What do you think about when you think of China? One of the oldest civilizations, China today is full of contradictions. It’s a world power that is still ruled by the Communist Party while seeing incredible wealth and even more incredible poverty. You hear about Chinese tourists bringing shame to a nation of one billion people, remember the incredible displays of sheer manpower during the Olympics, and raise an eyebrow regarding most news stories that come out of the Middle Kingdom.
I have a lot of feelings when I think about China, because it does seem to be in a huge transition, and has been since the Communist Party took over. What I feel even weirder about is the fact that much of what I have learned about China’s modern history has been not from my family who lived through it but from white outsiders like reporters and historians, or through my (white) teachers at school. I didn’t know about the Cultural Revolution until high school, and it occurred to me that my grandparents were probably reeducated. (They were.) It’s not something that would just come up in casual conversation with my family. Can you imagine a conversation going:
Hey Dad, was grandpa reeducated in the countryside because he was a judge?
Yes, and most of the friends he made died of starvation, along with millions of other Chinese.
Oh. And did you really kill sparrows during the Great Famine?
Yes, all of us children would pile the bodies of the birds. It wasn’t until later that we learned that eliminating sparrows was allowing worse vermin to destroy crops and worsen the famine.
Not really a conversation that just comes up. But I always wondered about how China became what it is today. What’s the context for all of the growth and suffering that occurs in China today? What is the context for everything I see when I go back to visit my family?