Climbing Home

Last week one of the hottest stories flying around the inter-webs was about a village perched on top of a mountain in China where the children have to climb an 800-foot cliff to get to and from school at the bottom of the mountain.

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Here’s how The Guardian reported the story:

To attend class, backpack-carrying pupils from Atuler village in Sichuan province must take on an 800-metre rock face, scrambling down rickety ladders and clawing their way over bare rocks as they go.

Images of their terrifying and potentially deadly 90-minute descent went viral on the Chinese internet this week after they were published in a Beijing newspaper.

Numerous media outlets (CNN, The Washington Post) published the photos and excerpts of a video news report report about the village.

But they only show glimpses of the story. The full-length video report can be seen here in its entirety:  (Chinese with English subtitles):

(email readers: go here to see the video)

Reports are that local government officials have been so embarrassed by the domestic and international attention that they have promised to do something:

Uproar over the students’ hair-raising commute brought promises of government action. The region’s Communist party secretary said a steel staircase would be built to connect the deprived hamlet with the outside world while a permanent solution was found.

Jike Jinsong, another official, said authorities did not have sufficient money to build a road between Atuler and the outside world but warned it was also not feasible to relocate the community since its residents would lose their land.

A third local politician has suggested turning the area into a tourist attraction.

The power of face can be amazing.

Image credit: news.163.com

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May 35 Reading

Today is June 4, the 27th anniversary of the military assault on Tiananmen Square to clear it of student protesters. In China it is simply known as “Six Four” (the Chinese way of saying June 4), and it is such a sensitive anniversary that numbers 6 and 4 get censored on the internet. Never mind, though, if anyone really wants to reference it, they just call it Five Thirty-five (or May 35).

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I was not in China that spring, but watched with the rest of the world as the events unfolded on live television. When I returned to China the following year, the aftermath of the event still hung heavy in the air as the people waited to see which direction the Party would take the nation — back to Maoism, or forward with economic reform and development. Between 1989 and 1992, it was not at all clear that China would pursue the course she did.

For those of you wanting to get up to speed on the June 4 movement and events, these books are a great place to start:

Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June, by Harrison E. Salisbury

Tiananmen Diary: 13 Days in June

Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic, by Bettie Bao Lord

Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic

The Tiananmen Papers, by Liang Zhang and Andrew Nathan

The Tiananmen Papers

Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now, by Jan Wong

Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now

The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, by Louisa Lim

The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited

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Image credit: History News Network

Honoring a Family Hero on Memorial Day

In honor of Memorial Day, I am re-publishing this post I wrote about my mom’s cousin, who ferried soldiers to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

I always knew him simply as Cousin Del, even though he was actually my mom’s cousin, not mine. He never married and took care of his mother until her death. After my family moved to Minnesota (in the 1970’s) he would turn up at various family functions. He was a pleasant (but quiet) man, with a witty sense of humor.

After his mother died, he stopped coming to family events and became a bit of a recluse. At first he would take phone calls from his cousins, but in recent years had even stopped doing that. Dropping by his home to say hi was definitely not appreciated. The cousins would occassionally drive by his house to see if the lights were on and the lawn mowed, 2 things that would indicate he was OK.

Cousin Del passed away last fall, and the few remaining relatives and friends gathered at Ft. Snelling National Cemetery last month for an interment ceremony.

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In the last visit my mom, her sister, and a cousin had with him he told them (for the first time ever) that he had been captain of a landing craft on D-Day. All day long he transported soldiers from the ships to the beaches, back and forth, knowing that many of them were disembarking to their deaths, and knowing that he could be shot as well. This would have been his view.

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The recluse cousin, it turns out, was a hero.

Thank you, Cousin Del.

Thanks to all who have served (and are serving).

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50 Years from the Cultural Revolution

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, a political campaign launched by Chairman Mao. The purpose was supposedly to give a new generation the experience of revolution; however, it was actually an outcome of a power struggle between Mao and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

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During the ten years that it lasted (ending with Mao’s death in 1976), the nation was thrown into chaos. Schools and colleges were closed, intellectuals were persecuted, religious activities were banned, and there was little economic activity, much less growth. A cult of personality was built up around Chairman Mao that allowed him to rule as an absolute dictator.

By the time Chairman Mao died, the country was on the brink of economic bankruptcy and the people were emotionally exhausted. Chinese young people who came of age during that time period are sometimes (still) referred to as “the lost generation.”

When I was studying with a professor in Beijing nearly twenty years ago, I was able to get him to talk to me about his experiences as a youth in the city during the Cultural Revolution. I was also seeking some personal insight on how it could have happened.

“Simple,” he said to me.

“Chairman Mao went crazy and we all went with him.”

To many working in China today—a land of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and high- speed trains—the Cultural Revolution may seem like ancient and irrelevant history. That is not the case, however, since the scars left on Chinese society, politics, and individuals remain today.

In China, very little is written or said about the Cultural Revolution because it is still considered a “sensitive topic” to discuss or research. That’s not the case outside of China, however, and this past month has seen a veritable flood of articles examine the the Cultural Revolution and its enduring legacy.

Evan Osnos, writing for The New Yorker in a piece titled “The Cost of the Cultural Revolution, Fifty Years Later,” says this:

In examining the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, the most difficult measurement cannot be quantified so precisely: What effect did the Cultural Revolution have on China’s soul? This is still not a subject that can be openly debated, at least not easily.

On May 3, The New York Times published a Q and A with Rod MacFarquhar, a Harvard scholar of Chinese history and politics, in which he discusses the enduring legacy of the Cultural Revolution today:

However, there is a strong resemblance with the Cultural Revolution in Xi’s anticorruption drive. Mao tried to make the country revolutionary by unleashing the Red Guards. Xi Jinping tries to make the people good, to purify them, by the anticorruption campaign. Both Mao and Xi wish to change the Chinese people.

NPR’s Fresh Air program posted an interview with historian Frank Dikotter in which he discusses newly available archives which reveal the chaos of the decade.

In Shanghai alone, a quarter of a million homes of ordinary people are raided by Red Guards. Much of what is seized is being destroyed. And then, of course, Red Guards attack the very people they believe are opposed to communism, attack them physically. Tens of thousands are hounded out of cities like Shanghai and Beijing in an effort to purify these cities. 

It is my belief that having at least a working knowledge of the Cultural Revolution is important for anyone serving Chinese people today, whether in China or in their home countries.

For those of you who like to learn by listening and or watching, these are your best places to start:

The China History Podcast: The Cultural Revolution (an 8-part series)

This is one of my favorite sources of anything related to Chinese history. Hosted by the indomitable Lazlo Montgomery, and California-based businessman, these podcasts are a great way to soak up history while driving or exercising or doing whatever it is you like to do while listening to podcasts. The 8-part series on The Cultural Revolution is outstanding.

Video: China: A Century of Revolution, 1949-1976 (PBS)

This excellent series produced by PBS traces the upheavals in China from 1911 to the 1990’s. This particular episode looks at the early days of the People’s Republic of China, as well as the Cultural Revolution.

And if you prefer to expand your knowledge base the old-fashioned way, by reading a book, these are the ones I would recommend. Some are historical accounts, and others are memoirs.

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976, by Frank Dikotter

Mao’s Last Revolution, by Roderick MacFarquar

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution, by Ji-Ji Jiang

Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Cheng

The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, by Zhu Xiao-mei

Colors of the Mountain, by Da Chen

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, by Jan Wong

Finally, if you are a Twitter user,  you can track the campaign “in real time” as @GPCR50 live-tweets the Cultural Revolution.

Note: This is a slightly edited version of a post that was first published at ChinaSource on May 9.

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Life in a Nail Neighborhood

Perhaps you have heard of nail houses in China–dwellings whose owners have refused to move in defiance of demolition orders. As Chinese cities continue to expand, they are swallowing up villages and land in the countryside.

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The Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog recently published a photo series documenting a nail neighborhood in Shanghai. In this case it isn’t just one homeowner that has refused to move — it’s an entire neighborhood.

Go here to see all of the fascinating pictures.

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