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A story about the cultural revolution

The Bund, view from Pudong
The Bund, view from Pudong

My cousin in Shanghai was two years old when his mother, an architect, was taken away by the Red Guards, a student-led paramilitary movement, during the Cultural Revolution. All he remembers is his mother suddenly disappearing; his father, a doctor, had also gone missing days earlier. For what felt like an eternal darkness, he and his elder brother, who would have been five or six around that time, were left alone in their flat. He doesn’t remember how they survived those days. Maybe neighbours came by and brought food. Maybe an extended relative checked in on them. After what felt like forever, his mother returned, but she was a completely different woman.

It was only years, decades later, when he began to piece together that dark spot in his childhood memory. Everyone in his mother’s architectural firm was taken to a tall building by the Bund. One by one they were bound and taken into the interrogation room on the highest floor—and one by one they jumped out of the window.

Out of her entire department, only two people, including my aunt survived. She talks little about what happened, only that the thought of her two-year old son, alone with his brother in the flat, kept her alive. That no matter how the Red Guards questioned or shamed her, she kept thinking she had to return home to her two sons.

Even today, my cousin says, she can’t walk past the Bund without seeing the ghosts of all her colleagues who jumped.

As my cousin relates this story to me I think back to an earlier time when she brought me, a young analyst working on China, to South Bund, right where the building stands—and still stands today. We walked around the shikumen neighbourhoods emptying out; its walls marked with the distinctive 拆, or “demolish”, the area re-zoned for high-rise development. We made a detour that afternoon to what used to be her company housing. It is a dark, 1950s building  with narrow concrete stairwells and lightbulbs hanging on a string that in a few years will be torn down too. My aunt sits down with her friend, who eyes me suspiciously at first, then takes out her tea pot. As they chat animatedly I wander to the balcony and lean into the wind. Barges drift along the Huang Pu towards the East Sea, across the river cranes on Lujiazui are lifting skyscrapers further and further into the sky.

I think back to that afternoon and I think, how little I knew then.

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