HONG KONG – Yuan-tsung Chen, a writer, leaned forward in a huge velvet chair to tell the story of the man so hungry he ate himself.
At another time, that story had seemed incredible to him.
“I thought it was an exaggeration,” she said.
But living in a village during the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s disastrous attempt to catapult China into Communist abundance in the late 1950s, changed his view of what extreme hunger could lead to people doing. .
“It was nobody’s exaggeration, it was as true as real life, but nobody said it,” Chen said, recalling the despair and hunger caused by Mao’s experiment.
Historians appreciate it 45 million people died over the course of five years.
Now sitting in a restaurant in one of Hong Kong’s most opulent hotels, 93-year-old Chen says she has a warning to the world.
Having lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in China’s recent history, Chen questions the aseptic version that the Communist Party has from its past and fears that it has allowed it to continue to make mistakes with global consequences.
His voice dropped, barely audible over the din of cutlery and diners in the restaurant:
“When things are done in Mao’s spirit, it scares me,” he said, referring to China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.
According to her, her books are meant to add “flesh and blood” to the official party narrative and help readers empathize with the Chinese people, who have suffered under an authoritarian system.
However, their efforts have raised questions about the importance of each other’s voices in telling China’s story.
Chen is one of the dwindling group of living people who have resisted Mao’s worst excesses.
He says he wants to set the record straight.
But her mostly male critics questioned the details of her recollection and accused her of storyteller.
He gladly accepts the interrogation.
Her recent memoir, “The Secret Listener: An Ingenue in Mao’s Court,” was released last year.
The book is the culmination of decades of writing and rewriting his personal story.
She hopes it will help draw attention to places like Hong Kong, her adopted home, where Chinese history is found rewrite again, this time under Xi.
“I know the past quite well and I see it something is coming“, he claims.
Events in Hong Kong prompted Chen to publish his recent memoirs.
Among them were the 2015 kidnappings of several booksellers selling salacious stories about China’s top leader and the massive 2019 pro-democracy protests.
Rewriting middle and high school textbooks in mainland China and Hong Kong sharpened his resolve.
Under Xi, China implemented a sweeping crackdown on Hong Kong that included a comprehensive national security law that went into effect in 2020.
Since then, the city has fallen under a blanket of silence that Chen says he recognizes.
“My current situation is eerily similar to the one I found myself in a few years ago.and more than 60 years old“.
Chen was a privileged child growing up in the metropolis of Shanghai in the 1930s.
He came of age in the early days of the People’s Republic of China, after Mao and the Communist Party took power in 1949.
In 1958, she married Jack Chen, a communist journalist who came from a prominent Chinese-Trinidadian family and had ties to senior party officials such as Zhou Enlai.
Chen worked as a clerk at the Beijing Central Film Office, but she longed to write.
Writing ended up being what jolted her out of her cautious optimism about the party and into a nearly two-decade struggle to get out of China.
In 1955, shortly after Chen entered the Central Film Office, Hu Feng, a well-known Chinese Marxist writer, was arrested for writing a report arguing that literature should enable greater expressiveness.
His words triggered a purge that engulfed Chen’s circle of friends and colleagues, some of whom have been accused of being part of the “counter-revolutionary clique“Hu’s.
Then, unexpectedly, Mao began to accept criticism of the party, urging it to flourish. “One hundred flowers“, a phrase intended to encourage people to speak up and criticize the party’s shortcomings.
Chen felt inspired and started writing.
But before he could finish, Mao began rounding up the critics who had dared to speak out, accusing them of producing “weeds.” poisonous” instead of “fragrant flowers”.
Critics were executed or sent to labor camps for re-education.
Petrified by the possibility that her manuscript revealed “poisonous” thoughts, Chen struck a match.
“I scattered the manuscript as if it were ashes,” he said.
The act would come back to haunt her.
By burning the first draft of his own story, Chen participated in what Orville Schell, a Chinese academic, has called the destruction of historical memory.
Some scholars have questioned whether Chen’s accounts are reliable or whether he exaggerated his access to party officials such as Zhou Yang, who, he said in his memoirs, asked him for advice on how to approach Hu’s case.
“This is one of the dangers of the Communist Party of China’s destruction of historical memory,” said Schell, Arthur Ross, director of the Asia Society’s Center for US-China Relations.
Like others, Chen said, he had to write his memoirs “in a way deprived of all his resources.” except your memory“.
Many of the scenes in Chen’s recollections come from books she and her husband wrote years ago, as well as earlier manuscripts.
Recently, in his small but sunny apartment in southern Hong Kong Island, he found books and old manuscripts stacked on a dining table.
She was holding yellowed copies of her husband’s books, such as “A Year in High Happiness: Life in a Chinese Village During the Cultural Revolution” and “Inside the Cultural Revolution,” about the period of political turmoil when Mao, fearing his revolution tainted by compromise, unleashed the young Red Guards to persecute officials, academics and others.
She also turned to the manuscripts she wrote when she and her husband settled at Cornell University after fleeing China for good in 1971.
“Cold Wind” recounts his family’s experience during the Cultural Revolution.
“Dragon Village,” Chen’s first book, was the basis for the Great Leap Forward chapters in his memoirs.
“That’s why I said it wasn’t down to my memory, and I have my notes because after I went out I took notes,” he said, holding up a brown envelope with one of his manuscripts.
“The Dragon Village” was released in 1980.
Although a work of fiction, it is based on his experiences in a village in 1960, during theThe Great Leap Forward.
Fearing suspicion during the anti-Hu purge, Chen volunteered to go to the countryside to help with land reform.
There he discovered that Mao’s previous experiment with collectivization had been a disaster.
Crops had been destroyed and wooded areas replaced with tree stumps.
The land, he wrote, was like “a dilapidated cemetery where human remains had been dug up and displayed.”
It became clear to him that any success in land reform was an illusion when he encountered emaciated villagers with stories of relatives who had starved to death.
However, instead of reporting the actual number of depleted crops, she and other villagers set up a Potemkin cornfield for Party officials to keep the mirage of an abundant harvest.
Scenes like these from “The Secret Listener,” his latest book, sometimes feel like a movie script, with detailed dialogue between characters, a method he says he used to make the story more engaging.
In the late 1960s, the fury of the young Red Guard vigilantes prompted Chen and her husband to send their young son to live with his grandmother in Shanghai.
At one point, Chen’s husband was punished for being an elite, given a new job as a toilet cleaner and banned in a slum.
He died in 1995, two decades after the family fled.
In the heartbreaking part of her memoir, Chen describes how she took increasingly desperate steps to get the exit visa she and her husband needed to leave China, their lives threatened as they became embroiled in escalating fighting. politicians.
One by one, government people who could ensure their escape fell into the hands of radical officials.
Chen Yi was an official assigned to help the couple escape.
One day Chen looked up and saw giant billboards with his name on them:
“Break Chen Yi’s head and boil him in oil!”
Eventually, she and her husband were granted visas through her husband’s friendship with Zhou Enlai.
Visas were granted on the condition that Jack Chen promote communism abroad.
Today, Chen’s voice has been drowned out by party historians who gloss over events like the Great Leap Forward and dismiss estimates of tens of millions of dead as “historical nihilism“He wanted to undermine the party.
“They say history is on their side, and that means they are right,” said Chen of the Communist Party of China.
But, he added, “if you know the past and how things were done then, you can better understand what’s going on now.”
c.2023 The New York Times Society
Mark Jones is a world traveler and journalist for News Rebeat. With a curious mind and a love of adventure, Mark brings a unique perspective to the latest global events and provides in-depth and thought-provoking coverage of the world at large.