Fisherman in a Boat

Chinese History & Culture

China Remembers

Zhang, Lijia and Calum MacLeod, eds. China Remembers. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1999; 293p. ISBN: 0-19-591736-7

T
his collection of first-hand accounts of aspects of China’s history from 1949-1999 provides rare personal glimpses of political and historical movements and trends. Divided into five sections, each with six or seven stories, the book covers the periods of power consolidation of Communist China, 1949-1956, the years of famine resulting from the Great Leap Forward, 1957-1965, the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976, the period of increasing openness, 1977-1989, and the time of China’s entrance into the world economic sector, 1990-1999. Each section of stories is prefaced by a 7-8 page overview of the political climate of the times, and the major movements, events, and people in prominence.

The stories themselves give the reader a unique perspective on the events they discuss. No amount of textbook-reading can produce the kind of understanding of the intense starvation of the Great Leap Forward, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, or the violence of the Tiananmen Square incident that a single, first-hand account can provide. The stories cover a variety of topics within the basic time periods, including the life of a Communist party member working to stir up poor peasants against their landlords, the experience of horrible and senseless treatment during the famine of the Great Leap Forward, the business opportunities in the opening economic climate of the 1980s, the terror of a student present when the violence began in Tiananmen Square, and the hope and faith of an underground house-church pastor in the face of imprisonment and persecution.

Bian Shaofeng tells her story as one who survived the famine of the Great Leap Forward. She speaks of how she was told that there was no need to grow crops on her family’s own small plot of land, because the local commune kitchen would take care of their food needs. When this food turned out to be thin bean powder porridge, Shaofeng’s family resorted to eating pumpkin leaves, peanut shells, and strips of boiled leather to stay alive. She speaks of hiding extra grain (obtained using coupons, sent as a gift by her brother) in a secret drawer so it would not be found when officials came to look for extra food. Shaofeng describes her frugality now, influenced by living through a time when even a single grain of wheat was cherished, and tells how her grandchildren have no way of understanding the extreme circumstances she went through.

Sheng Chong provides a different perspective. Sent to the countryside in the early 1950s to muster up Communist fervor among the peasants, she describes the eagerness with which she approached her assignment. She and four others selected one family in a village to stay with and eat with, encouraging them first to express their difficulties with their landlords. After these “root families” were stirred up, they then began to influence their fellow townspeople to speak out against their landlords. Poor families were seen as ideal for this group of five Communists to learn from. The goal was eventually to use the poor peasants and landless laborers to overthrow the rich landowners in each area. Chong describes the grateful attitude the peasants had toward her team, and toward Chairman Mao, for helping them to be liberated from oppressive masters. She expresses concern for peasants in today’s China, hoping that they will be treated well. Chong states that her experience gave her great faith in the Communist party, but also says that she was saddened when the Party later turned so far to the left that anyone with foreign connections was mistrusted.

In addition to bringing the events of the last 50 years in China to a more personal level, this book also succeeds at providing a good, albeit brief, summary of the beginning of the government of the Communist Party in China continuing into the various stages that it went through over the next half-century. Upon finishing this book, the reader will have gained a better understanding of China’s recent history, as well as having heard the voice of the common man, the party official, the foreign businessman, and the underground pastor. The combination of historical narrative and personal remembrance makes this an extremely informative and valuable book.