An Oral Account of Lao She’s Death [English Translation]
What happened to him? Why did He choose to end his life? Among the many puzzles left behind by history, Lao She’s suicide [in 1966] is undoubtedly one of the most perplex. What happened to him during that period of time? And why did he choose to end his own life? Over a ten-year research period, the author has spoken with Lao She’s family members and many eye witnesses like Hu Jieqing [Lao She’s wife], Shu Yi [writer], Duanmu Hongliang [writer], Yang Hong [martial arts master]. During these interviews, the author discarded his personal biases, recorded each person’s account truthfully, and preserved many narratives with contradictory details. This was done with the hope of providing the readers with a path towards the truth.
Lao She’s death was a tragic interlude during Cultural Revolution.
Fu Guangming (from now on, abbreviated as “Fu”): At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, a series tragedies took place like struggle sessions at the Literature and Arts Association and the great fire at the Confucius Temple. Were you present at the time?
Duanmu Hongliang (from now on, abbreviated as “Duanmu”): I once wrote an article called “Getting My Ass Kicked,” which is about the time we both got our asses kicked. We were taken to the Confucius Temple, Lao She and I. At the time, the mandate was to “destroy the Four Olds”, [so] the Red Guards set fire to all the costumes, helmets, armours, knifes and various weaponry. They forced us to grovel on the ground. The weather was very hot and in combination with the fire, [the heat] made us really dizzy. The Red Guards were all students, not anyone from our department. I had no idea where they came from.”
Fu: I heard they were students of Beijing Eighth All-Girls High School. After you were taken to the Confucius Temple by the Red Guards, what happened in the courtyard of the Literary and Arts Association?
Duanmu: That day I wore a very clean shirt to the Association. Because they were going to criticize us and we had to discuss our past mistakes. It was a day for self-criticisms. Everyone had to come out and bow down in the sun. Then you get your salary, rank, etc. painted on your back. I couldn’t see what they wrote on me because the glue was really thick. And then we got the placards hung [around our necks], placards that said “Cow Demons and Snake Spirits”.
Fu: Mr. Lao She got a placard hung around his neck as well?
Duanmu: Everyone was treated the same way. They were probably following the principle of equality. I already suffered from chronic back pains and so did Lao She. At times I wanted to rest my elbows on my knees, but that was not allowed. We were going insane. Lao She and I were the last two people waiting to be dragged outside. I knew the Literature and Arts Association had a back door. I wanted to ask Lao She to slip out through the back with me. The back door led directly to Xidan Shopping Centre. Then I realized this won’t do, [running away] would just get us into deeper trouble. They were very attentive to our movements. Then we came to the Confucius Temple. At the temple, they used those red and black sticks used in opera performances to hit us on our backsides. At the time, I really wanted to laugh because this stick was meant to be a stage prop, but somehow it was being used on me. But I didn’t dare to laugh and bit my tongue. Afterwards I recounted the event to [the writer] Qin Mu, and he said, “You’re really something!” But I didn’t laugh, I couldn’t. I bit my tongue.
Fu: At the time, was Lao She beaten up really badly?
Duanmu: Of course it was bad. Someone at the time asked me, “Which one is Lao She?” I replied, “I have my head down and I can’t see anything.” In reality, I did catch a glimpse of him because his clothes were particularly neat and tidy. He was not far from me. He was even wearing a blazer, in the western style. I was only wearing a shirt. When we were leaving, for some reason, he had a wound on his head and it was patched up with bandages. The students, i.e. members of the Rebel faction, said he was acting out on purpose so they beat him. At the time, some people thought it would be safer for him to be taken to the police station, at least he won’t get beaten to death there. So they took him to the police station.
Fu: Taking Lao She to the police station, was this done because the Association’s own staff wanted to protect him?
Duanmu: The Rebels were not all in agreement with each other. There were some good people among them. When I was down and getting my ass kicked, [I heard] some people say he had a bad attitude.
Fu: The day after this, Lao She threw himself into Taiping Lake. What’s your take on Lao She’s suicide?
Duanmu: The Rebels told us Lao She decided to alienate himself from the people [which meant] he was a counterrevolutionary. Since we were all gathered in a small room, I had a bed, and there was a bed left for him. The bed remained empty, waiting for him. The Rebels said Lao She won’t be coming, and I didn’t believe them. Because Lao She had always been a very optimistic person, I did not believe he committed suicide. Afterwards, I went to find him with Zhong Yaoqun [my wife] at Taiping Lake. The local people did not know anything. We met a lot of people; some said it did happen, but they did not know any precise details. We also asked the Residential Committee. As for the incident at the Confucius temple [recounted above], I only found out about our location later on. I didn’t know where I was at the time because we were not allowed to look outside in the car.
Fu: At the time, were you in the same car as Lao She?
Duanmu: Not the same car. At the time, they started hitting you as soon as you got in the car, the beating continued throughout the trip. Anyone could beat you up.
Fu: From the Confucius Temple to the Literature and Arts Association, did the struggle sessions carry on for a very long time?Duanmu: Not for very long. Lao She was at the Ministry of Culture, and I was at Literature and Arts Association. The sofa was removed. It was said to be a capitalist luxury.
Fu: Which other writers were at the struggle sessions beside you?
Duanmu: Xiao Jun was there. A girl was beating Xiao Jun with a belt in the courtyard. Jiang Feng was beside me. He got hit very hard. The Red Guards went relatively easy on me. Lao She I spotted because his clothes were unique and I was especially worried about him. Didn’t see anything else very clearly. Yang Mo didn’t go that day. The meeting was for self-criticisms. Cao Ming likely didn’t attend either.
Fu: Then what’s your view of the Cultural Revolution in the beginning?
Duanmu: At the time I had a lot of respect for the Cultural Revolution. I think Lao She felt the same way; he also had a lot of respect for the Cultural Revolution, which is why he dressed very neatly that day. I dressed very neatly as well.
Fu: So you’re saying before arriving at the Union you had no idea what was going to happen?
Duanmu: No idea. If I had known, I would not have gone.
Fu: What triggered the struggle session?
Duanmu: I arrived relatively late. Everyone sat there, and I thought the mood was not right. There were two tall hats patched together from paper, but nobody used them afterwards. I was curious, for whom were they made? I thought there must be one for me so I should say as little as possible and hide behind other people whenever possible. But at this moment people were making signs outside. I didn’t see what they wrote. They called us out one by one. There was no meeting. They called us to the courtyard. It was the Rebel faction within the Association. They called us to the courtyard, grabbed us and hit us.
Fu: Were you and Mr. Lao She together at this time?
Duanmu: Originally, I was in the Literature and Arts Association, and Lao She the Ministry of Culture, which was located in an old building that had once been the Ministry of Posts and Communications during the Qing Dynasty. The Literature and Arts Association’s buildings were built in the English style. There was a huge glass window in the front. That day they spent a long time calling people. Lao She and I were the last ones left. We had our hands behind us and looked out the window to find out what was going on. Because we would get called soon. We needed to understand their motives.
Fu: When you returned from the temple, Lao She took off the placard around his neck. Did you see it?
Duanmu: What happened was this: they said his clothes were strange and foreign. I was surprised why they considered this strange and foreign. When Lao She heard these words, he became very angry, so he took his placard off and threw it to the ground. Those people were furious and they started beating him. I was [already] inside the building, which was stripped of all its sofas and carpets. I just sat on the ground to catch my breath. I only saw [them hitting Lao She] after hearing some commotions outside. Immediately afterwards Lao She was taken away. We did not dare to look outside too often. If we stared for too long, we might be caught in the conflict. We had returned from the Confucius Temple and we were all sitting in the room.
Fu: When did you return home?
Duanmu: It was very late before they let me go home. I remember at the time, I said to my wife: “Don’t turn on the light.” Because I was afraid she would see my disheveled appearance. She did not care. My wife asked me what were those marks on my body. I said I don’t know.
Fu: Were the cadres of the Literature and Arts Association in attendance?
Duanmu: I don’t remember whether they were or not. I did not dare to look up.
Fu: Lao She was forcefully taken to the police station. Did you see this?
Duanmu: That was at the Ministry of Culture. I was at the Literature and Arts Association. The Ministry of Culture did not have any dealings with us. One of the anti-party charges against me was that I wanted to make the Association an independent realm separate from the Ministry of Culture. Later on, the two departments were not separated, but merged as one instead. The Association was shut down, and we came under the control of the Ministry of Culture.Fu: Were you a witness to the exposure of crimes and the [subsequent] struggle sessions?
Zong Yaoqun (Duanmu’s wife): I heard when Cao Ming was going to get a beating, she said: “You really shouldn’t hit me, my old bones can’t take it.” She probably also pleaded her case with someone who was a leader among these Red Guards. Afterwards it appeared she did not received a heavy beating, I think it happened like this.
Fu: It has been 30 years since the incident. What do you think about Lao She’s suicide today?
Duanmu: A writer makes his main contributions to the people through his works. He was writing Under the Plain Red Banner at the time. He didn’t get to complete it. Before this, he wrote a lot of things in support of his duties [to the party]. He did not deserve to have his life cut short. He could have done a lot more, written a lot more. His death was a great loss for our nation. No one could replace him. This is a tragic interlude during the Cultural Revolution. But of course, the Cultural Revolution was made up entirely of tragic interludes. I was very upset. Afterwards, when I was allowed to write again, I wrote about him. [Some people] asked me to write pieces to commemorate Lao She. I was sick at the time; I just wrote a few passages and she [not certain whom Duanmu was referring to; might be his wife] wrote the rest. Then I put everything together so that the writing flows.
He held my hand and he was shaking very badly.
Fu: Did Fu Yi go with you to Taiping Lake?
Hu Jieqing (from now onwards, abbreviated as “Hu”): First I called Fu Yi. Fu Yi went there, walked around, and waited for me to show up. Because I got there at 1 AM in the morning, when he couldn’t find me he just went home. We didn’t see each other. If he were there, the ashes won’t be lost.
Fu: Are you saying that you took Lao She’s remains to Babaoshan [Revolutionary Cemetery] by yourself?
Hu: Because at the time we still had an old man as a door guard, I let him accompany me. He followed me the whole way. There were a lot of bodies at Babaoshsan at that time. In 1978, Lao She’s rehabilitation caused quite a stir at Babaoshan. There were many people at Babaoshan; the place was packed. There were many people on the streets as well. Many people said: “Lao She has always been a patriot.” Deng came half an hour before the official memorial ceremony began. She called me over to the break room, and said to me right there, “You’re so brave! You let your son and daughters follow in your footsteps. If the Gang of Four were not overthrown, you and I would both be dead.” That’s what Deng said to me.
Fu: The day before Lao She’s death, did he say anything to you on the way home from the Literature and Arts Association?
Hu: He didn’t say anything. He thought he wasn’t on the list with five hundred names, and he wasn’t on the list with seven hundred names. The Literature and Arts Associations [even] held struggle meeting against Tian Han and Xia Yan, but not against him. So he called the Association and said he would go. No one knew what would happen… After he came back, Lao She said to me, “I wish to tell someone of my grievances. You write it down, and then send it out by mail.” We could only send things through the mail. My son kept what I wrote on his person. At that time it was three at night. The Premier [Zhou Enlai] was asleep. The secretary took it inside, and said, “Lao She has already gone. You relax and wait until we find Lao She.” Then they specifically called me later. I did not know at the time Lao She was dead; I just knew he disappeared the next day. They came and asked me where he was. The people from the Literature and Arts Association started banging on all the walls and they climbed up to check a hole on the wall to make sure that Lao She was not hiding in there.
Fu: You said you went with Lao She to Babaoshan alone?
Hu: I walked along the coffin myself.
Fu: That day, after Lao She came home, did you notice he was in a poor state of mind?
Hu: He rarely spoke about his work at home. The next morning, I specifically asked Old Yang to buy a fried donut and some pancakes, and make some rice porridge, but he did not eat anything. He told me: “You have your work, and I have mine. Let us not interfere in each other’s work. I will go to my work unit, and you will go to yours.” I obeyed him like a fool. If I had kept my wits about me and followed him out, then this probably would not have happened.
Fu: When you were helping him clean his wounds, did he say anything?
Hu: Nothing to say. The entire Ministry of United Front was smashed.
Fu: Lao She told you to write a letter to the Premier. Did he say anything then?
Hu: He told me to take the pen. After he finished writing, he went to bed. He slept in his room and I mine.
Fu: So Lao She wrote it himself?
Hu: He dictated and I wrote it down. After I finished writing, I let my son and second daughter take it to the Premier. The Premier was asleep, and his secretary said he would give the message to him. The second day, the Premier found out what happened and said Lao She must be located.
Fu: Can you still remember what Lao She told you to write down?
Hu: He told me to write: “I had suffered and experienced many difficulties in the Old Society. My novels were worthless. After Liberation, the Liberation Army and Chairman Mao, Premier Zhou enabled me to start a new life. I must repay my debts to the Party. I must tell everyone everything about the New Society.” That was what I wrote. The letter no longer exists. It was handed over to the Premier. This is why Deng told me I was very brave. It was a difficult time to get through.
Fu: After Lao She returned home, did he tell you that he was struggled against and received a beating at Literature and Arts Association? Or any of his views about the movement?
Hu: He did not say anything. When we first got married, the day after our wedding, he said to me, “If you ever see me sitting there smoking, do not disturb me. I’m not angry with you. I’m thinking about my novels.” From that point on, whenever he was in his room, I learnt not to disturb him. The children knew this too. They would not go in to disturb him either. If at times he needed something like socks, shirts, or coats, he would write a note to me, and I just carried out his instructions. Just like that. He talked very little.”
Fu: He did not show any signs of grief, anger, or dissatisfaction?
Hu: No. At the time he clutched my hand and he was shaking badly. Other people told me when he was getting beat up at Guozijian [the Imperial College within the Confucius Temple], his face colour — people could see his angry expression and knew he was not doing well. They said his face was extremely pale, and you could tell he was in a bad state. They said this old gentlemen was in a bad shape. On our way home from the police station, I was wearing a coat. I took my coat off and put it on him. I was left with a thin shirt. I was afraid he might fall so I held on to him tightly.
Fu: Did Lao She shed any tears?
Hu: He never cried. He was very strong. Before I went to Chongqing, he was always crying because he knew his mother had passed away and he couldn’t fulfill his filial duties. I went to Beijing to take care of his mother in his place. After I had organized his mother’s funeral, I took the children and returned home. Later on when he realized his mother was gone, he would start crying and shedding tears [over her] to anyone he saw.
Fu: Did Lao She start smoking when he got home?
Hu: He only smoked while he was writing. In our daily life he smoked very little. During those three difficult years [i.e. The Great Leap Forward 1959-1961], he even ordered me not to offer cigarettes to any guests that came by because he did not have enough for himself.
A Record of Oral Accounts of Lao She’s Death. By Fu Guangming and Zheng Shicai. Fudan University Press: May 2009.