For me personally, the Mainland’s grandparents and great-grandparents are China’s most interesting generation. As soon as I could string a few sentences together I was trying to get our neighbours to tell us about their stories and experiences. But Xinran, the author of China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation, is Chinese, and this means she can go light-years farther in an interview than I can with my novice Mandarin, mere beginner’s cultural understanding, white face, and 大鼻子。
In China Witness she’s interviewed twenty people, all at least in their 70’s, in order to “help our future understand our past.” She had to deal with the expected hurdle of actually getting her interviewees to share their own stories, and this led to some interesting remarks about individual and collective Chinese identities, generational differences, the importance of remembering these particular chapters in China’s modern history and their connection to individual and national dignity, and the real danger of those experiences never being shared. Everything that follows comes from the book’s Introduction.
“This book is a testament to the dignity of modern Chinese lives.
[. . .]
“For Chinese people, it is not easy to speak openly and publicly about what we truly think and feel. And yet this is exactly what I have wanted to record: the emotional responses to the dramatic changes of the last century. I wanted my interviewees to bear witness to Chinese history. Many Chinese would think this a foolish, even a crazy thing to undertake — almost no one in China today believes you can get their men and women to tell the truth. But this madness has taken hold of me, and will not let me go: I cannot believe that Chinese people always take the truth of their lives with them to the grave” [p.1].
“…China’s freedom of speech continues to be hedged with idiotic obstinacy, ignorance, and fear.
“But I can wait no longer. Thanks to the destruction of the Cultural Revolution, and the ongoing censorship of the media and control of school textbooks, China’s younger generations are losing with earlier generations’ struggles for national dignity. The individuals who fought for twentieth-century China are mocked and dismissed for their unquestioning loyalty to now outmoded revolutionary ideals. As they search for new values against the uncertainties of the present and the debunking of the past, many young people today refuse to believe that, without the contributions of their grandparents and great-grandparents, the confident, modernising China they now know would not exist” [p.2].
“After almost twenty years of interviews and research as a journalist, I am worried that the truth of China’s modern history — along with our quest for national dignity — will be buried with my parents’ generation” [p.2-3].
“When I said that I would talk to them in person, my interviewees began to get cold feet; even to pull out completely. More and more subjects became out of bounds; some asked not to be filmed, or taped; others asked me if I knew what might happen after the interviews were published. I could tell that they were torn between the yearning to take this opportunity — quite possibly the last of their lives — to speak out, and the anxiety for the possible consequences. Could I get hold of a government permit to speak to them? several people suggested. Or an official “interviewee protection” guarantee? As if the decision to talk about their lives was one for the Communist Party, rather than the individuals themselves, to make.
“All of which only confirmed what I already knew from two decades of working as a journalist in China. . . .the Chinese people have not yet succeeded in escaping the shadow of three millennia of imperial totalitarianism and a twentieth century of chaotic violence and oppression, to speak freely without fear of being punished by the prevailing regime” [p.7].
“For the last hundred years, the Chinese people have been hesitating between affirmation and denial of the self . . . Very few people can understand and define themselves as individuals, because all their descriptive vocabulary has been colonised by unified social and political structures. A person can readily respond to external stimuli — to political injustice, to frustrations at work, to the praise of others — but only rarely succeed in making independent sense of themselves” [p.9].
(You can buy China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation here.)