Apr 22

Letter: Mainlanders and their pasts, Mainlanders and their selves

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 authour of China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation, being Chinese, 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 this recently published book, which seems to be receiving good publicity, she’s interviewed twenty people, all at least in their 70’s, in order to “help our future understand our past.” Everything quoted below comes from the book’s Introduction. I want to know what you guys think about the way she describes: China, older Mainlanders, younger Mainlanders, Chinese individual and collective identity, the importance of remembering these particular chapters in China’s modern history and its connection to individual and national dignity.

China Witness

China Witness

“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].

[The original post, “Mainlanders and their past; Mainlanders and their selves,” includes additional links about Chinese psychology.]

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3 Responses to “Letter: Mainlanders and their pasts, Mainlanders and their selves”

  1. Nimrod Says:

    It’d be interesting for historians, certainly. But I’m not certain how much the 忆苦思甜 “recalling bitterness while thinking of sweetness” is helpful to build a modern national identity. I am still internally debating the merits of even more of a clean break with the past as in a New World model, vs. a return to roots. I think many people are debating this today.

  2. Joel Says:

    what about the idea, “Those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it”?

    Seems to me there is plenty of reason to rigorously examine the past, aside from issues of building national identity. If the past is too bitter, then there’s all the more reason to not repeat it.

    Also, what do you think of the way the author characterizes China’s generational differences and culture?

  3. Nimrod Says:


    I was going to say that quote but seemed too cliche. It seems sometimes people learn the wrong thing from history, too. And those who learn from history are apt to repeat the worst parts of it could also apply. Or they might just look at the glorious parts and forget the worst. But I’m not taking the opposite position. I just point out that there is a debate going on, and there is definitely a current of people swinging back towards examining history more now that they are more comfortable and confident in their lives … although such exercise usually skips much of modern history.

    It’s true that most of the time the young generation doesn’t know much about the personal stories of earlier generations. One reason is it’s just too different, so unless you have a real interest in national history, or family history, learning about it has little practical value. What you are doomed to repeat is maybe something that happened at work 1 year ago, not what happened 30 years ago. The other reason is nobody is willing to talk about it. It’s not a great (as in glorious) story on a personal level, and it would be a let-down to talk about it, and people want face. Since people are living so much better now why not let them forget the past and live their happy lives. This is especially true of the previous generation that put all its energy into cultivating the next generation on what they would have themselves wanted to achieve in life — their own lives being empty vessels of unfulfilled hope perhaps — there is “nothing” to talk about/to show for. I think it’s natural…

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