Bai Di grew up in socialist China (before capitalism was brought back after Mao’s death in 1976) and participated in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). She is a coeditor of the book Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era and is the director of Chinese and Asian Studies at Drew University. Revolution correspondent Li Onesto interviewed Bai Di in February of 2009.
Li Onesto: What did the Cultural Revolution accomplish and what did it mean to grow up in a socialist society?
Bai Di: I always had a purpose. That was what education was about. And we didn’t have to worry about the financial crises that capitalism will always have periodically. We never had that much – two sets of clothes – but we never felt we should have more. You don’t have that kind of crazy desire for everything, like the need to go shopping all the time. I feel that capitalism is very good at creating a void in people’s psyches. It will teach you that the only way to feel okay is to want more. It is so consuming. When I grew up, I did not put much time at all in material stuff. So we had energy to do other things for the greater good. We studied all kinds of subjects, and we thought our presence was very much a part of the future. Yes, we were very future oriented and our focus was also wider than only China. It was about the whole of humankind. It is what inspired us. That’s what I feel education has to be about.
Some people believe in individualism. But if you think that you are the most important, then that really is a boring life because your existence is irrelevant to others; that is how I feel. You can’t survive that long. You have to put yourself into human history. Then your life, your existence, will carry some meaning. That is what Chairman Mao said. In his memorial to Doctor Norman Bethune he said everyone has to die. But the meaning of death is different. Somebody dies a worthy death so that death is as weighty as Mount Tai. Some other’s death is as light as a feather. And because Bethune put his life into this communist cause, we all remember him – his death was weighty. We were all trained this way. You feel that you become part of something. And this makes your life and death more meaningful. Now to think about it, we were pretty profound as teenagers. We were already coping with the existential questions for all humankind: life and death.
I had never lived in a capitalist society then so I didn’t know how to compare it to socialism. But looking at things now both in China and the US, I feel that back then there was an optimism always in the air. We were always optimistic. People didn’t complain. Right now everyone is complaining even though they already have so much. Under capitalism there is desire for all kinds of things. Right now when I go back to China everyone is complaining and it’s just money, money, money. But back under socialism, the purpose in life was not money. As Lei Feng said succinctly: “We cannot live without food, but our lives are not for food. It is for making a better society.” That pretty much sums up the spirit. Lei Feng was an ordinary soldier in the People’s Liberation Army and died manning his post. He spent his short 22 years of life helping other people. And Chairman Mao called on the whole nation to “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng” in 1964.
The whole interview is available at revcom.us. For more information about the Cultural Revolution in China, go to Revolution newspaper at revcom.us and Set the Record Straight Project at thisiscommunism.org.