January 30, 2013

Where Does Evil Come From - My Thought On Massacres During Chinese Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution hunted the political a...

(Caution: even though as a writer I always spare gruesome details, still, if you do not have the nerve to confront the darkest darkness of human nature, don't read this blog!)

People always put the word "kind" to all the weak individuals, but what they do not know is, the reason some of these individuals appear to be "kind" is only because they do not have chance to be evil. --- Hu Ping

I was born a year before Cultural Revolution. I don't remember much of violence diffused all over the country during my childhood. I heard there was a bullet shot on the window of our house (barely two rooms with a small kitchen), which just missed my head, while I was sitting in my nanny's lap. I heard my father's concussion was caused by 4 red guards holding his body upside down, then hitting downward to the floor of the stage - before which some hundreds of people were watching, including me, who was crying. I heard one of professors was tortured, in a way I felt difficulty to describe; I also heard some "rumors" about cannibalism that took place in some countryside of China. Still, rumors were just "rumors", the life of my first 30 years in China was "peaceful" (if we don't count the violence happened within families).

Recently I read part of book: "The Myth of Blood", a book that was written over 20 years ago and finally got published in Hong Kong in 2010. The book documents carefully about the mass massacre that took place in Dao county, Hu Nan province during summer of 1967, right after Cultural Revolution began. The brutality of this massacre was absolutely beyond anyone's imagination - during 3 months of mass murder, over 9000 people died (among which over 1000 committed suicide) in that county alone, most of them by torture. A local river ran red for months. Once this beautiful place was well known for the fishes from river, but after massacre, no one bothered eating fishes for years.

Intrigued by this book, I traced some online sources about another "well-known" massacre took place in Nan Ning county, Guang Xi province. Those sources proved the "rumors" I heard long time ago. This massacre was even more gruesome, mostly due its widely practiced cannibalism. What's even worse than just cannibalism was that the cannibalism here was often "practiced" during victims were still alive. It seems no one really know how many people died in that place during massacre, some sources say 50 or 70 thousands, some say hundreds of thousands. No one knows for sure.

These two massacres were not all happened in countryside of China during Cultural revolution. There were many other places suffered the same horrors. As Deng Xiaoping once said (source from online): we would never know how many people died during Cultural Revolution.

I was shocked, first by the brutality, second by the people who involved - they were mostly "ordinary" people. These massacres were not government "organized", or "state-promoted" crimes, they were "mass movements" that everybody participate (more or less) voluntarily. These massacres usually started by two groups of people who fought violently, yet both sides claimed loyal to Mao and Communism. And when these movement went into absolute chaos, more people involved, then the "excitement" was no longer "political", or "ideological", but absolutely frenzied and devilish.

The details were incredibly gruesome, I think they would be the best described by Mo Yan's style, not mine. However, here are a couple of them I could put in brief: in Dao County's masscare, one person tried to hang himself but he was just a little too late, he was "rescued" by his "enemies", and then tortured in many different ways until he died. During massacre of Guangxi province, it was said one old (ordinary) lady first got a heart from a victim, but after she heard that the organs from died bodies did not have the best curative effect, she threw it away, and eagerly participated the next more frenzied action in order to get a fresher one...

Ignorance does kill!

Honestly speaking, I would prefer these crazy people all had guns, so the victims could depart the earth more mercifully. The fact was, without guns, these Red guards or Red comrades were just become incredibly "creative" on killing. Again, I am not interested in details of those "techniques".

Can we blame this type of crime to Communism, or to Mao, to Chinese government? I simply cannot. It is obvious that most of participants of such movements were volunteer commoners, free to do or not to do anything that they "felt" "right" or "wrong". There were some forced actions, but certainly not all of them (I supposed not even most of them). And there was no law, no moral stance, only evils unleashed. Yes, Mao might be responsible for unleashing such evils.

What continued to strike me is, all these horrors, almost vanished from people's mind immediately after they ended. No body talked abut it, neither no one was punished by laws (of course there was no law). Most of those murderers, those who ate other humans organs, flesh, just went straight back to their "ordinary" life, many of them even played victims of history. It seems some were later arrested for murder, but how those "trials" went I do not know for sure. What I can be quite sure is that majority of these people who committed the most horrible crimes in human history lived peaceful lives until they died, or some of them are still alive. The whole massacres were all forgotten. No one mentioned them at all, until this book of "Myth of Blood".

Or maybe the reason of such crimes were forgotten by many is precisely because they were committed by "many"?

I somehow understand this type of "oblivion", because it is indeed too dark to mention. Except, dark history would not evade repeating itself just because we choose to forget. As matter of fact, similar crimes happened also during Great Leap Forward, which was only several year earlier than Cultural Revolution. "Good" thing is, many crimes - include cannibalism - happened during Great Leap Forward were covered by "starvation" - a much more sound and face saving term than "massacres".

Another side of story is, there are things that Chinese people chose NOT to forget, such as how the intellectuals were persecuted, how the "precious" Chinese tradition was destroyed, etc. Think carefully, it is not that strange at all, because those who write history can choose what to write, what not to write, and in China (also elsewhere), it is "intellectuals" who write history, so "understandably", after cultural revolution, intellectuals' fate was much better documented than those peasants who lived in countryside, despite the fact that what happened in countrysides were much more "serious".

I am not an expert in history, but by my limited knowledge, I still have to say, I simply could not find any part of human history darker than this part of Chinese history. The reason for that is, these massacres were not "wars" between nations, neither state organized, but just "mass movement" consisted of "commoners", yet they reached a stunning level of destruction and brutality.

How could such things happen? If we cannot blame these horrors to minority powerfuls, or those abstract ideas, such as "communism", where can we find an answer for such insanity exhibited by these mass "common" people? Were they just temporarily possessed by Evil?

If so, where does the EVIL come from?


  1. An excellent and altogether heart-breaking article, my friend; what more can I say? I've struggled with this problem, the problem of evil, approaching it from so many angles to try to find an answer. I've looked at the Nazis, I've looked at the Communists; I've looked at the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot's Cambodia, where tiny babies had their brains dashed out because they were 'enemies of the people.' Where does evil come from? I'm no closer to an answer; I don't think I will ever find a complete answer. But I believe, as I've indicated before, that it rests on ignorance, on stupidity, on an abdication of personal responsibility to a higher authority, it rests on a complete failure of the imagination; it rests on a desire to be part of the crowd, no matter how wicked the crowd happens to be. It lies in the savagery that is part of the human condition.

  2. yunyi, what you're describing is mob violence. Once it starts it spreads like wildfire and there's no stopping it until it exhausts itself or some greater power, military or police, puts an end to it. I'm well aware of this kind of violence because i grew up around it, on a much lesser scale of course than what you describe, but nevertheless the mechanism behind it, the bloodthirstiness, is the same.

  3. A very provocative article, Yunyi. Evil comes from the same place as goodness: from within individuals. Though influenced by ideology, fear, insecurity, the desire for approval, or failure to recognize one's free will, evil actions are always a choice.

  4. As you say Yunyi, the most tragic and most horrifying episode in a great nation with a 4000-year history. But this kind of atrocity, on this kind of scale, can only be committed by the crowd. Individuals, with very few exceptions, do not act this way, but it is all too easy to be swept along by a kind of mob hysteria. How many of us can say, with hand on heart, that we would not act in this way if the alternative is to be killed ourselves in some barbaric, sadistic way.

    The Chinese are not alone or exceptional in this regard, however. The Nazis turned murder into an industrial process, for example. You might want to read this post, by an old school friend, with the same warning that you provided for this post. It is a gruesome reminder that ordinary people can commit extraordinary atrocities if the circumstances are right.

  5. An excellent article Yunyi,and a sad one as well.

    These types of things can be seen in school children as well, the bullies and the goons that follow them getting away with as much as they can before the teachers shut them down. Bullies tend to get evil pleasure from it and the Goons usually just go along to avoid the bully picking on them.

    I have been in the start of riots before and there is an addictive energy there, it is quite exciting, but I left quite fast because I knew it would get worse and I could already hear the police coming.

    I thought for years that this was a "dogie dog world", that is the way I remember the phrase being taught to me, only many years later did I realize that it is a "dog eat dog world". As I saw of all things a group of starving dogs in India eating another dog.

    I do not believe evil comes from anywhere, sometimes our predatory animal nature just comes out. There is evil in all of us, it is not placed there, we area born with it, be the good ones keep it in check.

  6. We, human, are not born with a moral compass, merely with comply with a strong sense to comply with the immediate group and follow its leaders. For long time this has been the only way to survive.

    But who becomes a leader? The kind and good hearted ? Rarely. It's the powerful, those who will follow their conviction at all cost.

    The entire human history has been of long periods of brutality followed by short period of 'civilized calm'. I do not think this will ever change. Lucky for us, most of our lives have been in relative calm. But this is just luck

  7. @Ana, I know you have been also struggled with such cruelty. I think during Wars, situation could be a little more complicated, but in such mob violence, I do agree that ignorance/stupidity does play their role.

    @np, the scale of "mob violence" during this part of Chinese history reached it stunning level. I dare to say they are unparalleled.

    @Kris, I doubt many of these people's actions were done by "conscious choice". I rather believe that they were driven by some unconscious animal-like, or better say "human-like" "instinct".

    @Dennis, thanks for the link. I just read it. There are similarity between those soldiers and the mob I described in my article, however, I still see some, the difference mainly lies in the former (soldiers) were mostly forced to commit crimes, the latter were more voluntarily involved mass crimes. I did not mean to single Chinese culture out, but I do see some special cultural factors that encouraged dark side of human nature. I'll need to think more to figure out what exactly these factors are, or probably I would never know.

    @PSBScott, I highly agree that school bully is a closed example to compare with such mob violence. I think I wrote a Chinese article about this. Lots of people seem to have an innate pleasure to see others suffering.

    @ranfuchs, I agree, that we human are not born with morality, rather, most of us were born with "conformity".

  8. edit:
    @PBSScott, "school bully is the closest example to compare with..."

    @Dennis, "however, I still see some difference, which is that the former (soldiers) were mostly forced to commit crimes, the latter were more voluntarily involved mass crimes. I did not mean to single Chinese culture out, but I do see some special cultural factors in China that encouraged dark side of human nature."

  9. Yun Yi, what you have described is so heart wrenching. What the red guards did to your father was horribly brutal. Cannibalism practiced while people were still alive is such unimaginable horror. The image of the old (ordinary) woman grabbing a human heart then discarding it in a frenzied action for a fresher one is absolutely chilling! Ignorance does kill.

    It is amazing that all those horrors just vanished from people’s minds after it ended. Maybe some of them went on to lead peaceful lives until they died, but what happened to their souls on that day. Somewhere inside them, they know what they did, and if they have any humanity left at all, it will haunt them even if they never talk about it. You make a good point that perhaps these crimes were forgotten because they were committed by the “many.” Yes, those who write history can choose to write what they want. History is written by the victors.

    It does seem that these “ordinary” people were temporarily possessed by Evil. Where does Evil come from? Now that’s a question I’ve pondered over the years. On the surface, Evil appears to come from without, as in the way the massacres were prompted by the revolutions. But when you think about it, some of the Evil has to come from within those individuals too, like some spark that was suddenly ignited by the fire of the frenzied mob. Perhaps each of us has a spark for good and a spark for evil, and it takes a very strong will not to succumb and ignite the evil spark in times of extreme human stress and mob violence. Excellent and very thoughtful post!

  10. Thanks jerseylil for such elaborated comment.
    I am very puzzled by human soul. As I mentioned to another friend, I just raised this question, yet, or maybe never able to, find answer.

  11. And thanks Jerseylil for the sympathy to my father. The "story" goes like this: after my father was hit once, the red guards tried to hit another time, but were stopped by some other people (conscience still exists!), and my father was sent to hospital immediately, with these red guards chasing the car (which carried my father), throwing stones toward the back of the car.

  12. It never ceases to amazes me, the inhumanity that we are capable of. A moving post, thank you.