I was born on a very special day, Chinese New Year. According to an old Chinese saying, a New Year's baby will have a special destiny. The baby will become either a king or a beggar. That's why my parents chose my name with great care and great expectation. They named me Ji-Li, which means lucky and beautiful in Chinese. They hoped I would be the happiest girl in the world.
When I was growing up, I was indeed the happiest girl in the world. I had a loving family, one brother and one sister. My mother used to be an actress, that's how she met my father. My grandmother was a retired teacher. She was only married for eight years before my grandfather died of cancer. She never remarried and raised my father, her only son, by herself.
My father was a stage actor for a children's theater. Since I was a little girl, he often played villains-- a pirate, a foolish king, or a vicious landowner. In the later part of his career, he has appeared in many TV series as well as movies, both in China and in the United States.
I loved my family. I loved my school, too. I was one of the best students and was very active at school. I was the [SPEAKING CHINESE] that is equivalent to the student body president here. Since the second grade, I was trained in martial arts. Eventually, I was selected to be on one of the best teams for children in Shanghai.
Shanghai is my home town. It is the largest city in China with almost 20 million people. Shanghai is China's New York City, very crowded, very modern, and full of activities. My home was in a good neighborhood, only two blocks from the most popular street in Shanghai. Actually, my home consisted of only one room, about 300 square feet. There were six people in my family living in that one room. It's small, isn't it? But back then, our home was, in comparison, spacious. A lot of family of a five or six people would live in one room under 150 square feet, probably smaller than your bedroom.
Our family was considered very lucky because we had our own private bathroom. It was a big deal. That meant we did not have to share our bathroom with other families. Most of the families in Shanghai either had to share their bathroom with several other families or they didn't have one at all. They had to use a wooden stool, a bucket with a lid as their toilet.
The life back then in China was very different from what you have here. We did not have a lot of material things. We had no TV, no refrigerator, no air conditioning, no heating system in Shanghai. We didn't have cars, nor private telephones in our homes. But we did have a phone in our neighborhood. That phone was located in a small booth at the entrance of our alley.
Two ladies were working there to take messages. If someone called me, the lady would write down my name, my address, the caller's name, the caller's return phone number. Then she would hang up and come all the way to where we lived on the third floor, and shouted my name from the ground, "Ji-Li, you have a phone call." So I would running down to get at a piece of information then run all the way to the booth to make a return call. Tough life, isn't it?
But you know what? We didn't complain. Actually, we were quite happy. I remember because everyone's home was very small, my girlfriend and I often stood in the middle of the alley and talked about an interesting book, a good movie, or world affairs for hours and hours. We were quite content. I was confident that I would have a bright future in my motherland as long as I continued to listen and follow our beloved leader, Chairman Mao.
Chairman Mao was the number one leader of China from 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party took over, until his death in 1976.
All our lives, we were told to love him, and we did. We were told we were so lucky to have Chairman Mao as our savior. We were so lucky to live in socialist China while 2/3 of the people around the world were suffering, were dying miserably in capitalist countries.
Everything seemed perfect until 1966, the year when the Cultural Revolution started. In the beginning, I didn't understand what was Cultural Revolution. It felt like a hurricane had swept over China. Schools closed, factories shut down, new ideas were pouring out from loudspeakers everywhere.
Chairman Mao, our beloved leader, was worshipped like a god. His name was mentioned in every song. His pictures were displayed everywhere. Everyone wore Chairman Mao's button. A collection of his quotation, [SPEAKING CHINESE] Precious Red Book became the most popular book. We carried and studied this book many times during the day. Some devout followers could even recite the whole book, 270 pages. Farmers carried a small blackboard with Chairman Mao's quotation on it when they went to the rice field so that they could study this during their breaks.
Every day, the first thing we did was morning greetings. We all stood up facing Chairman Mao's picture and the sang a song together. The title of that song was [SPEAKING CHINESE] The East is Red. It says, "the East is red, the sun is rising, China has Chairman Mao. He is creating happiness for everyone. He is the savior for us all."
After we sang that song, we held this Red Precious Book and chanted, "we wholeheartedly wish our great leader, great teacher, great commander, great helmsman, Chairman Mao, long life, long life, long life." Sometimes in the middle of the night, the radio would announce Chairman Mao just issued a new instruction. So we rushed to the streets to march with the gongs and the drums to celebrate. I totally believed what we were told Chairman Mao was the world revolutionary leader. And this cultural revolution would make China achieve communism sooner. And it would rescue and liberate the whole world.
What a noble cause. Of course, I would want to participate. There were no schools, but we were doing revolutionary tasks, like writing [SPEAKING CHINESE] the big character poster. We wrote article after article to attack teachers, the school leaders, the educational system. We post them inside the classroom, outside the building, and on the streets.
We also attended struggle meetings to condemn those people who didn't meet the revolutionary requirement. We watched revolutionaries smash store signboards because those store names reflected old ideas, old culture, old habit, old custom. We call that The Four Olds, which were supposed to be eliminated.
There was a store called Great Prosperity Market. Prosperity hinted at making money. Making money was bad. So the revolutionaries smashed this huge wooden carved store sign boards with ax, and renamed it to Worship Dong Market. Dong stood for Mao Zedong, the name of Chairman Mao.
A theater near my home was called Peace Theater. They changed it to Revolution Theater. In just a few days, many, many store signboards were smashed. I excitedly walked from street to street with my brother, sister, and friends to find the new names of those new stores. Great Wall, Red Sea, New China, Loyal Forever, with written on red banners and hung over each doorway as a temporary new store signs.
The Revolutionary fever was contagious. Every school organized Red Guards. These were students who had a red family background, which meant they were not born into rich families or intellectuals. The Red Guards proudly dressed in army uniform and performed on the streets. We call their performance "loyal dancing." The style was very revolutionary and harsh. They would say something like, "smash, smash, smash. Smash your dog head if you oppose Chairman Mao."
Then Chairman Mao let Red Guards travel around the country for free to light revolutionary fire. So millions of them went to Beijing by train, by bus, even walking for months. Then they waited at the Tiananmen Square for days. Until finally, Chairman Mao showed up. It was a dream come true.
In the first the three months of the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao went to Tiananmen Square eight times and received 11 million Red Guards.
Just like everyone else, I wanted so much to be a Red Guard and go to Beijing to see Chairman Mao.
In the past, Ji-Li had always been a role model at school. She could do anything she wanted. When her class was electing Red Successors which was Red Guards for younger kids and Ji-Li was nominated, a classmate shouted in front of everyone, "Ji-Li's grandfather was a landowner." It was as if a bomb had dropped on her.
My father who's Ji-Li's grandfather owned some land as well as some business. Back then, land owners were considered as enemies of the country. But actually, Ji-Li's grandfather had already died more than 30 years before when I was only seven. But then our family background became our family cancer.
In just a few months, I had gone from being an outstanding student to an outcast. I was kicked off from the honors team. My brother, my sister, and I, were constantly bullied by our schoolmates and neighborhood kids. The Revolution went wild. Teachers and principals were punished in public. They were forced to kneel in front of their students, beaten or had ink poured on their faces.
The Red Guards went to streets to check people's clothes. If they saw someone's pants looked tight, they would stop them and measure. Because any trouser leg narrower than 8 inches for women or 9 inches for men were considered bourgeoisie. Therefore, unacceptable. If their leather shoes were too pointed, they would cut it. If the hairdo was too fashionable, they would cut it too. It was a crazy time. Some people in Beijing even for a short time changed traffic lights so red would mean go and green would mean a stop. To the revolutionaries, red stood for communism. It meant improvement, moving forward, why should red means stop?
When the Cultural Revolution continued, persecution occurred. Rich people and the people in high positions were the first one to be attacked. Our alley was no exception.
In the summer of 1966, groups of Red Guards, with gongs and drums came to our alley to search people's houses and confiscate their personal belongings. During that time, I was often sick and had fainting spells. The targets were forced to kneel on the floor or sharp-edged washboards with big signs hanging from their necks, with their names crossed out in red ink or with a list of crimes they were accused of.
Seeing this, our children were very scared. So I talked to Ji-Li's father, we had Ji-Li's grandmother take he kids to hide in the park during the day. In late August, the Red Guards finally came. They came at midnight. This was our family's first house search.
During the Cultural Revolution, religion was forbidden. Temples were destroyed. Nuns were struggled against. Struggle meetings were everywhere.
The father of my brother's friend was a high-ranking official. Not only was he struggled against, but he was put on a truck wearing a dunce cap. The revolutionaries drove the truck through our neighborhood streets to humiliate him. General Luo Rui-Qing, who was second in command to the Defense Secretary, was persecuted and tortured. Later, he committed suicide. Fortunately, he didn't die when he jumped off the building but broke his leg. But even when he was still in the hospital, the revolutionaries didn't let him go. They put him in a crate and carried him to one after another struggle meeting.
Many people were killed. Many people killed themselves. Gai Jiao-Tian, very famous Peking opera actor, was beaten to death. Rong Guo-Tuan who was the first Chinese who won World Ping Pong Championship for China was accused of being a spy because he used to live in Hong Kong. And Hong Kong was not a part of China back then. Therefore, he was tortured and humiliated relentlessly. Finally, he hung himself from a tree at age of 31. In his last letter, he said, "I am innocent. My reputation is more important than my life."
Lao She was one of the most respected and well-known playwrights and novelists in Chinese history. He was known as the Shakespeare of China. When the Cultural Revolution started, he was quite sick. He was hospitalized. On the day he was released from the hospital and returned to his work unit, he was sent to several struggle meetings immediately.
Not only was he tortured. His head was shaved into a yin-yang hairdo. That means half of his head was shaved and the other half untouched. This was the worst humiliation for any Chinese. He was so badly tortured, he fainted several times.
Every time he woke up, he was dragged into another struggle. They tortured him up until midnight of that day. Then they told him, "go home now, we will continue tomorrow morning." He left with that yin-yang hairdo. But he never came back. He went to a lake in the suburbs of Beijing and sat there the whole night. In the morning, he jumped into the lake and drowned himself. Later, we found out it was during that same time Lao She was nominated for a Nobel Prize.
There were so many deaths, so many deaths. But if anyone dared to question what was going on, they could be killed very easily. A young Communist Party member Zhang Zhi-Xin saw the situation. She couldn't comprehend, so she wrote letters to the central government. She did not kill anyone, did not bomb any places, she wrote letters to her own government, which was supposed to protect her.
Even that was too much. She was put in prison immediately. Her husband was forced to divorce her. Her daughter was only 11 years old. She was tortured and humiliated, but she continued to write letters in jail. Finally, she was executed.
The night before her execution, the revolutionaries came to her cell and cut out her vocal cords to prevent her from saying anything while on her way to the execution ground. There were many stories, ruthless stories, brutal stories. According to different statistics, at least one million people died and over 10 million people were injured during this Cultural Revolution.
But at that time, I did not know such details. No one did. I only knew danger seemed to lurk around our door every day.
When the pressure became so horrible, my wife and I decided that we had to protect our family. We secretly burned a lot of our old family pictures in our small bathroom and flushed the ashes down the toilet so no evidence would be found. We repainted Ji-Li's grandmother's wedding present, four beautiful leather trunks in black, so they would be less noticeable. We also cut our ancestor's old silk gowns to pieces and made them into mops.
Things got worse and worse. In 1968, two years after the Cultural Revolution started, my father was detained.
Ji-Li's father was detained which meant he was not allowed to leave the theater grounds where he worked, and we were not allowed to see him. There was chaos in the theater, several people had already been beaten to death. One lady jumped to her death from the window.
We were living in fear daily. We didn't know what they were doing to Ji-Li's father, we didn't even know whether he was alive or dead. During that time I was often sick and had fainting spells. My supervisor did not allow me to take sick leave. He told me to lie down at the back of the store where I worked if I could not stand up.
My 74 years old grandmother was forced to sweep our alley twice a day over a year as a punishment of being a landowner's widow. The revolutionaries came twice to search our home. They took almost everything we had. We ended up with no tables, no chairs, no beds. When winter arrived, we put a straw on the floor as our beds. We found a packing crate on the street. That packing crate became a small closet for the few clothes we had left.
We laid the lid of the packing crate across two benches and made it a table. One day, the revolutionaries from my father's theater came to my school. In front of my teachers and school leaders, they told me they want me to denounce my father in a public struggle meeting. They made it very clear. If I were to refuse, I had to sacrifice my future in this land I loved so much.
After they left, I was in such a despair. Somehow I found myself standing in this very narrow passenger way between the schoolyard wall and the school building wall. The concrete walls were tall and cold. They loomed over me. When I close my eyes, I saw my father and myself. My father was bowing his head on the stage with a big sign hanging from his neck. I was standing on stage too, facing hundreds of people to condemn him for his crime.
I saw my father who lowered his head but then he looked up at me helplessly. When he saw I had to follow the chant [SPEAKING CHINESE] you had to follow chant in any struggle meetings. Otherwise you would be in trouble. When my father saw I had to follow the chant, tears streamed down his face. I was so scared. I asked the heaven, what should I do? But there was no answer, except a slow drizzle was falling that day.
That year, I was only 14. 40 years have passed. China is very different today. Sometimes I'm amazed how China has risen from the ruins of the Cultural Revolution and transformed into a new country. Moving in just 30 years from that backward, mad, totalitarian state to today's fast growing and much open society is something that has impressed many.
Yes, China still has problems. Still has a long way to go. But I believe if she can rise from the destruction of the Cultural Revolution, she can overcome more challenges, and eventually rebuild a society that is best for the majority of Chinese people.
Many people have asked me, Cultural Revolution has over for 30 years and China has changed a lot. So why I want to keep telling my story? My answer is simple. We should never forget the lessons of history. I keep telling my story so we can prevent a similar tragedy from happening again anywhere in the world.
There's another reason for me to keep telling my story. When I first came to America 20-some years ago, I was so impressed by the beautiful and affluent life most of American children lived. Huge houses, nice cars, tons of toys, countless books, there are even school buses to pick you up every day. I thought if I shared my story with you, you might appreciate your lives a little more. That was my initial intention.
But after being here all these years, I began to realize this is not the whole picture. You too have your struggles and challenges. Like family problems, being raised by a single parent or abusive parents even. At school, you might face peer pressure related to drugs, sex, or gangs, which I had never heard of when I was a little girl in China.
So I realized whether it was that little Ji-Li in China in the '60s or whether it's Michelle or Richard in the United States today, we have something in common. That is in life, we all have to deal with challenges, face up to unfair pressures and make tough decisions.
I hope when the time comes, you will be able to find the courage to stand for yourself. Use your own mind, follow your own heart, and make the right choices. Then I would be very gratified for telling my story.
My grandmother was the only one who didn't make it to America. She passed away in 1992 at age 96. I still miss her very much. My sister's family lives in Seattle area. She was a math teacher until 2008. My two nephews are growing up so fast they have all read Red Scarf Girl.
My brother moved back to Shanghai a few years ago to start his own business. His little son loves my second book, The Magical Monkey King Mischief in Heaven, which is an adaptation of a famous Chinese folktale. My parents live in the Bay Area with me. My mother walks one hour every day. My father is still acting. He was in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and won the Best Actor Award in the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain at age 80.