Tag Archives: Shenyang

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.


Dreaming different dreams

holmesfieldStudying Chinese at the University of Leeds in the mid-eighties, I found myself immersed in the wonderful world of Chinese propaganda. The dictionaries we used had ridiculously political example sentences, our textbooks exhorted us to ‘learn from Lei Feng’ and my vocabulary contained such gems as ‘running dog of the imperialists’ and ‘oppressing the masses’. After a year of intensive language study I spent a year in Shanghai, then returned to the UK for two more years of Modern Chinese Studies; the language, history, literature and politics of the modern Chinese state. One of the features of Chinese political manoeuvring was the frequent purges, falls from grace and miraculous political comebacks, and I was reminded of all this earlier this week, when I read about the purging in North Korea of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek. Apparently he has been purged before, but this recent fall from grace seems to have been particularly public and theatrical. He has been accused of all manner of unspeakable behaviour:

“Jang pretended to uphold the party and leader but was engrossed in such factional acts as dreaming different dreams and involving himself in double-dealing behind the scene. Prompted by his politically-motivated ambition, he tried to increase his force and build his base for realising it by implanting those who had been punished for their serious wrongs in the past period into ranks of officials of departments of the party central committee and units under them. Affected by the capitalist way of living, Jang committed irregularities and corruption and led a dissolute and depraved life. By abusing his power, he was engrossed in irregularities and corruption, had improper relations with several women and was wined and dined at back parlours of deluxe restaurants. Ideologically sick and extremely idle and easy-going, he used drugs and squandered foreign currency at casinos while he was receiving medical treatment in a foreign country under the care of the party.”

He’s clearly been a busy and apparently very naughty man. I know it sounds completely over-the-top and ridiculous, but I also find it rather delicious. I feel quite nostalgic for my student days, when this kind of language was just another day in the classroom, just another example sentence in my dictionary. One phrase stood out though, three words, the title of this blog post, something that seemed to me to be a good thing, something to strive for, unless you live in the Orwellian state that is North Korea.

‘Dreaming different dreams’ – now why would that be wrong? As a teacher I am inspired by my students’ dreams, I find joy in the successes and achievements of my friends, I feel awe at the resilience and determination of the seemingly ordinary people I meet. In the days, weeks and months after the 3/11 earthquake in 2011 I was inspired by the resilience of the Japanese people, and in more than twenty years in Japan I have yet to meet the stereotypical Japanese person. There’s always something remarkable, something unusual, something unexpected.

My grandfather was born in the white house you can see in the distance on the right in the picture at the top of this post. He was the giant of our family, a man who didn’t have much education, but someone who worked hard, took care of the people he loved, faced down his fears if he could achieve something for his family, and became a managing director at a company in Sheffield. He died over twenty years ago, but my mother and I often talk about him, it doesn’t seem so long, and my godmother still remembers his presence and spirit. Though he was born one of three children in a poor family on the outskirts of Sheffield, he dreamt different dreams and achieved so much.

This month we have been doing speaking tests at school, and it is always an opportunity to talk to each girl individually and learn something of their achievements and dreams. Several years ago I spoke to one particularly quiet student who  told me that she regularly went to her local swimming pool to practise diving off a 10-metre-high diving board. Recently I have heard from a couple of students that they are going to study mechanical engineering. Many of them have travelled overseas, lived in other countries, are creative and have done a lot of volunteer work. A lot of them have been to Tohoku to work with survivors there. They are remarkable, their dreams often unusual and unexpected.

Growing up in Sheffield, studying French, Spanish and Latin at school, I realised that I loved and was good at learning languages and decided to do something completely new at university. A degree course in Chinese took me to Shanghai for a year; I travelled to Tibet during Spring Festival and saw amazing sights. I met Ralph Vaugh-Williams’ great niece and danced to the music of the ancient jazz band at the Peace Hotel on the Bund; decades earlier Noel Coward had written Private Lives there.

After graduation I returned to China, this time to Shenyang in Liaoning Province, in the north-east. I went there on the Trans-Siberian railway (in February!) and missed seeing the live pictures of Nelson Mandela’s release because I was somewhere near Lake Baikal at the time. In Shenyang I taught at a teachers’ college less than a year after the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement on June 4th 1989, made friends with Chinese students and personnel at the US consulate. One of my Chinese friends was merciless in her insistence that I practise my Chinese, and her persistence paid off. When we met she was a fearless 16-year-old, everyone’s fixer, she knew how to get things done. Today she is mother to three daughters, lives in Dubai and plays polo.

Is it a bad thing to ‘dream different dreams’? This is one of my favourite quotes:

“I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind. ”  – Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

I love the quote, I love the image. I am me today because of dreams I’ve dreamt, dreams that were different, dreams that seemed quite outlandish or ridiculous to other people. I am me because of the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, the cultures I’ve experienced. When I hear my students speak of their dreams I dream with them, excited about the journeys they will take in their lives. It is a giant cosmic gift, this ability to dream, to imagine, to dare to go places and do things. To look at look at the world around us every day and just feel a tingling, fizzing sense of joy, to find inspiration in anything and everything, it is fate, it is serendipity, it is God’s plan, it is the universe unfolding as it should, it is whatever you feel it is. We all dream different dreams, and that is the most amazing thing of all.

julian shrine candles

June 4th all over again

June 4th 1989. I wonder if you remember where you were that day. I do. It had been a strange few weeks leading up to that day.

On April 15th I had been part of a small group going from Sheffield to London to welcome a delegation from Anshan in Liaoning province in north east China. Anshan and Sheffield were twin towns (sister cities), linked because of the steel and coal industries. I remember waiting outside Sheffield Town Hall with the woman in charge of the city’s relations with its twin towns, listening to sirens. A lot of sirens. We waited for the car that would take us down to London, and we asked ourselves what on earth could be going on that there would be so many emergency vehicles on the roads.

As we made our way down to London we listened to news reports and gradually learnt what had happened at Hillsborough. How so many Liverpool fans had been crushed to death in the stadium. By the time we reached the hotel that evening it was clear that something heartbreakingly awful had happened. There were 96 fatalities and the relatives of those victims are still waiting for the whole story and justice.

The next day we met the six people who had come from Anshan, and then began several days of surreal sight-seeing. I was the interpreter, but I was told not to mention what had happened in Sheffield. We were to tell them just before we got back to the city. We went to Windsor, to Eton, to Stratford-upon-Avon, and in the evenings we watched the news and carried the sadness in our hearts.

As we approached Sheffield I told them what had happened, and explained that the city was in mourning. We hoped they would understand if people seemed subdued. They listened carefully, then asked, ‘How many people did you say had died?’ ’96.’ ‘And they were from another city?’ ‘Yes, they were from Liverpool.’ ‘Only 96 people and not from your city, then . . . ‘ I remember feeling amazed at the cold-hearted calculations.

There was something else on the TV news every day. Something else we were not to mention to our Chinese guests. There were protestors in Tian An Men Square. They had gone there first to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, but like the protestors in Turkey today, it quickly became a bigger movement. The students wanted democracy, and they besieged the Great Hall of the People for weeks. President Gorbachev visited China during that time and could not enter the building from the square because of the on-going protests. It went on for about seven weeks, and then on the night of June 3rd/4th they sent in the soldiers. How many died that night? No one knows. Hundreds? Thousands?

I remember going to church on the 4th and someone asking me what was going on, they thought I might understand it since I had lived in China. After all the optimism, after the occupation of the square for weeks without violence it had all become terrifyingly bloody. I had no answers.

One year later I was living in China, teaching at Shenyang Teachers’ College. It was a strange time. I had gone back as much to improve my Chinese as to teach English, but with the exception of 2 brave young women it was difficult to find Chinese people willing to be friends. I asked if I could get a daily newspaper; I was told it would be arranged, but it never was. My students doubled as the censors of my mail, they knew my news from home before I did and weren’t afraid to tell me so. But quietly, I heard the personal stories of some of the students. How they had all been told to go home in May, do not go to Beijing, do not pass go, but really many had gone, showing their student cards and getting a free ride to the capital.

There had been a small pro-democracy movement on campus; the leader was being held somewhere. He was released and one day appeared at the back of my class, back against the wall, nervous, suffering from eczema, too anxious to talk much. I heard that he had been held for months in solitary confinement, with nothing to do. He had been alone with his thoughts for a very long time. As suddenly as he appeared, he was gone again. I don’t know where he went. He might have dropped out, just gone home to his parents. I hope that’s what happened.

On June 4th 1990, all classes were cancelled. Apparently not because it was the first anniversary of what had happened in Tian An Men Square, but on some pretext. It was a strange, quiet day, made stranger by the entire phone system in the college not working. The people who had told me they had been to Beijing the previous year had no desire to try the experiment again. One day around that time I was in the centre of Shenyang with one of my brave friends and an elderly lady noticed she was of college age and started speaking to her about the events of the previous spring. ‘Are you students going to do something again this year?’ she asked. Of course not.

June 4th, 1989. The Chinese students’ version of the Statue of Liberty held her flame aloft with both hands, I remember a student being interviewed and explaining that she needed more strength to hold up democracy in China. I remember watching the student leaders, in pyjamas, attached to drips, on hunger strike but meeting with the politicians, arguing their case. Their lost cause. In the years since, the leaders from those days have left China, a new generation of activists has emerged. So far, Chinese democracy has not. The economy is booming, but the gap between the urban rich and the poor in the countryside grows wider and wider. The Chinese people I know are hard-working, friendly, truly, you could not find a more loyal friend. They know who they are, they know the history they come from, and they are proud people. Like the people of other countries, they are not well-served by their leaders in many ways.

Twenty-four years ago there was a generation of students who were optimistic, or maybe naive, or both. They thought their leaders would listen, but in the end they didn’t.

incense smokeJune 4th 1989. Never forget what happened that day.