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Da Fang had enlisted as one of Mao's "little revolutionary generals," the shock troops who would carry out the most extreme acts of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The decade-long cataclysm, which Mao had launched in 1966, produced cruelty and oppression on a horrific scale. Thousands of intellectuals, former capitalists and people with ties to the West were beaten to death. Millions more were imprisoned and tortured, while tens of millions were forcibly displaced to the countryside for "reeducation" through hard labor.
Like many Chinese, Da Fang is loath to talk about her role during that tumultuous period. "The Cultural Revolution really didn't affect me very much," she says while sitting in her son's house in Houston, looking out at the fountains bubbling in the man-made lake outside. "We had to stop our basketball training and focus on other things for a while. But I came from a workers' family, so it didn't have much impact on us." In a narrow sense, she's right. Her family belonged to one of the "five red categories" (workers, soldiers, poor peasants, martyrs and Communist cadres), so Da Fang was spared the persecution visited upon the "five black categories" (landlords, rightists, capitalist roaders, counterrevolutionaries and rich peasants). But according to her friends and former teammates, the Cultural Revolution would shape her life and personality--and the future of her only son.
During the early days of the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards rampaged through the streets of Shanghai, shutting down schools and universities, demolishing ancient temples and monuments, and ransacking the homes of capitalists and intellectuals. The young zealots eliminated anything with a trace of decadent foreign influence, from women's cosmetics to French bakeries to classical music. Competitive sports, another insidious legacy of Western domination, were similarly consigned to the trash heap. Training stopped; competitions were canceled. The best coaches and athletes were attacked for their supposed obsession with medals, a counterrevolutionary crime that even had a name: jinmao zhuyi, or trophyism.
The Red Guards laid waste to the sports system. They plowed under athletic fields, shut down the national sports commission and imprisoned its chairman, Marshal He Long, who had formed the first Red Army basketball team in the 1930s and would die on the floor of his prison cell in 1969. The Red Guards also hounded and harassed some of the country's most beloved champions. Table-tennis star Rong Guotuan, whose 1959 world championship victory had set off celebrations across China, escaped continual beatings and humiliation by hanging himself in his jail cell.
Nearly all of Da Fang's older teammates were trundled off to factories, most of them never to play basketball again. In some ways, however, being banished to the labor camps was better than staying behind at No. 651 Nanjing Road. The Red Guards imprisoned Zhu and some three dozen other top coaches and administrators in makeshift jails on the second floor. At night the young captors harangued their former bosses to keep them from sleeping. During the day, Red Guards forced them to read Mao's Little Red Book, write self-criticisms and--worst of all--face the terrifying specter of "struggle sessions."
Da Fang was one of the Red Guards the old leaders feared most. As an acolyte of the so-called Strong Wind Rebels, who took over the institute, the 17-year-old became a leader of the basketball section. Her group of Red Guards had one primary task: to investigate, punish and reeducate the "bad elements" among their former coaches and leaders. "Da Fang seemed especially eager to improve herself as a revolutionary," says one of her former teammates. "Some of us wanted to join the Red Guards to avoid trouble, because anybody who wasn't with them was considered an enemy. But Da Fang was a true believer. And true believers, you know, were capable of anything."
According to former players and coaches who lived in the compound during these years, Da Fang became one of the most zealous disciplinarians. "She treated people badly," says one former coach, who remembers watching her cut off another woman's braided hair in one of the gentler forms of punishment. "The Cultural Revolution gave her a sense of pride, arrogance," says another coach. Thirty years later, he still searches for an explanation. "She was just a child. What did she know, right?"
Hunched before his captors at center court, Zhu Yong listened as Da Fang and the other Red Guards recited his list of supposed crimes: working at a department-store candy counter before the revolution, maintaining contacts with the enemy Nationalist Party, deviating from the true path of Maoist thought. The deposed commissar had been active in Shanghai's Communist underground long before Da Fang was born, but now the revolution was eating its own, and among local sports leaders Zhu suffered the most. The Red Guards deprived him of food. They beat him with fists and clubs, and they pulled his arms up behind his back in the excruciating "airplane" position. There's no evidence that Da Fang participated in Zhu's physical abuse, but several witnesses say she often led the public denunciations against him. During one such session, in an apparent attempt to turn the onetime leaders against each other, Da Fang commanded Zhu to engage in hand-to-hand combat with his former second in command. The two men refused, and Da Fang erupted in anger.
For months Zhu had denied the charges against him, but now, weak and exhausted, he was starting to break. Da Fang and his other captors once again shouted out their list of accusations, and the mob of athletes repeated each denunciation in full-throated unison. Somebody pulled Zhu's arms into the airplane, and the former party leader finally cracked. "Yes, yes," he said. "I confess."
Zhu was shipped to a reeducation camp in the countryside outside Shanghai. He would spend the next five years doing hard labor. One of the other deposed leaders remembers seeing Zhu once during that time, standing knee-deep in an icy stream, pulling rotten grass out of the water. The former commissar's hands were cracked and bleeding from frostbite, and his eyes had gone dead.