Monday, April 30, 2012

My Family's History in Context of Chinese History

I think I am overdue to write up a little bit about what I learned while I was in China, about its recent history (and how it all ties with my family's history). Over the years my mother has passed down little bits and pieces of things to me, but during my most recent trip to Beijing, our fabulous tour guide put all the pieces together for me in a way that makes much sense.

China has had thousands of years of turbulent history. One of the causes of instability, but also of the richness of our culture, is that within the traditional borders of the country, there are numerous ethnicities. The most populous of these groups is the Han Chinese, which basically consists of people who look like me. This is over 90% of the country's population, but the country has historically been very diverse -- during our trip to the Great Wall, we passed by a Chinese group (wearing Chinese school clothes) whose students are fair-haired and light-skinned, and whose eyes are green or gray or light brown, with features that could have passed for Western. They were looking at our kids curiously because they had never seen real-life Westerners, but I was looking at them curiously because I had only heard about Chinese people who look like them, but never seen one in real life. In any case, little wonder is it that over the years the different people developed very different dialects and cultural beliefs.

Every few hundred years, there would be a new dynasty in China because one of the ethnicities would rise up against the emperor. When the new dynasties came in, the emperors were usually strong and had firm control of the country, but over the next generations, their heirs would be sloppy rulers and have much weaker control of faraway farmers, eventually overthrown by a new dynasty.

The last dynasty to be ruled by an emperor was the Qing Dynasty. In the 1800s, the Qing Dynasty was prosperous and exported many goods (such as silk, porcelain, and tea) to England. England was trying desperately to find something to balance out the trade, but China was self-sufficient, so England found opium as a viable export. This got everyone in China addicted, including the emperor. At some point there were well over 1000 tons of opium being exported to China per year. When the Chinese authorities began to seize and crack down on the trade, the British soldiers invaded, marking the beginning of the Opium Wars. In the 1840s, following the first Opium War, the Chinese government ceded Hong Kong to England, and Shanghai became jointly ruled by foreign forces and Chinese authority.

For various reasons, the Qing dynasty became weaker and weaker. When it was finally driven out by the Nationalist Party led by Sun Yat-Sen, the people were very grateful for the revolution. After Sun's death, however, the government again was weakened by his successors. When Japan invaded during WWII, the ruling Chinese government was so preoccupied by worries about the rise of the Communist party that they kept retreating instead of fighting the Japanese. My grandparents retreated (on foot, naturally) as the Japanese forces advanced, and every town they passed by they saw arms and legs in the trees after the bombing from the Japanese. The Nationalist government was so weak that they retreated all the way to Taiwan, where they still rule as the majority party. That was when my grandparents (on both sides) fled to Taiwan. For years, my maternal grandpa despised the Japanese and never bought anything made in Japan. My paternal grandpa worked on the force of the Taiwanese secret police that took people away who were heard speaking against the government. My paternal grandpa had a lonely end to his life, and my mother always said that it could be karma. (Compare this with my maternal grandpa, whose birthday is still annually celebrated in the family about 7 years after his passing.)

Eventually, the Japanese had to retreat as a consequence of Hiroshima. China fell to the rule of the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, who came into popularity because he was a viable alternative to the weak Nationalist government. Under his rule, kids were forced to "struggle" against their parents, which means that the parents were put on public display daily and their children needed to repeat everything their parents had said against the Communist government, following which their parents were publicly punished. Some parents were stoned to death this way. My cousins were forced to do this to their parents, and each night they went home, knelt at the feet of their parents, and cried for forgiveness. The "struggles" severed the ties between two generations and put an end to precious traditional values. My mom says that the reason why Chinese people throw trash everywhere now and have a poor sense of public manners is related to this. During a time when the kids ought to have been learning manners from their parents, they were taught to struggle against their parents. The Communist Party did this in order to ensure that no one could feel safe to speak out against the government, even in the privacy of their own homes. During the early rule of the party there was also rampant poverty. Each family was issued food stamps; even if you had money, you were not allowed to buy extra food, because extra food was simply not available.

As far as current situation in China, I think that Communism has led China to amazing improvements over the years, in a way that is not probable in a free society. I also think that the West can't possibly begin to understand situations in Tibet and Taiwan, without knowing the history that has led up to the way things are now. Yes, the Communist government has flaws, but it is hard to say what the country would have been like without the system that is in place now. 

That's what I understand. I tried to verify most of it via the web, but some of it is passed down via word of mouth through my family. At some point, I hope to be able to pass down what I know to my children, so that they can understand the recent history of China in how it has affected our family. I hope to also remember to tell them that my great-grandma (who was alive when I was a kid; my family has good genes to live until at least our 80s) still had bound feet, and that my paternal grandmother never learned to read because she was raised in an age when education for women was not valued nor common. History is as recent as you will let it be!

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