Matricide and the Cultural Revolution: the story of Zhang Hongbing

Photo Credit: Duowei News
Photo Credit: Duowei News

“I’m proud of having a mother with the spirit of independent thought. I’m willing to dissect my own humble soul out in the open in front of everyone, and to openly repent for my mother, who I denounced and sent to her wrongful death.” – Zhang Hongbing

This is the story of Zhang Hongbing, a man who turned his own mother over to the authorities to be shot for her counter-revolutionary ideas. It’s a story of collective madness, family betrayal and individual repentance. The post below is largely paraphrased and in some places translated (denoted in block quotes) from interviews Zhang has given to Chinese media outlets, particularly 新民周刊. I give the outline of events below and a brief comment of my own at the end.

Zhang Tiefu (张铁夫) was born in Anhui Province in 1953, making him 13 at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. He became one of Mao’s infamous Red Guards and decided to change his name to Zhang Hongbing (张红兵,one syllable short of 红卫兵, Red Guards). His mother was named Fang Zhongmou. She was an independent-minded woman who worked in the leadership of the Guzhen County People’s Hospital in Anhui Province.

In 1970, a debate about the Cultural Revolution between Zhang, his mother and his father turned into an argument about several beloved leaders purged by Mao:

“It happened on the night January 13th, 1970. My family was debating the The Great Cultural Revolution when my mother said ‘I want to overturn the Liu Shaoqi verdict! Why is Mao Zedong creating a cult of personality? Everywhere you look are his portraits.’

As an upstanding Red Guard I immediately launched into a criticism of my mother. My dad spoke up and said ‘From this moment forth, we are drawing a clear line between ourselves and your counter-revolutionary behavior. You are the enemy and we’re going to struggle against you! Take the poison that you just spewed and right it all out!’ When my mother had finished writing on the piece of paper, my father took it and left the house. He didn’t say what he was going to do but I realized that he might be going to the county government to report the case.”

Worried that his father wasn’t going to follow through, Zhong Hongbing himself wrote a letter denouncing his mother and delivered it to the local authorities. The letter was titled “Exposing the heinous crimes of counter-revolutionary Fang Zhongmou and it concluded with these sentences:

“Down with counter-revolutionary Fang Zhongmou! Shoot Fang Zhongmou!”

Zhang told the Xinmin Weekly that after his father left, his mother went around the house collecting pictures of Mao and burning them. The police and local military leaders came to their home, kicking his mother until she fell to her knees, and then tying her four limbs together. Zhang remembers hearing a crunching sound when they wrenched her shoulder.

Weeks later Zhang Hongbing watched as his mother was hauled up on a public stage and ordered to confess her crime. She held her head high in silence, and was then dragged across the stage and shot.

Zhang Hongbing second from the right, his father third from the right and his mother third from the left.
Zhang Hongbing second from the right, his father third from the right and his mother third from the left.

Zhang described how he felt in the aftermath:

“My head was filled with a ‘boom’ sound, as if it were exploding. I felt like I’d been hollowed out, like my whole body wasn’t my own. This was the first time in my life I’d felt this bizarre and extreme pain, the kind of feeling you just can’t bear. These feelings lasted about a month. It was the worst and most unbearable feeling, and it made me want to die.”

To honor Zhang Hongbing’s revolutionary zeal, his school ordered the painting of a portrait showing Zhang Hongbing holding Mao’s little red book and pointing at the viewer. The school posted the portrait on the wall for education and inspiration. He and his father asked local authorities to write them a letter affirming their revolutionary activities and guaranteeing that their past association with a counter-revolutionary would not harm them in any future political movements. Later on, Zhang Hongbing would go on to post a “Big Character Poster” accusing his father of misdeeds. In 1980, four years after Mao’s death, Fang Zhongmou’s judgment was officially overturned and the label of counterrevolutionary was revoked.

Beginning in 1979 Zhang Hongbing began having recurring dreams about his mother:

“There were many many times when I dreamed that I was searching, not knowing why my mother left home. Then she’d suddenly arrive home from I don’t know where — she hadn’t died, she still looked as young as before she was arrested. I get down on knees and clutch her two hands. I’m full of things I want to say but I’m afraid she’ll disappear again. I can only say the most important things: ‘Mom! This unfilial child is on his knees to apologize to you! I was really terrible to you! Don’t leave! This house can’t go on without you!’ But she never says anything back. I’ve met her in so many dreams but she’s never said anything to me. I believe this is her way of punishing me. Then, I don’t know when, but she quietly disappears again. I’m left isolated and helpless and all I can do is sob and hit myself. It’s at that point that I realize I’m lying in bed, choking back sobs with my face covered in tears.”

Zhang Hongbing went on to become a prominent lawyer, starting a blog in 2005 to discuss legal cases. In 2009 he began the process of openly confessing what he and his father did to his mother, and using the media and the tools of the legal profession to try to make amends. Along with giving numerous interviews laying bare his own guilt, Zhang has also applied and even sued the local authorities to have his mother’s grave site listed as a historical relic. At a public hearing on the matter, he proclaimed, “I should become an example of what not to do. I hope that this historical tragedy won’t be forgotten.”

Looking at what he did and what he’s doing to right that wrong, Zhang Hongbing described it this way:

“I’m proud of having a mother with the spirit of independent thought. I’m willing to dissect my own humble soul out in the open in front of everyone, and to openly repent for my mother who I denounced and sent to her wrongful death. At the same time I want to declare: the responsibility borne by me and my family members rests with us, and society’s responsibility rests with society (属于包括我在内的家庭成员的责任归我们自己,属于社会的责任归社会). The two can’t be discussed as one, and we especially can’t use the former to replace the latter. I hope to draw society’s attention and to start a discussion and debate. I want to make people reflect: why is it that on mainland China we saw the tragedy of husbands denouncing their wives, of children turning their mothers in to die horrible deaths? How can we make sure this tragedy never happens again?”

A brief note from Matt:

Some might be asking what this kind of story is doing on a site calling itself “An Optimist’s Guide to China”. I found this story really shook me on first read, with parts of it bringing me to tears. In a lot of ways it’s showcasing some of the ugliest and most horrific moments in modern Chinese history. Personally, I’m utterly fascinated and horrified by the Cultural Revolution. Recently I’ve been doing lots of reflection on what role the collective memory of the event should play in China today, and I’ve been really inspired by the recent wave of people coming forward to apologize and repent. Zhang Hongbing is the most extreme example of that trend. I can’t help but be moved by watching an older Chinese man lay bare his deepest regrets. It runs counter to so much of the culture of saving face, eating bitterness and avoiding sensitive topics. These people could have laid low and rode out their old age, but instead they took action to clear their own conscience and to challenge society to look at it’s conscience. To me, that’s reason enough for optimism.

Selections from the Chinese:

One interesting section that I didn’t include:

张 红兵回忆说,当时听到母亲说这样的话,他非常震惊。“在我的印象中,一贯紧跟党走、工作积极、待人亲切的母亲竟能说出这些话!顿时,她在我心目中的形象 完全改变——她不是我的母亲,而是一个张着血盆大口、青面獠牙的阶级敌人!”张红兵说,“在我的脑海里、融化到我的血液中、落实到我的行动上的是红歌—— ‘爹亲娘亲不如毛主席亲’、‘毛泽东思想是革命的宝,谁要是反对它,谁就是我们的敌人’,这是一种条件反射。我担心父亲没有真的去报案,作为毛泽东的一名 忠实的红卫兵,为了证明自己在与母亲这个‘阶级敌人’进行斗争的过程中‘站稳了无产阶级革命立场’,我马上写了封检举信,当晚就把信和我的红卫兵胸章一 起,塞进和我家同住县卫生科大院的军代表宿舍的门缝里。”

Denouncing his mother:

“事 情发生在1970年2月13日夜晚,我们家人在一块辩论‘文化大革命’,母亲说:‘我就是要为刘少奇翻案!毛泽东为什么搞个人崇拜,到处都是他的 像!’作为毛泽东的忠实红卫兵,我立即投入了对母亲的批判斗争,这个时候我父亲张月升说:‘从现在起,我们就坚决和你这个坚持反动立场的现行反革命分子划 清界线,你就是敌人,我们斗争你!你把你刚放的毒,全部写出来!’母亲写完一张纸以后,父亲就拿着这张纸,出了家门,他没有告诉我出去干什么,我意识到: 父亲可能去县有关部门报案。”

The dream:

1979年11月开始,张红 兵常常梦到母亲。他告诉《新民周刊》:“有很多、很多次,在睡梦中,经过我在无数次寻觅,在不知道母亲为了 什么原因离家多年以后,她忽然从我不知道的一个地方回到家里——她没有死,还像临刑前那样年轻。我跪在地上,紧紧地拉着母亲的双手,有一肚子的话想述说, 但又害怕她再次消失,只能说出最要紧的几句话。我大声地说,妈妈!不孝儿我给您下跪道歉了!儿子我真的对不起您!您别走,我们这个家庭真的离不开您啊!但 是,妈妈没有回答我。在与母亲相会的许多梦境里,她从来不和我说话。我相信,这是她对我的一种惩罚。不知什么时候,她真的又悄然离我而去;我所能做的,只 是孤立无援、绝望无助地捶胸顿足、嚎啕大哭。这时,我才发现自己躺在床上哽咽,泪流满面……”

7 thoughts on “Matricide and the Cultural Revolution: the story of Zhang Hongbing

  1. Demi

    I just sent u an email then noticed there is a new article on ur blog ^_^. I will be busy soon ,so will try to read ur articles in the evening.:)have a good day, Best wishes from Demi, Look forward to your kind reply,

    1. msheehan Post author

      Thanks for your email and I’ll be sure to write back soon. 这几个星期我在我老家(加州),这里跟大陆的时差隔着十三个小时,所以有时候我会晚一点给你回复。Thanks for stopping by the blog and taking the time to read.

  2. D

    Great article. Haven’t read stories about the cultural revolution for a long time. This one reminds me of One Man’s Bible by Gao Xingjian. Highly recommend it if you haven’t read it. It was banned in mainland. The book helped me understand the cultural revolution much deeper than before. I noticed that you’re a rapper, which is great and I have a friend who’s doing it as well. Maybe you guys could cooperate one day.

  3. Demi

    Oh I see, ^_^ that’s good.wish everything is going well and have a good time with family and friends there!so when will u come back to China. I just online for apologizing,I’m too busy these days so very tired at night ,so haven’t read ur articles yet. when i get free i will read them all.
    and i‘m looking forward to ur email.
    best wishes

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