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This Is What It Was Like To Live Through The Horror Of China's Cultural Revolution

This year, the fiftieth anniversary of the start of one of China's most tumultuous periods, the government is urging everyone to "look to the future" — these seven people can't.

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It's hard for China's youth to imagine the state their country found itself in fifty years ago: closed to the world; their economy in a backslide; teens formed into squadrons and instructed to kill.

David Pollack / Getty Images

The Cultural Revolution, the most tumultuous 10 years of the history of the People's Republic of China, was launched by Mao Zedong in 1966 to eliminate any potential threat to his rule. The resulting upheaval saw an estimated hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee the country. Fifty years have passed, but no official memorial event will be held in China. There will be no nationwide public debate and only some media outlets are even allowed to acknowledge that it happened.

But what about those who lost their entire youth to that decade? The ones who missed opportunities for education or saw the loss of beloved family members? Have they agreed that the page can be turned? BuzzFeed News met with seven Chinese people, most of whom are now living in New York, to talk about their lives at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Some are doing better than others, but even to the most well-off it's impossible to easily shake off the memories of that time.

1. "That year [1966], I was a 2nd grader in elementary school,” said Wang Huilin, in his one-man accounting firm near the main thoroughfare in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens with a large Chinese immigrant diaspora.

60-year-old Wang vividly remembers how hard it was to acquire access to books. He didn't finish second grade; schools were virtually closed for more than a year and a half. Even after his school was reopened, all the pupils had to do was read Chairman Mao's quotes. He had a successful career working in the state taxation bureau as a department director before following his wife to the U.S. He was on a slippery slope, taking bigger and bigger bribes just like everyone else in the office, and even now he still worries what might have happened if he didn't leave. Sometimes when he watches the news, he said, he saw faces of former colleagues who were put in jail for corruption. "My life now is clean," he said.

"I didn't study English until I came to the U.S. For Russian, we just learned military terms at school, such as 'don't move,' 'raise your hands,' and stuff like that. I only remember a few terms now, including 'товарищ (comrade)' and 'Да здравствует председатель Мао (Long live Chairman Mao).'"

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2. "When I was at the cadre school (labor camp), I thought of committing suicide," 79-year-old Ren Yanfang says, holding a Hello Kitty notebook in his living room.

Ren, born in 1937, was a Communist Party member and graduate from Peking University, working as a playwright with the Changchun Film Studio, the first film studio under the newly established People's Republic of China. He has been living with his wife in Flushing for the past five years in a studio condo. He spends most of his mornings in an adult daycare center typing away on a computer, while his wife studies ESL, Chinese painting, and piano in another center.

During the Cultural Revolution, Ren's newborn son, cared for by Ren's mother in a different city, got a serious disease and needed a guardian's approval for an operation. Ren was in no way positioned to come to his son's aid from where he was, imprisoned in a labor camp. His wife was a leading performer for the People's Liberation Army and couldn't ask for leave to care for the child. Ren recalls begging the officials, "my son is so sick, you have to approve my request for leave. You can send someone along with me [to make sure I won't run away], and I'm willing to pay for the transportation. Anything could work, please just let me go see my son." When Ren determined that his request had no chance to be fulfilled, he fled.

"So one day night, I prepared everything and escaped secretly when everyone was asleep," said, lowering his voice, as if he was still the new father desperate to save his son. "'I don't care [about myself] anymore,' that was what I was thinking." He crossed the woods and reached a small train station.

"But they found me." He reached a cliff and knew he had no way out. In furious desperation, he started to write a suicide note. It was only the thought of the newborn that kept him from jumping. He was taken back to the camp. Fortunately someone respected in the village weighed in to request the operation, which saved his son's life.

That was 1971.

Ren was a loyal Communist Party member and productive screenwriter and poet, before he tried to speak his mind about about Jiao Yulu. Jiao was a model party official from a poor village in central China's Henan Province who was used as a propaganda tool by the state media after he died of cancer. State media exaggerated and fabricated facts about Jiao, saying that Jiao had Mao's Little Red Book by his hospital bedside. Ren said he was one of the only writers who knew Jiao when he was alive, and confirmed the truth with Jiao's daughter. It was a report he wrote questioning the credibility of the party paper that brought him troubles thereafter.

Jiao Yulu's story is still being used as propaganda by the Chinese government to this day.

3. "I think it’s hard to define Cultural Revolution, but in terms of the Peking Opera, Jiang Qin made everybody in China interested [in the traditional art form], and in that sense she freed it artistically," said Wang Yuepeng, Ren's wife, who holds a positive attitude toward Mao's wife, Jiang Qin.

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Wang, born in 1947, was a famous Peking Opera performer and former leading performer for the People's Liberation Army. In China, official artists and entertainers enjoy great resources and often appear in propaganda performances. Xi Jinping's wife, Peng Liyuan, is one such official entertainer.

"I don't know a lot about other stuff, but I do know about Peking Opera. I sing Peking Opera. So how to understand Jiang Qin as a standard-bearer? In terms of revolutionary model operas, no matter if she's wife of Mao or something else, she progressed Peking Opera for sure."

"Looking back from today, why don't young people go to theatre for Peking Opera anymore? […] I think politics is very complicated, nobody can define it, even Xi Jinping."

"For myself, I think my artistic pursuit was not affected, I only suffered because of him [husband]" she said. Couples of different classes were forced to divorce during the Cultural Revolution, but Wang refused. I only cared about my profession and didn't make judgement on politics. Otherwise I'd have sacrificed my art."

4. “I wasn’t qualified to take part in the revolution, which wasn’t a good thing for me then, but thankfully because of that I didn’t do anything offensive to God and reason. If my parents were alive, I would have had to humiliate them, which would be a heartbreaking memory for the rest of my life."

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Xu Youyu, born in 1947, was a teenage member of the feared Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. A student group that soon had Mao's support, the Red Guard served as the Chairman's personal army, helping him gather and burn pieces of culture and art in a Chinese reproduction of the Renaissance's bonfire of the vanities.

When the Cultural Revolution broke out in May 1966, Xu was a high school senior about to take college entrance exams. The exams were cancelled that year, and didn't happen again until 1977, when he enrolled in a university in Sichuan. He is a revered liberal public intellectual in China and is currently living in New York with his wife as The New School's University in Exile Scholar.

"There wasn't such a thing as a list of banned books. Only two writers were allowed — Mao Zedong and Lu Xun" who Mao called the "chief commander of the Cultural Revolution," Xu said. Anything else was banned — even Karl Marx.

"When I was sent down to the countryside [to be reeducated by the peasants], I wanted to enhance my theoretical study. I'd read Mao's quotes too many times, so I wanted to read some Marx. There was one one kind of place to find his books: scrap yards. During the Cultural Revolution, many intellectuals were raided and their books were sold as waste papers to scrap yards at very low prices. But you had to have permit to buy books from scrap yards, and it depended on one's political class."

"I think it's impossible for the Cultural Revolution to repeat itself. Two important factors: one, China is now part of the globalization trend, when back in the Cultural Revolution we were closed-down; and two, China is on an irreversible path towards a market economy. During the Cultural Revolution we had a planned economy, which had the capacity to control every aspect of people's life. But it can be repeated in parts. Personality cults, human rights violations, humiliations in public are happening nowadays. We should be wary of them."

5. Xuan Shuzheng was visiting China after immigrating to the U.S. when a former torturer arranged a banquet for him. “You don’t have to, I don’t blame you,” he remembers saying. “I blame the Communist Party. Even until today I still don’t understand why they thought everybody wanted to throw out Communist Party and socialism.”

Xuan, born in 1939, was classified as a "rightist" — a person who was believed to have a tendency of favoring capitalism and liberalism — when he was still a freshman at Peking University. After graduation, he was assigned to teach middle school in a remote village in Xinjiang Province and spent most of his youth there. After the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to Suzhou, and worked as dean of the Chinese language department before he immigrated to the U.S. in the 1989 and thereafter ironed clothes for eight years in a clothing factory in Chinatown, Manhattan.

Xuan recalled a horrifying experience when he was in Xinjiang, where he says he endured constant torture. Once he was jailed in a small mud house. Two militiamen carrying rifles and shovels violently opened the door to his room one night past midnight. "Get out!" they yelled. Xuan recalled the two telling him that they received order from above, "tonight, get rid of all the 'ghosts and monsters,'" a defamatory term for the enemies of the Cultural Revolution.

They tied him up with a rope and as he was led out he was sure he would be killed and buried in the Gobi Desert, a common occurrence at the time. They kept walking throughout the night. "The Tianshan Mountains were just by the side. I looked at the mountains and thought of [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky's mock execution. I thought, Dostoyevsky looked at how sunset beams at the steeple of a church, I'll just look at the snow mountains." The execution didn't happen and he was brought back to the prison. The militiamen were just entertaining themselves. It was May 18, 1967.

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6. "The idea behind [Origin Theory] was, 'one whose parents were revolutionary is hero, one whose parents were reactionary is bastard.' I struggled and was humiliated for three days in a row when the Cultural Revolution had just broke out,” says Hu Ping, 69, sitting in his rowhouse in Rego Park, New York.

When Hu was only five, his father was executed for previous participation in Kuomingtang, the Nationalist Party, the political rival of the Communist Party before the latter's takeover of China in 1949.

Hu Ping still couldn't understand why people lost their humanity.

"Why did students dare to beat their teachers? The central government publicly warned against violent struggles. Why did nobody dare to stop them? Even those who didn't want to beat other people had to do it. The mindset was, 'my class hatred is so deep that I really can't help it! You don't want to hit others? Then you are not hating deep enough!' That's just peer pressure."

Hu was among the first in China to publish essays on the importance of the freedom of speech. A graduate from Beijing University who received an education in western politics from Harvard University, Hu was a leading overseas activist supporting student movement in Beijing in the year of 1989. Hu's daughter, born and raised in the U.S. — "shares the same values as ours but is interested in different things," as Hu says — is a sophomore at Harvard University intended for government study and barely speaks Chinese.

7. “I was in deep sorrow. My brother was an outstanding figure, many of us looked up to him," said Yu Luowen after attending a panel talk in Flushing commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. His elder brother was a famous victim who was executed at the age of 28 for speaking up against class struggle.

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"He was knowledgeable, brave, and I think he had great contribution in opposing the Origin Theory. He was an unmatched heroic figure and yet he was killed," Yu said.

"Although [the country has been] opened up and reformed and is different from the past, the reality is that many things remain the same. Those who did evil haven't been punished, and some of them were even promoted to be government officials. Those who suffered haven't been compensated in any way. I'm very disappointed."

Yu moved to the U.S. in 2001 and is now living in Maryland.

Their stories along with many others' have been collected and published in Chinese in books commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Cultural Revolution by Tianwen United Institute, a New York-based NGO.

The books, Red Wall and Red Disaster, are available for purchase on Google Play. The organization is looking for translation and publication partners to make the narratives available in more languages.

Beimeng Fu is a BuzzFeed News World Reporter covering China and is based in New York.

Contact Beimeng Fu at beimeng.fu@buzzfeed.com.

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