Thursday, March 28, 2013

China's Cultural Revolution: son's guilt over the mother he sent to her death

The Guardian (UK)
Tania Branigan
March 27, 2012.

Zhang Hongbing was 16 when he denounced his mother for criticising Chairman Mao. Now Zhang wants to make amends

They beat her, bound her and led her from home. She knelt before the crowds as they denounced her. Then they loaded her on to a truck, drove her to the outskirts of town and shot her.

Fang Zhongmou's execution for political crimes during the Cultural Revolution was commonplace in its brutality but more shocking to outsiders in one regard: her accusers were her husband and their 16-year-old child.

More than four decades on, Fang's son is seeking to atone by telling her story and calling for the preservation of her grave in their home town of Guzhen, central Anhui province, as a cultural relic.

Fang's plot is already hemmed in by buildings and a wall is rising behind it. Nearby streets are stacked with window frames, tiles and pallets of wood. Without official recognition, fears Zhang Hongbing, his mother's grave and story could soon be swept away – part of a wider, shadowed past that is fast disappearing.

"My mother, father and I were all devoured by the Cultural Revolution," said Zhang, 60, who is now a lawyer. "[It] was a catastrophe suffered by the Chinese nation. We must remember this painful historical lesson and never let it happen again."

 Zhang Hongbing holds a photo of his mother. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

Read the rest here.
Comment: I am deeply saddened by this tragic re-telling of events that took place under the so called Cultural Revolution in China.

If you have been reading here long enough you will know that I am a great believer in the purpose of confronting the past as a means of deriving a sense or reason for coming to terms.  Some may call such a confrontation a purposeful journey toward a truth or even a means of balancing.

Whatever it may mean to individuals, communities, even nations, confronting the past is not a panacea and the expectation of redemption and/or forgiveness should not be a central goal or even an expectation.

Zhang Hongbing was just a boy when he joined his father and condemned his mother for her resistance to Chairman Mao.  She was a brave woman and her resistance admirable.  In effect she died for what she believed and her stand was not in vain.

The fact that she was condemned by her closest is significant to the personal context here but it is incidental to the tragedy at a national level. 

I have read that thousands more suffered the same fate.  Keep in mind that Mao purged China of anyone even remotely resistant to his political interests.

People acquiesced and they were indoctrinated to act in ways which run counter to the more humanitarian impulse to live and let live.  See this Guardian article on artist Xu Weixin for more discussion on the intricacies of this point.

For Zhang Hongbin the confrontation is no doubt a recognition of the indoctrination that led him and his father to condemn his mother.  But it is no doubt a hollow or incomplete recognition because it offers no release.

It is perhaps for this reason that he is so adamant to hold onto the space where she is buried.  He does not want his mother to be swallowed up in death as she was in life - and in both cases by the state and its unbalanced politics.

It is here where he is likely to find the most meaning and reason toward coming to terms.  In death he is defending his mother and he is doing so as a man who is now 60 and fully aware of the imbalance that led her to an untimely death.

It will not be easy and there is no guarantee that he will reach any meaningful compromise with his past.

The circumstances of this story are gut wrenching and tragic.  Most of us will never know what turmoil runs through the being of Zhang Hongbin.

For this reason it is necessary to think carefully about the content and character of his confrontation before layering moral or other judgments because none of us can escape the challenge of living and making sense of life and its too often ugly circumstances.

In the many years that I have devoted to studying the purpose of confronting the past I have come to recognize that being human is an incomplete and frail condition at best and, therefore, the struggle to make sense of life never ceases and even extends beyond death.

Zhang Hongbin is struggling to raise the memory of his mother above the brutal politics that condemned her for not just being another indoctrinated follower.

In these terms his confrontation is about him and his inner turmoil but it is also mostly about his mother and her heroic resistance, her dignity and, consequently, her vindication.

Like Zhang Hongbin, we would do well to learn from his mother.


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