My Grandfather: Some Thoughts on the Individual and History

I heard Gregor gave a talk today about modern Chinese history since the creation of the PRC, and hearing him talk about the Sino-Japanese War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, I couldn’t help but to think about my grandfather, who just turned 80 yesterday, because he lived through all of those tumultuous events.

Of course millions of Chinese people have experienced all these traumatic experiences, but my family is very self-conscious, and that’s because all of my family were teachers and intellectuals. Among my family members, five have taught university-level courses, while 2 have taught high school. So pretty much nothing goes unreflected in my family, which explains why I am the way that I am.

I suppose a critical vein has always ran through my family. My grandfather’s political problems first arose during the Hundred Flowers Campaign, when Mao Zedong asked the country’s intellectuals to voice their opinions about the Communist leadership. My grandfather, who was teaching college at the time, wrote something to the effect that Mao is developing a cult of personality around him.

Things got even worse for my grandfather during the Cultural Revolutions. As is too often the case in state-sponsored purges, people turned on each other. In this case, one of my grandfather’s colleagues denounced him as a counter-revolutionary, and as a result, my grandfather was essentially detained in a labor camp for five years doing hard labor and undergoing “re-education” and public “criticism.”

You would think that my parents would have learned something from what happened to my grandfather, but then again, I am not surprised that they were just as politically critical, since this type of thing tends to run in the family. So as was the case, my mother joined the student protest movement in 1989, and saw some of her friends and students killed in Tiananmen Square.

And that, in a nutshell, is the brief causal history of how I got to America: Reagan granted those student protestors amnesty, and my mother took it and went to America. And here I am, almost 18 years after the fact. And I have taken from my family their naturally critical bent, so history might repeat itself yet, ha.

Of course I didn’t realize what this all meant till much later, when I was 17 or 18, and I realized just how much I am shaped, conditioned, and influenced by historical circumstances beyond my control. That was when I began to seriously think about the relationship between the individual and history: how my family history is essentially a microcosm of all the tumultuous events of modern Chinese history, of how connected those two parallel histories have become, and most importantly, of their inseparability. That was when I finally gave up the notion that the individual can somehow remain completely outside of history: no one is outside of history, even if it’s a history that you can no longer remember.

And that is what is fundamentally disturbing about the Chinese government’s attempt to censor information in such a way as to manipulate a historical narrative that is not accurate. And the even more disturbing part is that this type of censoring needs not to be drastic–it only has to be subtle but to be insidious. When I hear that Chinese youth today have no historical memory of Tiananmen Square, that really disturbed me, because they are no longer conscious of how the government is using history to manipulate their consciousness. They are not conscious of the historical forces that continue to influence their daily lives.

This is what Orwell meant in 1984: without a historical memory, a people is doomed.

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