Monday, February 16, 2015

Just trying to understand what happened

I recently finished a really wonderful book, Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present (HarperCollins, 2006). It was recommended to me by a Chinese-American friend (she grew up here, moved to the US when a teenager, and is now working on ancient Chinese literature at a US university and on a Fulbright doctoral fellowship at Fudan for the year) who said it manages better than anyone else she knows to navigate between overly boosterish native and overly critical foreign depictions of contemporary Chinese life. It's also "about us" - scholars and scholarship play a big part - and very eloquently and insightfully written. From the start Hessler makes clear that historians are story-tellers, and that every story buries others. One of his gifts is his honesty in reflecting this, as he narrates his own efforts to make sense of things.

One story which he follows throughout the book (it's narrative journalism; he wound up China correspondent for The New Yorker) involves a famous mid-century scholar of oracle bones (the divination devices which have the oldest Chinese writing on them) and bronzes named Chen Mengjia. Chen killed himself at the start of the Cultural Revolution and Hessler undertakes to try to find out why, speaking to old colleagues, teachers, acquaintances and finally family. Near the end of Hessler's account (which - spoiler - never arrives at the promised land of a final answer), he describes meeting Li Xueqin, a famous archaeologist at Tsinghua University who, it seems, might hold the key - even the smoking gun. Hessler has found a copy of a damning review of Chen's magnum opus by Li in 1957, which ends with a personal denunciation.

Chen has not presented anything substantial enough to match his arrogance. Chen has an extreme tendency to boast. For example, in the twenty chapters of his book, Chen neglects many essays and theories of other scholars, instead collecting only his own ideas.... This self-boasting attitude should not be accepted by us. (386)

But when he confronts Li Xueqin with the article, after Li has given a generic answer to the question whether and how he and Chen knew each other, it gets really interesting.

The professor's gaze settles somewhere between the document and the floor. "This isn't something that we should talk about," he says. "Chen Mengjia was a great man, and I'd rather not discuss these things."
"I'm just trying to understand what happened," I say. "I've seen many criticisms of him, and most of them were much worse. Everyone tells me that it's the way things were at that time. As a foreigner, it's hard for me to understand this kind of thing, so I wanted to ask you about it."
Now the professor realizes why this interview is taking place. But the emotions I expected to see - annoyance, defensiveness, even anger - haven't materialized. If anything, the man just looks tired, the bags sagging heavy beneath his eyes.
"It's not difficult just for foreigners to understand," he says. "It's difficult for young Chinese to understand. At that time, there was a kind of pressure on us to write this sort of thing. The Insitute of Archaeology asked me to write it. I was very young and I couldn't refuse. You'll notice that I avoided saying anything political. I never used the word 'Rightist,' or any of those terms. And I put all of that criticism into a single paragraph, at the end."
He's right: the personal attack is condensed into a space of only five lines.
"I didn't want to do it," the professor continues. "There was no problem with the scholarly points that I made in the other parts of the essay. But the personal criticism was something that I didn't want to write. After that essay was published, I rarely saw Chen Mengjia. But occasionally in the early 1960s, I encountered him at the Institute of Archaeology, and whenever that happened, I didn't feel comfortable speaking to him. I just couldn't hold a conversation, because my heart felt bad. I always regretted that article."
He continues: "I think that people understood. Much later, after he was dead, I still had contact with his friends, and occasionally I saw his wife. None of them ever attacked me. I think they understood what had happened, but I still felt bad. Mei banfa. There was nothing I could do about that."

Mei banfa 没办法 is a term of resignation, a shrug or a sigh.

"It's hard to understand, apart from the fact that it was a horrible period," he says. "By the time the Cultural Revolution happened, if people criticized you, then you truly believed that you were wrong. I was also criticized at that time, and I believed the things the things that people said. Everybody was like that; it was a type of social psychology. There were so many enemies - everyone was an enemy, it seemed." (390-91)

Hessler doesn't tell us whether he thinks Li Xueqin's response sincere. Instead he concludes the chapter this way:

My Tsinghua friend was right - some things are easier for a foreigner. But perhaps they are easier for the wrong reasons. On my way to Tsinghua, I had told myself that it was necessary to take the professor by surprise, because otherwise this detail of the past might disappear. But it would have felt better if the man had become defensive or angry; it was much worse to see the regret. The author of the criticism had been twenty-four years old. (392)

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