Anyone who has worked in China for even a short period of time has likely been warned about bringing up sensitive topics, especially political issues and certain historical events. There is great wisdom in avoiding these topics. After all, many of our initial perceptions of difficult history and current events are sure to be biased by our own media and education. It is better to observe, listen, and critically evaluate what we think we know with intentionality and in relationship. Our perceptions must be reworked in light of the real experiences of China's people.
But for those who seek to be effective servants and trustworthy partners, addressing the pain and questions around such historical events may eventually be part of the work, especially if one is thinking holistically. How does one even begin to explore such issues amongst the minefields of politics, rhetoric, and national pride? Beyond the subject matter itself is the attitude and context from which we bring our inquiry: something that, as outsiders, ought to be based in humility while also exuding a real care and empathy for the implications of unresolved historical conflicts, including our own.
I am reminded of the time I discussed the nature and impact of the Cultural Revolution with two university students whom I coached in English speaking and debate during my years teaching in China. They had worked hard and advanced to the national tournament in Beijing. Neither had ever spent significant time in the capital. When asked if they'd like to visit Tiananmen Square, one of the two students sheepishly yet sternly declared no interest while the other relaxingly voiced we ought to given the opportunity. We did go and after the customary stroll around the square, we stopped for noodles in a nearby shop. Conversation somehow moved toward Chinese history and perceptions of Mao Zedong (probably because of the big portrait). At some point, one of the students asked me how US Americans perceived Mao.
I could have given a non-answer about the complexity of Mao's character or changed the subject, but I decided my relationship with these two students was strong enough that I could be honest. I told them the average US American saw very little worth praising in Mao for a number of reasons, especially the Cultural Revolution. I crafted my words and explanations respectfully and carefully, but I also did not avoid the worst parts of the time period. As young Chinese college students in the 21st century, they were not completely ignorant of those times, but the details had certainly been withheld from formal education. As I shared my perspective, I noticed my students looked down, avoiding eye contact, yet were clearly interested in what was being said. What their body language communicated to me was an intense sense of shame. As is often referenced, China is a collectivist culture with a huge concern for face. As such, even though they had little to do with that history, it seemed to me they shared a collective unease that such things could have happened to their people, committed by none other than their leadership.
To this day, I am not sure what they already knew or did not know about the Cultural Revolution. What I do know is that a public conversation with a foreign teacher on the subject brought out a serious dissonance, a complex set of emotions wrought of conflicting cultural association and personal soul-searching. The weight on my students' shoulders seemed so heavy; it was as if they themselves had somehow been responsible for that dreadful past.
And that's when I realized that talking about China's dark history alone was not going to do anyone any good. To ease the tension, I shifted to speaking about Zhou Enlai and the positive things he did to manage the chaotic period. I remember this in particular because one of the students seemed comforted by my acknowledgement, telling me he always thought of Zhou Enlai as a better leader than Mao.
But what really changed the atmosphere was when I turned the conversation on myself and the dark moments of American history that have yet to be resolved. As a second generation Chinese-American, I am always stuck in a grey area when speaking on such matters with native Chinese citizens. Having ancestral roots impacted by any number of modern Chinese events allows me some space to share my own story as a means of connecting to theirs. Yet I also carry with me the privileges and wounds of the United States. So I talked about the genocide of Native Americans during American expansion. I spoke of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. I explained the racial conflict U.S. Americans experience even today, that racism did not disappear when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech (which they had studied, of course). I expressed my own dismay at the USA's inability to come to grips with its own sins. I looked down. I slumped my shoulders a bit. I tried to let the heaviness sink in.
While my students did not give much verbal feedback to this second half of the discussion, what it did do was re-frame our conception of painful histories as somewhat shared. No longer was this a scenario where the US American could look arrogantly down at the bruises and scars of the Chinese people. Instead, it was a shared moment where their sense of vulnerability and questioning was reciprocated by some of my own.
What we walked away with was a sense of human sinfulness universal rather than a focus on the particular atrocities of one people or nation. We all have points in our collective histories we are not proud of. We continue to have moments when we know we do not live up to the ideals we profess. Instead of hiding them from one another, I have learned there is a gift in sharing them.
I will always remember that afternoon exchange with my students in Beijing. The conversation taught me the importance of relational trust and humility in addressing sensitive historical topics and the vital role of self-critique in forming the most important of connections: ones that bring us closer to our shared sense of brokenness and the need for grace beyond what we can muster.
Image credit: Joann Pittman
Easten Law is the Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary (OMSC@PTS). His research focuses on lived theology, public life, and religious pluralism in contemporary China. He completed his PhD at Georgetown University, an MDiv at Wesley Theological Seminary, and an MA …View Full Bio
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