Tag Archives: Lu Xun

Long shadows, short memories

 ‘Most of us have short memories. This is not strange, for there is too much suffering in life,          especially in China.’

Incense shadows cropped 3

When I was a 17-year-old secondary school student, thinking about what I wanted to study at university, I decided that I wanted to learn a new and difficult language. I narrowed my choice down to four: Arabic, Russian, Japanese and Chinese. I discounted Arabic immediately; as a woman I couldn’t imagine it would give me a wide range of options. At the time (in 1983) the Soviet Union seemed entrenched and I wondered where Russian studies would take me. I was also discouraged knowing that instead of an academic year abroad it was only possible to go there for three months. Japanese was appealing, and in the early 1980s, with Deng Xiaoping opening China and its economy up it seemed that there was a world of possibilities in East Asia. A year later my exam results were in and I was on my way to study Chinese at the University of Leeds and as part of that, a year as an overseas student at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Shanghai in the autumn of 1985 was not the city you would see today. The shiny futuristic Pudong was still farmland, there were very few cars apart from taxis and official limousines, a lot of old Shanghai still remained. During that year I travelled both with school trips (to Beijing and Kunming) and on my own (to Chengdu, Lhasa and Guangzhou). I got to know Shanghai, I poked around in the dusty corners of the city and when I needed a break I went to the foreigners-only Friendship Store or Jessica’s at the Jinjiang Hotel and bought nutella, croissants and coffee.

After I graduated in 1988 I spent about eighteen months working in the UK, and in February 1990 I returned to China, this time to Shenyang, to teach at a college there, but also to brush up my Chinese. At the time, it felt like I had been away from China for a long time, but looking back today after far more years it doesn’t seem long at all. I am also amazed at my younger self, that less than twelve months after June 4th 1989 I was heading back. Shenyang in 1990 was a lot like Shanghai in 1985-6. Visiting Shanghai later in the year I was struck by how much it had changed already. By 1996 the Oriental Pearl Tower was already open, but looking rather ridiculous and stranded in what was not yet the 21st-century city of today.

In some ways I feel a bit of a fraud writing about China these days, because I haven’t been back in so very long. But China has and will always have a special place in my heart. Even though Japan has been good to me, has been home for over twenty years, China got under my skin first. Hearing Chinese spoken around Tokyo by the many tourists that visit Japan now, it stops me in my tracks, opens up a different part of my heart and my mind, pings me back to those early days at Fudan.

So here I am again, marking June 4th, and this year it’s twenty-five years since the Pro-Democracy movement was crushed on the night of June 3rd and 4th. At the time it didn’t seem possible that the Chinese leadership would manage to hold on to power, that surely something would change. But I also remember in the months after June 4th attending public meetings with Chinese students studying in the UK, with human rights groups, and hearing the students speak of their aims. They wanted democracy. What would that look like? How could it be achieved? There were no answers. It was a dream. A wonderful, shining dream.

Twenty-five years later, the Chinese Communist Party  still has its grip on power. There have been plenty of reports in the last few days about the Chinese human rights activists detained in the run-up to the anniversary, the international news broadcasts blacked out, the Internet search terms blocked. On CNN a reporter went to the campus of Beijing University and asked students if they knew what today’s date signified. They looked mystified, asked if maybe it was a public holiday . . . the reporter expressed his disbelief to the camera. Chinese students these days must be so ill-informed! Do they have no curiosity? How can they not know?

I would say, of course they know. They know at least enough to know not to know. The ill-informed student would spill all kinds of beans to the camera. The savvy student is cautious. They may not know as much as we think they should know, but this generation can find its way round some of the roadblocks China’s leadership sets up in cyberspace. They have smart phones and know how to use social media. They know not to speak to every foreign journalist with a microphone and a video camera. A people that has gone through all the upheavals that China has in the last sixty plus years knows what it takes to protect yourself against the Chinese Big Brother.

China doesn’t have the political freedoms the young people in Tiananmen Square dreamed about, sang about, died for. But while their leaders could slam the door on their demands, it couldn’t (and didn’t want to) slam the door on economic development, and so a lot of Chinese people have some of the freedoms spoken of, yearned for, in 1989, at least in the cities. (The ever-increasing gap between the cities and the countryside is another matter.) People have the money to travel, to buy the technology that connects them with the rest of the world. Not all of it, but quite a lot.

They know that today is not an ordinary day. They will know that their government is keeping the lid on whatever they can today. They may not know as much as we would like them to know, they may not be willing to blurt out their thoughts to a passing journalist, but today is not an ordinary day and I am sure people are aware of that. Chinese people have to develop antennae sensitive to what can be said, and to whom. To not have that awareness could be dangerous. Just because they know not to say everything we want to hear out loud does not mean they are not thinking all of it, and more.

In 1925, Lu Xun wrote:

‘Most of us have short memories. This is not strange, for there is too much suffering in life, especially in China. People with good memories are liable to be crushed to death by the weight of suffering; only those with bad memories, the fittest to survive, can still live happily on.’

To have come through the Great Leap Forward, the famines, the Cultural Revolution, and 1989, to be resilient through it all, a short memory, at least publicly, might just be the best way to get by.


June 4th 1989. Never forget.


Time to be gentle with each other

plum blossom

This morning on the train I annoyed a commuter. I didn’t mean to, and I suspect his day had already started badly by the time he encountered me, but I annoyed him all the same. He was around sixty and wearing a mask, since the hay fever season has started. I am fortunate to not have to face the daily crushed commute, but when I do get on a rush hour train I like to listen to music to block out everything else. Armed with my trusty iPod I squeezed onto the train and turned on some music. He immediately fixed me with an icy stare and I quickly hit stop. He looked away, so I pressed play and his eyes swivelled back to me. Music off again, he looked away. I started to listen again, and this time waited a few seconds. He fixed me with a venomous, beady-eyed stare, he was definitely annoyed with me. I turned the music off and could hear him muttering, ‘urusai’, ‘noisy’ and not wishing to incur any more wrath I stood in silence for the rest of the journey.

Now, I didn’t take out the ear buds, I was not going to surrender so easily, but as I stood music-less in the great crush of people, and looked at all the other commuters happily plugged into their smart phones and iPods I wondered what I had done to upset him so.  Maybe I was the closest noisy person. Maybe I was more easily separated from the crowd because I’m not Japanese. Maybe he had bad hay fever this morning. Maybe he hates his job. Maybe he didn’t enjoy his weekend. Maybe he doesn’t like Monday mornings. I hope I didn’t spoil his whole day.

Living in Japan it’s easy to forget how to roll with the more feisty approach to interaction I encounter in Europe. Here we are aiming for wa, harmony, and the education system inculcates this subjugation of the individual to the group. Students learn to work together, in club activities, for sports days and culture festivals. The individual who, for example, asserts his right to be hissy on a crowded train is not playing by the rules. His safety catch was off and I didn’t know what he might do next.

Standing there wondering what on earth could be going on, listing all the possible stressors, I realised that there is a tiredness in the air. We have had a cold winter and we’re ready for spring. The plum blossoms are blooming, so are the early cherry blossoms, but it’s still cold. For students and teachers it’s almost the end of the school year, bringing tests and grading with it. Tree pollen is already in the air, starting with the most dreaded of all, Japanese cedar, planted widely after the war to counter deforestation and now widely responsible for the itchy misery of millions.

Most of all, tomorrow is March 11th. The 3rd anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the M9 earthquake and the monster tsunami that devastated Tohoku.  I wrote about this last year, and it is frustrating to write that there are still 267,000 people living in temporary housing.


While we all say we have not forgotten about Tohoku, we (collectively) seem remarkably able to live with this fact and more. Of course, we don’t live with the reality. The people of Tohoku do that. On the Japan Times website there is this heartbreaking article about the children of Fukushima, unable to play outside:


and this one, about junior high school students:


So how did I get from an irritated commuter to this? I have been thinking today about a quote from the writing of Lu Xun, a Chinese writer I studied at university. I have been trying to track down the piece where the quote occurs, but so far I’ve had no luck. I think it’s somewhere in Wild Grass or A Call to Arms.

‘My heart is extraordinarily lonely.’

Are we taking care of each other? Do we see individuals in a crowd? Do we really listen to each other, really connect with each other? I am glad I annoyed my fellow commuter this morning, because it made me stand in silence and wonder about what was going on for him. Deprived of my music, the bubble I usually choose to put myself in I stood there and made a list in my head of what could possibly be upsetting him. How often do I do that? Squashed in the middle of the carriage I found myself in fact in a space to think, and it was such a gift.

There is plenty of news in Japan to distract us from the ongoing challenges in Tohoku; the economy, a right-wing government rattling its sabres at South Korea and China over territorial disputes, various members of NHK’s board of governors making outrageous revisionist statements about Japan’s recent history. We can be squashed into a crowded news cycle and not remember what life is like for the people whose lives changed on March 11th, 2011.

We need to make space, for ourselves and other people, even in a vast crowded city like Tokyo. We need to be gentle with each other every day, but as the clock ticks towards midnight and we get ready to mark another anniversary, we need to remember ourselves, three years ago. This evening the lights on Tokyo Tower have been spelling out ‘kizuna’ (絆), chosen as the kanji of the year in 2011 and meaning ‘bonds’. Three years ago there was a feeling that we were all together in the days following the earthquake. One of the most common questions we asked each other was, ‘Were you with other people?’, because I think we recognised that being alone made everything much harder to bear.

‘My heart is extraordinarily lonely.’ Is that how the people of Tohoku feel?