Chinese General’s Daughter

by Mark English

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Mark English recounts some details of the life, character, beliefs and attitudes of a remarkable woman. Her father was a Chinese general and a colleague of Mao Zedong. As a very small child — during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution — she was sent to the countryside for a time to live with peasants. She was a professional gymnast from the age of seven to the age of fourteen. After a bad fall, she went back to school and built a career in an area of applied science. Her deep knowledge of traditional culture came mainly from her mother (an opera singer) and from her maternal grandmother who had been a concubine in the old China.

19 comments

  1. Fascinating recollections from a very different time and place. This is terrific stuff, and I look forward to what you have coming next. The fact that your voice is such a pleasure to listen to — I could listen to you read the phone book — just makes the interesting content all the more enjoyable.

    Very glad you are doing this. EA is so lucky for its contributors.

    1. Thanks, Dan and others, for the kind words.

      This episode is a one-off. I don’t have memories of or access to anyone else quite like this, I have to say. Also, any further details or elaborations of this particular story would be inappropriate. (Unless, perhaps, “Rose” or someone connected with her happens to get in touch with me.)

      My original idea for Culture and Value was to interview people about their lives and values and say very little myself. And I may get around to this. But, for reasons I won’t go into now, this will not happen in the immediate future.

      For the time being, I intend to keep the podcast going with occasional discursive or essay-like monologues, opinion pieces, etc.. Content-wise the project may not work out but I am enjoying the experiment so far.

      And, by the way, I think it would be good if EA could (as Alan Tapper suggested a couple of weeks ago) host some serious discussions on the China question, on how the US and its allies should respond to a more geopolitically assertive China.

      1. I agree with Dan’s comment.

        As to the “China question,” I’ll only remark that, while I am no expert in Asian matters, I know enough to be aware that most Americans’ understanding of any cultural, social, economic or political issues in the Pacific Rim is appallingly anemic; for many simply non-existent. Because of this, many mistakes have been made, and its unclear how to have a meaningful public discussion of alternative approaches to such issues that doesn’t quickly lapse into blinkered self-interest.

        1. ejwinner

          Thanks.

          And yet Asia and the Pacific are such an important part of American history and culture (stereotypes (Fu Manchu, exoticism) notwithstanding).

          Links with the Philippines, the war in the Pacific, the bombing and occupation of Japan, the unfinished Korean War, Vietnam: these things can’t be forgotten or pushed aside. Many of those military bases etc. are still there.

      2. And, by the way, I think it would be good if EA could (as Alan Tapper suggested a couple of weeks ago) host some serious discussions on the China question, on how the US and its allies should respond to a more geopolitically assertive China.

        Yes. This question is becoming ever more important.

  2. Mark English:
    Great memoir and a tribute to the power of grandparents to transmit culture. It is part of the alienation of modern life that this is so often missing due to divorce.

    1. OMB,
      It is part of the alienation of modern life that this is so often missing due to divorce.

      You have made an important point. In the past the large nuclear family as well as the extended family was a vital source of family anecdotes that transmitted and preserved culture. This loss is amplified by the retreat into the screens of social media, which further reduce and even block anecdotal stories. We are losing something important and in a small way, Mark’s stories are an attempt to retrieve this. Keep it up Mark!

  3. What a story, and well told, Mark. So many unknowns in it. I wonder whether she heard of “Mao’s Last Dancer”. She must have done so.

    We were lucky in Australia to have had Simon Leys as a guide to Chinese life and politics. I have been re-reading him lately. What a great writer he was.

    Alan

    1. Thanks Alan.

      Li Cunxin was slightly older than “Rose” and came from a very different background. As a Cold War defector, he would not have been approved of in her circle of family and friends.

      Strangely enough (small world), my brother Paul narrated the audio version of “Mao’s Last Dancer” (Li Cunxin’s autobiographical best-seller), the full version and later a version for younger readers. He met with the author as part of his preparations and they had a wide-ranging discussion. (Both versions of the audiobook sold well and the recordings got excellent reviews.)

      I recall you mentioning Simon Leys/Pierre Ryckmans once before. A fascinating character. I see he retired early from his academic job as he became alienated by the changes in universities. It’s no wonder that scholars like him are getting increasingly hard to find.

  4. Mark,
    this is just plain marvellous. I enjoyed it so much. I hope we get many more such accounts from you.
    Interacting on a close level with someone who had been close to the epicentre of Chinese politics is a rare and wonderful opportunity. I envy you.

    It is interesting that you mention her patriotism and support for the system because that is exactly what I found in the case of my interpreter. You also mentioned the underlying Confucian value system. What I observed was that Communism was merely a gloss over the enduring bedrock of Confucianism.

    My interpreter proudly quoted the following words from a patriotic song

    The east is red, the sun is rising.
    From China, appears Mao Zedong.
    He strives for the people’s happiness,
    Hurrah, he is the people’s great saviour!

    Chairman Mao loves the people,
    He is our guide
    to build a new China
    Hurrah, lead us forward!

    My irreverent rejoinder was that the USA lay to the east of China and therefore the song was fundamentally wrong, the east was not red. After the look of shock faded from her face she actually chortled with amusement. This says a lot about the paradoxical attitudes of today’s Chinese towards their recent past.

    Qiu Xiaolong writes detective stories set in Shanghai, centred on the character of Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau. The stories are entertaining and well written. For me their chief merit was the accurate and insightful way they portray Chinese Communist culture. They reflect exactly what I experienced. Recommended.

    1. *What I observed was that Communism was merely a gloss over the enduring bedrock of Confucianism … My interpreter proudly quoted the following words from a patriotic song “The East is Red” … *

      I think this interaction is quite telling.

      Many people in the west appear to me to be looking for some sort of reconnection with or legitimation of traditional culture and values. Be that as it may, for some reason this desire is then projected onto foreign cultures, which, presumably because foreign, are assumed to have retained a stronger grip on their own traditions. I.e., the assumption is that ‘modernity’, and the associated struggle between modernity and tradition, is something unique to western cultures. In the meantime, however, many people in these other cultures have in fact been on the opposite side of this problem, that is, working out how to be modern, not traditional. For a somewhat trite example: The name of the central Chinese news agency, Xinhua, in fact is literally ‘New China’.

      Because it seems there may something universal about this attitude (‘we’ are moderns and individuals, ‘others’ are traditional) to no suprise something of this attitude can be found in China as well. Once, when browsing in the classical music section of a bookstore in Beijing, I was told by a local customer that all western classical music was fundamentally religious in inspiration. To me, a lover of twentieth-century classical music, this observation struck me as bizzare. In fact this idea, that western culture and social organization (including our supposed penchant for individualism) is really ultimately rooted in Christianity (and thus not really modern) is or was something of a common-place in China. This is obviously a debateable idea, but for Chinese intellecuals I think this is simply a way to claim that there is a fundamental continuity between tradition and modernity in the west—exactly the attitude that is projected onto China by us.

      I think that the official party line is also that China, because Communist, is at a more advanced stage of social development than the west, which is still in the previous capitalist stage of social development.

      Your interpreter’s attitude towards the recent past may in fact have been paradoxical, but East or West this is a common struggle.

      1. Paul,
        your insights are fascinating.

        Because it seems there may something universal about this attitude (‘we’ are moderns and individuals, ‘others’ are traditional)

        Not really. The enlightenment, scientific, industrial , democratic and information revolutions took place in Western Europe so there are quite legitimate reasons for believing we are the ‘moderns’.

        However, other societies, quite naturally, have a great deal of difficulty accommodating this belief. Denial, exceptionalism, obfuscation and denigration are some of the ways they cope. The Chinese in particular, find this very hard to swallow because they have such a long history of sophisticated cultural development. From their perspective we are rough, tough, dirty, uncultured, rude, unsophisticated, lacking in manners and values. The great heterogeneity of European appearance simply confirms their opinion. Having lived and worked with them for quite a long time I began to see ourselves in the same way.

        The problem is that we, the Westerners, and they, the Chinese, judge each other by two completely different yardsticks. Our yardstick, which goes by the term, ‘modernism’, is formed by the enlightenment, scientific, industrial , democratic and information revolutions. They, on the other hand, see their long, continuous history of sophisticated cultural development as being the foundational yardstick and they see us as severely lacking in this respect. After all, they maintain, they can quickly and easily master our technological achievements and then surpass us while we wallow in the mire of of decadence.

        Their point is that the weakness induced by cultural decadence will quickly undermine our technological achievements while their deep cultural superiority, newly married to their newfound technological prowess will give them a profound and enduring advantage, since it is built on a lasting cultural bedrock..

        I tend to agree. But one can make quite a good argument that our native proclivity for the hustle, bustle, aggressive rough and tumble of change and innovation will preserve our advantages. Chinese culture tends to preserve order and so is quite weak in this respect.

        1. Peter,

          To be honest, I really think the points above – that only the West is truly modern, while the Chinese are inheritors of a more or less unchanging history of cultural development, and that we judge each other by entirely different yardsticks, are little more than ethnocentric clichés.

          The British anthropologist Jack Goody has written a book ‘The East in the West’ (Cambridge, 1996) wherein he tries to debunk some of these kinds of arguments about Western exceptionalism. I’m not going to summarize the whole book, but he has written a lot concerning the relationship between, for example, family structure and economic advancement, one of his points being that a standard argument that rigid extended family structure hindered independent development of banking and finance in Asia, has no actual basis in fact, and both Western Mediterranean and Indian joint-family companies prospered because of, not despite, the extended family. Thus, the Weberian idea that individualism is the basis of capitalism is historically inaccurate.

          As for science, for much of our Middle Ages, China was actually technologically superior to the west. How could this have happened without some sort of scientific revolution? Not the most recent one, to be sure, but I don’t think it makes sense to talk about ‘the’ scientific revolution, as if science existed only one side of it and not on the other. And In terms of technology, for example, the Chinese had printed books and paper money long before the West, moveable type being invented in 11th century China. It is even possible that western printing techniques were influenced by these Chinese developments, according to some (e.g. T.F. Carter).

          Concerning alleged Chinese sophistication, in my obervation, Chinese can be pretty rough and tough, and unmannered (try getting on a bus or an elevator in China!). It’s all about perspective.

          I hope you don’t mind me being critical, but I spent a lot of time in China over ten years ago, and I simply don’t see much validity in what I think are time-worn contrasts (inhereted from Hegel and Max Weber).

  5. Mark,
    your story nicely illustrates what I call the power of encounter. Life is(or was?) a series of encounters and each encounter has extraordinary power. In these encounters our own personal universe is briefly expanded to encompass a portion of someone else’s personal universe. One can’t help but be changed by such encounters.

    Working against this is the dull, dead, critical and cynical shell of indifference that we tend to surround ourselves with. This shell reduces encounters to token exchanges that leave us uninformed, our biases unchanged and our prejudices recharged.

    The antidote is the power of curiosity. Curiosity scarifies the shell of cynical indifference, opening it up to the power of encounter. Each encounter offers the possibility of rich, life affirming exchanges. The rewards are always unexpected and surprising.

    Mark, the unspoken subtext of your story is the curiosity you showed in Rose’s life story. She would not have opened up to you if you had not shown strong but gentle curiosity about her life experiences. and so this story also tells me something about you and the sense of curiosity that motivates you.

    1. Thanks Peter. You’re right about the importance of being open to the perspectives of others. And this is never a passive thing as we each bring our own cultural background and convictions to the table. Ideally, you get a creative tension.

  6. My only critique of the very pleasurable podcast was that it was too short.

    Sometimes we tend to think of people living under authoritarian governments as not having as interesting and complex lives as ourselves in more open societies. Obviously Rose is representative of a more privileged class but she still exemplifies the commonality of the human condition. We often wonder why a seemingly repressive or cruel, in our eyes, country would actually have people fighting for it in times of war. As Rose so amply exemplifies, the old axiom, as plane as it may be, has the great truth, as discovered by Dorothy, that there’s no place like home.

    As to the current international sociopolitical dynamics of the day and the values and culture of the liberal West juxtaposed to the rising red star of the East, the communist, capitalist hybrid China; there is only one question to ask of our immediate concern. Would Dan’s Electric Agora be allowed free speech and expression in the land of Emperor Xi and the social credit system? How can you have honest dialogue and bridge greater understanding when your interlocutors and respondents guard their tongues?

    They love their homes, they are proud and envious considering their history and high culture, but most apparently see not the water they swim in. Tienanmen Square has come and gone like a figment, when the hearts of men and women were tried and they came to the only realization possiblethat a free soul could come to. that to remain free is to think and act free and not bend the knee to the imperial court. Think we could talk about this with Roses family with the minders lurking about? This is what worries me, not their wealth or power. The satin boot on the souls of men who albeit willingly abet and and are taken advantage of by their own culture’s emphasis on group as opposed to the individualist paradigm. And does anyone seriously consider China would not want to export their idea of neat, uniform and compliant Nirvana to the rest of the world? Mandating strict lock downs is one thing and welding apartment building doors shut is another.

    1. terranbiped

      Thanks.

      “Would Dan’s Electric Agora be allowed free speech and expression in the land of Emperor Xi and the social credit system? How can you have honest dialogue and bridge greater understanding when your interlocutors and respondents guard their tongues?”

      No doubt we still have more individual freedom of expression than China does but social controls of various kinds are being exercised as never before in Western countries.

      “Tienanmen Square has come and gone like a figment, when the hearts of men and women were tried and they came to the only realization possible that a free soul could come to: that to remain free is to think and act free and not bend the knee to the imperial court. Think we could talk about this with Roses family with the minders lurking about?”

      Actually I had an interesting private discussion/argument with Rose about the Tiananmen Square events. She was in Beijing at the time and was pushing back against my understanding of what happened. I think she was wrong but she genuinely believed what she was saying and appealed to what one of her friends had observed. Given that her primary family association was with the PLA, it was not surprising that she took the line she did. Perhaps it was more surprising that she was happy to talk about it and didn’t resent the fact that I expressed some skepticism about her views.

      “And does anyone seriously consider China would not want to export their idea of neat, uniform and compliant Nirvana to the rest of the world? Mandating strict lock downs is one thing and welding apartment building doors shut is another.”

      It concerns me that people are assuming that the Chinese leadership are interested in our internal affairs, in exporting an ideology in the way the old Communists were.

  7. A lovely episode. Thanks. You might be interested in this podcast interview with the classics scholar, Shadi Bartsch, about her book, ‘Plato Goes to China’, where she ‘explores how a non-Western society interprets classic works of Western philosophy, and what that tells us about each culture.’

    https://pca.st/hi6p0b3l

    1. Ira Glazer

      Shadi Bartsch is very appealing in her manner and openness and seems to be grounded and sensible in her views and attitudes. Thanks for the recommendation. She supports the view that classical Chinese culture matters much more to the Chinese than our classics matter to us.

      [Note to editor: The link is to a Pocket Casts podcast. I have been hearing a lot about Pocket Casts lately. Maybe EA could consider adding it to their list of providers if they have not done so already?]

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