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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
The Boston Globe’sBig 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.
In what has to be one of the most fascinating lenses through which to observe history and societal change, this short film chronicles recent Chinese history by looking at the different things Chinese people have lined up for over the years. It was posted to the BBC website under the title “China’s History as Told Through Its Unbelievable Queues.” Here’s what the photographer has to say about the queues:
“Times have changed. Lives have changed. The reasons people queue have also changed. We are a huge country — 1.3 billion people — the biggest in the world. There will always be queues here; the reasons will be different. Who knows what we will be queueing for next?”
My most common experience with queues in China was on Sunday mornings, standing in line to get into church. People would begin lining up 30-45 minutes in advance to be sure to get a seat inside the sanctuary as opposed to the overflow room or stools in the courtyard.
And the most amazing queue I saw was on Christmas Eve, 2009, outside Gangwashi Church in Beijing. The church had Christmas Eve services scheduled every hour from 5pm to 11pm. Those wanting to attend had to line up.
When the sanctuary was full, the would close the gates to the church courtyard and those still in line would have to wait until the next service. I talked to one lady in line and asked her how long she’d been waiting.
“An hour and half,” she said happily, despite the bitter cold.
Behind her the queue wound its way down the block and around the corner.
What was most interesting, though, was the police presence — not to prevent people from getting into church, but to make sure everything was safe and orderly so that people could get in.
I just wish the photographer had included church queues in his film.
On May 1, Orthodox Christians around the world celebrated Easter, or Paschal. In Catholicism and Protestantism the date is set according to the Gregorian Calendar, but in the Orthodox faith, it is set according to the Julian Calendar.
In China, this Easter marked the first time in 16 years that an ordained Orthodox priest was able to preside over Easter services, in the city of Harbin, Heilongjiang Province. Here’s how it was reported by the AFP (from The Daily Mail):
His red and gold vestments bathed in candlelight, the first mainland Chinese Orthodox priest ordained for six decades led an Easter service on Sunday — one of the most surprising fruits of warming ties between Moscow and Beijing.
Alexander Yu Shi said prayers in the Church Slavonic language and in Mandarin beside the Church of Holy Protection in the northeastern city of Harbin, surrounded by local worshippers.
“It is a happy day. We are welcoming the resurrection,” he said. “And for the Eastern Orthodox Church in Harbin, it’s also a resurrection.”
The small and elderly Orthodox community -– mostly descended from Chinese and Russians who intermarried in the city’s cosmopolitan heyday a century ago -– lacked a priest for 15 years.
Shi, a soft-spoken former bank manager, is the first ever Chinese to have studied at an Orthodox seminary with backing from China’s avowedly atheist Communist Party.
“With the help of the governments of both countries, I was able to learn theology systematically,” he told AFP in his office, sitting below photographs of himself alongside bearded Russian church luminaries.
Shi, who has Buddhist grandparents, converted while studying business in Moscow in the 1990s. He returned a few years ago to enrol in the St Petersburg theological seminary.
Ordained last year, he led the most important festival in the church’s calendar for the first time.
Shi presided at the altar of a Catholic church opposite his parish since his Holy Protection Church is undergoing state-backed refurbishment.
He led a procession to the scaffolding-clad structure, swinging a thurible of incense and declaring loudly in Chinese: “Christ is risen!”
I was excited to read this article, because I immediately recognized the priest. When Amy and I were on a bell-hunting trip to Harbin in the fall of 2012, we visited the small Orthodox Church there. The Chinese man in charge of the church told us that he was the only Chinese person (from Mainland China) studying to become an Orthodox priest. He was also the one who finally allowed us to go up into the tower to see the ancient Russian bell. You can read all about that in these two blog posts: A Russian Bell in Harbin and Memorial Cookies,
How wonderful to read that this tiny congregation now has a priest!