: China witness: voices from a silent generation (9780099501480) : Xinran Xinran : Books
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China Witness: Voices From A Silent Generation

by Xinran Xinran
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Vintage Books
  • Publishing date: 13/10/2009
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780099501480
  • ISBN: 0099501481


Book Description
China Witness is an extraordinary work of oral history that illuminates the diverse ways in which the Chinese perceive and understand their own history.

Xinran, the acclaimed author of The Good Women of China and Sky Burial, traveled across China in 2005 and 2006, seeking out the nation’s grandparents and great-grandparents, the men and women who have experienced, firsthand, the vast changes of the modern era. In cities and remote villages, Xinran spoke with members of these generations from all tiers of society, interviewing them for the first and perhaps the last time. Although many of them feared repercussions for speaking freely, they spoke to Xinran with stunning candor about their hopes, fears, and struggles, and about what they have witnessed: from the Long March to land reform, from Mao to marriage, from revolution to Westernization. While the West has commonly viewed the last one hundred years in China through the single narrative lens of Mao’s rise and rule, the experience of this same period for the Chinese themselves has been infinitely more complex.

In the same way that Studs Terkel’s Working and Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation gave us the essence of very particular times, China Witness gives us the essence of modern China--a portrait more intimate, nuanced, and revelatory than any we have had before.

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Xinran

Question: How did you select your interview subjects?
Answer: Due to the destruction of the past wrought by the Cultural Revolution, and ongoing censorship of the media and control of school textbooks, China’s younger generations are losing touch with their recent history, and with earlier generations’ struggles for national dignity. The individuals who fought for 20th-century China are mocked or dismissed for their unquestioning loyalty to now passé revolutionary ideals. As they search for new values against the uncertainties of the present and the debunking of the past, many young people today refuse to believe that, without the contributions of their grandparents and great-grandparents, the confident, modernising China they now know would not exist.

After almost twenty years of conducting interviews and research as a journalist, I had become worried that the truth of China’s modern history--along with our quest for national dignity--would be buried with my parents’ generation.

Over two decades, I compiled a list of around fifty individuals I had encountered, each with astonishing stories to tell. From these, I sifted out a final twenty names to interview for this book. Among my original fifty were many national celebrities whose inclusion would have guaranteed my book public attention, even notoriety. I decided, however, that they would have other opportunities to tell their stories, either personally, or through their children. I decided, instead, that it would be of greater historical value to record the stories of ordinary people, of people who would lack the fame, money and rank to get their equally astonishing experiences heard otherwise. Although I know I cannot hope to summarise the past hundred years of modern Chinese history in the experiences of only twenty people, I firmly believe that these individuals are a part of, and witnesses to this history--of its notable successes and tragic failures. Those I interviewed were the grandparents and great-grandparents of today, telling their stories for the first and perhaps last time.

The average age of my interviewees was over seventy; the oldest was 97. Uncertainties about their physical health gave an added sense of urgency to my project.

Q: How has this project effected your own cultural identity?
A: In many ways I feel intensely proud, this project has "watered" the roots that connect me to my history and culture and made them stronger and deeper. There is no other country in the world that could have survived such a turbulent history and rebuilt itself as an internationally recognized country in such a short time in the way that China has.

But it has also caused me to struggle with many difficult questions: how and what could be done to make the Chinese people speak frankly about themselves? Will the flourishing crown of leaves and branches that have grown up from these roots, watered by China’s violent storms and the blood of its people, retain any memory of those roots?

For example, I became fascinated with the history of selfhood and how this relates to ideas of punishment in China. As professor Gao Mingxuan, an authority on the Chinese penal code, remarks in my book, “The concept of guilt by association was always very important in ancient Chinese law. As early as the second millennium BC, a criminal’s family was punished as harshly as the criminal himself. Over the next thousand years, this principle steadily tightened its grip on the judicial system. If a member of one family committed a crime, the other families in that unit were judged to be guilty by association.

None of the cataclysmic changes brought by China’s twentieth century--the fall of the Qing dynasty, the chaos of the warlord era, the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, the Communist revolution--has succeeded in dislodging this strong clan consciousness. The Chinese people still seem to lack a sense of self, and the individual confidence to speak out on what they really think--even as the post-Mao reforms have slowly opened doors between China and the outside world, between China’s past and future, and between the individual and government.”

I found out for myself that although China’s freedom of speech continues to be guarded through idiotic obstinacy, ignorance and fear and even political killing, it seems that often the fiercest censorship occurs within individuals, as silence about the past has become a part of Chinese life.

Q: What parts of Chinese life were the most difficult to explain, in preparing this book for a Western readership?
A:There are many Chinese customs that are very different from those in the west, some are completely the opposite. Most people’s understanding and analysis of another culture is based on their own culture, customs and present daily life. For example, no westerner can believe chicken wings are far more expensive than chicken breast. Or the way a Chinese person will say an older person is looking very weak and tired when they meet, as a sign of respect that they are working so hard and yet still spend time with others. The editor of my book kept asking me why I was being so rude to my interviewees! There are many things that are very difficult to communicate in this way but I have tried to find a way to bridge the two cultures.

Q: How has this project changed your views on China?
A: I have learned not to simplify China’s past as black or white, and not to separate modern China from its past. As with all human history, we must constantly remember that the past is the root of today.

As journalists, we are all expected that we should report on our subjects with honesty and without bias. But not many journalists have thought or experienced enough to be truly honest and unbiased about another culture. I often read so much that is overly simplistic and black and white and I believe that real honesty is based on our knowledge and understand of others’ perspectives.

(Photo © Jane Bown)

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  • worth reading
    From Amazon

    This is not exactly the kind of page turner. At times, there is no story line or you lose track of it easily. But it is a weighty work and valuable for the amount of research the author put into. The author clearly identifies with the silent generation and poured her heart into the writing of it. Read it, and you will not fail to be touched.

  • Stupendous effort - but limited to interested parties
    From Amazon

    Xinran Xue's efforts to elucidate China's past 50 years, by interviewing various members of the older generation, is a good read for Sinologists, curious souls like me, and Chinese abroad who'd like to know their own people, history and culture. Under "curious souls", I would include those who are still interested in Communism and its effects, those who wonder what China is - and was; how Chinese men and women think about everyday things. The gender roles and male domination of China is an interesting facet brought up frequently by this author. A good chapter on this is the story of a husband and wife who did the land surveying of the Gobi during the 50's and 60's, far in the miserable hinterlands. The wife's account of her early years in this unusual place and job (esp. for a woman!) is modest and straightforward: what they did, how they did it, how few the materials, how poor the people, how harsh the weather, etc. Then they interview her husband, who did the same work, and he's completely full of himself, his titles and so on, rather than discussing what he actually did, how he lived, what and how he ate, and other down-to-earth real details of 1950's China expansion into the oil business. The writing style is nonfiction, yet personal, and if anything, I'd suggest the author use more photos if she publishes any further stories about the older folks of China. We in the West often have no real idea of how the people were living, eating, dressing, etc. unless we see the photos in addition to reading the books. The sexual modesty of China also comes through in a very strong way, although it's much looser now. Perhaps I can find more such photos and stories online, esp. old missionary photos are available. But the big advantage to this book is that it is written by a real Chinese, who spoke the language(s), and who was trusted by the people she interviewed - rather than a foreigner's view. Her somewhat love=hate relationship with her motherland amuses me.

  • Xinran
    From Amazon

    Xinran is the author's nom de plume according to Economist newspaper, Feb. 21, 2009, p. 85. Economist states that her real name Xinran Xue. Certainly the voice of the people is going to be myopic but it is the pulse of the country and should be valued, and treasured, for being just that.

  • Interesting, but Limited Information
    From Amazon

    Xinran traveled across China in 2005-06 seeking out the men and women who had experienced the vast changes of the modern era. She tells the stories of 20 ordinary people, average age in their 70's. Unfortunately, the information volunteered by these people is limited - partly because of their likely lack of broader knowledge, and mostly due to cultural reticence. As early as the second millennium B.C., a Chinese criminal's family was punished as harshly as the criminal himself. Around 100 B.C. the people were grouped in units of 5 and 10 households, carrying out mutual surveillance and mutually responsible for each other's conduct. In the case of minor offenses, the criminal's family would be exterminated to between 3 - 5 degrees of association; with serious offenses this was extended to 9 - 10. This principle remained a mainstay of the Chinese judicial system until 1911, and also gave rise to powerful traditions of clan loyalty and fear of speaking out openly that is still an inhibition today. Even media in today's China base reporting in line with this fear. Interviewees are often "led" to follow the central ideology of the party and to express personal views defined by these principles. Thus, Xinran's accounts from those in the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the Long March, etc. is not able to convey the immensity of these tragedies. Notheless, some of the interviews were of particular interest. One first involved a teacher at a Gobi Desert construction/military site. She received no raises for 30 years, supervised self-study until 11 P.M., and sometimes helped the children home during severe weather. Desks were made from mud covered with straw. Altogether, incredible indicators of internal strength and stoicism. However, for broader perspectives I recommend "Mao," by Jung Chang, and "Chinese Lessons," by John Pomfret.

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