2009 - Time for China to Remember?

Here is my translation of the essay:-

“Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培) was there, Hu Shi (胡適) was there, Yuan Shikai (袁世凱) was there. The director and script-writer of the movie ‘Mei Lanfang’ (‘梅蘭芳’ or ‘Forever Enthralled’) must have had good reason. What else can possibly portray the opera diva’s magnetism better than the simultaneous appearance of those three characters?

But the creators and their audience seem to have missed the fact that those three could not possibly have appeared at the same time. Cai Yuanpei took up his post as the Chancellor of Peking University in January 1917; Hu Shi had not returned to Shanghai from the United States until July 1917; and Yuan Shikai had passed away in June 1916 amidst curses and a despondent mood.

This film which debuted in December 2008 sends a cryptic message about China’s 2009 pivotal theme. Compared with last year’s scene after scene of joyous celebrations, the New Year will be one marked by remembrance. But to our chagrin, the memories would seem destined to be confounding and twisted.

On the lst day of the New Year, I took a bus to go to my friend’s place in Da Xing county, a suburban district of Beijing. I had lived in that area 20 years ago and I can still recall I used to take the 901 bus every Saturday afternoon to go home from my school in Haidian district, rattling, stopping and going, along a road that was lined with poplar trees on both sides. I also remember one summer night in 1989 I saw on that same road military trucks that were being stopped, the soldiers looking perplexed and the crowds emotional.

My friend’s place is located in a new resort-style villas neighborhood. On the way there, I felt like I was visiting some upper middle-class friend in a big U.S. city suburban area.

This is a materially affluent China. But inside the kitchen of my friend’s home, we talked about the Da Xing county not far from where these villas are located. In 1966, within the few days between the end of August and early September, blood-curdling atrocities took place in Da Xing county. In those few days, hundreds of people from seniors to babies were murdered. The cruelties were carried out in the name of ‘class struggle’. These murders may have been the first big-scale slaughter in the history of China’s Cultural Revolution.

In the warm kitchen, I suddenly felt a chill down my spine. It was the first time that I heard about this historic episode. And perhaps the events had taken place not far from where I was standing, just one generation before. I have often heard about the scary tales of what happened in the ten-year duration of the Cultural Revolution, but I have never had a thorough understanding of that period of time. In the text books of my primary and secondary education, those ten years are just slurred over. As for the prior tragedies like ‘the Great Leap Forward’ or ‘the Great Famine’, they are reduced to insignificant footnotes in historical recounts.

The previous Winter, my friend showed inside a Shanghai university a documentary film of the Cultural Revolution that he produced. Afterwards, a chic-styled girl with big eyes stood up and asked him, ‘Why do we have to remember that?’ Her tone was both sincere and puzzled.

Yes, what is the use of remembering, especially something that is unpleasant? We are in an age where the creation and management of information is a core activity. Knowledge and information are like howling storms that incessantly blow into our brains. We must absorb them non-stop and then discard them. Is there still room in our busy brains for things that have long-term value? To be wrong about a possible encounter between Hu Shi and Yuan Shikai, is this not something negligible? But what about forgetting the slaughters that happened on our soil decades ago? Wouldn’t the younger generation live a healthier life if they didn’t understand those ‘nightmares of our history’? Often, memory is like the genie inside a bottle – you can never guess the consequences of releasing it.

I could not think of an answer. But I thought of the maid Felicite in Flaubert’s short story ‘Un Coeur Simple’ (‘A Simple Heart’), who is honest, hard-working but fuzzyheaded. She experiences great pain but doesn’t know where the pain comes from. It seems that this country and most people who live in this country have the same problem: a simple heart. They live according to customs and based on a principle of no-need-to-think. At times, this would unleash an astonishing amount of energy – just like a care-free young lad who dashes off towards his goal without ever looking back.

But in reality, there may not always be a clear runway or a sure destination. The runway may not even be smooth. When obstacles appear, the no-need-to-think model is bound to crash. And we even have a remedy for this – tolerance, unending tolerance. So China is like a hybrid of a young lad and an old man: it is fuzzyheaded and at the same time is maturely tolerant.

Maybe the attributing factor for this phenomenon is the absence of memory and the inaccuracy of memory. Memory is a test of our honesty. The past is sure to consist of darkness, pain, tremor and insecurity. But these are the very things that help develop our vision about life and the world and enhance our understanding of complexities. As each individual has an independent cache of experience, an honest memory of the past would help him find his own way forward. From the individual level to the national level, memory would unleash an enormous creative power.

From that scene in the film ‘Forever Enthralled’ to the seldom mentioned Da Xing tragedy, the loss of memory signifies two worrying trends. One is that the nation state still exercises strong repression, with the state machine selectively retaining certain memories while suppressing others, and then repackaging them and feeding them to the individuals through propaganda, with the intent of replacing individuals’ memories by a single and collective memory. The other trend is that the overwhelming bits and pieces of information are dismantling our logic and destructing the depth of our memories – we are unconsciously becoming ‘modern illiterates’.

2009 is a year that is full of historical commemorative dates. One can foresee that the authorities will re-create memories based on a fixed rule. And most people can continue to be ignorant and confused.

However, losing memories often means a paralysis of the thinking capacity and inadequacies in the emotional capacity. It also means we lose the chance to explore our inner selves and the world. Besides, memories cannot be forever twisted and buried. If we do not take the initiative to come to terms with the ghost of our past, when it shows up in full force in some kind of accident, it may well become a demon that no one can subdue.”