Light from the darkness

Mourning thousands of Chinese schoolchildren gather to form a heart-shape with "Wenchuan" spelt out in the middle.

Mourning  thousands of Chinese schoolchildren gather to form
a heart-shape with "Wenchuan" spelt out in the middle.

Photo: AFP

Mary-Anne Toy
May 21, 2008

THINGS were looking grim for Beijing's hope of holding a carefree Olympics as a belligerent stand-off between extreme Chinese nationalists and the rest of the world developed after the Tibet protests and the violence-marred torch relay.

The Sichuan earthquake has not only wiped the Tibetan protests from international headlines, it has also brought out a gentler, yet stronger and more confident nationalism among Chinese - a modern version of the Communist slogan "serve the people", whereby people have rallied beyond helping their immediate family and friends, to helping strangers.

The quiet and unflinching heroism of thousands and thousands of rescue workers, police, soldiers and many others moved by the catastrophe has brought a generation unused to the deprivations of the great famines of the 1960s or the depravities of the Cultural Revolution together as no other modern tragedy has.

On Monday night in Chengdu, beneath a large public statue of Mao Zedong, despite the devastating losses people have suffered here and the constant fear of further aftershocks, the atmosphere was low-key and good-humoured. It was showing the best of China.

Circles of people spontaneously formed, chanting patriotic cheers and songs. Zhang Tong, a former doctor who has been volunteering in the quake zone over the past week, was one of those leading the chanting. He was encouraging others to loudly and proudly shout out "Jia you. Zhong Guo, Jia you (Go, China, go)".

The crowd, mostly young, responded by punching their arms in the air. Their voices filled the square. It was genial and gentle, not threatening. People said they felt liberated shouting, and it was a way to give voice to their grief in a positive way. They signed banners and festooned the bushes with garlands of white paper flowers - a sign of mourning. Elsewhere young people were conscientiously scraping melted candle wax from the paving stones.

Asked why he was here, Dr Zhang said: "I am not afraid that such a disaster struck because on the other hand this can be positive because the disaster makes Chinese more united. We never expected such sufferings in this year 2008, but I think in the future we will see a much stronger and more united China."

It has often been said that modern China has been marooned without social and moral values in a post-Mao era. For many people the benefits of socialism - such as a job for life along with health and education guaranteed by the state - were eroded with little to replace them.

Dr Zhang said that until last week he probably thought the same. Those born in the 1970s, like him, regarded the post-1980s generation as "xiang le", indulgent funseekers. As he visited the disaster zones last week he began to change his mind. Many of the volunteers who turned up on their own initiative were young.

"China has a hope," he said.

For those directly affected by the quake - at least 5 million homeless and more than 71,000 dead, missing or critically injured - it will take years, even decades to rebuild their lives. While new towns and villages can be erected, the new sense of solidarity and charity may do far more to help the bereaved.