Tuesday, January 24, 2006

What's Memory Good For?

(All quotes were transcribed from my video footage.)

Before I went to the seminar on Memory and Literature last Saturday, I had lunch with a friend of a friend who’s writing an article on urban Chinese for a British newspaper. She asked what I thought of the generation gaps. I’m not familiar with the mindset of the younger generations, I said; my observation was that they seem more into materialism, consumer culture and individualism.

I hastened to add that I consider those good traits. Between ideology and consumer culture, I’d chose the latter any day. China appears to have too much baggage on its shoulder – history, nationalism, glory and despair. It’s liberating to see young people able to live freely, unlike the older generations, able to live for themselves without the burden of memories for once, I commented.

After lunch I dragged my camera gear to the Sanwei Bookstore for the seminar. I had planned to stay only for an hour. A few writers from the church I’m following for my documentary were going to be there. I simply wanted to shoot some footage of them in action outside of the church.

As I waited, audience gradually streamed in the spacious meeting room on the 2nd floor of the bookstore. The lantern lights and the Ming (or Qing, pardon my ignorance of Chinese furniture) furniture gave the room an elegant air of the traditionally learned. The organizers invited a dozen guest speakers who sat around two long tables in the center. The rest of room was soon filled with eager readers, a few of whom had to stand up in the aisle.

The host started by thanking everyone for their courage in attending, because there were cars parked outside belonging to plainclothes cops. Several foreign journalists were present. At that point I realized that the bookstore was the same that housed Dai Qing when she gave a detailed report of the failed effort to stop the gigantic Three Gorges Project. My camera seemed to be constantly pulling me to the political hotspots in Beijing.

The ostensible purpose of the seminar was to discuss two memoirs recently published. One author was sick so the talk was mostly on the other one, in which the author, a lady in her fifties, recounted the sufferings of her dad, once a government minister and one of the biggest Rightists condemned by Mao in the late 1950s, through the Anti-Rightist movement and the Cultural Revolution. Most of the speakers praised the publishing house’s courage to publish the memoir in China, even though it had to be censored, thus shorter than the one published in Hong Kong.

The afternoon ended up being an emotionally-charged three-hour shoot for me. The guest speakers, all prominent writers, literary critics, scientists and philosophers, denounced the system’s attempt to stifle people’s expression in literature, to censor the truth in news, and to prevent people from remembering the past.

“What great misfortune of you having to be Chinese?!” The literary critic quoted the exclamation of He Zuoxiu during his speech, “He Zuoxiu lacked any human decency when he said that. But he expressed the truth – what great misfortune!” He choked up. “Being Chinese means you can’t hear the truth, nor can you say the truth. This is an enormous tragedy. So in my opinion, any fictional and non-fictional literary work has to share one common characteristic – it has to tell the truth.”

The critic was once the head of a rebel group in the Cultural Revolution. He had witnessed the deaths of many friends in the factional fighting. Now he’s trying to compile a list of the dead. He frankly admitted that he didn’t get modernism and post-modernism, because Chinese literature could not even enjoy the basic expression of the truth.

Some speakers commented on the philosophical and historical aspects of preserving a nation’s memory. Most, however, expressed outrage at Chinese being unable to talk about our past. An old scientist from the Beijing University told his story of being a Rightist for 20 years and witnessing the deaths around him in the labor camp. He choked up and paused for many times. The host had to cut his speech short to allow others to speak.

A writer with wild hair reminded the audience that memories are forbidden not only to the Rightists and the Counter-revolutionaries from the Cultural Revolution, but also to the peasants. Even worse, because the peasants don’t have the writing skills, they can’t even write down their sufferings, publishable or not.

He banged the table several times in rage. For he’s a peasant’s son.

When the guest speakers finally finished their round, many in the audience raised their hands high up in the air for their chance to speak. A middle-aged woman humbly started her story:

“Today I’m very nervous because I’m very excited from hearing all the stories. Ok, (to the organizer) I know I only have three minutes. My farther is in his 90s now. He was an old Rightist, a historical counter-revolutionary and a current counter-revolutionary. Still today he hasn’t got rid of these three hats.”

“What I want to tell today. I’m already very moved.” She started sobbing. “I want to say something about fatherly love. My father suffered so much. I want to talk about childhood memory. The clearest one I have. At that time, the rebels, the Red Guards. I was very little, just a few years old. My entire family knelt in a single file on the ground, in freezing winter. It was so cold that the ground cracked. We knelt on the ground. We were very poor then, because my father had those three hats. Then my dad said this to the head of the rebel group. He said, my youngest daughter is very young, can she be allowed to stand up instead of kneeling on the freezing ground and catching cold? He hadn’t even finished… Because I was so little, I didn’t see exactly how the Red Guards knocked down my father. When my father raised his head again, I saw my father’s eyes, with deep fatherly love, apologizing to his little daughter that he couldn’t get her to stand up from the freezing ground. Since then, my love for my father… so deep… Have I run out the three minutes I have?” She asked the organizer while tears were streaming down her face.

Nobody had the heart to stop her so she continued. “So I’ve been remembering that. I can never forget that incident. My father’s face full of blood. His eyes were bleeding. His mouth was bleeding. His body was shaking. And he was begging for a favor for me. All because he had those three tall hats. Today I’m so excited. I don’t have much education background. Sometimes I still ask my father, ‘Old man, in 1949 the airplane was waiting for you, why didn’t you go back to Taiwan? Why didn’t you go back to Taiwan?’ My father said, because I’m Chinese, I still love my country, love my land. So because of this single foolish thought of his, he didn’t get on the airplane and suffered a lifetime.”

“So I hope that he could write down his story.” The woman continued as her voice was soaked in tears. “Many of you know how difficult our lives have been. But I don’t have the skills. When I wanted to write down the story, my father was very agitated. He didn’t allow any mentioning of it in the household. He only let out tiny bits of his story here and there. So I want to bring this memoir (note: the subject of the seminar) to him, to show him that the society is not as closed as he thinks, the communist party… Aiya, this I don’t dare to comment on… In fact my father keep on saying he’s grateful for the communist party. But he’s lying. Nobody has the heart to confront him about this lie, or know how to. But he IS lying!”

By this point her anger had overcome her sadness. “We as his sons and daughters, we couldn’t convince him to write down the sufferings of his life, for historical record. So today I’m so moved. I don’t have much education so I can’t speak well. I can only speak this little bit. The three minutes are probably up already. I don’t want to say anymore, because there were even more painful memories, which would sadden me further. So I could only speak for these three minutes. But if the audience want me to, I’d like to tell you another painful story…”

The host had to kindly ask her to sit down because there were many other people in the audience dying to speak.

I left the bookstore after the seminar ended, emotionally drained. I don’t count myself among one of those patriotic Chinese, yet I wanted to weep for my nation and my people. There are so many wounds from the past 50 years that still haven’t healed. And there’s no healing in sight with the system’s gag order in place on our past, on our collective memory.

The literary critic had said the following in his speech - “Rage and compassion alone won’t save us. Sometimes we consider we stand on the side of righteousness if we are enraged by the ugliness. After our rage, however, we remain silent the next time we witness the ugliness. Sometimes we shed tears in front of sufferings. But nothing comes out of the tears. And we continue to live, to live numbly.”

It’s been 97 years since the May 4th Movement in 1919 yet we Chinese are still fighting against the tendency to silently suffer, fighting for a chance to express freely.

I stopped short my reminiscence and ran to the Oriental Plaza to watch King Kong with friends at one of Beijing’s finest multiplexes. Scurrying by the Givenchy and Gucci stores in the fancy shopping mall, I felt as if walking in a completely different world, a world in which young people, dressed in designer fashions and wearing happy smiles, didn’t have the burden of or care for memories.

We sat down in the theater with our US$9 tickets. The audiences were munching on pop corns or Nestle chocolate bars. In this new China where nobody seemed to have painful memories to suffer through, I couldn’t help wondering – Do we have to remember if the memory only pains us? Do we have to trouble the happy youth with the past?

The nation seemed to have moved on, have made huge strides, since those memories. People are happy making their money, buying their apartment and cars; and they brush aside the memories that may slow them down. What’s the point of remembering then? So we can avoid repeating the past mistakes? But it surely looks certain that China will never go back to the communist ideological craze ever again.

Yet while I watched King Kong fighting with the dinosaurs, I couldn’t forget the tears in the afternoon or people’s desperate desire to tell their stories. I understood the futility of our painful memories competing with Hollywood blockbusters for the nation’s attention. I also understood that practically, we may not need to remember to have a happy life. But we have to remember. We have to be able to remember. For otherwise the ones before us have never existed, and we will cease to exist the day our hearts stop beating. Memories are what make us exist, what give us dignity.

Right next to me in the theater, a girl started crying. King Kong and Naomi Watts were watching the sunset together. She cried for the rest of the movie.

I hoped that she would forever remember, that one day in a big theater, she cried over a non-human that acted more human than us humans.


Ken (The Runcible) said...

Hmm... In China, I always thought it's OK to openly discuss the trauma caused by the Cultural Revolution since it's been officially denounced by the party? It's a coincidence that I am bringing my copy of "the Red Color News Soldier" to share with friends today. As I remember the photos and articles from the book had been exhibited in China and I recall myself thinking "great, we are doing the history justice."

Oh yeah, the young generation has to be educated so they know the reality is not just made of Britney Spears and Levis jeans. Although, crying over a made up big monkey is better than over the horrific experience of cultural revolution.

Beijing Loafer said...

I'm not an expert on censorship and I haven't read The Red-Color News Soldier, but I do know there are different levels of censorship for different media (e.g., movie vs. TV vs. news reporting vs. print publishing vs. fine arts) because each is governed by a different bureaucracy. Next to fine arts, books probably suffer the least amount of scrutiny, but even they have to exercise self censorship.

The government allows negative comments on the Cultural Revolution. But there are guidelines and limits. Like Mao was 70% good and 30% bad. But the Great Famine is definitely off limit, I think; so are discussions of the many players in the Cultural Revolution because they are still alive and in power.

I remember when I pitched a ghost movie idea to a Chinese producer once, he frowned twice - first at the ghost story element b/c it's superstition, secondly at the Cultural Revolution backdrop b/c it's always "can we not have that at all?"

Censorship and freedom are always matters of gray. I know I'd hate the gray in China if I have to write in Chinese.

Ken (The Runcible) said...

Maybe this is naive - after a generation or two, when the players of the Cultural Revolution fade out from history, will the country become more open in discussing these matters, or in general, more open in terms of media censorship? I like to think so.

You were probably right about the levels of censorship. I remember going to an exhibit from China at the ICP (International Center of Photography) of New York and was quite shocked (in a pleasant way) how edgy and daring some of those works are. TV and movies suffer the most from censorship because they can reach a broader audience I guess. Oh and isn't that funny how some books became best sellers only after the publisher bragged about how severely they have to be censored?

That was too bad your idea got shot down - I am a big fan of ghost movies, never have seen one made with a Cultural Reovlution background. Maybe you could try a producer from Hong Kong.

Anonymous said...

A very touching post. Great insights for the lingering impact of 50s-70s to Chinese. Many peoples in the world suffered injustice during 50s-70s, (think about the civil movement in the US), but some countries can face the past and heal the wounds. China has done it for a certain degree, but not enough for all the individuals. The rationale might be for the collective benefit of China, let by-gone be by-gone or face it one hundred years later.

Beijing Loafer said...

Yes, I think both the government and some (or many) of the population are willing to let by-gone be by-gone. It may be wise and practical. But in my present state of mind (I'm known to my friends to change my position quickly), I think forgetting is also a moral and justice issue.

We all believe that in the long run, things will be better, a lot better, if nuclear winter or global warming doesn't kill us. The problem with this logic is, we'll all be dead then to enjoy the better future.

Meanwhile, the taxi driver Mr. Wang in my previous post misses the days of Mao when he didn't have to worry about food on the table or health care.

Oh well.

jackaranda said...

It seems to me that down through all the ages, Man's inhumanity to Man continues to horrify decent ordinary people in all walks of life in all areas of our world.
As the saying goes -
History repeats itself.
I am unable to understand how anyone can willingly inflict so much torture, pain and death to so many others of their own kind.It gives me a very sore heart.
Last September I visited China and as a country it is a very beautiful place indeed, and I have many wonderful memories of a most enjoyable and enlightening trip.

Beijing Loafer said...

It's a difficult question indeed. There's greed, self-righteousness, and more greed. When one could objectify others as obstacles in one's own spiritual or materialistic pursuit, s/he would not hesitate to hurt or kill.

Teach the kids. We need to teach the kids more about the means are as important, if not more than, the end results.

Jay said...

Interesting that you begin by saying you like consumer culture and individualism better than ideology, you move through the painful memories created by your country's ideology, and end with wondering if you can escape your past. Is this a common way of thinking among young Chinese? I had a different impression from Chinese I have met while working in DC. I personally think you're being too reactionary. As an American growing up in the Midwest and spending most of my life in America West of the Mississippi, I was always struck by the vaccuum where souls should be in my compatriots. I am an agnostic, so I do not mean this in religious terms. I mean that culture and tradition are things that are the glue that not only hold a society together, but also build its youth. The majority of Americans will work like cogs in a machine till the day they die. I contrast this with Europe, where people are concerned with the quality of their lives in terms of what they've enjoyed rather than what they accomplished. I am an accomplishment addict myself, but a rather well educated one who knows the history of his country well enough to know why I feel the way I do. Most young Americans are more like robots, they act as the consumer culture wishes, are individual by joining a group and stressing their difference with outsiders. Even here in Montana where I live now, in this small ranching community where family ties and Western traditions are still very visable, the culture is coming undone. Television has shown the young that there is a life that doesn't require constant hard work on the ranch just to survive, and they are leaving in droves. Our median age is 65. The differences between the young and old are almost as palpable as the cowboy hats and boots.
I find China fascinating because of its obsession with itself, by censoring speech, its like the game of the pink elephant, tell people not to do something and they have a psychological impulse to do just that. I fear many Americans are raised to talk in broad, shallow ways about our history and never quite feel a part of it (this is probably just a white, mid-west/western interpretation, but there's a lot of us).
Anyway, enough rambling. Love your site, keep it up.