Writer unlocks secrets of Mao's silent generation

Kirsty Needham Deputy Foreign Editor
September 15, 2008

CHINESE national pride exploded across internet blogs and Western television screens this year as the Olympic torch scrapped its way around the globe, with a growing band of defensive and angry Chinese students ushering the way.

The author Xinran Xue, best known for The Good Women Of China, a book of heart-breaking tales gathered from her time as a talkback radio host in Nanjing in the late 1970s and 1980s, says she despaired to watch the scuffles.

But Xue, 50, and now based inLondon, also thinks it may have been a watershed moment for young Chinese. As she embarked on her latest project with a team of 100 university students, recording the oral history of elderly Chinese, she was alarmed to discover how little interest China's worldly teens and twentysomethings showed towards their "stupid" grandparents, whose life experiences under Mao were so removed from their own.

"There is a huge gap in their understanding of each other and their trust of each other. The lack of trust could be very dangerous for China's future," she said in Sydney.

Xue's new book, China Witness, is an attempt to fill the information gap about what happened after 1949, when the Communists came to power.

Xue says she "hated Mao very much" but listening to the often uplifting stories of men and women aged in their 80s and 90s caused her and the students to re-examine some things. She said she realised attacks on China's national pride by foreigners had made these generations stand up. And the parallel rallying point in 2008 was the torch relay, says Xue.

"So many young Chinese I met in London, Paris, Barcelona and many other countries afterwards all told me it was the very first time they [understood] their grandfathers standing together and fighting the Japanese."

She believes this year's tumult - the Olympics, Tibetan uprising and Sichuan earthquake - have made young Chinese more questioning not only of the information the Chinese Government and Chinese press give them, but of what they find from the West on the internet.

Xue thinks it is unfair to China's 1.3 billion people to view the country in purely political terms. But she admits her books are inevitably political, because of the upheavals in Chinese society over the past 100 years.

In one story she investigates how the Communist Party turned the western province of Xinjiang into the "world's biggest prison". Spurred by rumours that 200,000 captured Kuomintang soldiers and 300,000 political prisoners had been sent into the desert to dilute Xinjiang's Muslim population, her research brought her to Shihezi, the first city built by the prisoner army. The subject remains sensitive, and access to the province restricted.

When Xue found her key witness, a teacher, she asked how she had met her husband. "China is people's lives " she says "Even when we talk about political history, that is carried out in daily lives. So this is very much my writing principle."