A Red Guard’s Tale
Copyright © 2020, Dave Potter
… and so the Empress Dowager Cixi, seeing the influence that this beautiful concubine was having upon the young emperor, and recognising that that influence would only increase with time, did cause the poor girl to be charged with adultery and thus sentenced to a most horrible punishment. Rather than merely strangling the girl as was customary, she did employ a skilled surgeon to remove all of her limbs and then sew the wounds up, leaving only a torso with a head. Then, the girl was immured within a large ceramic jar which was placed in the hallway leading to the chambers of Cixi herself. Every day, as the cause of her misfortune passed by, the girl had to thank the Empress Dowager for her great mercy, a task that she never failed in, for her younger sisters had also been taken to the palace and the same fate awaited them if she failed…
The young man lifted his head from the ancient book and returned back to the real world. No longer was he in the opulent palace in the great Northern Capital, but instead back in a musty library in provincial Changsha. Although he hated imperialism and the shame on China that it had spawned, he had to admit that the Empress Dowager had style. To immure her hated enemy in a pot and taunt her daily as the decades passed and her charms faded. Yes, she’d had style.
His face clouded as he thought of the people who ignored him, who looked down on him for his origins, who did not realise who he was and what he was going to achieve. One day he, like Madame Cixi, would rise from humility to greatness. One day he would mete out justice and revenge with as much style as she had.
He stood up and walked out of the library. As he was exiting, the pretty daughter of Landowner Hu walked past. He bowed at her but she did not even acknowledge his presence.
“The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigour and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you … The world belongs to you. China’s future belongs to you.”
A million fists punched the air in response and a million cheers swelled up into the sky. In the middle of them was the defiant fist and exultant cry of me, Zhang Hu, student at Changsha University and committed Red Guard.
“To rebel is justified!” roared the crowd.
The distant man on the podium waved.
“We will destroy of the Four Olds!”
Never before in my life had I felt such pride, such joy, such a sense of purpose. My heart poured out with adoration to that distant Chairman on the podium who was leading the revolution on to its rightful conclusion; who was steering China to a glorious future.
My grandfather had been a landowner, but my father had rebelled. He’d taken his bag and left, headed into the mountains and joined the ragtag band of communists who were marching through the country, away from the nationalist tyrants, committed to establishing a brighter tomorrow, committed to a future in which the East is Red.
And when they had won their most improbable of victories in 1948, he had been forgiven his family’s bourgeois history and had joined the ranks of the revolutionaries now rebuilding the Motherland.
Sadly, he perished in an explosion at a makeshift iron furnace during the Great Leap Forward, but his demise in the cause of socialism had caused our family’s star to rise even further and, despite my middling grades, I was given a place in the university, the first female of our family to attend. My grandmother and mother, their feet bound to immobility, had been immured within the walls of the home, but I was of the new generation of revolutionaries, free and confident and eternally dedicated to Mao Tse-Tung Thought.
Which is why I had jumped on the train to Beijing in my green uniform and red-starred cap and was now punching the air with a million other comrades.
And so engrossed in the spectacle was I, that I never noticed the high-ranking party official observing me from the side-lines. “Who is she?” he asked the comrade standing next to him.
“The exceptionally pretty one there, with the pigtails, big tits and nicely-shaped bottom.”
“I shall find out Comrade Director.”
“Have her report to me tomorrow morning at my office.”
I had no idea why I’d been summoned by my troupe leader after breakfast in our dormitory and ordered to report to the Central Cultural Committee on the Road for Eternal Revolution, but as a dedicated communist, I obeyed unquestioningly. At the grand stone building – which I had some trouble finding – I was shown into the office of Comrade Wang, the Director of Operatic Arts and found myself in a large office sitting across from a rather leery-looking man who chain-smoked cigarettes and smiled at me creepily. “Comrade Zhang, so good to see you. Thank you for coming. At the rally yesterday, the moment I saw you, I thought, yes, there, that is our girl!”
“Thank you, Comrade,” I replied, not having a clue what he was on about.
“Have you ever acted, Comrade Zhang?”
“No Comrade, apart from in a school play depicting the heroic women’s detachment of Hainan Island who repelled the nationalist aggressors against overwhelming odds, I have never acted.”
“And what role did you play in that stirring revolutionary epic?”
“I was a soldier, Comrade. I did not speak, only shoot.”
“Then the dramatic director had no vision. He should be criticised. You exude talent, Comrade Zhang, that is clear to me and I have been casting and directing revolutionary plays and operas since the Long March when I was one of the comrades who accompanied our esteemed Chairman on his revolutionary road. Comrade Zhang, I would like to offer you a position in my latest work which is a production of ‘The Legend of the Red Lantern’. What do you say?”
“Comrade Director, I only want to serve the revolution, the Motherland and the Chairman. If this is how the Party wants me to serve, then this is how I shall serve!”
“Excellent! You have a correct revolutionary attitude, Comrade Zhang.” He got up and walked over to me and, to my surprise and, I am ashamed to say, slight revulsion, stroked my cheek. “We are embarking upon a new era in China’s history. We are undergoing a Cultural Revolution and the best place to serve it is in culture. I see this clearly. In the past only famous actresses and actors were allowed to star in films and operatic plays. But in our revolutionary age, it is more correct to pluck ideologically sound youngsters off the street and give them the chance to shine. You shall move into our production building immediately. Be happy my dear, you will be under my personal tuition.”
On that day my life changed out of all recognition. I did not return to Changsha and instead moved into the accommodation of the Cultural Committee. This meant larger rations and the food that I was now eating seemed to be both tastier and of a higher quality than the proletarian gruel that I usually subsisted on. Even this though, was not such a great change as my new sleeping arrangements. They were a world away from the spartan dormitory that I had shared with the other students in Changsha. Now, I had my own room, properly furnished and with a large double bed covered with clean sheets. At first I thought that it was a mistake; the other girls in the troupe all slept in a dormitory only slightly better than the one I had left, but when I protested, I was told that the Party looks after those who love it and that I, as a genuine Red Guard and communist performer, had been allocated this superior room.
Who was I to question the wisdom of the Party?
But if the bedroom gave me security and sanctity at night, my days had none. Although I was allocated a relatively minor part in the play, Director Wang spent an inordinate amount of time coaching me, usually on a one-to-one basis. And those sessions regularly involved him going further than a theatre director usually would. He would sit me on his knee as I learned my lines and, distressingly, I could feel his erect thing pressing through the folds of his trousers. At the time, I was a young and entirely innocent girl when it came to the ways of the world and the continued proximity to a man disturbed me. Furthermore, as the time passed, his attentions only grew. He would stroke my hair and cheek and then started to kiss me occasionally, firstly on the cheek or forehead and then, whenever we met or parted, on the lips. Also, as the weeks passed, he would make comments about my new rations causing me to “fill out nicely” and then he would praise the curves of my hips or breasts which he would often brush his hand against as if by accident. My mind was in turmoil about this. He was such a kind man and a respected member of the Party, yet I had also heard that he was married and, indeed, had seen his wife in the theatre on a couple of occasions. Finally, to still my mind, I asked him if what we were doing was appropriate and, to my surprise, he simply laughed and declared, “My dear, such thoughts are not worthy of a revolutionary daughter of China! Marriage is a bourgeois notion, as too is that of separation between male and female comrades. Indeed, they are Old Thoughts, one of the detested Four Olds which we strive ceaselessly to destroy. Indeed, if there is any impropriety in our relationship, it is that it is not close enough and, if we were to really walk the revolutionary road, we should both fully embrace our natural and entirely correct socialist feelings and become closer still. There would be no better way of demonstrating our dedicated to Mao Tse-Tung Thought.”
And so, that night, in my fine double bed, I lost my virginity.
My star continued to rise. Despite a somewhat lacklustre performance in ‘The Legend of the Red Lantern’ and another mediocre performance in a minor role in ‘Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy’ (I was a female soldier with trousers and a jacket that were excessively tight around my bottom and chest), I was lauded in the press and received awards from the Party. Then came my third performance, ‘Fragrant Flower in a Stagnant Pool’, an opera based on the reactionary regime of Hongwu Emperor, the first of the Ming Dynasty rulers. He was infamous for having a huge harem of concubines, whom he treated with absolute cruelty, keeping them locked in a gilded cage and torturing them regularly as well as using them for his personal pleasure. I was to play Mei, a beautiful girl from a village who was spotted by the emperor, forced to come to Beijing and transformed into a concubine. She then had to act as a dancer and sexual slave for the Hongwu Emperor before, at the end, secretly poisoning him for being an oppressive tyrant who exploited the working masses. However, upon his death, my poor character then suffered the ignoble fate of being buried alive with the emperor and thirty-seven of her fellow concubines, the opera finishing with the stone being placed on the tomb and us actresses singing a woeful song about how the people’s burden is a heavy one and how we pray for a great leader to liberate all workers and peasants from such tyrants.
The opera, unlike the others, was not for public consumption – due to it depicting some extremely reactionary times and politicians, exposure to which could corrupt some weak minds I was told – and instead was a private performance for elite members of the Communist Party. When we began rehearsing, I was most surprised – and unhappily so – as the role was quite different to those I had played before. Although, most of the role required me to wear the elaborate and beautiful clothes of a concubine of that era, in several scenes I was made to strip entirely naked and simulate sex scenes with the actor who was playing the emperor. Thankfully, he was a somewhat handsome and considerate man, but it was most embarrassing and shame-making to have to cavort like that on a stage in front of a large room full of strange men and, as I acted, I had to continue repeating over and over again in my mind the mantra, ‘I am doing this for the good of the Party! I am doing this for the good of the Chairman! I am doing this for the good of the Revolution!’ Such thoughts helped stay my mind a little, but it was still difficult.
At the end of the first performance though, the applause was rapturous and, as the faux tomb was taken away and we gave our final bow to the audience, the Chairman himself came onto the stage and congratulated us all, giving me a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze of the buttocks with his hand. Never before had I been so honoured and in an instant, I knew that it had all been worth it.
Or so I thought. The very next morning, I was summoned to the Party offices.
“Comrade Zhang, thank you for coming to this meeting.”
I looked around me, from left to right. As well as the Comrade Director, there were a lot of major Party figures sitting at the table. Whatever this was about, it was important.
“We will get straight to the point, Comrade. Your performance in ‘Fragrant Flower in a Stagnant Pool’ was so inspiring that you have been selected to play the lead role in a new production, ‘Mist Gathers Below Shan Mountain’. However, we have received some criticism concerning the historical accuracy of some of the costumes and dialogue in ‘Fragrant Flower in a Stagnant Pool’ and we wish to make this new production entirely accurate and reflective of that barbaric time.”
“Yes, Comrade Zhang,” said the Comrade Director, taking over. “This new play concerns the story of Zhu, a concubine in the court of the cruel Hongxi Emperor. She was a humble village girl who was spotted by the emperor, brought to the palace and forced to live a miserable life as his concubine. Her story is an excellent reflection on the evils of imperialism and how the ruling classes have always turned the heroic worker-peasant classes into slaves. However, in the story, a village boy name Tung, seeing the oppression all around him and being in love with Zhu, raises a peasant army to free his love. They succeed and escape to the mountains but, because he does not have the ideological guidance provided by Mao Tse-Tung thought, the evil emperor outwits him, and they are hunted down by the reactionary troops. In the end, they commit suicide by throwing themselves off the Shan Mountain into a mist-filled ravine, declaring that one day a saviour will come to China who will liberate the toiling masses permanently.”
“It sounds a stirring and ideologically-correct tale, Comrade Director.”
“And you shall play Zhu. However, to fulfil the role, you must undergo some training and, ahem… modifications…”
“Yes, Comrade Zhang,” interrupted the political officer, “modifications. A large part of the tragedy of Zhu’s story focuses on how she is forced to suffer by having her feet bound into the extreme Golden Lotus configuration as this pleases the sadistic emperor. He likes to use her feet for sexual purposes and, as this is a play destined for an adult audience, then we cannot make this inaccurate. The foot-binding is central to the entire tale and conveys a strong moral message as the Party was the organisation that finally put a stop to this awful practice and the people need reminding of this. Therefore, as part of fulfilling this role, you are to undergo footbinding.”
“But it is banned!”
“The Party is prepared to make an exception for reasons of ideological education.”
“And is it necessary?” A wave of fear had passed over me. I recalled my grandmother and mother who’d had bound feet. The constant agony they felt when walking; their slow, mincing gait. I had been freed by the Revolution. To undergo that was simply unimaginable!”
“Entirely necessary. Are you questioning the Party’s wisdom, Comrade Zhang?”
“Not at all, but…”
“Then you shall be taken to the hospital following this meeting and the process shall begin.”
How can I say what I felt then? To have my feet bound like a woman from the reactionary days? This was certainly not something that I welcomed! I had seen old women with their feet mutilated in that way of course, hobbling around like invalids, but I never thought that I would be one of them. Indeed, what I love so much about the Chairman and the Revolution and the Party was that they are all so progressive, dragging China out of the dark ages to a bright future where all the people can be free and successful. Yet here they were, ordering me to be dragged back, to mutilate myself for “beauty”. How could it be? What did it mean? I knew that the orders of the Party should not be questioned for the Party embodies a collective wisdom greater than that of any individual, but even so, I was finding this hard to accept. Again, as I had the night before in the opera, I repeated the mantra ‘I am doing this for the good of the Party! I am doing this for the good of the Chairman! I am doing this for the good of the Revolution!’ but this time it did little good. For, if the truth be told, now I was not so much ashamed as scared. I had heard that the binding process could be exceptionally painful. And pain is something I could never welcome.
The hospital was white and clean, one of the establishments reserved for the use of senior Party officials. I was shown to a private ward and nurses fussed around me. Then a doctor came and explained what was to happen:
“Comrade, to achieve the desired Golden Lotus appearance which was usual for concubines in the period you will be depicting in your play, it is required that all the bones in your foot are fractured or, to be more precise, dislocated. To enable the size of your feet to be reduced, the toes on each foot will be curled under, then pressed with great force downwards and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the toes break.”
Even hearing his words made me shudder. It sounded so painful. Surely I could not endure this! Seeing my grimace, he continued, “Do not fear so much about the pain of the operation. We will give you anaesthesia during the operation and so you will feel nothing. Straight afterwards the feet will be tightly bound with bandages. However, pain will come later when the anaesthesia wears off and, also, whenever you put weight on the feet. Walking will become very difficult for you, Comrade Zhang, particularly during this period of binding.”
“You say ‘period’. Does it not finish with the operation?”
“No, not at all. In the olden days, girls first had their feet bound at a young age and the feet were continually rebound daily to keep them decreasing in size. However, you do not have the luxury of time. The opening of your play is National Day which is only six months away. Modern medical procedures can speed the process up somewhat, but you will still need a daily rebinding which is painful although the Party, of course, has decreed that you be provided with anaesthesia free of charge for this daily routine.”
“I thank them for their generosity.”
“Indeed. And, with time, it will become easier, Comrade Zhang. But the broken toes will be held tightly against the sole of the foot while the foot is then drawn down straight with the leg and the arch of the foot will be forcibly broken. The bandages will be repeatedly wound in a figure-of-eight movement, starting at the inside of the foot at the instep, then carried over the toes, under the foot, and around the heel, the freshly broken toes being pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth will be tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel together, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath the sole. The binding will be pulled so tightly that you will not be able to move your toes at all.
“This is the binding process in brief, Comrade. After four months, walking should be not so painful as your feet will have begun to become accustomed to their new shape. That is when you can walk and practise your role. But, be warned, walking will never again be easy for you. You will not be able to run or jump with your bound feet, but instead you will mince along with your comely torso swaying. Moreover, small feet are easily fatigued, and they can’t support the body for too long. So you will need servants to support you with their arms. Indeed, feet that have undergone the Golden Lotus treatment have only the big toes and the heels touching the ground, so any movement is difficult. Small feet are fragile and delicate and easy to be hurt.”
“Comrade Doctor, you have used the word ‘never’ a couple of times in your explanation. Surely though, after the play is over, I can undergo a procedure to return my feet to their natural state?”
“Unfortunately Comrade Zhang, that is not the case. The footbinding once achieved means that your feet can never return into their normal shape. Indeed, releasing the footbinding bondage would only make you more likely to stumble and fall. This is permanent, Comrade. You are sacrificing your feet for the Revolution.”
And so it was that, with tears in my eyes, thinking of my mother and hers before her, I went under the anaesthetic and the doctor began his work.
Life was immeasurably hard for me after the footbinding process. It was also completely different in almost every respect.
The first thing to talk about was the pain. When the anaesthesia wore off it was there and it was constant. A dull throbbing ache. The drugs helped keep it low, but it was still there. And it got worse whenever I tried to move. After only a couple of days, I had to undergo daily exercises which involved me taking steps across a room supported by my maids. Each step was agony as I pressed down on my poor, crushed, broken toes that were now folded underneath the foot. The movement was excruciatingly slow too, and I found that, like the comrade doctor had said, I walked in a way which caused my whole body to sway. I was told that, in the olden days, this was found to be sexually exciting by men. I couldn’t see it personally. I just felt in pain, violated and disabled.
My days now had a strict routine. Every morning, after waking, my bandages were unwound and the feet given a long bath by the maid. Every crevice was washed with soap and then perfume put on them before the whole deformed ensemble was tightly bound again. The whole routine was repeated in the evening, about an hour before bed. In the meantime I sat there, learned my lines and immersed myself into the part of a courtesan in the court of the Hongxi Emperor.
And when I say ‘immersed myself into the part’, I mean it. Totally. Straight after my operation in the hospital, I was taken to my new home. It was an old Confucian temple that had been requisitioned by the Party and turned into a home for the Comrade Director and the actresses training to act as courtesans. At the start, there was only me in the latter category but, after time, more arrived. Also with bound feet. We were forced to live exactly as courtesans had. We dressed in elaborate, silken gowns, had our hair dressed in huge and complicated hairstyles and were kept as pampered playthings in a gilded cage. Sitting down most of the time (this was both necessary due to the pain and difficulty of walking, but also encouraged as traditional wisdom states that it gave women larger bottoms which please men), I began to learn traditional courtesan arts such as playing stringed instruments, singing and, most shockingly, the ancient arts of the bedchamber. I was most disconcerted when my maid gave me a rubber phallus to practice sucking upon and then, stripped me and tried to insert it into my bottom. What had this to do with any play? Again and again I found myself reciting my mantra ‘I am doing this for the good of the Party! I am doing this for the good of the Chairman! I am doing this for the good of the Revolution!’ but, alas, I found it helping less and less.
I had ample opportunity to use those new found skills too. I now spent every night with the Comrade Director and he urged me ceaselessly to use the new skills I had learned. Very soon both my lower holes as well as my mouth became accustomed to receiving his tool, just as those of an ancient concubine would receive the tool of her emperor. What shocked me all the more though, was that there was yet another element to the footbinding process which I had never before imagined.
The Golden Lotus arrangement into which my poor feet had been crushed, resulted in each one having a high “arch” in the middle. However, when in bed the Comrade Director ordered me to put them together, sole to sole, so that the two arches formed a hole. A hole which could then be used for his penis.
I now had four erotic holes instead of the usual three and this final one, the Comrade Director took to using more and more.
This, however, was not totally bad for me, for my tiny feet, being always bound with several layers of bandages, now had skin so delicate and sensitive that when he used the “arches hole”, I also felt a great degree of excitement and arousal.
It was a small mercy.
And so came the day of the play. I was woken early, dressed in all my finery and escorted to the theatre where the performance was to take place. Alongside me were two sister “concubines” who had both previously been pretty actresses and had now moved into the old temple with me and the Comrade Director. The first, Ah Lam, moved in about a month after me whilst the second, Chun, had followed six weeks after that. Both of them had also been subjected to the Golden Lotus and both were also engaged in the same training regime which, after their arrival, had been extended to erotic kissing with us practising on one another.
Both also shared the Comrade Director’s bed with me, often with two or even three of us pleasuring him at the same time. All in the name of historical accuracy of course.
But due to my greater experience, I was taking the lead role of Zhu in ‘Mist Gathers Below Shan Mountain’, a play which, like ‘Fragrant Flower in a Stagnant Pool’, was only shown to a select audience of senior Party officials and which, shamefully, involved not simulated, but real sexual activity on the stage. My mind struggled as the actor lay on top of me, pounding first my love channel and then my “arches hole” with his rod, as to how this could ever be forwarding the Glorious Revolution, and even though I recited the mantra in my mind, it brought me no solace and, indeed, my only feeling when we reached the end and Zhu and Tung flung themselves off the Shan Mountain (onto a mattress hidden beneath the stage) was one of relief.
And yet it did not end there. Indeed, then it only just began. For after the performance, still dressed in my full regalia, I was taken to meet a particular member of the audience, no one other than the Chairman himself, our beloved Mao Tse-Tung! He praised me wholesomely, whilst holding my hand, stroking my cheek and then, to my surprise, escorted me to his car. And so, dressed as a courtesan from years gone by, I was whisked through the dark and empty streets of Beijing, to the Chairman’s residence and there, carried to his bedchamber and made to lie with the very father of the Chinese nation, the greatest man to have ever lived, the architect of our nation’s joy. Yes indeed, stripped naked, the Sun of the East did insert his rod into me, hold me by his side and caress my body and, for a brief hour or so, in a way, it all became worth it.