“China Remembers” – to understand China now, you need to uncover its history

One of our Engage with China Ambassadors, Zhang Lijia, journalist and social commentator, is re-publishing “China Remembers,” a book she co-authored with former China Correspondent for both USA Today & subsequently The Times, Calum MacLeod in 1999. A book like this will not be out of date, even twenty years on. What it captures is the stories of the lives of ordinary people, who lived through unprecedented change and tumultuous times that were the hallmark of China from the 1950s to the end of the last century. Told through a kaleidoscope of eye-witness accounts, including street vendors, rubbish collectors, business people, a Red Guard and a farmer, the true story of what happened in China and how it affected the lives of ordinary people and their hopes for the future, is laid bare.

The authors of the book, quote Chairman Mao as saying that he “likened China to a blank word on which fine words could be written.” I am looking at my original, signed copy now. Mao’s China has certainly changed dramatically in the decades since his death. Sir Edward Heath, former Prime Minister and one who engaged positively with China, added his testimonial to the book, saying, “…the stories compiled here resonate with courage, determination and confidence in a brighter future.” That future has certainly become brighter for hundreds of millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty during recent decades of China’s economic rise. Chinese entrepreneurs, innovators & ground-breaking billionaires like Jack Ma of Alibaba, whilst the exception, are testament to the opportunities and change that have occurred in China and show that socialism there has “Chinese” but also capitalist characteristics.

One way of achieving change was through education and Mao had an aim to build nationwide literacy. Leafing through the book, I look at the story of Zhang Tong, a teacher, who was part of the study school movement to help educate the country from 1949. Back then, only 10% of the population was literate. Credit to the Communist Party for starting to tackle the problem, simplifying the writing system and giving more opportunities to girls. However, at the time of the original publication of Lijia’s book, only 6% of China’s young and middle aged were still illiterate by 1999. I remember travelling in rural Yunnan Province in 1991 and meeting elderly women who could not read or write. According to 2018 statistics, literacy in China stands at 96.8% of those aged 15+ and has grown at over 10% since the 1960s. That’s incredible change in my book.

I encourage you to enjoy reading these human stories including from a former administrator at the Potala Palace, a friend of Comrade Lei Feng and a collector of Mao badges. Through them you will get a rich insight into the complex threads of life and experiences whose legacy inform the tapestry of China’s modern reality. Understanding China’s past will help us to understand its present context. Engage with China is an educational charity committed to removing illiteracy about China in UK schools. We have much to gain and much to learn from knowing China better.

Available now from Amazon Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/China-Remembers-extraordinary-personal-journeys-ebook/dp/B08CNJGF57/ref=sr_1_2

Published by H-J Colston

H-J is Joint CEO of Chopsticks Club and a regular speaker on China. Through training and events, she has been building cultural literacy about China from the boardroom to the classroom since 1993. She designed and delivered a “Doing Business in China” course at Pearson Business School. She was invited to meet President Xi Jinping during his state visit to the UK in 2015 in recognition of her work in building China-UK relations. She has a degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Durham. Find out more at www.chopsticksclub.com and www.engagewithchina.org

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