“Eat bitterness” (吃苦) is an old Chinese phrase, and it’s the best that I can think of to described China’s 20th century history. We recently finished a 6-hour documentary full of fantastic interviews and archive footage from the last 100 years or so. It literally makes you want to cry. At one point an interviewee tells how he repeatedly banged his head against the wall of his cell, screaming out, “The Chinese are so pathetic! In my next life I won’t be Chinese!” Not everyone interviewed felt that way of course, but it’s heartbreaking to hear the stories, even when the people don’t conclude in total despair. Sometimes I marvel that some people haven’t.
In many ways it’s hard to connect the slice of China that we experience every day with the China we study in books and documentaries (although some Tianjin footage was in there!). But when you stop to think about the numbers of people that were affected by various events, and then think about how old they would be today, you suddenly look at the people you pass by or chat with on the street in a whole different way: your teacher’s parents, your landlords, the old folks in the neighbourhood. These people have experienced a lot, and not just the elderly. My parents’ generation were students in the 70’s. The guys that repair my bike on the sidewalk and laugh at my Chinglish, or sit on the park bench to chat while I’m studying – they’ve lived events that I can’t wrap my head around no matter how much I read about them.