The thousands of forgotten innocent victims—the massacre of Shaoyang County, Hunan 1968

I grew up in the cradle of revolution—the province of Hunan and received “red” education since I was little. Everything I saw, everything I heard, made me revere and long for “revolution”. When the Cultural Revolution began, I welcomed it with the pure passion of a child.

That passion lasted until 1968, the year two massacres occurred in succession in Daoxian and Shaoyang of Hunan province. From then on, I came to have my own understanding of the nature of the Cultural Revolution.
In 1968, when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, I was only twelve. There were no school for the children to attend due to the practice of “Class Suspension for Rebellion”, and the only thing I could do was to go out every day to read those Big-character posters and leaflets, trying hard to understand that turbulent world with my immature mind.

It was a day in May, I went out as usual to read those posters. One leaflet seized my attention. Its title read: Appeal to the CMC to quickly stop the massacre in Daoxian, Hunan.

The author of the leaflet listed a series of mass killing incidents, and stated that in 1968, the impoverished and low-income peasants in Daoxian attempted to prevent class enemies from causing troubles by listing the so-called “twenty-one types of persons” and their family as “Black Killers”, hinting that they wanted to kill the workers and the peasants. People on that list would be killed without mercy.

Since the populace in Daoxian saw slaughtering “black killers” as an “act of revolution”, and those “twenty-one types of persons” and their family are large in number, countless people were killed. What happened next was as written on the leaflet: “On the streets and alleys of Daoxian, corpses are everywhere. Just by the city wall alone there are nearly a thousand left piling up in the open, rotten and stunk. Flies are all all over them, some of those corpses are already covered with maggots...”

The author said, he was a rank-and-file party cadre working elsewhere. After he saw the atrocities that happened in his home town when he came back to Daoxian, he privately looked into these “black killers” and found out that almost all of them were innocent. So he risked his life to print these leaflets, and urge the Central Military Commission to quickly stop this appalling massacre.

What were written on the leaflet were not rumors. One night, a friend of my father visited us quietly. After we children had left the room as instructed, he said to my father the things he saw during his business trip to Daoxian, and predicted that similar things would sooner or later happen in Shaoyang. He urged that if there were reliable relatives elsewhere, send the children there to stay out of this madness and bring them back after it’s over, so as to prevent annihilation of the entire family.

I eavesdropped on their conversation but dare not asked my father about the details. After that friend had left, my father didn't sleep a wink all that night. Looking at the house robbed to emptiness, he sat motionlessly in complete silence.

Shaoyang’s impoverish and low-income peasants imitated the Daoxian massacre
Soon the blood thirst trend spread across the Hunan province. Shaoyang County, under the jurisdiction of Shaoyang City, quickly followed the example of Daoxian and started killing off the twenty-one types of persons and their family in a systematic, planned manner.

To ensure complete extermination, they would hunt for the family of these persons who were working elsewhere, brought them back and killed them. Shaoyang City was only dozens of kilometers away from Shaoyang County, much of the city’s population were family of the “twenty-one types of persons” in the county. Hence, the city fell into terror. In the middle of the nights, the sounds of banging on doors across the streets and alleys, the cries of women and children, and the shouting and yelling of the captors could often be heard.

The family of the “twenty-one types of persons” spent their days in fear that they would become victims anytime. In days, people gathered together to exchange information: the peasants from the county robbed the house of so-and-so again, the owners were not at home and so weren’t arrested; or, so-and-so had been taken back to the county; so-and-so had been taken for days, the family paid the ransom, the work unit sent people to pick them up, and they were not sighted, no one knew if they were dead or alive…so on and forth. All were heart-wrenching stories.

A young man under twenty who lived near my home was taken by the farmers working for his grandfather’s production team. He tried to escape, failed, and several farmers beat him to death on the levee with hoes. His corpse was left unattended for days, until some neighbors helped out. They didn’t have the money to buy a coffin, so they wrapped the corpse with used quilt and buried him. His mother was on a business trip that day and had a narrow escape. But she missed her son dearly, she kept crying until her eyes were half-blind and became crazed later on. In less than six months she passed away.

Some were luckier though.

Living in the same quadrangles where my house was located was a cadre, Tan, who worked for the Water Conservancy Bureau. He was all tied up and taken away by farmers from his place of origin. On learning what happened, Tan’s wife Yao hastily left the shop where she worked, and cycled closely behind the farmers. They took no notice of her as they didn’t recognize her.

When the farmers reached the south gate, they tied Tan to a roadside utility pole and went to eat noodles. Seizing the opportunity, Yao grabbed a butcher's knife, cut off the ropes and let her husband ride the bike to flee. She was caught by the farmers, who beaten her up and broke her leg(s). The food company she worked for sent her to hospital after they heard about that.

And Liu, a driver working for the municipal transportation bureau, lived at the bureau staff dormitory. When dozens of farmers from his ancestral hometown came to get him, Liu's wife sensed something was wrong and immediately ran to seek help from Liu's protégé, who lived nearby. Liu's protégé happened to be the leader of rebel workers; he instantly went with several workers to Liu's home to fend off the farmers and at the same time sent for large number of persons to come to help. A terrible fight ensued.

The farmers from Shaoyang County were outnumbered and outmatched by the workers and had to flee in humiliation. Liu, who was in his early forties at the time was saved.

As the number of people captured increased, some major state enterprises in Shaoyang city cleared up flats or guesthouses for their workers and family to take shelter. As the peasants had no way to capture their targets from the flats where they were hiding, those people were out of harm's way.

Another neighbor of mine, Zhu, worked at a logistic company. After what happened to Liu, Zhu and his entire family moved to his workplace and stayed inside the office every night. They didn't dare move back home until the killing spree died down six months later.

The people protected by their workplace were but a minority. Most of the work units did not have that kind of facility, the unprotected had to find a way to seek refuge with their friends or relatives who had no linkage to Shaoyang county.

In this horrible state of absolute insecurity, the “twenty-one types of persons” and family spent their days in perpetual fear. They couldn't be sure if they could survive.

Unidentified bodies drifted along Zijiang River
Finally people began to see the “fruit” of the revolutionary actions from the impoverish and low-income peasants of Shaoyang County.

Since way too many “Black killers” had been killed, the burial of the dead became a big headache for the revolutionaries. And in villages with rivers nearby, the bodies were simply dumped into the river.

Zijiang River flows through Shaoyang County and Shaoyang city, which is at the downstream of the river. Hence, every day during that time there were dozens, even up to a hundred of bodies drifted along and appeared in the section of the river that was inside Shaoyang city. Among the dead were men and women, old and young. They all looked peculiar.

The entire Shaoyang city was buzzing. Each day the south shore of Zijiang river was packed with crowds waiting to watch the bodies drifting successively from the upstream.

Out of sympathy, the authorities of Shaoyang city ordered the city's public security bureau to supervise the burial of these anonymous corpses. The public security bureau subsequently recruited farmers in the city's suburb to salvage the bodies. For each of the bodies retrieved from the river, the farmers were given a straw mat to wrap it up and buried it. The reward for each buried corpse was ten RMB. At that time, around 85% of state enterprises workers earned 36 RMB per month; and the wage at the collectively owned enterprises was 34 only; people got 20 RMB each month during their three-year apprenticeship; beneficiary households of the five guarantees–food, clothes, flat, medical care, and burial (education for orphans)–received a subsidy of just 5 RMB. So this ten RMB was rather appealing back then.

I remembered there was a flood at that time; turbid waves surged along Zijiang River. Some daring farmers grabbed their tools and stood on the bank to retrieve the bodies; while those skilled swimmers who had a boat would drive to the middle of the river to collect the corpses.

Situated at the riverside of Zijiang river was Beita commune, where all three brothers of the same family took part in retrieval of bodies from the river and were said to have earned thousands. After it was over, the three brothers each built their own brick house, which cost no more than a thousand to build in those days.

Brutal Butchery
I was only twelve at that time, and twice I followed the adults to watch the bodies. The horrible impression of which was simply unforgettable. Those bodies, in all sorts of peculiar shapes, fully exhibited the creativity in the way people killed. Some of the dead were tightly tied all over; others got their hands and feet tied together with an extra rope tied to their neck; and there were some others whose faces were mutilated beyond recognition.

What impressed me most was how two sets of bodies were strung together. In one set a thick wire pierced through the ears of the five victims: an old woman, a girl, and three men. In another there were a woman in her thirties and a teenage boy, presumably mother and son. A thick wire pierced through all their fingers which were linked together. The woman was all naked, one of her breast was amputated, and a part of her vagina cut off. When these two strings of bodies were retrieved from the river, many bystanders shed tears at the sight of them.

For days after seeing these appalling scenes, I had nightmares and lost my appetite. I didn't dare to go to the bank to watch these tragic scenes afterward.

The drifting of bodies in mass number lasted for about half a month or so. All sorts of rumors abound. Some said there was a severed human leg in the water that the water plant pumped from the river, residents of Shaoyang city were scared, and would not drink from tap water. Everyday there were full of people who came to fetch water from the well inside my courtyard. And they fetch so much water that the well, which was with a abundance of water, dried up daily. And the well would only be full of water again until the night had passed. We owners of the well had to fetch water before dawn. Otherwise when the number of people coming by increased we could not get any water.

This went on until it was late June. The number of water-fetchers coming by began to drop as bodies floated by decreased daily, and the water plant posted a notice saying the water quality had returned to health standards.

And it was the time that the details of massacre in Shaoyang County started to become clearer gradually.

I listened to a middle-aged man who witnessed in person the massacre recounting its cause and his understanding of its specific process.

That man was a commune cadre. According to what he said, the massacre of “black killers” was carried out as an order from higher levels, a fact that no one is allowed to mention today.

The concrete actions of killing were spearheaded by party branch secretary of the production brigade and the militia battalion commander. All adult male from impoverish and low-income peasant families had to take part.

People were killed in a myriad of ways: some were beaten to death by hoes or rods; others died from strangulation or suffocation; some others were buried alive; and still some other victims were killed with their heads pressed into water tank. These were already the more civilized ways of killing.

As the killing continued, the ways mentioned above could no longer arouse pleasure in the murderers, so they devised a host of new ways, from amputating the victim's breast, tearing off the tongue, to stringing a family together with barb wire and threw them into the river alive. The most cruel way was to use a red hot iron rice cooking pot—it had a cylindrical upper part and a flat bottom, it shaped like a cone—to cover the head of the victim, who would only be able to utter a scream of extreme pain before losing consciousness. When the pot was removed, the victim's head skin and facial muscles had become half-cooked.

In more serious cases, chunks of the victim's facial muscles would just come off. Bodies that subjected to this had been sighted. Their faces were beyond recognition, too piteous to look at. But at the time people had no idea that it was the result of the “teppanyaki torture” devised by the murderers.

The treatment women were subjected to was even more appalling. Before their death, many women had to go through various forms of humiliation. The middle-aged man had seen personally how a high school girl was humiliated and then killed.

He said, when the girl was brought inside the house she was lively. But more than two hours later when she was dragged out to be executed, that girl was all naked, with blood all over her body, already half-dead. All that was left as a sign of life was she was still breathing.

I asked him why did he not dissuade the crowd. He replied, still with some lingering fear, that in those days, the people were all like crazy. Whoever tried to dissuade them would definitely be seen as sympathizers of landlords and rich peasants, and that meant certain death. “All I could do was to try best not to do those things myself, and stayed out of it whenever I could. How would I dare to dissuade the crowd?”

Those production brigades that were reluctant to kill would be seen as “non-revolutionary”, the “revolutionaries” would get to their places and kill on their behalf. The reward those “revolutionaries” got would be all property under the victims’ name. And the non-revolutionary brigades would have to surrender, among other things, all public food and pigs to the killers.

Later on, the “red terror” commanded so much power that wherever it spread to, some of the landlords and rich peasants knew for sure they were doomed. To avoid the various forms of torture and humiliation, they and their entire family took their own lives.

As these were recounted, the speaker was still haunted by them, and the listener was also horrified by the details. It is hard to believe that cannibalism like this happened. 

A history that is deliberately forgotten
Years have passed, China at last began to “restore things to order”, and serve justice to victims of wrong or false indictments or frame-ups. Yet there had been no government department organized investigation into the massacres of Shaoyang County and Daoxian, nor were justice served.

In Shaoyang there were people who posted up big-character post on the walls of the downtown Post and Telecommunications Office to demand investigation into the killings. The result was these people being detained for the charge of “writing reactionary slogans”, some of them were even sentenced to two-year imprisonment.

According to insiders, this case is difficult to investigate because too many were involved in the killings, from then minister of the people's armed forces department of the county, militia battalion commander, to militiamen. If the case were to be looked into, way too many would be implicated. As the old saying goes, “when wrongdoers are in great number, they shall be exempted from punishment by law (法不治众)”, the case is thus deemed inappropriate for investigation or unrest may result.

Another reason this massacre was not investigated was that most of the victims were killed alongside their entire family, the few survivors were frightened and no one helped them to seek justice. The case is therefore simply set aside and considered to be over.

The massacre of Shaoyang County in 1968 is off-the-record in all government documents.

But I have always believed that there is yet another reason the Chinese authorities did not vindicate these thousands of innocent victims, a reason that no one in China would want to acknowledge: even since the founding of the PRC, the landlords, the rich peasants, the reactionaries, and the rightists have all been regarded as political outcasts and the subjects of repression. Their lives, both in the eyes of the authorities, and the general public, were worthless. 

A people that do not repent are definitely not a people with a future. The Cultural Revolution—a self-destruction campaign that is rare in human history, has been what the Chinese authorities regarded as a restricted topic, into which no academic research is allowed. To this day, only some individuals are making personal efforts to rescue the lost historical memories of the Cultural Revolution. And those memoirs involving experience of the Cultural Revolution that the Chinese authorities have allowed to publish would at most mention the persecution that senior party cadres, prominent intellectuals and their family were subjected to at that time. Scarcely anyone would mention the thousands, even tens of thousands of political outcasts whose lives had been taken.

The savageness of that massacre has been weighing on my soul ever since it occurred. I feel it is my responsibility to create a textual monument for those thousands of innocent lives that were taken brutally, so that the living would never forget about this shameful past: during those years of madness of the Cultural Revolution, how thousands of innocent persons were killed and how the authorities of China and the killers lack the courage to review their sin. 

A message from the author:
This article was originally published on October 15, 1991 in Contemporary (a monthly periodical of Hong Kong) under the pen name “silence”, it has now been slightly modified.


The so-called “twenty-one types of persons” refer to those who were identified as among the twenty-one categories of persons and were targeted for repression. The author could only recall ten of these categories: the landlords, rich peasants, reactionaries, the rightists, officers and soldiers who served the Nationalist government, the police, spies, and bandits. The rest of the categories had escaped the author’s memory.

注: 所谓“二十一种人”,是中国共产党在文革中划为管制镇压对象的二十一类人,笔者至今能够记忆的只有十类,即地、富、反、坏、右、军、警、宪、特、匪,即地 主、富农、反革命、坏分子、右派分子、在国民党统治时期军官与士兵、警察、宪兵、特务、土匪等。还有十一种是什么名目,笔者已经不能凭记忆写出

* * *
The massacre in Daoxian took place in 1967. In 66 days, 4519 persons were brutally butchered. The youngest of the victims was ten days old, and the eldest, 78 years old. -- Translator note. [Source] [Screenshot]