I once tutored a Chinese student in English and when I asked him what he thought of Australia, he said “Most people are nice – there are a few barbarians .” At the time I thought, wild savages – that’s a colourful way to describe the less civil members of Adelaide society. I didn’t realise that in China, ‘barbarian’ means ‘foreigner’, someone who has not yet been assimilated into the Chinese culture.
These books brought home to me how much we still don’t understand about China, the truth of the Mao years and what it means to live there today.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a devastating story, beautifully told. It centers on three characters – Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli – as they grow up during the Cultural Revolution, famine and the Great Leap Forward. These years are physically tortuous – many are broken by the sheer hardship, work camps and hunger (36 million people starved to death in the great famine). “There are many stages to hunger” says Comrade Glass Eye.
The futility of these camps struck me again. Equally cruel and absurd were the criticisms and self-censorship; the repetition of Mao’s slogans, which becomes mindless. Ordinary people live in fear of being denounced as counter-revolutionary, not knowing what the Party will pick on next. Zhuli cuts her hair short because a long braid might be vain. A woman is yanked out of the queue for oil:
” ‘It must be her clothing,’ thought Zhuli dully, that had attracted the fury of the Red Guards.”
The backwardness of shutting the schools and universities still shocks me. Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli are musicians, and as their passion for playing and composing music is gradually snuffed out and driven inward, you have a real sense of how the party stifled creativity: books were burnt, instruments destroyed.
Music pervades the book nonetheless; it may inspire you to listen to Bach, Shostakovich or Prokofiev anew. Thien draws attention to the gaps within the music: characters in the story disappear, some return; the Book of Records is told in fragments, hidden and shared. The music evokes lives interrupted, dreams crushed, but a strange beauty too.
The Party shut down certain renowned composers deemed ‘Western’ or ‘bourgeouis’. But it also affects the young students, who learn not to trust their own thoughts: they second-guess everything and default to the ‘correct’ music. Worse, the Party changed its dictates so the sands shifted.
“Now the class turned their attention to the playwright, Wu, and the poet, Guo. Both men, once celebrated, had been discovered to be enemies of the people.”
(The same fate befell Ai Wei Wei’s father, the poet Ai Qing.)
This leads to a constant, unsettling state of fear. We experience this sense of unease through Kai, a pragmatic and adaptible character. When he is with Zhuli:
“He had switched gears as smoothly as a bird circling, as unequivocally as a madman.”
Ordinary citizens had to denounce friends and family to protect themselves. In a heart-wrenching scene, against the backdrop of the family’s fierce love for one another, Zhuli’s cousin must denounce her on a poster.
“Da Shan smudged the ink, and his father threw out the poster and made him do it again.”
The Party turned its own people against one another. There is a chilling scene where He Lutong, president of the Shanghai Conservatory, is beaten on live television. He dares to resist, crying “Shame on you for lying!” and the screens go blank.
From the 1960s to Age of Ambition, and Evan Osnos offers a modern example: a historic meeting between the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents, where the Chinese speech was broadcast but when it was Taiwan’s turn to speak, the screen went black.
Age of Ambition takes us into modern China with Osnos, who lived there for 8 years from 2006 to 2014. We meet wonderful characters: among them, brave Hu Shuli the news editor, a Crazy English teacher and Ai Wei Wei, an artist who, like Andy Warhol, has become famous not for his art alone but for his knack of distilling events into a work with mass appeal.
Osnos finds people searching for faith since Mao’s death. There is a focus on economic growth and some nostalgia for a communal spirit – shown tragically when two-year-old Fui Wei is run over in the market and people walk past her.
The unspoken bargain is that people will postpone idealism as long as life keeps improving. There is massive corruption, but the young generation has turned a blind eye, although this is shaken by major events such as the Sichuan earthquake, milk poisoning and high-speed train crash. There is censorship, the notorious “Great Firewall”, but blogger Han Han says to let the culture be more vibrant and the media be more open – he does not seek democracy.
Osnos refers to Havel’s Charter 77 (it inspired Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08). The key to life under a Communist party was to have a double life: “the willingness to say one thing in public and another in private.”
In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the Professor reads from Guo Moruo’s translation of Faust:
“In me there are two souls, alas, and their / Division tears my life in two.”
After reading Thien’s poignant book, I have more sympathy both for those in China agitating for democracy and those who do not seek another revolution. I can only admire the pragmatism and resilience of those who survive and the courage of those who resist.
But what do I know – I’m just a barbarian.