“My great grandma hid in a haystack while the Red Guard stole everything from her house and then burned it to the ground. “
“My great-uncle escaped from China to Hong Kong by swimming through shark-infested waters.”
“My grandparents walked all the way from Shanghai to Hong Kong with seven children. It took many months.”
“My grandma was a member of the Red Guard. She was accused of helping counterrevolutionaries and was arrested but she didn’t blame Mao Zedong. She loved him then and she still does.”
“The Red Guard tortured my great-grandpa by making him drink so much water he got all bloated and swollen. It was very painful. His crime was spelling a word wrong on a poster he made about Mao Zedong.”
“My great-grandpa committed suicide, because the Red Guard took away his business, his house and his family.”
“My grandpa and his family escaped to Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution and I am very glad they did, otherwise I might never have been born.”
I was assigned to teach grade five social studies when I first began working at an international school in Hong Kong. We were studying modern Chinese history and to help my students understand the turmoil-filled 1960’s I read them a novel called Red Scarf Girl by Ji Li Jiang. It is a first person account written by a woman who was eleven years old when the Cultural Revolution began in China.
The children readily identified with her since they were eleven years old too. Ms. Jiang’s family was tortured, abused and imprisoned because their ancestors had been rich landlords. There was no greater crime during the Cultural Revolution than having a family tree, which included a member of the upper class, especially a landowner.
After we finished reading the novel the students’ final assignment was to write a letter to the author. As I graded their work I was surprised how many of the kids had included stories they had heard from relatives who had lived in China during the revolution. The quotes above are all from my fifth grade students’ letters.
Another girl wrote, “My great-grandpa was a Chinese landlord too. The communists took away all of my great-grandfather’s land. His son, my grandpa, ran all the way to Hong Kong to escape. My grandpa’s brother stayed in China and joined the Communist Party.
One of the boys in my class talked about his aunt. “My aunt grew up in main land China and she was brainwashed to believe that Chairman Mao was some sort of immortal god. Instead of getting good schooling my aunt just learned propaganda about Chairman Mao. This ruined her life.”
Children in my class who were not Chinese but were of other Asian backgrounds wrote two of the most interesting letters. One girl said, “I am not Chinese. I am Korean. But I just want you to know that I am from South Korea not North Korea. I am not a communist!”
One of my students from Japan had a burning question she wanted to ask. “Do you hate Japanese people? I hope not because I am Japanese. I know my ancestors attacked China during World War II and were very mean to your people. But I know how sad you were to be blamed for your ancestors being landowners. I hope you won’t blame me for my ancestors being your enemies. I want to be your Japanese friend.”
Although I was supposed to be teaching my students modern Chinese history they were actually teaching me by sharing their unique family experiences and perspectives.