Unsettling old scores
Encouraged to speak out against party injustices and denounced as 'rightists' for doing so, many Chinese suffered years of torment under Mao's brutal policies. In the first of a two-part series on the lasting effects of social engineering projects initiated in the 1950s, Oliver Chou meets three musicians who survived their indictments
Pak, who has just turned 80, was one of 550,000 so-called “rightists” accused of “launching a ferocious offensive” on the Communist Party during the fateful summer of 1957. Instigated by Mao Zedong, the campaign followed seemingly genuine calls by the leadership for criticisms that might help to “rectify the party”. For nearly two months, discussions were organised at work units across the country and criticisms put on record. Then Mao pounced, calling his tactics “an overt conspiracy” that lured “the snakes out of their holes”.
The ensuing anti-rightist campaign set the tone for the young People’s Republic and changed forever the lives of all those forced to put on a “rightist hat”. Harvard University professor Roderick MacFarquhar, in his three-volume series The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, argues that the 1957 campaign led directly to subsequent politically motivated campaigns, including the Great Leap Forward, during which at least 20 million people were killed, and the decadelong Cultural Revolution, in which perhaps as many died and millions more suffered.
The term “rightist” – as in the opposite of “leftist” – sometimes included critics who, ironically, saw themselves as being to the left of the government, but officially referred to intellectuals who appeared to favour capitalism and were against socialism. Musicians such as Pak were prominent among them.
Some rightists have managed to rehabilitate themselves – retired premier Zhu Rongji and former minister of culture Wang Meng, a famous writer, among them. But for most of the 10,000 to 20,000 who are still alive around the world, the scars remain raw – for them and their families.
“Nineteen fifty-seven was the year I got married,” says Pak, who made a living as a piano teacher in Hong Kong after having left Beijing in 1982. “I was 24, and Chiu Ling-ming, my wife, was three years younger.
“We picked August 1, Army Day, for our wedding, because we loved the party and the People’s Liberation Army. By then I had already heard something was going to happen to me. But I believed in justice and thought I had nothing to fear,” he says.
Within days, Pak, then the principal clarinettist of the Central Philharmonic Orchestra, the country’s top ensemble, was accused of “stirring up a general strike”. The charge was based on a comment he made after he posted a letter on a wall asking the orchestra’s party cell to respond to a complaint of his.
“It was in the canteen and I casually said, ‘If there is no reply by next week, let’s quit.’ That turned out to be proof of my rightist deeds. To make matters worse, the person in charge of my case was an orchestra colleague whom I had turned in for misbehaviour a few years earlier. So my fate was fixed,” Pak recalls.
“Many marriages ended in divorce because of a rightist indictment,” says Chiu. “Many people advised me to leave Pak for another man, given my young age. But I knew who I was with and stayed with him regardless.”
Pak was stripped of his orchestra duties, albeit temporarily.
“I was sent to a Beijing suburb for a few months of labour in the fields,” he says. “That was a relatively light sentence; I think they needed me in the orchestra because of a lack of clarinettists. The USSR State Symphony Orchestra was about to arrive, and the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China was forthcoming and there were a lot of official concerts to show off the achievements of New China.
“But whenever a political campaign was on the horizon, we rightists would be the first to get hit. I often spent time in the fields or in the coal mines and, in 1959, refining steel, after Chairman Mao called on the nation to overtake Britain and the United States in steel production.”
It was while he was working at a steel factory on the outskirts of the capital that Pak and Chiu’s first child was born.
“I was in my early 20s and I was all by myself in Beijing – and knew nothing about childbirth,” says Chiu, who is the youngest of four siblings from a Chongqing family. “It was near dawn when I went into labour and I packed a few things and took a bus to the hospital. Ling was born a few hours later,” she says. Pak wouldn’t see his daughter for a month.
“I still feel very bad for not being with Ling-ming during the delivery.
When I arrived home, it pained my heart to see my baby girl for the first time,” Pak says, his eyes moist with tears. Pak named the child Ling, after the first character of his wife’s given name.
When the couple’s second child, a boy, was born, in 1966, Pak had once again been put to work away from home.
“When I arrived from Lantian, Shaanxi province [where he’d been involved in a ‘socialist education campaign’] in the summer of 1966, Ming was already three months old,” he says. “Ming” came from the second character of his wife’s given name.
IF PAK CONSIDERED HIS A light sentence, colleague Chan Wing-tin was not so lucky. In 1957, the oboist heeded the party call and joined in the criticisms by accusing the orchestra’s general office of factionalism.
“Those people were prejudiced against some of us, and I spoke on behalf of my buddies, exposing to the party the injustice we saw in the administration. After all, to help rectify the ranks is what we were asked to do,” Chan, now 81, recalls.
His comments were used to “prove” he was attacking the party and he, also, was labelled a rightist. He was downgraded by two ranks, which meant a lower salary (it fell from 98 yuan to 72.50 yuan per month) and fewer benefits. He was stripped of his Communist Youth League membership and sent to serve in the northern-most labour camp, in Heilongjiang province, which borders Russia.
He would be apart from his wife and infant daughter for three years.
“Beidahuang was the coldest and the most deserted part of China.
The temperature could drop to minus-30 degrees Celsius and there was no heat whatsoever. There I was, at Farm 850, with more than 10,000 rightists from all sectors. There was a moment when I felt so hopeless I cried and screamed out loud, ‘Oh party, I have done nothing against you! I am innocent!’ I think a part of me died there,” Chan says.
When the political climate thawed slightly, in 1960, Pak and Chan were told their rightist status had been repealed and they had been reinstated to the orchestra. However, Chan could no longer play many notes because he couldn’t stop his hands from trembling, after so many years spent in the bitter cold.
Worse, the stigma remained; they became known as “reinstated rightists”, and their children “reinstated rightist children”.
“We were second-class or even third-class citizens, and were looked down on by others, even after our rightist hats were removed,” says Pak.
“For example, I would never get to play the best instrument, but always a substandard clarinet.”
“Our children faced prejudice as early as kindergarten, although they were too young to understand it,” says Chiu. “But we as parents felt very bad.
“The school was worried about being accused of providing a platform for rightist children, but Ling was the school’s best violinist. That often put the school in a dilemma,” says Chiu, adding that the little girl would be forbidden from rehearsing for performances in which she’d be a soloist.
Ling, who would go on to become a violinist with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for two decades, remembers little of that time.
“Even if there were unpleasant moments between me and the other kids, I was so little that I thought of it as normal,” she says.
Her brother, however, remembers.
“My parents were very stern and always kept us inside,” says Ming.
“All we did was practise the violin and nothing else,” recalls the former Hong Kong Philharmonic viola principal. “Father disciplined me in a very physical way, and I got beaten not by his hand but by the rod in his hand. Sometimes the bruise lasted a week. If the same thing happened today, someone would report it to the police,” he says.
“I didn’t care about myself being badmouthed or despised, but not my children,” says Chiu. “We kept them at home in fear that the other kids would bully them for being rightist children.”
“We adults were doomed and had no future, so we placed all our hopes on our children,” says Pak. “That’s why, when they were lax in practising, I got very mad. But every time after I beat them, I felt very bad.
“I think, without the rightist curse, I would have been more psychologically balanced.”
“His rightist verdict deprived him of peace of mind, and that’s why he was easily provoked and vented his anger on us,” says Ming. “The lack of inner peace haunts him even now, and my daughter sometimes takes [a verbal assault] from the old man.”
FOR YANG BAO-ZHI, who was childless, it was his parents who would bear the brunt of his being labelled a rightist.
“The year I was branded a rightist was the year I graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music, in Tianjin. My parents were senior staff there; my mother was with the primary school and my father was in charge of recordings and other reference sources at the library,” the 77-year-old violin teacher and composer says. “As the eldest son and an active student – I was chief of military and sports at the student union – my rightist label came very hard for my parents.
“I didn’t take it seriously at first, thinking the political wind would last a month at the most. But it turned out to be 22 years.”
Yang was lucky; he was “rescued” by a visiting official from the Chongqing Municipal Song and Dance Ensemble, who recognised his talent and offered to “re-educate” him.
“So I was freed from labour in the paddy fields and worked in the Chongqing ensemble, although that meant I had to leave my parents to go to the city.”
Shortly after he left, the family was dealt a second blow. Yang’s father was also branded a rightist, and was downgraded three levels. From his role as head of the library, he was demoted to being an ordinary staff member, and his salary dropped to 96 yuan from 128 yuan.
“My father was very close to the conservatory director Ma Sicong, who, like us, was from Guangdong. I think we were protected by Ma, who was under fire himself. Although my mother was not directly affected and kept her senior position at the primary school, she was heartbroken to see two of the family of four branded rightists.”
Yang believes he was responsible for implicating his father, although the quota system whereby each unit of the workforce had to yield a certain number of rightists (generally understood to be 5 per cent) would have played a part.
“When the party invited criticism, I, as an activist, did say something critical about my father, and reported it to the Communist Youth League, of which I was a member to show my progressive attitude.
No one knew how the turn of events would unfold, but it turned out most of the active members, including the league’s chief, would be labelled rightists. After that, everyone kept their mouth shut and did not trust anyone,” he says.
His parents were not angry with him, says Yang, but they did become very careful about what they said to him. That was to prove fairly easy, however; for almost five years Yang did not see them. It was not until 1962 that the family were reunited. By then, both father and son had had their charges dropped.
It was a respite – but it was not to last.
In 1966, Mao initiated the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which lasted for a decade, until his death. The five categories of people targeted first were landlords, capitalists, counter-revolutionaries, criminals and rightists. So Pak, Chan and Yang once again became targets, to varying degrees (in fact, many of the rightists who had survived up to then suffered less during the Cultural Revolution, perhaps because they had been mentally toughened by past experiences).
“We were the targets of surveillance and, in the official language, ‘put into use under supervision’,” says Chan.
Since the Central Philharmonic Orchestra was designated a “model troupe”, enlisted as part of the People’s Liberation Army with Jiang Qing, better known as Madame Mao, as its boss, Pak and Chan had some level of protection.
“Jiang came to hear us play late one evening,” says Chan. “She wanted to check the sound of each instrument and, when it was my turn, I played her a tune on the English horn. The next morning, she arranged for us to hear a Peking opera with a modern theme, and that became our signature revolutionary symphony, titled Shajiabang.”
Says Pak: “There was one performance at the Great Hall of the People, for which the entire orchestra rehearsed in the morning. When we were all waiting in the van in the evening, with our instruments, in our outfits and ready to go, a guy came on board and asked me to leave.
There was no reason given but I suspect my rightist background made me persona non grata. So, in front of everyone, I, in full uniform, left the van. That’s the way they liked to inflict insult.”
In Chongqing, Yang endured insults hurled at mass rallies and, forbidden from teaching “for fear of poisoning the young”, he was demoted to instrument repair man and stage janitor.
“My parents were very fortunate to have moved back to Guangzhou in 1965, just before the Cultural Revolution,” he says, adding, “That was a life-saver. For me, life in Chongqing was definitely safer than in Beijing.
“As I tuned the violins I was working on, I played every now and then a tune of my own composition, including those using avant-garde techniques. No one could tell the difference between tuning and the playing of those works anyway.”
No one, that is, except a teenage boy who watched and listened. From 1971 to 1976, Guo Wenjing practised his violin and studied composition with Chongqing’s only Central Conservatory graduate.
“Yang Bao-zhi is my mentor and I learned music from him,” says Guo, now professor of composition at Yang’s alma mater and described by The New York Times as “perhaps the only Chinese composer who has established an international career without having lived outside China for an extended period.”
WITH THE ARREST OF Madame Mao and the rest of the Gang of Four in 1976, the Cultural Revolution came to an end. As China emerged from the turmoil, there were a lot of old scores to settle. The party issued the 11th and 55th documents in 1978 to “restore those incorrectly indicted” for being rightists. Both Pak and Chan received copies of the 1957 files detailing their “wrongdoing”, which had been redefined as “proper” and “in accordance with democratic principles”.
“At least we were real rightists,” says Pak. “I heard of cases where individuals had been branded as rightists but the authorities failed to find the original file with the charge, or produced a file that was totally blank. In other words, they had suffered for 20 years without an official verdict.
“Some did not live to find that out. You can see how absurd the whole thing was.”
In 1979, Yang’s case was closed. The Central Conservatory personnel office returned his file, stating that the remarks he made in 1957 were “neither anti-party nor anti-socialism”. But it was not until 1984 that he returned to his alma mater in Beijing, where he resumed teaching the violin and research before moving to Hong Kong in 1995.
“My father was from Hong Kong, and I attended Pui Ching Primary School in the 1940s. So, after some 40 years, I was glad to make it back here and focus on my violin composition and teaching, undisturbed,” he says, from his new Sha Tin home, which he shares with his wife.
Pak and Chan have lived in Hong Kong since the early 1980s. Pak continues to coach piano students and Chan chairs at least four organisations that promote cross-border cultural exchange.
Chan’s son and daughter have settled overseas, his wife having joined the latter in Los Angeles. Pak’s daughter lives in Hong Kong but his son, Ming, has returned to teach in Beijing, where the story of rightists began 55 years ago.
“The scene of the freezing cold still haunts me in nightmares,” says Chan, in a later interview. “I had a very bad dream the day I told you my story.
“I guess once you are a rightist, you’re always a rightist. It stays with you for life.”
Yang Bao-zhi’s latest opus, the Yangtze River Violin Concerto, will be featured in a two-CD set of his works to be released next year.