Wednesday, May 5, 2010

After Four Decades, Apologies Are Coming Forth

In December 2007, I wrote a news commentary for NAM titled “On Mao’s 114th Birthday, Past Catches up to Former Red Guard Leader,” a story about Song Binbin. (If you are not familiar with the name “Song Binbin,” there is a short introduction in that piece.)

At the time, it was a mystery to me what Song’s role was in the beating death of her school’s vice principal Bian Zhongyun on the afternoon of August 5, 1966. Despite numerous Chinese people proclaiming Song’s guilt (and an American lawyer even advocating bringing her to trial today), in my research I never found evidence showing that Song directly participated in the beating.

On the other hand, witness citations pointed to the fact that Song was on campus at the time, and might even have been in the crowd watching.  For example, a schoolmate of hers named Tao Luosong said in a 2007 statement that while principal Bian and other teachers were beaten on a stage, “Song Binbin happened to stand behind me. I heard her say, ‘That might be a way to cut back their arrogance.’” (“煞煞他们的威风也好.” I should say that the expression “也好” is somewhat difficult to translate; it has a tone of “not the best option, but…”)

I wondered why, when Song gave a veiled interview in the documentary Morning Sun denying any involvement in violence, she did not provide particulars of her whereabouts on that tragic afternoon of her youth. If she wanted to clear up her name, aren’t particularities much more effective than an abstract claim?

Now, two and a half years after I wrote that piece, the picture is getting clearer. In the most recent issue (the 47th) of a Chinese e-journal titled "记忆" (Remembrance) is a rather detailed dialogue between five women, one of them Song Binbin. The other participants include Song’s high school friend Liu Jin, and three  lower-grade schoolmates of theirs, who did not know Song personally at the time of the violence. In recent years, all of them are actively involved in investigations aimed at recovering facts around the “August 5 Incident.”

In her introduction, Feng Jinglan, who conducted the discussion, says they have visited 110 teachers and schoolmates in their investigations. The article is rather long, divided into six sections:

1.      - The first “big-character poster” (大字)
2.      - The work-team (工作) period
3.      - The post-work-team period
4.      - The August 5 incident
5.      -  Red Guards and August 18
6.      - About Song Binbin

On “the August 5 incident,” in a nutshell, the conclusion is that Liu Jin and Song Binbin (both student leaders whose influence was waning in the post-work-team period), as well as some others were meeting in an office when, unknown to them, the violence started in the central campus playground.  After they heard about it, Liu, Song and company went to the site to try to stop the beating, then left when they thought their persuasion had worked. A while later, they heard the teachers were again beaten in the rear playground. For the second time the student leaders went to the site.  Again they left when they saw the beating had apparently stopped. At dusk, they were shocked to hear principal Bian was dying in the rear school yard. They rushed Bian to a hospital, had arguments with a doctor who was reluctant to help a “black gang,” and finally got emergency treatment for Bian, but it was too late.

This largely clears up Song Binbin’s role in the incident. I am pretty much convinced that she neither organized nor participated in the beating, and later that day she actively sought medical treatment for Bian.  In my mind some questions remain, but I’ll address those in another post.

In the section about the “August 5 incident,” Feng Jinglan asks questions, and Liu Jin gives most of the answers based on what she remembers as well as her latest investigations which fill the gaps in her faded memory. Ye Weili adds her part of witness memory and observations. Oddly though, Song Binbin, the center of focus, is quiet. None of Feng’s questions here is directly addressed to her. The only time Song speaks in this section is about a recent visit to an old teacher:
[in translation]
          Song Binbin: That day [we] went to see Teacher Mei, as soon as [I] entered the door and saw his all white-haired look, remorse filled my heart, so I said sorry to the teacher. The words came from [my] heart, what I had always wanted to say.  Although on the day of August 5 when the incident happened, we tried too to persuade them to stop [the violence], we did not anticipate the situation’s extreme consequence. Thinking of Principal Bian’s death under the students’ violent beating, and other teachers and administrators suffering severe physical and mental harm, for over 40 years I’ve always felt heartache, remorse, and regret. I’d like to take this opportunity to express my apology and regret to them again.
This is new and significant. Though I wish Song had laid out specifics in her own words about her activities on the day of August 5, 1966, not just let others speak on her behalf, I applaud for her sincere apology nearly 44 years later.  As I wrote two and a half years ago, “So far, few former Red Guards have come out and talked about their actions. Most are in their 60s now, remaining behind a wall of silence. I can understand their excuse that the violence they were involved in was circumstantial, non-personal, and, at the time, even politically correct.  Still, I can't help but wonder: Had Song Binbin acknowledged her part in, clarified her position on, and properly expressed her sorrow for that tragic day of 1966, would people's reaction today have been more restrained? Would she have been forgiven by those who crouched in terror that day, as well as by those who had terrorized and now try to forget their shame?”

I recall years earlier, after seeing the documentary Morning Sun, a friend, who felt Song was too caught up in clearing of her own name, commented, “Why didn’t she express any sorrow about Bian Zhongyun’s death at all?”  Yes, it would have been better for both Song and the film audience if she had spoken those sincere words then, but it’s still not too late now.

Many CR participants who weren’t physically involved in violence might feel their apologies are not called for. ("They haven't stepped out, why should I?")  Other more enlightened minds feel differently. A few weeks ago I went to Harvard University to attend a conference titled “Red Legacy in China.” One of the speakers, Carma Hinton, director of Morning Sun, told a story of her high school reunion in Beijing last year: the entire class gave a collective apology to their old teachers. The teachers, now aged, were very touched. So was I. My understanding is that none of those in the reunion had committed violence, yet they were not exceptions to denouncing teachers, as it was the norm of the time.

After all, few of the CR generation were completely innocent. The Cultural Revolution was an all-people movement. It was a time that few escaped the mob mentality. Even today it gives me cold sweats with the thought that, if I were old enough then, I could have done terrible things that I would regret for a lifetime.

As a writer, I’ve always been more interested in understanding the mob mentality than pointing fingers. To understand we have to keep digging through the past. I don’t think we have dug deep enough, have understand enough. I heard that, early this year, when Zhang Yimou made a New Year movie that many deemed too stupid, the famous director claimed that Chinese people had enough heavy topics like the CR, what they needed now were light-hearted, relaxing movies. It surprises me that Zhang’s sight is this narrow, from only the viewpoint of his generation. Has he noticed that today’s young people are very ignorant of the recent past such as the CR and 1989? Without learning the lessons from their parents, new signs of mob mentality have already began to show on the internet.

A reader once asked me what I think the present effects are in China of people not being able to openly discuss what happened during the CR. I told her the real danger is not from the government restriction on the topic but from a voluntary silence of the people who participated, because what was glorious then, is shameful now. And there are a lot of them, the entire generation that grew up with Mao’s New China, the older sisters and brothers or my generation, the parents of the post-70s and even 80s.

I’m a pessimist when it comes to human nature and I’d thought the apology would forever be in the forthcoming (but never arriving), thus my book title. Song Binbin’s apology and that from Carma Hinton’s class seem to be rays of new hope. I can see how the courage to apologize has taken more than 4 decades to pluck up; it is courageous nonetheless. Perhaps the wall of silence is starting to crack?

Of course, for those who committed violence, the obstacle in delivering the apology is a lot bigger.  I remain pessimistic on this.


Anonymous said...

My view, for what it's worth, is that nothing much will come forth until the entire generation of political figures from the CR period are gone. By then, perhaps, the last vestiges of the Mao cult will have likewise been buried and people will be free to speak without fear of recrimination. Those CR participants (and who from that era did not by necessity participate in some way or the other?) were not so different than others who, throughout history, have been caught up in revolutionary psychosis. It's not strictly a "Chinese thing."

transliterationisms said...

Zhang Yimou was given a "choice" many years ago whether he wanted to keep on doing movies like "To Live" or "Curse of the Golden Flower".

As for "That might be a way to cut back their arrogance.’” (“煞煞他们的威风也好.)

the "might" does most of the 也好 work. You could also consider 'It's one way to cut..." or "At least it'll cut back on...." Both in a similar way portray that 也好 murkiness.

Xujun said...

What kind of movies Zhang Yimou wants to direct is totally his choice, and I'm not criticizing that. My comments were on his comments - I disagree with his generalizations.

Thanks for your input on the translation issues. Much appreciated.

carryanne said...

This topic is so upsetting!

Who is responsible for all those thousands of murders, and even public eating of those people's' bodies is the communist party and it shows that they are still guilty by the way they do not condemn to the degree of the terror that that party has caused.

Whether she murdered the guy or not, I would say what is way more sickening is the evilness that drowned such a large portion of the people in that time, that caused them to put so much faith in that philosophy of brutality.

What caused that evilness to take over China? Can you honestly say it is gone away? I would say it lives on in the party till today.

noregret said...

The initiator of culture revolution is still the great leader and lying on Tiananmen Square. CCP does not totally deny Mao for his behavior after 1949. Most of the responsibility for CR were pushed to "Gang of Four" and Lin Biao. Millions of people still think Mao's intention of CR was to purge corruption and give people democracy and freedom to against CCP base infrastructure. They think the tragic was made by the two group (Jiang and Lin) who utilized Mao's "good" motivation. The leader is still great and correct. How could thousands revolutionary little guards who were aroused by Mao fell guilty? This situation is just like in Japan. Emperor of Japan after World War II was no fault. How could thousands war criminal felt guilty.
The solution in China is to totally deny Mao after 1949 and culture revolution. Today in mainland china, study on Culture revolution is still forbidden. That's why history teach Yuan Tengfei was attacked by many Mao-left.

Anonymous said...

也好 is, in this context: oh, alright. Why not? It will do.

It's chilling in its implied nonchalance. The phrase is uttered in the tone of someone who has the power to make all decisions, who has weighed all the options and comes down on the side of the course taken with a wave of her hand. If the speaker had been more uncertain, she could have said, "殺威風當然是好事..." with the trailing sentence implying her doubt, even if when directly translated, the statement seems purely positive about the violence. Or, 只怕不這樣不能殺殺他們的威風 ... would at least express concern about the consequences. 也好 is in the tone of a Red Mansions damsel wavering between whether to have duck porridge or date.

Several Chinese scholars, including Hu Ping and Song Yongyi, have written extensively about this topic. They point out that Song was one of the princeling masterminds who carried out the wishes from on high. Credulous Westerners may prefer, when confronted with someone like Song who has the wherewithal to settle here and plead her innocence, to grant her the free conscience she craves (or at least the withdrawal of censure.) People in China cannot afford such luxury. I as a Taiwanese American would not dare to forgive the Nazis on behalf of the Jews, and I recommend that others refrain from generosity which is not theirs to grant.

There is one interesting 2005 discussion about this inside the Great Firewall on the reformist forum Kaidi. Those interested can take a look and see what some Chinese have to say about this: