The Face of Chen Shu Xiang

Yesterday – Monday May 16th – was a special anniversary in China.

It was the anniversary of a very specific set of events that was to effect the lives of millions upon millions of Chinese people.

You won’t read much about it in the local papers though.

The Guardian has a story  however. The above photo was taken from there.

The “Great Cultural Revolution” – where “Red Guards” attacked, criticised, brutalized and even murdered ordinary citizens, has long since been rephrased as the “ten years of torment” by the Chinese government. It’s recognised as being a not very good time for China.

Perhaps the concept of “Face” keeps China from delving to much into that florid part of it’s past.

Still, a nation that does not acknowledge its own history is bound to repeat it.


This photo is also taken from the above mentioned Guardian article. Just how many people died during that great upheaval is anyone’s guess, but certainly millions. Here’s an excerpt from another Guardian article, found at this address

Chen Shuxiang shakes his head when asked if he can forgive the teenagers who chained his father to a radiator and used an iron bar to bludgeon him to death.

It was the summer of 1966 when Chen Yanrong became one of the first victims of Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a cataclysmic political upheaval that started 50 years ago this month.

Hours after Red Guards beat the last breaths out of him, Chen’s wife – who had witnessed his murder – staggered back to their ransacked family home, covered in blood and her clothes torn to shreds, to inform their six children their father was not coming back.

“I just asked her: ‘What happened? What mistake did we make? What did we do?’,” Chen Shuxiang recalls.

Half a century on, Chen, now 73, is sitting in a Beijing community centre for the elderly just a few kilometres away from the secondary school where his father was murdered, his eyes moist as he ponders his feelings towards the perpetrators.

“I don’t know what to say to them inside my heart. I can’t forgive them,” he says of the teenage fanatics who beat the life out of his 37-year-old father. “My father was a human being, not an animal. He wasn’t a cat or a dog. He was a person. They beat him to death in just a few hours.”

photo borrowed from The Guardian

The Face of Chen Shu Xiang.

A lot of literature has come out – in English, and then some in Chinese – about the Cultural Revolution, beginning with Jung Chang’s Wild Swans.

Anchee Min’s remarkable book Red Azalea is another memoir of that time which has stayed with me, ever since I first read it, decades ago. A brave and passionate book, the author’s bravery in speaking the unspeakable still brings shivers as I type.

There’s been many others since then, and the genre has become known as ‘wound literature’ or sometimes ‘scar literature‘.

There’s so many stories. Not just in books, but in people’s lives, ordinary people I have met, who have told their story.

When I lived in Tianjin, a decade or so ago, I’d often overhear ordinary people, many ordinary people, talk about Zhou En Lai. He was China’s Premier at the time.

Photo courtesy of The Guardian. Zhou En Lai is on the left. Mao is in the middle.

The talk, overheard on buses, in parks, was always along the same lines. Someone would see Premier Zhou on the public bus in Tianjin, or walking through a park. That someone would sneak up to him and whisper about the atrocities facing their brother, cousin, mother or father. Sometimes they’d secretly hand him a slip of paper with the names of their relatives on.

Comrade Zhou would always intervene. Zhou En Lai saved – who knows how many – people from death, jail, or being sent to the countryside.

Zhou En Lai was so worshipped by the people, for his common touch, his committment to the values of the people’s revolution and not his own well-to-do, that some months after he died, the annual Qing Ming Festival gave course for ordinary people to publically express their grief.

Millions of ordinary Chinese poured into Tiananmen Square to pay their respects to Premier Zhou, leaving chrysanthemums, wreaths, poems and placards to mourn him.




These photos show ordinary people, coming to Tiananmen, to mourn the death of Premier Zhou En Lai. It was April 3rd -4th, 1976.

Although the Chinese press let the anniversary of the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution slip by yesterday, today there is some press.


The editorial urged people to “move on” from the decade of upheaval.

Some people, however, are worth rememembering.


Premier Zhou En Lai. They maybe posters, but they portray the real life of a remarkable man. Certainly according to the memories of the old folk in Tianjin. Zhou En Lai, a man of the people.

photos taken from the following sites: