Much has been written about the Cultural Revolution, but it is still hard to grasp how people lived through it – from one day to the next, one campaign to the next.
Xinran attempts to fill that gap with her latest book, China Witness. A journalist and radio host in China for two decades before moving to the UK in the mid-1990s, she distills a couple dozen interviews into a collection of stories that looks at the details of people’s lives, then and now. The contrasts and changes are interesting; the occasional similarities startling.
Many people refuse to talk about that period – some because of fear, others because of what they did or had done to them, and yet others because they benefited from their contacts, experiences or savvy.
In giving a voice to everyday people who lived before, through and after those extraordinary times, Xinran adds insightful depth to the understanding of the period. She adeptly interweaves the narrative with transcribed interviews that are wide-ranging and often deeply personal. Like two of her earlier books, The Good Women of China and Miss Chopsticks, China Witness focuses on people who would rarely have their story told. Ultimately, the book seeks to turn up the volume so we can hear such voices, which would otherwise be lost amid today’s screaming economic growth.
Light is right
There are plenty of books about the Cultural Revolution, by sinologists and amateurs, outside observers and Chinese emigrants, and many of them have a somber tone. But the best parts of China Witness are the ones without this heaviness.
Xinran is in her element when telling stories. Indeed, at times a bit less Xinran would be nice. There are constant reminders that the author is there, in the forefront, rather than the background, taking the book somewhere. This is unnecessary. The tales of people who lived and loved and carried on with life are strong enough to stand on their own: A teacher who added strips to the cuffs of her daughter’s pants year after year; a medicine woman who made good money when there were no doctors or hospitals; a shoe repair woman who lived under a set of stairs for three decades and whose son is getting a PhD.
Most telling, perhaps, is old Mr Wu who became a "news singer" as a 10-year-old in the 1940s. News singers left their villages, found out interesting things and came back to sing or narrate the news. For many people, this was their only link with the outside world. Wu joined the party in 1954, believes people who drink tea together can get AIDS, and has worked "for the revolution" his entire life. For now, he still sings, but he is old – and people don’t really want to listen any more.
Singing the news may be passé, but such stories, short and long, make China Witness a book about much more than the Cultural Revolution.
Excerpt: The world’s biggest prison
[The author uses numbers to identify interview subjects. In this case, 148D is a member of the 148 Construction Corps, sent by the army to Xinjiang to build the massive Shihezi Farm and Prison.]
148D: …Aiya, I’m telling you, those days… those days are long gone, but we really did have a very carefree life, it’s just that there wasn’t much money. Public order was really good back then, there were no problems with thieves or robbers. At that time, none of the courtyards had a door; if you rode a bike, you could leave it lying there and nobody would touch it. You could hang up meat in a snowfield and again nobody would touch it.
Xinran: So do you regret coming here?
148D: No, why should I? If I’d stayed in Shangqiu and never came here, I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be around today. I don’t work any more – they even call it being retired – and the state gives me five or six hundred yuan every month. In my home town, I wouldn’t even get 10! It’s so poor there that we still get people coming here – fleeing for their lives.