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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8 thoughts on “Mainlanders and their past; Mainlanders and their selves — from China Witness by Xinran”

  1. This is very true, and I also love stories of the older generations. Thankfully, I am blessed with a mother who loves to tell me tales, and she is blessed with a daughter who loves to hear her tales. Not all are so willing to share, and even fewer are willing to listen these days. Sigh…

  2. Joel, I haven’t had a chance to read this book, but I have experienced similar difficulties when trying to get people to tell their stories or stories of people they know. I think I am going to write a post about this on Tom’s blog. Thanks for your thoughtful posts–I enjoy them a lot but I am only beginning to “mine” it.

  3. Thanks, Yaxue. Glad you like it! I’ll be looking for your post.

    Another thing I wonder about this generation is how they’ve handled their memories from the Mao era. If they’ve spent the last several decades pushing those memories away rather than thinking over them and sorting them out, articulating them at least to themselves in their own mind, they maybe just don’t have much to say about it all at this point.

  4. Yes, Joel, 99.9% of them have been doing what you said–pushing those memories away. Several things are at work here: First of all, they are poorly equipped to reflect on the past. They don’t have the necessary framework of values to measure their experience with, although as fellow human beings, their sense of brutality and injustice is just like yours and mine. I have known people who, while not denying the sufferings they have gone through, were happy to “come back to the boat” and became ardent defenders of the Party and its ideology. They seem to be unable to do what seems to you and me the most basic thing: to call what it is what it is. Primo Levy, the Italian writer who wrote about his experices in the Nazi concentration camp said (to the effect), not everyone who lived it can be a true witness of it. Same in China. When some of them do, they often can’t provide an account of their own experiences that satisfies your sense of truth and depth.

    Secondly, the fear factor. The party has made it clear that it doesn’t welcome such reflection, and has been routinely censoring publications about the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution. So people are afraid and don’t feel free to talk about their past at all for fearing consequences. Keep in mind that a lot of the rightists, for example, suffered 20 years, the best part of their lives, for speaking something very trivial, and you can imagine how fearful they are now to speak their mind. I can readily recall a few of these figures I know, how withdrawn they were when they were finally “free.” It is heartbreaking, Joel.

    Third, the shame factor. Primo Levy wrote about this too, and I also find traces of it in people I came across. Somehow, and somewhere in the back of their consciousness, they feel they brought this on themselves, and it was their own fault. I once heard one man cursing himself, “我是一个孽种!” (I was condemned!)

    An entire generation of people has chosen to keep silent, a bigger part of it has already gone and the rest is dying out.

    I have in my possession a stack of letters written by a man who was a victim of 肃反 (a purge in 1955) in the last years of his life. He said he had no particular desire to write about his past, the reason being, “What’s the use?” In all of these letters, he went great length to do to justify to himself why he should not feel bitter over this bitter past of his. He reckoned that, even 刘少奇 (Liu Shaoqi) and so many big people suffered and suffered worse fate, let alone me; and it is the law that “revolution eats its own children.” Then his thoughts took flight to history, to the universe, to semi-philosophical musing (party-style) on how inconsequential an individual life is, etc. All I can say is that he didn’t succeed very well to convince himself, becase he kept coming back to it over and over again.

    He was a retired journalist of Xinhua News Agency. If this was his situation, imagine others’. And he died last year.

  5. Yaxue,

    I just read this in Factory Girls [p.126], where the Chinese American author talks about trying to discover her family history from her relatives in China:

    A few were trying to make sense of the past, but most were not… it hurt less to let it go.

    My relatives did not like telling their own stories. They often began by insisting they had nothing to say… Not one of them, it seemed to me, had faith that their memories mattered… Perhaps in a world where so many peple had suffered, one person’s story did not matter. Suffering only made you more like everyone else.

    By the way, thanks for including the Chinese vocab in your comments!

  6. Joel, I will have a new post up in Tom’s blog this weekend about China’s vanishing memories.

    By the way, nice “extra” work in the movie. You all look pretty real to me.

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