Saturday, August 13, 2011

Stories to tell

Our office has been particularly hit by a nasty cold. In our company you get 60% of your daily salary when you are unwell and it's hard to know if this is a good idea. You don't want people to take sickies; but you don't want sick people forcing themselves to work. The current spate of illness could be linked to a colleague who despite quarantining herself in a small demo room most of the time, but the rest of the time having necessary meetings, triggering two people infected, calling in sick on the same day (with scheduled classes, this is a big issue: the classes need to happen so teachers who are on duty that day sometimes have heavy schedules). This continued onto two other teachers, one of which didn't call in sick either, and perhaps that was why I'm sick now. I kept asking him whether he was OK and eventually sent him home early. I faded yesterday and then felt the full weight, in my head, of a nasty headcold this morning and dutifully called in sick. Fortunately I carpetbombed virus with vitamin C and banlangen (a Chinese herbal treatment) from the very first signs. Either way, I was feeling horrible in the morning and feel about 50% better now. An afternoon nap and a good sleep tonight might be enough to put me right.
Sick leave is a pleasant life pause, anyway. DVDs that were lent and gathering dust are playing. The most awaited was the middle segment of a documentary on modern Chinese history. Of course, when I was not hampered in my access to knowledge, I learnt a lot of what happened in the last century in China. But when you are on site in the country, in the city, in the space though not the time, your desire to know is all the keener. When you speak to those of that time, you are all the more thirsty to know.
And so I watched taking a few notes here and there because I like notes. You hear names in general and names, though in history class may remain just names, are the very tip of a human story, a human story that once suckled on a mother, had first love with limited knowledge believed something did something and perished. Throughout history a name could be deleted. Or stained through inclusion. Do something wrong and people will put your name on a board with your crimes, hang it from your neck, with very thin wire that would eventually burst capillaries and veins, while you kneel in front of a jeering crowd, the blood running down the wire and onto the board. While your father and brother look at you from amongst the crowd. In some cultures, names are face. And then we hear numbers, numbing numbers. Numbers, whether the American debt or people dying because a country wanted to make a leap forward, greatly, have no context or means to be interpreted. We just know they're high, far too high.
But when we get down to it, history should be the amalgam of countless stories, yet only a few that get to impress us as "the" story. I heard words from Jiang Kaishek's son (Jiang was the leader of the KMT who fled to Taiwan), I heard people denounced as they had, upon one moment where their tongue loosened or their heart boiled to say something, were beaten and sentenced to jailtime. We also talk to their tormentors, a gentleman admitted candidly that he liked to hit people, to see their pain. Former disillusion red guards. Former landlords. The son's of former landlords. The son's of former landlords talking about their sons, and how they cut their relationship with their sons to avoid them suffering the brunt of an intergenerational hatred.
This particular DVD set is likely to be a copy, made by someone who knew there was money, sold in a shop by people who knew foreigners would buy it. Of course, none of it would ever be allowed to be sold through any legitimate shop, and it would be interesting to know what would happen to a proprietor who allowed it to be sold. Possession would probably just mean confiscation, based on my experience on the border with a Mao book. Confiscation and taking are a big part of history. I went to an ancestral house on a trip to the countryside during spring festival and noticed that there were marks that things had been removed. I asked and heard it was the Red Guards, Mao fanatics, who for a brief time ran amok destroying anything cultural and assaulting anything that was authority. It was a beautiful stone carving of what I don't know.
History, as is well known, is written by the winners. But sometimes both sides prevail and fortunately eyewitnesses survive too. And, of course, as we know in this Michael Moore era (the filmmaker, not the former Labour leader), the documentary you see is the documentary someone has chosen to do, has selectively edited and purposefully edited. What the purpose, criteria for selection, and importantly the transparency of the desire to make such a film are all very important. This documentary leaves egg on everyone's faces, so I hope that it is as fair as possible. But really the egg is just the worst sides of human nature that we all share. We can be partial to sides but history shows the acts that members of both sides are capable of, and looking deeper will hopefully show how we can avoid the excesses of our own selves, rioting, destroying and whatnot.

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