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  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 7, November 26 - December 2

China Remembers
by Zhang Lijia and Calum Macleod
Oxford University Press (1999)

Zhang Lijia and Calum Macleod's China Remembers was published a few weeks late to be a golden anniversary present for the People's Republic, but it is the most interesting account of China's last half century published this year.

The book consists of stories told by 33 people--Chinese or resident in China--about their own lives. In the form of essays and interview transcriptions edited into polished prose, China Remembers records the personal histories of a diverse group of people including China's first self-made renminbi billionaire, two laid-off workers from Shenyang, a women's group activist, a priest whose beliefs earned him a 20-year prison sentence and who continues to seek converts for his unofficial church, a former Potala Palace clerk and monk's concubine from Tibet, and the Canadian man who managed the Beijing Jeep company in its early years as China's first automobile joint venture.

Divided into five sections loosely corresponding to the five decades of the People's Republic, each chapter is a transcribed interview or essay focusing on a particular time period or event. The editors' introductions to each section give a broad overview of the important historical events of the time; the stories themselves are personal, recounting very individual experiences against a background of mass movements and massive social changes.

'Consolidating Power' covers the years 1949 to 1956. The six accounts in this section describe a variety of experiences--from longtime China resident Isabel Crook's observations of the victorious Communist arrival in Beijing to PLA soldier Zhang Da's capture in Korea in 1951 by American troops. Many of the experiences detailed here are by no means pleasant--Sheng Chong describes beatings and an execution of a landlord and Tashi Tsering recounts the ambivalent local reaction to the 'peaceful liberation' of Tibet--but the tone is overwhelmingly optimistic. China was a backward, war-torn nation in desperate need of strong leadership, and many ordinary people saw the Communist Party as saviors.

But the honeymoon ends in the second section covering the years 1957-1965, entitled 'Leaping into Famine'. Journalist Dai Huang was one of the intellectuals who responded a little too enthusiastically to Mao's call for criticism of the Party during the "100 Flowers Campaign". His attacks on Party corruption and the dangers of deification of leaders labeled him as a 'rightist' for more than 20 years, most of which were spent in labor camps and prisons. In one haunting passage, Dai tells of his almost three year-long spell in a labor camp in the icy wastelands of northern China's Heilongjiang province. Many of his fellow inmates were sentenced for far milder political crimes than Dai himself: one was branded a rightist for remarking that American-made shoe polish was good. Many of these 'rightists' died of malnourishment and overwork.

Bian Shaofeng, a peasant from Anhui province, tells of the Three Bitter Years of Mao's Great Leap Forward between 1959 and 1961, when political campaigns with no connection to economic or agricultural reality were forced on the nation. Even though her village produced enough food to nourish all the locals, unrealistic quotas set by provincial leaders meant that farmers were not allowed to keep the crops they had harvested. Bian watched her fellow villagers cannibalize dead bodies for food as extreme starvation numbed them against fear of death and sympathy for the living.

Not all of the experiences of this time are negative. Zhong Xuanzang describes the patriotic pride with which the Nanjing bridge over the Yangtze River was completed by a wholly-Chinese team after the sudden withdrawal of Soviet aid in 1960. Qiao Anshan describes his life with Lei Feng, the idealistic young soldier whom Party propaganda spinners turned into a communist saint for his good deeds and devotion to Chairman Mao.

Although many commentators assume that Lei's diaries and good works are Party fiction, Qiao swears that Lei's deeds are all real. Qiao tells of their meeting and work together and the accident that ended Lei's life.

Qiao was parking a truck with Lei in the cab when they hit a pole which smashed fatally into the young hero's head. Qiao himself has an incentive to keep the Lei Feng myth around: Lei Feng is Gone--the mainland's top box office film of 1997--is based on Qiao's life. Although the film itself was so successful mainly because it was compulsory viewing for work units nationwide, Qiao still believes that 'Lei Feng spirit' is alive, as evidenced by some "students from Wuhan" who recently set up a Lei Feng website.

The section 'Making Revolution' (1966-1977) recounts the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. An Wenjiang describes his experiences as the leader of a radical Red Guard rebel group that battled with slogans and with fists against more conservative Red Guard factions in Shanghai made up of the children of high officials. Other accounts in this section deal with the countryside 'reeducation' of urban youth and the five-year imprisonment of idealistic foreign teacher David Crook (husband of the afore-mentioned Isabel Crook) on charges of being an imperialist spy. Perhaps the most interesting account in this section is an essay by Tianjin writer Feng Jicai who recounts his struggle to have the 'ten years of chaos' openly discussed and reevaluated.

Translator Zhang Hanzhi saw a pivotal moment in Chinese history when she translated for Richard Nixon on his 1972 visit to China that resulted in the PRC resuming diplomatic relations with the United States and paved the way for the era of Reform and Opening Up described in the following section of the book--'Opening the Doors' (1977-1989).

This section reflects a China much more like the reality today. Song Liying remembers the decollectivization of the 'model' Dazhai commune whose farming methods and revolutionary enthusiasm Mao wanted the whole country to emulate. Don St. Pierre describes the early years of the Beijing Jeep factory in which the brash Canadian businessman lobbied the then Vice-Minister of the State Economic Commission Zhu Rongji into intervening in the joint-venture company's internal disputes. Cui Jian talks about the first time he heard rock music and his sudden ascent to fame in the liberal cultural climate of the late 1980s. A happy account of successful entrepreneurship is given by Zhou Peikun who started a small business empire on a ?00 loan that he used to buy "hatched eggs where the chick does not emerge successfully." These unappetizing items are a delicacy in Nanjing, where Zhou sold enough to pay off the loan within a month and expand into the fruit business eight months later. His small business
empire has put more than ? million into his bank account, but Zhou refuses to take holidays and still takes the bus to get across town.

A short account of activist Dai Qing's campaign against the Three Gorges Dam and a description of the events of 1989 by a student leader known by the pseudonym 'Na Han' end off this section on a grim note.

The 1990s section is entitled 'Entering the World,' a particularly timely name--ru shi (lit.: enter world) is also the current newspaper shorthand denoting China's entry into the World Trade Organization. Sichuan billionaire Liu Yonghao's experiences are contrasted with migrant worker Xiao Liangyu's account of collecting garbage for recycling in Beijing, and with laid-off workers Chen Liyan and Yue Xiuying's descriptions of their life in the aftermath of a state-owned enterprise bankruptcy.

The book ends on an upbeat note with a failed candidate's experience of a village election, and an essay by Motorola's legal director for Greater China, Beijinger Sherry Liu. In the words of the editors, Liu returned from 10 years in the United States as a student and lawyer "to steer Motorola through a country where the rule of man has long held sway over the rule of law." Liu says she is "cautiously confident about China's future," andthat is the general tone of many of the interviews and editor's commentary in the book. Liu's return to China makes an interesting contrast to the first interview of the book, which tells the story of a Chinese banker named Zhou Yougang. He left a successful banking career in New York to come back to the motherland to build communism, a dream he gave up during the Cultural Revolution when he was sent into exile in the remote northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Zhou was one of the people who came up with the Hanyu Pinyin romanization of Mandarin.

China Remembers is a good read. Moreover, it is a valuable record of personal histories during a time when individual voices were drowned out by noisy hordes of ideologues both in and outside of China. The first person accounts are personal and intriguing enough to fascinate China specialists; compiled in one volume they also provide a well-balanced account of the last 50 years for people who know nothing about the People's Republic.

An inconsistent tone--varying between subjective and neutral--detracts from the editorial commentary between the interviews, but the worst feature of the book is its design. The chapter headings are printed in a slightly calligraphic font that looks like it comes from an exotic dance show advertisement. The same font is used on the cover to deface a fine painting by Sichuan artist Zhang Xiaogang.

Nevertheless, China Remembers remains an extremely enjoyable historical account, broken into bite-sized chunks that can be read independently. Using individual's voices rather than their own narrative, the editors tell a light and balanced tale about a half century of bitter ironies and extreme human situations.

(Available in hardback through Amazon.com for US$39.95)


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