Published January 3, 2017
The Xiao River rushes deep and clear out of the mountains of southern China into a narrow plain of paddies and villages. At first little more than an angry stream, it begins to meander and grow as the basin’s sixty-three other creeks and brooks flow into it. By the time it reenters the mountains fifty miles to the north, it is big and powerful enough to carry barges and ferries.
Fifty years ago, these currents transported another cargo: bloated corpses. For several weeks in August and September 1967, more than nine thousand people were murdered in this region. The epicenter of the killings was Dao County (Daoxian), which the Xiao River bisects on its way north. About half the victims were killed in this district of four hundred thousand people, some clubbed to death and thrown into limestone pits, others tossed into cellars full of sweet potatoes where they suffocated. Many were tied together in bundles around a charge of quarry explosives. These victims were called “homemade airplanes” because their body parts flew over the fields. But most victims were simply bludgeoned to death with agricultural tools—hoes, carrying poles, and rakes—and then tossed into the waterways that flow into the Xiao.
In the county seat of Daozhou, observers on the shoreline counted one hundred corpses flowing past per hour. Children danced along the banks competing to find the most bodies. Some were bound together with wire strung through their collarbones, their swollen carcasses swirling in daisy chains downstream, their eyes and lips already eaten away by fish. Eventually the cadavers’ progress was halted by the Shuangpai dam where they clogged the hydropower generators. It took half a year to clear the turbines and two years before locals would eat fish again.
For decades, these murders have been a little-known event in China. When mentioned at all, they tended to be explained away as individual actions that spun out of control during the heat of the Cultural Revolution—the decade-long campaign launched by Mao Zedong in 1966 to destroy enemies and achieve a utopia. Dao County was portrayed as remote, backward, and poor. The presence of the non-Chinese Yao minority there was also sometimes mentioned as a racist way of explaining what happened: those minorities, some Han Chinese say, are only half civilized anyway, and who knows what they might do when the authorities aren’t looking?
All of these explanations are wrong. Dao County is a center of Chinese civilization, the birthplace of great philosophers and calligraphers. The killers were almost all Chinese who murdered other Chinese. And the killings were not random: instead they were acts of genocide aimed at eliminating a class of people declared to be subhuman. That class consisted of make-believe landlords, nonexistent spies, and invented insurrectionists. Far from being the work of frenzied peasants, the killings were organized by committees of Communist Party cadres in the region’s towns, who ordered the murders to be carried out in remote areas. To make sure revenge would be difficult, officials ordered the slaughter of entire families, including infants.
That we know the truth about Dao County is due to one person: a garrulous, stubborn, and emotional editor who stumbled over the story thirty years ago and decided that it was his fate to tell it. His name is Tan Hecheng and in December I set off for southern China to meet him.
Maple Wood Mountain, or Fengshushan, is a tribute to the development carried out by the dictatorship that runs China. When Tan first visited this village thirty years ago, it had no roads. A car drove him to a nearby town but he had to hike the remaining three miles up the mountain. The area was so poor that even a simple wristwatch was an unimaginable luxury, let alone electricity or running water.
Now, the path has been widened and surfaced with concrete slabs. As we picked our way up the mountain in our SUV, we passed a team of laborers expanding it into a paved road with guardrails. Electricity, water, and cell phone coverage were now givens. Many families sent their children to boarding schools in the nearby township, but for the very poor the state had provided a single-room schoolhouse. When we arrived, eleven children aged six to ten sat under Communist Party propaganda posters, learning math.
Behind the school was another monument to the all-powerful state: a stone stele with a couplet that read:
Father and Children, Rest in Peace
Those in this World, a Life of Peace
Several other lines explained the meaning. They listed the names of the dead father and three children, and the person who erected the stele—the person still in this world who needed peace—their wife and mother, Zhou Qun.
As we stood there examining the tombstone, a change came over Tan. During the previous two days we had traveled tirelessly through the county as he tried to show us every major killing field and talk to as many survivors as possible. A boisterous sixty-seven-year-old with soft features and an unruly cowlick, he had an irrepressible gallows humor. Sometimes when we drove by a village, he would start to recount the details of who was bludgeoned or shot, but then cut himself short by shouting out: “Fuck, in this place they killed a lot of people!”
But on this ridge, in front of this tombstone, he suddenly slowed down as the memories of the past overcame him. He had been thirty-seven when he came here in 1986, a man who had lost his youth to Mao and his Cultural Revolution, and who finally had the assignment of a lifetime. He had been sent by a magazine to write about Dao County. A thirteen-hundred-person secret government commission had just investigated the killings and he had full access to its findings. But his article had been declared too pessimistic—the editors had wanted an upbeat piece on how the Communist Party had dealt with the past swiftly and fairly. In fact, he had realized that the truth had been buried. Justice had not been done. Only a tiny fraction of the killers had served jail time. And he knew then that his article would probably be killed.
Still he wrote it and gave it the name Xue zhi Shenhua, or Blood Myths. That title irritated me—these weren’t myths but facts that he had carefully reconstructed based on the commission’s thousands of pages of findings and documents, as well as his own months in the region. The English title, The Killing Wind, made more sense to me. People here still spoke of a “killing wind” that had blown through during the Cultural Revolution. I had asked him about the Chinese title a day or two earlier, but he only began to explain it here, in front of the tombstone.
“The title is not a way to soften the truth. The title doesn’t mean a myth in the sense of something half-true or rumored. What I meant was that some stories hit me with such force that they became mythic.” He pointed to the stone, crudely hewn from rock, the characters so cheaply and shallowly carved that they were already becoming illegible just four years after the monument was erected. “I cried only three times in the years I spent researching the massacre. One time was when I realized what had happened to Zhou Qun.”