November 23, 2019
China Change Interviews, No. 6
This interview of Hu Ping discusses the writing of “On Freedom of Speech,” a pamphlet he began writing in 1975 after returning from the countryside as sent-down youth, and the 1980 student elections at Peking University that happened at a time when China was making yet another sharp and tremulous turn in history.
I was born on August 5, 1947 in Beijing. Back then it was called Beiping; that’s how I got the “Ping” in my name. I have an older sister and a younger sister. My father was a country boy from Xuchang, Henan province. He was smart and conscientious, so his family provided an education for him. Later, he was admitted into the Central College of Politics for free. It was the Republic era, and after graduation, he was appointed to positions such as county governor and commissioner. In 1948, he joined the Guomindang’s army, but his unit switched sides in early 1949 and joined the People’s Liberation Army. So he became a PLA officer, probably a commander of a regiment or battalion, for a time stationed in Daye, Hubei province. It was about 1950 and my mother was pregnant with my younger sister. She went back to Beijing because they had a house there. But in 1952, during the Chinese Communist Party’s Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, my father was executed for his “historical problem,” being a previous regime’s officer.
That put my mother in a very difficult situation. She had studied statistics; before and for a while after marriage, she had been a statistician in various local governments, such as the Treasury Department of Shaanxi province. But she stopped working after becoming pregnant with me. Now her life in Beijing was difficult, so in 1955 my mother took me and my younger sister to Chengdu, Sichuan to be with her older brother, or our big uncle.
At the time, my uncle was a director at the Peking Opera Troupe in Chengdu. Before leaving Beijing, we had stayed with my second uncle’s family.
During the 1950s, the atmosphere was very different from subsequent years. In the 50s, your family background wasn’t especially scrutinized. As long as you were a good and obedient student, the teachers praised you. So none of us felt pressure for coming from a family of the “Five Black Types.” From kindergarten to middle school, I had always been a “three-virtue student,” “outstanding student” with no exception. We were pretty docile kids. I remember clearly that…. The kindergarten I attended was a very famous one in Beijing, the Fuxue Hutong Kindergarten, because my family lived in the neighborhood. Fuxue Hutong Kindergarten was where the famous Wen Tianxiang Shrine was located. When I graduated, the Kindergarten selected nine Model Children. I was one and among them the only boy, the rest were all girls. Needless to say, I was a very obedient child.
I went through elementary school and middle school smoothly, meaning that I was a diligent student and everyone around me was approving. Then in my third year of middle school, in 1963, I tried to join the Communist Youth League and submitted an application. The day before my application was due to be discussed by the Youth League Committee, my introducer, a teacher, found me and told me that it was shelved. He said they investigated my family background and found such and such problems, so it didn’t go through. It was at that point that I began to have a clearer picture of my father. I was very upset. I thought, you all know that I’ve been an outstanding student, why do you need to test me because of my family? The reason given for my application’s denial was that more testing was needed. I was of course very unhappy about it. I felt it was so unfair.
Worse things awaited me. After I took the high school entrance exams, my teachers told me that despite the fact that I was among the top few students in Chengdu, of the selective high schools that I chose in my application, none of them accepted me. Instead, I was assigned to one of the worst high schools in Chengdu, one that was also very far from my home. Among Chengdu’s Complete Secondary Schools, schools that had both middle and high schools, this school ranked last.
I was very, very upset being relegated to that school. I was very angry. I had been doing well all along, received this award and that award, because I had worked very hard. So I was outraged and felt mistreated. Just not fair. In the end I had no choice but to go to that school. At first it was all right, because I was a good student, and the teachers had high regards for me, recommending me for student cadet. But by 1964, the “class struggle” had become more and more emphasized, and the school increasingly discriminated against students based on family background.
By the time the Cultural Revolution started, it was further elevated to discrimination according to bloodline: You are a heroic son if you have a revolutionary father, you are a bastard if you have a reactionary father. In our school, class struggle debates sessions were held. It lasted for three and a half days, two and a half of them were devoted to criticizing me. I didn’t submit, and argued fiercely with them on stage.
Later, through a classmate, I saw Yu Luoke’s article “On Family Background.” It resonated strongly with me. I felt what he had written was exactly what I was thinking.
But of course I knew that I couldn’t have written it better myself at the time. But what he said was what I’d been thinking, like I was reading my own thoughts—that’s how strongly I felt. At the time I was editing a news circular, so I posted it. This incident would cause me some trouble later during the Cultural Revolution. In any case, it was a matter that had a great impact in my early life.
It was my high school graduation year when the Cultural Revolution started. 1966. We had completed graduation exams already and were now preparing for college. Classroom walls were covered with college recruitment advertisements. We were choosing schools and picking majors. That was what we were doing. I held very little hope about my prospects, because family background was a key factor, and all my classmates knew that. One of them said, “With Hu Ping’s scores, he will qualify for any college across the land; but with Hu Ping’s family background, no college will admit him.” That’s how it was. There was an older student at our school who ranked first in his class, but because his parents were both “rightists,” which was not as bad as my background, he only got admitted to an agricultural machinery college. Other students with worse family backgrounds got no admission.
At the onset of the Cultural Revolution, I was just like other students who followed the call. First of all, you were in that environment and all you had received was the official ideology, you couldn’t possibly have your own independent way of thinking. In particular, people like me who had a bad family background wanted to prove that we were just as revolutionary as the others.
But I also had my doubts. For example, you saw in the newspapers that this was a “poisonous weed,” that was a “poisonous weed,” and you realized that these had been things I liked. You felt that you had these wrong thoughts, and you had actually resonated with these bad stuff. That was common among us: what we were called to condemn was in fact what we had liked before, the so-called “feudalism, capitalist, and revivisonary” things. So we were made to feel our own thoughts were problematic, and we should reform ourselves through the campaign and by participating in the revolution. That was how we were motivated.
At the beginning, like everyone else, I wrote big-character posters to expose and condemn teachers. But soon I grew uncomfortable with how brutally the teachers and the principal were treated. In many schools, students took the initiative, or were instigated by the Work Group sent to schools, to detain teachers whom they deemed “problematic” in the “cattle shed.” That is, teachers were confined to a place and not allowed to go home. They were made to “reform through labor,” clean toilets, etc. They were cursed and insulted. I resented these actions. In theory, we regarded these teachers as “bourgeoisie intellectuals” whose teaching was “revisionary line of education,” for which they should be criticized. Which we did, but torturing them was something that I couldn’t stand. Moreover, it was not in line with the policy. The Party’s policy didn’t order people to do so. Under the circumstances, if you oppose something, you had to have a theoretical basis. How else would you oppose it? We felt that this was not in line with the Party’s policy; you couldn’t possibly have your own standards. You had to use the yardstick of the Party. The problem was, you found that, according to the Party’s standards, such behaviors were not permissible. That’s how I started to oppose it. According to the CCP ideology, you found many practices around you were not right. That was the only way you could have the courage to oppose. It would not be possible to oppose their ideology from the beginning. Impossible. So at the time I did not like how my teachers were brutalized.
By the fall, the Party Central, or Mao Zedong, changed policy. Before, it was about condemning the “capitalist reactionary line.” Now he turned it upside down, calling the masses to criticize the work of the Work Groups had done thus far. The biggest characteristic of the Cultural Revolution was that, in the previous political campaigns, leaders persecuted others, but during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong mobilized ordinary people to attack their superiors. As a result, those of us who had been under attack now felt encouraged.
So I posted big-character posters in our school, or the “rebellious” posters. I asked that the teachers in the “cattle shed” be freed and reinstated. So those were the two things I did in my school during the Cultural Revolution: one was taking a leading role in liberating those persecuted teachers, the other was opposing discrimination based on family background through a news circular.
That was around the end of 1968. By that time the school had restored some normalcy and a “Revolutionary Committee” was established with a Workers Team, as well as a PLA Team who in fact took over the school. Then they began “Cleansing the Class Force.” Earlier, the “problematic” teachers had been freed, but now they became targets and were sent to the “cattle shed” again in the name of “cleansing the class force.” In addition, they began to “clean up” the students too. I became a target. A study group was set up. It may sound benign, but it forced you to denounce yourself every day. Of course we refused to do so, and it was a stalemate. Later my classmates told me that I was sent to the Study Group for two reasons. One was reinstating “Monsters and Demons,” meaning speaking up for teachers and helping getting them out. So I was a supporter of the “Monsters and Demons.” The other issue was that I republished Yu Luoke’s article. Yu Luoke’s article had gone viral when it was first published, but quickly the Central Cultural Revolution Group issued directives condemning Yu Luoke’s article, calling it a “big poisonous weed.” Thus, the new circular I edited was targeted by the Workers Team and the PLA Team. They investigated me. My classmates told them that Hu Ping had had no contact with people running Yu Luoke’s publication because I hadn’t gone to Beijing at all, and my act was an isolated one. They didn’t press further.
Narrator: Yu Luoke, born in May 1942 in Beijing. For having parents who were “rightists,” Yu Luoke was denied college admission. In January 1967, he founded the High School Cultural Revolution Newspaper and published “On Family Background.” On March 5, 1970, with the crowd roaring “Down With Him!” in the packed Beijing Workers Sports Stadium, 27-year-old Yu Luoke was sentenced to death.
These things had a great impact on my thinking. Our pursuit of liberalism originated from a revolt against such brutality. Regardless of one’s ideas, he or she should be treated as a human. If it’s about wrong ideas, it all the more should be confined to criticism of ideas, not persecution. Simply speaking, it was a revolt against such a phenomenon. That’s why later on people insisted on the protection of basic human rights. That’s the connection.
As a matter of fact, that is also how the West discovered freedom of expression and developed liberalism. It’s the same trajectory. Their liberalism also started from revolt against brutal persecution based on an ideology, persecution of heresy and paganism. People shouldn’t be persecuted just because they think differently and have different beliefs. That’s the origin of liberalism. Some things, and some areas, must be protected. The areas of ideas, beliefs, and expressions can not be violated. Similarly, the Cultural Revolution served as a harsh lesson for many people.
Around that time, on December 21, 1968, newspapers issued Mao Zedong, the Great helmsman Mao Zedong’s Latest Directive that called for the educated youth to go to the countryside to receive re-education from the poor peasants. The call being made, everyone across the country had to follow, and the send-down movement started. We all signed up. Our school was assigned to the southernmost area in Sichuan known as Dukou, now Panzhihua. A part of that area was in Yunnan province, in 1958 iron ore mines were discovered and it became a new steel and iron industry base.
About twenty of us were assigned to a Production Group. That was a big collective team. In other cases one or two young people were sent to a Production Group. The twenty of us belonged to the same Fighting Squadron, were friends with each other, and we were able to stay together in the countryside. At the beginning, we all worked very hard. Our Production Group was relatively well off. When we first got there, our daily earning was about 80 cents, by the second year and third year it was 90 cents, one yuan. At the time it was a nice rate in rural China.
When we say a locale has a high daily earnings rate, it means the earning of a labor working a full day. So my friends and I were not only financially independent, earning enough to pay for our meals and basic needs, a lot of us even could have some savings. We worked hard. Some became barefoot doctors for the peasants, learned acupuncture, or bought medicines from the city, for there was no medicine in the countryside. Some taught peasants how to read in the evening schools, or did something else, such as using their knowledge to mix fertilizers. So on and so forth. We did all of these whole-heartedly. Once in the countryside, you left the Cultural Revolution behind, left the city, and you began to think from a different perspective.
Aside from working in the field, we also looked for books to read. But books were scarce. Sometimes when I heard so-and-so had a book, I’d walk miles and miles in the mountains to read it and then return it immediately after reading. Occasionally I was able to borrow it for a couple of days, then I’d write down the parts I liked. Very hard. Most of the books were not available. Some theoretical works were completely out of reach. Translations of Western works were out of reach. I remember works on philosophy and economics, there were only the CCP’s own publications. These books sometimes cited a few lines of the so-called capitalist theories for criticism. Then you did your best to guess what these lines meant. Just a few sentences, no exposition, so you wrack your brain to figure out their meanings. Years later you read the complete work, you realize that you had thought the same. In other words you’d supplied details, and those few lines served as a prompt. So we had trained ourselves to read like that, to supply the thought process from a mere conclusion. That was a special ability we had acquired. By that time, I had developed a strong criticism of the entire rule of the Communist Party. I remember in the spring of 1970, I had a chat with a few of my good friends in the countryside. I said to them, in very clear terms, that the system we were living in was the most tyrannical system in history, and Mao Zedong was the worst tyrant in Chinese history. By then I had reached a clear view of them. But the problem was: What do we do? What do we do?
Back in those years, we knew many people were persecuted for their ideas, many were executed, but we didn’t know what these ideas were, and they were kept away from us. The public announcement only said that so-and-so harbored reactionary thoughts, and attacked the Party and the great leader Chairman Mao. But how he or she attacked, what he or she said, was not revealed. Hannah Arendt, a thinker known for her studies of totalitarianism, said totalitarianism makes martyrdom impossible. Many people died for their ideas. In the past, even in the worst eras, they were at least allowed to make their ideas known, and others would know for what they had perished. In ancient China, before a man was sent to the guillotine, he was able to scream, letting people know the reason for his decapitation. But in our time, they wouldn’t let you speak at all. When they executed Zhang Zhixin, they cut her throat. That’s how it was. Take Lin Zhao for another example. We learned about her only by accident. By accident, she was allowed to write in prison; by accident her writings were kept; by accident, what was kept was passed on to someone outside. Most of those imprisoned were unable to write; or if they managed to write anything, it most certainly was destroyed. So since the CCP took power, many people have died for their ideas and expressions, but the rest of us don’t know what these ideas and expressions were. It’s impossible to be a martyr.
Narrator: Zhang Zhixin, born in December, 1930, in Tianjin, mother of three. During the Cultural Revolution she was an administrator at the Propaganda Department of the CCP Committee of Liaoning province. In 1968, she said to a colleague that she had a hard time “understanding many things” that were happening, and was ratted out. She refused to admit guilt, and was arrested on September 18, 1969. In prison she was beaten, her hair was almost entirely pulled out, and she was raped and gang-raped. On April 4, 1975, she was executed at the age of 44. Before being shot to death, her throat was cut, “her face deformed beyond recognition.”
Lin Zhao was born in January 1932 in Suzhou. In 1957 she was singled out as a “rightist” when she was a junior at the Department of Journalism at Peking University. She was jailed in Shanghai Tilanqiao Prison in 1962 for “the crime of attacking the dictatorship of the proletariat.” On April 29, 1968, at the age of 36, she was sentenced to death by the People’s Liberation Army’s Military Control Committee for Shanghai Judiciary. Lin Zhao wrote in her blood. In “To Mankind” she wrote: “I’ve experienced the most horrific, the bloodiest place in hell; I’ve experienced death that is a thousand times more miserable than death itself.”
Classmates, or others I knew, there were so many people who, for some fragmentary ideas, an accidental letter, an anonymous big-character poster, or correspondence between school friends or relatives, that revealed “reactionary thoughts,” were seized by the government. Some were imprisoned for many years, others were shot. We have seen it so many times. So I thought we must avoid this; we must find a way, and I believed there was such a way. I said, on the enclosing walls of totalitarianism, there must be one or two bricks that could be moved; it could not possibly be impregnable. There can be no ruler who is omnipotent and whose regime is perfect, where any resistance is destined to fail. That’s impossible. I don’t believe such a thing. It was in this sense, I felt why freedom of expression was so important, aside from it being the foundation of a free society. Later, when I expanded “On Freedom of Speech,” I was discussing it from the aspect of strategy to a greater degree. Of course average readers pay attention only to how freedom of expression is explained, why we need it. But more than that, I am saying that freedom of expression is an opening in our opposition to totalitarianism and dictatorship.
Around 1970, there was a homicide in Chengdu involving a bank robbery. The Public Security investigated the sent-down youth who happened to be back in the city as key suspects. Several of my friends, myself included, happened to be in the city then. The Public Security took the investigation all the way to our Production Group. Of course they didn’t find anything.
But at the time they did what was known as “from one case to more cases.” They asked about us in general: are there any suspicious activities? Someone said to them that Hu Ping read those Marxist-Leninist books. The Public Security was alarmed, saying that the motivation for reading Marx and Lenin was to oppose Chairman Mao. So they told the leaders of the Commune about my family background, and the leaders felt I was a problematic person. So they organized a criticism session in my Production Group to condemn my “capitalist reactionary thoughts.” During that period I indeed had a lot of “reactionary thoughts,” but I only talked about them with a couple of my best friends, so the criticism session got nowhere.
But it hit me really hard. I felt I’d never have a chance in the countryside. I’d be among the “monsters and demons” in waiting, and my circumstances would worsen. So I thought I must leave that place, or my life would be over. The same evening the criticism session was held, I came up with a plan. I could only leave the countryside for a disability. Some of us had already left by faking disabilities, such as having a doctor friend issue a fictitious certificate for kidney disease, etc. But I felt that was not an option for me, and I would have to be for real. My plan was to create an accident that caused a disability, so that I could go back to the city.
It was something I couldn’t accomplish by myself, so I shared it with my best friend. He said, It’s so cruel. Is it necessary? I said of course it’s necessary. About a year passed. I remember clearly that it was the evening of September 12, 1971, a friend, another sent-down youth from afar, was visiting. We were having a late meal. Following our plan, my best friend and I were in the kitchen, he was boiling water to fill the thermos bottle. I was chopping wood next to him. When he poured the hot water, he splashed some on me on purpose, and I feigned a jerk, and took the opportunity to chop my hand. The others were eating and paid no attention. I chopped on my thumb. I chopped once, it wasn’t enough, then twice, three times. I could see my bone.
Friends saw it and thought I chopped myself accidentally while avoiding the splashing hot water. They said, hurry up, hurry up, send him to the doctor. Our Production Group was adjacent to Dukou’s municipal May Seventh Cadet Camp, and we were very familiar with those people. So my best friend and I left the kitchen for the Cadet Camp. On our way I told him that I was not sufficiently wounded and more was needed. Of course we had it all thought out. My best friend was the Production Group’s veterinarian, and had a small scalpel. He took it with him when we left. There was a creek near the Cadet Camp. I walked down there and put my thumb on a rock. I said, Put your scalpel in the wound and hit it with a rock. He did it and hit the scalpel once. Then he was too nervous to continue. I said, You have to hit harder. So he did it a couple more times until my thumb bounced and was about to fall off. Because there was a dent where my thumb rested, a bit of skin still held the thumb. I said, okay, that’s enough. We climbed up to the bank, before we did so we washed off the blood around the rock. Then we got to the clinic. The medics quickly gave me a shot to stop the bleeding, said they couldn’t handle this, and told us to hurry to the hospital. The Cadet Camp had a jeep, and it took me and my friend to the nearby hospital. On our way, the jeep went into a skid while crossing a river. We got peasants from a ways away to push the vehicle out. That delayed us two or three hours.
Narrator: Out of sheer luck, the hospital succeeded in reattaching Hu Ping’s left thumb, avoiding amputation. But the Commune still wouldn’t let him go; doctors were afraid to issue him a certificate.
In the end, a doctor at the provincial hospital provided me with a certificate. He said, of course you are disabled; your thumb doesn’t function anymore. Look, it’s red, like this. It was cut from here, right? The top part was reattached, so the color is different. He said, you’ve lost thumb opposition. He said, thumb opposition is half of the hand function, so your hand is half disabled, and that’s a serious disability. So he issued a medical opinion that I was not fit for intensive physical labor. Even so, it wasn’t until two years later, in November 1973, that the Commune finally gave approval to take my household registration back to Chengdu.
Back in the city, I did temporary jobs. I was a substitute teacher and taught elementary school and middle school. I taught Chinese and math, as well as English. I also worked at a popsicle factory making popsicles and soda. In the summer, it made soda. I also worked on my neighborhood’s repair team repairing houses for people. But I only worked briefly, a few months, on these odd jobs. I was mostly a substitute teacher. I liked it because it was a very easy job for me.
The first and second drafts of ‘On Freedom of Speech’
When I got back to Chengdu, firstly, my life became less stressful. I could find more time for reading, thinking, and discussion with my friends. Another aspect was that the political pressure had lessened; after all, there were more people in the city of all kinds, unlike in the countryside where someone like myself was kept under strict watch.
Left to my thoughts, I developed a great interest in the issue of freedom of speech. In my opinion, the most important feature of authoritarian rule is the suppression of people’s opinions, and what we had experienced, especially in the Cultural Revolution, was the suppression of thought and speech on an unprecedented level. But this also created a yearning for freedom in many people, so I thought that freedom of speech was a good angle to work with. Discussing this issue, even the CCP’s constitution can’t avoid mention of it; in Marxist classic works, including Marx’s early works, ideas supporting freedom of speech abound. More importantly, our personal experiences and the experiences of the whole country have provided us with a rich foundation for understanding the principles of freedom of speech.
Of course, it was impossible to write anything very sharp, because if you did, there was no possibility at all of getting it circulated, and you would be arrested immediately. So I started with the phrase “yan zhe wu zui” (speaking out is not a crime), because this is an inherently Chinese concept, and also because Mao Zedong himself had said these words. This phrase in and of itself can easily get people to understand the idea of free speech. What does “yan zhe wu zui” mean? Obviously, a ruler will not punish those who praise him. So “yan zhe wu zui” refers especially to speech that the ruler dislikes. It’s not a crime to say things you don’t like to hear. With political views that are the same as yours, freedom or lack thereof is not an issue. It expressly refers to dissenting political opinions.
The first version was not long, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a suitable means of getting it published.
The whole thing is as simple as this: To fight for freedom of speech in a country without Freedom of Expression, you must first get a space to express your point of view, and at that time there was hardly any space for you. So I was at my wit’s end trying to get it out.
On April 5, 1976, during the Qingming Festival, there was a mass protest in Beijing in the name of commemorating the late Premier Zhou Enlai. When it happened, of course we in Chengdu didn’t know. When we heard about it from the People’s Daily, it had already been suppressed as a counter-revolutionary movement. That’s all they said, but we quickly understood from between the lines what happened in Beijing, and felt very excited. And on top of that you could feel that a lot of people had the same thing on their minds, with the same ideas and the same hopes, the same demands, even though many people were still unclear about their hopes, they were nevertheless widespread, which fit with our early assessments. Like us ourselves, even though we had developed our own ideas long ago, we had felt isolated for a long time. The number of people you could talk to and be accepted by, even among your friends, was very small.
I first wrote “On Freedom of Speech” in 1975. By 1976, as we know, Mao Zedong died in the fall of ‘76, and the “Gang of Four” was removed. The situation in China underwent a great change. At that time, I wrote a big-character poster about freedom of speech. I posted it at the entrance of the Chengdu municipal government. Actually, I asked my friend to help me do it, help me write it out. Our house was close to the Chengdu municipal government, also close to the provincial CCP Committee. However, the street where the provincial committee was, it was called Shangye Street, it was very beautiful, with Chinese parasol trees on both sides. However, there weren’t many people coming and going there; the street where the Chengdu municipal government had lots of traffic, so I took this work of mine and posted it there.
Before this, I had been doing a lot of thinking, and strained to learn, from what scraps I could get of the “Reference News,” about the goings-on of the political movements in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the things the political dissidents were advocating, and so on. Before Mao Zedong died, I thought, there would be many people, thoughtful individuals, who would foresee Mao’s death, and that when he died, China would likely experience a so-called political thaw similar to the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. It would be inevitable, because Mao Zedong and, before him, Stalin, had been so harsh in their rule that it caused massive dissatisfaction within the political system, including the upper leadership. Thus, when a new leader came to power, some degree of political liberalization was bound to occur. Back then, I thought that day would definitely come and present us with a historical opportunity to make our views heard.
With this in mind, I gained a new perspective on how important freedom of speech is. I don’t think any other issue is quite as important; besides, it’s impossible to cover every single issue. This is why I decided to focus on this one topic and repeatedly emphasize this principle, in the hopes of rooting it in people’s minds.
In 1977, I rewrote my article, and made the text longer. Together with my friends, we printed it out into a small leaflet. But as before, I was unable to find a chance to distribute it, as who was there to give it to?
After a 10-year disruption, college entrance exams were resumed in 1977.
In 1977, the college entrance exams were resumed. We were all very and hurried to register. But Chengdu issued a local policy that barred sick or disabled sent-down youth from registration. They said, colleges will check your health; since you are sick and disabled, don’t bother registering, there are too many people signing up. So they didn’t let me take the exams in ‘77.
At the end of the year, I saw a notice in the newspaper recruiting grad students, and a classmate of mine came looking for me. He had taken the last year’s college exam but didn’t do well. Now he wanted to apply for grad school. He said, let’s apply for grad school together, which got me motivated. Of course, we didn’t know much about graduate studies, as we hadn’t even done undergrad studies, and none of our friends had gone to grad school. We didn’t know what grad school entailed. Why not? It doesn’t hurt to just give it a try. The registration fee was only 50 cents, and there wasn’t any health restrictions.
After some indecision I finally chose Western philosophy, because I had put some work into this area before, and because I felt that only Western philosophy could satisfy the breadth of my interests. Whatever it is you like, you could find it in this field. At the time, there were only two or three universities accepting grad students of Western philosophy. I had originally wanted to attend a lower-end university, you know, to play it safe. I didn’t mean to shoot too high. But none of the low-end schools were looking for this kind of grad students. Through one of my high school teachers, I knew a professor at the philosophy department at Sichuan University, and they said that they weren’t admitting grad students of Western philosophy that year. It was with no other options that I applied for Peking University. In May 1978, I took the preliminary test in Chengdu. My scores on the preliminary test turned out very good; later I learned that I was the first place in our specialization. In July, I went to Beijing to sit for the second round of the exams.
After the second round, [Peking University] decided to accept me. But as they reviewed my personal file, they saw I came from a problematic family background, and didn’t know if they should accept me. Some people were resolutely opposed, saying that the philosophy department cannot accept such a student. Some teachers said, if you don’t accept this kind of person, why let him take the test? He took the test, and he knows he scored the best, how can you turn him down? They were at an impasse. The philosophy department sent two teachers specially to investigate me in Chengdu. They interviewed my neighbors, the old aunties of the neighborhood committee, my high school classmates, and teachers. Fortunately, everyone said good things about me, so I was able to get over this hurdle and was admitted to the program.
Hu Ping enrolled at Peking University in October, 1978, as a graduate student of philosophy. The third version of “On Freedom of Speech” was published during the Xidan Democracy Wall period.
When I went to Beijing, I brought my manuscript with me, and thought I would have more opportunities in Beijing.
It was right around that time when the Xidan Democracy Wall appeared. I felt very inspired upon seeing it and quickly sought ways to get in touch with those involved with it. The first one I found was the poet Bei Dao, I discussed my thoughts on freedom of speech with him.
Bei Dao said that their publication, “Today,” was a literary publication and wouldn’t carry political commentary. He introduced me to some of his friends, who he said were planning on starting a new publication with more varied content. This was how I met Jiang Hong and the others. They later started an independent publication called Fertile Land, and I shared my thoughts on freedom of speech with them. Of course, they were very receptive, so I quickly rewrote the piece again. This time I gave it its current title, “On Freedom of Speech.”
I had actually only been at Peking University for about two months, but in those two months I read a lot. Dealing with my student workload was easy. In our class of grad students, in our major, the professors were pretty hands off. Once at PKU, I was able to peruse a large amount of books. Especially for grad students, you could go into the internal archives and access the reading rooms that were off-limits to outsiders. I could go in and read as I pleased. So my reading, including that of some classical Western works of liberalism, happened during that time. I also read Chinese works. This no doubt helped me immensely in writing “On Freedom of Speech.” This is the “Freedom of Expression” that I published in ‘79, at the Democracy Wall.
First, this version was far longer than the previous versions. It was about 40,000 words then. Also, the solidity of the argument, citations, and various other aspects were all much stronger. I don’t have the manuscript anymore, but back then Taiwan published a series, about 19 or 20 volumes, called “Compilation of Underground Publications in Mainland China.” It includes practically all of the literature published throughout the country around the time of the Democracy Wall, including my “On Freedom of Speech.” Not only Taiwan, I think that in America, universities like Harvard, Columbia, or Princeton all have copies.
After this piece was published, it indeed generated a lot of feedback. However, the response was a far cry from what I had expected and hoped for. I had imagined that since China had, after all, gone through such a catastrophe as the Cultural Revolution, there would definitely be a lot of people thinking about the same issues as me, so if I were to bring it up, it would certainly resonate with them. Also, around that time, even in the official publications, there were many writings talking about the issue of free speech.
As for those involved with the Democracy Wall, pretty much every independent publication talked about free speech. But they didn’t make much of an effort to emphasize the importance of this issue, though they did mention it is many of their articles. My thinking was different, I felt that it was best to immediately focus on this one topic, discuss it thoroughly, make it part of the public discourse. Once it became a topic of public discussion, this kind of idea would get in people’s minds, then it would be either difficult or impossible for the Communist Party to stamp out this idea.
Later on, Fertile Land became more and more notable. First, the China Youth magazine held a symposium to which some people from unofficial publications were invited, this was because the Communist Youth League Committee was highly supportive of the Democracy Wall at that time. Also, the China Youth Daily had once provided us a venue for a conference. That was a rare official recognition. In other words, before the Democracy Wall was shut down, the status of the unofficial publications had yet to be set in stone, right? The Communist Party wouldn’t say if you were reactionary or not and didn’t ban you, neither did it grant you legitimacy. That was the situation. You could go on the streets, you could go post pamphlets on the wall in Xidan, and they wouldn’t bother you. However, the authorities were careful to keep their distance, and avoided contact. So those two times that the China Youth magazine and China Youth Daily sent invitations meant they recognized your legitimacy to some extent. Because during that time there really was a group of people in the government who advocated the creation of “news laws” and “publication laws,” to give these unofficial publications a chance at legality. However, these plans were abandoned. Later on we knew that Chen Yun had made a speech, and said “we shouldn’t make any ‘publication law.’ Back then when the Guomindang had this law, we communists used it to oppose them. So today we mustn’t give anyone the same opportunity to oppose us.” He was so explicit in that internal speech because he knew that even if such a law was full of imperfections, once it existed, there would be a written law, a standard, that the dissent could explore.
As we know, humanity has been shaped by a handful of decisive historical moments. The majority of time, people have been as though travelling along a freeway, driving on a pre-established course. There are only a few places where the human race arrives at a turn or intersection where it can decide to go one way or the other. Once it begins down one of those paths, it must keep driving, for good or for ill. This is something I’ve talked about it in “On Freedom of Speech,” we’ve already had a lot of experiences. Why did I think the timing back then was the best, and that we should not miss that opportunity? It was the only time — I believe you have some recollection of this — in the late 1970s and early 1980s, actually the entire decade of the 80s, when so many people had interest in such serious topics.
Today, when people recount the history, it’s easy for them to neglect descriptions of the entire societal ambience. This causes people to lack a correct grasp on what was going on during this time. Ambience is the most difficult thing to describe. It’s not about how actors on stage are moving, but about the mental state of those sitting in the audience. People always pay attention to the actors on the stage, neglecting the audience. But the audience is the most crucial. I always say, what is enlightenment? Enlightenment isn’t about people who do the talking, but about people listening. There have been people talking in every time period, right? But only in a few particular time periods have there been large numbers of people listening intently.
So at times, thought can play an immense role. Why have some philosophical schools played such a major role in history? Were they particularly brilliant? Not necessarily more so than others, but they came at the right time, making an impact during a historical turning point. I believe that Mao’s death created one of these historical windows of opportunity, giving us a chance to shape and alter the historical path. However, I feel extremely disappointed, since there weren’t enough people who consider freedom of speech important, and a very good opportunity was left to waste right before our eyes. So later, when the Democracy Wall was banned, I was very disappointed. We had waited for so many years. We weren’t doing it just to let future people see a well-written article. It wasn’t for this, we hoped to change history. If it’s something I could think of, others should too.
Narrator: In the fall of 1978, the Democracy Wall appeared in Beijing, large-scale democracy gatherings occurred in several cities, and many independent journals flourished. On December 18, 1978, the Communist Party held the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee that announced China’s “opening up and reform” policy. On January 1, 1979, China and the U. S. established normal relations. On January 18, 1979, Hu Yaobang opened the “Forum of Ideological Work” that gathered hundreds of intellectuals and cadets and is known as the Party’s “internal Democracy Wall.” On January 29, 1979, Deng Xiaoping visited the United States, signing agreements on scientific exchanges. From February to March, China invaded Vietnam “to teach it a lesson.” In March, in Beijing and Shanghai and elsewhere, the authorities began to outlaw independent publications. On March 27, Wei Jingsheng and several dissidents were arrested, Wei was later sentenced to 15 years in prison. On March 30, Deng Xiaoping announced that China must “uphold the four cardinal principles,” the core of which is to “uphold the leadership of the Communist Party” and “uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Early April, the “Forum of Ideological Work” closed. Forty years in hindsight, it seems that the events from the fall of 1978 to the spring of 1979 already contained the genome of post-Maoist China.
Elections at Peking University in 1980
Regarding the elections, in late ‘79 or early 1980 the authorities promulgated their new “electoral law.” In China, direct elections, where the constituents directly vote for their representatives, has been limited to the level of county and city districts; the provincial and the national-level People’s Representatives are elected indirectly.
However, the new electoral law introduced a few important reforms. First, it relaxed restrictions on who could assume formal candidacy. To become a formal candidate, you only have to be endorsed by three three constituents, meaning that practically anyone could become a candidate. Previously, though there was no regulation saying that you needed official backing to be a candidate, the authorities would not give outsiders the opportunity to do so. Another clause in the new electoral law stipulated that candidates had the right to do their own promotion, which amounted to giving them a chance to compete. Before the Cultural Revolution we had also taken part in electing the district representatives. Posters in red paper were put up in schools, saying so-and-so was the candidate, and we would stand in lines casting our votes for whoever’s name was written on the posters.
At that time, the nationwide elections were not held synchronously. Beijing held its elections last, and even in Beijing, elections for the various districts weren’t held in sync either. So in that round of national elections, Beijing’s Haidian District was the last. The authorities’ thinking in this arrangement was very simple: they knew that there were a lot of universities in Haidian; if they set a ‘bad example,’ everyone would follow. If they voted last, and even if they stirred up a ruckus, but the elections would be all over. That’s definitely what they thought.
The elections in Beijing started in November, they went from November to December. Prior to this, for example, in Sichuan and Shanghai, some people, especially on college campuses, some students already set up their candidacy, organized their own campaign team, published big-character posters, gave speeches, and held debate events. These campaign forms already took place. The China Youth Daily even reported on the elections at Shanghai’s Fudan University in a positive light. People’s general views at the time were that the elections prior to the Cultural Revolution were a joke, not real elections. If there’s going to be elections at all, there have to be more candidates than the official slots for people to choose from. How could there be one candidate for one ticket? It doesn’t stand to reason.
In September of 1980, classes had just begun. Chen Ziming, Li Shengping, Min Qi, and a few other people who had been active in the Democracy Wall came to Peking University talking to me and Wang Juntao. They were making plans for the upcoming elections at Peking University and other schools. They hoped that those who had participated in the Democracy Wall, and some who were involved with the April 5 Movement in 1976, could come out and take part. We agreed that we would have Wang Juntao come out and represent us.
Later on, we learned that there were two tickets for the Peking University student electoral area, so I said I would also take a shot at it. The Peking University elections were different in that from the very beginning, when the elections had yet to officially commence, there already a few students posting their campaign declarations in the campus Triangle. One of them was Xia Shen from the Economics Department, there was Wang Juntao, from the Department of Technical Physics, and another was Fang Zhiyuan in the Department of International Politics. What was most significant about these three declarations was, they all addressed big and lofty issues, rather than the petty ones that an elected student People’s Representatives would face.
So things escalated at once. Candidates discussed political reform, financial reform, their thoughts on Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, all big issues of the day. Putting it another way, the things they talked about had nothing to do with being a district representative. It amounted to turning the elections for district representative into a platform, an opportunity, for their political opinions. And precisely because of this, the elections attracted everyone’s attention. If candidates only talked about things within the scope of the district representative’s power, like whether or not to increasing heating, or making improvements to the showers and canteen, then nobody would be interested, right? There were also students, mostly undergraduates, who formed four neutral organizations. They were de facto media outlets reporting news about the elections. They even conducted interviews and polls. It was like for real. So people said that the PKU students choose their district people’s representatives like they are choosing a president, and discussed only the big issues of the day. All of the candidates were like that.
Narrator reading Hu Ping’s Election Statement:
I, Hu Ping, was a graduate student at Peking University’s Department of Philosophy majoring in the history of European philosophy. With the support of my electoral group and various other voters, volunteered to take part in the election for People’s Representative of Haidian District.
I felt strongly that the current elections could have several different and plausible prospects. We had to grasp the most salient node of events in a timely and powerful way, or else we would lose a great opportunity to advance the course of history with our own strength.
This salient node firstly is the very form of elections.
The elections are so fascinating is because it is the first time people use the form of public and open competition. In this, form eclipses substance. History will stand witness as to whether these elections we are holding will allow us to continue this electoral form, develop it further; this will determine whether this event has value or not.
The second goal, though by no means secondary in importance, is to advance freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are the most fundamental political rights of the citizenry.
From Hitler’s fascism to the Gang of Four’s “total dictatorship,” we can see an important principle of political science at work: the modern-day authoritarianism is different from the despots of ancient times in that it does not manifest as an entity opposed to the people. Very much the opposite: it directly claims that the will of the people is its reason for being. And in order to create and maintain this facade, which it relies on as its lifeline, monopolizing public discourse is the first and most important step.
Because of this, I shall endeavor to advance the implementation of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and, in the democratic spirit, urge for the formulation of laws on media and publishing.
……November 7, 1980
I held two Q & A sessions in the auditorium of the PKU administrative building. It was not that big, but it was the most prominent auditorium at PKU. A lot of people attended the two Q & A sessions. They started at 7 o’clock in the evening, but it was packed an hour before that. The first session was about freedom of speech and the second one was on democracy and rule of law. Many people put forward a variety of questions, which were all relatively easy for me to answer, so the two events produced pretty good results. In addition, undergraduate students voluntarily took my “On Freedom of Speech” — which I had revised again after publication in Fertile Land. They printed 200 copies, two copies for each class unit. So among the students of PKU, almost every class unit had it. It was 60,000 words, very long. In addition, they also wrote out as a big-character posters, also posted it the stencil copy itself. So its influence during the elections was definitely greater than it was on the Fertile Land and Democracy Wall.
33-year-old Hu Ping was elected the People’s Representative of Haidian District. Representatives convened once a year in January during the 3-year term. In China, “People’s Congress” is run by the Communist Party.
Entering the elections, in 1980, I rewrote “On Freedom of Speech.” On the basis of the version published in Fertile Land, I added a lot of content, about 20,000 more words. I placed more emphasis on the significance of our struggle for freedom of speech at this stage. Another thing I discussed — in fact, I had already brought it up in the previous version — was the matter of democracy and modernization, political freedom and democracy, and the relationship between economic development and economic reform.
This matter, very simply put, is that China’s reform trend could arise and find resonance at all levels at the time was due to the fact that the whole country was in a state of chaos and poverty. People had the same demands for reform, but not everyone demanded freedom and democracy.
There are many such precedents in history. There have always been people who openly or implicitly believe that authoritarianism is preferable to democracy, especially in the rapid development of an economically backward country. They believe that a group of strong-willed and far-sighted leaders should use autocratic means to force the flock into the pasture. Instead of listening to the broad masses who do not understand their own true interests and whose demands and feelings are in constant flux, they believe that iron rule will achieve success more quickly and directly. This view has been quite popular. In modern history, calls for freedom and democracy in China have repeatedly been overwhelmed by the slogan of “a wealthy nation and a powerful army,” and it has a lot to do with these ideas.
But if China takes this path, the consequences will be endless. This kind of non-democratic modernization comes with massive inherent weaknesses. First, its economic development must be inhumane, because it is accompanied by constant political persecution. It is an abomination, after all, and it is fraught with many internal problems.
Now today, this seems like a prediction. Of course, it is also related to many changes in the over the years. However, the matter I pointed out is indeed an important issue. To this day, it still has not lost its significance.
After the campus elections
Following the elections, before the next spring, several students at Renmin University wanted to consolidate and build upon the results of the electoral campaign, so they tried to convene everyone active in the election process at the schools across Beijing, including those who had been elected, those who ran as candidates, and people in the campaign teams, and get them together for a large meeting in a classroom at Renmin University.
When the meeting was halfway through, a reporter from China Youth Daily came to me. We had known each other since the time of the Democracy Wall. He said that Hu Yaobang heard the news and wondered if these students were going to engage in anti-Party activities. They thought it was very serious. I said no, we are just holding a symposium, and that there was a recording. I handed the recording to him. He took it, but whether or not Hu Yaobang listened to it, I don’t know. They didn’t pursue further. My point is, a spontaneous symposium organized after the elections could cause the highest authorities to be so nervous, and it shows how they loathed the entire election business.
So when I graduated, no one else was affected, but I knew it very well — although many people at the time, including many students, considered that, in the elections of PKU, Wang Juntao was a radical, Zhang Wei was moderate, I was both radical and moderate, between the two. But of course I knew that in the eyes of the authorities, perhaps I was the most radical. Sure enough, I learned later that I was the leadership’s greatest source of concern, and that during the electoral process they saw my program as the most systematic, and they kept me under the closest watch.
Before the election, I was already known in the academic circles of Beijing, many senior members of my field knew me and many wanted me to go work for them. But every time I tried to get a job, there was always an invisible hand blocking me. At that time, all work units in Beijing, in addition to PKU, Renmin University, Normal University, Beijing Foreign Languages College, Beijing Second Foreign Language, as well as Politics and Law University, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Encyclopedia Publishing House, Commercial Press, etc., the People’s Publishing House’s editorial office of philosophy, almost all of the units in Beijing that had some relevance to my field got in touch with me to hire me.
They must have had me on an internal blacklist for a while. Our professors knew that too. They were editing a compilation of papers on foreign philosophy, a new publication they’d just founded. They had accepted a paper I wrote, but then they said, you have to use a pen name to fool the censors. But everyone knew who wrote it. So for some time, in the years ‘81, ‘82, ‘83, I published articles using pen names, and I could not use my real name at all.
By 1984 and 1985, the whole atmosphere became more dynamic and my situation improved. In Wuhan, the “Youth Forum” magazine was established at the end of 1984. After it was set up, they came to Beijing, several of them, they wanted to enlist some writers, and we dined together. They all read my article and were very interested. They said that they were afraid to publish it just yet, that they would do it later. A year later they published “On Freedom of Speech.”Immediately afterward, they held a forum in Beijing to discuss my article. Many people came, Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao of course, but also a few very trendy figures like Li Yining and Gan Yang. The liberals too, like He Jiadong and so on.
By 1986, discussions on political reform were very active. That year I was invited to meetings all over the place. At each meeting I attended, I only talked about one issue, I only talked about freedom of speech, in Guangdong, Wuhan, and Sichuan. It was a very good time. Several publishers said that they would publish “On Freedom of Speech,” including the People’s Publishing House, Sanlian, Guangzhou’s Huacheng, and Hunan Publishing House. I urged them, “you have to hurry, if you don’t, the climate could change.” They didn’t believe it, and indeed, before they published it, Hu Yaobang stepped down, and liberalization was opposed. This was the end of the 1986. The layout was all done, but it was never published.
Towards the end of 1986, college students demonstrated in several large cities, demanding political reform. On January 16, 1987, Hu Yaobang was forced to step down as the General Secretary of the Communist Party, the de facto supreme leader Deng Xiaoping launched “the struggle against capitalist liberalization.”
I came to the United States on January 7, 1987, as a Ph.D. student at the Department of Government at Harvard. After a year, I quit and came to New York. I joined the Chinese Democratic Movement and Solidarity Alliance, and was later elected as its chairman. I worked with the overseas democracy movement full-time. After I joined, the overseas democracy movement began to focus more on helping the democracy movement in mainland China. Because I had experience in the democracy movement in China and knew a lot of people, so, after I joined I increased contact with folks in China. In addition, I had a good understanding of the situation in China, knew what was needed, what could be done, what could be said.
[Since 1996,] I devoted myself to running magazines. Before the arrival of the internet in particular, our overseas “China Spring” and “Beijing Spring” magazines were the most influential dissident publications. Over many years, the liberal intellectuals of China, old and young, the dissidents, and human rights lawyers, all of them published articles in our publications. For a long time, our publications were practically the most important, and sometimes only venue for their speech.
I may be the one who have maintained the most connections with dissidents, liberal intellectuals, and democracy activists in China. I have had a lot of contact with all of them. It is true that there is a limit to what can be done overseas, but I think our work has been crucial. It is unthinkable without this work, especially over so many years, if you think about it, if it weren’t for the overseas democracy movement, especially in the days before the internet, dissidents in China would have lacked any space for expression.
In addition to being the Chief Editor of Beijing Spring for 17 years from 1996 to 2014, Hu Ping has been a prolific writer of a dozen of books and a large quantity of political commentaries. His insights, however, are only becoming shared by China experts, policy makers, and members of the American public today.
In 1999, Hu Ping’s mother died, and he was denied a visa by the Chinese Consulate in New York to go back to China to bid goodbye to her.
My mother died in 1999. When she was very ill, of course I wanted to visit her. So I contacted the Consulate. I knew it was unlikely that the Chinese Consulate would give me the visa, but I tried. They denied my application. Meanwhile, I got a letter from my mother asking me not to go back. She said she’d be more concerned if they allowed me to go back.
“Why such anxiety?” “It was rooted in her decades-old distrust of the CCP.”
My mother was a very gentle and giving parent. She never showed any pain or sadness in front of us, the children. Never. So we grew up in a warm and loving family environment.
But when I was very little, I remember I was going somewhere with my mother. Maybe she was taking us to Chengdu. On the road, there was a section without trains, so we had to ride the bus. Riding the bus, we had to stay in hotels. I remember there were nights when I woke up and found my mother crying with her face turned away. Of course I was just a little kid who knew nothing. I saw her but would fall back to sleep again. But I had these memories.
My father died in 1952. We were living in Beijing then and they didn’t notify his family. We didn’t know. After a while my mother became worried. She had learned that her husband, stationed in Daye, Hubei, was expelled from the Army and sent back to his hometown. She thought the worst in it for him was to be discharged and become a farmer. But for a long time she didn’t hear anything from him. She was worried, she went by herself to my father’s old home in Xuchang, Henan, to visit. Before she arrived, a relative told her that my father had been executed. She turned around without ever reaching my father’s old home. She was devastated. She wanted to kill herself. She made arrangements, leaving my older sister to my uncle. At the time we lived in Beijing with my uncle’s family. I’d be taken to my other uncle in Sichuan who had a daughter but not a son. My younger sister would be given to my mother’s cousin in Baoding who was childless. All these families agreed to take us in without knowing my mother’s plans. They thought it was too hard for her to take care of three kids, and each family thought she was only asking them to take care of this one child, and each family was happy to help her out. They all liked us. Having made arrangements for the children, she’d go back to the old home and jump down a deep well. There were many big and deep wells in the northern countryside. That was her plan. But in the end she couldn’t do it, she thought it was cruel to leave the three children mother- and fatherless. So she decided to live on.
Decades passed. I’ve said that for all these years she had been very strong, never displaying sadness. Then in 1984, or 85, we received a notice from a court in Xuchang that reversed the ruling on my father. My mother and I went back to Xuchang to visit my father’s grave. In front of my father’s grave, she broke down, howling with grief. I could never forget it. I had never seen my mother like that before. She had been a very strong woman, never showing her pain in front of anyone, even her children. It was very hard for me to witness it. She had buried her grief for over 30 years. She said later that, after returning, she fell ill for over a month and couldn’t get up. She had kept it to herself for so long and buried it so deeply.
Look, after I came to the U.S., she wrote me at least two letters each month. So I have this pile of letters from her.
Look at this slip: “Stir-fried eggplant is a northern dish…” She worried that I was alone overseas not knowing how to cook. She wrote me a recipe.”
This is her. “To my three children: the sad words buried in my heart for decades”. “I had such a happy family, but all of a sudden we were struck by an immense and unbearable calamity.” She wrote this in 1998. I had asked my mother to write. She wrote great letters. So she wrote tens of thousands of words, like the family story.
I have to take time to go through it. Sometimes it occurs to me that all my life I have been writing, but I’ve not written what I should write the most.
“To my three children: the sad words buried in my heart for decades”
I had such a happy family, but all of a sudden we were struck by an immense and unbearable calamity. On September 9, 1952 of the lunar calendar, my dearest husband Cai Datong was executed. 46 years old, in his prime, leaving me and three children. Yan, eleven; Ping, five; and Jing, not yet two. How would I go on living? For a woman, being widowed is the biggest misfortune in life, but what hurt me more was anger. His main crime was that, after graduating from the Central College of Politics and before the anti-Japanese War, he had been a police chief in a county in Jiangsu province, and then in a branch of the police bureau in Shanghai. But at the time of Liberation, he was in the army and his army swapped sides. All of those who changed allegiance, according to the Party Central’s policy and the order Chairman Mao issued, were pardoned for their past. But with that order in place, he was executed.
At that time I dared not speak about it, I dared not cry. I couldn’t live anymore. It was too much to bear, and only death would free me from this unbearable pain.
I kept it from the children. I didn’t want them to suffer the shock at such young ages. Then I decided — make arrangements for the three kids first. Leave Yan to my second eldest brother and his wife. Take Ping to my eldest brother and his wife — they have no son. Take Jing to my cousin and his wife who are childless. So I sent Jing to Baoding. I said, “I have to find a job and can’t take care of her. If she feels at home, and you like her, let her be your daughter.” My cousin and his wife were very happy. I returned to Beijing. After a month or so, I went to take a look. Little Jing had gotten used to her new home where she was treated very well. I was relieved.
Next I was to go to Chongqing to take Little Ping to my eldest brother. I’d stay briefly, leave Ping behind. Of course I’d also tell them that I had to work. On my way back I’d pass through Xuchang. There were a lot of big wells in the countryside. There was one very near to the family home. I’d jump into it at night when no one was paying attention. When my body was discovered, there would be someone to take care of it. I’d leave a letter, asking them to send it to Beijing.
I planned it all out. For six months, I pulled myself together during the day, as though nothing had happened. Then night after night, I cried silently, so as not to wake up the children nor let my brother and his wife hear.
I thought about it over and over again. Looking at my children, I said to myself: I can’t die. I will suffer no more, yes, but how can I leave these three children, who have just lost their father, motherless and separated in three different places? Since I’ve given birth to them, I must raise them and survive. Though I’m only one woman, I will give them the love and care of both parents. When I think about it this way, I see hope in life again.
First I sold the house in Xi’an, then I sold my jewelry. I could sell anything to provide for the children.
Then there was the Cultural Revolution. Ping and Jing really suffered in the countryside, and our home was looted and left in abject poverty.
I never imagined I could live to this advanced age. The last decade or so I have lived carefree, and my children are filial and doing well.
I had professional skills and was capable, but I didn’t get a job. I hate this so passionately and didn’t want to work. I also worried about the children not receiving good care. My brother and Jing didn’t want me to work either. They said I would be targeted when there was a political campaign. Luckily I didn’t work, and was spared from cursing, beating, and condemnation.
I can’t speak to you face to face, or I would be heartsick. So I opted to write you. Even so it took me several tries to complete it.
Ping, when reading this, you should treat it like someone else’s story, and forget that it is your own. That way you won’t be sad.
Laogai Research Foundation
Balada Ciprian Porumbescu
Violin solo Ken Giles
A China Change Production