Last month a friend asked me how much I really knew about China's past, even the recent past -- just 20 years ago. Had I read any Chinese books about the Cultural Revolution, for instance? He found it hard to believe that China could take an objective look at its Red Period while the generation that lived through it is still alive.
I told him I had read two books on the subject in Chinese, published in China, two months ago. One of them was Part One: A Hundred People's Memories of the Cultural Revolution by Feng Yi-cai; the other was The Past Does Not Disappear Like Smoke by Zhang Yi-he.
As someone who experienced that moment in history, these two books brought back such bitter, painful memories that -- even though I was busy promoting a novel and setting up a new charity, Mothers' Bridge -- I just couldn't sleep.
One of the stories in Part One was that of a woman who had killed her father with her own hands. She had tried to save him -- an elderly academic -- from the continual harassment of the Red Guards, but her parents had persuaded her to kill them both, one after the other. She killed her father, but there was not time to kill her mother: the Red Guards discovered that the family was trying to commit suicide. So she hugged her mother and held her as they jumped from a fourth-floor window. She survived, but her mother died a few days later.
She was charged with murder and spent more than 20 years in jail. Her memories of her parents were very confused, she told the book's author, and although she ate three meals and went to sleep and got up every day, she hardly felt alive.
I completely understand these feelings of being dead and alive at the same time, and of having mixed emotions toward your parents. I was seven and a half when the Cultural Revolution took place and I, too, behaved as I thought a "good daughter" should. My father was in prison and I wrote him a sentence in blood pricked from my finger. It said, "You must repay the blood of the Chinese people!" I believed what I was told -- that my father's family had helped the British drink Chinese blood as if it were red wine (my grandfather worked for the British company GEC for more than 30 years). This letter was stuck on the wall next to the meal table in his prison cell. I never talked to my father about this; I knew I could never erase the letter from either of our memories.
In one chapter of the other book I read, The Past Does Not Disappear Like Smoke, there is a story about an educated Westernized family during the Cultural Revolution. A mother and her daughter try to live as if nothing has changed: they wear beautiful clothes, use the best china, listen to English radio. Soon, though, to keep the Red Guards from these things, they decide they must destroy everything.
I know about this; I saw it too -- my skirts, my books, my toys, my beloved doll, all burned and destroyed at the same time.
The Cultural Revolution was a mad, unbelievable and unforgettably painful moment in the lives of so many Chinese people.
But I was sad to read, at the end of Feng's book, that when he went to interview young Chinese men and women about their feelings toward the Cultural Revolution, most of them had no idea what he was talking about. Some of them even asked why he would make these things up. Others said that China should have another revolution so that they could get out of exams; they couldn't believe that their parents had been so stupid as to sign up with Mao Zedong (