At first glance, Wange Wen Ming appears to be the epitome of middle-class success. A mechanical engineer at Peking Precision Machine Factory for 30 years , he wears Hong Kong-made dress shirts, travels by first-class train, and looks very trim and fit for his age. His salary places him in the top 5 percent of mainland China's income scale. He owns two motorcycles and has a comfortable one-bedroom apartment furnished with a refrigerator, a stereo system, and color television. His lovely wife, Tsui Ying, doesn't look a day over 30 and his son and daughter are impeccable models of decorum.
In most societies, a man like Wang would be the envy of his contemporaries. But in Maoist China, men like Wang -- professional, educated, inventive men -- have lived uneasily under an onus of suspicion. According to the theory of China's Communist peasant leader Mao Tse-Tung, intellectuals are a vacillating bourgeois class whose skills are necessary to the development of China, but whose loyalty should never be completely trusted. Thus, at different times in his life, Wang has been praised, promoted, and rewarded for his contributions and also criticized, condemned, and punished for his social background.
His story is representative of millions of Chinese "intellecutuals," meaning the roughly 5 percent of the population who have been to college. Under Deng Xiaoping, the hopes of China are once more pinned on such people. But the intellectuals are a wary group today. Wang Wen Ming's story illustrates why.
When we met in the first-class compartment of a Chinese train in last spring, I mistook Wang for an overseas Chinese because of his Western-style dress. His English was remarkably good, though he humbly begged my forgiveness for its shortcomings. He was amiable and talkative. Between naps and over meals, he told me the story of his life.
Wang was born in 1925, the youngest of four children. His father owned a successful import-export business in Shanghai, so Wang's early years were spent in the comfort of a 10-room house in one of Shanghai's better districts. He was privately tutored in traditional Chinese education as a boy, but his father was a rather progressive man for his day, so he urged his children to get Western-style college educations. Wang followed his brothers' footsteps and enrolled in the University of Shanghai, an American missionary college in 1943, during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai.
There he studied science, mathematics, and English. War and political conflict surged on all sides, but Wang was largely unaffected. As a patriot, he had tremendous contempt for the Japanese and little faith in the Kuomintang's (Nationalists) ability to resist their invasion of China. But he had formulated no political beliefs of his own and knew next to nothing about a small band of communists in north China who would shortly wield such great influence over his life.
After the war he met his future wife, Li Yun Chun, who was also a student at the university. Li was from Hangzhou, the beautiful town 60 miles south of Shanghai. Her father was a bookkeeper in the municipal government, a position of little wealth, but great prestige and influence.
When Wang graduated, he immediately found work in a textile firm owned by a friend of the family. The following spring, Wang and Li were married and settled down to live with Wang's parents.
Events in north China quickly unsettled their nuptial bliss. By early 1949 it was obvious that the Communists would seize power. When a worker's uprising broke out in Shanghai that May, Wang's father made no plans to flee. As a capitalist with extensive foreign contacts, he did not wish to place his fate in Communist hands.
In July 1949, as the Nationalist forces crumbled, Wang's father, mother, older sister, and two older brothers boarded a ship for Hong Kong. His grandmother refused to leave, since she was in her 70s and a native of Shanghai. So, Wang was left behind to look after his grandmother and the family house. Li's father, tainted by his association with the Kuomintang, also fled with his wife to Hong Kong. Wang and Li remained in Shanghai, troubled by their families' exodus, but vaguely hopeful that it would prove to be short lived. Neither ever saw their families again. The Communists take over
By the September 1949 the People's Liberation Army held firm control of Shanghai. Soon party cadres, mostly peasants from north China, entered the city to run its affairs. Shanghai University, which Li still attended, was one of the first institutions to be taken over the new government. The teachers and missionaries were all sent packing to Hong Kong or the United States, and the school was shut down before Li could finish her senior year.
In March 1950 her first child was born, a boy whom they named Bin. Wang's factory was nationalized that year, but he continued to work there without much change. In November his grandmother quietly passed away in the family house, fulfilling the ancient Chinese maxim that "leaves should fall near their roots."
Her death left the three of them living in a 10-room house, an extravagance no longer permissible in new China. One day in early 1951, Wang received a visit from three leading officials at his factory. They told him his house was urgently needed by poor families with no place to live. They reminded him that everyone must make sacrifices for the new China, and that he in particular, as a member of the old bourgeoisei, should show his willingness to support the new order. Wang new he had no choice. He was allowed to keep two rooms for his family. The rest of the house was divided into six apartment housing 40 people.
At first, Wang and Li tried to make the best of their new situation. But they discovered that their neighbors still resented them and would not speak. At work, Wang felt glaring, suspicious eyes on him at all times. He and Li decided they needed a change of scene, a chance to start over from scratch without the odious label of "bourgeois" pinned to them.
Wang applied for permission to transfer to Peking. Though he had the usual Shanghaiese contempt for the country village atmosphere of the capital, he felt he could ensure himself and his family a better future by showing his willingness to relocate for the revolution. In March 1951 permission was granted.
Shortly thereafter, Wang, Li, and their one-year-old son move to Peking. Wang was assigned an engineering position at Peking Precision Machine Factory. He was given a spacious two-bedroom apartment and a new housing compound.
The family gradually acclimated to Peking. They learned to eat noodles noodles and steamed bread instead of rice. They learned to survive the long, cold winters by wearing many layers of clothing. On the job, Wang's technical skills were appreciated and rewarded with salary increases.
In 1953 their second child, a daughter named Xiao Mei, was born. Two years later, Wang was given a private telephone and a car was made available to him for excursions to the Great Walls, two privileges usually reserved for only the highest officials. Li stayed home with the children until they were old enough for school, and then began teaching math at a nearby high school.
Neither joined the Communist Party nor formulated many political opinions. They were content with their lives and more no complaints. Each New Year's they received packages of delicate sweets and expensive clothing from their families in Hong Kong, with whom they exchanged monthly letters.
When Mao decreed "Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom" in 1957, Wang and other intellectuals were urged to bare their souls and speak frankly about their criticisms of socialism. But Wang was a cautious man and kept quiet. Several of his more outspoken colleagues took the Communists at their word and found themselves in labor camps the following year.
However, Wang's fortunes continued to rise through the Great Leap Forward in 1958 and the great plunge backward in 1960, when famine stalked north China and the Russians pulled out their technocrats. By 1965 Wang was earning $100 a month as the lead engineer at his factory. His wife had been promoted to dean of the fourth-year class at the high school and earned $45 a month. Their son, Wang Bin, was enrolled in the best school in Peking and their daughter, Xiao Mei , was a straight-A student in primary school. The great shock
When the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution began in late 1965, Wang dismissed it as a just another excuse to hold meetings. "Under the Nationalists , we had too many taxes; under the Communists, we have too many meetings," he said, quoting a popular joke. So it was with great shock that he discovered, in early 1966, that he was the target of vociferous criticism in big-character posters which suddenly materialized at his factory.
One day, at an outdoor meeting that all employees attended, the factory's director, assistant director, party seceretary, and Wang were marched onto a wooden platform, where they stood for four hours, enduring the howls of execration from their fellow workers. They were each required to make a confession of their crimes, and were roundly booed for failing to confess all.
Wang tried to remain silent, his time-tested arrival method, but he only aroused further ire from the crowd, who began to hurl stones at him. The younger party members who were in charge of the meeting forced Wang to bow his head low and extend his arms straight back, so that he looked like a child imitating a jet fighter. He was forced to hold this position for more than an hour while he underwent criticism "by airplane," as it became popularly known.
In the days that followed, work ended at noon, so that mass criticism meetings could be held after lunch. Each day, Wang marched up to the platform, bowed his head, extended his arms back and listened to the crown chanting its hatred for him. Each night, he wrote confessions at home. Each morning, the confessions were rejected and the process began anew.
Besides the rather vague and ludicrous charge that he was a bourgeois follower of the capitalist-leader Liu Shaoqi (then President of China), Wang had no idea what his crimes were. He had worked hard all his life to build up China; he had sacrificed his house in Shanghai for the poor; he always followed orders meticulously. Yet, his name was vilified in thousands of big character posters plastered across the walls of the factory. People stopped talking to him. He was suspended from his job.
Gradually, after weeks of criticism "by airplane," the charges against Wang became clear. He was a bourgeois element because he had such a high salary and he came from a rich family. He was a traitor to China because his father had dealings with foreign imperialists in the old days, and because Wang continued to maintain illicit relations with reactionaries (letters exchanged with his family abroad). It was even hinted by some that Wang had stolen and sold factory secrets to his relatives in Hong Kong in exchange for the fancy clothes he liked to wear.
There was no trial, because these charges, except the last, were self-evident. Wang was demoted to janitor and assigned the task of cleaning machinery. His salary was slashed to $25 per month.
Meanwhile, Li Yun Chun was having problems of her own. As dean of the fourth-year class and a fairly strict disciplinarian, she quickly became one of the favorite targets of the young Red Guards at her school. Like Wang, she was denounced in big character posters and at mass meetings. She spent her days sweeping the school grounds and her nights composing long confessions of imagined crimes. But because her accusers were high school students, full of energy and revolutionary enthusiasm, they had less patience with her feeble attempts at self defense.
When she stood up straight before them to answer accusasations, they beat her. When she could no longer maintain the "airplane" position, they spat upon her. When one of her more studious pupils discovered Li's father had been a Kuomintang official, they placed her under arrest as a spy and presented her to the Peking Internal Security Bureau, where she spent several weeks in jail, undergoing interrogation.
Upon her release, she returned home to find the apartment had been ransacked by Red Guards from her high school. They had stolen all of the family's best clothing, letters from their relatives abroad, books, artwork, heirlooms and jewelry. Her son and daughter, home alone at the time of the break-in, had both been roughed up. The few belongings left behind were strewn all over the apartment.
When Wang discovered the theft, he immediately reported it to the police, but they were not intersted in what the Red Guards had done and instead detained himm for questioning. Afterwards, Li was suspended indefintely from her job and put under house arrest while charges of collaboration with the enemy (her father) were investigated.
Throughout the chaotic year of 1967, the Wangs did not hear from their relatives abroad and dared to write to them, since rumor had it that all international mail was being opened and read. In fact, they had not heard from their families since New Year's, 1966, and would not receive letters again for the next 11 years.
That year, Wang Bin was a senior high school. For nearly two years, his classmates had shunned him, since everyone knew his parents were "class enemies." He was forbidden to join the Red Guards or participate in their activities, and often bore the brunt of their antipathy. Frustrated, lonely, and desperate, Wang Bin decided to do the only thing which could absolve him of the sins of his antecedents: he publicly denounced his parents and disowned them. Having thus clearly chosen sides, he was admitted to a Red Guard organization and left Peking to travel around the country, inciting rebellion among peasants.
Later that year he tried to join the Army, but was rejected because of his parents' background. Instead, he was allowed to join a group of high school students who went to Heilongjiang province, in the extreme north of China. There, he worked on an Army-run farm near the Russian border for the next 4 1/2 years.
In September 1967 the Wangs were evicted from their two-bedroom apartment and moved to a tiny two-room place within the Precision Machine Factory compound. Of the many possessions they had brought from Shanghai, they were allowed to keep only two -- a bed and a dresser. Wang exhausted his savings last year trying to keep food on the table and clothes on his family's back.
Late the next year, engineer-turned-janitor Wang was assigned to attend a May 7 school. These were reformatories set up in the countryside for intellectuals where they were to remold themselves through labor. Wang was sent to northern Shanxi Province, a barren, desolate area on the fringes of the Gobi Desert. For the next three years he carried nightsoil to the fields, tended pigs, and read the complete works of Chairman Mao.
A few months later, Li was also sent to a May 7 school in nearby Hebei Province.Xiao Mei, a high school senior at the time, was left alone. She attended school on the rare days that classes were held and hung out in the streets of Peking the rest of the time. Soon, she met other young people and began to visit their homes. Many of them were "class enemies" like herself whose parents were often out of town at May 7 schools. She and her friends, devoid of parent supervision, began to throw wild parties at which drunkenness and sex were common diversions.
Though Xiao Mei was among the top students in her class, she was ineligible for college because of her background. At that time, only children of peasants, workers and soldiers were considered for college, and even they were required to work at least a year after high school.
So, when Xiao Mei graduated in 1970, she was assigned to work in Inner Mongolia, where she and other urban young people could learn from the peasants. She arrived to discover a handful of nomads living out of tents on the wind-swept grasslands, and several party officials, all Han Chinese. The nomads had no use for the urban young and didn't even speak the same language.
The party officials set the young people to work building a village from scratch, and attempted to cajole the Mongolian nomads into settling down and raising wheat. As the first winter set in, the nomads picked up and moved, leaving the young people to fend themselves against bitterly cold temperatures that dipped to -30 degrees F.
During the first year, nearly everyone got sick and two of the young people died. Xiao Mei spent three winters in Inner Mongolia, living in the most primitive conditions imaginable. Throughout this period, the young were forbidden to visit their homes for fear that they would not return. Several ran away, but most were caught and returned to the site of their new village, which grew, brick by mud brick, out of the bare earth.
Meanwhile, Li Yun Chun, exhausted by agricultural work, fell ill during the winter of 1970. The local doctor refused to treat a "bourgeouis traitor," and her condition deteriorated. Since she could no longer work, she was sent back to Peking.
Once home, she stayed in bed for a month, relying on her neighbors to care for her, because her family was not there.Gradually, her strength returned. But that summer her health began to fail again. Two Peking hospitals both informed her their medical services were for proletarians only.
Word of her illness reached Wang Wen Ming, who was allowed to return home. He arrived from Shanxi Province after three years' absence to find his wife gravely ill and his children both gone to the far north. Obviously cheered by the appearance of her husband, Li mad some improvement initially. She passed on that fall.
After Li's death, Wang was allowed to resume his janitorial duties at the factory. The following year, Wang Bin returned home from the Russian border for his first visit in almost five years. No one had told him of his mother's passing, perhaps because no one at his farm knew. Upon his arrival, he was warmly greeted by his father, a welcomed prodigal son. In their mutual grief, father forgave son for disowning the family four years before.
But Wang Bin could not forgive himself, especially since his mother had died thinking she no longer had a son. Bin was supposed to return to Heilongjiang after a vacation, but his revolutionary fervor had been severely dampened. He knew he had no chance at college, so he begged his father to find him a job in his factory. Despite continued enmity toward Wang among the newly appointed "revolutionary directors" of the factory, they agreed to take Wang Bin on as a machinist's helper. Thus, Wang Bin's future was decided. To this day, he works in the Precision Machine Factory.
After 1972 Wang Wen Ming gradually began to resume his former engineering position. His salary remained the same, $25 a month, only $5 more than his son, but the "revolutionary directors" recognized that the factory could not operate without skilled technicians. Production had plummeted in 1969 to less than one-fourth of its previous level, and many products were of such poor quality they could not be used.
Just prior to New Year's 1974 Xiao Mei returned home, thin and weak. She did not know her mother had died, though Wang Wen Ming had sent her several letters.
For the first time since 1967 Wang Wen Ming spent the holidays with both his children. Later, his daughter, still dreaming of college, attempted to apply again. But she was turned down. No matter how long she worked as a peasant, she would always be bourgeois in the party's eyes. Instead of college, she was assigned to an optical factory where she began work as an assembler. Turnabout
In October 1976 the infamous "gang of four" were arrested in the middle of the night, paving the way for Deng Xiaoping to assume power for the third time. Afterward, life began to change dramatically for Wang Wen Ming. In early 1977 he was repromoted to engineer and his salary was raised to $70 a month. Later that year, he received mail from his family for the first time since 1966. His father had died in the interim, as had Li's parents. His eldest brother and sister still lived in Hong Kong with his mother, while his other brother had moved to California, where he was earning $50,000 a year as an electrical engineer.
Later that year, the government held the first college entrance examination since 1965. Xiao Mei was 24 by then, but still wanted to take the exam. However, her factory leaders would not allow it. She had already been trained as an assembler and was too valuable to lose. Wang Bin didn't even try. He was promoted to machinist and accepted the position.
In April 1978 Wang received a letter from the State Council of the People's Republic of China. Inside was an official letter of apology for the many wrongs which he had suffered during the Cultural Revolution and a notice that he would receive 5,000 yuan ($3,333) as compensation for the loss of his apartment, belongings, and salary, and for the death of his wife. His salary was immediately raised to $160 per month.
With the help of his brother in Hong Kong, Wang went on a buying spree, fillings his tiny two-room flat with a stereo, color TV, refrigerator, and new furniture. He bought himself a Chinese-made motorcyle and one for his son. He bought his daughter a new wardrobe from Hong Kong.
In 1979 Wang Wen Ming remarried, and he and his new wife moved into her one-bedroom apartment and left the two-room flat to his children.
When I met the family last year, there was little surface evidence of the ordeal they had survived. Wang Bin, just 30, was engaged to a lovely middle-class girl whom he has subsequently married. Xiao Mei was studying English at night and delighted in practicing with me.
As we talked more, the children's bitterness seeped out. Both are utterly cynical about politics and feel the best years of their lives have been wasted. Xiao Mei is trying to leave China to study abroad, and frankly proclaims she would never return. Her brother would also like to leave, if given the chance.
I assumed Wang Wen Ming would be bitterest of all, but when I inquired about it one night, he simply shrugged.
"Have you ever heard the story of 'Sai Wong's Lost Horse'"? he asked me.
I confessed I hadn't.
"Sai Wong lived a long, long time ago. He had a horse, and one day it ran away. Sai Wong's neighbors all came to him and said, 'We're sorry you lost your horse. We'll help you look prize horse, breaking his leg. Again the neighbors arrived in sympathy; again Sai Wong calmly told them it was hard to say whether breaking a leg was good or bad. Finally, a war broke out and all the young men were drafted to fight. Only Sai Wong's son was exempted because of his broken leg, and he was the only son who survived."
"So you see," Wang Wen Ming continued, "Sai Wong was an indifferent man. In China, it is wise to be indifferent. What happened to me yesterday can never be changed. What I have today could be taken from me tomorrow. So what is the use of worrying about either my past or my future?"