My maternal grandfather, who has been posthumously recognized as one of the most important scientists in the 20th Century in China, took his own life 47 years ago today during the Cultural Revolution. He was wrongly persecuted as a foreign spy and a “reactionary `bourgeois scholar” because he studied in the US and in England.
In the months before he died, my grandfather was summoned daily into a windowless office in Shanghai Medical University to confess his crime. The only person sent by the Party to interrogate him in that office was Yang, the deputy head of the Pharmacology Department, a “red” scientist. My grandfather was the head of the department and was well loved and respected. According to my mother, who also worked in the same department, Yang was an insecure and despicable person. He was not only jealous of my grandfather’s accomplishments, he was also intimidated by his incorruptible character and integrity. No one knew exactly what was said in that windowless room. I can only imagine the darkness that enveloped my grandfather’s mind in those final moments of his life. After he died, Yang declared that my grandfather killed himself because he knew he was guilty. The Cultural Revolution was an extreme time in China when people’s worst nature surfaced and flourished. In the early years of the Cultural Revolution, countless innocent people committed suicide.
I was too young to remember much about him. My parents and grandmother didn’t talk to me about my grandfather during my childhood for fear that the memory of his “guilty” suicide could hinder my revolutionary future — the only kind of future that mattered then. But subconsciously, I must have been haunted by his sudden and premature death all those years.
When I left China for the US, my mother told me to only pack what was necessary and essential. Along with soap, toothpaste and a couple of other “essentials” were all the photographs of my grandfather that were in the house and my Chairman Mao badge collection. It was curious why I felt the pictures of my grandfather and the badges of Mao were essential to my new life in the US. Yet looking back, I see that those irreconcilable objects, in a strange way, represented the make up of my contradictory character.
In 2006, there was a commemorative event in Shanghai to celebrate my grandfather’s 100th birthday. Many of his former students and colleagues gathered to remember him — a talented, passionate and incorruptible person who loved and lived for science. Many of them wanted to help my mother get closure and demanded that Yang tell where he had kept my grandfather’s diary, and what was said during those months of interrogation. Unfortunately it never happened as Yang was already well into his 80s and suffered from senile dementia.
I will never know what finally pushed my grandfather off the cliff on that cold night of 1967. It no longer matters. At the event in 2006, I suddenly remembered the song Vincent — how I was gripped by it when I first heard it. I felt the song was sung for him, too.
Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now
For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night
You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could’ve told you Vincent
This world was never meant for
One as beautiful as you