| This is the 602nd story of Our Life Logs® |
“Ma’am, you have been ordered to come with us.”
That was what was said to me on one of the scariest days of my life. It was a day I thought would never come--not after all I had been through.
My name is Zhang Rong, but I am known as Helen to my family and friends. I was born on November 18, 1921; it was the coldest day on record in Changshu, China. I had three older siblings, and our family was well off because my father was a salt merchant who had come from a family of land and money. For a while, life was good.
Our lives began to take a turn in 1923. My father, who was thirty-six at the time, came down with a mysterious illness and abruptly died. I was only eighteen months at the time, so I never truly knew him. Of course, it left the rest of my family devastated.
My mother, who also came from a wealthy family, was able to take care of us despite losing my father’s income. Still, she had four children under the age of ten to care for on her own now, and oh, what task it was for my mother! She struggled and she grieved, I’m sure, but I was none the wiser. Our home was not complete, but in time it became happy once more.
For the next several years, my older siblings and I thrived despite what we’d been through. I attended a missionary elementary and middle school and a boarding school for high school. I learned to play the piano and soon, I discovered how much I loved to sing. I flourished.
It seemed like things were going back to good. But it didn’t last. It couldn’t.
I was about 11 years old when the Japanese government had come to the aid of the fledgling Kuomintang government against any possible resurgence of supporters to restore the Qing Dynasty. However, the alliance collapsed after a few years, and by 1937, Japan had turned on China and the Japanese Army invaded our country. This led to the Massacre at Nanking, one of the most atrocious acts committed during this time. I was sixteen and living in a country where nowhere felt safe.
My mother, fearing for the safety and wellbeing of her children, had us all run from our home in Changshu to the city of Sichuan. I remember being so heartbroken as my high school graduation took a back seat to the war around us. In the new city, I started attending college and working at a hospital as an intake coordinator for the dead and injured.
My school picture
The remainder of my college years were spent in hiding. It stayed this way until the end of the Second World War. While we were hiding, we felt the strangeness of our new and constricted lives. We were always looking behind our backs to ensure that the Japanese Army members weren't trying to harm us. During that time, I found that a life lived in fear is no life at all.
When the war ended, I escorted my mom back home to Changshu. Though difficult, I left her in our hometown and returned to Shanghai. I had to! By this time, I was 21 and teaching middle school… and I had found love. My relationship with my boyfriend Zhu Jin "Richard" Wu was going so well that we married on June 10, 1947. My little life after the war seemed so bright and full and for a while, I wasn’t so guarded. And after overcoming the adversity of war, we were hopeful that we would never experience anything so fearful again. Or so we thought.
To be young again!
In 1949, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party took over the rule of China. My husband and I had no idea just how ruthless Chairman Mao could be at first. At first, he promised equal treatment amongst all. We were so hopeful. And truly, I do not think it’s bad to be hopeful. But we soon learn how deceitful he was.
Chairman Mao favored the people who grew up poor. Unfortunately, as I had stated earlier, I came from the land of gentry, so I was amongst the people the Chairman detested. He did not know me or my heart, and yet he despised me and others like me; the people in my town followed suit.
I was ostracized and passed up for opportunities I was once given priority for—regardless of my talent or skill. When I first joined my musical group, I had hoped to become a soprano in one of the upcoming operas. Instead, I was passed over. It didn’t matter who was better. It was all about class, and I was on the oppressed side.
My husband and I were emotionally and verbally abused for our status by his follower. We were even made to wear a cap and a sign signaling that we were rich. On more than one occasion, my husband and I were forced to go on stage so that all of Mao's followers could mock us. We tried our best to keep our heads down, but it was hard to avoid this outrage. And it was hard to avoid degradation.
There was peace from 1950 to 1965 and during that time, we had five children. Those years were so good and so sweet. In my heart, I believed the worst was over and I am so happy to have lived without fear of what would happen very soon.
My husband and I with our first child.
In May 1966, that serenity was shattered into bits and pieces. All schools from elementary to university were shut down; there was no education for my children ranging from ages 13 to 18. We were not allowed to listen to Western music or watch Western movies. Even translated books were banned. The only songs were allowed were Chinese revolutionary songs. You can already imagine how difficult life was. Unfortunately, however, our lives were about to become much worse.
Towards the end of August, I had been asked to help a neighbor hide some gold. What I didn't know was that I’d fallen for a trick. Not long after I got home, the authorities showed up and announced that I was charged with “informing my neighbor.” With that, I was taken away to be sent to re-education. If that wasn't already bad enough, I was taken away right in front of my five children and my nephew who was living with us at the time.
The government sent me to a farm in rural China for the next four years to be held like a prisoner. I did hard labor and slept in a pigsty. Literally. The food situation was not much better. We were given a small, bland bowl of rice with vegetables every day. Rarely did we have anything else. In my quiet moments, through my quiet tears, I begged myself to keep looking forward to a day when this was nothing but a cruel memory. It is what got me through.
My family, 1956
In 1970, I was finally free to go home. However, if I thought things would all go back to normal when I got home, I was dreaming. While I was away, my nephew had moved in with us indefinitely. When I asked my husband why, he told me the whole story. Before I was sent to the re-education camp, my nephew lived with his mother (my husband’s sister) at a school. Before the school was shut down, she taught there. Since she had a lot of knowledge about chemistry and a curious spirit, she was a target for the Red Guards who would taunt her. For those who don’t know, Red Guards were a student-led paramilitary social movement created by supporters of Chairman Mao Zedong. Because her son was there to protect her, the students would not dare try to do anything malicious. But that soon changed.
One day, when my nephew was away on a trip to the capital and not there to protect her, the tormentors struck. After school was over, the students ambushed her, forcing her to wear a sign and hat like the ones my husband and I were forced to wear. They made her get onto a table and they’d forcibly rock her off while they kicked and punched her. She suffered from multiple skull fractures, and to get them to stop, she faked being dead. The students left laughing at her.
Badly beaten and bruised, she made her way to the cleaning closet, located the bleach, and ingested the poison. She had almost entirely succeeded in ending her life but was discovered and taken to the hospital. The doctors did what they could, but couldn't save her life, and she died of her injuries not long after.
This hardship was the worst of it all. Truly, it was not easy to see the light at the end of the tunnel as I always had, even on my worst days in the re-education camps. Perhaps it was because I had no control. Perhaps it was because my daughter witnessed such a horrible passing. Perhaps both.
At this point, the after-effects of the arrest tormented my family. The arrest triggered health problems for my husband. He became unable to work which caused my children to experience true poverty for the first time in their young lives. I tried to help us out by teaching students to sing at only 4 Yuan per student, but I was only earning half of what I used to make. We had to try to live on 120 CNY/month, combined with what little my husband had saved. We struggled to pay bills and buy food on our small budget. It got bad enough that we skipped paying rent for a while so that our children could get food to eat. Sometimes, my mother even had to share the money sent to her from my older siblings with me to help my family.
Finally, in 1972, things began to change. President Richard Nixon established trade relations with China, and Chairman Mao lessened his grip as a show of making an effort for change. With this news, hope blossomed.
My husband and me
In 1976, when Chairman Mao suddenly died, real change came. Everyone was treated as an equal; we were all allowed freedoms I thought we would never get back. Life was just as it had been when I was a little girl. We were able to be carefree when the sun was shining and all the bad became scenes of yesteryear. Together, my family was stronger. Happier. Unconcerned with trivial matters that life tried to throw in our paths.
I cannot say that I cherish my past in any way but living through what I had made me see how having a little hope could turn me into a superhuman. After all the hardships that I have suffered, I knew that my life was going to get better. I urge you to do the same. When there is peace, revel in it. When there is adversity, look to the other side. Take it from me. Today’s fear and heartbreak will be tomorrow’s cruel and distant memory—one that you will be able to share with others who understand.
This is the story of Zhang "Helen" Rong
Zhang Rong “Helen” lived to the fullest following all the harrowing events she experienced in her life. In the years since the end of the Cultural Revolution, Helen learned to live to the fullest. Two significant events that came later in her life include seeing the birth of six grandchildren and seeing her oldest granddaughter graduate from high school. Seeing the graduation was especially precious for her to see since she had been previously denied the chance to graduate properly herself. Helen had five children who shared their mother's story with their children and then with Our Life Logs. Helen passed away on April 28, 2006, at 84 years old.
Helen, her daughter, and granddaughter.
This story first touched our hearts on March 23, 2020
Writer: Jan Lin | Editor: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker