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About This Issue

December 30, 2013

Living through History

 “How have the core historical events you experienced shaped your outlook on life and your visions for China’s future?” That was the question we recently posed to individuals from different generations in China. What we wanted to know was the impact of history on individual lives—in other words, the complex process of history concretizing itself through individual lives.

The answers we received now make up the rich collection of personal narratives in this issue. They are history encapsulated in intimate life stories.

The most senior contributor was born in 1947, and the youngest in 1990.  We have divided them loosely into two groups: those “born under the red flag,” who lived through the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Democracy Movement, and the “NextGen,” those who were born into an era of economic reform and a society rife with social conflict and ideological contradictions.

Section 1: Born Under the Red Flag

For this group, the most significant event in their lives was also the most traumatic—the Cultural Revolution. The wounds are still deep and their memories still haunt them. But for some, the human suffering it unleashed also led to deep and desperate searches for answers, which would mark them as political outcasts but at the same time help them resist the imposed ideological bondage.

The contributors of this group are: Hu Ping (b. 1947), author of an influential essay in post-Mao China on freedom of expression, “On the Freedom of Speech” (论言论自由), published in 1979 during the Democracy Wall movement; artist and poet Yan Li (b. 1954), a member of the Stars Group, a creative collective of groundbreaking artists, poets, and writers who emerged almost fully formed out of the rubble of the Cultural Revolution; Xia Yeliang (b. 1960), a former associate professor of economics at Peking University who was dismissed in October 2013 for his political views; Meng Lang (b. 1961), who became a poet in the late 1970s, a period when, in his words, “China began to thaw from the dark ice age of Mao’s totalitarian rule”; and Xia Guozhen (b. 1972), a lawyer active in rights defense. In a separate essay in addition to her personal story, Xiao provides a portrait of Ding Jiaxi, a rights defense lawyer who has been in detention since February 2013 after calling for public disclosure of officials’ assets.

This section also features two commentaries on Mao: one by Wang Kang, a self-taught cultural scholar, on the intellectual influences on Mao in his despotic rule and disastrous policies; and one by Gao Wenqian, HRIC’s senior policy advisor, on why the continued veneration of Mao is the biggest obstacle to China’s social transformation.

Section 2: NextGen: Envisioning Future

For those born into the reform era, contact with the outside world—through flows of people, ideas, and information (particularly online) that have increased exponentially despite constant government control—has given them a broader context to view their country, their lives, and their most essential needs to grow.

The contributors in this second group are: Nakshatra (b. 1989), a student who found out, for the first time, the truth about the events of the year of her birth while studying in Prague; Jiang Wuji (b. 1989), a student who hopes for an honest government, a principled business community, and a fair education system that encourages creative and critical thinking; and Ah Shun (b. 1990), who learned to be independent as a young boy when his mother was put into Reeducation-Through-Labor camps for practicing Falun Gong.

Section 3: Foreign Perspectives

This section presents essays of encounters by two Americans with great passion for China: art historian Joan Lebold Cohen on her first trip to China—in 1972, just three months after Nixon’s visit—that was filled with humorous first encounters between vastly different expectations; and Paul Mooney, who reported from China for 18 years on the people left behind by the system and who formed the hearts of his stories. Mooney left China on a break in November 2012. In 2013, the Chinese authorities told him he would not be given a visa to return to China.

The Culture Matters section features reviews of four books. In his review of The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter, the second of Dikötter’s projected trilogy on China under Mao, Roger Garside brings critical attention to a book that “demolishes one of the last surviving myths about communist rule in China: that there was a ‘Golden Era’ from the time of ‘liberation’ in 1949 until launch of the Great Leap Forward in 1958.” Paul Mooney’s review of Liao Yiwu’s prison memoir, For a Song and a Hundred Songs—A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison, highlights Liao’s no-holds-barred tales of not only survival of a brutal prison term but also his failings as husband and father. Jonathan Mirsky reviews China 1927: Memoir of a Debacle by Zhu Qihua, a 19-year-old mid-level propaganda official of the Communist Party of China at a time right before it ended its cooperation with the Nationalists. Forthcoming in this section is Sharon Hom’s review of Framing the Net: the Internet and Human Rights by Rikke Frank Jorgensen, a major analytical study of a relationship critical to the development of rule of law, democracy, and human rights globally, with special resonances for China’s civil society.