16 February 2019
Professor Lu Gusun, who died last month in Shanghai, has written about the brutality of the Red Guards during China's Cultural Revolution. Photo: Shanghai Observer
Professor Lu Gusun, who died last month in Shanghai, has written about the brutality of the Red Guards during China's Cultural Revolution. Photo: Shanghai Observer

How Lu Gusun reminded us of the horrors of Cultural Revolution

Earlier this month, Shanghai saw a memorial service being held for Lu Gusun, the renowned linguist and lexicographer who died late last month.

Lu, who passed away at the age of 76, was an intellectual heavyweight who had specialized in translating classical English masterpieces into Chinese, including Shakespeare’s famous works.

He was also the chief editor of the English-Chinese Dictionary published by People’s Daily Press and an emeritus professor of the School of Foreign Languages of the prestigious Fudan University.

A prolific writer, Lu was a long-time columnist for the popular magazine “Weekends in the South” and had penned several articles about his life as a university student during the Cultural Revolution.

As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, Professor Lu’s articles provide valuable material for us to reconstruct what lives of the common people were like during that man-made political catastrophe that almost destroyed an entire nation.

Titled “Memories”, the vast majority of Lu’s articles were published between 2007 and 2009, a period when the political atmosphere in the mainland was far more relaxed than now, under former President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

When the Memories pieces were first published in 2007, they quickly became a sensation among mainland readers, who were captivated by Lu’s subtle yet faithful account of what happened between 1966 and 1976.

The articles mainly dealt with four subjects: the absurdity of Mao’s personality cult, the brutality of the Red Guards, the framing of innocent people, and the nationwide famine.

In one of his articles, Lu vividly portrayed the daily life of a student living in a university dorm in those days.

According to his description, all students at that time had to perform a ritual in front of a big portrait of Mao Zedong before they could collect their meals in the university canteen.

Everyone had to raise their rice bowls in their left hands, and wave around a copy of the “Quotations from Chairman Mao”, commonly known as the “Little Red Book”, in their right hands, while reciting one of the quotations in the book in order to show loyalty to the great leader.

There were often Red Guards present at the scene overseeing the ritual to make sure it was performed properly.

In another article on the brutality of the Red Guards, Lu noted that Mao urged the activists to escalate their war on pro-capitalist “traitors” who were lurking in every corner of society.

In order to eliminate the ferocious class enemies, Mao said, students would be justified in resorting to all kinds of extreme means including raiding the homes, torturing or even killing the enemies.

One article of the “Memories” tells a horrifying story about how the Red Guards were framing innocent people for counter-revolution just because they had a grudge against them.

In one case, a Red Guard leader, who felt he had been humiliated when a female schoolmate whom he liked rejected his courtship, stole her diary and cited its content as evidence that she had been harboring “counter-revolutionary” and “reactionary” thoughts.

Unable to bear the brutal persecution against her, the girl later tried to take her own life by jumping off a school building. Yet her suicide attempt was unsuccessful and she was hospitalized afterwards.

In order to further punish her, a hospital emergency room was made to perform a rough procedure to connect the broken bones in her injured leg with steel screws without any anesthesia.

The Red Guards then staged a small denunciation rally around her while she was lying in bed after suffering enormous physical pain.

As Professor Lu put it in his article, the brutality, the complete loss of good human qualities and contempt for human life of the Red Guards were beyond comprehension.

Lu also wrote about the misery of the peasants during the great famine as a result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward economic policies.

In one of the articles, he wrote that at the height of the famine, starving peasants would just eat raw any field rat or snake they caught and drink their blood.

The “Memories” series did not touch on major political issues of the Cultural Revolution, nor did it deal with the power struggles within the party leadership.

However, by telling the small stories of the common people, the series offered us a rare glimpse into how the average individual was dehumanized by political frenzy and hatred during that decade-long disaster.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 11.

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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