Criticism and Self-Criticism [1]

S. Li

When I was in elementary school, the “Marxist-Leninist weapon of criticism and self-criticism” had been made household words in China via the little red book Quotations from Chairman Mao. We all knew this: “dust will accumulate if a room is not cleaned regularly; our faces will get dirty if they are not washed regularly. Our comrades’ minds and our Party’s work may also collect dust, and also need sweeping and washing.”[2] Criticism and self-criticism were required practices in every socialist social unit. In the village school I attended, they took the form of trimester reports constituted by two parts: class criticism of each student and each student’s self-criticism.

I had no problem with self-criticism. I had read The Diary of Lei Feng and The Song of Ou Yanghai. Both titular heroes would write in their journals how they were ashamed of themselves because they had not completed as many good deeds in a day as they had wished. I could write as they did: Shame on you, Ya Ya (my nickname), you picked only half a kilo of cow dung for the school collection, drove a pig away from a wheat field just once, did not find any lost children and send them home. I could go on and on, listing all the good deeds that I could have done but failed to do. I did not know why but there was pleasure in doing so. The more failures I listed, the closer I felt to Lei Feng and Ou Yanghai, and the more exalted I became. Sometimes, I could be so carried away that I would write a two-page report instead of the one page required.

It was a big headache when I had to participate in criticizing others. The job was generally conducted by a committee consisting of a teacher counselor and three outstanding students—usually hong xiao bing, little red guards. From the third grade on, I was on the committee each term but truly dreaded when it came time to assess my classmates. I wanted to be like those who seemed to enjoy helping people by pointing out their weaknesses: this student had the bourgeois spirit of laziness—he did not complete his homework in time; that one had the bourgeois spirit of roughness—he bullied others; still another had the bourgeois spirit of greed—he forced a piece of candy from a girl. My problem was that I could not utter the usual pattern of diagnosis even when I did notice an ailment and wanted to cure it.

This incapacity to speak up might have had to do with my dread of the word “bourgeois” then. I had never told anyone, but the sound of the word would remind me of the time, three years earlier, when people came to my house and dragged my father out on the street. With fists and feet, they had criticized his following the bourgeois route before dunking him into the village pond, where he would have died if Uncle Yang had not risked everything to fish him up and carry him home. Unlike my classmates who tossed the phrase “bourgeois spirit” like a toy onto everything, I dreaded it, thinking that this spirit could be powerful, and perhaps even more powerful than Wangmu Niangniang, the Queen of Heaven, who was in charge of things above and would send fairies down to Earth to save good people in crisis. I always looked up to Wangmu when I was in trouble, but sometimes I wondered whether even she could have done anything with the bourgeois spirit that caused Dad’s suicide a year after his pond experience. It was the bourgeois spirit of pride, they would say, that had dared my father to commit the crime of ending his own life. For my young self, the bourgeois spirit—even the words—was to be avoided. As other committee members heatedly discussed each student, I remained silent, fearful of being called on to say something, fearful of being hated by others if I did say something, and fearful also that my words might cause something bad to befall somebody. Luckily, my third- and fourth-grade teachers did not seem to notice my silence.

Things changed when I moved to the fifth grade in 1977. Teacher Wang, my new class counselor, had noticed my fatal weakness by the spring semester: the lack of capacity to criticize others. To save an otherwise excellent student, he talked to me several times, ending each talk by quoting Chairman Mao, “this is the only effective way to prevent all kinds of political dust and germs from contaminating the minds of our comrades and the body of our Party.”[3] Shaking his large head as he walked from one side of the classroom to the other, Teacher Wang would also say to all my classmates, “Nobody can improve if his faults are not pointed out and corrected. AND nobody can say he is perfect.”

To cure my weakness, Teacher Wang assigned me the hardest job ever: I was to complete all by myself the class criticism of Li Ling who was my best friend that semester both in and out of school. Sitting two desks away behind me, Ling was taller and smarter; she could, for example, recite anything that she had read once. I could do that, too, but had to use some tricks, such as combining the beginning character of each line into a meaningful sentence to remind me of the whole. Ling seemed to need no tricks. She spoke softly and gently like a singing bird. She was nice and kind to others. Everybody liked her. She was perfect in my eyes, except, except that, occasionally, she drove me nuts for no good reason. Occasionally, I wished that Wangmu would take her away to the Kingdom of Heaven where she probably belonged in the first place—good girls were said to be fairies, even though we were also said to be the daughters of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). When I was in a bad mood, I thought I probably would not miss Ling very much. Still, she was my best friend; I enjoyed playing with her more than anybody else; I loved her more than any other girl in the village. I did not know what her weak points were, but Teacher Wang was persistent, and I was secretly happy that he was. He must be right; nobody’s perfect, or else why would I resent Ling? There must be some defects in her. If only I could find them and help her improve!

To my fifth-grade self, Teacher Wang had been everything that the world could be; sometimes, I had even thought that he might be more powerful than Wangmu. As Deputy Director of the village branch of the Central Committee for the Cultural Revolution (CCCR), Teacher Wang had also been the head of the school since I entered it in 1972. By my fifth grade, the Cultural Revolution was virtually over for a year, but, as usual, our place was slow in catching up with political changes. In the spring of 1978, Teacher Wang was still the head of the school; still deputy director of the village CCR (which was not dismissed until late that year); and as such, still an embodiment of the “most glorious revolution in history” and of the wisdom of Steersmen Mao Zedong, Marx, Engels, Lenin.

I did not know, though, if I liked or disliked him. Away from his actual person, I felt I was not averse to him, really. How could I be averse to an embodiment of everything? Although my mother said that this grandson of a former tenant of my grandfather knew fewer words than many people in my family, everyone said he was strong, so strong that he could knock any cow down. Yet whenever he fixed his bulging frog eyes on me, there would arise goose bumps on my arms, and I would feel a prickly discomfort in my back.

“Ya Ya, if you still cannot find out anything about Li Ling by the end of tomorrow, I will take action,” Teacher Wang whispered behind me just as I was walking out of the classroom for good on a lovely April afternoon. I did not need to turn around to know that his bulging frog eyes were fixed on me, on the spot under the shoulders where my pigtails ended. I knew because I felt a prickly coldness there.

I went home and had dinner. Nobody noticed my sulkiness, and I slipped out as soon as I finished my bowl of gruel. Ling and I usually played together in the evenings. Either she would come get me, or I would go get her, and her younger sister would join us on the street as well. But that night, I was so agitated by my secret purpose of watching carefully to find some fault with Ling that I passed her home twice without going in. I felt as if I were a thief who would be caught as soon as I crossed her threshold. At last, as I stood fidgety, the door was opened from inside.

“Come in. I have something to show you,” Ling said in her beautiful singing voice.

I followed her to the east-wing room shared by Ling and her sister. “There,” she said, pointing to a small bamboo basket on an old black table, “you can have two of them.” My eyes sparkled at six walnuts in the basket; at that time walnuts were luxuries next only to meat, which few villagers could eat more than twice or thrice a year. My mouth watered, but I said no and waved my hand just as my mother would do on such an occasion. “Take them, take them,” Ling said in the commanding tone of her mother in presenting gifts. She pressed a walnut into each of my hands. Filled with happiness, I sighed to indicate my thankfulness.

“What shall we play tonight?” Ling asked.

“I—I don’t know.” I stuttered, remembering my secret need to discover her flaws.

“Let’s walk around.” Ling fetched her sister and we stepped out.

A clear full-moon had risen above the yellow hills in the east. People, who had come out to eat their dinner, lingered with gusto over village scandals and national situations, their long-emptied bowls sitting by the stone seats they occupied. We walked in the middle of the street to keep ourselves afar from people on either side so that we did not have to greet them. Before we knew it, we were at the village school.

All was quiet and nobody in view. We walked through the open gate, happy to have the whole place to ourselves. We ran around to look into the windows of the classrooms for the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and were excited to find that students there did not have to share long benches; each had a stool, even as two students still had to share one darkish wooden desk. I was upset by the thought that my mother might not have a stool to spare for me in the fall but soon forgot everything about it as we started to check the teachers’ offices behind the last row of classrooms. Although we knew that everyone should have gone home for the night, we did not dare to run and make any noise. We tiptoed towards each room, stole a glance into each window and moved on. All were empty. We went back to check Teacher Wang’s more closely and saw a desk, a stool, two benches, a wash basin placed on a rack with hooks. I noticed that the towel on the upper hook was covered with so much grayish grease that I could not tell what its original color was. The filthy towel somehow reminded me of my assignment to discover Ling’s weaknesses. I had forgotten all about it since I took her walnuts, but now it rang loudly in my ears as if shouted out directly by Teacher Wang. I rushed away from the window. Ling and her sister followed me without saying anything, as if they knew why I was running, as if they heard Teacher Wang as well.

At the center of the school yard where a cement Ping-Pong table stood, I stopped running and looked back. Ling and her sister had just emerged from behind the first row of classrooms, walking at ease. I was puzzled by their easiness and displeased by the idea that the two might be playing a trick on me. I turned around and determined not to speak to them until they made nice with me.

“It was just a cat,” Ling said behind me, her singing voice comforting.

“Yes, it was just a cat,” her sister echoed in a similar voice.

“What?” I said, no longer feeling any resentment.

“What frightened you away—it was just a cat jumping on the roof. We went back to check. Nobody. Nothing.” Ling giggled. I giggled, too, feeling assured that there was no Teacher Wang shouting out my secret purpose. In fact, in the cheerful presence of Ling and her sister, I no longer felt its weight.

Climbing onto the cement table, Ling suggested that we use it as a stage and play a singing game. I jumped at the suggestion because, although Ling had a beautiful voice, she seldom sang. She had sung to me and her sister on the street but I hardly heard her voice during class singing sessions when a blank paleness would occur on her face. Most classmates thought she was just shy about singing, but I felt that it might have had to with the disappearance of her father. A well-known scholar in the village, he had simply disappeared the night before the whole village congregated, one day in April 1974, to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius, their life-size paper effigies standing high on the stage at the village headquarters. Nobody knew what had happened to him. Ling did not talk about him, but I guessed that she was thinking of him when she appeared blank and faraway as during our class singing sessions. I had once seen that look on her face when she stared at an old straw hat of her father’s hanging on the mud wall of their kitchen front. I wondered if she was thinking of him just before she proposed our singing game, for I saw a flit of blank shyness on her snow-white face. The game, however, soon drove those thoughts away.

At first, we took turns standing on the table to sing while the other two remained on the ground as audience. The first song we sang was “Uncles in Our Family” from a modern revolutionary Peking opera “The Story of the Red Lantern,” which features the growth of a young girl Li Tiemei during the Anti-Japanese War (1937-1945). After her father is killed by Japanese soldiers, the naive Tiemei quickly grows to be a brave fighter along CCP-led guerrilla members. We had watched the opera performed on an improvised open-air stage at the Commune Center and learned in our music class one of its key-setting songs: “Uncles in My Family.” Sung by Tiemei, this piece shows her appreciation of the countless CCP members—referred to as her uncles—who had fought for the nation. Our fifth-grade selves could not have recognized the ironic connections between Tiemei and those of us whose fathers had died, not in a nation-defending war, but in the civil strife started by some key members in the CCP. We had simply regarded Tiemei as one of our role models. That night, we imitated her style and sang to our full volume of voice. Soon, we were so excited that we no longer took turns but stood all together on the table singing one song after another, oblivious of our surroundings and unconscious even of the clear white moon above us. Then, Ling made us stop to watch her sing the story of Hua Mulan, the legendary young girl who cross-dressed to take her aged father’s place in the battlefield. Ling sang it in the style of Yu (Henan Provincial) opera. I did not know she could sing Yu opera and so well. I applauded heartily when she finished; so did her sister. We tried to learn it from Ling and kept practicing it for a long time. We did not return home until quite late and saw no one on the way back.

As usual, when we came to school the following day, we did not think much of what happened the previous evening. Everything went as usual, too, until the third morning session when Teacher Wang finished reviewing the week’s Chinese lesson and said, “Class, I have an important announcement.” He spoke in a funny thick voice as if he were imitating Chairman Mao announcing the establishment of New China. The class fell into a dead silence.

“We have a great singing talent in our class.” Dead silence.

“You know who that is?” Students all lowered their heads to avoid being called up.

“Ya Ya, you must know.”

Teacher Wang’s tone made it clear that I should not say no. It dawned on me that he had heard us the night before and that he meant for me to point at Ling. My secret plan to discover defects in Ling suddenly loomed large in my head, and it occurred to me that Ling might have known it all along, or maybe she was to carry out a similar plan about me. The walnuts and the singing game might just have been set up to divert my attention. I burst with shame and anger but did not know if I was mad with Ling or Teacher Wang. I was so confused that I sat still, wishing for a severe scolding as if that would be a way out for me. But meanwhile I was also hoping that he would do something to Ling.

Teacher Wang gave me the cold prickly look and then aimed his frog eyes at Ling.

“Ling, I never knew you could sing so well. Why don’t you give us the pleasure of listening to you sing Hua Mulan?” Teacher Wang’s voice was glib and yet commanding.

Ling stood up, and Teacher Wang asked her to come to the platform. Ling followed the instruction; but facing the audience, she bent her head low as if she was looking into her own heart.

“Sing,” Teacher Wang commanded.

“Sing,” some students echoed.

“S-i-n-g, s-i-n-g. You s-i-n-g, ah. Why not?” Teacher Wang spoke in a chillingly begging tone. Thrusting his big hand under Ling’s chin, he held her head up.

“Ah-yah, class, you know what, we have a second Li Tiemei here.”

Teacher Wang’s frog eyes were fixed on Ling’s pale face, but I felt another fit of prickly discomfort. The brown knuckles that darkened Ling’s fair complexion seemed to be punching my back at the same time.

“Sing, sing, sing, Li Tiemei or Hu Mulan the second,” the whole class cried out in excitement.

Ling did not budge. She did not lower her head when the knuckles moved away. Instead, she stared at the wall in the back of the classroom, or rather through it at a faraway place. I knew then that she would never sing because she would never hear the class, begging or threatening—her mind was somewhere else.

Girls on our street often played this game: one girl would try to be cool, indifferent and untouched, while the others used various means of distraction to make her laugh or somehow lose her composure. Ling and I won most because we could concentrate our mind so well on something interesting that we would not hear other kids’ titillating remarks or see their distracting activities. Ling had once told me that her trick was Wangmu; she simply imagined that she was in Wangmu’s peach garden.

Now I was sure Ling was using that trick because no sound from the classroom seemed to touch her, and I could sense a faint smile moving from her mouth onto her cheek and beyond. I wondered when she would give up. In our games, we would give up once we realized that people were losing interest in further teasing.

Ling did not give up that morning. Threatening and beseeching went on for about twenty minutes, but Ling simply stood there, making no sound at all. When the bell for the noon break rang, Teacher Wang cried out angrily, “You, wooden-heads,” and flinging the half-used chalk stick against the wall in the back, he left with a cloudy face.

“You, wooden-heads,” several boys echoed Teacher Wang as they ran out. Soon the classroom was quiet as night, with Ling still standing on the platform. I ran to her and said, “Game over. Come down.” She did not, but raised two fists up to her chest.

“What is the matter?”

“Nothing. But I cannot open them, my hands. Help me.”

I tried in vain to push Ling’s hands open. Each time, I kneaded one open, it would close up tightly again as if her fingers were drawn by some invisible force from the palm. After several trials, we ran to Ling’s home and told her mother about the problem. We said nothing about the morning. It all just happened on our way back, we told her. Shocked, Ling’s mom took her immediately to the village doctor while I went home.

Ling returned to school in the afternoon, studying and playing as usual. When I asked her during the first break what the doctor had said, she answered, “Nothing, nothing.” So we did not talk to each other for the next two breaks. In fact, I became very irritated with her. Why couldn’t she have told me, her best friend? Did she have a secret plan? It occurred to me then that Ling’s defect was just that, that she held secrets within her that could draw all her fingers together into two unstretchable fists. That was dangerous. We should be aware of it. We should rid her of it.

I ran towards Teacher Wang’s office as soon as the school bell rang to close the day. I was no longer afraid of his “action” because I had found Ling’s weakness. The door was open, and Teacher Wang, sitting at the desk, was looking outside.

“What have you found out about Li Ling?” he said in a calm tone. But I noticed that his hand on the left side of the stool was shaking slightly; so were his legs. He did not ask me to come in and sit on the extra stool as he usually would. Although his frog eyes were aimed at the air above and beyond me, I was feeling a thorny discomfort in my back and losing all my determination to report on Ling.

“Nothing,” I said in a voice just above a hum; standing by the door, I sensed something wrong but did not know what.

“Why are you here, then? Why waste your time and mine?” Teacher Wang did not sound angry but very impatient.

“Ya Ya, Ya Ya, you let me down. I brought you into the class committee because I thought you were smart and did well on all subjects. But I’ve never seen a student so unobservant and so unable to take a stand on things. Can’t you see that Li Ling is proud? She is so proud that she does not hear and obey my orders. You saw that this morning, didn’t you? You are not as wooden-headed as all the others, are you? I want you to write pride and disobedience on her report.” He had fixed his frog eyes on my chest, where my pigtails would have met if I brought them over my shoulders. The discomfort in my back had become almost paralyzing. I could not stand straight.

“Why is she so sweet and yet so stubborn? Bourgeois spirit! She is possessed by the bourgeois spirit of pride. If we do not cure her, she will be lost. Write it down, Ya Ya, write.”

Teacher Wang turned to nail his frog eyes at the mud wall in front of him, and with his stare off my body, I could think. I felt that he must be right. My resentment against Ling must have happened when she was possessed by that invisible and yet powerful spirit, the selfsame that had led to my dad’s suicide. How scary! I should help her. I should write down what Teacher Wang said. I picked the report up. But Teacher Wang fixed his frog eyes on my front again. My body froze; I no longer wanted to write. I could not write. I yearned for Wangmu to come take me away from this strange man. I seemed to see her descending from the sky.

“What is wrong with you? You look exactly like Li Ling in front of the class this morning. What tricks are you girls playing on me? You think you are smart, don’t you? You think the son of poor tenants can’t teach you, don’t you? Let’s wait and see. Either you write as I said on Li Ling’s report, or I will write the same on yours. No, I will add, you do not stick to principles; you have no ethical stand. You will never join the Youth League. You want to join the Youth League, don’t you? Follow my order and write.”

Teacher Wang spoke the last five words slowly in a searing voice and turned his head away. His wide back loomed like a solid wall that I could not see through or hope to climb over. But it could be good for me to hide myself behind if Ling suddenly appeared in front of him and said: “Yes, Teacher Wang, Ya Ya has no firm ethical stand. She is my best friend, and yet she does not even want to help me by pointing out my weaknesses; how can I grow without good criticism?” But Ling might also say: “Yes, Teacher Wang, Ya Ya has no firm ethical stand; she is my best friend, and yet she has planned to find fault with me. She is like a willow, never standing but moving with the wind.”

That Ling could have agreed with Teacher Wang no matter what I did struck me hard. I stood like a stone, but when Teacher Wang turned to rove his frog eyes over me again, I felt an urgent need to move. Wangmu, Wangmu, come save me. I could hear the rustling of her silver gown against white clouds; I began to smile faintly at her motherly face emerging from a colorful mass of fog.

Teacher Wang was exasperated, once more by my Ling-like expression. Standing up, he pushed his office door so forcefully that I lost my balance and fell off the step. My right ankle hurt badly. While I wondered if I could walk home and come to school again, I felt the soft touch of Wangmu’s costume on my leg. I started to walk, first slowly and then quickly out of the office area.

The next morning, when Teacher Wang announced to class that I had been kicked out of the class committee because I had no firm ethical stand and did not know how to criticize others, I did not feel any misery. I was greatly relieved that I no longer needed to carry any secret purposes and that I would have fewer chances to feel the prickly touch of Wang’s frog eyes. I was wrong on the latter, however. Teacher Wang found other opportunities to fix his bulging eyes on me and Ling, whom he called the “two proudest girls in the class.”

For the rest of the time we stayed with him, Teacher Wang made sure that “no firm ethical stand” would occur on any school reports of mine and “pride and disobedience” on Ling’s. By the time I went to middle school, I was so used to the formula that I started to write it down naturally in my self-criticism. Ironically, it did not prevent me from joining the Youth League in the second year of my junior high, because each time when I wrote so, my new class counselors would be touched by my capacity to do “truly profound self-criticism.” With that spirit, what could a person not achieve? So they said.

In the first year of junior high, Ling was assigned to another class where she found new friends, as I did in mine. It seemed natural that we did not try to seek each other out and play together any more.


[1] The author wants to thank Gary Stephens and Geeta Kothari for giving helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of the work.

[2] Translation comes from (last accessed on August 25, 2013).

[3] Ibid.

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