The Gordons: Prisoners of the Cultural Revolution
In 1965, Kim Gordon and his parents moved from Britain to China to see communism for themselves. At first, it was a time of excitement and adventure. But as the increasingly radical government grew more hostile to foreigners, everything changed. Arrested as they were leaving the country, the family was detained without trial and taken to a hotel room that would be Kim’s entire world for two years. Writer Monica Whitlock tells his story
When Apollo 11 touched down on the moon in July 1969, Kim Gordon was one of the few British schoolboys who knew nothing about it. Aged 13, he was mad about cars, planes and engines. But he was also shut away from the world, living in captivity in Beijing.
For two long years, Room 421 of the Xin Qiao hotel was both home and prison for Kim and his parents, Eric and Marie. They had no access to a radio or telephone, newspapers or letters from home. Their relatives back in England had no idea where they were, nor even whether they were alive. Their room measured just four square metres – enough for a desk, a chair and three little beds, crammed close together. During those two years the family had no one to talk to but their interrogators, and no diversions except for a couple of books and some sheets of hotel writing paper.
Fifty years later, as we sat in his Brighton flat, Kim showed me the creations he had improvised in those endless, empty days: tiny, intricate paper buses complete with upper decks; handwritten plays and diaries; and letters to friends back at primary school in East Finchley, north London – letters that would never be posted.
Kim’s long adventure in China had begun in 1965. His parents were communists who, disenchanted by the Soviet variant of the ideology they encountered on family holidays to eastern Europe, had become excited by its younger version in China. There, Mao Zedong’s revolution was just 16 years old, and the Gordons wanted to see it first hand. Eric got a job as a copy editor at the Foreign Languages Press, and the family left their basement flat in London for a new life in Beijing, then known as Peking. Kim recalls a thrilling midwinter journey from Europe across Asia, pausing in ice-bound Irkutsk in Siberia. “The whole thing was a total adventure into this strange universe,” he says.
In Beijing, the family moved into a vast hostel complex built to house thousands of Soviet advisors. In 1961, Mao’s China had parted ways with Khrushchev’s Soviet Union on ideological grounds. Those Soviet advisors and their families were recalled, and the hostel complex was left empty except for a few dozen sympathetic foreigners, joined in 1965 by the Gordons.
More like this
“To us kids, it’s like a kingdom!” nine-year-old Kim wrote. “You can imagine what mischief we can get up to.” He and the other children chased each other around the deserted building, discovering doors that led to a network of underground tunnels dug to enable evacuation in the event of nuclear war. This warren of subterranean passages, extending far beneath the city, was designed to allow hundreds of thousands of people to escape.
“We used to play hide and seek in them,” Kim remembers. “The other thing we really enjoyed playing was ‘Kill the Americans’, because, of course, this was the time of the Vietnam War – so the Americans were the enemy. So we played ‘goodies and baddies’, and the ‘baddies’ were the American imperialists.”
In the 1960s, China was one of the poorest countries on Earth. Where the megalopolis of Beijing now towers, Kim remembers fields of maize. Camels plodded in from the Gobi Desert, and donkey carts filled the dirt lanes; sewerage, clean water and decent roads were a world away. Kim attended the local Chinese school; it was strict and dull, but he quickly began to learn Chinese. He also joined the Young Pioneers, the Communist children’s organisation, along with his classmates.
The other thing we really enjoyed playing was ‘Kill the Americans’, because, of course, this was the time of the Vietnam War
In a letter Kim wrote to his grandmother in December 1965, his sharp sense of detail is already apparent: “It is nearly winter now. In China in the winter is very very cold so you have to wear a lot of clothes. In winter the Chinese wear padded clothes that means that the clothes are stuffed with cotton wool. At the moment I wear padded shoes, hat, gloves when it gets very cold I will start wearing a padded jacket.”
Kim’s many letters to his grandmother and his schoolfriend Peter document in detail his enthralling new life. He wrote about the brown-and-white kitten (“with fur about an inch long”) given to him by a Chinese boy, his stamp collection, and the propaganda dramas and slogans he absorbed at school. Kim’s keen eyes, his lively and methodical mind and his sense of drama would all come to stand him in good stead.
In May 1966, Chairman Mao called for young people to denounce traditional values and “purify” the Communist Party. Students thronged to join the Red Guards in Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. Schools and universities were closed, and Kim – then aged 10 – and his schoolfriends became Red Guards.
“The aim of the cutl. rev. is to smash and get rid of old bourgeois ideas, let the masses criticise the bad leadership and criticise members of the government if they have made mistakes,” he wrote to Peter. “Why does the party under the leadership of Mao Tze Tung want to let the masses do this? Because they want to make sure the party is pure Marxist-Leninist.”
Listen | Professor Rana Mitter explores the role of Chairman Mao in the Cultural Revolution, its impact on China’s population and its legacy today on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Decades later, Kim sees it differently, of course. “In our minds it was the goodies versus the baddies,” he says. “There were bad people who, in our minds, would have been against Mao’s dictums. And there were good people who wanted to enforce it. Now, obviously, it is – and was – a ridiculously childish and simplistic view, but then we were children.”
Parents, teachers and other figures of authority were shamed, attacked and even killed. One of Kim’s abiding memories is seeing the lifeless body of his teacher, who had killed herself by jumping down a stairwell.
Wearing a red-star cap and magnificent collection of Mao badges, Kim attended the immense Red Guard parades in Tiananmen Square, Beijing’s vast central plaza. There he stood at the front of the crowd, below Chairman Mao’s podium. He felt, he said, absolute pride: “There was Mao standing up there – the god. And… only a few metres away… millions of Red Guards were marching past, chanting their support, and these guys have been waiting probably all day and all night for these moments when Mao would appear. The amount of emotion, [the] heat and energy that comes off a million people! And you’re a small part of this huge thing…”
During the Cultural Revolution, millions of people were detained and left to figure out the crimes to which they were expected to confess
In the autumn of 1967, the surge of nationalist feeling powering the Cultural Revolution turned against foreign “enemies”. Kim’s parents’ contracts were cut short and the family hurriedly prepared to leave Beijing. During his time in China, Eric had been taking notes for a book on Chairman Mao. Now, he hid them behind a picture, because even friendly comment on Mao could be seen as hostile.
On the night of 4 November 1967, the family waved a tearful goodbye to their friends and boarded a sleeper train to Canton, the first stage on their journey back to Britain. They didn’t get far. Perhaps an hour later, soldiers boarded the train. They discovered Eric’s research papers and arrested the family. The Gordons were put into separate cars. Kim’s response shows how completely he still believed in Mao’s China. “My initial reaction was: ‘Oh my god, I’m being kidnapped by spies from Taiwan or somewhere.’ I couldn’t believe that these guys dressed up as the army were actually Chinese People’s Liberation Army [soldiers]; they must be enemies, because how could the PLA be kidnapping me? Obviously, I realised that I was wrong later on… We were driven off through the night, back to Peking. We were taken to this hotel… to Room 421. And that’s where we stayed for two years.”
Throughout the years of captivity in the Xin Qiao hotel, no charge was ever brought against the Gordons. Each day, Eric and Marie were taken to the room directly opposite their own for interrogation, but their captors never explained why they had been arrested. In the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, millions of people were detained, most of them left to figure out for themselves the crimes to which they were expected to confess.
The repeated interrogations were the only times Kim’s parents left their room. In this strange captivity, the family structured their days as best they could.
In the mornings, Kim had study time. English exercises were based on the only two novels they had packed for the journey to Canton: Wuthering Heights and Oliver Twist. Marie improvised lessons from the poetry that she could remember, and made up drills in grammar and handwriting. Maths was less successful because neither she nor Eric had much of a grasp of the subject. On a good day, lunch comprised a few vegetables and a small amount of rice.
“[Life] was,” says Kim, “very, very boring.” He reached adolescence trapped in a small room with no company but that of his parents, and with no space, nothing to do and no privacy.
The family used their time to discuss how to get out. “We were a tight little unit,” Kim says. “Unlike other teenagers, [I was] part of making life-and-death decisions: whether to confess, what to confess, whether to retract the confessions, what the best strategy was. At one stage we wanted to plan my escape: the actual nuts and bolts of whether we were going out of the window or down the stairs.”
All the while, the family watched from the window as the Cultural Revolution unfolded. “We would often see Red Guards parading people in trucks, with the dunce’s caps and their arms pinioned behind their backs, being harassed and beaten,” Kim says.
Each week, Kim was allowed a one-hour walk with a security guard. Speaking was not allowed, and the guards were hostile. Kim says they revealed their dislike of foreigners more to him than they could to an adult, calling him names such as “white pig” and “foreign ghost”.
“All along the roads there were big posters of people who’d been condemned, people who’d been named, arrested, identified,” he recalls. “You could see [who] had been executed, [who was] going to be executed.” He also spotted workers digging metro tunnels and a ring road for this fast-changing capital.
Back in Room 421, the family did their best to make the evenings fun. They made packs of cards and created a Monopoly-like game they called Happy Hunting. But “after months and months of playing the same game… you completely understand the next thing the other person is going to do”. Then they would sing. Kim’s mother, who had attended a convent school, still loved ‘Ave Maria’, despite her communist beliefs. They created little plays, too. “My father would write one, mother would write one, I’d write one… they’d be done very much like radio serials, with trailers and a bit of music,” Kim says. His tales included Attack of Giant Killer Scorpions, beautifully written in schoolboy handwriting on hotel notepaper. Each story stretched across as many evenings as possible.
The following year came and went, with no trial, no charges and no news. Then one day in 1969, Kim was sent to put away some cleaning materials in the store cupboard. There he came across a stack of Swedish newspapers, which he smuggled back to the room. The family managed to decipher an article that said that there were 30 foreigners under arrest in China. “Suddenly, we realised that we weren’t alone,” Kim says.
Guards revealed their dislike of foreigners to Kim more than to adults, calling him names such as “white pig” and “foreign ghost”
From that point, things began to move. Eric and Marie made progress in their interminable negotiations with the guards, who by now seemed keen to be rid of them. One interrogator even denied that the Gordons had ever been held captive, calling them instead “uncommon guests”. Finally, in October 1969, the Chinese authorities released the Gordon family and they flew back to London. Kim was almost 14 years old.
“My abiding memory is flying into Heathrow,” he says, “and suddenly seeing a city with lights. A huge, huge city… [We saw] people with fashionable clothes and food in the shops. It was just mind-blowing.”
Eric Gordon would later write a book about his family’s experiences in China, but back home in London, Kim and his parents never really talked through those two terrible years in the Xin Qiao hotel. Somehow, they buried their memories and moved on with their lives. Yet Kim never forgot how to speak Chinese, and still keeps safe his models, writings and possessions from Beijing.
“It is so strange to be free,” Kim wrote in his brand-new diary shortly after his return to the UK. “It just can’t be true to be back in England. I feel as if I’m in one of my dreams and I’ll wake up and be back in the Xin Qiao.”
Monica Whitlock is a writer, broadcaster and producer who works for BBC World Service
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine