Revisiting China

The World
The World

Along the way, she revisited many of the characters she knew in her youth and her book chronicles the changes which have taken place in China over the past three decades.

LISA MULLINS: I’m Lisa Mullins, and this is The World. When Canadian Jan Wong was a college student in 1972, she had a lot to write about in her diary. For one thing, she was in China. Her grandparents had been born in China. For another thing, she was one of only two Western students at Beijing University ? the first two Western students, in fact, to be allowed to study there in many years. She kept her diaries in three-ring binders. They happened to gather dust for years after that in a box in her mom’s basement in Canada. Then, in 1994, she opened the box, finally. She started reading the diaries, and she was shocked by what she read. She had written about an event that she forgot had ever happened. Jan Wong, what was that event?

JAN WONG: A young stranger at Beijing University asked me for help to go to the US, and I decided to tell my teachers because I thought she was doing the wrong thing.

MULLINS: This was a Chinese woman?

WONG: Yes. She was another student at Beijing University ? a Chinese student. And she thought that because I was from the West, I might help her. And I was definitely pro-China and pro-Cultural Revolution. I knew very little about the country, and I just told my teacher I thought it would be all right. Didn’t mean very much to me at the time. It wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t think anything serious would happen, and I completely forgot about it.

MULLINS: What did happen?

WONG: When I went back to try to find her, I learned that she had been expelled from University and her whole life fell apart. This I didn’t know until much later. She became a political pariah. And she wasn’t even allowed to tell anybody what had happened, so everybody assumed she was a slut or she had stolen money. She wasn’t allowed to tell people that she wanted to go to America, so she was shunned by everybody. And at the same time, she had to do this hard labor in a community and live among people who would not even talk to her. And that was her punishment.

MULLINS: So this all shakes you up now — to realize what happened because you snitched on her?

WONG: Yeah.

MULLINS: The reason that as you read your diary that you could write about it back then, in 1970, so blithely was that at the time, you were completely engrossed in the fervor of China’s Cultural Revolution. Remind us what was going on at the time in China.

WONG: Chairman Mao was trying to regain power, and so he used the young people in China, whom he called his ?red guards?, to destroy the existing political infrastructure, in fact, to destroy all the culture of China. That’s why it was called the ?cultural revolution?. So everything was in complete chaos. And I left McGill University at the age of 19 on my summer vacation, and I went to China to try to learn Chinese. I didn’t speak Chinese. I was an ordinary North American kid, but I was very enamored of the Chinese revolution. To me, it seemed like they were on the right path. They were trying to create a new human being, they were trying to create a society of equals, and women were liberated. And I thought this was going to be utopia. I was completely pro-China, although I didn’t understand that I was in a completely controlled experiment. And my roommate was handpicked. Even the women who were put in the special dormitory for me and this other American kid were all handpicked. Our teachers were handpicked, and I didn’t understand that I wasn’t seeing the real China.

MULLINS: But when you were working, for instance, shoveling manure, what were you thinking at the time that that was going to prove?
WONG: I thought it would prove that I could overcome my soft, bourgeois Western self. I wanted to be part of this revolutionary group. I wanted to be worthy of it, and so I tried so hard to do all these things which I completely detest now. I don’t even like to garden. But there I was, working on the farm, trying to push this wheelbarrow full of pig manure ? it was disgusting. But I thought I should do it, because the spirit was ? it wasn’t punishment, it was making yourself a better person. You know, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who have never done hard labor to experience it. I make my children rake leaves and, you know, we have a huge yard and we’re talking 120 bags of leaves every fall. You know? I guess because their mother used to be a former Maoist, they look at me and go, ?Why do I have to do this?? And I go, ?Because it’s good for you.? So in many ways I still think like that.

MULLINS: So at what point in your life did this enthusiasm for Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China, at what point did it give way to a realization things were not as they seemed?

WONG: It was very gradual, because I came there with such hope and such enthusiasm. So every now and then there would be a crack in the facade. And I kept making excuses for them until Tiananmen Square in 1989. I was a journalist there and I watched it. I watched the night the soldiers shot their way into Tiananmen Square, and that was the end. I said, ?Okay. There are no more excuses. That’s it.?

MULLINS: So then fast forward from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to today. You go back to China to a far different Beijing — a far different China. What were the major differences that struck you and what went through your mind about them?

WONG: When I went back, I thought, ?It’s really not the same place.? I could hardly believe that the people that were hauling pig manure with me were now changing their cell phones every six months, and that they really grasped this Western materialism which I had fled in the 1970s, now they wanted it. So my roommate from Beijing University, for instance, had an amazing beautiful house, with marble floors, corian counters on her kitchen, and she lived this life of almost like a suburban desperate housewife. She spent her whole day alone, and she would eat in her fantastic kitchen, but she wouldn’t really cook. She’d just eat frozen dumplings and watch her flat-screen TV. She’d watch soaps. I could not believe that I was in the same country.

MULLINS: So despite that kind of cultural shock, did you feel despondent when you saw that or did you feel like it was progress?

WONG: I had mixed feelings. I felt like, ?Boy, I think I wasted my youth going to China during the Cultural Revolution. What was that all about?? But secondly I felt, ?I’m so glad that people have a better standard of living now.? But I felt mixed. I don’t think they understand that this is not the be all and end all. And you can see in China there’s a real spiritual vacuum because they’ve given up worshiping Chairman Mao, but nothing has replaced it. They’re worshiping Western materialism but I think we know what they don’t know, which is that that’s empty and you need something more in your life than just a Mercedes or a Versace dress. You have to have something that you believe in.

MULLINS: Jan Wong is the author of the book, ?A Comrade Lost and Found.? Very nice to speak with you.

WONG: Thank you very much.

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