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On Maos 114th Birthday, Past Catches Up to Former Red Guard Leader

New America Media, News Report, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Dec 21, 2007

Editor's Note: A long forgotten photo of a young woman strapping a Red Guard arm band on the communist leader has resurfaced on the Internet and brought new infamy to Song Binbin, now a scientist living in the United States.

A month before the 114th birthday of Chairman Mao Zedong on December 26, a long forgotten photo of Mao with a young girl resurfaced on the Chinese Internet. It generated an instant furor around the girl.

It has been 41 years since then. She was 18 or 19 at the time, a senior student at the girls' school that was attached to Beijing Normal University. On August 18, 1966, she went to Tiananmen, as part of a delegation of Red Guards to be received by Mao. She was given the special honor of placing a Red Guard armband on Maos sleeve. As she did this, Mao asked her her name and she told him: Song Binbin. Loosely translated it means gentle and refined. Mao had told her in a joking way, according to the photographer, that gentle was out, and "Yaowu" was in. "Yaowu" means "seeking armed conflict."

Almost overnight, the girl became known as Song Yaowu and famous throughout China. Young and proud, little did she know how history is prone to turning fame into infamy. Soon, her new name evolved into a symbol of Red Guard violence, and for a reason.

Just two weeks before this happy moment on Tiananmen, a cruel beating death occurred in Song's school. It was August, and the peak of the three-month activity that marked the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards, mostly middle school and high school students, held power in China second only to Mao. On August 5, in the name of the revolution, teenage girls in Song Binbin's school yelled at and beat up their teachers and administrators.

Bian Zhongyun, the school's Communist Party secretary and vice principal died in the turmoil. History would later record this as the first case of students killing a teacher, something that would shortly thereafter become more frequent nationwide.

Song's role in the 1966 beating death remains clouded to this day. All we know is that she was a Red Guard leader at the time. One witness claims that she was on campus with other onlookers, and that she had commented on the righteousness of the action.

Fast-forward four decades. Today, Song Binbin, who goes by this name, has lived a low-key life in the United States for 27 years. On the other side of the earth, in Beijing, her alma mater is celebrating its 90th anniversary. For reasons we dont know, as part of the celebrations, displayed is a special photo album containing the picture of Song Binbin with Mao. On the opposite page is a picture of Bian Zhongyun, the teacher who had so tragically died at the hands of her students.

Earlier this year, the anniversary had sparked a search for alumnae who made a mark in the world. Song Binbin was among those recommended. She embraced the opportunity with enthusiasm, listing among her achievements her doctoral degree in atmospheric and planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She said she was the first doctoral student from China in her department, and provided a picture of herself with her adviser, Fred Frey, a reputed geochemist at MIT.

This appears to be the first time Song Binbin acknowledged her ties to her high school. She had done her best to move away from that time, and always seemed reluctant to talk to anyone about her past. Viewed by most as a villain, and perhaps by history as another fervent believer in a cause gone wrong, she had put the past behind her. That is, until now.

In her write-up of her career, she made no mention of "Red August," 1966. No apology. No justification. Simply nothing. This is a strategy that had been fairly effective in the United States, but her alma mater is not in her adopted land. If she believed her past was forgotten, she was wrong. People saw what she had written, and it generated a furor. Many were outraged that she would hold up her accomplishments in America as if nothing had happened at her high school. They called her the school's shame. They called the school's 90th anniversary celebrations a shame.

Among the 90 honored alumnae, Song Binbin provided the longest self-introduction, as well as the largest number of personal photos. Her eagerness to regain recognition from her old school is a bit puzzling, given how hard she had been trying to have her Red Guard past forgotten. In all the years after coming to America, the only time she spoke publicly was in Carma Hinton's recent documentary, "Morning Sun." With her face blurred, Song told the interviewer and the audience she had never hit anyone; she had always opposed violence. It was her way of indirectly denying any involvement in Bian Zhongyun 's beating death.

In her long self-introduction in Chinese, which can be found online, she talks about her 92-year-old mother and young son. Through her words, I see her keenness to spare her family from the shadow of her past, to allow them to lead normal lives. I have also read articles about Song's gentle personality, which I have no reason to disbelieve.

My big sister, though years younger than Song Binbin, was also a Red Guard and died for her cause at age 16. Knowing my sister, I tend to believe in Song Binbin's good intention. Like my sister, Song was one of countless Red Guards, in fact, an entire generation of Chinese youngsters who had responded with enthusiasm to Maos call for an ongoing revolution.

There is nothing to suggest that Song Binbin was especially fervent in her beliefs, but the picture of herself next to Mao was enough to make her stand out. Unfortunately, the symbol is long-standing, despite being transformed from glorious to notorious; despite Song Binbin and her family becoming victims of the very revolution she had participated in; despite Song spending her adult life as a scientist, shying away from politics.

But the fact remains that the Red Guards did commit numerous acts of violence, and Song was a notable member of that collective. The violence was aimed at people who were labeled as enemies and the label, in turn, justified the violence. Its like in a war. Remember the American soldier who was tempted to shoot an Iraqi family in an insurgent controlled area? ("Rules of Engagement" by William Langewiesche in Vanity Fair, 2006, reprinted in Best American Magazine Writing 2007, has a great description of this.)

Only history can belatedly judge the justice or injustice of such actions, and the judges are never the litigants. "Praise for good things doesn't go beyond a door; blame for bad things sounds out for thousands of miles." So goes a Chinese adage.

So far, few former Red Guards have come out and talked about their actions. Most are in their 60s now, remaining behind a wall of silence. I can understand their excuse that the violence they were involved in was circumstantial, non-personal, and, at the time, even politically correct. Still, I can't help but wonder: Had Song Binbin acknowledged her part in, clarified her position on, and properly expressed her sorrow for that tragic day of 1966, would people's reaction today have been more restrained? Would she have been forgiven by those who crouched in terror that day, as well as by those who had terrorized and now try to forget their shame?

Xujun Eberlain writes for NAM and her story collection, "Apologies Forthcoming," to be published in May is available for pre-order on Amazon.com

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