I recently came across a book called Some of Us[i], recommended to me by one of the contributing authors, Dr. Jiang Jin. The book is a collection of memoirs and stories put together by 9 women who lived through China’s Cultural Revolution and subsequently got their Ph.D.s and now are teaching (or in Jiang Jin’s case, was teaching) in the states. What brought them together was a discussion among 3 of them about such Memoirs as Wild Swans and Red Azalea, and the subsequent discovery that these memoirs do not accurately represent their feelings and experiences during the Cultural Revolution. Furthermore, what these memoirs had done was create a specific image of Maoist era people in the West, almost an Orientalizing process, if you will. Everyone was either a victim or a victimizer, and everyone’s families had either been killed, torn apart, or driven to insanity during the Cultural Revolution.
I personally have always loved the book Wild Swans. My high school history teacher made us read it, and it had originally sparked my interest in Chinese history. But is there a problem with teaching books like this in the classroom? Chen Xiaomei points out the problems with teaching Wild Swans, in that she was “unwittingly contributing to a discourse of China bashing occurring in America and the rest of the West.”[ii] Chen then tried to show different points of view by talking about her own childhood, and she claims in her narrative that she was “honestly happy.” I had always taken these kinds of memoirs for granted, and I admit, I am still shocked when Chinese people talk to me about their experiences as zhiqing and how they were truly positive experiences that helped to shape their own personas, unlike the way it is painted in Wild Swans. It also made me think of other historical events and how we imagine everyone to have lived the lives of the few whose lives we read about. Do we think of the Japanese army in such a holistic way in World War II because of the Rape of Nanjing? We probably make similar assessments about American history; even though I know it is not true, I can’t help but think of all Americans in the Great Depression as the Joad family from the Grapes of Wrath. Historians claim to know that their are too many narratives to possibly record, and there are millions of interpretations of one similar event; but how do we effectively, especially in a class, show the plethora of interpretations of one 10 year period?
Another issue that is broached in this book which I find important in the study of history is the concept of being “brainwashed,” and the negative connotations that carried. My favorite line in this book is from Wang Zheng’s memoir. She talked about an encounter with an American woman who told her with “apparent pride that her daughter was a cheerleader.” After discovering what a cheerleader was, Wang claimed “I just hoped that my eyes would not betray my disdain as I thought to myself, ‘I guess this American woman has never dreamed of her daughter being a leader cheered by men.’ I felt fortunate that I was ‘brainwashed’ to want to be a revolutionary instead of a cheerleader.”[iii] I couldn’t help but laugh at this because, as a woman growing up in the United States, I went through this phase of wanting to be a cheerleader which most, if not all, girls go through; and not once did it dawn on me to be a leader being cheered by men. I think that when we use the term “brainwash” we don’t think about our own experiences, and we certainly don’t think that perhaps we have been “brainwashed” as well. We, in America, I think often tend to think of the Maoist era as the “dark ages,” (which this book points out), but many of these memoirs very directly show how gender equality was actually far more advanced in Maoist China than in China (or America) today. In our discussions in a class I audit, Professor Jiang pointed out to us that Chinese women have actually taken a huge step backwards since the 1970s. Similarly, these 9 women show in their memoirs, most obviously in Wang Zheng’s memoir, that gender consciousness was something they didn’t experience until their 20s or 30s, where in America our teenage culture constantly drums it into our heads while still maintaining that women have the same opportunities as men.
As a student just exiting her undergraduate education, I think that more books like these should be taught if only to show the plurality of historical interpretation for a specific event. I came across this book auditing a class called “Women in Chinese history” at East China Normal, and many of the students in the class admitted that before reading this book, they all assumed the Wild Swans narrative worked for all people during the cultural revolution. Furthermore, part of history (I feel) is self exploration, and I think this book challenges a lot of assumptions we make about the contrast between China and the West concerning education, “brain washing,” and women’s rights (I believe most Americans still think that China is 20 years behind us). Since I’m not a professor yet, I can’t decide what to teach, but I found this book an effective means of getting across points that most historians want students to grasp, forcing them to challenge assumptions about historical events, personal experiences, and their own experiences.
[i] Xueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, and Bai Di, Ed. Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001).
[ii] Xiaomei Chen. “From ‘Lighthouse’ to the Northeast Wilderness: Growing Up among the Ordinary Stars,” in Some of Us, ed. Xueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, Bai Di, 55–57.
[iii] Wang Zheng. “Call me Qingnian and not Funü: A Maoist Youth in Retrospect,” in Some of Us, ed. Xueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, and Bai Di, 36.