A Winding Path from Re-Education Camp to Published Author

Author: Jason Kelly ’95

Cheng Wang left his family for the first time as a 17-year-old in 1975, but China’s upheaval under Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong had already created distance between them. There was no animosity, but the Cultural Revolution that Mao declared almost a decade earlier had changed the personal dynamics and destinies in their home.

Wang’s father, whose poor background allowed him the favorable label “politically pure,” nevertheless lost his job as head of the Peking Opera Group. His mother had grown up in an affluent family before becoming a magazine editor and educator, a conspicuously bourgeois background. Red Guards raided their home and subjected her to public shaming. 

A boy of about 7 when the Cultural Revolution began, Wang shared the pain of those humiliations. He lost friends. He had no access to education. 

As he grew up, steeped in Communist ideals and idolatry around Mao, he felt pressure not to be seen as sympathetic to his parents, given their status as “Stinking Ninths,” the derogatory term for intellectuals who were outcasts of the Cultural Revolution. Wang embraced the cause his generation would be trained to achieve in China: “I knew I must answer the call of a lifetime,” he writes in From Tea to Coffee: The Journey of an ‘Educated Youth,’ his 2021 memoir that begins with him en route to Inner Mongolia and ends in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

A new Notre Dame chapter, as yet unwritten, is unfolding on campus this year. Retired from a successful telecom career, the author is now a 65-year-old student in the University’s Inspired Leadership Initiative figuring out what to do next.

Half a century ago, half a world away, the course of Wang’s life was not his to determine. Wearing a pine green uniform, he left home in a military truck headed to the train station in his native Shenyang, the largest city in northeastern China. Bound for an unknown rural destination and “re-education” among the peasants, Wang had no doubt he would help fulfill the destiny his political economics teacher so often expressed: “Communism will one day seize the world.”

Shenyang, then a city of 5 million people, celebrated the “Educated Youth” parading toward the train station. Banners decorated the streets. Drums and gongs and boisterous applause swelled chests. “I felt like a hero. . . . I was imbued with the revolutionary spirit,” Wang writes.

The 600-mile trek from Shenyang to his re-education camp took three days — two on the train, another on a bus, then five miles by horse-drawn cart to TianXi (the name means “Heavenly Happiness”). It was harvest season in the remote village of 250 people. The new arrivals were issued sickles to assist in gathering corn, soybeans and sorghum. 

For three years as an Educated Youth, Wang would have his work measured in agricultural production, furrow by furrow, the most exalted vocation in Mao’s China. Wang did well for himself. Motivated by the example of Pavel Korchagin, protagonist of the Soviet novel How the Steel Was Tempered, he had genuine zeal for what the book called “the fight for the Liberation of Mankind.” The furrows were, in effect, front lines in that battle, and Wang charged ahead of his comrades, earning the title “Production Captain” in short order.

Awakening at 5 a.m., he’d eat a piece of cornbread and carry a hoe over his shoulder as he walked to pick up the day’s assignments to announce to his fellow laborers. The work was back-bending drudgery, six days a week. Sundays, after Wang’s request to his superiors, were rest days, making room for some laughter, singing and basketball among the Educated Youth. They also had opportunities to visit home for holidays like the Chinese New Year, where Wang had joyful reunions with his family, who were proud to extol his leadership status to friends.

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Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

Wang has ambivalent memories about his time in TianXi. There was loneliness and isolation, but good times and formative experiences, too, and he believed in Mao’s vision at the time. Then Mao died. 

That momentous event in September 1976 would lead to a different kind of revolution in China under Deng Xiaoping. Wang sensed an immediate change in the national Feng Qi, a term he translates as “cultural weather.”

Deng’s accrual of power, and the market reforms he implemented as the “Architect of Modern China,” would be gradual. Wang spent two more years in TianXi after Mao’s death, but while on a brief leave, a chance encounter with a schoolteacher on a train kindled his interest in attending college, a possibility he had never considered.

China’s annual admissions exam, discontinued for over a decade, had been reinstated. Wang needed two tries to pass it, but once he was accepted into college, “my whole world started to open up.”

Among the first wave of graduates after the Cultural Revolution in the early 1980s, Wang had his pick of cities and jobs. “We had suddenly become the luckiest young adults that had ever come of age in our country,” he writes.

He chose to work in Beijing for the China Electric Import and Export Corporation. His studies in English and international business led to immediate opportunities to broker deals involving cutting-edge technology. 

During that time he reconnected with a childhood acquaintance named Peiyuan. She had spent three years picking oranges in a re-education camp before studying biology and passing a grueling exam to earn a coveted spot in a program for aspiring Chinese scientists to study in the United States. 

Peiyuan returned to China so the couple could be married, then Wang followed her to the U.S., enrolling in the University of Cincinnati’s graduate program in economics. The school and the city became so important to them that they named their daughter Cintty.

A postdoctoral appointment for Peiyuan took them to New Jersey before then she joined a pharmaceutical company in North Carolina, where they would settle. Wang worked at an international trading firm, then started his own business, but an early-1990s recession prompted him to learn about the burgeoning world of personal computers. He worked with IBM and AT&T, surviving job cuts in the industry and advancing beyond what he thought possible with his limited background in technology. He attributes his success to a restless curiosity and willingness to learn, seeking opportunities that were less appealing to others and building relationships that superseded his experience.

Retiring at 60, he signed up for a writer’s workshop and started to put his own story on paper. “I never thought I could be a professional writer,” Wang says, “but that wouldn’t matter anyway, because this was for myself.”

Writing became a daily habit. In online courses, he received unexpected encouragement that he might find an audience for what he considered a private journal. An agent and editor put him through rigorous rewrites that surprised the amateur author. Wang approached the publishing industry’s demands with the same spirit as his work in TianXi — far away in time and geography but, as he recounts in From Tea to Coffee, with him on every step of his life’s circuitous path.

“I consigned my three-year memory of TianXi to a distant but special and everlasting place in my heart,” Wang writes. “Mao’s philosophy was now consigned to history, but my experiences during the Cultural Revolution remained my own, valued and cherished for what they had contributed to my character.”

Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.