Shenandoah Volume 68, Number 1
Volume 68, Number 1 · Fall 2018

Picture Postcards from the Cultural Revolution

1.

 

The biology professor’s bicycle got a flat three blocks from the university. He had thought that was the nadir of his day, but the bicycle, his faithful companion since he had been fourteen years old, had been trying to tell him something.

At fourteen, he had ridden that bicycle away full speed from three bullies who, out of breath, had diverted into Beijing and stumbled into Kuomintang uniforms. The uniforms started marching with their limbs trapped inside, and they kept marching until they died in a jungle. Ten years later, the bicycle had spirited him away from a marriageable girl. This excellent match went on to marry a friend of his named Wu Xian. Some years later, she grew so preoccupied making love to the butcher’s assistant that she forgot the pot on the stove, burning down the house of bespectacled and gentlemanly Wu, who deserved better.

That would have been me, thought Professor Shin each morning as he trimmed his gray nose hairs, if it hadn’t been for my trusty bicycle! And in fact it had whisked him safely into middle-aged bachelorhood, doing a fine job dodging Japanese bomb craters, mortar rockets, and bumblebee-sized bullets on the winding, barbwire-lined bicycle path over the decade-long abyss that began in 1940. The bicycle had foreseen everything and seen him through.

So the bicycle knew what was waiting for him at the university. Powerless to change his direction, what with his hands fixed so obliviously on the handlebars, the bicycle had feigned rolling over a broken bottle and popped its own tire.

Professor Shin pedaled harder for a while and finally walked his bicycle through the university gate. His students were waiting for him. One of them took his bicycle from his hands, and he was astonished at this politeness. The students had been exceptionally surly of late, always engaged in political chatter, calling each other’s family backgrounds out. “My grandfather took a scythe to sorghum while your grandfather was busy being a lickspittle capitalist”—that kind of thing.

What surprised Professor Shin even more was which student relieved him of the bicycle. Bao had scored poorly on the past few quizzes, and Professor Shin had wanted to seat him closer to the front—so the student could pay more attention, and the professor could gauge whether his lecture had lost its hold on the sorghum-farmer’s grandson. Bao did so much fingernail nibbling and spitting that Professor Shin would have needed an umbrella. This morning, though, Bao was unusually confident. He pedaled Professor Shin’s bicycle a few feet, leapt off as though the seat had bitten his rear, and shouted: “This thing is a piece of foreign trash!”

“Actually, Bao Di, it just got a flat,” said Professor Shin. “Otherwise it has been rolling along nicely since before you were born. I ask you to please pick it back up.”

The students waited a beat and charged him. In a dreamlike, expanded interval between his last words and the first hands on his shirt and hair, Professor Shin checked his fob watch and noticed that he was almost late, that these students should have been waiting in their seats right now, their professor rushing in as the bell rang, slipping off his cap before taking roll call…

Bao and his fellow students—shouting something their teacher could not make out because they shouted it so close to his ear (an interesting feature of human hearing, he thought briefly)—manhandled Professor Shin to the center of the courtyard. There he saw Professor Xie and Professor Han, both of these women in a very odd position, bent sharply at the waist with their arms forced high behind them. A broom had been lodged between Professor Xie’s arms and her back to keep the position. Professor Han was being held in that position manually while another janitor’s closet, on the far side of campus, was ransacked. Each professor had a placard around her neck, its lettering done with bold and childlike strokes. The placards professed their counter-revolutionary ideology. The women twisted their heads to look up at Professor Shin. It was a hot day; a drop of sweat fell from Professor Han’s nose.

“Jet plane!” shouted Bao. “Jet plane!”

Professor Shin wondered if he could offer these students some work for extra credit—an open-book test, for example, nothing that would require them to tax themselves, an easy and perfectly ethical way for students like Bao to bring their grades up. Professor Shin even had a moment of repentance about the amounts of mindless memorization he demanded. Did he himself know the Latin name of the hermit crab at that age? And didn’t they have a point about the fundamentally foreign nature of taxonomic classifications? And wasn’t it an outmoded, feudal way of thinking that forced animals—and, implicitly, humans—into a hierarchy, even if that hierarchy made biological sense? Professor Shin questioned his entire chosen field of study in the expanded moment between the first shove of his head and the final garlanding with his own placard.

He could not see what the placard said, but unexpectedly a photographer showed up, a grown woman who seemed very beautiful under her factory worker’s shirt and pants and her cap with a single star over the visor. She knelt and took a photograph of the three professors, and he read, reversed and distorted in her lens, with unnatural clarity, that he was a cog in the capitalist machine who hated the revolution. Two more professors, one of calculus, one of literature, joined the squadron of professors in the jet-plane position, their cracked and crooked bodies a squadron of fixed-wing, locked-arm aircraft in formation, their heads jerked back by the hair for the camera, their nervous intestines threatening to put on a burst of speed behind them, their nose cones dripping sweat as they flew stationary at top speed into the revolution, face first into the great wall of China’s future.

▴ ▴ ▴

2.

The principal, Mr. Liang, was sitting at his desk, observing his school’s fleet of new jet planes from his window. His hands, as though performing a shell game, moved around four identical aluminum badges of the Chairman, endlessly swooping them into one another’s positions. All this had gotten out of hand, true, but before, when he had had a chance to stop it, it had not been out of hand, so he certainly could not be blamed. And didn’t he agree with every last slogan the students were shouting? If it wouldn’t have looked awkward, and perhaps driven a wedge between himself and his professors, he might have added his voice to theirs. Wasn’t he one of them? Just a generation ago, his family had slapped dung patties on the sides of their houses and shoveled dirt all day to amuse the capitalists. They had gotten sniped at for poaching luminous tangerine foxes off the fields of their feudal bourgeois landlords. The students knew this; they could sense a fellow proletarian revolutionary in Mr. Liang.

And if they had any doubt, he had the Chairman badges to prove it. One by one, he placed them on his chest now, as deliberately as electrocardiogram leads. They were talismans against what was going on down there.

He had been warned that this would happen the previous Tuesday, when the students chased Professor Xin into his office. It was a miracle that Professor Xin, who was only eight months away from retirement, could manage to escape the students, who were so much younger than he was, and unencumbered with chemistry textbooks. Professor Xin had closed the door behind him, chest heaving. In the frosted glass over his shoulder, Mr. Liang could see the silhouettes of raised fists, but the slogans were curiously muted. In fact, an air of serenity had been preserved in Mr. Liang’s office.

“They are after me,” said Professor Xin, somewhat redundantly.

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

Mr. Liang pointed behind him. “They are only children—simple children. They must have a reason.”

“Their reason…?” Professor Xin had run upstairs carrying the textbook, his finger marking his page. The textbook looked enormous against his slight body. Now he slipped his knobby knuckle out and let the book shut and his place vanish. “They say I am part of a black gang,” he explained, “aiming to undermine the revolution and seize power.”

The students outside surged in volume and pounded on the door, as if they sensed they had been mentioned. Mr. Liang nodded. It was hard to think of stooped and hairless old Professor Xin as seizing anything but chalk to draw a double bond, but the students saw the world in terms of people born red, revolutionary, or born black, bourgeois. Mr. Liang had the privilege of having been born red, so he would be spared any shearing of his hair, or any ransacking of his office, which he always kept very orderly. Yet this new pounding on the door, if it spread to the frosted-glass portion, might shatter it and fill his room with shards.

Mr. Liang, after gesturing Professor Xin to a seat in front of his desk, opened his office door and raised his hand. The students went quiet. He wondered whether he should make his hand into a fist, wondered whether that would get cheers from the students, but he decided against it. The students began speaking individually, demanding Professor Xin, like children eager for candy. Mr. Liang smiled benevolently and nodded at this comfortingly familiar behavior. One finger, raised, silenced them again, and he marveled at his own power and authority over them. He said, “Send someone in to make your case to me personally.”

The student leader was not one he recognized—there were so many, and they all dressed in the same uniform, it was quite impossible to keep track of them all—and when the youth spoke, Mr. Liang questioned whether he was a student at all, since the youth’s voice sounded husky with cigarettes, and he had three days of a grown man’s scruff on his face, and he even wore a wristwatch. Yet he wore the same uniform as the students, and the wristwatch, as Mr. Liang noticed now, was actually just a small color portrait of the Chairman, looking to the left, the same as the ones Mr. Liang himself was wearing. He should get one of those, thought Mr. Liang, to replace his own wristwatch, which insisted on the time in a highly bourgeois manner.

The student leader kept glancing at Professor Xin as he made his case. This case was a set of well-known phrases combined rather haphazardly. Fortunately, the phrases were all-purpose and multi-use, requiring only minimal grammatical modulations. They could be strung together in any order. Rightist conspirators could engage in counter-revolutionary sabotage, or counter-revolutionary saboteurs could engage in rightist conspiracies. Traitors within the revolution could sympathize with the feudal past, or sympathies with the feudal past could betray the revolution. The potential combinations were far more flexible than Professor Xin’s ions, which paired off in highly selective ways. The student leader pointed at Professor Xin and finished with a rapid-fire set of accusations. Then he snapped his heels to attention and bowed deeply, which Mr. Liang found gratifying.

Mr. Liang looked at Professor Xin for a few moments. He cleared his throat. “Do you have anything to say, Professor?”

Professor Xin shrugged. “Only about half the children are acting up. The other half are just going along with it because they are afraid.”

“We are not children,” said the student leader. “We are soldiers of revolution, and we are of one mind. Chairman Mao Zedong said: ‘To rebel is justified.’ We will not be spoken to in this condescending and bourgeois manner.”

“I am not a difficult teacher. I work to make everything easy. It is the subject that is difficult.” Professor Xin smiled vaguely. “For some.”

The student leader balled his fists at his sides. Mr. Liang was about to raise his hand and make a conciliatory gesture, a fatherly closing of his eyes and nodding of his head, but the student leader knocked Professor Xin’s head on its shiny bald top. The old man seemed untroubled by it, almost amused; he had spent time in a Japanese camp, under the imperial flag, where four-foot-three strongmen in bandannas and jackboots swung knives as long as their own thighs and whipped captives in the noon sun before running off to masturbate over Hokusai calendars. Professor Xin pointed over his shoulder with a contemptuous thumb, making eye contact with Mr. Liang.

“After me,” he said, “you.”

Mr. Liang, glancing at the student leader, said loudly enough, he hoped, that the students could hear: “Are you refusing to defend yourself against these accusations?”

“Am I in court? If I am being judged, where is the evidence?”

“You are in a secondary school,” Mr. Liang clarified, not to assure the professor he wasn’t being judged, but to explain why there was no need for evidence. Another glance passed between Mr. Liang and the student leader. Nothing was said. Mr. Liang would have preferred it if the student leader had said something out loud; that way, the principal might have gotten full credit. The student leader understood the capitulation. He rushed to the office door and opened it. The students trampled into the office, knocking over a bookcase and jostling several precisely calibrated pens on Mr. Liang’s desk. They dragged the old man out and down the stairs.

In the courtyard, they shaved his head with an old razor someone had brought from home. When they were done, they put him in the jet-plane position, poured hot vinegar on his scalp, and placed a placard full of spelling mistakes around his neck. The other professors watched from their empty classrooms or from the edges of the courtyard.

Mr. Liang watched at first too, but soon turned away. He had to set his office back in order.

▴ ▴ ▴

3.

Chun Meimei had the good fortune to have been born red. She did a lot of chanting that whole week, but she felt nothing. She was always suspicious that the falseness and lack of enthusiasm in her voice would come through. It sounded obvious enough to her. Everybody else was full of love for the revolution and hatred for the revisionists who threatened it. Everybody else was thinking Mao-Zedong-thought.

This, more than anything, was her problem. Chun had never thought anything but Chun-Meimei-thought. Every little thought she thought was Chun’s, even the trivial ideas, especially the trivial ideas, so when it came to big ideas, her mind had no experience accommodating someone else’s thought.

Chun tensed her whole body and threw her arm into the air as she stood up and gave a speech to her fellow students saying everything she thought they were already thinking. The whole time, the only thought she herself was thinking was a Chun-Meimei-thought: They’re going to see right through this and put me in the jet-plane position. Every so often, she felt a Chun-Meimei-regret about this or that obviously over-the-top pronouncement.

But the students didn’t notice anything! Or if they did, they were so convinced everyone else believed her that they didn’t dare admit they didn’t believe her. The Red Guard members in her class stood up and applauded her speech. She returned to the crowd, waiting for it to turn on her, but the next speaker had already gotten up.

This speaker began to imitate Chun as closely as he could. He tracked her dramatic and at times awkward hand movements (pointing at an imaginary capitalist, shaking a fist at the bourgeois sky) and adopted the crack in her voice on the first syllable of lickspittle. There were at least half a dozen things, broad strokes and nuances, that Chun recognized from her own performance moments ago. Chun’s speech had successfully pleased the other students, and it made sense to replicate it. The students applauded him too, and as he returned to his safe facelessness in the mob, she looked at him knowingly, a comrade in falsehood.

Singing started up, and she sang at the top of her lungs. So did everyone else. But as she checked other students’ eyes—might there be some external detail about intense conviction she could imitate?—she noticed their eyes checking everyone else’s, including her own. When she made eye contact, both sets of eyes dropped at the same time. Were they checking up on her, or did they think she was checking up on them? Were they looking for cues to refine their imitation of intense conviction, or were they looking for signs of the lack of intense conviction?

The game was complex and full of risk. The safest thing was to stare straight ahead and belt out these political songs at the top of her lungs. So that is what Chun did, and all the other students seemed to reason the same way.

The only hard part of the masquerade came when she had to beat Professor Shin. After he was released from the jet-plane position, they all had to take a turn beating him with a club. She came from a proud, you could almost say an elite proletarian background, the men with jowls and coarse hair, the women with muscular arms and wombs of shoe leather. So she could really crack some ribs if she wanted to. The question was, did she want to? Ever since her speech, which had become the gold standard in her school for sincerity and revolutionary passion, more was expected of her. Over the past week, not entirely against her will, she had become a student leader, rising to a position of prominence, you could almost say dominance, over her proletarian equals. She felt safe faking superior devotion to the Chairman, and other students felt safe mirroring her superior devotion. They stayed above reproach as long they all did and said the same things; their fellow students could not turn on them that way.

So when Professor Shin knelt in the school courtyard, the club came to Chun very early. She had to imitate giving the professor a sound drubbing. If she failed now that the singing and speechifying were over, if she failed now when her revolutionary ferocity was put to the test of action, her bluff would be exposed. Her imitators would feel obligated to turn on her, if only to protect their own standing in the student body. So she had to make this look real.

But how can you create the illusion of a beating if the professor being beaten isn’t in on it? The witnesses were standing in so tight a circle that they would detect any self-restraint at once. The only way to ensure her own survival was to beat the old professor for real. Not wholeheartedly, rather with detachment and pity; but the blows would have to fall as if she truly believed he was a capitalist agent out to restore private enterprise and the exploitation of workers.

So Chun Meimei, not thinking Mao-Zedong-thought but not quite thinking Chun-Meimei-thought either, let her cow-milking, sorghum-scything arms think for themselves. She spread her childbearing thighs and engaged her broad peasant back, the image of student fervor, of Mao-Zedong-thought in action. She could have been felling a tree to clear a continent. She could have been cranking a lever to push the nation’s production far beyond the United States or Britain.

Chun was only vaguely aware of the photographer to her left because Chun’s sweat had triggered an ancestral satisfaction in honest, physical labor. For the first time, as the old professor’s bones cracked under her blows, she felt exhilarated. This was what she had been supposed to feel when shouting slogans and singing revolutionary songs. She wasn’t pretending anymore! She felt relief and a sense of safety. She wanted to sob with joy and gratitude to the old professor, whom she had never had in class but from whom she had learned, nonetheless, so much. When she dropped the club, no one took it up. In the mound of wet and lumpy clothes at her feet, there was nothing left to beat.

▴ ▴ ▴

4.

Record this, thought the photographer Zhen, capture this, take this down.

The students were bringing out the principal now. He was desperately trying not to be frog marched out of his office, skipping and shuffling ahead, as though he had joined arms with the students to either side of him to stride forward together into the ideologically purified future. But they had their fists in the air and were shouting, while poor Mr. Liang, in spite of his four Mao badges, was reasoning at the ruckus.

The female students had formed a corridor. This was a fine image. Zhen centered herself and knelt to increase the stature of the girls, and to give the perspective of someone being forced to crawl on all fours through this corridor. The students had been getting inventive as the day of tortures wore on. Maybe it was to avoid boredom, but she couldn’t help but wonder whether they were performing for her now, collaborating with her to create and preserve striking images.

Zhen had their total trust. Her dress, tastefully drab with a single star pin on the cap and a single Mao badge, made her look like a Party operative working for the Party paper. She was careful not to put on any makeup, and not just to avoid any attention from the adolescent boys around her. An austere look was preferred for all the women of the Red Guards, and there were reports of Beijing’s stubbornly made-up women getting their faces smeared with melted lipstick, and in some instances, with feces. Fashion, elegance, cosmetic arts were all foreign now, Western incursions. Ancient Chinese women shaved off their eyebrows and painted them back on with black dai pigment; they dabbed golden powder over their foreheads, and used vermilion lipstick to paint their lips smaller than they really were. Those were aristocratic, oppressor-class women. Women of the working classes, then as now, were beige-lipped, glisteny with sweat, and sunburned.

Zhen’s mother had been a fashionable, aristocratic lady, once, and Zhen herself lived part of her life in that world. She fell in love with a student who loved Mao as much he loved her, and she left her family and her social class behind for him. In a few years, after he rose in the Party ranks, he abandoned her; he needed a wife of only the purest peasant stock. So Zhen returned to her origins and found her origins had been wiped out, the old house occupied by three extended families, its outhouses clogged and swallows nesting in its eaves, and a color portrait of the Chairman where once her late grandfather had beamed down at her.

Her ex had tried to sleep with her again, and she had let him, and either out of gratitude or to hush her up, he got her a job with the Party paper as a photographer. Her ex was now the Deputy Mayor of Beijing, and every Thursday night, he visited her in her apartment, bringing officially frowned-upon eye shadows and lipsticks and cases of rouge, all confiscated in raids on the homes of bourgeois agents of global capitalism. He smuggled lingerie and high heels in his briefcase. She tarted herself up for him, took them both to a foreign place and an era either far in the past or far in the future, but definitely not now. His eyes rested on the full palette of her like a man forced to live in a black-and-white movie but given a reprieve every Thursday evening for two hours. Before she came out to him, she took pictures of herself in the mirror, the camera held across her breasts. He took the lingerie and the makeup back with him to burn; if the items were ever found in her apartment, they would both end up incriminated.

But Zhen developed the pictures in her broom-closet darkroom, and she bicycled out into the country every weekend to bury them at foot of the same fir tree. In the darkening forest, she paged through these strange images of a beautiful whore. Then she tucked them away again in the rosewood lockbox, which she kept fragrant with a broken stick of incense.

Her official pictures, though, made it onto the front pages of Party newspapers. (And they were all Party newspapers now.) She filled rolls of film with what was happening around her, dressing plainly to blend in with a world forced into plainness. No one noticed her after a while. She let them do what they were doing, dodging in to get a snapshot and vanishing as her subject passed through the place she had been standing. She had photographed the Chairman and his wife. She had photographed the high Party officials, both formally and when they weren’t aware.

And now she was photographing students galvanized by the Chairman into turning on their teachers. She got a close-up of Mr. Liang getting his head shaven. When they brought the boiling water to scald his scalp, she captured the first splash and felt the sting of hot droplets on the back of her hand. She got a great shot of the bat with the nails (someone had modified the bat since earlier in the afternoon) plunging to make contact with Mr. Liang’s back. He had assumed the position, arms back and nearly vertical, rump thrust out, like someone in a medieval European pillory. Or a human jet plane. Mr. Liang’s face was scrunched in advance of contact, as though he had just bitten down on an unbearably sour lemon, and blood from his nicked scalp gathered and hung from his earlobes like rubies.

Later that evening, his agony bled through to the surface of Zhen’s photograph. The prints dripped in her darkroom, hung on a line with clothespins. Watching her day’s work with tears in her eyes, Zhen fingered the Mao badge on her lapel. So much aluminum went to make these billions of talismanic badges, her ex had whispered, that aircraft production had plummeted for want of materials. Instead, Zhen realized, the country had this surplus of human jet planes, flying sorties over hell.

Record this, thought Zhen, capture this, take this down. The scenes developed in sequence from earlier in the day. Today these may be scenes of righteousness, she thought, but someday soon, they’ll be seen for what they are. Because everyone dies, even an old man with his face on a billion aluminum badges, and people wake up from their frenzies and look around again with sober eyes at things as they are.

While Zhen stood in her darkroom, cordoned off from the mad city, her photographs grew more defined, more indelible. They were more exact than her memory, more eloquent than speeches, more permanent than radio broadcasts. They were picture postcards, addressed to no one, she was sending into the future.


Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, translator, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist. Majmudar’s latest book is Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018). Two novels, Sitayana and Soar, are forthcoming in India from Penguin Random House India in 2019, as well as a poetry collection in the United States, Kill List (Knopf, 2020). His prose has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017 and The Best American Essays 2018. He writes and practices in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife, twin sons, and daughter.