Speaker: Song Yongyi｜Scholar on the History of the Cultural Revolution
Song Yongyi, born in 1949 in Shanghai, is a professor emeritus at California State University. He is known for his research on the Cultural Revolution and the history of political movements in Communist China, including his masterpieces “The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database” and “The Chinese Anti-Rightist Movement Database”.
As a true “New China peer,” Song grew up under the education of the Communist Party, believing that “New China saved the toiling masses” and “Mao Zedong is our savior. He was the chairman of the school’s Young Pioneers Brigade and was admitted to the best local high school in Shanghai. But soon, the authorities began to emphasize family origin, class line and class struggle, and the storm of the Cultural Revolution was about to come.
In Shanghai High School, where there were many high cadres, Song Yongyi, who came from a “gray and black” background (his father, who died early, was classified as a “capitalist agent”), became a member of a class of high cadres and was persecuted with the lineage theory of “dragons give birth to dragons, phoenixes give birth to phoenixes, and rats give birth to children who make holes in the ground. “He became the target of persecution by the senior cadres in his class with the lineage theory. But even so, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, he still actively participated in the movement and was a loyal supporter of Mao Zedong. He later recalled that it was really a time when he “begged to be a slave but could not”. Because you were from a bad background, if you wanted to be a slave of the Party, they wouldn’t let you be one.
When did he start to have rebellious thoughts and when did he become an outright counter-revolutionary in the eyes of the Communist Party? Song Yongyi says it was during the five and a half years of isolation and censorship during the Cultural Revolution. In those days when he lost the sunlight and freedom and had only a solitary lamp to keep him company, he seriously read the Selected Works of Mao Zedong and Marx and Engels nearly a hundred times, and after painful thinking, he became skeptical of Marxism and Mao’s ideological system. Ironically, the Communist prisons and Mao’s writings were meant to transform him into a new man, but he became a staunch “counter-revolutionary”.
You suddenly lost the sunlight, lost the space, lost any interpersonal communication, and were in a three-square-meter basement with only a light to keep you company. I carefully read the Selected Works of Mao Zedong, which I had exchanged through the extermination struggle dozens or even hundreds of times, and in the middle of my study and painful thinking, I became skeptical of Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought from the fundamental theoretical basis.
I was born after the founding of the new China. New China was born on October 1, and I was born on December 15, literally “born in New China and raised under the Red Flag.
My family is a middle-class family by American standards. At the time of my birth, my father owned a small thrift store on Nanjing Road. He did not own the assets himself, but managed the store for the people who invested in it, a manager, or a manager. But in mainland China, it’s a problem. Although you are not a target of the “Black Five” category, but the Cultural Revolution has classified the “Black Seven”, capitalists and their agents are also classified in it. That means your origin is at least gray, or a little black.
The family itself should be said to be pro-Communist, which is evident from my name. After Shanghai was occupied by the Chinese Communist Party in May of 1949, the first mayor was Chen Yi. It is said that before I was born, Chen Yi went to Nanjing Road to inspect the city, and my father looked at the communist mayor from afar and thought he was very handsome and had the grace of a Confucian general. I was named Song Yongyi because I am from the Yong generation.
My father died of a stroke when I was 5 years old. Later, my family, as Lu Xun wrote in his novel, “fell from a well-to-do family into hardship”. Even for such an intermediate family, even if you are pro-Communist, the family origin caused me great confusion and pressure during my further education and study.
[Editor’s note: In 1963, Song Yongyi was admitted to Shanghai High School, where there were many high-cadre children. Despite his excellent academic performance, he could not join the institutional Chinese Communist Youth League, let alone become a cadre, because he did not come from a red family. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, he was still active in the movement and followed Mao sincerely.
When Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, those high cadres and the “Red Five” were the ones he had to rely on most, as the successors of the revolution. At that time, the class line was already very important, and the cadres in the class were going to brand us as counter-revolutionaries. My home was raided, and they wanted to copy out my reactionary diary. In fact, I was very revolutionary in my thinking at that time. When I read my diary, I felt more revolutionary than Lei Feng. Because I was learning from Lei Feng, I always wrote those grand words, not at all what was in my heart. During that time, I should say that I participated in the movement very hard, it is not too much to say that I was an avid supporter of Mao Zedong.
When did I have doubts about the system and the movement itself? It was around the summer of 1967, when the students were no longer in class, but we still went to class every day, and we gathered to study and have some discussions. Of course, we were very cautious in our discussions, because at that time, the “Six Rules of Public Security” stipulated that you could be arrested if you made any comments. At that time the library was closed, so we went to steal books. There were many high ranking sons and daughters in our faction. After their fathers were shocked, they were able to loosen their control over the internal books in their homes. They were free to take these books out of their parents’ bookcases – the “yellow books” were mainly on Western literature; the “gray books” were mainly on Western politics.
The book that had the greatest impact on me was “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by the American journalist William Shirer. I saw that what Mao Zedong did in the middle of the Cultural Revolution was exactly the same as Hitler’s. For example, Hitler had a storm troop and relied entirely on the storm troop to open up the situation. It that beer hall coup, many are also young people, which is the Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution. In 68 Mao Zedong threw out the Red Guards and used the Labor and Military Propaganda Teams to put the Red Guards down, just as Hitler finally relied on the SS. This populist contrast hit me very hard.
[Editor’s note: During the Cultural Revolution, Song Yongyi participated twice in the “Cannonballing Zhang Chunqiao” campaign against the Cultural Revolutionists, and his conversation with a friend at a study group meeting was reported as reactionary speech. (the “one strike” refers to the fight against “counter-revolutionary sabotage”, and the “three strikes” are against “corruption and theft”, “speculation” and “wastefulness”), Song Yongyi was sent to a closed study class, and later arrested and examined in isolation. For five and a half years from 1971 to 1976, his entire world was a three-square-meter basement.
There were two incidents of “shelling Zhang Chunqiao” in Shanghai, because Zhang Chunqiao was the director of the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee at that time, and he was also the deputy head of the Central Cultural Revolution Group, of course a close friend of Mao Zedong, and later a member of the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo. The reason for the “shelling of Zhang Chunqiao” is, to put it mildly, not that Zhang Chunqiao was ultra-left, but that the youths shelled him for being anti-ultra-left. One of the main reasons why the youth beat him up was because we were even more leftist than he was. So this movement happened by mistake, but people always start thinking about it during their own persecution, and start thinking about it.
The isolation censorship in the Cultural Revolution, that one was very desperate. You think about it, you suddenly lost the sunlight, you suddenly lost the space, you suddenly lost any human interaction. You were in a three-square-meter basement with only one light to keep you company. I thought about killing myself inside, but there was no way, the light bulb is not 220 volts, it is an alternating current, electricity can not die. I couldn’t read any books or newspapers in there. I still struggled through my hunger strike, I said, “I want to learn Marxism-Leninism, I want to learn Mao Zedong Thought.” Only later did he give me the four volumes of Mao’s Selected Works, the Selected Works of Marx and Engels, and a few copies of Lenin’s works. That’s probably the most I’ve read in the last five and a half years. I read them carefully dozens or even hundreds of times, and in the middle of my own study and painful thinking, I became skeptical of Marxism, of Mao Zedong Thought, from its fundamental theoretical basis.
You say, for example, that we used to say that it was the Chinese Communist Party that served as the main force in the anti-Japanese battlefield, and that the Kuomintang army was not the main force. If you look at the Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Volume III, you can see all of Mao’s instructions on the military, avoiding frontal engagement with the Japanese, and then expanding their own sphere of influence and grabbing power from the Kuomintang, and you find that the CCP did not resist Japan at all. This anti-Japanese war, it was entirely about expanding the regime, expanding the army so that it could seize power in a civil war.
I spent five and a half years in prison, systematically studying Marxism-Leninism, systematically studying Mao Zedong Thought. I also took a lot of notes and made up a dictionary with toilet paper. Then, I learned to be a “counter-revolutionary”. In fact, I did not become a “counter-revolutionary”, I was really revolutionary. Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” was actually about counter-revolution.
Note: After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Song Yongyi was rehabilitated, enrolled in university, and went to study in the United States in 1989. In 1999, when he returned to China to collect data for the “Cultural Revolution Database”, the authorities arrested him for “illegally obtaining state secrets”. The U.S. officials also intervened. After six months, Song returned to the United States safely.
The first time I was in prison for five and a half years, I was very desperate, and from 1999 to 2000, I had a feeling that I would be released. I should say that I was not mistreated in that time, and the state security officers who were guarding me became my students later.
These young people in the State Security Bureau in Beijing, they were very interested in the Cultural Revolution, but lacked understanding. They thought I knew a lot about the Cultural Revolution, so after dinner in the evening, they gathered and said to me, “Mr. Song, just tell us about the Cultural Revolution.” I started with Mao Zedong’s launching of the Cultural Revolution and went on to talk about Lin Biao and the crushing of the Gang of Four. Every night, a large number of people came to listen to my lecture.
Mao Zedong ruled the country by political movements. His political campaigns never stopped. I have counted for him, there are about 50 to 60 political campaigns, big and small. I did a count myself, definitely not an exact count, because a lot of the material is not public. I came to the conclusion that from the beginning of the land reform until the end of the Cultural Revolution, the death of the Chinese people was about 50 million because of the tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party.
But then, the people always had hope in the Communist Party. Like the Great Famine of ’58 to ’62, which killed 30 to 40 million people! But then Mao Zedong did an uncharacteristic review. He again pointed the finger at those grassroots rural cadres. The “Four Clean-ups” were carried out and the peasants were mobilized to get rid of those cadres and take the heat off. Not long after, he started the Cultural Revolution again.
The repetitiveness of political movements and the circularity of the public’s perception of them is something I have learned very deeply over the years. Now Xi Jinping, he is repeating the same things as Mao Zedong, for example, Mao Zedong engaged in public-private partnership, he immediately plundered all the national bourgeoisie’s industries. The recent plundering of private enterprises by Xi Jinping is still the same thing as Mao Zedong. As long as you engage in these dictatorships within the framework of the Chinese Communist Party, you can’t escape the original Mao Zedong stuff.