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China Witness is a remarkable work of oral history that lets us see the cultural upheavals of the past century through the eyes of the Chinese who lived through them.
Xinran, acclaimed author of The Good Women of China, traveled across China seeking out the nation’s grandparents and great-grandparents, the men and women who experienced firsthand the tremendous changes of the modern era. Although many of them feared repercussions, they spoke with stunning candor about their hopes, fears, and struggles, and about what they witnessed: from the Long March to land reform, from Mao to marriage, from revolution to Westernization. In the same way that Studs Terkel’s Working and Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation gave us the essence of very particular times, China Witness gives us the essence of modern China—a portrait more intimate, nuanced, and revelatory than any we have had before.
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China Witness is an extraordinary work of oral history that illuminates the diverse ways in which the Chinese perceive and understand their own history.
Xinran, the acclaimed author of The Good Women of China and Sky Burial, traveled across China in 2005 and 2006, seeking out the nation’s grandparents and great-grandparents, the men and women who have experienced, firsthand, the vast changes of the modern era. In cities and remote villages, Xinran spoke with members of these generations from all tiers of society, interviewing them for the first and perhaps the last time. Although many of them feared repercussions for speaking freely, they spoke to Xinran with stunning candor about their hopes, fears, and struggles, and about what they have witnessed: from the Long March to land reform, from Mao to marriage, from revolution to Westernization. While the West has commonly viewed the last one hundred years in China through the single narrative lens of Mao’s rise and rule, the experience of this same period for the Chinese themselves has been infinitely more complex.
In the same way that Studs Terkel’s Working and Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation gave us the essence of very particular times, China Witness gives us the essence of modern China--a portrait more intimate, nuanced, and revelatory than any we have had before.Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Xinran
After almost twenty years of conducting interviews and research as a journalist, I had become worried that the truth of China’s modern history--along with our quest for national dignity--would be buried with my parents’ generation.
Over two decades, I compiled a list of around fifty individuals I had encountered, each with astonishing stories to tell. From these, I sifted out a final twenty names to interview for this book. Among my original fifty were many national celebrities whose inclusion would have guaranteed my book public attention, even notoriety. I decided, however, that they would have other opportunities to tell their stories, either personally, or through their children. I decided, instead, that it would be of greater historical value to record the stories of ordinary people, of people who would lack the fame, money and rank to get their equally astonishing experiences heard otherwise. Although I know I cannot hope to summarise the past hundred years of modern Chinese history in the experiences of only twenty people, I firmly believe that these individuals are a part of, and witnesses to this history--of its notable successes and tragic failures. Those I interviewed were the grandparents and great-grandparents of today, telling their stories for the first and perhaps last time.
The average age of my interviewees was over seventy; the oldest was 97. Uncertainties about their physical health gave an added sense of urgency to my project.
Q: How has this project effected your own cultural identity?
A: In many ways I feel intensely proud, this project has "watered" the roots that connect me to my history and culture and made them stronger and deeper. There is no other country in the world that could have survived such a turbulent history and rebuilt itself as an internationally recognized country in such a short time in the way that China has.
But it has also caused me to struggle with many difficult questions: how and what could be done to make the Chinese people speak frankly about themselves? Will the flourishing crown of leaves and branches that have grown up from these roots, watered by China’s violent storms and the blood of its people, retain any memory of those roots?
For example, I became fascinated with the history of selfhood and how this relates to ideas of punishment in China. As professor Gao Mingxuan, an authority on the Chinese penal code, remarks in my book, “The concept of guilt by association was always very important in ancient Chinese law. As early as the second millennium BC, a criminal’s family was punished as harshly as the criminal himself. Over the next thousand years, this principle steadily tightened its grip on the judicial system. If a member of one family committed a crime, the other families in that unit were judged to be guilty by association.
None of the cataclysmic changes brought by China’s twentieth century--the fall of the Qing dynasty, the chaos of the warlord era, the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, the Communist revolution--has succeeded in dislodging this strong clan consciousness. The Chinese people still seem to lack a sense of self, and the individual confidence to speak out on what they really think--even as the post-Mao reforms have slowly opened doors between China and the outside world, between China’s past and future, and between the individual and government.”
I found out for myself that although China’s freedom of speech continues to be guarded through idiotic obstinacy, ignorance and fear and even political killing, it seems that often the fiercest censorship occurs within individuals, as silence about the past has become a part of Chinese life.
Q: What parts of Chinese life were the most difficult to explain, in preparing this book for a Western readership?
A:There are many Chinese customs that are very different from those in the west, some are completely the opposite. Most people’s understanding and analysis of another culture is based on their own culture, customs and present daily life. For example, no westerner can believe chicken wings are far more expensive than chicken breast. Or the way a Chinese person will say an older person is looking very weak and tired when they meet, as a sign of respect that they are working so hard and yet still spend time with others. The editor of my book kept asking me why I was being so rude to my interviewees! There are many things that are very difficult to communicate in this way but I have tried to find a way to bridge the two cultures.
Q: How has this project changed your views on China?
A: I have learned not to simplify China’s past as black or white, and not to separate modern China from its past. As with all human history, we must constantly remember that the past is the root of today.
As journalists, we are all expected that we should report on our subjects with honesty and without bias. But not many journalists have thought or experienced enough to be truly honest and unbiased about another culture. I often read so much that is overly simplistic and black and white and I believe that real honesty is based on our knowledge and understand of others’ perspectives.
(Photo © Jane Bown)About the Author:
Xinran was born in Beijing in 1958 and moved to London in 1997 to write for The Guardian. She is author of The Good Women of China, a seminal book about the lives of Chinese women, and Sky Burial. Her charity, The Mothers’ Bridge of Love, was founded to help disadvantaged Chinese children and to build a bridge of understanding between the West and China.
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