Using the past to help with the future

2009-01-21 00:00

Xinran Xue is a British-Chinese journalist and broadcaster, born in Beijing in 1958, who moved to London in 1997.

She is passionate about China and helping the world to understand it. This is her fourth book, a work of oral history recording the experiences of the nation’s older generations, people who lived through China’s tumultuous recent history.

The interviewees include a survivor of the Long March — whose mangled feet testify to the thousands of kilometres he walked — an acrobat, a woman general, a shoe-mender, a couple who were pioneers of China’s oil exploration, a lantern-maker and a military couple who survived unimaginable deprivation in the Gobi Desert, building the city of Shihezi.

The book is not only a history of modern China, but also a moving testimony to the drama of the human condition — stories of appalling suffering juxtaposed with evidence of the triumphant human spirit. Xinran wrote it “to help our future understand our past”, and in this it offers some insights into this country and the current regime’s centralist tendencies.

The author comments: “Very few people can understand and define themselves as individuals, because all their descriptive vocabulary has been colonised by unified social and political structures. A person can … only rarely succeed in making independent sense of themselves [sic].” One of the respondents also comments that revolution and class struggle were all that leaders knew, so they “lacked the knowledge necessary to manage a country …”

One respondent joined the police force in 1948, but quit in the eighties because of the ignorance and corruption around him. If that sounds familiar, consider that many interviewees’ deepest pain and guilt concern sacrificing not only themselves but also their children, to “build the motherland”. I wonder if Thabo Mbeki has read this book?

It is a worthwhile read, although long and heavy-going in places.

Julia Denny-Dimitriou

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