A Scar on the Chinese Soul

When Zhang Xiaomo worked on a farm in Manchuria in the early 1970s, she shuddered at the screeching noise of trucks pulling over on the icy roads. Her mind would dart back to the summer of 1966, when gangs of men would arrive most nights in large trucks, banging on the door and ransacking the courtyard house she lived in by herself. It was the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and her mother, hunted for her contact with the Japanese during World War II, had gone into hiding.

“They kept coming day after day,” she recalled in her Beijing apartment recently. “They were a bunch of grown-up men, and I was 13 years old, all by myself. I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore.” The experience still haunts her.

Half a century has passed since Mao Zedong plunged China into the “10 years of chaos,” as the Cultural Revolution is often called here, wrecking the Communist Party apparatus and upending the lives of ordinary people like Ms. Zhang. Mao’s obsession with ridding the country of enemies brought public humiliation, political exile and starvation upon countless individuals. Perhaps more than a million lost their lives.

But the party, whose legitimacy and image remain inextricably tied to Mao, has refused to fully reckon with his historical sins. And with public discussion of the Cultural Revolution’s legacy still largely forbidden, it remains difficult to gauge one of the most serious consequences of the tumultuous period: its impact on the Chinese soul.

“The essence of the Cultural Revolution is not just, Mao unleashed it and caused chaos,” the Harvard China historian Roderick MacFarquhar told me. It “is that the Chinese, without direct orders, were so cruel to each other.”

Born in 1988, more than a decade after the end of the Cultural Revolution, I grew up hearing my relatives’ occasional reminiscences of daily life in the era: the food coupons, the Mao badges, the exchange of greetings with quotations from the ubiquitous “Little Red Book.” In one of my earliest recollections, my grandmother showed me a pile of old sweaters, explaining with a proud smile that she knitted them as a distraction from the “struggle sessions” taking place on the stage in her work unit’s auditorium in the late 1960s.

Yet the emotional scar has never faded away. In late 2015, when a singer stepped onto a neon-lit stage in Shanghai to perform a song about the tribulations of his family of six during the Cultural Revolution, the outpouring of public emotion surprised many people. One web commenter, quoting a line from the song, reflected: “ ‘After the Cultural Revolution, there were five of us left.’ That is not just the story of his family, but that of many others.”

The psychic damage of the Cultural Revolution has been the subject of only a few small-scale studies. An interview project carried out by Chinese researchers in collaboration with German psychotherapists in the early 2000s showed that people with Cultural Revolution-related trauma exhibited symptoms typical of post-traumatic stress disorder: Many reported intense anxiety, depression and frequent flashbacks of traumatic experiences; some showed emotional numbness and avoidance behaviors.

Cultural Revolution trauma differs from that related to other horrific events, like the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, studies have noted, in part because in China, people were persecuted not for “unalterable” characteristics such as ethnicity and race, but for having the wrong frame of mind. Constant scrutiny of one’s own thinking and actions for signs of political deviance became a necessity for survival that sometimes carried unbearable weight.

Recalling her high school years in the early 1970s, my mother describes a nagging fear of “letting an ‘unrevolutionary’ word slip in public.” It did not dissipate until more than a decade after Mao’s death in 1976.

Such vigilance offered no guarantee against becoming a victim. A 2007 survey of 108 Cultural Revolution participants showed that neither joining the Red Guards nor believing in Maoism protected someone from suffering long-term trauma.

Fickle political winds turned attackers into targets overnight, causing people to label one another class enemies less out of ideological conviction than out of revenge or pressure to toe the right line. The blurry distinction between perpetrators and victims makes collective healing by confronting the past a thorny project.

Wu Di, a co-founder of Remembrance, a journal of history and culture, invited members of opposing factions on a university campus during the period, now in their twilight years, to share their accounts. But his attempt at bringing reconciliation brought back unsettled scores. Each side, rejecting the story of the other, claimed victimhood from the events.

“They’ve never sat down and talked about it,” Mr. Wu told me last year. “They still can’t.”

More personal reasons may also shape people’s response to mental trauma.

Mental illness remains deeply stigmatized in China. Private despair was incompatible with the collectivist spirit and the bright Communist facade under Mao. Many traumatized people, as a result, would describe their emotional pain as physical ailments.

Xu Xiaodi, a retired teacher who saw her relatives beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution, is more forthright than most about the mental toll. She said she had experienced bouts of bad temper and powerful mood swings in its aftermath. She averts her eyes from elderly women performing boisterous dances on public squares — a popular pastime here — because they prompt her memories of struggle sessions staged by Red Guards.

But people “tell me just to move on,” she said to me. “They say, because the whole generation suffered in those years, even the national leaders.”

Rejecting such arguments, many people like Ms. Xu have refused to let go of the past by choosing to bear its psychic impact. But a growing body of research suggests that the past can have a way of plaguing the offspring of those who directly experienced it through the transgenerational transmission of trauma. The idea that life experiences could cause inheritable genetic changes has been identified among children of Holocaust survivors, who have been shown to have an increased likelihood of stress-related illnesses.

The possibility of epigenetic inheritance has been raised by Chinese academics regarding the Cultural Revolution, but to research the topic would most certainly invite state punishment.

Ms. Zhang, who spoke of the midnight house raids, mentioned another event that weighed on her. During the “rustication movement” in late 1960s, when millions of youths left the cities to work in rural areas under Mao’s command, she reported to her teacher that a classmate had hidden her age to evade the order. The classmate, Ms. Zhang said to me, had once insulted her family at a struggle session. She was promptly sent to northwestern China, where she labored for years.

After the Cultural Revolution ended, Ms. Zhang looked for her, and found her working as an usher in a small movie theater in her hometown. Ms. Zhang admitted to the classmate what she had done and apologized. “She was stunned for a while.” Now they both live in Beijing, Ms. Zhang told me. “We see each other every now and then.”

Helen Gao is a social policy analyst at a research company.

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