A Chinese Tragedy Remembered in NYC

Chinese residents throughout New York City remember that time 50 years ago when the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution began.

Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, called for a new society — a communist utopia free of capitalism and traditional culture. In order to realize it, Chinese people were required to struggle against “class enemies” both far and near.

They marched. They rallied. They renamed streets and theaters in honor of Mao and working people. And for millions of teenagers too young to participate in the war against Japan or the 1949 communist revolution, the Cultural Revolution offered something historic to their generation.

“At the time we were really, really excited. We felt ‘at last we have a chance to participate,’” said Xu Youyu, 69, a Queens resident and visiting professor at The New School.

But even in the beginning months, there were signs of trouble to come.

Xu joined the Red Guards, groups of teenagers who followed Mao with zeal and persecuted anyone who opposed them. They destroyed temples, denounced teachers and humiliated government officials. Hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese people feared the day when the Red Guards might come for them.

Red Guards forced the professor father of David Zhang, 56, to work as a janitor at his school in Jiangsu province. He scrubbed toilets, but made sure to remind his son that everything was fine.

“That’s something that I will remember for the rest of my life,” said Zhang, who immigrated to Queens decades ago. 

By 1969, the Red Guards had outlived their usefulness. Mao sent them along with intellectuals to the countryside. Brooklyn resident Yuan Zhuanyou, a former teacher, kept a low profile. Xu went willingly. But when he saw the extreme poverty of the Chinese countryside, his doubts began to grow. He knew that that utopia just masked Mao’s real ends — to rid the Communist Party and China of any rivals to his rule. 

The Cultural Revolution ended with the death of Mao in 1976. An official report in 1981 from the Chinese government blamed Mao and a few other officials for the chaos that shut down schools, drove doctors from hospitals and ultimately killed 1.5 million people.

Most New Yorkers might not know it, but the history of one of the most tumultuous times of the 20th century surrounds them wherever they go.

Reporter Zach Williams travels to Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens to hear the living history of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. But as an older generation finds their peace with events a lifetime ago, the lessons of that time have yet to reach a younger generation.

“The history books don’t talk about it so much, but I think it’s important for young people to know — how they will be manipulated by some people,” said Zhang.

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