Coming of age during the Cultural Revolution

Chairman Maobama

I have four older brothers and my oldest brother, Xiang, and I are eleven years apart in age. He belongs to the “’60s generation” (六十年代后)while I belong to the “’70s generation” (七十年代后). He has a vivid memory of the Cultural Revolution as a child and preteen, while I was still a dodder when Mao died. Sometimes he makes fun of our age difference, saying that he feels that he’s several decades older than I.

I like to hear Xiang talk about his childhood. In my latest novel, Song of the Daisies, I wrote about the kids in the ’60s China.

From “Song of the Daisies

(Narrated by Kai)

My parents lived for three years in a military compound in Anhui Province, my father on a temporary assignment. It was close to the countryside. In winter, on evenings when it snowed, I would take my sister Moli and the other kids in the compound, boys and girls, to catch sparrows; for kids like us, growing up in warm weather, snow was the best thing. It had become a tradition, like eating moon cakes on Mid-Autumn Festival or shooting fireworks and wearing new clothes on the Lunar New Year.

On snowy nights, after dinner, many kids from the same compound would come to our house uninvited, each carrying a flashlight and a broom. They adored me and if I were away they would go home reluctantly. They could certainly catch sparrows without my advice or help but they said that without me it just wasn’t the same.

On our way to the village plaza, forty-five minutes’ walk—where sparrows nested inside the straw stooks or under the eaves—I would tell stories, some as ancient as Pangu opening the sky with an ax and Nvwo creating humans with soil, mixing the mythical characters from different times and legends. Or Monkey King fighting Fire God Zhurong; Houyi, who shot ten suns to cool down an overheated earth, and legendary ruler Dayu curbing the deadly flood.

In earliest human history, I told Moli and the other kids, there were four worlds: the Barren, Beyond the Barren, Beyond the Ocean and the Unknown. And there were five countries: Gold in the West, Wood in the East, Water in the North, Fire in the South and Soil in the Center. I liked telling stories, moving my arms and legs to emulate the actions I was describing, changing the inflections of my voice to fit the characters and occasions. Moli once said that I was as intense as the New Year’s lion dancers.

The walk was long, especially when it was windy and snowing, and when none of us had proper shoes or clothes to stay dry and warm in the snow and mud. But we didn’t mind the cold and discomfort—all of us, girls as well as boys, had read many stories about ancient warriors who drink animals’ blood when thirsty and who wear no clothes year round, except a skirt of grass and tree bark, and we imagined that we were their offspring.

Time passed quickly as I told my stories. My mind strayed occasionally to the snowflakes, dancing gracefully, glittering in our flashlight beams like crystal moths, and I felt happy and jealous—happy that Moli was next to me, looking up at me with love and admiration, jealous because I wasn’t a carefree snowflake. Sometimes I would look up beyond the flashlight beams, for the snow to fall on my face. I would lick the snowflakes and smile.

Before we arrived at the plaza I would order everyone to switch off their flashlights and we would stand still for several minutes, surrounded by darkness and the snow falling on us and on the ground. “So we don’t stir the birds, right?” Moli once asked about this ritual. I nodded but the truth was that I wanted the darkness, I wanted the quiet. And I thought the silence could serve as a preordained memorial to the birds that were about to die.

In my experience sparrows are the most difficult of all birds to scare, especially when they are sleeping. Shine a flashlight into their eyes and instead of flying away they stay still, leaving their fate to you—you can even grab them and they’ll still be in a stupor. Their behavior made the killing easy.

I asked the other kids to pair up, one shining the flashlight, the other using the broom to hit the sparrows hiding inside the straw or under the eaves. As they did the killing I looked away and watched the snow. A small pile of bodies soon accumulated. If I didn’t stop the other kids the massacre would continue until no bird was left alive. But I had set the quota beforehand: four sparrows each, not including myself. Whatever I said was an order and even the greediest kids obeyed, fearing that disobedience would disqualify them from future participation.

We started a fire in a corner where the wind and snow couldn’t reach and after wrapping the sparrows in mud we skewered them with sticks and put them on the fire, chatting while waiting for them to cook. I always remember those moments, when fire turned our faces into golden apples and we talked about our wildest dreams without childish shyness and uncertainty: this girl wanted to be the first Chinese on the moon; that boy wanted to invent a robot that could play ping-pong; yet another boy wanted to become a patrol guard at Tiananmen Square.

They asked me what I wanted to become when I grew up. I said I would follow the Greatest Leader and do whatever he asked me to do. “What if he asked you to die for the country?” one boy asked. I replied that it would be my honor. Moli hugged me around my waist, lifting her small face to watch me with worry, mumbling that she didn’t want me to die ever.  I touched her head and comforted her. No, I would never die, never, never, I said to her.

The boys compared biceps to see whose was biggest and challenged each other to arm wrestling. I always let them beat me though I pretended to try my best—teeth bared, facial muscles tense. There was much laughter and cheering, our budding youth strengthened by the fire, the night, the camaraderie.

When we smelled the meat we took the sparrows from the fire and unwrapped the mud, which fell off with the feathers. There wasn’t much meat on them but sparrows were fattest in winter, their tiny chests bulging. Without salt or other ingredients Moli and the other kids enjoyed their small feast. They always invited me to eat but I said that I didn’t want to eat, and said, as I beat the ashes with a stick meditatively, that I didn’t like sparrow meat. I lied—I could feel my Adam’s apple bob as I swallowed the saliva filling my mouth. Who wouldn’t like sparrow meat, ten times more tender and juicy than chicken? I liked chicken and could eat a whole hen if one was available.

What bothered me was my participation in killing. But I couldn’t persuade myself not to kill the birds, either, because our Greatest Leader had said that they were harmful to agriculture and should be exterminated, along with mosquitoes, flies and rats. Who could argue with our Greatest Leader? So I chose partial compliance, a conditioned appeasement: kill the pests but not with my own hands; not kill too many; never eat them.


Author: Fan Wu

Fan Wu grew up on a state-run farm in southern China. After college, she received a scholarship from Stanford University to come to the United States. Her two novels are February Flowers, translated into eight languages, and Beautiful as Yesterday, praised by Amy Tan as “a story with intelligence, insight, and heart.” For more, please visit