Mr. China’s Son: A villager’s life

Mr. China’s Son is a special book for a number of reasons. Unlike most of the other “scar literature” I’ve read so far (memoirs written by victims of the Mainland’s 20th century policies and society), which conveys the experiences of female, urban, educated, socially privileged victims, Mr. China’s Son was written in English by a Chinese peasant. Not only do we get a first-hand account of life at a time and level of Chinese society where most people didn’t have the ability to write their own stories, He Li-yi‘s English is unique. He writes many idioms and terms literally, giving the narrative a special flavour (“university” is “big-school,” for example). This, along with many quoted conversations and his surprisingly blunt honesty, makes the culture just shine through. He writes for English speakers, and each chapter contains footnotes that explain various details of the story. It’s great material if you’re interested in what it took for a regular guy and his family to survive the second half of China’s 20th century.

The author has a couple web address (owing to the difficulty in accessing them in the Mainland), which are an extension of his desire to be a “cultural bridge.” I especially encourage you to click around this one; it’s got to be one of the most charming places in the whole internet:

Several parts of the website are worth checking out. The reader response Q&A section displays some of his remarkable and disarming honesty. Some samples:

7. How did your experience during the CR influence your life after it was over?
After the CulturaI RevoIution, I became very nervous about political affairs. I no longer believed people. I always kept silence in all kinds of meetings, and didn’t want to express my thoughts directly. I taught my two sons to think over everything again and again before speaking out. Above all, I would not allow my sons and grandsons to rebuild our old house in the village into a very modern one, I told them to keep it poor looking, just repair it, but don’t sell it.

8. Did you see anything positive come out of the ten years of oppression?
Yes, there are three things: (1) People realized that relationships between family members are extremely weak. (2) People realized that to faithfully run after somebody great might not result in a good end. (3) People realized that the poor-and-lower class is by no means great.

I also see three negative things. (1) People became poorer; (2) People do not trust each other, (3) Many people became more selfish.

10.Did you ever feel that there were times when you had to compromise what you believed during the revolution? If so, what made you keep your faith in your morals and beliefs?
Yes, at that time, only if I could manage to live on and on, then I would compromise anything. If I refused to compromise, then the only way out was TO DIE. For a time, I had become a person who had forgotten ‘I had received a college-level education’. When I first heard some government workers came to apologize, I thought people were making fun of me again. I thought they wanted to fool me again.

At that time, I compromised because I wanted to be alive. I believed: “If I could keep the mountains green, no need to worry about ‘no firewood to cook’. ” Later, facts proved those who refused to compromise were struggled to death or committed suicide. Luckily I compromised. A wise leader (Mr. Deng) appeared in Beijing. I was able to become a teacher, and be able to write a book to tell the world what had happened in China.

11. What values of today do you see replacing that of yesterday? How do you feel about these values?
After 1979, an economic construction began in a BIG WAY. The result was: CHINA HAS BECOME STRONGER AND STRONGER, BUT AT THE SAME TIME, EVERY BODY RAN AFTER MONEY. Some people earned (made) money through hard work, but some became rich NOT from hard work. The situation looked like we did almost everything in a CRAZY WAY. In other words, in whatever we did, we did TO EXCESS. I don’t think this is the correct way of solving problems. I hope our next generation will learn a lesson from our history. What we must do is to try our level best to avoid, get rid of ‘ TOO CRAZY’! If we keep on doing everything in a TOO CRAZY way, new problems will certainly appear again.

(The author’s other links are here and here.)