The Cultural Revolution, 1966 to 1976, in China led by Mao Zedong left an indelible mark on the memory of those who survived that dark and terrible moment in the country’s history. Both victims and perpetrators keep in their hearts the suffering caused by a movement that used the youngest as a tool of terror to persecute, torture, and murder 1.5 million people.

The disaster of the Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962 tried to lead an agricultural-based society to an industrial and modern one. This spawned the “Great Chinese Famine,” and weakened Mao’s power in political circles. To return to being the helmsman, he promoted a great reform that would rid him of his detractors and place him once again at the top of his game. 

Mao claimed that the country was being corrupted by insufficiently revolutionary individuals, and that the only way forward was to find those traitors.

He wrote, “They will take power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” And thus began a bloody class struggle.

The slogan was to destroy “the Four Ancients,”—old ideas, old cultures, old customs and old habits that, according to Mao, were fostered by rich exploiters to poison the minds of the people.

The young people responded fervently to the call and in a short time they formed the Red Guard.

With the protection and impunity granted by Mao, these youth groups became increasingly violent.

Demonstrating loyalty to Mao

On August 5, 1966, Liu Jin and Song Binbin were students at a high school reserved for the children of the Communist Party elite. Song is the daughter of one of the CCP founders, Song Renqiong.

After Mao dissolved the work teams for a lack of “revolutionary fire,” the two young Red Guards remained as authorities within the school. Under his orders, the Red Guards began to stigmatize teachers they considered class enemies and subjected them to critique sessions. They fired those with questionable backgrounds and detained Bian Zhongyun , 50, deputy principal and Party secretary at the school.

She was accused of several crimes, such as not knowing how to hang a portrait of Mao in case of an earthquake or not giving the daughter of President Liu Shaoqi another chance to improve her exam mark.

Girls from the first year of class organized the punishment called a struggle session.

As she was forced to shout “I am a supporter of the capitalist way. I am a counter-revolutionary revisionist. I deserve to be beaten,” Bian was brutally kicked and beaten with sticks and chair legs.

At 7 p.m. on August 5, 1966, Bian stopped moving. Liu said, “Her face was covered in bruises, she had gotten dirty, and her clothes were soaked in blood.” Both students took the teacher’s body in a car to a nearby hospital. The doctors refused to treat an “enemy of the people.” A teacher steeled himself and signed a waiver so that she could be treated, but it was too late. It was the first assassination by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Thirteen days after, Song Binbin became famous throughout China for putting a Red Guard armband on Mao during a rally in Tiananmen Square.

Mao, noticing that the young woman’s name means “elegant and refined,” encouraged her to be more martial, so the young woman was renamed Song Yaowu (to be militant). A perfect opportunity for the CCP propaganda machine to continue exploiting the fervor and fanaticism of young people to Mao.

During the Cultural Revolution, thousands of young people wearing red armbands and military uniforms publicly beat and humiliated neighbors and teachers, calling them traitors to the CCP. Temples were destroyed and the monks were forced to abandon the holy places while being insulted and violated by the horde of young fanatics.

Yu Xiangzhen, a former Red Guard, said in a report, “We all share the belief that we would die to protect Chairman Mao.”

He added, “Although it might be dangerous, that was absolutely what we had to do. I had been taught that Chairman Mao was closer to us than our moms and dads. Without Chairman Mao, we would have nothing.”

Between August and September 1966 1,772 people were killed in Beijing.

Seeking forgiveness

After the dissolution of the Red Guard, Song lost her revolutionary drive and decided to emigrate to the United States in the early 1980s. She earned a master’s degree in geochemistry from Boston University and later a doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She worked for the U.S. government as an environmental analysis officer at the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency, became a U.S. citizen and lived in the US during these years.

Song returned to China in 2014 and at a press conference publicly apologized to the family of murdered Deputy Principal Bian Zhongyun.

In front of the bronze bust commemorating the victims at Beijing University High School, Song shed tears and said, “I am responsible for the unfortunate death of President Bian.”

She went on, “I was afraid of being criticized for preventing violence. It’s true that’s why I didn’t try harder.”

Wang Jingyao, Bian’s husband, an eminent professor at the Academy of Sciences, did not accept the apology. Meantime, he waits for the day when a museum on the Cultural Revolution opens, so that he can donate the photos he took of his wife’s battered body on the day of her death along with her belongings.

Wang Keming, a former Red Guard who traveled across the country to apologize to the man he hurt during the revolution, said, “Hatred possessed us: Wherever our eyes landed, we saw enemies. When such a generation is thrown into a turbulent age, they persecute others, or become persecuted themselves, or become brainwashed … However, when they are able to look back at history and denounce the hate education they received, the ‘Party nature’ gives way to human nature.”

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