Mainlanders & their emperors

If we do ‘math with Chinese characteristics,’ then we can say it’s been “60 Glorious Years” since the end of China’s civil war and the beginning of the current dynasty. Here are some interesting reflections from two very different Mainlanders who’ve lived through it all.

A poor Chinese lantern maker, born in 1934:

In my lifetime, we’ve been through so many political movements. All national ones which were no concern of ours, like the 1954 Suppress the Counter-Revolutionaries, the 1957 Anti-Rightest movement, the Cultural Revolution, sending intellectual youth to remote country areas, stuff like that. But I never stopped making lanterns. I never though making revolution meant getting rid of festival traditions! I always thought the reason I was brave enough to carry on with my craft in secret was because I wasn’t educated, and had no idea what feudalism, capitalism and revisionism meant. I didn’t know about Party principles, or what the revolutionary Four News were meant to be. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand that. Most ordinary people had about as little education as I did. In fact, how many of those anti-everything revolutionaries with their movements for this and that understood what is was all about? Making revolution was just a pretext for people to settle private scores. If those movements really had been good for China, then we wouldn’t have been poor for so many years. People today wouldn’t be so fixated on money, and wouldn’t ignore traditional arts like they do. [pg. 220]

From an interview with an American-born Chinese female general, born in 1930, who worked 40 years in military education:

Xinran (the author): After the end of the feudal Qing dynasty, China never stopped changing — from Empire to Republic took just a few years, and the change from GMD to CCP also happened quickly. Especially in the cities, regime change was really rapid. It’s like you said, in Shanghai people’s political outlook changed in twenty-four hours. How is it possible, in your view, for ordinary people to cope with such rapid change?

General Phoebe: Ordinary people don’t care. You change the dynasty or the emperor, it’s all the same to us. We’ll follow any emperor, so long as you don’t stop us going about our business . . . I think they got used to things, and didn’t care. It’s “I’ll obey anyone, any authority, who’s good to me”.

Xinran: Political authority is like a god for an awful lot of ordinary Chinese.

General Phoebe: Authority is very important, not just for a nation, but also within the family. The patriarch of the great Chinese family is an authority who cannot be disobeyed by family members. A family without an authority figure will quickly disintegrate; the children and grand-children may scatter, and some will begin to fight between themselves. Within the family, the main head of the family is basically a ruler. If he or she is an enlightened and wise one, then they can deal with all family relationship problems, and guarantee that future generations have family rules to follow – rules which can make those family ties indissoluble and keep generations together. When that authority weakens, then other family members may involuntarily gravitate towards a new authority, and this may bring conflict in its wake. Interestingly enough, we can see the reappearance in national history of the traditional cultural consciousness of the great Chinese family, as the “cells” of family life penetrate the bone and marrow of the nation. [pg.282]

(Quoted from China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation by Xinran, a collection of extended personal interviews with members of China’s most fascinating generation.)

P.S. – This is more about people than politics. Please remember that in the comments.

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Why they still love Mao: “Liberation”

If you’ve ever wondered why so many Mainlanders still love Mao, this quote explains it more or less the same as our friends and teachers in Tianjin do (except our friends in Tianjin are less negative toward Mao).

An American-born Chinese female general, born in 1930, who worked 40 years in military education:

I feel that the Liberation of China in 1949 really was a fantastic event. And I include Mao Zedong in that. Even though Chairman Mao did a lot of wrong, and even committed crimes — I do acknowledge that. But we have to recognize Mao Zedong’s contribution to the revival of the Chinese nation as a whole. He was actually a great historical figure and his name will go down in the annals of history. He’s like the Emperor Qin Shi Hung Di, who burned books, buried Confucian scholars alive and tyrannized the people, but this can’t obscure his achievements in uniting China, setting up the legal code, developing commerce, and even building the Great Wall, one of the wonders of the world. Mao Zedong gave the Chinese back their self-respect as a people after the Opium War, and that achievement can never be wiped out.

What does Liberation mean? The greatest liberation has been for the working people. Previously in China, workers and peasants had absolutely no status; now, they may still be poor, but it’s not the same. At least now, society and the media and officials have to show respect for them, whether they mean it or not, and they’re supposed to be the masters! Before Liberation, the expression “Chinese people” didn’t include them. The difference between then and now is really huge. That’s why I tell you we are the most fortunate generation, because we have seen with our own eyes the difference between before and after Liberation. We have seen the whole process — from war, starvation, poverty and unrest, to the imposition of order, our growing strength and the development of a humane society.

(Quoted from pg. 286 of China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation by Xinran, a collection of interesting personal interviews with members of China’s most fascinating generation.)

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Chinese women & high heels

Mrs. Xie is an old sidewalk shoemender who abandoned her village and migrated to the city, where she’s worked on the same street for 28 years. Her and her bicycle repairman husband live in poverty, sacrificing every fÄ“n for their daughter to get her Master’s degree and their son to pursue his PhD, both at one of China’s top universities. Mrs. Xie has watched people for so long that she can tell all kinds of things about a person just from their shoes. For example:

The one’s in high heels are the most worth looking at. If they jab their heels into the ground as they walk, it’s because they don’t know how to wear them, or they’ve put them on for the first time. You don’t need to look at them to know that they’re sticking out their bums, which is really unattractive! You have to walk slowly in high heels — walking fast looks hideous. The higher the heels they’re wearing, the less willing they are to give way to other people — these are shoes that can only go forwards not backwards. The high-heeled slippers that are fashionable nowadays are really funny. The foot often slips out of them, and then the slipper is just looped over the foot, which makes it completely useless. Everyone knows that women have small, delicate feet, but with these high heels now, the toes are very pointed, not for putting your foot in. It makes the whole shoe look big, and a small woman striding along with a pair of big feet looks ridiculous! And something else: not a lot of women look after their feet. Sometimes you smell her perfume, what a lovely smell! But she walks past you and her feet are really ugly with yellow calluses at the back of the heels and the feet all wrinkly. If I look up, the face is bound to be plastered in thick make-up. Quite repulsive. I can’t bear to see that.

(Quoted from pg. 386 of China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation by Xinran, a collection of interesting personal interviews with members of China’s most fascinating generation.)

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Mainlanders and their past; Mainlanders and their selves — from China Witness by Xinran

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.)

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