Nie Yuanzi (
Wang Rongfen, a student of German at Beijing's elite Foreign Language Institute, was imprisoned after writing a bold letter to Mao Zedong (毛澤東) challenging his judgment in unleashing the self-destructive frenzy of his young vigilantes, the Red Guards.
Even today, the history of that time has been shunted into a dark corner. There have been no news reports or public memorials of the catastrophe, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and China's economy devastated.
Yet, exactly four decades after the start of the Cultural Revolution, there remains a compelling symmetry to the experiences and reflections of the two women who played such prominent roles at the outset of this disastrous era, and had their lives tragically derailed as a result.
However different, they were both, in the phrase of Wang, "bold and straightforward" women.
Following the publication of an article criticizing Mao's political rivals, Nie, then the Chinese Communist Party secretary of Peking University's philosophy department, put up a poster that claimed the university was under the control of the bourgeoisie. Mao had the poster read over the radio, giving it his stamp of approval and encouraging attacks on authority figures.
Vaulted into the leadership of the Red Guard, she was detained only a year later after becoming disenchanted with its excesses, and was jailed for 17 years.
Now, she is an 85-year-old who survives on the charity of friends. Looking back, she insists she had no idea the poster she wrote would have such terrible consequences.
"I didn't know we were heading toward disaster," she said, describing herself as a party loyalist who executed orders. "Once I understood, I stopped following them. I opposed them, and for that I was punished."
Wang, then 20, was selected to attend one of the earliest mass rallies of the period at Tiananmen Square, when the Maoist personality cult was being whipped into a frenzy.
The speeches she heard there reminded her of the language of the Third Reich, and she watched, horrified, over the ensuing weeks as teachers committed suicide, students denounced one another and her own mother was assigned to forced labor.
"I was transported to the time the Nazis took power," she said.
Wang gathered her courage to write a fateful document of her own, a signed letter to then chairman Mao asking: "What are you doing? Where are you leading China?" It concluded with a judgment that the country's leaders shy from even now. "The Cultural Revolution is not a mass movement," she wrote to Mao. "It is one man with a gun manipulating the people."
The letter, which has never been published, earned her a life sentence, which was lifted after 12-and-a-half years, following Mao's death in 1976, which also spelled the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Though frail, Nie remains feisty. She recently published a book in Hong Kong about her experiences.
"The lessons," she said, when asked what she drew from her experience. "Democracy should be really promoted so that each person can express their opinions about state affairs and the work of others. Even if an opinion is not correct, it must be allowed, and allowed to be contradicted. Even today, posters should be allowed."
Nie readily acknowledges helping to visit suffering on others, like officials of Peking University, the target of her poster. They were paraded around the grounds of the university in a dunce cap and signboard. Others, labeled reactionaries, were beaten or tortured.
Deprived of a pension until recently, closely monitored and unable to publish inside China, she has dedicated her life to overcoming the official silence about the Cultural Revolution. The leadership, she said, has buried the memory of this period because "it is afraid of losing power. They would prefer for the Cultural Revolution to be forgotten."
taking a stand
Unlike Nie, who insists she was a pawn, Wang says she never had doubts about the consequences her fateful letter would have. She simply felt she had no choice but to take a stand.
Wang left China days after the slaying of demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and has lived in Germany ever since, as a novelist and bureaucrat. Even today she weeps as she describes the suffering her actions brought to the people in her life -- from family members to her entire school, which became the target of purges and "struggle sessions" because of her letter.
Though they were on the opposite sides of the political chessboard and have never met, Wang expressed support for Nie.
"She is a tragic figure who was used by others," she said. "She was hot for a year or two and then lived an inhuman existence for the next decade. I am glad she is alive to tell her story."
Her only venom is reserved for Mao, who is still revered and officially deemed to have been a force for good 70 percent of the time.
"I'd say 30 percent good and 70 percent bad," Wang said. "The purges, taking China to the edge of bankruptcy, so many deaths -- these are unforgivable. They're not mistakes; they are crimes."
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