to swim when I arrived in Beijing. My mother taught me how to swim at a lake in the Summer Palace, a lake that was made by hand in the nineteenth century in order to provide recreation for the Imperial family. The other girls often swam in this lake. They could swim from one side of the lake to the other, but I couldn't.

One day, the other girls swam to a diving platform in the middle of the lake, and I was determined to do the same. When I approached the platform, breathless, one of the other girls shouted, "don't let her on the platform!" Then several of the girls jumped in the water, and pushed me under the surface. While I struggled for air, they repeatedly pushed me under, until finally they relented, and I climbed onto the platform, sobbing. Years later, I remembered this incident vividly, and I remembered the pain that I felt in my chest. To this day, I still fear water.


I attended the institute's primary school for only two years. Then, in 1966, the Cultural Revolution broke out, and the school was changed into a forum for political propaganda. All the students in the school, some of whom were only seven years old, became Little Red Guards. Led by some adults, they criticized some teachers and administrators in the school.

I remember that we criticized my calligraphy teacher for having worked in a bank before the Communist revolution, and for having been associated with Guomindang. This calligraphy teacher used to draw a red circle around characters that he thought were well written, and two red circles around characters that he thought were very well written. I often received two red circles, and I enjoyed calligraphy class. It hurt me to see my calligraphy teacher criticized; he didn't seem to deserve criticism.

During the Cultural Revolution, leaders and important people throughout Chinese society were criticized, and their status was diminished. The effects of the Cultural Revolution were felt within my primary school. Those who had been important because their parents were important were no longer important, while those who had been inferior because their parents were inferior, were no longer inferior.

My mother viewed the Cultural Revolution as a chance for redemption, a chance to redeem herself from the disgrace of having a landlord for a father. My mother was full of enthusiasm for Mao's ideas. She asked my brother and me to take turns choosing a passage from Mao's Red Book. Before meals, one of us would say which paragraph, on which page, we had chosen. Then we said, "Our great leader, Chairman Mao, teaches us the following", and then we'd read the passage together. Sometimes my mother suggested a passage herself. She always suggested a passage on page 128; in this passage, Mao says that revolutionary comrades should be friendly toward each other because they have a common goal. My mother hoped that this passage would persuade my brother and me not to quarrel with each other.

During the Cultural Revolution, it was a common practice to begin meetings by singing a song called "The East Is Red"; this song compared Mao to the sun, and called Mao the savior of the people. Then everyone would read a passage from the Red Book together. The main business of the meeting was usually to criticize someone who represented counter-revolutionary ideas. The meeting always ended with the singing of a song called "Ships Sailing On the Ocean Have One Captain"; this song compared Mao to a ship captain, and Mao's thought to a sun that would never set.

During the Cultural Revolution, telephone operators would answer the phone with the first half of one of Mao's quotations. You would say the second half of the quotation, and then ask the operator to connect you. For example, the operator might answer the phone with "criticize selfishness", and you would say, "denounce revisionism". The same thing happened in stores: a store clerk would address you with something like "serve the people", and you would respond with something like "rebellion is just".

The Cultural Revolution was a war against culture, an attempt to replace culture with the ideas of Mao and Marx. Many books, especially old books, were burned. A common saying during the Cultural Revolution was, "destroy the four olds, and establish the four news", meaning destroy old thought, old culture, old custom, and old habit, and establish new thought, new culture, new custom, and new habit.

Wars against culture are not unique to modern China. The Cambodian Communists, known as the Khmer Rouge, were allied with the Chinese Communists, and when they reached power, in the mid-1970's, they carried out a Cultural Revolution of their own, one that was more violent than the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

At several other times in Chinese history, notably during the Chin dynasty (c. 200 B.C.), there were wars against culture and book-burnings.


I have already spoken about my maternal grandfather: how he had been a landlord before the Communists seized power, how the Communists viewed him as a criminal, how he worked as an itinerant carpenter, etc. I would like to speak now about my paternal grandfather, and about how he fell victim to the Cultural Revolution.

When I was about ten years old, my paternal grandparents came from their home in Shanghai to stay with my family in Beijing. Every day my paternal grandfather made my brother and me write a composition, which he corrected. I liked my paternal grandfather, and I thought of him not as an authority figure, but as a friend.

After staying with my family for several months, my paternal grandparents returned to Shanghai. I expected to see my paternal grandfather again, but I never did.

Because he had been an administrator in a factory, and not a member of the working class, my paternal grandfather was unpopular with local officials. One day, after he had returned to Shanghai from his visit to my family, he was asked by some local officials to join a parade. Like many parades during the Cultural Revolution, this parade was held to celebrate Mao's latest instructions. In this case, Mao's latest instructions were to send urban youth to the countryside, in order to be re-educated by peasants.

It was a hot summer afternoon. My grandfather was asked to hold a pole that was supporting a placard. Such placards usually said, "we receive Mao's latest instructions with great happiness".

At the end of the parade, my grandfather returned home, asked my grandmother for a glass of water, and put his head on the table. My grandmother called his name, but he didn't respond. Finally my grandmother had him taken to a hospital; he was pronounced dead on arrival.


In 1968, I entered Middle School #101 in Beijing, which, before the Cultural Revolution, was a school for the children of high officials in the government and the army. In 1968, however, as a result of the Cultural Revolution, this school was open to all the children living nearby.

I became confident in middle school. I found myself capable of doing things that other students couldn't do, such as read music fluently, a skill that I had been taught by my mother. I was put in charge of teaching revolutionary songs to my classmates. When a new song was published in People's Daily, I would copy it, and teach my classmates to sing it. And since I read a lot when I was a child, my writing ability was superior to that of most of my classmates.
My middle school class. I’m in the middle row, third from right.

I was devoted to the cause of proletarian revolution, and I was enthusiastic about any activity proposed by the school's leaders. When the brother of one of my best girl friends took a lackadaisical attitude toward the activities proposed by the school's leaders, I wrote an essay critical of him, and I read the essay at a meeting.

One day some anti-Mao graffiti was found in my school's bathroom. One of my classmates was accused of writing the graffiti. Her guilt was multiplied when it was pointed out that her grandparents were once landlords. She was kept in school as a prisoner, and not allowed to go home. My classmates and I took turns staying at school overnight, guarding the prisoner. Every morning, she stood in front of a portrait of Mao, and swore to follow his teachings. Every night, she stood in front of the same portrait, and confessed whatever she had done wrong.

One day when it was my turn to guard the prisoner, we were walking to the cafeteria, and she said she had forgotten her chopsticks. I suggested to my fellow guard that we go back and get the chopsticks, but she said no, we're not going back. Then she had an idea. "If you want chopsticks," she said, "we'll make some." She broke some twigs off a tree, and gave them to the prisoner. I felt somewhat guilty as I watched the prisoner struggle to eat with the twig-chopsticks. I also felt somewhat guilty for attempting to help a counter-revolutionary.


In March, 1969, my parents were sent to a May 7 School for Intellectuals. At that time, there were hundreds of such schools in China. These schools were named after a statement made by Mao on May 7, 1966; Mao said that intellectuals should be sent to the countryside in order to be re-educated by peasants. The definition of intellectual was a broad one, and many party officials, such as my parents, were included within it.

The school to which my parents were sent was in the province of Shandong, about three hundred miles from Beijing. Children were not allowed to accompany their parents to the school, so the three of us — my sixteen-year-old brother, my seven-year-old sister, and myself, fourteen years old — were left in Beijing.

On the day when my parents left Beijing, my mother didn't allow us children to leave my parents' apartment, which was on the third floor. Since she didn't want to prolong the parting, she didn't want us to come down to the street, where buses were lined up, waiting to transport my parents and other party officials to the train station.

My brother suggested that we go out on our balcony, which faced the street. We glimpsed my mother from the balcony; she gave us a quick wave, then turned away. Then my brother suggested that we go down to the street and board the bus that was reserved for children and grandparents; we did so. When the bus had left us at the train station, we went to the front of the platform, since we thought that all the railway cars would have to pass the front of the platform. But the train gathered speed, and we didn't see my parents.

For three years, my parents stayed at the May 7 School for Intellectuals. My mother worked in a wheat field, my father worked in a chicken farm. We saw them for a week or two each year.


While my parents were at the May 7 School, we lived in an Adolescents' Center. We didn't live together, we lived with children of our own age. My brother adopted the role of parent, and looked after my sister and me. I adopted the role of parent in relation to my sister, who was only seven years old.

My brother got up early every morning to get milk for us from my mother's best friend, whom we called aunt Liu. My mother had given aunt Liu money to buy milk for us, since the Adolescents' Center didn't offer milk, which isn't drunk routinely in China. Aunt Liu heated the milk (at that time, milk was never drunk cold in China) and put it in a thermos, which my brother brought to the apartment in which my parents used to live. At seven o'clock every morning, before going to school, my sister and I came from the Adolescents' Center to the apartment for the milk.

The happiest time for the three of us was when we got a letter from our parents. We read the letter together. In every letter my mother told us that she cried as she was writing the letter, and that she couldn't bear to think of the three of us living parentless hundreds of miles away. When we saw the stains of my mother's tears on the letter, we cried together. When we read that our father couldn't get up early to go to work on the chicken farm, we laughed together.

Once my brother got a parcel from my parents. He asked me to go home immediately, and to open the parcel with him. I looked for my sister, but she was still in school. When my brother and I opened the parcel, we found a lot of red dates in it; red dates are a specialty of Shandong. My brother and I were too excited to wait for my sister, so we ate all the dates before my sister came home. When we told my sister what had happened, she cried, and we told her that we would ask our parents to send more.

Once a teacher in the Adolescents' Center told me that my brother was suspected of having stolen the slippers of one of his roommates. I was horrified that my brother had degenerated into a thief, and I thought that my parents would also be horrified. When my parents were with us, they were our conscience. Now that my parents weren't with us, I thought that we should act in a way that my parents would approve of.

I went home immediately and wrote my brother a long letter. After I wrote the letter, I read it and I cried. I left it on the table, and as I was leaving home, I met my brother on the stairs. He noticed that my eyes were red and swollen, and he asked me what was wrong. I said, "you'll know when you see my letter", then I kept walking.

On the following day, my brother asked me angrily, "who told you that I stole the slippers?" I told him the name of the teacher who had told me. He dragged me to the teacher's office, rushed up to the teacher, grabbed her by the collar, and shouted, "tell my sister if it really was I who stole the slippers!" The teacher said, "it was not you. We've already found the slippers." I was so relieved that my brother was innocent that I didn't blame the teacher for accusing my brother of a theft without any evidence.


In October, 1969, my brother graduated from middle school, and was sent to an army farm in Inner Mongolia. He was sixteen years old at the time. All the middle school graduates of the class of 1969 who lived in big cities, such as Beijing, were sent to army farms in Inner Mongolia or in Heilongjiang.

My parents came back from the May 7 School to see my brother off. My mother was heartbroken, since Inner Mongolia is a desolate place with a harsh climate. My mother didn't allow me to see him off. Perhaps she didn't want me to see the sad farewell.

My brother stayed in Inner Mongolia for six years. His stay was to have been permanent, but my mother went to Inner Mongolia, bribed various officials, and managed to get my brother released. While he worked in Inner Mongolia, my brother was paid seventy-two yuan a year, or about fifteen dollars a year.

The first time that I heard from my brother, after he went to Inner Mongolia, was when he phoned me, and asked me to send him some food. I noticed that his voice had become much deeper. Thereafter I sent him food every month.

The workers on the army farms weren't given good food. Their bosses and the kitchen workers kept whatever good food there was for themselves. My brother and his friends often stole food. Later, my brother told me bitterly that when he went to the capital of Inner Mongolia to see a doctor, he asked people to help him get food, and was refused by everyone.

A friend of mine, Fu Haiyan, who was sent to Heilongjiang, told me that she and the other workers ate bread at all three meals. They also ate cabbage, turnips and potatoes, but these foods didn't taste good since they were cooked not with oil but with water. During the winter, lunch was especially unpalatable, since the bread that they took with them to the fields froze, and the only beverage they had was snow, melted in their mouths; they couldn't cook over a fire, since that might have ignited the fields. Some workers, however, accustomed to worse meals at home, thought that the food in Heilongjiang was good.

Fu Haiyan told me that she and the other workers looked forward with eagerness to the annual spring festival, since on that day they ate meat. The only other time that they ate meat was when an old horse was slaughtered.

Before they could begin working in the fields, the workers had to build houses for themselves. The workers in some areas were plagued by swarms of insects; the insects were so abundant that even if you wore white pants, your pants would look black, since they were covered with insects.

When the workers weren't working in the fields, they were usually reading the Red Book (a book of Mao's quotations), or discussing Mao's ideas, or confessing sins that they had committed against Maoist principles, or singing Maoist songs. These activities were a welcome break from working in the fields. Relationships between people of opposite sexes were prohibited, unless both parties were at least twenty-five years old.

The army farms in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang were in northern China, on the border with Russia. The workers on the farms were given guns and grenades in case of a Russian invasion. Some workers, desperate as a result of their harsh life, used their weapons against their bosses. Others tried to flee across the border into Russia, but were killed by Chinese border guards.

The experiences of my brother's contemporaries on army farms have spawned a great deal of literature, which is referred to as "scar literature".

My brother was greatly changed when he returned from Inner Mongolia. He mistrusted other people, scoffed at all idealism, and cared only about himself.


After my brother went to Inner Mongolia, my parents sent my sister to Shanghai, where my grandparents lived. I was left alone in Beijing. I was fourteen years old, and was entering my last year of middle school. I lived in a room at the institute where my parents had worked. I cycled to school, a twenty minute ride.

During my last year of middle school, we didn't study arts and sciences, we baked bricks and constructed air-raid shelters, believing that Russian bombers might appear over our heads at any time. We students were divided by squad, platoon, and company. About two thirds of the students who were my age were Red Guards, and wore a red armband. I was the head of the Red Guards of the Second Platoon of the Eighth Company.

I was proud of being able to carry on a shoulder pole a large amount of mud, mud that was needed for brick-baking. My teacher, being a member of the intelligentsia, was supposed to be reformed through physical labor. My classmates and I put as many bricks as possible into our teacher's baskets. He would turn to us with an imploring look, and then would try to lift the baskets off the ground. In those days, it was not the teachers, but the students who were the bosses of the school.

One day I received a letter from a boy in my class, Jianjun Zhang, who had quit school and had joined the army. He told me that he was grateful to me for the help I had given him while he was in school, and that he wanted to keep in touch with me.

To receive a letter from a boy was scandalous for us girls. I remember how fast my heart was beating when I read the letter, and how ashamed I felt when I told my best girl friend about it.

My friend and I decided to burn the letter as soon as possible, lest anyone find out about it. I suppose that my friend felt that she helped me to make the right decision, but actually I wished, for a long time after burning the letter, that I had not burned it.


During my middle school years, I started studying English. Studying English would have been impossible when the Cultural Revolution was at its height, but during its ten year life, the Cultural Revolution waxed and waned. Those who thought that the Cultural Revolution had gone too far sometimes made their influence felt, and steered us students away from construction projects and toward the arts and sciences.

My English teacher was a Chinese woman from Indonesia. The first English sentence that she wrote on the blackboard, and the first English sentence that I ever saw, was "Long live Chairman Mao!" Later we learned slogans like, "Let's wish Chairman Mao a long, long life!"; we repeated this slogan every morning. We also learned to say, "Put down your gun!", which we were told to say if ever the Russians invaded, and we encountered a Russian soldier. Evidently our teachers thought that Russian soldiers knew English.

My interest in English was aroused by my English teacher's beautiful handwriting. I wanted to write English as beautifully as my teacher did. I asked a friend of mine, who sat next to me, to show me a sample of her mother's English handwriting; her mother was the only person I knew, except our English teacher, who knew some English. I didn't ask my English teacher for a copy of her handwriting, because in those days it would have been dangerous to show an interest in learning English; if I had shown an interest in learning English, I might have been accused of worshipping foreign things.

When my friend and I compared our teacher's handwriting with that of my friend's mother, we were perplexed by the different ways in which they wrote the letter L. Our teacher wrote it like , whereas my friend's mother wrote it like . Finally we decided to practice both. The letter L was especially significant to us since the first sentence we wrote was, "Long live Chairman Mao!"


After graduating from middle school, I was assigned to a factory attached to Beijing University's Department of Radio Communication. It was called a "campus factory". I was lucky to be assigned there, instead of being assigned to an army farm, as my brother was.

The campus factory to which I was assigned was dominated by soldiers whose brains were well washed by the Party, and who were supposed to be the educators of the intellectuals who were teaching in the factory. The soldiers were the enemies of the intellectuals. We newcomers were drawn to the side of the soldiers. I was convinced that the soldiers were kind and honest, while the intellectuals were wicked and deceitful.

My respect for the soldiers vanished when one of them raped one of my girl friends. I was shocked when I learned of the rape; I didn't think soldiers would do such a thing. For the first time in my life, I felt lost, I felt that I had no one to respect. My friends talked about the rape for many weeks, but I avoided talking about it, since it brought back my feeling of disillusionment.

Of the two hundred students in the campus factory, five were chosen to assist the managers. I was one of the five. I distributed party propaganda to the workers and to the intellectuals. I also joined an amateur singing and dancing group from the factory, a group that aimed at promoting Party propaganda.

After spending ten months in the campus factory, I was chosen to be a member of a semi-professional singing and dancing group from Beijing University.

In the early 70's, at Xiang Shan, west of Beijing.


Like the campus factory's singing and dancing group, Beijing University's group aimed at promoting Party propaganda; it was called Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team. Almost every school and factory in China had its own Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team. These teams were established in an attempt to turn singing and dancing into forms of Party propaganda. Other arts, such as painting, film, opera and drama, were also turned into forms of Party propaganda.

During the Cultural Revolution, exercising was also turned into a form of Party propaganda. In all the schools and factories in China, a part of every day was set aside for calisthenics. While doing calisthenics, people used to chant, "one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four", but during the Cultural Revolution, people chanted Maoist slogans such as, "don't forget the class struggle, don't forget the class struggle", or, "don't fear hardship, don't fear death, don't fear hardship, don't fear death".

I was a singer and dancer on the Propaganda Team for five years, from 1971 to 1976. During these five years, when the Propaganda Team was idle, I worked at Beijing University's broadcasting station, where I was an announcer and a projectionist.

In my spare time, I studied English with Professor Yao, who was in the Department of Western Languages. Professor Yao was a member of the Professors' singing group on the Propaganda Team, hence I was acquainted with him. After learning the fundamentals of English, I read some Western writers, such as Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde and Chekhov.

Western literature was not easy to obtain in those days. All the pieces that I read had been hand-written by Professor Yao.

In addition to teaching me English, Professor Yao influenced my values. "Help those who ask for help," he once told me, "no matter who they are."


I liked my broadcasting work and my English lessons so much that I was always reluctant to return to the Propaganda Team. I told one of the leaders of the Propaganda Team, Lao Wang, that I thought working for the Propaganda Team was a waste of time. Wang tried to change my attitude toward the Propaganda Team, but I said, "you have your major principles, but I have my minor principles." This was a bold statement, because in those days minor principles, that is, personal principles, were supposed to be subordinated to major principles, that is, Communist Party principles.

Lao Wang, in addition to being a leader of the Propaganda Team, was also my political connector, that is, he was the person in charge of connecting me with the Party, of reporting to the Party about my political attitudes. All young people who were being considered for membership in the Party had political connectors. At the time I told Lao Wang my opinion of the Propaganda Team, I was on the verge of becoming a Party member.

One day, Lao Wang told me that I should not continue studying English with Professor Yao. He told me that people were saying that I had an improper relationship with Professor Yao, because he left notes on my door that began, "Dear Yafei", and because we read an English magazine on the cover of which there was a picture of girls in bikinis.

I knew that my roommate, who was my rival on the Propaganda Team, had slandered me.

At the broadcasting station, I became acquainted with a young man whose name was Zhu Xiaohong. Since Zhu was in charge of teaching me how to show films, I called him Master Zhu. I admired Master Zhu for his skill at showing films, and I found him to be kind, honest and diligent. He became my boyfriend. We drew up a contract, stating that we would love each other forever, and that we would work together on behalf of communism.

Our dream became a nightmare when campus security officials found us embracing. They reported our behavior to the leaders of the Propaganda Team, and to the leaders of the broadcasting station.

On the following day, we were criticized at a meeting of about thirty people. I was the chief object of criticism. Three criticisms were leveled at me: I scorned the work of the Propaganda Team, I put personal interests before Party interests, as shown by my study of English, and I violated the rule that forbade young workers to have intimate relationships with each other.

Most of my colleagues from the Propaganda Team and from the broadcasting station were at the meeting; Lao Wang was the main speaker. Wang and the other speakers described me as a person who had been corrupted by bourgeois literature, who was opposed to the ideas of Mao Zedong, and who was a traitor to communism.

I was tempted to say, "ask your consciences if I am really that bad". But I knew that whatever I said would make matters worse, so I didn't say anything. After the meeting, my superiors, fearing that I might commit suicide, had one of my friends follow me home. I begged her to leave me alone. I told her that I didn't want to die.

During the Cultural Revolution, meetings like this one were routine. They often included physical abuse as well as verbal abuse. The victims of the physical and verbal abuse often committed suicide, and some of them tried to commit suicide but were prevented from doing so.

My crimes were reported to my parents, who had moved back to Hefei after spending three years in the May 7 School. My parents had been expecting to hear that I had become a Party member. They wrote me, and asked me to tell them my side of the story.

I wrote them a long letter, and told them that I hadn't changed, that I was as qualified as ever to be a Party member, and that they should listen to me, not only to the Party.

From then on, I was no longer treated as a candidate for Party membership, but as one who was unfaithful to communism.


On July 28, 1976, there was an earthquake in the city of Tangshan, which is one hundred miles east of Beijing. After the earthquake, a group of students from Beijing University's Department of Geography was sent to Tangshan. This group was supposed to study the earthquake, and also to help reconstruct the city. My superiors decided to send me to Tangshan with this group, so that I would be reformed through physical labor. My boyfriend was sent to a collective farm.

When I first caught sight of Tangshan, I was shocked by the extent of the damage. I could understand why the people living in Tangshan thought at first that the earthquake was an attack of Russian bombers. I forgot my personal problems for the moment, and threw myself into the task of reconstruction.

Soon after I arrived in Tangshan, I was told by my superiors that my stay in Tangshan would be lengthy, perhaps permanent. I felt as if I had been given a sentence of life imprisonment.

I seldom talked with my co-workers from Beijing University's Department of Geography. My ostracism in Beijing had accustomed me to isolation. Whenever the bell rang, signaling a rest period, I would walk away from the group, and find a place where I could be alone.

One day, I spent my rest period in an area that had been cleared and that was ready for new construction. I stood in the middle of this area, looked into the distance, and tried not to focus my eyes on anything, so that I wouldn't have to focus my mind on anything.

I caught sight of a little girl, about nine or ten years old, walking toward me. When she reached me, she asked me where I was from, and I told her that I was from Beijing. "People from Beijing are over there", she said; "why are you alone here?"

I didn't want to answer her, so I asked her why she was alone. "I'm the only person in my family who survived the earthquake." She said this as if she were reciting something from a textbook; evidently she had said it many times.

"And what are you doing here?" I asked.

"This is where my home used to be."

"So you're coming home."

"Yes. And what are you doing here?"

"I'm coming home, too"; I meant that Tangshan was to be my home.

We became friends, and we met often at our "home". We talked about singing and dancing; we avoided talking about our misfortunes.

Two weeks later, my little friend was taken to an orphanage; I never saw her again.


In September, 1976, Mao died. Several months later, the Gang of Four was overthrown and the Cultural Revolution ended.

The Gang of Four were left-wing radicals in the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao's wife played a leading role in the Gang of Four. The Gang of Four aspired to rule China after Mao's death.

Beijing University was a political base for the Gang of Four. Some intellectuals from Beijing University acted as hack writers for the Gang of Four. After the Gang of Four was overthrown, all the students in Beijing University were supposed to join in criticizing the Gang of Four. All the students from Beijing University who were working in Tangshan were summoned to Beijing. My sentence of life imprisonment in Tangshan was revoked, and I returned to Beijing.

During the Cultural Revolution, students had been admitted to college not on account of their academic record, but on account of their political record. Those who were active in promoting the Cultural Revolution were admitted to college. When the Cultural Revolution ended, the exam system for college admission was resumed. I decided to take the exam.

Meanwhile, my boyfriend had been recalled to Beijing from the collective farm to which he had been sent. My boyfriend told me that his father thought that I shouldn't take the exam. His father thought that if I went to college, I would eventually separate from my boyfriend.

My boyfriend's father was the undisputed ruler of his family. He was once a teacher at Beijing University. During the Anti-Rightist Struggle of 1957, he was labeled a "rightist", and he had been persecuted ever since. As a result of this long persecution, he became deranged, and his derangement was exacerbated by the Cultural Revolution.

He talked about politics incessantly, especially about the class struggle, as described by Mao; he was working on a book on this topic. He ate poorly, dressed poorly, and forced his family to live an ascetic life. He wouldn't tolerate any disagreement from members of his family. He kept a knife under his pillow, and said that he would kill any member of his family who didn't live according to his instructions.

After Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended, people began to criticize Mao. My boyfriend's father, however, remained faithful to Mao, and told everyone that he thought Mao was a great person.

In China, to catch someone's pigtail means to criticize someone. Having been criticized by the Communist Party once, my boyfriend's father didn't want to be criticized again. He wore a portrait of Mao, and, saying that he didn't want people to catch his pigtail, he shaved his head.

Everyone in his family knew that he was deranged, but, partly out of fear and partly out of compassion, no one in his family criticized him.

I refused to heed my boyfriend's father when he said that I shouldn't take the exam; I took the exam and passed it. My first choice was Beijing University, but I was rejected because my grades weren't high enough. My second choice was the Department of Foreign Languages at the Beijing Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and this time I was accepted.


At the age of twenty-three, I started college. My major was English. There were twenty students in my English class. Of these twenty students, eight were between twenty-three and thirty-one. These eight, of whom I was one, were like older brothers and sisters to the twelve younger students, who were about eighteen or nineteen years old. We older students had little or no high school education, but we had been educated by our experiences during the Cultural Revolution. We treasured our college years, and we studied harder than the younger students.

We studied Bergson, Sartre, Freud, Kafka, and others. I found that Marxism was not the only explanation of the world. I was fascinated by Thomas Jefferson's idea that, "the government that governs least governs best". I was also fascinated by the idea that the pursuit of self-interest leads to national prosperity. And I was fascinated by Freud's idea of the id, the ego, and the super-ego.

During my freshman and sophomore years, I went to my boyfriend's home on weekends. Nothing had changed there: the father was still a hyper-Maoist, and was still the undisputed ruler of the family. I frequently quarreled with him. In July, 1982, I graduated from college. Since I found college stimulating, I wanted to pursue a masters degree at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, so I applied, and I was accepted.


At graduate school, I majored in American Literature. One thing that I liked about graduate school was that students of different majors often talked together. Most of the students in my class majored in Economics, which was an especially controversial field then, since China was in a period of economic reform. We often discussed economics and politics.

My classmates and I received grants for travel and research. I went with one of my classmates to some cities in southern China, and to a national park. The park was a remote, wilderness area that was just starting to be opened up to visitors. While we were hiking in the park, we got lost, and we thought we were going to have to sleep outdoors. But then we heard a cow, followed the sound, and came across a peasant boy. Though we couldn't talk with the boy — he didn't speak Mandarin — we were able to follow him back to his house, where we spent the night.

The house had no windows, but there were many gaps in the ceiling and the walls. When we lay down to sleep, we could see the sky through these gaps. A river ran alongside the house, and made a loud noise. There was no bathroom in the house — just a large, reeking barrel, which was placed next to our bed. (Once the barrel was full, it was carried to a field, where it was used as fertilizer.) We didn't sleep all night; we just talked, and planned how we would find our way back to civilization.

In the morning, the boy acted as our guide, and we were able to make it back. As we were walking, we encountered some peasants carrying large stones on their backs. The stones were being used to build a road. Since the peasants were bowed down by the weight of the stones, they couldn't see us, so we had to make way for them. At first I felt sorry for the peasant workers, but then I reflected that this was a rare opportunity for them to make money.


In July, 1985, I received my masters degree, and I was assigned to work at the Institute of American Studies. At that time, the Secretary General of the Party, Hu Yaobang, said that some Party officials and intellectuals should go to the country in order to contribute to educational reform.

The new policy reminded people of the Cultural Revolution, but it allowed people to remain in the city if they chose to, and if they chose to go to the country, they were only expected to spend one year there. Most people chose not to go. I chose to go. I wanted an opportunity to contribute to the reformation of the Chinese mind. I was assigned to the town of Lin Xian, in the province of Henan. I was assigned to teach English in a high school.

Lin Xian is a mountainous, rocky region. Its natural water supplies are scanty. During the Cultural Revolution, a canal was built in Lin Xian by manual labor; Lin Xian became famous for its canal. Leaders from Third World nations visited Lin Xian in order to see the canal.

My students were fifteen years old. There were sixty students in my class. Most of them lived far away in the mountains. They cycled home every Saturday afternoon, and cycled back to school every Sunday evening. Chinese students attend school six days a week, just as Chinese workers work six days a week.

I lived one-and-a-half miles from school. At first, I walked to school. Later, one of my students lent me his bicycle, and I cycled to school.

I began the school year enthusiastically. There were many things that I wanted to teach my students. I worked hard, and I tried to make English class interesting. I brought my guitar to class and taught my students English songs.

Gradually, however, my enthusiasm disappeared. One day, I found out that two students had quarreled. One of these students was the student who had lent me his bicycle. The other one had the highest rank in my class. The highest-ranking student accused the other student of trying to win my heart by lending me his bicycle, and of having had an affair with me. The student who had lent me his bicycle accused the highest-ranking student of getting high grades by bribing me.

When I heard about this quarrel, I was shocked, since I thought that students in a rural area like Lin Xian would be innocent, naive and uncorrupted. I cried all night.

On the following morning, I told my students how high my hopes had been at the beginning of the year, and how disappointed I was by what I had heard. I cried in class, and so did many of my students.

My students were closer to me as a result of this incident, but I never recovered my enthusiasm.

The principal of the school wanted the students to be passive and obedient, and he spoke to them like an officer addressing soldiers. Since I encouraged the students to think for themselves and to be independent, the principal seemed to think that I had a bad influence on the students.

I told my students that I wanted to visit them at home, and they invited me to do so. I spent most of my weekends visiting my students, trying to get to know them better. Sometimes I cycled with my students to their homes, and sometimes I walked with them a long way, and climbed over mountains on stone staircases.

It was difficult for me to converse with my students and their families, since hardly any of them spoke Mandarin, the standard Chinese language, although they could understand me when I spoke Mandarin.

In most of the homes that I visited, there was neither electricity nor running water. In the homes that did have electricity, the electricity was cut off for three days of each week, since it was in short supply.

On my visits, I found that in Lin Xian's elementary schools, students of different ages were taught together. The teachers supplemented their meager incomes by raising crops. They often left their students in order to look after their crops.

On one of my visits, I learned that a student of mine was attending school so that her family could say that they were educated. Her family's neighbors had accused her family of being uneducated. The accusation resulted in a brawl, in which farm implements were used as weapons. My student's grandfather died from wounds that he received in the brawl.

In one student's home, I saw a portrait of Mao, and beneath the portrait was a piece of wood with the inscription, "The God of Gods". In another home, there was a little shrine for the family’s ancestors, with a tablet inscribed with their names, pictures, and incense. I accompanied one student to a family cemetery, where she left food at the graves.

The inhabitants of Lin Xian lived in small, humble, unadorned houses. I asked them if they were satisfied with their lot. They said, "yes, we used to eat corn bread, but now we have flour, and we eat steamed bread". They thought Communism was good because Communism brought them steamed bread.

I learned a lot in Lin Xian, and my students and I loved each other. But I saw many things that needed to be changed, and I found it impossible to bring about any changes. After teaching in Lin Xian for one year, I returned to Beijing disillusioned.


I felt lost in Beijing. My career at the Institute of American Studies was going nowhere. I did some translating, and I did some writing on American literature, but I didn't think that my work was of any use. All my hopes and ideals had come to nothing. I had wanted to devote myself to an ideal, but I hadn't found an ideal worth devoting myself to.

In October, 1986, Peter Rose, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, visited my institute. I was chosen to be his interpreter and guide while he toured China.

Peter Rose told me that Smith welcomed foreign students, so I applied to Smith, and was accepted. In August, 1987, I came to the U.S. Thus ended my youth in China.