Lost Stories

I recently came across a book called Some of Us[i], recommended to me by one of the contributing authors, Dr. Jiang Jin. The book is a collection of memoirs and stories put together by 9 women who lived through China’s Cultural Revolution and subsequently got their Ph.D.s and now are teaching (or in Jiang Jin’s case, was teaching) in the states. What brought them together was a discussion among 3 of them about such Memoirs as Wild Swans and Red Azalea, and the subsequent discovery that these memoirs do not accurately represent their feelings and experiences during the Cultural Revolution. Furthermore, what these memoirs had done was create a specific image of Maoist era people in the West, almost an Orientalizing process, if you will. Everyone was either a victim or a victimizer, and everyone’s families had either been killed, torn apart, or driven to insanity during the Cultural Revolution.

I personally have always loved the book Wild Swans. My high school history teacher made us read it, and it had originally sparked my interest in Chinese history. But is there a problem with teaching books like this in the classroom? Chen Xiaomei points out the problems with teaching Wild Swans, in that she was “unwittingly contributing to a discourse of China bashing occurring in America and the rest of the West.”[ii] Chen then tried to show different points of view by talking about her own childhood, and she claims in her narrative that she was “honestly happy.” I had always taken these kinds of memoirs for granted, and I admit, I am still shocked when Chinese people talk to me about their experiences as zhiqing and how they were truly positive experiences that helped to shape their own personas, unlike the way it is painted in Wild Swans. It also made me think of other historical events and how we imagine everyone to have lived the lives of the few whose lives we read about. Do we think of the Japanese army in such a holistic way in World War II because of the Rape of Nanjing? We probably make similar assessments about American history; even though I know it is not true, I can’t help but think of all Americans in the Great Depression as the Joad family from the Grapes of Wrath. Historians claim to know that their are too many narratives to possibly record, and there are millions of interpretations of one similar event; but how do we effectively, especially in a class, show the plethora of interpretations of one 10 year period?

Another issue that is broached in this book which I find important in the study of history is the concept of being “brainwashed,” and the negative connotations that carried. My favorite line in this book is from Wang Zheng’s memoir. She talked about an encounter with an American woman who told her with “apparent pride that her daughter was a cheerleader.” After discovering what a cheerleader was, Wang claimed “I just hoped that my eyes would not betray my disdain as I thought to myself, ‘I guess this American woman has never dreamed of her daughter being a leader cheered by men.’ I felt fortunate that I was ‘brainwashed’ to want to be a revolutionary instead of a cheerleader.”[iii] I couldn’t help but laugh at this because, as a woman growing up in the United States, I went through this phase of wanting to be a cheerleader which most, if not all, girls go through; and not once did it dawn on me to be a leader being cheered by men. I think that when we use the term “brainwash” we don’t think about our own experiences, and we certainly don’t think that perhaps we have been “brainwashed” as well. We, in America, I think often tend to think of the Maoist era as the “dark ages,” (which this book points out), but many of these memoirs very directly show how gender equality was actually far more advanced in Maoist China than in China (or America) today. In our discussions in a class I audit, Professor Jiang pointed out to us that Chinese women have actually taken a huge step backwards since the 1970s. Similarly, these 9 women show in their memoirs, most obviously in Wang Zheng’s memoir, that gender consciousness was something they didn’t experience until their 20s or 30s, where in America our teenage culture constantly drums it into our heads while still maintaining that women have the same opportunities as men.

As a student just exiting her undergraduate education, I think that more books like these should be taught if only to show the plurality of historical interpretation for a specific event. I came across this book auditing a class called “Women in Chinese history” at East China Normal, and many of the students in the class admitted that before reading this book, they all assumed the Wild Swans narrative worked for all people during the cultural revolution. Furthermore, part of history (I feel) is self exploration, and I think this book challenges a lot of assumptions we make about the contrast between China and the West concerning education, “brain washing,” and women’s rights (I believe most Americans still think that China is 20 years behind us). Since I’m not a professor yet, I can’t decide what to teach, but I found this book an effective means of getting across points that most historians want students to grasp, forcing them to challenge assumptions about historical events, personal experiences, and their own experiences.

[i] Xueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, and Bai Di, Ed. Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001).

[ii] Xiaomei Chen. “From ‘Lighthouse’ to the Northeast Wilderness: Growing Up among the Ordinary Stars,” in Some of Us, ed. Xueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, Bai Di, 55–57.

[iii] Wang Zheng. “Call me Qingnian and not Funü: A Maoist Youth in Retrospect,” in Some of Us, ed. Xueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, and Bai Di, 36.


  1. Welcome to the crew!

    I had a similar problem with Wild Swans; when I realized that the polemic was not accidental, I got tired of trying to teach through it, though I miss the efficiency of having a book cover women over the whole 20th century. I’m now using Ye Weili with Ma Xiaodong, Growing Up In The People’s Republic: Conversations between Two Daughters of China’s Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). It covers much the same ground, it seems, as the Some of us collection, though perhaps not as much, being fairly short. The sense of convulsion and loss is there, but also the sense of family, the way in which people endured, and the relatively positive memories as well.

  2. Hi Gina,

    I really enjoyed this post! It could even be questioned whether memoirs are appropriate to undergraduate history courses for the reasons you state (In my own case, while not in history, I love it and have taken many, many courses and I don’t recall being asigned a memoir– literature yes, memoirs no– for reading till grad school)… Really thought-provoking post!!

  3. I think the good thing about memoirs is that it gives students, especially students with little interest in history, a personal story to attach to. I admit, I really loved Wild Swans simply because I felt attached to the main character. I may be wrong, but I do think that memoirs are an effective tool for getting students interested.

  4. i see memoirs as a gateway drug into a better education of a topic. i’d like to think that most people would be capable of acknowledging that one person’s perspective would not be held by all those involved, but then, i know better. there are pitfalls, but only the same ones to be found in any sort of limited exposure to a subject.

    i like memoirs like i eat up travel journals. it’s a way to get an introduction to things you may have never before knew existed. better that than wikipedia, at any rate.

  5. I love using memoirs as historical texts. Yes, they have a level of subjectivity in them, but that’s true of any primary source: I rarely (never deliberately) present any major primary source in a class without discussing scope, reliability, limits and perspective. In addition to being valuable historiographical exercises, both memoirs and literature (from the time/place under discussion; I never use “historical fiction”) give students a sense of emotional reality and detailed texture of life that is very vivid and effective.

  6. Hi Gina — welcome and thanks for stimulating the discussion.

    If anyone wants to follow up, there are several very smart discussion of this problem

    1) King-fai Tam, “Chinese Diaspora Memoirs in the United States,” in Melvin Ember, Carol R. Ember, and Ian A. Skoggard, ed., Encyclopedia of Diasporas (New York; London:: Kluwer Academic Plenum Publishers, 2004., 2005): 341-347.

    2) Peter Zarrow, “Meanings of China’s Cultural Revolution: Memoirs of Exile,” positions 7.1 (1999): 165-191.

    I agree that using memoirs to introduce students (or your Aunt and Uncle) have problems, but so does using monographs. Memoirs create that famous “teachable moment.”

  7. While it is always good to remember, as Gina puts it, that there “are too many narratives to possibly record,” isn’t is also true that when considering a specific historical period, like the Cultural Revolution, we need to make judgments about what is historically significant? In this case, it is the chaos and turmoil and political tragedy that lends a certain significance. Thus, Wild Swans, whatever the polemical intentions of its authors, may be an useful introduction to that period. Also, just because “China bashing” exists, in various forms at various times, does not mean that we should somehow avoid or dilute the brutal realities of the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, it is those brutal realities that give a book like Some of Us significance: the “honestly happy” stories there are notable precisely because of all of those other very unhappy stories. Our interest in presenting a variety of perspectives should not cloud our judgment about historical significance.

  8. Sam,

    You’re mostly right, and I don’t really regret using Wild Swans in the context that I did use it (along with other more solid sources on Mao, for example); the sources I use now on the Cultural Revolution are fairly unsparing on the CR itself. But pretty much every major textbook written in the last fifteen years covers the CR reasonably honestly (this is impressionistic; not a specific survey), so using a primary source that introduced other experiences and raised other issues than the political wouldn’t necessarily mean avoiding or diluting the necessary discussion of the Great Leap-Cultural Revolution disasters/atrocities.

  9. This discussion reminds of the Jiang Wen’s “In the Heat of the Sun,” about how memories of the Cultural Revolution become confused, and may or may not be actually true. It also makes the CR look rather fun, at least to a 15 year old.
    Regardless, it’s a good break from the usual “To Live”/ “Blue Kite”/ “Farewell My Concubine” films.

  10. A very thoughtful post, Gina. I’m impressed that, at your young age, you could recognize biases and severe limitations resulting from teaching history based on one popular memoir. The problem is not using the memoir genre to teach; the problem is using ONE (so-called representative) memoir to teach. If a teacher can use two memoirs with different, or even opposite, perspectives, I’m sure the students could learn much more.

    “Wild Swans” is an extremely well-written yet an agenda-setting work, at times failing in its honesty, as I commented on Amazon.com several years ago, see http://www.amazon.com/review/R3S4CQK0SQ938L/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm. For people who did not live through the Cultural Revolution as I did, this is difficult, if not impossible, to know. In some sense, it is the severe limitation and biases of books like “Wild Swans” that motivated me to write in English.

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