Thursday, November 26, 2009

Memories Can Betray the Truth

Last night I went to hear author Wang Gang (王刚) talk about his book English, which was released in English in April. It was originally published in Chinese in 2004.

Wang is considered an acclaimed author, born and raised in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Dressed in a sweater and a long scarf elegantly draped around his neck, Wang apologized to the audience if he sounded sleepy as he had met up with a friend from Xinjiang the night before and they drank heavily so he was hung over. But he spoke poetically in a low voice in Chinese that was immediately translated into English.

His father went to Xinjiang in 1949, met his wife there and Wang was born in 1960. He learned how to play classical music on the flute and started writing stories. "I've lived 22 years in Beijing, but Xinjiang is my home," he says. "I don't dream about Beijing streets, but of my hometown of Urumqi."

However, when he was six years old, the Cultural Revolution began and for him and many of that generation, that decade has marked them in a different way from the generation before him. And his memories of that turbulent and violent period were recorded in the semi-autobiographical novel English.

He points out that those from the older generation write about the Cultural Revolution differently than him and his peers. "They describe it as the bad guys bullying the good people, which is basically them," he said, referring to the older generation. "They felt they were the victims. I on the other hand was six years old. I still felt guilt in my heart. They think to confess is not their business. But I think a child should confess."

When the Cultural Revolution began, Wang's parents were put in jail and he and his older brother wandered the streets as the schools were closed. They didn't have food so they would steal it. Sometimes they were caught and beaten up for it.

He says that the Cultural Revolution in Xinjiang and Beijing were the same -- except in Xinjiang there are Uygurs and 12 other minorities where everyone suffered together.

"I saw people beating up my dad and a Uygur who was a leader," Wang recalls. "Violence may happen to anyone. Everyone beat everyone. Then they all say they are victims. And then they ask, 'Why did it happen?'"

Wang says it was hard for him to remember what happened. "It took me eight years to write the novel [English], waiting for the details in my memory to surface," he said.

"Outside our window at home we could see the Ba Yi Middle School. Everyday I saw children older than me, about 14 or 15-years-old, beating their teachers. One female teacher was beaten to death. They left her body there and her husband came to collect it," he said.

"Not far from our house is the Urumqi River. And I saw a coffin on the bank of the river. It seemed huge in my memory. And I always saw someone kneeling next to the coffin. I never knew who was inside the coffin," he recalled.

Wang shrugs and says they just grew up like that at the time. "I can't helping thinking we were the freaks born during the Cultural Revolution," he said with a smile.

When he was told the Cultural Revolution was over, he wasn't even sure it was over. He said there was about five years of violence, which then calmed down. When he was 11, he learned to play the flute, playing pieces by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. He said he was lucky that Mao's wife, Jiang Qing like instruments like this, as it gave an opportunity for poor kids to learn an instrument.

"For some writers, it is important to write about violence," he said. "I want to write like Mozart with tears in my eyes."

An audience member asked him about his reaction to the July 5 riots in Urumqi. In a roundabout way, Wang said he was very shocked, because when he was a child he played and fought with Uygurs, went to their homes to eat their food and knew some of their folk songs. He said he had many Uygur friends, even a next-door neighbour who was the vice mayor of Urumqi. They taught him about all the different trees, how to pick edible mushrooms and made him feel Urumqi was the brightest town in China because of the oil lamps Uygurs lit at night.

However, after the riots erupted, he called his Han Chinese and Uygur friends and heard different versions of what happened. He thought this contrasted with the Cultural Revolution, where everyone suffered together and after the tumultuous decade they lived peacefully together.

"Another friend called the other day from Xinjiang to say that Han Chinese don't eat at Uygur restaurants anymore and Uygurs won't go to Han Chinese residential areas," Wang reported.

He recalled two years ago going to Urumqi where he went to a bar and invited the people there for a round of drinks. Vodka was brought out and more drinking and dancing, together with Uygurs. In the end Uygur college students visiting from Beijing took him home. "Were they the same ones? I'm especially afraid of seeing blood, because of the Cultural Revolution," he said. "I don't want to face bloodshed again."

He sympathizes with many Uygurs who are so poor and work hard, only earning 1,000 RMB ($146.42) a year. "Who would have a peaceful life with 1,000 yuan a year?" he asked. While he hopes to see more of a middle class emerging in Xinjiang, he admits that perhaps material goods will not make them happy, as those in Beijing with what seem like good lives are not happy.

Han Chinese and Uygurs complain to him, he says, but points out the Uygur minority are the weaker group of people.

However, when asked if Wang could speak the Uygur language, he answered in this way:

"After July 5, some journalists interviewed me. They asked, 'If you treat Uygur people as your friends, why can't you speak their language? Why do they speak Chinese?' I was ashamed. It's unfair," he said.

So even while Wang, who was born in Xinjiang, grew up with and knows many Uygurs, believes the Han Chinese and Uygurs on the whole got along with each other. He still does not fundamentally understand the plight of Uygurs who want the freedom to practice their religion and culture and not be subjected to Chinese rule.

An audience member pointed out that Wang has a romanticized view of Xinjiang, and it seems he only wants to remember it that way, than see the brutal reality.

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