First Lives

In Chinese blogs, Life histories on April 25, 2010 by chinascribe Tagged: , ,

China’s most popular blogs are about politics, showbiz, stockpicking – but there is also a fair amount of auto/biographical writing. We are told that China had, until very recently, no real auto/biographical traditions, but auto/biography is a massive seller in print and self-narration is very much part of the blogosphere. Crossover here, as academic Cai Tianxin posts a review of his recently published memoir.

Everyone wants to write the history of their childhood Cai Tianxin April 25, 2010 original post

‘Everyone wants to write the history of their childhood’ review of Cai Tianxin, Memories of childhood, published March 2010, by Liao Zhongyuan, Guangzhou, (originally published in Southern Reader南方读书报)

If you classify people by decade, it’s fairly crude division, but there’s no doubt that every decade leaves its mark: not many people now talk about a ‘generation gap’, but it really does exist. So in that sense, if we give Memories of childhood to anyone born in the 1980s or 1990s, to get them to understand the experience of those who grew up from the 1960s, they would feel a tremendous distance – and that’s just what Cai Tianxin had in mind when he wrote the book: ‘I worry that young people today understand very little about the childhoods of their parents’ generation, particularly their experiences during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ – often all they see is the images fabricated or imagined by novelists or film directors.’ Reading [Walter] Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900 in his forties inspired him to write.

Memories of childhood is chronological, and strings together memories of childhood and growing up – but I would prefer to see it as a poet’s collection of essays, and not as a childhood memoir in the simplest sense: you often see that the writer is weaving childhood memories into the awareness of adulthood and experience of the world. His writing seems to follow the rhythm of the songs of his childhood, as if hoping to trace his own psychological development and the echoes of lost rural life. In the ‘Moonlight’ chapter, Cai Tianxin quotes a poem by Borges […] and in the mirror of that memory, Cai explains to us so much of what he experienced so long ago.

So what do we find in Memories of childhood? We find rural images of wells, ferry crossings, markets, ponds; symbols of childhood, paternal authority, the thrilling experience of learning to ride a bike, the impulsive dreams of escape… Cai Tianxin has looked so far behind every word of each heading that the book becomes much more than just a childhood memoir; it is his poetic reflection on today’s world. Now, of course, Cai Tianxin is a mathematician, poet and traveller, and in his Memories of childhood you can see the foundations of all this. His memories of his childhood are detailed and clear with a mathematician’s rigour; his emotions are delicate and poignant, showing a poet’s sensibility; he still keeps the map he drew of his first journey at the age of ten, foreshadowing his later travels.

Memories of childhood spans the years between 1963 and 1978, from the time Cai was born until he went to university at fifteen, and including the entire ‘Cultural Revolution’. We have already read so much about the political concepts behind the ‘Cultural Revolution’. The influence of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ – a political movement of unprecedented scope, reaching every corner of China – was so profound and brutal that even now its shadows remain. In the midst of a movement of this scope, no-one is more than a helpless speck of grit in the machinery of the state. His entire childhood was steeped in the atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution – logically, this should have been a terrible thing, but this is not how Cai sees it: ‘The generation above me had the fullest experience of the ‘Cultural Revolution’, and many of the things that were previously central to their lives were discarded or destroyed; but writers born in the seventies came at the tail end of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and had almost no personal experience of it or of hardship.’ Therefore, the generation that includes writers Su Tong, Yu Hua and Cai Tianxin ‘feel that they had no personal experience of the ‘Cultural Revolution’,’ ‘so, if only in terms of our life experiences, we are a fortunate generation.’ Therefore, although Memories of childhood is distinctively marked throughout by the ‘Cultural Revolution’ years, including the misfortunes of his parents and the rustication of his brother. But to be frank, I felt there was much more to Memories of childhood, in the tenderness that survived those turbulent years; that it was a nostalgic and poignant record of a country boy’s growth to maturity.

Although I wouldn’t agree that anyone born in those years was fortunate, the children of the seventies, eighties and even of the nineties have many reasons to feel that they are lucky, and any generation has its own distinct experiences. What I mean is that, if we all have a certain affection for the times we live through, this is a great thing. But I don’t doubt that the emotions that come out of the book are sincere and natural; I believe that although politics in the end is the macroclimate, and that people are so tiny as to be insignificant, but that it is still possible to pursue happiness. Young people, particularly, who were growing to adulthood then, whose understanding of life was still unformed, and who were sheltered from political ups and downs, may look back after several years to their childhood and really feel little pain over the political treacheries of that time. We see this in Wang Shuo’s Wild beasts, and Jiang Wen’s In the heat of the sun… Conversely, against the backdrop of those magnificent and terrible years, individual, private memories may appear more precious, and do more to enrich our understanding of that time. Here, we should probably return to the words of Su Tong, increasingly frequently quoted, ‘I know that the blood of youth is rich and full of literary meaning; I know how the blood of youth flows in times of chaos and any living creature is affected by this. I know that we all have, somewhere hidden deep within us, a desire to write a history of our childhood. Does that mean that we are beginning to get old?’

Cai Tianxin’s Memories of childhood first appeared in Jiangnan journal as Childhood in the Mao years. Each of the thirty-two chapters has a two-character title, and the chapter length is consistent – this presentation makes for uniformity and ease of reading. But on some topics the depth of Cai’s thinking is not sustained, on others he is less than convincing. And he is not the only writer on this topic, Chen Kaige, too, remembers the experience of growing up during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in Kaige’s childhood, which is filled with sorrowful reflections but also shows a powerful sense of form… when it was first published in Japan under the title My years as a Red Guard – as if the publisher wished to emphasise individual fate against that political backdrop. Whether you have fond or fearful memories of that time… it has already passed.


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