Tuesday, March 03, 2009

China Witness

I just got back from attending an interview of Xinran by John Fraser at U of T's Hart House. If you're not familiar with who Xinran is, she is the author of The Good Women of China, a collection of real life stories of Chinese women. It was, at times, a heartbreaking read for me because it made me wonder at the resilience and strength of Chinese women to persevere through the hardships and injustices of simply being born a woman in a culture that generally does not value them. And it made me grateful that I was lucky enough to be born and raised in the West.

She was here to promote her latest effort, China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation.

Fraser asked her about her childhood and her experience growing up in the Cultural Revolution. Xinran was born in Beijing in 1958. Her parents were both well-educated and from a wealthy background. She was seperated from her parents at an early age and was raised by her grandparents. She recounted the clear memory of meeting her mother for 10 minutes at the train station when she was 5, and the light purple clothing she wore. When she was 6 and a half, she was reunited with her parents only to be seperated again about 6 months later when the Cultural Revolution swept the nation and resulted in her parents imprisonment.

She spent the better part of her childhood living with other children in some sort of compound where she wasn't allowed to play let alone speak. And to this day, she still has nightmares that the Red Guards will darken her door in the middle of the night to take her away for a beating.

She spoke too, about her reasons for writing this book - Part of it is because Chinese youth today are completely ignorant of this period in China's modern history, and part of it is because if she doesn't do it now, it may be too late as most of the oral histories she collected were from interviewees in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

She shared with us a meeting she had with 22 young students outside a Beijing shopping district who were on break from their jobs. She asked them if any of them knew what the Cultural Revolution was and only 1 of them could answer correctly. She then asked them all to go home and call their parents for an answer, and in return, she would give them a gift the next day. When the next day came, all but 1 student came back. It's her belief that one can't move forward in the future without understanding one's past and what a disservice it is that so many of the young Chinese today have no idea.

When asked about her education, she said that she has 4(?) degrees the first being English and she wasn't able to communicate to the cab driver on her first trip to London; and while she has a computer science degree, she studied computers when the hardware took up an entire room. Despite being so well-educated, she got the most value from the stories she's been able to gather in talking to different people.

Anyway, it was rather a thrill to hear her speak of her first-hand experiences. I think I was third in line after Fraser to have her sign my book and I was rather dumbstruck. She asked me softly in mandarin if I was Chinese and I answered yes....and I can't recall now what her next question was, but I answered: "Wo shi Jianada waqiao", which means I am Canadian born Chinese...that was just about the only useful phrase I could recall at the moment after studying mandarin for 2 years. Lame. Then she said to me, in mandarin, "Please ask after your father and mother." Then I said "xiexie," thank you, and then I gathered up my things and left. Double lame.

In hindsight, I wish I could have told her that I really enjoyed reading The Good Women of China because it made me at times happy and sad and angry and hopeful. I wish I could have told her how much I am looking forward to reading China Witness for all that I will learn about my Chinese cultural heritage, but most of all, I wish I could have told her how thankful I am that she feels compelled to document so much Chinese history that would otherwise be lost.

I didn't then, so I'll do it now: "Xinran, xiexie ni."


joyce said...

I love that she did this to preserve oral history so that it can be passed down to future generations. I sometimes wish I had a chance to speak to my grandparents about my family but unfortunately they're around around anymore. It's scary how quickly stories like these can be forgotten and by the time people become curious about where they come from, it's often too late.

sallymandy said...

What a tremendous story. Thank you for sharing this.

As a person trained as a historian, I really feel the urgency of preserving oral histories. When I was in school it wasn't really taught as a credible source of history, but as I get older I'm more convinced of its value. Lovely story.

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