Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Xinran: China Witness

A very strange book.

Xinran is a Chinese woman, born into a wealthy entrepreneurial family, who, despite that background, beats out 20,000 other applicants to be become one of the first broadcast journalists in the post-Mao era of the Peoples Republic.

She eventually moves to London where she marries a top literary agent who is the son of "Wild Mary" Wesley, a notoriously profligate upper class woman who became a best selling novelist at the age of 70.

And then, Xinran becomes a professional writer herself (though she uses translators to put her works into English)

This book is apparently the culmination of a ten-year project to tell the story of 20th C. China through the eyes of people who have lived it, in a variety of places and social circumstances, running west to east between the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers, i.e. the heartland of the country. And apparently, a team of 50 people was involved in planning the itinerary, making the contacts, and then following the author around with movie cameras to record each interview, and then transcribe and edit them.


What an effort!

What seems to be missing, though, is a final edit. After several readings, I still can't figure out what happened to "Double-Gun Woman". She was involved with some kind of uprising on Huaying Mountain, and as a result, she and her comrades were blacklisted by the Party. But when and how that all happened remains a mystery. And what happened to the entire story of Fang Haijun, Mao's bodyguard, whose picture made it to the inset of photographs, but whose story was omitted from the text ?

I think Xinran is still doing broadcast journalism - i.e., trying to attract momentary attention with soundbites that are colorful and have broad emotional appeal. These old people have really been through a lot, haven't they? Let's all give them a little more respect!

So we get to meet 11 old people -- and all of them are interesting -- but these meetings are so superficial, and Xinran's repetitive question seems so trite: "what are your 3 saddest moments, and what your three happiest?"

But still -- these brief encounters are fascinating - especially because most of these people are so far from the super-achiever intellectuals who have written all the other books that I've read about this period.

They're all still achievers, though -- whether they've succeeded at selling herbs, fixing shoes, making lanterns, performing acrobatics, or rising up within one of the bureaucracies.

But since all of these characters are survivors, the problem is that nobody survived the first three decades of the People's Republic by being candid -- and each of the people she interviews knows that whatever security they have achieved can vanish in a Beijing minute if they say the wrong thing.

Unlike Xinran and most of the other Chinese writers whom I have read, these old people are still living in China, and China is still ruled by the Communist Party, not by law.

So all of the declarations of idealism and devotion to the Revolution are highly suspect - except perhaps for the Lady General who got to the top of the bureaucracy and retired to a special compound for high officials.

Something I've also noted is the rebirth of the Mandarin meritocracy. Now it reappears as the modern university, but it's probably still just as impractical, and one consequence is the lack of respect for traditional arts like herbalism and lantern making. (and their consequent abandonment)

Especially poignant with the story of the ignorant, starving peasant boy who rose to become policeman, cadre, and judge, but was eventually demoted for lack of education and ended up living in poverty without any benefits like health care. He's the one voice that seems to speak with candor, but he's also given up on his life and has nothing to lose.

Then there's the story of the smart, ambitious woman who failed to get into university, and then devoted her life to making her children PHD, while refusing to apply for any scholarships for them. (and without any apparent concern for what exactly they were going to accomplish besides getting a degree)

I was also fascinated by the texts of several love letters exchanged between a high-official widow and a widower of a much lower rank -- both of whom were in their sixties. The widower is so self-deprecating! And the tone of the letters so sincere, with hardly any evidence of sense of humor.