BEIJING — It was the height of the Cultural Revolution, but in the heart of China’s capital, in range of the prying eyes of foreign embassies, young Beijingers had embraced the tenets of capitalism.
Corrupted by dreams of profit, crowds of 500 or more were gathering every Sunday on a street in the city’s embassy district to ply a shameful trade. “They are learning how to do business and raise money,” one city official wrote darkly. “This is seriously harmful to the healthy growth of the successors of the proletariat revolution.”
Such was the state of affairs in 1966, when selling pigeons at an impromptu street market was seen as an obstacle to the triumph of socialism — and, the official added, as a waste of bird feed, too.
The records on the Beijing pigeon market, like thousands of other Cultural Revolution documents, lay silent for decades, deemed state secrets by a government hardly eager to highlight Mao’s excesses. But last year, China quietly opened the archives of selected declassified government files from that era, in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an.
And so a veil has begun to lift on this and other prosaic stories of the Cultural Revolution — some sad, some funny, most humdrum to an extreme.
The files of the Cultural Revolution, which raged from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976, make up a mere 16 of the 21,568 volumes that the Beijing Municipal Archives has made public in four separate releases — in 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2009. (The other files cover periods of Chinese history from 1906.) Stored in thick binders on library-style stacks, they can be viewed in the Municipal Archives building, a spacious, modern structure with overstuffed chairs and a scholarly atmosphere on the south side of the city.
The yellowing files give scant insight into those days’ atrocities: the denunciations of parents by children; the humiliation of intellectuals; the millions of lives ruined by Red Guards ordered to remake society through upheaval. Mao’s personality cult made him a living god, and armed violence broke out over his affections. Everything was politicized. Many committed suicide.
Today, that era has been all but obliterated from the official history of the People’s Republic, its horrors glossed over in history books. While many younger Chinese know that the country passed through a period of turmoil, scholars say, few have any idea of its wild extremes. Events that were “earth shattering have now turned into words with vague and sketchy meanings,” Chen Xiaojing, a Communist Party official from the time, wrote in a carefully hedged account of his experiences, “My Cultural Revolution Years.”
Why the government is releasing some documents from the era is unclear. Archive officials declined repeated requests for interviews. Experts say the files contain little if any material that government censors would regard as incendiary.
“For people like me who have been studying the Cultural Revolution as a profession, it’s better than having nothing at all,” said Xu Youyu, a historian and former researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “But the things I want to know are, for example, how many homes the Red Guards had gone to raid and what they took out of each home. There’s not a chance of finding those things in these documents.
“If you air these things out, people may start asking why it happened. And this is not a question that is directed only at 1966, but may be turned around and asked about the current situation in China.”
Yet a picture of Chinese life 40 and 50 years ago does emerge from the archives. The files, some nearly transparent and thin as one-ply tissue paper, include handwritten drafts of speeches, lists of production quotas, song lyrics, government regulations and minutes of groups that studied Mao’s words. The texts embrace the political rhetoric of the day, in which all problems were succinctly rendered into rhyming epithets.
The files apparently have been filtered for anything dealing with deaths and imprisonment, and they describe a country still fervently Communist, and unrecognizable today. They narrate the story of a country in the throes of madness, when “Mao Zedong thought” cured everything from truancy to traffic jams to agricultural chemistry to illegal pigeon sales.
Consider: records from 1972, taken at a grade school outside Beijing, show that math students were made to sing two revolutionary songs and study and discuss six Mao quotations for 25 minutes of each class. The remaining few minutes were spent doing math.
In 1967, a report urged forming special groups at the provincial and city levels to “use every conceivable means to guarantee production” each year of 13,000 tons of specially formulated red plastic — required for the covers of Mao’s “Little Red Book” of quotations.
“The Conference on the Situation of the Special Plastic Used by the Works of Chairman Mao” proclaimed that producing the plastic was “our glorious political responsibility.” To hold everyone accountable, the conference produced a chart with a month-by-month breakdown of production levels.
At times, the files veer perilously close to black, or perhaps red, comedy. In 1970, the annual Representative Conference of the Enthusiasts of Chairman Mao’s Works from the City Transportation Bureau studied rush-hour bottlenecks created because workers were required to arrive early to study Chairman Mao’s works. The bottlenecks, the workers concluded, were the work of “conservative rightists and selfish departmentalism and other mistaken ideas.”
Yet there are also oblique hints of more sinister processes at work.
Many reports began with anecdotes of selfless revolutionary fervor. In one of them, Liu Chunnong, a transportation security guard, recounted in 1968 how his dozen pet goldfish had been his pride and joy. After a party meeting, he said, he took the fish outside and buried them alive. Raising goldfish, he wrote, had been criticized as a petit bourgeois practice.
In a handwritten series of 1972 speeches, many of them heavily edited in pen, a teacher from Beijing’s outskirts recalled how his comrades “patiently and delicately” sought to reform a teacher who was not a worker, but a member of the wealthy class. Rounds of criticism had little effect, so the group chose to help him realize his mistakes through physical labor, by weeding farmland.
“He pulled grass,” the speech read. “At first, he was squatting, but he couldn’t handle it after two days. Then he pulled the grass while kneeling. Finally, he did it while crawling.”
Party censors excised the tale of the exhausted teacher from the final draft of the speech