“I used to assume history and memory would always triumph over temporary aberrations and return to their rightful place,” writes author Yan Lianke in this New York Times op-ed. “It now appears the opposite is true.”
China is winnowing memory out of its people, creating an “amnesic generation,” Yan argues. It’s “state-sponsored amnesia,” a phrase designed to send shivers up one’s spine.
In March 2012 I met Torbjorn Loden, the Swedish professor of Chinese language and culture, in Hong Kong. He told me that while briefly teaching at Hong Kong’s City University he asked the 40 students from China in his class what they knew about the June 4 Incident, the pro-democracy movement that ended in bloodshed in 1989, and if they were familiar with the names Liu Binyan and Fang Lizhi, two prominent democracy advocates of that era. All the students from China looked around at one another, mute and puzzled.
That reminded me of something another teacher told me. She had asked her students from China if they had heard about the death by starvation of 30 to 40 million people during the so-called “three years of natural disasters” in the early 1960s. Her students responded with stunned silence, as if she, a teacher in Hong Kong, was brazenly fabricating history to attack their mother country.
It’s a harrowing read. One imagines, in the not-too-distant future, a council of elders who are the gatekeepers to this country’s history confined to the damp underground vaults, like humpbacked keymasters or retired court eunuchs, above which a light-splotched surface bears the heavy tread of intellectual pygmies gallivanting across rivers of concrete or painted grass, happy to be content, chasing the currency of survival. Mao will still be on the money. Teflon domes overhang. Youngsters laugh through pleated fingers. And slowly, they die underneath, forever.