South China Morning Post - Book Club - Dymocks
South China Morning Post - Book Club - Dymocks
Stories not about Mao
by Xujun Eberlein

On a chilly winter morning in the mid 1970s, fresh out of an urban high school and now living in a poor small village, I opened my room's door to find my only chicken, my faithful producer of precious eggs in a time of poverty, had frozen to death. Through the morning frost, I saw the chicken standing, with one foot on the ground, the other drawn up under its wing, and its frozen eyeballs stared at me as if in disbelief that I had locked it out on such a cold night.

A great many, and often more significant, things happened during the four years I was "inserted" into farm life in Fuling, China for reeducation, but the image of my frozen, standing chicken remains the most vivid. So much so that, three decades later, it found its way into the story "Disciple of the Masses," included in my debut collection Apologies Forthcoming.

Only after writing the story did I recognize the symbolism of the image: A silent protest against the innocent idealism and self-righteous ignorance of me, of my generation.

But it was not just the youngsters, and it was not only in China. History, and modern events, are full of violence and tragedy resulting from idealism and absolute moral certainty. When it comes to the subject of China's Cultural Revolution, many books have been written on Mao and the actions taken in his name. But those books don't, and can't, explain why an entire country of people, millions and millions of them, enthusiastically went (retrospectively) mad. My big sister gave her life as a Red Guard at age 16. My parents, after being cruelly "struggled" against by their colleagues and students, became active members in a faction opposite my sister's. At the age of eleven, I joined with them. A teenage girl in my neighborhood fought fearlessly in a faction battle, and had the back of her skull cleaved open and a braid ripped from her head. She didn't die, and before she had completely recovered she went back to the fight.

A few weeks ago, at an author event in the Boston area, a Chinese student in her mid 20s came to my table to have a brief chat. She was from the mainland. She said she just couldn't understand how the Cultural Revolution could have lasted for 10 years. "One or two years would be more understandable," she said.

I looked at her innocent dismissive expression and thought, She would have made a perfect Red Guard.

I have repeatedly used "innocent" for lack of a better word, as no one I knew intimately was acting with evil intent at the time. And that was the scary part. Self-righteous certainly, but when a large population stands to a similar position it might be more accurately called "public-righteous." A lingering question is, why did we all "innocently" contribute to the unprecedented calamity?

When I visited my parents, now in their 80s, this January, and chatted about the old times, they said they had been deceived in the Cultural Revolution. I was a bit surprised by this slur-over. I spent my childhood and youth, from age 10 to 20, during that period, and virtually everyone I knew, neighbors, schoolmates and teachers, my parents and their colleagues, my two older sisters and their friends, had been passionate participants at one stage or another. Yet today few admit that. You read victim stories everywhere, and everyone points to someone else as the victimizer. No one apologizes. It is much more convenient to name a culprit than to understand and face the unfathomable side of human nature in ourselves.

Books on Mao the monster, such as Mao: the Unknown Story, don't help us understand the role of the broader population, the role of the innocent idealists. When it comes to subjects like the Cultural Revolution, there is the need for literature not about Mao. Yet for some reason the latter remains scarce. As a writer I'm more interested in exploring human nature than pointing fingers. I wrote the stories in "Apologies Forthcoming" to replay the reality of that time and to further my understanding.

One question readers repeatedly ask is whether the stories in my book are autobiographical. The answer is "No," with the exception of "Feathers," though sometimes, details from my own life, such as the frozen chicken, show up in a slightly altered form. But I can tell you all the stories are as real as fictional.

A final note: the stories directly involving the Cultural Revolution compose only half of the book. The other half take place in the 1980s, as a continuation of the former. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Professor of Chinese History at UC Irvine, pointed out, the early 1980s in China was a fascinating in-between period that has so far received less attention in works readily available in English. I was a member of the so-called Class 77, the first lucky bunch entering university after the Cultural Revolution. Our class actually started in the spring of 1978, and my college time coincided with the difficult birth of a new era. I hope my stories provide you a glimpse of that electrifying time.

(Xujun Eberlein is the author of Apologies Forthcoming)

  Stories not about Mao

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