Chinese Lives: An Oral History of Contemporary China 
by Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye, edited by W.J.F. Jenner and Delia Davin.
Macmillan, 367 pp., £14.95, February 1988, 0 333 43364 5
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‘The Great Wall is the symbol of our nation,’ says one of the speakers in this extraordinary book. ‘It’s falling to pieces, ruined by people and by the elements like a dragon hacked apart.’ China is accessible now, in one sense: you can go on a tour. No doubt the Chinese will develop new layers of opacity, and a souvenir culture to keep the West happy; there would be plenty of precedents. The vast incomprehension between the Chinese and ourselves makes us inclined to study them through their artefacts, as though they were a vanished people. It is a way of dealing with them, now that the Great Wall is crumbling. A current tour brochure offers ‘a kaleidoscope of temples, tombs, bronzes, jades, pagodas, old city-walls, lacquer-work, terracotta figurines, frescoes, painting on silk, ceramics, porcelain, calligraphy and monumental sculpture.’ Yes, but who are they? What do they think?

The Chinese call themselves Lao Bai Xing, ‘Old Hundred Names’; the shortage of surnames bespeaks a passion for anonymity. When Colin Thubron began his recent travels, he feared that he might not make contact with the individual at all, and when Behind the Wall was published, he spoke of ‘the strange kind of delight’ the traveller feels when the Chinese behave in a way he can recognise – in a way that soothes his fears.

It may happen that people speak more freely to a foreigner, to someone passing through, but freedom can work against accuracy; several of the speakers in Chinese Lives express the idea – familiar to everyone who has suffered a talkative companion on a long-haul flight – that when we travel we are not on oath. People we meet in transit are not necessarily very serious people: or as a ‘train chief’ says here, ‘if you acted on information picked up on trains you’d find the best part of it is nonsense.’ The two young journalists who put this book together must have worn, as they travelled around China to collect their material, an encouragingly temporary air, but they had the advantages of people conducting an enquiry into their own nature, so that for the first time we can answer the question that Colin Thubron’s illuminating book leaves us with: how do the Chinese seem to themselves?

The 64 interviews which make up this book are part of a collection of over one hundred, conducted by the authors throughout China in 1984. They were first published as a regular column in the China Daily News, New York’s Chinese language paper; the following year, when they began to appear in China itself, they caused a sensation. There was no precedent for their honesty; there was something in them that everyone recognised. The two journalists interviewed city-dwellers who have lived through all the dizzying changes of political style, and people in remote mountain villages whose way of life is hardly touched by the present century. They spoke to old people, women whose feet had been bound, who as children had been sold into virtual slavery; and to the discontented unemployed young. They inquired into memories, wishes and dreams, and into those visible everyday aspects of life that everyone takes for granted as part of being Chinese. One commuter among Beijing’s 3,600,000 cyclists volunteers her history of bumps on the head and brushes with traffic wardens, of hooligans and manhole covers, but is bemused by their questions: ‘I’ve never heard of anyone being stopped to ask how she feels about cycling.’

It is a triumph in itself to get people to talk in terms that are not political. A writer speaks of her aspirations, which her husband does not share: ‘I wanted to record the good old days, the happy times when I was a child. He demanded to know why I was singing the praises of those 17 black years before the Cultural Revolution.’ Jargon goes deep: a young prisoner, who had committed incest with his 14-year-old sister and killed her when she became pregnant, attests that ‘the main reason for my crime was my bourgeois vanity.’ This must have gone down well with the court, because his death sentence was suspended, then commuted to 20 years. In the prisons and labour camps the emphasis is on reform rather than punishment or containment – and reforming an individual naturally means making him someone who will fit in with society. But a young woman who works as a political educator wonders how deep the commitment to communism goes: ‘If we had a referendum with a secret ballot in which people could say what they really thought, would even 10 per cent of our citizens say they really believed in Marxism-Leninism?’

Yet no one interviewed voices real dissent. Perhaps they are too cautious, and yet there is something more: a passivity, what Westerners would call docility, an acceptance that as an individual you are a small part of a larger design. You are born in quiet times, or you are born in interesting ones. Qiao, a worker in a chemical factory, explains it in this way:

Life’s like this train. If the station it gets to is Beidaihe [a seaside resort] you can have a great time. But if the station’s just a halt in the desert with nothing to eat, nothing to drink and nobody around it’s still your station. We didn’t lay the track and we can’t choose where to stop.

To be born at a certain time is to live by the slogans of the moment, to take your place in the giant skipping game with its formalised chant. You may if you’re lucky be a Three-Good Student – good academically, sound politically, in good health. During the Cultural Revolution you had to campaign against the Four Olds – old culture, old ideology, old customs and old habits. If you didn’t do this, perhaps it was because you belonged to one of the Five Black Categories – landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, rightists, ‘bad elements’. There is a mania for subdivision, classification. We meet people who are ‘classified as middle peasants’ or ‘classified as a landlord elements’, and a former prostitute who was relieved to be told that she could define herself, when she filled in forms, as ‘urban poor’. No one got a fresh start through the Revolution. ‘If you had a bad class origin you always felt that you’d done something terrible. I used to hate filling in official forms because I had to put down “reactionary army officer” in the section for class origins.’

The sins of the fathers are visited on the children – but then, so are their jobs. It is a privilege to inherit your father’s place on an assembly line when good jobs are in short supply, choice is so limited, and the movement of labour so difficult. There is fierce competition for admission to higher education, and once you are on a course the failure rate is high. A girl of 18 gives a picture of life as she prepares to re-sit her college entrance exams: no novels for her, no TV, parents who feed her up on queen-bee jelly and hover over her all Sunday. It sounds familiar somehow: any direct-grant school meritocrat would have a similar tale to tell. What were the young people of Peking doing in 1968? Street fashion was a blue outfit, black slip-on shoes, and ‘a surgical mask hung around your neck with only the tape showing’.

A whole generation had their lives torn apart by the Cultural Revolution. Ex-Red Guards speak of when ‘the call would come’ and off they’d go in a commandeered truck, to ransack a house and beat people up. When Li Xiaochang was 17, she was criticised by ‘advanced elements’ for wearing a frock. She thought she’d better make herself over: next day she put on trousers, and decided to learn to swear. ‘The first time I swore, I felt a little faint.’ Soon she had joined the Red Guard. There were epic journeys to ‘exchange revolutionary experience’ – packed onto trains to travel the length and breadth of China, under the seats and squeezed into the luggage racks – ‘mad, obsessive days’. Days of which she does not speak now. ‘It’s something I’m rather ashamed of.’

Shame and fear put a barrier between generations. The chemical factory worker speaks of the beatings his father got from successively powerful factions, and of his horrific suicide: ‘Doesn’t bother me now. My heart’s hardened.’ Many of the interviewees must count themselves lucky to have survived, just as the current generation must count themselves lucky to be born. It is possible to defeat the ‘one-child’ policy, but like Big Sister Cheng, you must be prepared to be hectored and harassed by party cadres, to go into hiding to give birth, and pay, pay, pay. It was only at her seventh attempt that Cheng had a boy, and it took her two years to pay the fines she had incurred.

Money seems to solve most problems – or there is a belief that it can. Even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, private enterprise flourished among gangs of builders who went around the countryside throwing up the meeting-halls that the communes needed for their mass-rallies and self-criticism sessions. Many of the interviewees work very hard: we meet a young dentist who is on call for 27 days at a stretch, takes a two-hour bus ride to her home, and spends her three-day leave coping with the month’s accumulated housework. Husbands are not generally helpful, and expectations of marital happiness not high: marriage is a matter of matching up status, and defining financial expectations, and getting presents. ‘We’ve got nine dolls and 32 quilt covers,’ one bride exclaims in disgust. She’s fortunate: not so long ago the acceptable wedding gift was a bust of Chairman Mao.

Despite the new economic flexibility, people are reluctant to give up the security of the collective for the excitement of self-employment. But they want and get consumer goods – fridges, TV – and they want to buy books. The state-run bookstore chain does not entirely trust its patrons’ tastes: it isn’t good for them to buy just what they want, even if it’s been adjudged politically correct, and, besides, all the stock has to be shifted somehow. If young people want a kung-fu book, an assistant explains, they have to buy along with it The Unification of China by the First Qin Emperor. Another best-seller is Sex information and What Newly-Weds Need to Know – but you can’t get a copy without taking How to repair electrical appliances. Still, Foyle’s customers would find themselves at home: ‘the sales assistants don’t take money and the cashiers don’t handle books.’ The shock of the familiar is part of what makes this book so enjoyable. At first the strangeness appals, and then the Chinese seem to come too close for comfort. A woman sits in a city restaurant, boasting of her entrepreneurial skills, how she plays the system, how she’s got on in life. Only her table manners mark her out from her London counterpart. She spits her bones on the floor, and then declares: ‘Making money’s the way to glory now.’

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