Peking Returns Possessions Seized in Cultural Revolution : In China, a Chance to Recapture the Past

Times Staff Writer

Wang Yushang, a stooped, unshaven 80-year-old man in baggy proletarian clothing, was rummaging through a pile of books on a dirty table at Peking’s No. 77 middle school when he suddenly came across a family photo album that had been seized by Red Guards from his house nearly two decades ago.

Opening the book, Wang first trembled and then burst into laughter.

“This is me!” he exclaimed, pointing to a picture of a barrel-chested man in his 30s, stylishly dressed in a double-breasted Western suit. “These are my two younger sisters. These are my two older brothers. They are all dead now.”

Feverishly, Wang kept hunting, and within a few minutes he had uncovered the baby book he and his wife once kept for their first daughter, including a silk-enclosed sample of her first baby hair. He also found more lost albums, with his wedding picture and 19th Century pictures of his grandparents.


Wang’s books were among 70,000 volumes put on display this week to help Peking residents locate and reclaim materials seized from the shelves and libraries of their homes during the Cultural Revolution.

The display fills eight white-walled classrooms at the middle school, a testimonial to the enduring Chinese love of written language and record-keeping. There are histories of the imperial dynasties, records of China’s natural disasters, encyclopedias, dictionaries, books of poetry, pictures of jade seals and hand-written Buddhist sutras (scriptural narratives).

The stacks of books provide their own account of 20th-Century Chinese history. Sifting through the volumes, one finds class yearbooks for Christian missionary schools from the 1920s and 1930s, a guide to writing official documents for China’s Nationalist government in the 1940s and piano books and history texts printed in Russian from the 1950s.

At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, young Red Guards went from house to house, seeking to eradicate all vestiges of what they called “the four ‘olds’ “--old ideas, old customs, old culture and old habits. Nothing better exemplified the four olds than books.

Many of the volumes taken from people’s homes were destroyed. Others were left out on the streets, to fall victim to mildew. Still others, Chinese officials now acknowledge, were sent to paper mills for an anti-intellectual form of recycling.

Some Saved

Some of the books, though, were saved and kept in warehouses or storage rooms of the city’s cultural relics department. It is these that officials are now trying to return to their owners.


“If a person can reclaim 50% of his books now, we consider that very good,” said Zhang Zhiyuan, director of what is called the Office for Goods Ransacked During the Cultural Revolution in the Western District of Peking.

This is the second time that Zhang’s staff of 10 people has put such books on display. On the first occasion last August, officials brought out about 100,000 volumes, and 32,000 of them were reclaimed.

170,000 Remain

The Guangming Daily, China’s official newspaper for intellectuals, reported last week that there are still 170,000 books, paintings, calligraphy scrolls and pictures in Peking that officials are trying to return to those whose who lost them during the Cultural Revolution.

Zhang and his aides estimate that between 800 and 1,000 families from Peking’s western district will come to the school before the week is out to search for lost books.

Many of those who come are very old. One, Wu Tunan, said he is 102, a former art professor and a specialist on ancient Chinese porcelain. Asked how many books were taken from him during the Cultural Revolution, he smiled wanly and replied, “Two rooms full.”

A few of the elderly came with their children or grandchildren, hoping to find family collections to be passed on to their heirs.

Other, younger Peking residents come looking for the books taken from parents or grandparents who have died. “This was my father’s,” said Liu Shiying, pointing to a faded book of scholarly records. “He was in educational work, just as I am.”

Not All Lucky

Not everyone is lucky. “This was my stamp collection,” said a middle-aged woman with tears in her eyes. She showed authorities a well-bound book from which all the stamps had been ripped out.

The stamp book was found in a classroom filled with family photo albums that reflect memories of a China long gone. There are pictures of trolleys and luxury trains, of beach homes and baptisms, of old patriarchs in flowing robes and of young women trying to dress and wear their hair like Soong Mei-ling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek). It was a way of life that did not survive the ravages of war and revolution.

Wang, a tax collector in pre-revolutionary China, now bespectacled and painfully emaciated, said he is lucky to be alive today. “It was very difficult for me to survive the Cultural Revolution,” he said.

Asked what had happened, he replied only in negative terms, “Well, I was not beaten to death.”

‘Wrong Political Line’

By official Chinese accounts, the Cultural Revolution ended after the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976. Asked why it has taken so long to return the books, Zhang, the director of the program in Western Peking, said, “Without the correction of the wrong political line, such a thing could not be conducted.”

Attacking the Cultural Revolution is central to the political line of the current regime headed by Deng Xiaoping, who was himself purged and kept under house arrest during the early days of that period. Authorities take every opportunity to remind the Chinese public how much better things are now than they were during the Cultural Revolution.