First, I apologize for this being such a long post – and I empathize with anyone who reads the whole thing! I have not posted a blog for awhile because I have been doing a lot of thinking and reflection of all our experiences. I think I have finally wrapped my arms around at least a little bit of our experiences now so I can blog with at least some wisdom.
Professor Ting is a friend of ours – Bill met him on one of his first trips to China, and their friendship has strengthened over time. Professor Ting teaches in the school of public health at Zhejiang University and his research focuses on the evaluation of interventions that encourage people in China, especially those employed in health fields and universities, to stop smoking. His current study is building upon multiple studies he has done in the past and is funded by the Bloomberg Foundation. He has shown the effectiveness of culturally-appropriate interventions in helping people quit smoking. We meet with Professor Ting and his graduate students every time we come to China. During this current visit, Professor Ting is the person who organized our visit to Xuzhou. Professor Ting told Bill a story about his childhood that has really stuck with me and has made me piece together quite a bit of information I have learned while we have been in China; I have thought a lot about Professor Ting since hearing this story.
Professor Ting, Bill and I sharing a laugh while we look at our big red sign at Xuzhou Medical Center
During our visit with Professor Ting and his graduate students this past week, the professor took Bill out of our big meeting room to talk. The professor wanted Bill’s help in editing a research paper he is planning to submit to a journal published in English, and he needs help to ensure his paper has the right meaning in its translation. During their private meeting, Professor Ting told Bill a story about his childhood. I am not sure how old Ting is, but I believe he is most likely in his late 50’s or early 60’s. He is a kind and gentle man. His ability to speak English improves every time we meet with him. I don’t always understand what he says, but he is quick to smile and is someone who I really admire. The information about China’s history which I have presented below is based on some things I have read and a lot of what I have heard in the different classes, experiences and conversations I have since I have been here. My interest in piecing all this together was cemented by Professor Ting’s story. Better understanding this part of China’s history really has helped me better understand the Chinese culture.
During China’s “Great Leap Forward” (1958 – 1961), Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 – 1976, created policies in an attempt to modernize China’s economy. Mao’s goal was to create an economy that rivaled the economy of the U.S. by 1988. Mao went out and visited people all over China and decided that the Chinese people were capable of doing anything. So Mao decided to focus on agriculture and industry. Industry was the most important part of his plan, but he knew in order to have a successful industry, people needed to be fed. China was formed into a series of communes. Each commune consisted of about 5000 families who had to give up all their personal possessions; people worked for the communes and not themselves. The communes were encouraged to set up production plants in addition to their farms. Some farms ended up producing huge amounts of steel and other industrial products. The Great Leap Forward initially resulted in a large increase in the production of industrial materials as well as a major increase in agricultural production, such as grain and cotton.
However, in 1959, bad things started to happen in China. Political decisions were not always practical and people in the communes were forced to do things they could not humanly do. Farm machinery that was produced very quickly didn’t always work, and thousands of steel workers were injured due to their long working hours. In addition, the growing season of 1959 was not as good as the season in 1958 due to flooding in some areas and droughts in others. The growing season in 1960 was even worse. The time from 1962 – 1966 is called the Four Hard Years. This is a time of Chinese history where there was great famine. Some estimate during this time that 20 million people died from starvation or starvation-related diseases. It was a very challenging time to live in China.
The Cultural Revolution occurred in China from around 1966 – 1976. Mao knew he was losing power – the Great Leap Forward had not accomplished the goal he had intended, and many had died in the previous four years due to the famines, so he urged the creation of the “Red Guards” to punish communist party officials and anyone else who openly was against him or the communist party. The purpose of the revolution was to get rid of the “Four Olds”: old customs, culture, habits, and ideas. Mao believed this revolution was needed in order to prevent capitalist ideas from moving into China. Students, some as young as elementary-school aged, were the first Red Guards. Eventually they were joined by workers and soldiers. The Red Guards first began to target Buddhist temples, churches and mosques – these buildings were either torn down or converted into other uses. Sacred documents and texts, including works from Confucius, were burned along with religious statues and artwork. Anything that was associated with China’s past was ordered to be destroyed.
When we visited West Lake on our hike with Mara and Taffin, they took us to Lin Feng Mian’s house. He was a famous Chinese artist who lived in the West Lake area. We learned during that visit that Lin Feng Mian studied in France and was one of the most influential contemporary Chinese artists of his time. I really enjoyed his paintings and found them quite beautiful. Unfortunately, he destroyed many of his paintings by flushing them down the toilet in the late 60’s because he was afraid he would be arrested. His fears were realized, and he was one of many political prisoners during this time. Fortunately, he survived this experience and continued painting great works upon his release.
A portrait of Lin Feng Mian, a contemporary influential Chinese artist
In addition to destroying anything religious and a lot of artwork, the Red Guards focused on attacking others with capitalistic thoughts, including teachers, monks, and other educated people. Many times these people ended up dying or being held in reeducation camps for years – I am pretty sure this is what happened to Lin Feng Mian.
By the end of 1968, Mao realized that the Cultural Revolution was not working very well. According to one of our Chinese classes we have had on campus, we learned the Chinese government sent businessmen and other prominent city dwellers at this time into the rural areas and brought rural dwellers into the city. This was an attempt to reduce the negative effects of the Red Guards. Mao’s health began to fail, so he developed the “Gang of Four” which was composed of his wife and three of his best friends. This small group of people controlled much of the media at this time. Several key events happened next – there was a big earthquake and Mao eventually died in 1976. The successor who Mao had selected, Hua Guofeng, ordered the arrest of the Gang of Four, thus ending the Cultural Revolution.
It took China a while to recover from the Cultural Revolution. Schools in China were closed down, so the educational level of its people suffered. The highly educated people had been sent for reeducation or were sent to farms, so there were limited human resources left in the cities to spur economic growth. Confucianism was challenged, and people were not allowed to participate in formalized religion. No one really knows how many people were killed during this time, but it is a time that many people I have talked with have said was a very sad time for China.
With my curiosity peaked about how Chinese people currently feel about Mao and his rule, I spoke with Jing, another one of our friends today about Chairman Mao, the Four Hard Years, and the Cultural Revolution. Jing grew up in Hangzhou; she and her family still live here today. She is close to my age, so she was born during the Cultural Revolution and does not remember a lot about this time in China’s history. She told me that her parents were very well educated. During the late 1960’s, her parents had to stop doing their research every now and then to work in the fields. They were in the fields the most during harvest times. She does not remember anyone in her family starving but her parents still talk about how they had to work on the farms. I asked her what people thought about Chairman Mao and his leadership. Some of the things I have learned about him are not always presented in a very positive light. She said that her parents really respect Mao and all that he did. I then asked her if he was the person ultimately responsible for all this suffering, how could people still think he was a great leader? She responded that he did great things for China, especially in the 1940’s. He helped lead the fight in the 1940′s to free China from Japanese rule. He also helped to improve literacy and increased access to health care after the war. He tried hard to minimize the difference between the rich and the poor. According to Jing and some of the sources I have read, it was this desire to even out the social classes that was Mao’s ultimate goal during the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately, his efforts were not successful but ultimately he was and still is considered a great leader by some because of the good things he did for China. I am not really sure where I stand on all this yet – but at least I understand the Chinese perceptions of General Mao a little bit better now.
Jing preparing a special Hangzhou treat for us at her apartment
All of this brings me back to Professor Ting. During a conversation, Ting told Bill about his childhood. He grew up during this very challenging time in China. He told Bill that he and his family suffered greatly; they had to eat roots to survive because there was very little food. He ended up losing his mother and two siblings to starvation. At some point in his childhood or young adulthood, he was able to join the Chinese army. I have a feeling that this is what saved his life, at least physiologically. I am under the impression that once he joined the army, Ting was able to have a more reliable food source. At some point either during or after his army career, he ended up attending medical school in Xuzhou. Upon graduating from medical school, Ting decided to further his education in public health and he ended up being a professor at Zhejiang University. He is a Christian but being a Christian has not always been easy for him. He has raised an incredibly bright and talented son named Josef, who was Bill’s translator and helped us understand what we were seeing during all our cultural field trips in Xuzhou. Josef is now a doctoral student at Purdue – he is incredibly delightful and intelligent, just like his father. Ting is an excellent and well-respected teacher and researcher – he includes his students in his research and he is doing great things to improve the health of the Chinese population. I never realized everything he had been through to get to this point in his life. I look at him now and am in awe – how did someone with such a difficult childhood end up being where he is today with that infectious smile always on his face? He is a true inspiration.
Professor Ting playing with fish at the lake in Xuzhou and smiling as always!
This is the first time that I had ever heard personal stories that related to the historical events we have learned about since we have been here. Before this moment in time, I simply thought of the Chinese famines and Cultural Revolution as events that happened in the past and never really gave them much thought. I had never heard the human side to this story. So it just never seemed real to me until now. As I reflect upon the history we have learned about China, Jing’s life as a child, and Professor Ting’s story, I have begun to realize at a deeper level the effect that the Cultural Revolution and the time surrounding it has had on the Chinese culture. I wonder now about everyone I meet – how did they or their families survive this time? What all was destroyed and who all was killed or died? If these events had not happened, how would China look today? Would it be different or would it be the same? How many more people would there be in China? I remember when I was little how my mom used to tell me to eat all my dinner because “there were children starving in China.” I better understand now why she would say this and I am thankful that I did not have to live in China during this time. I may not have survived…and I probably should have been grateful my mom gave me Brussels sprouts to eat at dinner instead of refusing to eat them
As our time in Hangzhou is coming to a close, I continue to be aware that the people we meet and the culture we are trying to better understand have been influenced so much by historical events that they could not control. Many of these events are things that I have never experienced before or have truly understood. I want to learn more, experience more, and understand more. My summer Chinese adventure has helped me put together more pieces of the puzzle. This is one of the reasons I enjoy coming to China – the students and I would never understand all this if we simply came to Hangzhou as tourists to see the beautiful historical landmarks. The benefit of being involved in a study abroad program is that I get to see great things while coming to a much deeper understanding of the world around me. I am blessed and hope that other people come to better understand what an incredible nation China is – this experience has truly changed me and how I think about China. It has made me a much better informed and educated teacher, nurse, and person. I better understand China yet at the same time, I realize that I have so much more to learn. I wonder what tomorrow will bring!