Translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang

16 November 1966

Very cold today—it feels extra cold, because the weather’s just turned. The heating’s come on, and it’s warm at home. In the morning, we sat by the courtyard wall, the south-facing corner with its piles of loose soil and torn paper, the only patch untouched by the wind.

By ‘we’ I mean myself, Zheng Chao, Zheng Xin and Yuanqiang.

Yuanqiang said they’d formed a unit and got Red Guard armbands printed with the official stamp, occupying a whole block in the school, shoving the desks together, sleeping there at night. They wrote slogans across the white walls of the classrooms, and even in the toilets. While correcting Teacher Hou’s thinking, they shouted a chant that Tian Shuhua came up with: ‘Hou, Monkey Hou, holding a ball in her hole, when the monkey smiles, the ball falls.’

Teacher Hou teaches Chinese. I saw her recently, standing by the second-storey staircase. No one was paying her any attention. As I walked past, she was singing a song about a sad maiden, something to do with resisting the Japanese.

At the time, I had a strange feeling that when she finished her song, she’d jump from the second storey. I waited, but she didn’t jump. Her son sat at the other end of the corridor, pretending to play but really watching her. She once praised me for having talent. (I should delete that last sentence—too bourgeois!)

We talked about it all morning, and decided to form a unit of our own. Yuanqiang said the place to print armbands was near Caishikou, past a place called Dazhi Bridge. There are many gangsters in that area; their last time there they were robbed of three yuan. Zheng Xin said he’d bring a carving tool with him—even though it lacked a blade, it could still scratch open someone’s face. I felt revved up by his words.

We prepared to set off the next day, as soon as the grown-ups left for work. We had five yuan between us. I contributed one.

17 November

Today, we took the number one bus to Xidan. I was the only one who had a ticket, the other three slipped on without one. I did too, but worried the whole journey and in the end bought one before getting off. How silly!

From Xidan we headed south. When we arrived at Dazhi Bridge, all four of us were anxious. I put my hand in my trouser pocket, which held a weight from a set of scales—hopefully sufficiently hefty to cause some damage to a gangster’s head. It was cold and heavy in my pocket. I couldn’t warm it. Zheng Xin whistled as he strolled, his hand inside his jacket. The carving tool he held was our heartbeat.

The event we feared never happened. The wind was strong, blowing us into a run.

After Dazhi Bridge, we walked into a rope shop to ask for directions to the place where we could print our armbands. The old man said a name that sounded like ‘Something hutong’.

This was the first time I smelled dye. We could detect it from some distance away. Later I learnt that this was the odour of yellow. Each colour has its own scent. Yellow makes me think of illness.

A young lady served us. She reminded me of Liu Naiping’s older sister from flat number three. I once went swimming with her, she wore a red swimsuit. I believed at the time that only female students at college should be called young ladies, and even then only ones like Zoya. Liu Hulan didn’t resemble one, nor did Zhu Yingtai, nor did my own sister.

She wore a face mask, only her eyes showing, but I could still tell when she was smiling. All four of us were a little tense, a little awkward.

We ordered twenty-one armbands, four inches wide with gold lettering, twenty cents each. That was as many as we could afford—I think she realised that.

As she wrote out our receipt, the kettle on the stove behind her began bubbling, zzz, zzz. The room was hung all round with pennants bearing various words and pictures, the bright red fabric bearing down on us from all four walls.

I thought of the illustration of d’Artagnan kneeling to kiss the Empress in The Three Musketeers. The Empress’s feet are invisible beneath her long dress, her hand resting on her puffed-out skirt, d’Artagnan’s lips just touching her fingertips. I always imagined I’d perform this action when I was grown up. (Strike this paragraph, it’s too bourgeois.)

She was smiling, asking if we wanted to look inside the workshop. We said we’d like to.

She brought us into a room with a wet floor. The workers glanced at us. I didn’t understand anything. The printed cloths were still sodden, all red, and on each of them were the words ‘Red Guards’, over and over, covered with a layer of rice chaff. She explained that this was to protect the yellow. When it was dry and the chaff was removed, the colour would be even brighter.

It was noon and we had nothing to eat, so she gave us her lunchbox. She’d brought it from home and left it on the stove to stay warm. It contained just rice and cabbage, with some tofu. She didn’t eat well.

When we left, she still hadn’t taken off her face mask. She was very clean. We didn’t have a chance to see what she looked like.

Getting home on the number one bus was easy. The four of us slipped on through the doors on either side, the ticket money saved for our return trip to pick up the armbands.

Before we said goodbye, Yuanqiang asked me if I could guess the young lady’s family background? I said I had no idea, and he said, probably capitalist. I asked why. He said, didn’t you see how beautiful she was, and also she was wearing a face mask, afraid of the stench of the dye. What he said made sense to me.

19 November

More and more people are wearing Red Guard armbands in the street, and ours aren’t ready yet. During the day we hide in Zheng Chao’s house. We don’t want to be outside, conspicuous without our armbands. Something might have happened to Zhang Chao and Zheng Xin’s father. I saw him in the boiler room carrying heavy radiators, but the two of them didn’t say anything about him.

20 November

Zheng Chao and Zheng Xin’s father really is in trouble.

In the morning, we were at home, desperate for the day to arrive when we could pick up our armbands. Only with the armbands could we rise up, and go so far as to denounce our parents. My older brother put a big poster on the wall: ‘Revolution is not wrong, rising up is right.’ The atmosphere at home is rather strained.

21 November

Two more days…

23 November

This morning we took the bus and got caught by the ticket inspector, all four of us. She wanted to take us to the central station. We were all shaking—fortunately, so many people got on at Wangfujing stop that we were able to slip away in the crowd. After that we didn’t dare board any more buses, and walked all the way to Caishikou.

We collected twenty-one armbands.

The young lady was there again, looking different from six days ago. When we came in, she had a scarf over her head, mopping the floor of the workshop. (Later we worked out that someone must have shaved her head.) A piece of white cloth was sewn across her chest, with the words ‘Bourgeois traitor Liu Liyuan’. She still wore her face mask, and, all the time she served us, kept her head lowered. I felt as if six days had transformed this young lady into an old woman, or even a crone.

The stove still held a kettle, and her lunchbox.

A man walked in to make tea. He ordered her to remove her mask. She was motionless for a moment before plucking it off.

She looked as I’d imagined, very pale, like a picture never seen before.

As we walked away, she was already picking up her broom again. She said goodbye softly when we left. The mask dangled in front of her chest, not hiding the white cloth. I read the words again swiftly—Yuanqiang was right, she was a capitalist.

A person inscribed with words became those words, and nothing more than those words. As we walked down the street, I noticed more and more people had been labelled. Even some of the Red Guards were burdened with this white cloth and black lettering. Everyone was just a line of characters.

The four of us put on the armbands as soon as we emerged from the hutong. Our arms became glorious, weighty. Only swinging them vigorously made them feel natural.

Arms swaggering, we strutted into a small eating house and ordered four portions of roast meat. We split the food open, pouring soy sauce and vinegar in great streams that splashed across the table. The waiter saw the mess we were creating, but didn’t dare to say a word. The movement of our arms was awkward, as if we’d just received our vaccinations.