Ten years ago this week, on Sept. 9, 1976, Mao Tse-tung died. In this century, no individual has stood so much at the center of so many lives. There was not one but several Maos--soldier, revolutionary, poet. To some he appears a kind of patron saint, a man who led China out of war and famine and feudalism; others--victims of the Cultural Revolution--remember that the same man who led them to salvation later led them to the brink of self-destruction.
These essays were written by students of the Graduate Institute of Journalism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Peking. The assignment was not unlike asking a group of Americans what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot: Where were you, what were you doing, the day Mao died?
SHEN JI was born Sept. 20, 1963 , in Nanjing in Jiangsu province, a flat , densely populated area of east China. In 1969 his family moved to Shanghai. A graduate of the Institute of International Relations, Shen was too young to be sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. He has been a student all his life. His father is Communist Party secretary at a clock factory, and his mother works in a telecommunications research institute.
That afternoon I sat beside my classmates in the Foreign Languages Publishing House, part of the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Languages. There was a movement criticizing Lin Piao and Confucius, which was an indirect attack on Chou En-lai, and we were given stacks of paper in English. We were to make sure the pages were in order, and then staple them together into pamphlets.
I remember the telephone rang, and you could hear it over the entire 200 square meters of the workshop. The 48 junior middle school students looked up. We were there in response to Chairman Mao's call to integrate ourselves with workers and peasants. We didn't mind. After all, the work rescued us from boring books and preachy classes--in those days, even math lessons began with a quote from Chairman Mao.
Later, we left the workshop for the school, some 500 meters away. It was drizzling. We were ordered to sit still and listen to the loudspeaker that hung in the classroom. Precisely at 4, on the Central People's Broadcasting Station, a man announced: "Comrade Mao Tse-tung, the great leader of the Chinese people, died early this morning. . . ."
I was shocked. Mao dead? The first words we learned to speak were "Long Live Chairman Mao." The first words we learned to write were "Long Live Chairman Mao." He was God. God never dies. His portrait hung in the bedroom; on my father's dresser was a plaster bust of Mao.
But the facts kept entering my ears, forcing me to believe the news. My classmates sobbed, then burst into tears. I tried to do the same, but failed. Emotional as I was, my tears never came at critical moments. "Come on, boy, tears, tears," I said to myself. I shouted at myself, but my eyes were still dry.
I looked to my teacher for help. Just then, she too looked up and our eyes met. Her flat face, always so kind before, now seemed to recoil. Her small handkerchief was soaked with tears. Her eyes swept the classroom and then focused again on me. "My God," I thought, "she must see that I am sitting here tearless."
How would she react? Would she criticize me or report me to the school authorities, saying that I had no love for Mao? At that moment I knew I was finished. My career was ruined, my dreams of being a Communist Party member dashed.
My classmates were now crying so rhythmically that I began to feel a deep admiration, and jealousy. My heart ached. And then--my eyes moistened. I could do it. I could . Tears ran down my cheeks.
That night I tossed and turned in bed. I thought of Mao, for whom, to this day, I have maintained a persistent love and respect. But much of the time I thought of my own future, and how my tears had come just in time.
\o7 LI HUAILIN was born in Shaanxi province on March 3, 1950. A Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, he traveled the country on the railroads, attending mass rallies. At 15, he took part in one of many Red Guard "Long Marches," walking more than 450 miles from city to city in homage to Chairman Mao. In 1968, while a junior middle school student, he was sent to the countryside to work in the fields with the peasants. Three years later, he was recruited by the Luoyang coal mine, where he worked for the next six years. There he was in charge of the Communist Youth League. Like many of his generation, he lost his opportunity to attend university. Later he studied at a teachers training school and at a technical institute. For five years he taught English at a vocational university. He and his wife, an accountant at a clothing factory, have a 5-year-old daughter. His mother is a retired doctor; his father is a retired hospital administrator.