It was hard for me to put down my pen and "finish" this book. As I wrote, I kept asking myself: Are my experiences and even what I write also part of those "things you can't say for sure"? The reality is just that: in all my interviewing, editing and tidying, I could not bridge the gap between the historical facts of that time and the gloss put on it by the people who came after them; I could not find any universally recognised standards of right and wrong in the last few generations of China's history; I could not figure out how to experience or express the delights and excitements of their childhood, the aspirations and pleasures of their adulthood and the joys of their old age. I had even wondered whether they had had any opportunities to experience "delights". The facts proved me wrong: our parents and grandparents had not only experienced "delights" that we can understand, they had the will and the ability to search for, be moved by and comprehend delight in the midst of dire poverty and things that "cannot be said for sure".
I am in the process of searching for my heart's true motherland, among all the "can't say for sures" of several generations of Chinese.
After I returned from my travels, I found myself unable to escape the stories in the books; unable to escape the voices of those interviewees; unable to escape my country as it revealed itself to me in the cracks between the layers of history . . . I spent six months laboriously selecting, rejecting and editing 800,000 characters' worth of research, interviews and recordings into 300,000 Chinese characters. Every day I found myself in a state of emotional turmoil; it was often very hard to find textual proofs in historical sources to explain what the interviewees had experienced, for theirs was a time of history which even now has not been completed, a time which nobody can explain, much less fully document.
When after those six months I returned to my friends and appeared in public once more, many of my acquaintances were startled: "Xinran, what's happened to you? Where did all those white hairs come from?" I replied: "I got all those white hairs from months skulking at home!" But I knew that they were the sprouts of "bitter thoughts and remembrances" in my heart. The cares weighing on the hearts of the old people I had interviewed had led me to ponder deeply on the last century of China's history, and had drawn me into the arduous journey towards understanding modern China.
On this journey I met over a hundred Chinese university students who lent me their support, acting as my assistants, doing research, word processing, selecting and editing extracts. They began to develop an interest just like mine, an intense curiosity about the nature of the cultural system and historic earth our modern-day life is rooted in. Why have we not paid proper attention to the history that is right next to us, which is disappearing as our lives and even our streets are transformed in front of our eyes? The stories of our grandfathers and grandmothers are doors that will close and be destroyed one day soon: how many of them have been passed on to their children and grandchildren?
In fact, the reactions of the university students were more powerful than those of my own – their parents' – generation. First, there was the gulf of language between them. The old people's variety of different accents caused considerable embarrassment for some of the university students who came from the same part of the world – "You're from the same place, and you can't understand what that person was saying?" The scenes and objects that appeared in these narratives, things that had disappeared never to return, made life very hard for these bright students from the best universities: "I don't know how to write this word, or what that thing's for . . ."
Then there was the confusion surrounding common historical knowledge. The great joys and sorrows of the old people who had been forced together into their shared historical experiences astonished and shocked those university students, whose own historical education had been delivered in disconnected fragments, misinterpreted or overlooked: "How come we didn't know about these things?" Some of them could not even spell the names of the famous men who had ruled China and been the driving force behind major historical events . . . The old people's aspirations and sacrifice, their pure hearts and lack of personal ambition, caused the university students to ask suspiciously again and again: "How could they have invested so much faith in a political party which had no economic knowledge and no understanding of human nature?"
Another typical response from the university students was an examination of their own consciences. As one of them said: "Our own parents and grandparents have survived this time; do they have stories like these as well? Why haven't they told them to us? Once I know their stories, how will I judge their past? Will I still be proud of my widely read grandfather and my kindly, skilled grandmother?"
It is my belief that pain and questions are an overture to social progress.
In April 2007 I returned to China, for further confirmation of my experiences of a nation that was "changing and modernising with every passing day" so that I would have another chance to come to understand the disappearing older generations of Chinese.
After almost four weeks of revisits to Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and small villages on the edges of the big cities, and further meetings with people I had interviewed, I was left with even more, even newer "things that I couldn't say for sure". Many different images of those old people's former battles and hopes, images that seemed almost impossible to reconcile with each other, were spinning before my eyes and jostling in my thoughts:
– A shopping street in a modern metropolis: men dressed in Western brand-name suits and women in evening gowns were wandering about in couples in the sunlight, shopping or simply taking a stroll. Countless envious eyes were following their progress; most of those eyes were set in faces that still bore the scars of hard labour in the fields, and in bodies carved by the years.
– A roadside snack stall in a small village: most of the men were talking business, and the women were all discussing their children's education; but the students were all talking about how to impress people with Korean hairstyles, how to play Japanese computer games, or how to go to the city to find the jobs that made big money.
– Vendors crying their wares in a tourist spot: a string of three small monkeys and a Buddha statue decorated with little flashing lights, which the vendor calls "the quest of today's Chinese". Those three monkeys were said to be a folk understanding of Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents" policy. The "Three Represents" is usually summarised as: The Communist Party of China represents the requirements of China's advanced productive forces, the progressive course of China's advanced culture and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese masses. One of the three monkeys on the string was covering its eyes with both hands – don't see; one was covering its ears with both hands – don't hear; one was covering its mouth – don't speak. The seller explained to the tourists that this was the "wise" way for Chinese people to deal with Party leaders: look without seeing; turn a deaf ear; watch but don't say anything. But wisest of all was to be like the Buddha seated in the petals of a lotus – purge your mind of desire and ambition.
– A little bookshop in a small town: bursting with "big bargain" books, "stock-clearance crazy prices" CDs and "guaranteed genuine promotional offer" DVDs. They had everything you could ever want, ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign, so cheap that only a fool would not buy them, even more elegantly printed and bound than those in the big state-run Xinhua bookshop. On impulse I bought over thirty volumes, hoping to catch up on my "modern Chinese current affairs literature". One of the books was called China's Twentieth-Century Disasters, which recorded fifteen floods along China's five major waterways, five major famines in the densely populated eastern region, four major earthquakes along the eastern seaboard and many droughts and fires, all between 1910 and 1998. Were they acts of God, or were they man-made, political disasters? The book gave no comment or analysis, merely stating that in each case over 10,000 lives had been lost. I sighed inwardly: this nation had suffered so much from faction-fighting and warlords, and the common people had had to endure so many viciously cruel natural disasters as well. However, this is a nation "that wild fire can never burn, which rises again when the spring wind blows": 1.3 billion people had survived all the disasters and hardships of the century!
– Magazines: of all the publications in China, these are by far the fastest growing area. The major newspapers are still half official political articles, half advertising; the smaller local papers seem to have more of an "eye for the money", and have more advertisements than anything else, with the rest made up of sensational or novelty stories, and just a sprinkling of major national current affairs stories and Party news. It is very hard to understand some of the things these advertisements are offering, often in a rather peremptory manner, such as "international luxury leisure home living is the first choice for Chinese people", "if you're looking for somewhere to live, live like a tycoon", "life without a luxury house or big-brand car is not really living", and so on . . . In a mere twenty years of reform, can 1.3 billion Chinese people walk into an "international luxury life" with a single step? And does this mean that all those peasants who earn less than a hundred yuan a year are "not really living"? Is the journey from extreme socialism to extreme capitalism our only possible route to "a strong nation and a wealthy people"?
– On Chinese television: the country has dozens of television channels, and on all of them peak time is dominated by beauty contests, talent competitions, historical costume dramas, lectures on history by big-name historians and other such programmes. News programmes remain dominated by interminable seas of meetings and still noticeably lack current affairs analysis. This is clearly a very sensitive area: in China, the further away something is in space and time, the safer it is for the media. Sometimes it seems that every Chinese is a nutrition expert or a gourmet: these are safe topics that have neither been made risky by government or dynastic changes, nor dragged into conflicts of personalities. Radio seems a little braver than television: once-forbidden areas such as sex, an independent legal system, freedom of the press, religion and so on, all "briefly and evasively" show their faces in public; some have even become the "trademark themes" of smaller local stations. But limited international knowledge leads many presenters to express highly ludicrous attitudes, such as "only the ultimate world-quality Starbucks coffee can give the experience of true white-collar pride", "all stars of international fashionable society crave a beautiful white skin", "the USA is the cultural centre of the modern world", "every single day, all the people in the world are watching China's development", and so on and so forth. I once heard an old man phone the presenter of a radio hotline: "Mr Presenter, can you talk about what the foreigners admire about us now?"
– The internet and blogs: the only places where Chinese people can express themselves fully and without reserve. I have seen Chinese people's search for and defence of their roots, as well as their eagerness to pass on the inheritance of China's culture. The increasing popularity of the Internet has been a true "cultural revolution" in Chinese society, completely remaking the old system that had lasted for millennia, where words could only travel from the top of society to the bottom in a one-way stream: Chinese people can now say whatever is on their minds without fear. To China's Internet users, the Net is not only a platform for speech, it is also a space of safety and liberation: people who suspect the gods, who question the government, who rebel against their parents, who oppose their superiors, even those who grumble about their spouses or have harsh things to say about their friends and family, whose views would once have been viewed as "rebelling against authority", "behaving inappropriately" and "betraying their own family", can let off steam here, with never a soul the wiser, not even the gods themselves. Now every town and tiny village that has electricity also has Internet cafés and bars, so full that it has become a problem, as old and young alike become addicted to the Internet. Rumour has it that a new "hot topic" among many women is how to retrieve husbands and children from the Internet café for food and sleep.
To tell the truth, I am a little nervous about visiting today's Chinese web pages – the lure of these places really is too great! Leaving aside the fascinating anecdotes, the information on cultivating the body and the sex, the dazzling variety of lifestyle advice, and looking only at the exposed secrets of history, the analysis of the great works of the ancients and of international points of conflict . . . as soon as you dive in you can easily lose yourself in all those "nobody can say for sures".
The first example: China's territory. The People's Republic of China has a land area of approximately 9,600,000 square kilometres, which makes it the third largest country in the world after only Russia and Canada (forty-two times the size of the United Kingdom). It is divided into four directly governed cities, twenty-three provinces, five autonomous regions and two Special Administrative Zones, and the capital is Beijing. China's territory spans forty-nine degrees of latitude stretching from latitude 53°30' north to 4° north, a distance of 5,500 kilometres from north to south. At its easternmost point, Chinese territory begins at 135°05' east, with its westernmost point at 73°40' east, a distance of 5,200 kilometres from east to west, spanning sixty degrees of longitude, with a time difference of more than four hours. This is a national "definition", the only thing which is recognised to be the same amid all the various "differences". Different Chinese official websites give different figures for other things: www.china.org.cn states that it borders on fifteen countries by land, and China's sea areas have an area of approximately 4,730,000 square kilometres, with about 5,400 islands and islets distributed throughout. But www.gov.cn maintains that China's sea area is about 4,700,000 square kilometres, containing 7,600 islands, and that China shares a land border with fourteen nations, and has eight neighbours by sea.
The second example: it is said that at the end of 2005 China's population was 1,306,313,812, and that it has 668 cities, of which 13 have a population of 2 million or more, 24 have a population of 1 to 2 million, 48 have half a million to a million, 205 have a population of 200,000–500,000, and 378 less than 200,000. But on 11 November 2005 the head of the Chinese Construction Ministry said that in less than ten years' time the number of China's megacities of over a million people would already have increased from 34 to 49. No matter which figure is correct, they all imply that in eight years China will have more than ten new megacities! Will these fifteen megacities come from an increase in the non-agricultural population? Will they be capable of absorbing the increase in population? Are housing, traffic, schools, social plans in general, medical protection and green spaces being developed at the same speed? Will the original inhabitants and the newcomers be able to get along and live together side by side? My research teams were unable to find any material with figures on the subject, plans for development or anything of that kind.
The third example: on 18 February 2004 at 20:31 GMT, 04:31 Beijing time, China's Xinhua News Agency released the news that Wu Yi, China's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health, met Gao Yaojie, a doctor from China's Henan province. Gao Yaojie is a retired obstetrician who was subjected to many years' official harassment for exposing the truth about the AIDS situation in that province, and was refused permission by the government to travel to the United Nations to receive the Jonathan Mann Award for health and human rights. It is said that when Wu Yi and Gao Yaojie met, all local officials, including the head of the province, were ordered to leave the room, leaving only the two women behind. Wu Yi told Dr Gao to drop all formalities and speak freely, and the meeting lasted for three hours. But even after this highly significant meeting, the government still did not allow Gao Yaojie to collect her prize; it was not until early 2007 that the Chinese government notified the UN that Gao Yaojie was about to begin her journey to receive the award. Why could not even a dialogue with the Deputy Prime Minister get the doctor the support she deserved? And what had eliminated the obstacles set up by the local government after that? Could it be possible that the local government had become an entrenched power in its own right? If not, how could a single-party Chinese government permit a local government to undermine China's international image in that way? Could it be that Henan's AIDS situation had progressed so far that it frightened the central government? Or had three years' delay had a beneficial effect on the treatment of AIDS in Henan? If so, why had the Chinese media, whose "sole duty is to utter praise", not reported it? As I understand it, by the end of 2006, Henan province had stated that it has 11,844 cases of AIDS, but medical workers and experts say that the number of Aids carriers in Henan province may have reached 1 million.
The fourth example: in recent years, from both inside China and abroad, the calls for the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government to re-evaluate and officially define the Cultural Revolution have been getting louder and louder. Increasingly, the ruling party is starting to face angry recriminations for its unfairness and weak government, and their toleration and willingness to overlook Mao Zedong's crimes. However, in May 2007 I read on a Chinese official website:
24 June 2005: Official Almanac of the People's Republic of China
The "Cultural Revolution", which lasted from May 1966 to October 1976, resulted in the gravest setbacks to the Party, the nation and the people since the founding of the People's Republic. This "Cultural Revolution" was instigated and led by Mao Zedong. The course of the "Cultural Revolution" can be divided into three parts:
· From the start of the Cultural Revolution to the Party's Ninth Plenary Congress in April 1969. The guidelines and policy of the "Ninth Plenary" were erroneous in ideology, policy and organisation.
· From the Central Ninth Plenary to the Tenth Plenary Conference of the Chinese Communist Party in August 1973. The Tenth Plenary continued the Ninth Plenary's "leftist" errors, and made Wang Hongwen Deputy Central Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen combined in the Central Politburo to form the "Gang of Four", further increasing the strength of Jiang Qing's counter-revolutionary group.
· The "Tenth Plenary" to October 1976. In early October 1976, the Central Politburo, carrying out the will of the Party and the people, smashed Jiang Qing's revolutionary clique, and put an end to the disaster of the "Cultural Revolution". Hua Guofeng, Ye Jianying, Li Xiannian and others played an important role in this. As to the "Cultural Revolution", the major responsibility is Mao Zedong's. However, at the end of the day, Mao Zedong's errors are the mistakes of a great proletarian revolutionary.
I am baffled: how can the government "repudiate the Cultural Revolution and accept the mistakes of Mao Zedong" as part of the official almanac of national history, and yet not allow the media to embark on a full-scale condemnation of the Cultural Revolution? The government still refuses to delete or make cuts in the description of relevant records in school textbooks, and forbids the publishing of literary works on related topics. Does the constitution of a "democratic republic" allow this garbled, out-of-context history, and this emperor-like avoidance of history? Perhaps the government's silence is for the sake of those peasants who still believe that Mao Zedong is "the red sun"? Throughout the history of imperial China, many changes of dynasty began with peasant rebellions.
On 15 May 2007, just before I left China, I tried, as I had many times before, to open the Chinese web page of the BBC news, but once again I failed. I hope the day will come soon when I can read the news in my homeland: that will be a sign of China's bravery, and its courage to join the rest of the world.
On 10 August 2007 I got an email from a friend in a Chinese news work unit: the radio station where I used to work, Radio Jiangsu, had been singled out by the central government for punishment. Eight radio stations had ceased broadcasting in Jiangsu province alone, and over two hundred radio stations up and down the country had been shut down with no warning. The reason the high-ups had given was that they had been "moving too quickly, developing in ways that do not conform to recognised standards". As I understand it, this is a "political rectification" that took place countless times before 1980, but never again since then. In their discussions on the Internet, my fellow journalists held a variety of opinions. Some said that there was actually a point to this rectification: without it, people for whom the radio, which had enjoyed a mere twenty years of opening up, was a window on the world would have been destroyed by the "rubbish guidance" it was producing. Some considered that this rectification was a retrograde step for China's news, believing that the laws of the natural world and the "survival of the fittest" would assure a healthy development for China's news if it was left to itself. Others maintained that this was an "immunisation" for freedom of the press, in preparation for the relaxing of Chinese media controls for the 2008 Olympic Games. One old journalist even said that it was because of the Seventeenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which was to be held in November 2007: "There's always rectification before a Party congress, every time, it's standard practice." I thought that a sign of social progress was the news teaching the people to be more aware of the law, not acting as a tool of the government.
In today's China, the taxi drivers have been one of my best sources of relatively up to date and comparatively genuine public opinion. They have seen and learned much in the broad streets and narrow alleys, and they have come to the best understanding of these "huge changes and renewals", as they constantly modify their routes amid the endless succession of traffic jams. Every time I've come back, chatting and debating with them and listening to their cursing and jokes has been a necessary lesson for me on China's newest developments.
These are some of the complaints that I heard from a group of taxi drivers in April and May 2007:
– In Beijing, a thirty-ish male taxi driver discussing Taiwan and the mainland:
Is Taiwan easier to govern than the mainland? Quite so! Had Chiang Kai-shek got more of what it takes than Mao Zedong? I don't believe it. Could Chiang Kai-shek have taken on the mainland? Impossible, he only knew how to cook food on the peasants' wood-burning stoves, holding the foreigners' cookery books in both hands – the peasants would never get a taste of it! Our Mao couldn't make peasant food, but he knew how to help peasants steal food from rich people's kitchens. Who would the peasants follow, if not him? If someone was to stand up and say to you: Follow me, I'll write off the debts that have crushed your family for generations, you'd go along with him! Debts are like leopards and wolves, taxes are like tigers – who'd be willing to live with unpaid debts?! Chinese peasants can't read or write, but they all know about title deeds, they all understand that one debt paper can crush a whole family to death! When we'd just been liberated, Mao Zedong burned all the records of their debts, and let them breathe again – of course they were going to work like donkeys for him! Now the officials just aren't as clever as Old Man Mao; if they keep on the way they're going, on making life hard for the peasants, then they'd better watch out!
– In Beijing, a male taxi driver and former Red Guard who has just been refused a tourist visa to the USA:
Are those foreigners being fair, punishing a country's citizens for the opinions of a political party, denying them the freedom to travel and see the world? It's like punishing my son and making him admit his errors over the beating, breaking and stealing I did back when I was a Red Guard! Is that fair? Are the British being punished for supporting slavery? Do the Americans get punished for massacring the Indians? Are the French punished for their role in enslaving North Africa? Are the Spanish punished for plundering Latin America? Are the Dutch punished for what they did to the North Americans? Are the Italians or the Turks punished for allowing the conquests and massacres of ancient times? God hasn't been punished for sending down a flood to drown the human race either, has He? Mao Zedong and the Communist Party are the deadly enemies of Britain and the US, but who do they think they are, trying to punish us with their foreign visas? What country has ever refused Communist Party leaders a visa when they go off on their state visits? Why do those free, democratic Western countries treat our common people like a joke?
– In Nanjing, a female taxi driver:
My niece is studying abroad in Germany. She told me on the phone that the foreigners over there say that Chinese are too greedy for territory. Who have we ever attacked? You say we've attacked Tibet? Vietnam? Korea? What about it? They were all just the same once. What developed countries in the world today haven't attacked other smaller or weaker countries? Which of them hasn't stolen China's wealth? First they fill their own pockets, then they turn round and accuse other people of having dirty hands, it's a joke! Those foreigners dare call us greedy for territory? That American Bush has used his power to stir up chaos in the world, there's violence everywhere, and he calls it "anti-terrorism"? I've heard that the weapons those terrorists are using were all made in America! Where have all the decent people gone, how come nobody's tried to put a stop to their violent ways? I told my niece, don't you listen to foreigners who believe bad words about China, they all bully the weak but fear the strong!
– In Shanghai, a very young male taxi driver, of about twenty:
Going to Britain to study for two years was really disappointing. Everyone in my family had wanted me go to America, but I thought America didn't have enough history or culture; besides, my grandfather said that in Shanghai the British had a better reputation than other countries. There are a lot of old houses in Shanghai that were built by the British and French in the twenties and thirties, and even some of their old servants say that the British treated their maids better than other people. You know, in the past many schools and foundling hospitals in Shanghai were built and run by British religious societies. So I thought that if the people were so good and kind when they went abroad, they would be even better to foreigners in their own country. But I was disappointed. Really very disappointed! My Master's there was like I'd been put in a studying machine, not a breath of human life, just timetables, reading lists, students doing all their research together, teachers who barely showed their faces . . . The school allocated all the Chinese students rooms together, there was nobody to help you get involved with the local way of life, and by the time I'd finally learned how to integrate myself into British society, my visa had run out, so they didn't even give me a chance to put it into practice. After I came back I was very depressed; when I saw Britain on the TV I'd suddenly get struck by "Britain feelings", I thought I really did have feelings for the place. But once I'd calmed down and thought about it for a while, wasn't that just mawkish sentimentality? Those Brits don't take us Chinese seriously! Perhaps they still see us as the "losers" of the Opium War. Am I taking it too much to heart? But I really couldn't bear it. When I first came back I joined a British company, but before I'd been there a month I left to find work as a taxi driver, I was looking for a bit of equality and self-respect in the river of cars and traffic. Why did I walk out? I had a British head manager just before I quit, and when he spoke to you his voice was as cold as a freezer. We're all people, what gives you the right to be so high and mighty? Isn't it just that China's a bit more backward than the old-brand empires? Sometimes I really want to write an email to my old supervisor, saying: We're young and vigorous now, we may be a little bit naive and ignorant compared to you Brits, but the future belongs to us! Why haven't I written it? I'm afraid they'll be sick with rage!
"Words heard on the road" have always been a part of my social education, lessons that give me food for thought.
– Wangfujing bookshop, Beijing, 18 April 2007:
SON: Daddy, what are these dolls for?
FATHER: They're called the Olympic Dolls, they're the mascots for the 2008 Olympics.
SON: Why do they look like that? What country are they from?
FATHER: Um . . . "world citizens", maybe? I think this must be "bringing China in line with the international community".
SON: Oh . . . I get it, our Olympic mascots are the cousins of the foreigners' Transformers!
– Starbucks coffee house, next door to the presidential palace in Nanjing, 4 May 2007:
CHINESE-SPEAKING FOREIGN CUSTOMER: Gosh, what a beautiful building.
SERVER: Isn't it? It used to be part of the presidential palace in the republican era.
CUSTOMER: Why haven't they made it into a museum?
SERVER: That would be a waste of resources, wouldn't it? Then this house couldn't be used to make money.
CUSTOMER: It's a real pity, using such a beautiful building as a coffee house!
SERVER: No it's not. What we're doing here is allowing the best-quality goods in the world to mingle with Chinese traditional culture.
– Train from Nanjing to Shanghai, 7 May 2007:
GIRL A: How do you know that your dad has a lover?
GIRL B: I bumped into them, yuck, they were all over each other.
GIRL A: Did you tell your mum?
GIRL B: What would be the point? She said it herself a long time ago, all men eat what's in their bowl while eyeing up what's in the wok!
GIRL A: Not necessarily, not my dad.
GIRL B: That's because you don't know. My mum says, what man with money doesn't keep a mistress these days?
GIRL A: So what're we going to do when we have men?
GIRL B: If they can keep lovers, so can we!
– Ladies' toilets, Shanghai Hongqiao Domestic Airport, 11 May 2007:
MANAGER: Why is this paper dispenser so loose?
CLEANER: I thought that it would make it more convenient for the customers.
MANAGER: You can't do that, it has to be tight, or it's easy for the customers to pull out a lot all at once, and we're the ones who have to pay for it. Have you wiped down all the pictures?
CLEANER: Yes, all of them, even the new ones they've just hung up. It's just that one over the soap dispenser, there's a mark on the man's face, I can't get it off.
MANAGER: Don't you scrub that off, I put that tape over the man's eyes myself. Whatever were they were thinking of, hanging a picture of a man in a ladies' toilet? How come the floor in that cubicle isn't shiny?
CLEANER: I've just mopped it.
MANAGER: Not hard enough, you should mop the floor until you can see the face of the person in the next toilet!
When I heard this, I congratulated myself that there was no one in the cubicles on either side of me; I could hardly imagine performing my private natural functions "face to face" with my neighbours.
– Zhengda Shopping Centre, Shanghai, 12 May 2007:
YOUNG WOMAN: This brand's no good!
YOUNG MAN: It looks really great on you.
YOUNG WOMAN: What do you know about it? Nobody takes this brand seriously, I'll crash and burn in the interview, for certain!
YOUNG MAN: Well, can't you wear that one from Next?
YOUNG WOMAN: That brand's too old-fashioned – as soon as the boss sees it he'll know that I'm behind the times.
YOUNG MAN: Things are really expensive here, and money's tight for me this month.
YOUNG WOMAN: So do you really love me?
YOUNG MAN: Of course I love you!
YOUNG WOMAN: Do you? Then you couldn't let me show up in clothes that aren't even brand names and lose face in front of a foreign boss, now, could you?
– Shanghai Pudong International Airport, 15 May 2007:
MAN A: Aren't you going to buy her that necklace?
MAN B: It's too expensive. I can't very well claim the money back at my work unit.
MAN A: Get the attendant to write you two receipts, one for books, one for souvenirs, and that'll be the end of the matter!
MAN B: That brain of yours is good for something, anyway!
MAN A: Oh, we all do it. You tell me, are there a hundred honest officials in our China, officials who've never used public funds to pay for private expenses?
MAN B: Officials who've never claimed on expenses? A hundred? Not that many.
On 16 May 2007 I was in the departure lounge of Shanghai International Airport, reading a Chinese newspaper and waiting for the plane for New Zealand, where I was going to start the launch tour for my fourth book, Miss Chopsticks. The main headline in the papers was still the China Petroleum and Gas Group's discovery of oilfields of up to 1 billion tonnes in the Tanhai area of the Bohai Gulf: apparently the Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, had been "too excited to sleep". This reminded me of the worries Mr You had mentioned in his interview, that China's future strength and economic staying power would be determined by its oil supplies.
The most noticeable pictures in the illustrated part of the news were of the Chinese stock market, full of beaming faces after a series of rapid rises, juxtaposed with the gloomy faces of car salesmen; people were putting all their funds into the stock market. Many of the stock owners' faces were worn by the years, but the car dealers were all healthy young people who looked tasty enough to eat. By the side of a group of photos of ostentatious and extravagant "International Labour Day" marriage ceremonies was an old woman's face, full of grief and rage – another 91-year-old woman in Jiangxi province had made public her humiliating status as a Japanese "comfort woman". The old lady in the photograph looked agonised: why did they humiliate so many of us girls, and how can they still not admit it?
I put down my newspaper, and a song that was being played on the loudspeakers drifted into my ears. This song, "Dyed with my Blood", was written for the soldiers who died in the China–Vietnam War in the 1980s, and it had been forgotten by many people, before international politics had once again painted it with fresh colour:
Perhaps after this farewell I will never return,
Will you understand? Will you see why?
Perhaps I will fall and never rise again,
Will you wait for me forever?
If that is so, do not grieve,
For the flag of the Republic will be dyed with my blood . . .
I was thinking: is not the flag of today's China dyed with the blood of our forebears in the same way? Do China's young people understand this? Will the flourishing crown of leaves and branches that has grown up from their roots, watered by China's violent storms and rains of blood, retain any memory of the roots?
The "Beijing Olympic torch storm" had been going on for three days in April 2008 when I did my final editing of China Witness with my London editor. I could see how much Chinese people had been constantly shocked and hurt by the mainly one-sided news "selected" by Western media in its coverage of China; only a very few exceptions, such as Frans-Paul van der Putten's letter in the International Herald Tribune on 6 April 2008, showed a real and all too rare understanding of China and its inherent problems in the last century.
On the BBC website, which became accessible in China just a few weeks before the Olympic torch went around the world, Chinese emails flooded in, showing the confusion and passionate hurt experienced by young Chinese:
– The Dalai Lama supports The Beijing Olympics, as he has stated many times, and agreed that Tibet could be a part of China. Why, I wonder, do both sides, Tibetan and Chinese, never listen to him? And why does this complication almost never play a part in the news I watch in the UK?
– The 2008 Olympics was voted by the world democratically seven years ago, the UN recognizes China as a country including Tibet. How do we respect that democratic process, both UN and Olympic, when we see the sort of attacks on China's human rights record and democracy constantly reported in the news?
– What will be said, I wonder, if someone points out that the London Olympics in 2012 should be cancelled because British troops invaded Iraq, are illegally occupying it?
– What's the difference between "freedom fighters" and "terrorists"? By what standard are we judging? The Western news coverage on the Beijing Olympics seems to follow an agenda as clearly set as any propaganda.
– There are hundreds of thousands, millions of people who speak English in China. I'd like to know how many British people speak Chinese. Most secondary school children in China know Shakespeare, Dickens and are aware of a wide range of Western music. How many Westerners know of Chinese books or music? Is this because of Western press controls, a deliberate policy by the government or simply arrogance?
– Why Western media hate China so much? We are not living in the same China as our parents and grandparents had, even though under the same name as PR China. Why none tell this difference to the world from those highly respected and luxurious living foreign media in China?
'Why' has become not only a word or a question, but symptomatic of a deeper questioning and shock in young Chinese hearts and minds . . . It could turn China towards a better political system in the future, or, simply destroy their trust in the developed Western world.
I wonder how many people have realised that the naivety and ignorance of some Western media risks damaging the belief of young Chinese in democracy, and that it could also possibly force the Chinese authorities to slow down the faltering progress of the democracy movement which began in 2008. I don't think most Westerners have any idea how much the Chinese had suffered in the hundred years up to the late 1980s . . . Twenty years is a very short time for this nation to have the chance during relatively peaceful times to change its thinking, and to learn about freedom and democracy, including how to be with Tibet and Tibetans . . .
I believe it would be a great chance for the Chinese people to touch and feel the world through the universal language – of sport and music – if the Beijing Olympics were to succeed. Otherwise, there is a risk that young Chinese may feel the same confusion about democracy and find themselves in conflict with the Western world in the same way as the previous three generations after the Opium War, when China lost its national pride.
This world will not be in peace if we don't really understand and respect democracy everywhere, if we don't give people all of the information they need to make a choice, and then move on to a peaceful future. This is true all over the world. Humanity has paid so much for its past mistakes because we are too often taught to hate one another.
As a Chinese media person I struggled with Chinese censorship for a long time before I moved to London in 1997. Now, I feel the same sense of struggle again, but in the West, not with censorship, but with ignorance about my motherland.
Please, let us all think and work towards not producing more darkness with hate. Only light and the brightness of understanding can destroy darkness.
At about 10.30 pm on 12 May 2008, as I was going through the mountain of emails that had built up while I was at a conference in France, one subject with many exclamation marks jumped out at me.
"North Sichuan, Wenchuan, a 7.8 earthquake at 14:28 on May 12. The tremor was felt in all but three northern provinces but the whole of China has been shaken!!!!!!!!!"
For the first few seconds, I couldn't believe what I had read, and then, almost immediately, I thought of the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, when nearly 300,000 people lost their lives. (Chinese government statistics list 240,000 dead, though I was told that figure does not include the military, those travelling through the area, or the un-registered migrants who worked in the coal mines.) I felt a chill through my whole body and I couldn't help my tears. Tangshan was a terrible blow to the Chinese people. In my book The Good Women of China, one chapter is about my interview with a group of mothers who all lost their children in that earthquake. Every single morning since then, those women have set an alarm for the time when their beloved children disappeared so that they could pray.
At the time of writing this on the 18 May 2008, over 32,000 deaths have been confirmed in this latest earthquake, and over 17,000 bodies are still covered by rubble. Thousands of children will have died because the earthquake took place at 2.28pm during afternoon school time. One town, which had a population of tens of thousands, has only 2200 survivors, and their homes have been completely destroyed. Today, China's State Council has decided that 19–21 May will be a national time of mourning for the earthquake victims of Sichuan Wenchuan. It is the first time in China's history that a natural disaster will be mourned nationwide.
I can see the huge difference from the government's response 30 years ago, when they banned news of Tansghan to save political face and refused international support out of a misplaced and distorted sense of national pride. This time, the Chinese government announced the Sichuan earthquake witness within 58 minutes and asked for international help immediately. The images of crying mothers in amongst the ruins of Sichuan on the front page of Western newspapers have drawn the world's attention from the political chaos of the Olympic torch and I sense a huge sympathy for China's loss. Also, many Chinese have learned and realised that human lives are far more important than any political or editorial angle, as the BBC and other Western media put the Sichuan earthquake as their top story.
The Chinese internet is full of every kind of Chinese voice: sad laments for the lost and for those single child families, who will never have the chance to have other children; warm thanks to the rescue teams and the People's Liberation Army who have been fighting day and night to save lives; thanks and encouragement for everyone who continues to donate to the poor victims; hatred towards those who allowed the poorly constructed buildings; anger with the millionaires who haven't stood up to help the people lost in this natural disaster; worry about the China Engineering Physics Research Institute, located in Sichuan Mianyang near Wenchuan, because the research station is responsible for China's nuclear weapons – it is hard to imagine the consequences if the reactor was damaged; and warnings about the North Sichuan Dam, which, if it were to break, could flood at least 160,000 lives.
These voices mostly come from the younger generation, I guess, because most of their parents and grandparents don't know how to use a computer – they are a generation who know, instead, of civil war, political madness, and queuing for food. In seeing those young Chinese united in such a way, in their care, their outrage and national pride, I realise I may be wrong about them. I used to think that they were too comfortable and too rich to understand China's hungry past, or those poor, uneducated peasants and the misunderstood last generations.
All of this made me think of that song "Dyed with my Blood", again: why does the national flag have to be painted with Chinese blood? I pray for my motherland – I hope there will be peace and strength, rooted in love and happy families, and with friends around the world.