Throughout the 20th century, China has been, it seems, a country in constant turmoil. As governments, leaders, and national strategies change, it behooves the people of this country to keep quiet on every subject, lest the next regime brand any previously expressed sentiment evidence of treason. After so many years of caution, silence has become an instinctive form of self-preservation.
Author Xinran has watched her country lose its history and its traditions to that insidious silence. “Thanks to the destruction of the past wrought by the Cultural Revolution, and ongoing censorship of the media and control of school textbooks,” she writes, “China’s younger generations are losing touch with earlier generations’ struggles for national dignity… After almost twenty years of interviews … I am worried that the truth of China’s modern history…will be buried with my parents’ generation.”
China Witness is Xinran’s attempt to preserve some of that rapidly fading history through the accounts of ordinary Chinese people who experienced those tumultuous decades. This is far more than the story of political and national change, of course; when personal stories are used to express the unfolding of events, they infuse history with emotion. It is that human element that gives life and power to the accounts in China Witness. Fear, heartbreak, disappointment, and loss reside in the same breath with love, adventure, and joy. Xinran wisely includes details about seemingly insignificant events - such as meals and clothing - that bring sharper focus to the overall picture of the lives chronicled in these interviews.
The subjects here are all elderly, and all recall clearly the years under Mao’s regime. Whether or not the sentiments they express are sincere or diplomatic, each gives credit to Mao for his accomplishments. One gentleman recounts his experience in the Red Army, when he “set off on the Long March in 1934… He cannot understand the new generation questioning the Long March,” writes Xinran. General Phoebe, born in 1930, invites Xinran to “Come and listen to the stories…from the most fortunate of generations.” Yao Popo, orphaned as a child and given to an herb seller, struggled to raise her seven children; she is grateful that the Cultural Revolution eventually allowed her to gain financial security, albeit in unexpected ways.
We often view other cultures as a lump of set behaviors and assume that all individuals within those cultures are oppressed, ignorant, or downtrodden. The people interviewed for China Witness speak to us from inside the culture, painting an intimate portrait of what is, after all, an ordinary world met with courage, strength, or sometimes with just the wisdom to recognize that circumstances often must be met with acceptance.
Xinran, who was born in Beijing and lived in China for the first 40 years of her life, approaches the people and their stories with respect, curiosity, and a genuine reverence for the importance of their histories. By allowing the words to pass from lips to page with little interference, she manages to retain the spirit of the generations that came before and of the events that shaped their lives.
In the introduction, Xinran admits that, at one point, she “had lost all confidence in myself. I was feeling overwhelmed by the complexities of the lives I had decided to explore...” She needn’t have worried. Whether through journalistic experience or pure instinct, Xinran’s compilation of powerful stories and her delicate presentation have accomplished the goal. China Witness is an eloquent and haunting testament to the people who were there, who participated, and who offer valuable lessons if only we will listen.