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World & Nation

What it was like to be a foreign exchange student in Beijing at the end of the Cultural Revolution

Cultural Revolution
A 1966 image shows a propaganda squad of Red Guards, high school and university students, brandishing copies of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book in Beijing.
(Jean Vincent / AFP/Getty Images)

Fifty years ago on Monday, the Cultural Revolution began in China, kicking off a decade of political upheaval. Chinese society consumed itself in a frenzy of Maoist ideology: Students beat their teachers, children informed on parents.

Ragnar Baldursson first came to China as a student in 1975, a year before the Cultural Revolution ended. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Peking University and is now a deputy chief of mission at the Icelandic Embassy in Beijing and author of the book “Nineteen Seventy-Six: A Student Revolutionary Remembers the Year Mao Died.”

Baldursson offers a rare foreigner’s view from Beijing as the country emerged from the movement’s spell:

Red Guards carry a portrait of Chairman Mao Tse-tung as they parade on Beijing’s Chang’an avenue in June 1966.
Red Guards carry a portrait of Chairman Mao Tse-tung as they parade on Beijing’s Chang’an avenue in June 1966.
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What brought you to China in the first place?

I came to China in 1975. There were two Icelandic scholarships sending scholars to China, exchange students — it was me and another student. We were both fresh out of secondary grammar school. I’d just started my studies in electrical engineering at the University of Iceland — I’d studied for four or five weeks, then I got the news that I got the scholarship.

We arrived later than most students, at the end of October, just when the weather was getting a bit cold. And the school didn’t really expect us. It was kind of a shock, realizing that we had a visa, we had our letters, but we didn’t know which school we were going to go to — we were just told somebody would receive us. And the person who came to the train station said, “We weren’t really expecting any Icelandic students. School already started, so there’s no class we can put you in, but we will manage.”

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We were put in a class with two Spanish students, and two from Latin America, one from Tanzania. There was a lot of visiting factories, going to the countryside. I managed to learn Chinese in one year — and in the summer of ’76, could go on to a university.

Little Red Books of quotations of the late Chinese Chairman Mao at a market in Beijing on Sunday.
Little Red Books of quotations of the late Chinese Chairman Mao at a market in Beijing on Sunday.

In 1975, the Cultural Revolution was just coming to a close. How close did you feel to the horrors that were unfolding across the country? Did you feel insulated in Beijing?

In 1975, when I arrived in China, the violence of the Cultural Revolution was already a thing of the past. It was a stable society on the surface, and the foreign students, we were accepted as friends. We were of course very visibly foreigners — there weren’t many foreigners in China — but there were no restrictions on moving around the city and talking with people on the streets and in restaurants. There was no terror, no horror. People were generally poor, but they smiled a lot. They seemed happy. But they were also tired.

I became quite close with people — roommates and classmates — and everyone I knew, they had witnessed or taken part in atrocities: physical violence, beating of teachers, or at least breaking windows. I’d heard stories about elementary school children going into government offices, and if they saw women with long hair, they would go up with scissors and cut it. I know people who burned books. There was one intellectual at the school who was known for his knowledge of languages — he had collected a lot of foreign books. And of course he took the lead in collecting all these books and burning them. Afterwards, he said that’s what he regrets most.

What was the feeling in the immediate aftermath of the movement — were people confused? Angry? Relieved?

I was just a young student — it’s difficult to understand what I saw, and what people were saying. But it seems obvious to me now that when the news came of Mao’s death — we were called into our dining room at the school, and heard on the radio that he had passed away — people were completely stricken, and they were afraid. They were afraid, and I didn’t quite understand what it was about. When [China’s premier] Zhou Enlai passed away [eight months prior], they’d cry, like they were losing a family friend or a beloved leader. When Mao passed away, it was like they were losing guidance. What to do now? What they were afraid of, I believe now, was that China would be thrown into another Cultural Revolution; that there would be chaos again, and power struggle.

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The Communist Party leaves little room for public conversation about the movement’s legacy. How much do you think has been forgotten? And to what effect?

Discussions about the Cultural Revolution are very common in Chinese society, but it’s all in Chinese, and it’s all on the Internet. Personal stories, they’re all over. But people don’t like talking about the past all the time — they talk about the present. 

There’s also nostalgia. People like me from the West listen to Deep Purple or Pink Floyd, but people here listen to Peking Opera or “revolutionary songs.” Not that they want to return to that time. But people do talk. What they don’t like is foreigners telling them what happened, because they weren’t there, they didn’t experience it.

What about the younger generation?

Older people here talk about the Cultural Revolution the way that in Western Europe you hear people talking about the Second World War. It’s all history; it’s not really relevant in many peoples’ minds.

There have been so many changes in the past four decades since I was a student. Back then people were given jobs in the cities, and if you were in the countryside, you were a peasant. The whole society was organized, and individual freedoms were not there. In the ‘80s this changed. People were able to set up their own enterprises, able to go to university. Now we’re going through a new phase of changes, where access to information has dramatically changed, with social media — where information about incidents spreads instantaneously throughout society. And if they’re considered to be disruptive they disappear. But they’re already out there.

People [in China] do not have a say in who is the president or the chairman. But still, their grievances and their positions are being heard and addressed by that very government they are not able to choose. 

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