For more than 50 years, a Chinese man’s painful memories of his father’s death have lingered in the back of his mind.
Cheng Zhangong says he never wanted to delve deeper into what actually happened. His father, a high school vice principal, was discovered beaten to death near his office. His high school students had killed him. It was during China’s Cultural Revolution, a period of great political upheaval, a time when people from all walks of life turned on each other. Murders were commonplace.
“Almost overnight they turned against my father,” said Cheng, 69, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times. “I understand they were under the influence of the political system.”
Estimates of deaths during the Cultural Revolution vary wildly, ranging between around 1 million and 20 million.
It was triggered by then-leader Mao Zedong in an attempt to use the Chinese populace to reassert his control over the Chinese Communist Party after his previous failure, the Great Leap Forward, created a famine resulting in tens of millions of deaths.
Cheng’s father was one of those who were killed by roving gangs of Red Guards, who were whipped into a frenzy. Chinese teachers or principals were labeled by students as “capitalists” or “intellectuals.”
Cheng said his father was forced by his students—and Cheng’s classmates—to sweep the school for hours without water. After he stopped, he was beaten by the Red Guards, and when Cheng intervened, he was chased away.
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The next day, he discovered his father was left comatose and later died.
Mass atrocities took place. In the worst-affected area, the southern province of Guangxi, mass slaughter and even cannibalism were prevalent. Torture was widespread. The economy was crippled, cultural relics and religious customs were destroyed, and millions of lives were ruined.
Red Guards also attempted to kill off cats, claiming the feline was a symbol of “bourgeois decadence.” According to historian Frank Dikotter, who has authored several books on Mao’s China, people saw dead cats strewn about the streets of Beijing in August 1966.
“For many years, my family didn’t dare talk about this,” said Cheng.
Cheng discovered on a website years later that the Chinese Communist Party had attempted to cover up his father’s death by saying he committed suicide out of guilt, a claim Cheng knew was patently false. Cheng said he reached out to an academic who founded the site, Wang Youqin, in Chicago, to set the record straight. Cultural Revolution-era stories like that of Cheng’s father are all too common.
The Chinese regime, which still prominently displays a picture of Mao in Tiananmen Square, has yet to provide official figures on the number of people killed.
“Why did it become such a taboo even 50 years later?” Wang asked the Los Angeles Times. “It were as though, if we never talked about it, then it never happened. Who is the Chinese government kidding?”