Making History


Final paper submission on December 12, 2009 for Columbia University’s Nonfiction Workshop class.

China has a long history of forgetting its past. When intellectuals criticized the first emperor in 213 BCE for burning classical books that could undermine his rule, he buried them alive. Two millennia later, Mao Zedong told throngs of teenage Red Guards to incinerate genealogical books, shatter antique pottery, and kill intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. Political leaders saw China’s traditional culture as a backwater, and remembering was not important. Despite this cultural destruction, much has survived, and much more has been revived. In the summer of 2009, I tried to salvage my own piece of the past. I tried to write my family’s history. I am still trying.

My goal was to write a definitive history – “definitive” in the sense that it saw through politics and myth and objectively portrayed people and events. I wouldn’t point the finger at an easy scapegoat but instead be an equal-opportunity critic. The family history would capture my grandparents and parents’ lives from rural, Chinese villages to upper middle class, American suburbia and reflect China’s transformation from monarchy to the central government’s so-called socialism “with Chinese characteristics.” I imagined my family’s future generations reading and drawing inspiration from this Horatio Alger narrative of progress based on hard work. They would continue writing this living document when the story arrived at my life. As I interviewed relatives and tried to shape their individual experiences into a larger narrative, however, I began to doubt my intentions and the possibility of my goal.

When I returned to China in 2009, I told my family to forgo tourist traps. It was the eve of the 60th anniversary of Mao’s victory over the Nationalists, and I was visiting my relatives in the southern, coastal city of Xiamen. I wanted to explore the island city, see its native egrets, and learn to play its lazy Sunday mahjong games. I wanted to visit Gulangyu, a small island off the coast of Xiamen devoid of automobiles but filled with piano music and Victorian-style villas through which my parents strolled after their married 22 years ago. Most of all, I wanted to write down my family’s stories. As I wrote, I realized how little I knew.

My family needed to be coaxed. Everyday conversations included dinner plans, my uncle’s day as a marketing director, and the annoying tenants who rented their apartment units. Every night, I spirited a family member away from the television and closed the study room door. Pen in hand and voice recorder primed, I made him or her talk. “Where was your geological survey team in this photo, Grandpa?” “Why did the military officer think you were his sister, Grandma?” It was slow at first, but I would soon hit a tender area and inertia would dissipate. My pen ran to keep up with their anecdotes, and my recorder inched just a bit closer to their words.

“In our village, men were much more important than women,” said my grandmother after she carried a pot of chicken broth stewed with red mushrooms to the dinner table. I kept the recorder on as I dipped my spoon into the earthy broth of the mushroom, an expensive fungus that grew only in the wild. “Women would never in their whole lives eat at the table…At the time, I was very young, and I couldn’t stand it. Later, when I turned 16, I ran away.” After the civil war, the Communist Party rewrote the Chinese woman’s story when Mao emphasized their importance to China’s reconstruction by proclaiming that they “held up half the sky.” Legions of them joined the party, and posters of agriculturally productive women driving tractors through fields of rice filled the streets. After my grandmother ladled the last red mushroom into my bowl, she said, “Men and women are equal now. Some women are even more formidable than men.” My grandmother let us eat while she lingered in the kitchen washing dishes and putting away utensils. “Grandma, leave the dishes,” I said. “Come eat first.”

My grandmother was born in 1940, nine years before the Communists won the civil war and began rewriting both China’s future and history. For the first time in nearly 4,000 years, foreign incursions and technological inferiority made Chinese people realize their “Middle Kingdom,” the literal translation of “China,” was no longer the center of the world. Under an empress’ reign, my grandmother’s mother Wang Xi bound her feet in cotton bandages. Bundles of straw strapped to her pants prevented the cloth from tearing as she hobbled on her knees. After four millennia of dynastic rule, she delicately unwound the bandages and witnessed the founding of a republic in 1911. Five years later, she saw the country disintegrate into warlord-controlled fiefdoms. After the warlords came the Japanese, Nationalists, Communists, revolutions, famine, and waves of social engineering projects. She lived through them all.

My grandfather showed me his version of our family tree tucked inside his nightstand drawer. He copied it from his kinship clan’s main genealogy book, which is kept in his ancestral village of Xiqi in Fujian province. In my grandfather’s string-bound booklet, columns of characters written right to left list his grandfathers, father, brothers, and sons. The entries for his grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and daughters are written in less detail under those for males. By tradition, sons carried on the family name while daughters belonged to someone else’s family once they were married.

“Will I be written into Grandpa’s family tree?” I asked my mother after we returned from our 2009 trip. By tradition, I belonged to my father’s family tree but not my mother’s.

“I don’t know what the custom will be in the future,” she replied.

Unfortunately, my relatives’ oral histories skipped like scratched records, and I could barely make out their faces in tiny, black-and-white photographs. As I strained my eyes on grainy pictures of my grandfather’s geology team posing against of China’s northwestern mountains, I knew nothing could replace concrete, firsthand experience. Gaps between our lives confronted me when I sought continuity from their experiences to mine. I asked my grandparents to bring me to the village where they grew up. I believed I needed pure sensory stimuli for a smoother narrative. And so, one weekend, we took a trip to Xiqi where, for nearly 800 years, their ancestors tilled the land and passed on their way of life despite repeated attempts at erasure.

Xiqi has always been a starting point for its villagers and never a destination. Its peasants have always looked outward, trying to escape from the impoverished valley into which they were born. According to my grandparents, one stayed in the indigent countryside if he or she didn’t have the academic ability to gain acceptance to a university. When the first Xiqi broke into higher education, villagers slaughtered pigs, carried him on a litter, and sang for three days.

By the mid 1950s my grandparents had more reasons to leave. Dangling the carrot of land reform, the Chinese Communist Party tapped into an unlimited pipeline of peasant manpower for their civil war against the Nationalists. Coming from land-owning families, my grandparents faced the aftermath of a 22-year civil war won by promising the confiscation of landlord property. While applying to schools, my grandfather faced increasing political discrimination. The 1949 Communist victory had upended society. Landlords became public enemies, and the poorest peasants became the most respected revolutionaries. The history makers were no longer imperial magistrates or urban businessmen but communist demagogues who prophesied the inevitable triumph of the proletarian juggernaut.

“I didn’t have any big achievements or contributions in my life,” my grandfather said on our way to Xiqi, “but I worked hard and was very capable as an average working class man.”

Because my grandfather is known for his practicality and plain-spokenness, his sudden sentimentality caught me off guard. As we wound our way through Anxi County’s serpentine routes, rows of tea terraces and sleepy hamlets that girdled mountains were triggering something in him.

“I worked on this road that year when I wasn’t accepted to any universities,” he said pointing out the car window. “This is it. Right here. Your grandmother and I both worked on it.”

Although the location was the same, the paved, narrow road was a far cry from the original dirt trail my grandparents helped build 54 years ago. In 1955, my grandfather’s class background led to his rejection from every university to which he applied. At home, village peasants persecuted him by forcing him to build the road. They singled him out to carry the heaviest bricks.

As we walked through the fields, my grandfather reminisced about the second time he applied to universities. He took the National College Entrance Examination again in 1956, and applied to unpopular schools specializing in strenuous professions. A friend had advised him to pick a burdensome field to repent for being a landlord. One day at end of August, he sprinted home with an admission letter from Changchun College of Geology. That afternoon, his father helped him carry a worn-out trunk with two old shirts and no blanket to the train station.

“If it weren’t for college, I’d be just like the village peasants right now,” he said as we kicked up dust that drifted towards women hunched over tea bushes in the fields. “I’d be stuck here. My face toward the loess soil, my back toward the sky.”

Two years after my grandfather left for college, my grandmother left home at the age of 16 when her family could no longer pay for her middle school lunches. She was not the only one searching for food. The Great Chinese Famine had begun. As she traveled 140 miles to the city of Sanming and earned 28 cents a day carrying bricks for a construction company, China tried to transform its agrarian economy into an industrial one; the government hoped to accomplish in three years what took other industrialized nations centuries. It was the Great Leap Forward, but it created a famine, aided by local officials falsifying records of agricultural output, that killed anywhere between 17 to 50 million people. To this day, no one knows the approximate figure because the government has not released historical records. My grandparents left their native province thinking they would never return, but two decades later, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms lured them back. Upon their return, they found that a new crop of practical politicians – those who had not been hounded to execution and suicide during the Cultural Revolution for their lukewarm faith in Maoist ideology – had once again rewritten history.

“Some people said that back then, if Mao farted and proclaimed his fart smelled good, you couldn’t say he was wrong,” my grandfather said as we entered Xiqi. “If you did, you were a counter-revolutionary.”

“Why are you saying all this?” grumbled my grandmother.

“There’s freedom of speech now,” he snapped. “Americans can criticize even their president. Stop pretending like we live in a Marxist-Leninist society.”

Xiqi’s villagers had stopped pretending. Maoist sayings painted on the walls of houses to demonstrate one’s revolutionary fervor had faded nearly beyond recognition. The once bright red ink had weathered away or perhaps had been scrubbed off by peasants. One saying stated “Everyone must bear responsibility for counter-revolutionaries,” while another stated “Everyone engages in production, every household ensures security.” These slogans, forged during the Cultural Revolution to condemn capitalists, have been replaced by Haier and China Mobile advertisements. Xiqi’s surrounding mountains, resembling a prone tiger to villagers, were once stripped bare of trees by peasants desperate to fuel their stoves with firewood and unable to afford gas or coal. Today, the tiger has grown a coat of saplings, but rows of tea terraces are also carved into its flanks. Before Deng’s economic reforms, Xiqi peasants scraped out a meager living through subsistence farming; now they’ve devoted acres of farmland to growing tea as a cash crop.

During my visit, the village’s 200 people were all engaged in tea production. Women wearing straw hats crouched and plucked tea in the fields. Lying on blankets by the roadside, leaves then withered in the sun before being cooled and tossed. Men hauled cloth bags bigger than themselves onto dirt-caked motorcycles and displayed their goods at farmers’ markets – grassroots free market economics. Buyers fermented leaves in large, metal cylinders that rotated like miniature cement mixers. I watched a skinny boy stuff the curling, hot leaves in a sack, slingshot it over his shoulder, and hit the floor with a loud slap.

My grandfather said Xiqi’s villagers have done very well compared to others in rural China. Revenue from hundreds of acres of tea shrubs and donations from wealthy, overseas family members have funded houses, roads, and a new temple. They have abandoned their old, rammed earth dwellings. Some live in gated, four-story houses fitted with ceramic roof tiles next to hollow, dilapidated hovels. By pooling their money, families have constructed ornate ancestral shrines. Overseas donations led to the construction of a new temple for the Taoist god Xuan Wu that cost a quarter of a million US dollars. Standing near its threshold, I traced my finger up the spines of serpentine dragons carved onto stone pillars and tracked my eyes along power lines, water pipes, and paved roads crisscrossing outside.

When my grandmother showed me the house where her mother Wang Xi lived, I thought of my previous visit to China. During the summer, typhoons venturing from their Pacific breeding grounds, frequently slam into the coast of southeastern China with 100 mile-per-hour winds. When good weather and weekends coincided, my uncle and aunt drove my family to the water-filled basin of Great Golden Lake and circular tulou fortresses. As their small BMW drove through Fujian’s mountains, I saw the effects of tropical storms on precarious slopes – iron oxide-laden soil splayed across four lanes and car-sized boulders defiantly blocking roads. As the summer of 2006 waned, I asked my family to plan a visit to my great-grandmother whom I never knew. News of landslides on the roads to her house in Anxi County, 80 miles from Xiamen, caused my family to defer the trip in hopes of better weather. Weekends came and went, landslides continued to jam county highways, and I grew anxious. On the last weekend before my flight back to Boston, my request for an attempted trip was answered with “next time.” “You’ll come back again,” said my relatives. My great-grandmother was 107 years old when she died the next year.

Two years later, I was standing in her house and looking at her photograph. The same day, I saw the modest dwellings where my grandparents were born: a hovel with no windows for my grandmother, a shack where dozens of rocks held down loose roof tiles for my grandfather. I pressed my palms against gravelly walls as I peeked through the smashed windows of the local elementary school. Above one classroom’s chalkboard, a Chinese flag is framed by two thin metal plates reading, “The interests of the fatherland are the highest priority of all.” My grandparents first met at this school while carrying out the Communist’s directive of educating illiterate peasants by teaching night classes. I smelled the incense sticks my grandfather held as paid respect to his ancestral shrine – rows and rows of spirit tablets, wood steles engraved with patriarchs’ names in gold paint, tracing his family back 39 generations. He lit some more sticks and handed them to me. We sent spiritual money to Xuan Wu by burning joss paper, visited my grandfather’s cousin in the room they learned to play the Chinese lute as children, and drank Fujian’s finest Oolong tea from cups whose white porcelain brought out the tea’s jade hue.

As I received the cup my great-uncle passed to me and inhaled the Oolong’s bittersweet flavor, I realized the disparity between China’s past and present was caused not only by changes in technology, governance, and culture. Political victors had constantly rewritten national narrative to the point that a new language defined fundamental concepts and everyday life. As my grandfather chatted with his cousin in the Min Nan dialect of southern Fujian, my mother concentrated on listening for bits she understood while I merely followed the sounds of their voices. Born in Yan’an, the city of deliverance for embattled Communist troops and the birthplace of their revolution, my mother grew up 200 miles away from her parent’s native dialect. Since my grandparents didn’t plan on returning to Fujian during her childhood, they never taught her Min Nan. Besides, whenever they fought, they found it convenient to argue in a language their children didn’t understand. My mother’s first language was Mandarin, the resolution of a 1913 conference of political delegates instead of linguistic specialists who convened to unify China’s spoken language. The political leaders who overthrew the emperors wanted to build a new nation and consolidate power. They started by standardizing pronunciation. When Fujian people spoke Min Nan to my mother or charged her a higher price because they viewed her as an outsider, she told her parents they should’ve taught her the language.

By the time I was born, written language had also changed. I grew up learning a variety of Chinese characters called “simplified characters.” I believed they were a natural evolution from older traditional characters instead of the result of a political party’s Orwellian implementation. I harbored this misconception until I read Robert S. Ramsey’s Languages of China. It was spring and I was sitting in Columbia University’s East Asian library. The east wall’s stained glass image of Justice wielding a sword and scale scattered light onto the pages of the chapter “Chinese Writing Today.” Ramsey described many Chinese intellectuals’ thoughts of discarding traditional Chinese characters at the turn of the 19th century and alphabetizing the language. They rejected traditional characters as one facet of a backwards culture that allowed “foreign devils” to eviscerate their land and people. China would either modernize its government, economy, and even language or perish. After the Nationalist Party lost the civil war in 1949 to a party that believed it could conquer Mother Nature herself, language reform became a national priority. Advocates of the Latinization Movement hoped to liberate their country “from the shackles of monosyllabic Chinese characters” and increase peasant literacy by adopting an alphabet. The Communist party began two simultaneous approaches to alphabetization – designing a phonetic writing system and simplifying existing characters.

I closed the book and felt as if all the characters I had learned were fake, as if the Communist party had played a gigantic practical joke on me. “How come you never told me?” I interrogated my parents that night with a conspiracy theorist’s sense of urgency. “You never asked,” said my mother casually. Today, I ask my parents everything about their previous lives in China. I asked my mother how she felt about moving every time the government relocated her father’s geology team to a town where she had no friends and didn’t know the local dialect. I asked my father how long my grandfather was jailed in a “political reeducation camp” because someone spoke about his Nationalist Party affiliations to curry Communist favor.

Trying to understand my family’s history was like untangling gum from hair. There were too many gaps, and memory was too slippery. Obedience to authority and dogma defined my parents’ lives. Teachers praised students who wrote the best essay criticizing the latest politician to get on Mao’s bad side. Liu Shaoqi one day; Deng the next. Historical figures and narratives that didn’t support the prevailing political climate were forgotten. Physical objects that undermined political rule were destroyed. The cultural destruction of the 1960s reached Xiqi as well. The village’s genealogical records and religious icons were decimated.

But centuries-old customs and folklore survive today despite waves of social engineering projects bent on eradicating a traditional culture once seen as primitive. They had restored their history. As I visited Xiqi’s ancestral shrines, I saw that villagers had remade spirit tablets destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The temple has an effigy of Xuan Wu, the patron saint of Mi Nan speakers. A little bigger than a basketball, the warrior god, clad in golden armor and a red cape, sits on a throne. His right hand is posed in a meditative gesture, and his left holds a bronze sword commissioned by my grandmother. As I looked at its calm face, my grandparents told me how it was saved during the Cultural Revolution.

A farmer walking back home from the fields one day saw a government official carrying the statue. The farmer asked him what he was doing with it. The official was about to smash it. “Why all the fuss over a figurine?” asked the farmer. “Here, give it to me. I’ll deal with this simple matter.” The official gave Xuan Wu to the farmer who feared divine retribution and secretly protected it in his house. Over time, villagers began seeing the official walking outside during winter without warm clothes. They whispered among themselves that Xuan Wu had taken revenge on the official by destroying his sanity. The official died a painful death, and once the Cultural Revolution ended, Xuan Wu returned to his temple.

After we drove back to Xiamen, I began crafting a narrative from the material I collected. But wondered if I was accurately portraying my family’s past and if my motives to write a “definitive” history were as pure as I thought. As I looked over my writing, I realized I’d omitted my grandparents’ shortcomings as parents for their own children, my black sheep older uncle, and my parents’ less than ideal marriage. I recognized the similarities between a genealogist who skimmed over family flaws to idealize his image and a government that suppressed failures of blind ideology to romanticize its reputation. My intentions were not as shady as those of political figures, but they were just as self-serving. I had extolled my grandparents’ hard work, spun a continuous narrative from their lives to mine, and claimed credit for their successes. The Nationalists and Communists had rewritten the past into a narrative of progress in order to glamorize themselves. I was in danger of honoring my ancestors in order to honor myself.

During that summer, my six-year-old cousin walked around the apartment with a red book called Three Character Classic. Written entirely in phrases of three characters, this book encapsulated Confucian ethics for young children. Although he couldn’t read or understand most of the characters, my cousin, encouraged by his parents, could recite from memory maxims that prescribed respect towards his elders and devotion to his nation. Read the history books, examine the records, connect the ancient with the present, and you’ll be as close as an eyewitness… After 50 years of banning Three Character Classic from schools and nearly a century of demonizing Confucianism as a cultural handicap, the Communist Party has tacitly reversed their attitude. State-owned publishing houses have begun reprinting Confucian classics in simplified characters. Original texts for adults and abridged versions for children have crowded bookstore shelves. This was, however, not the same Confucianism as before. China’s government and people selectively retold the Confucian narrative. They emphasized the importance of social harmony and obedience to state authority and ignored Confucius’ disparagement of businessmen and sexism towards women. I could hear the revisionist pens of party historians sketching out a new draft.

Before I left China for the United States, I bought a copy of Three Character Classic. As I read it with my mother on the plane, I asked her the meanings of characters I didn’t know and the implications of phrases I didn’t understand. Between my attempts to read through the Three Character Classic, I tried to write my family history.