Zhang Lijia and Calum
Macleod's China Remembers was published a few weeks
late to be a golden anniversary present for the People's
Republic, but it is the most interesting account of
China's last half century published this year.
The book consists of stories told by 33 people--Chinese
or resident in China--about their own lives. In the
form of essays and interview transcriptions edited into
polished prose, China Remembers records the personal
histories of a diverse group of people including China's
first self-made renminbi billionaire, two laid-off workers
from Shenyang, a women's group activist, a priest whose
beliefs earned him a 20-year prison sentence and who
continues to seek converts for his unofficial church,
a former Potala Palace clerk and monk's concubine from
Tibet, and the Canadian man who managed the Beijing
Jeep company in its early years as China's first automobile
Divided into five sections loosely corresponding to
the five decades of the People's Republic, each chapter
is a transcribed interview or essay focusing on a particular
time period or event. The editors' introductions to
each section give a broad overview of the important
historical events of the time; the stories themselves
are personal, recounting very individual experiences
against a background of mass movements and massive social
'Consolidating Power' covers the years 1949 to 1956.
The six accounts in this section describe a variety
of experiences--from longtime China resident Isabel
Crook's observations of the victorious Communist arrival
in Beijing to PLA soldier Zhang Da's capture in Korea
in 1951 by American troops. Many of the experiences
detailed here are by no means pleasant--Sheng Chong
describes beatings and an execution of a landlord and
Tashi Tsering recounts the ambivalent local reaction
to the 'peaceful liberation' of Tibet--but the tone
is overwhelmingly optimistic. China was a backward,
war-torn nation in desperate need of strong leadership,
and many ordinary people saw the Communist Party as
But the honeymoon ends in the second section covering
the years 1957-1965, entitled 'Leaping into Famine'.
Journalist Dai Huang was one of the intellectuals who
responded a little too enthusiastically to Mao's call
for criticism of the Party during the "100 Flowers Campaign".
His attacks on Party corruption and the dangers of deification
of leaders labeled him as a 'rightist' for more than
20 years, most of which were spent in labor camps and
prisons. In one haunting passage, Dai tells of his almost
three year-long spell in a labor camp in the icy wastelands
of northern China's Heilongjiang province. Many of his
fellow inmates were sentenced for far milder political
crimes than Dai himself: one was branded a rightist
for remarking that American-made shoe polish was good.
Many of these 'rightists' died of malnourishment and
Bian Shaofeng, a peasant from Anhui province, tells
of the Three Bitter Years of Mao's Great Leap Forward
between 1959 and 1961, when political campaigns with
no connection to economic or agricultural reality were
forced on the nation. Even though her village produced
enough food to nourish all the locals, unrealistic quotas
set by provincial leaders meant that farmers were not
allowed to keep the crops they had harvested. Bian watched
her fellow villagers cannibalize dead bodies for food
as extreme starvation numbed them against fear of death
and sympathy for the living.
Not all of the experiences of this time are negative.
Zhong Xuanzang describes the patriotic pride with which
the Nanjing bridge over the Yangtze River was completed
by a wholly-Chinese team after the sudden withdrawal
of Soviet aid in 1960. Qiao Anshan describes his life
with Lei Feng, the idealistic young soldier whom Party
propaganda spinners turned into a communist saint for
his good deeds and devotion to Chairman Mao.
Although many commentators assume that Lei's diaries
and good works are Party fiction, Qiao swears that Lei's
deeds are all real. Qiao tells of their meeting and
work together and the accident that ended Lei's life.
Qiao was parking a truck with Lei in the cab when they
hit a pole which smashed fatally into the young hero's
head. Qiao himself has an incentive to keep the Lei
Feng myth around: Lei Feng is Gone--the mainland's top
box office film of 1997--is based on Qiao's life. Although
the film itself was so successful mainly because it
was compulsory viewing for work units nationwide, Qiao
still believes that 'Lei Feng spirit' is alive, as evidenced
by some "students from Wuhan" who recently set up a
Lei Feng website.
The section 'Making Revolution' (1966-1977) recounts
the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. An Wenjiang describes
his experiences as the leader of a radical Red Guard
rebel group that battled with slogans and with fists
against more conservative Red Guard factions in Shanghai
made up of the children of high officials. Other accounts
in this section deal with the countryside 'reeducation'
of urban youth and the five-year imprisonment of idealistic
foreign teacher David Crook (husband of the afore-mentioned
Isabel Crook) on charges of being an imperialist spy.
Perhaps the most interesting account in this section
is an essay by Tianjin writer Feng Jicai who recounts
his struggle to have the 'ten years of chaos' openly
discussed and reevaluated.
Translator Zhang Hanzhi saw a pivotal moment in Chinese
history when she translated for Richard Nixon on his
1972 visit to China that resulted in the PRC resuming
diplomatic relations with the United States and paved
the way for the era of Reform and Opening Up described
in the following section of the book--'Opening the Doors'
This section reflects a China much more like the reality
today. Song Liying remembers the decollectivization
of the 'model' Dazhai commune whose farming methods
and revolutionary enthusiasm Mao wanted the whole country
to emulate. Don St. Pierre describes the early years
of the Beijing Jeep factory in which the brash Canadian
businessman lobbied the then Vice-Minister of the State
Economic Commission Zhu Rongji into intervening in the
joint-venture company's internal disputes. Cui Jian
talks about the first time he heard rock music and his
sudden ascent to fame in the liberal cultural climate
of the late 1980s. A happy account of successful entrepreneurship
is given by Zhou Peikun who started a small business
empire on a ?00 loan that he used to buy "hatched eggs
where the chick does not emerge successfully." These
unappetizing items are a delicacy in Nanjing, where
Zhou sold enough to pay off the loan within a month
and expand into the fruit business eight months later.
His small business
empire has put more than ? million into his bank account,
but Zhou refuses to take holidays and still takes the
bus to get across town.
A short account of activist Dai Qing's campaign against
the Three Gorges Dam and a description of the events
of 1989 by a student leader known by the pseudonym 'Na
Han' end off this section on a grim note.
The 1990s section is entitled 'Entering the World,'
a particularly timely name--ru shi (lit.: enter world)
is also the current newspaper shorthand denoting China's
entry into the World Trade Organization. Sichuan billionaire
Liu Yonghao's experiences are contrasted with migrant
worker Xiao Liangyu's account of collecting garbage
for recycling in Beijing, and with laid-off workers
Chen Liyan and Yue Xiuying's descriptions of their life
in the aftermath of a state-owned enterprise bankruptcy.
The book ends on an upbeat note with a failed candidate's
experience of a village election, and an essay by Motorola's
legal director for Greater China, Beijinger Sherry Liu.
In the words of the editors, Liu returned from 10 years
in the United States as a student and lawyer "to steer
Motorola through a country where the rule of man has
long held sway over the rule of law." Liu says she is
"cautiously confident about China's future," andthat
is the general tone of many of the interviews and editor's
commentary in the book. Liu's return to China makes
an interesting contrast to the first interview of the
book, which tells the story of a Chinese banker named
Zhou Yougang. He left a successful banking career in
New York to come back to the motherland to build communism,
a dream he gave up during the Cultural Revolution when
he was sent into exile in the remote northwestern Ningxia
Hui Autonomous Region. Zhou was one of the people who
came up with the Hanyu Pinyin romanization of Mandarin.
China Remembers is a good read. Moreover, it is a valuable
record of personal histories during a time when individual
voices were drowned out by noisy hordes of ideologues
both in and outside of China. The first person accounts
are personal and intriguing enough to fascinate China
specialists; compiled in one volume they also provide
a well-balanced account of the last 50 years for people
who know nothing about the People's Republic.
An inconsistent tone--varying between subjective and
neutral--detracts from the editorial commentary between
the interviews, but the worst feature of the book is
its design. The chapter headings are printed in a slightly
calligraphic font that looks like it comes from an exotic
dance show advertisement. The same font is used on the
cover to deface a fine painting by Sichuan artist Zhang
Nevertheless, China Remembers remains an extremely enjoyable
historical account, broken into bite-sized chunks that
can be read independently. Using individual's voices
rather than their own narrative, the editors tell a
light and balanced tale about a half century of bitter
ironies and extreme human situations.
in hardback through Amazon.com for US$39.95)