“I still self-censor. I can tell I’m censoring myself even as I’m talking to you right now. I came to San Diego in 1983. I have an American husband and an American child. I am successful in my work. I still censor myself. There are things I’m not telling you because they are too personal and too painful, and there are things I’m not telling you out of habit. I grew up that way. From the time I was very little my parents told me, talk about anything but don’t talk about guajiatashi, the ‘big affairs of state.’ You never mentioned anything political, or anything that might be considered political. And during the Cultural Revolution, when I was growing up in China, there was very little that wasn’t political. If you had an opinion, you didn’t express it. Anything you said could be used against you or your family. You learned to keep your mouth shut.”
Inspired and directed by Mao, administered by his wife, Jiang Qing, the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 as a means for Mao to eradicate his opponents in the Communist Party. The revolution rapidly expanded its scope by creating broader and broader classes of “political subversives” targeted for destruction. No one was safe and, as was traditional in China during times of turmoil, intellectuals were the first to suffer.
Of the Cultural Revolution’s many ambitious goals, one pursued with particular zeal was the eradication of China’s past. Everything traditional was bad; everything new and revolutionary was good. In light of these values, Li Huai came from a bad family. Her mother taught classical Chinese literature at high schools in Beijing, her father taught Russian and classical Russian literature at the city’s most prestigious universities.
“I grew up black,” Li explains.
Families from politically suspect classes or backgrounds were identified as “black,” politically correct families were “red.” The Red Guards, the teenage vanguard of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, were merciless toward “blacks.”
“I remember when the Red Guards stormed into our home and tore it apart. They found my father’s collection of records of Russian classical music. I remember the Red Guards crushing the records, crushing them under their boots. We just stood there and watched. Too afraid to move. We didn’t do or say anything. What could we do or say? You heard a thousand stories like ours and the only thing you wanted was for your story not to be one of the worst.”
Li’s family was expelled from Beijing and sent to rural Anhui Province where, for a while, before Li’s father was tried and sentenced to seven years’ hard labor, he was given a job tending cows. Li’s mother was sent to teach at a school in a remote village. Twelve-year-old Li was left alone in her family’s apartment for four years, looked after by neighbors.
“My situation wasn’t uncommon during the Cultural Revolution. Many parents were sent away. Many children were left alone. By that point, the Red Guard had shut down most of the schools. There wasn’t anything to do. I just stayed at home. Fortunately, I had two things in my favor. We had managed to save some of my father’s books, classical Chinese literature, so I was able to read poetry. My father was a very typical Chinese scholar. He’d studied all the Chinese classics and had made us memorize lots of poetry. He’d also made sure that I studied Chinese calligraphy. From the time I was very little, my father hired a calligraphy tutor for me, a very talented man. I was so little when I started that I had to sit on his lap to reach the table. I was very good at calligraphy, and I progressed very fast.
“After you get past a certain point of proficiency in calligraphy, you usually choose to study a particular style, and there are some styles considered appropriate for boys and other styles appropriate for girls. Although my father was traditional in many ways, he allowed me to study a particular style, a very bold, masculine, assertive style that most girls never studied.
“My calligraphy studies gave me a good visual sense, a good sense of control with a brush — Chinese calligraphy is done with a brush. Calligraphy gave me a good basis for drawing, for draftsmanship, and all those years I was alone in my family’s apartment, I drew. Simple things. I’d concentrate on a single object, a chestnut for example, and I’d draw it over and over again, maybe as many as 75 times. You have to understand how visually starved we were in China, for color, for visual excitement. The government controlled all media. All images were repetitive, political. So I learned to find visual stimulation in very simple things; I learned to concentrate on detail, which was possibly the best education for a young artist. I can thank Mao for giving me that isolation.
“There were many ironies during the Cultural Revolution, and one of the worst for our family was that my calligraphy teacher publicly denounced my father. During the Cultural Revolution, they set up these loudspeakers on every apartment building, and these loudspeakers broadcast propaganda all day long. You couldn’t get away from them. They broadcast political news and they broadcast information about political criminals. And there came one day —we all heard it — when we heard my calligraphy teacher’s voice booming out of the loudspeakers on our apartment building. My calligraphy teacher’s voice denouncing my father as a political criminal. This destroyed my father. He had respected this man. I sat on this man’s knee as a little child. I had studied with him. He had been my teacher. And he denounced my father.
“So the years passed. My father was in prison. My mother was away. When I was 16 I, like all Chinese teenagers at the time, was sent to work on a collective farm in a rural village. I came from a ‘black’ family. I wanted so badly to fit in. I was determined to work very hard. Because I’m from Beijing, I speak Mandarin with a strong Beijing accent. One of the things that gave me away was that the Beijing accent has a strong r sound, very similar to the r sound in American English. So I tried to soften my accent, to get rid of my Beijing r. I also worked very hard in the wheat fields — carting manure to the fields, planting, harvesting. Harvest time was the most difficult. We worked almost ’round the clock, getting the harvest in before it rained. It was hard, repetitive work.