Thursday, November 12, 2009

For the Record

When I was younger I heard that the Cultural Revolution was a dark period in China's modern history, but it was only when I read Life and Death in Shanghai did I understand how traumatic and devastating that tumultuous decade was.

Earlier this month the author, Nien Cheng, passed away in Washington. She was 94.

In her obituaries, Cheng was born into a rich landowning family in Beijing and she later studied at the London School of Economics in 1935. There she met her future husband Kang-chi Cheng.

They returned to China in the 1940s and supporting the Nationalists, he joined the ministry of foreign affairs, where at one point they were posted to Australia to set up an embassy there.

Their fortunes changed in 1949 when the Communists came to power and in 1957, Kang-chi died of cancer while working for Shell in China.

Cheng then also took a job with Shell as a political advisor and lived a well-to-do life with her daughter Meiping in Shanghai. But her life was thrown upside down in 1967 when a group of Red Guards ransacked her home, put her under house arrest and tried to destroy her psychologically through endless interrogations. As she details in her book, she would retort her captors back with sayings of Chairman Mao and find ways to survive mentally and physically.

There were many pages in which she described how malnourished she was, only allowed to eat very watery rice porridge, and in the winter, she did not eat a good portion of it so that she could use the porridge as glue to tape paper to the window frames to keep the cold air out the best she could.

After being in solitary confinement for almost six years, Cheng was released in 1973 and almost told immediately that her actress daughter Meiping had committed suicide in 1967. However, not believing this, Cheng found out later and confirmed that her daughter was killed by the Red Guards.

Cheng managed to leave China for Ottawa, Canada in 1980 and three years later moved to Washington. She then wrote her book which immediately gained acclaim for its honest brutal personal account of the Cultural Revolution. It was the first of a flood of books with the similar theme of terror and victimization.

Even today people cannot speak freely about the Cultural Revolution. Some benefited from it, others destroyed by it. People were punishing and even killing others based on ideology rather than law, insanity overruling rationality.

However, China must confront this past. Like South Africa and now Rwanda, there must be a truth and reconciliation process in China. The truth must come out about what happened. While it was Mao and later his wife Jiang Qing, part of the Gang of Four who orchestrated the Cultural Revolution, tens of thousands of young overzealous Red Guards led destructive campaigns destroying people's property, livelihoods and lives.

This is an open secret as the older generation all lived through this chaos and yet they are not allowed to talk about it. Meanwhile their children and grandchildren know nothing of how evil their fellow citizens can be.

While a truth and reconciliation process will probably never happen given that China is too busy propping up its economy and the rest of the world, its people need to be allowed to re-examine the past, understand why and how it occurred and try to reconcile with what happened. However, they would probably immediately point fingers at the government thus questioning its mandate to rule the country.

Which is why there is no public healing process. And there probably will never be one.

That is why Cheng was compelled to write Life and Death in Shanghai. While she made a new life for herself in North America, the scars and horrors of the Cultural Revolution remained with her until she died.

"In Washington, I live a full and busy life," she told Time Magazine in 2007. "Only sometimes I feel a haunting sadness. At dusk, when the day is fading away and my physical energy is at a low ebb, I may find myself depressed and nostalgic. But next morning I invariably wake up with renewed optimism to welcome the day as another God-given opportunity for enlightenment and experience. My only regret is that Meiping is not here with me."

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