In August a favourite professor, and friend, passed away. His memorial service was held on my old university campus. The service was wonderful and a great testament to his impact as both a educator and as a friend. It also brought back many memories of my time at university studying East Asian Studies. Little did I realize back then how connected my studies of Asian history, culture and language would be to my life as a parent.
The service made me think about my studies and got me pulling old history books off of the book shelf to re-read. My favourites were then, and remain, personal narratives because they bring that human aspect to historical fact. What was it like to live at that time? How did it feel? What did it do to interpersonal relationships and families? Due to the nature of this form of text, most of the texts which I own of this style deal with early Chinese Canadian families on the west coast during the time of exclusion or mainland Chinese nationals during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.
Re-reading these texts as a parent to two girls born in China has given me pause. The stories have taken on a much more personal feel. Now my questions and reflections are no longer about random strangers; the authors of the books who have graciously shared their personal histories. Instead, they are about this group of people whose faces I see reflected in my own children.
My daughter’s birth parents birth likely coincided with the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976). That means that their parents grew up during the Great Leap Forward and resulting famines (1958 – 1961). I am basing these assumptions on the fact that my own parents were born after World War II and Glenn and I in the 1970s. I could be off by a few years but should be reasonably close for the sake of comparison.
Reading about the shortage of food resulting from top down decisions imposed on the general population, such as workers being diverted from the fields to collect and melt steel to fuel economic growth or being told what to plant and when by officials who knew nothing of farming, hurt. Guangxi, Katrine’s birth province, has a mainly agricultural economic base. The famines in her province were widespread and well documented. Think of the vast numbers of deaths which occurred while her birth grandparents were growing up. How many of them watched family members starve? How many of them knew hunger pains themselves? Or were faced with tough choices or inhuman circumstances? How did this shape their characters and choices?
The Cultural Revolution may not have meant mass starvation across the countryside, but it did affect life in both urban and rural centres. Chairman Mao’s little red book became the soul acceptable school text during this period. Cultural relics were destroyed as being anti-revolutionary. The struggle sessions, beatings, fear, persecutions, murders. They help to explain how such things could come to pass – ideological beliefs, self-preservation, human nature. They explain the importance of class background to social standing and security, while also helping to show how transient this too could be. For instance, a Party member would be considered to have a Red background and be a true revolutionary interested in supporting growth for China. However, if said member’s father was a store owner or landowner they would no longer have a spotless background. Instead they could be considered Grey or Black. One’s safety depended on the actions of their immediate and extended family members actions as well as their own.
Had I been born in China, I would have been born two years before the end of the Cultural Revolution. I would likely have been from a Red family given that I come from a blue collar background. My parents would likely have been involved in struggle sessions where co-workers, neighbours or friends were forced to confess their bourgeois tendencies and counter revolutionary ideas and practices. What would it have done to them to witness how the tides change? To see how the net could widen to encompass them should they fail to be active enough in such sessions. No one got to sit out the Cultural Revolution, it simply happened and if you were not careful it could engulf you and those you cared about.
One day my daughters will likely read these books, or similar ones. What will they think? Will they question as I do, the role that this era in history played in shaping the choices of their birth families? Will they see the injustices and suffering as a uniquely Chinese phenomenon or will they be able to reflect on the injustices and suffering in Canadian history and draw some parallels? Me? Right now, I am going to continue to read and question. Perhaps I will turn to some of my old history texts to acquire a perspective of any important social and economic advances during this time. On the other hand, I may simply continue to wonder how these phases of history contributed to the arrival of my daughters in our arms.