I remember on my first trip to China I sat in a park, and some old ladies joined me on the seat. They seemed interested in this pale-skinned, probably quite bemused-looking young woman staring at the morning tai chi. They found it absolutely hilarious that I couldn’t speak Chinese. These ladies signalled things such as numbers to me, but I couldn’t understand beyond 5! They were wonderfully happy women and I really enjoyed entertaining them. They were genuinely trying to communicate, and I felt we had become friends.
Language is important to gather detail and opinion, but it is amazing how much you can gather from sight alone. The eyes of the older generation of Chinese show immense wisdom from experiences it is doubtful they will share. It’s unfortunate that the photographer often affects his/her subject, but perhaps this photo will give you an idea of what I mean. These are tough people. We can’t imagine what they have been through. What is not being said? This mystery intrigues me, and yet I respect their freedom incredibly. Perhaps their silence makes them wiser than we can understand.
The experiences I refer to are the struggles of the Cultural Revolution. For decades the country had been the site of many wars, until Chairman Mao founded the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. However, Mao went to great extremes to maintain power, leading to the Cultural Revolution in 1966. The stories of this period I can only describe as my worst nightmare. It is big brother with no entertainment: The book ‘1984’ in reality: Mind control. Mao used zealous university students to act as his new army of Red Guards. All intellectuals, artists and writers that may act as a threat to his power, were under attack. Books were burned, temples ransacked, art destroyed and anything relating to ‘old China’ ruined. Mao had gone power mad, and this soon transferred to the Red Guards. They decided that anyone that disagreed with them should be corrected. There were thousands of deaths. Even more people were forced to ‘re-education’ camps and hard labour. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the People’s Liberation Army then took over. Even those that had never disagreed with any power were now under scrutiny. The reasons to punish people were ridiculous. No one was safe. Everyone had to criticise themselves to the authorities. Any Chinese person over 40 will have lived through this experience.
There is an incredible contrast between the older Chinese and the more superficial young. I think everyone wants the young to now represent China. No one wants to remember bad times, and it is obvious that the younger generation have been protected from the past. I would love to hear a personal account of the revolution, if I find someone willing to talk about it. My friend has today started a project in another city, so I am left alone with the older generation. But this is also the generation that did not learn English! Perhaps it is a blessing that I cannot communicate with them: At least I avoid being offensive – the last thing they deserve. It is also unlikely they would discuss the subject. These Chinese have learnt to think very carefully before saying anything in case it is punishable. During the Cultural Revolution people couldn’t risk speaking their mind even with their closest friends and family.
I vividly remember my first experience of a mainland Chinese person. I was on a train from Hong Kong (which doesn’t count as China!) to central China, in a top bunk bed of 3, with only about 3 feet of height to call my own! There were many people in the cabin, and no ladders to get up and down…so it was pretty cramped! In the passageway were small seats and in my direct line of sight was a middle-aged man. Throughout the whole of this journey we quietly observed each other. He was wonderfully calm and patient and kind. His wise persona permanently influenced my perception of humankind.
I now know that this man was a typical Chinese person.