Be Young and in China: A Colloquy
By Richard Bernstein
The New York Times
The poem seemed to express an individual yearning, a personal agony only
tenuously related to the pro-democracy slogans recently heard in China.
But Wuer Kaixi, the 21-year old exiled student leader who read his short
verse at a public meeting in lower Manhattan on Wednesday night; said it
reflected the inner life of the student uprising, its wellsprings in alienation
and thwarted idealism. The verse goes:
I pour my heart out to the white cloud,
I, the homeless wanderer.
O, float back to my native land
And drop the tears I shed for my mother.
Mr. Wuer was among several Chinese student leaders, writers, poets and
American scholars at the meeting sponsored by American PEN, the organization
of writers that promotes free expression. The ostensible subject was the
struggle for human rights in China. But many simply spoke of China's contemporary
youth culture, using it to explain the forces that pushed thousands of
young Chinese to risk their lives confronting troops during the recent
upheaval in Beijing.
Several themes emerged. One, discussed by Mr. Wuer and other student leaders,
was that the students who occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing in May and
June were very different from their elders; they are of a generation, influenced
by Western ideas, that is restive under the weight of China's tradition
of obedience and insistent on sexuality and feelings.
The Favorite Word Is No
Mr. Wuer compared traditional Chinese culture and what he called its complete
negation of the individual and patterns of well-defined hierarchical personal
relationships with the emerging youth culture of China, with its stress
on immediacy, sensation and the self.
"In recent years Chinese college students have been rebellious against
all sorts of authority," he said. "The favorite word among the
youth in China is No."
"You might find it strange, but I do not," he said, "that
one aspect of our movement was the student who stood naked on top of a
university building shouting, 'I am what I am.'" But because the preoccupation
with who they are is totally contradictory to the reality of our system,
Mr. Wuer continued, young people are "lost and disoriented." They
seek identity and consolation in part from the songs and poems that Mr.
Wuer described as the cultural accompaniments to the political movement.
Among the most popular songs is one that begins "I am a wolf from
the north" and then describes a kind of lonely wandering through a
desolate land, a wandering full of longing and nostalgia or "that
beautiful prairie" that is, it seems, a land of unfulfilled dreams.
Mr. Wuer said volumes could be written to explain the sensibility behind
the words of that song and why it appealed so strongly to young Chinese.
The image of the wolf, a lonely, isolated creature, is an uncomfortable
one in the context of Chinese culture, with its stress on the family and
the group. The song, which could be heard playing on hundreds of little
tape recorders during the students' two-month occupation of Tiananmen Square,
was an expression, he said, both of the students' despair and of their
idealism. The students found meaning in the image of the lonely wanderer
trapped in a bitter, empty landscape. They dreamed at the same time of
Mr. Wuer's remarks and those of other student leaders now in exile in
this country led a Western participant, Robin Munro, a researcher on China
for Asia Watch, to talk of a "political economy of libido moving from
a primitive to a more advanced stage" among China's young people.
Mr. Munro was speaking of remarks by some student leaders that the experience
of greater sexual freedom was an important part of the democracy movement.
The students gave no details, but they seemed to be describing an element
in Mr. Wuer's notion of increased attention to the self, one not all that
different from the sexual liberation experienced by students in the United
States during the protests of the 1960s.
In the past, Mr. Munro said, the sexual energy of Chinese students had
been channeled by Chairman Mao Zedong into a frenzied, proto-fascist worship
of himself, particularly during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s
and early 70s. This time, he said, the youthful libido found an entirely
different expression, in both a new exaltation of selfhood and in political
outrage at the conservative gerontocracy bent on imposing its values and
its will on its children.
And that, in turn, was related to another issue arising at the colloquium:
whether China's hostility toward greater freedom is embedded in the nation's
traditional culture or whether it is something that comes from 40 years
of Communist rule. Jonathan Spence, a historian of China who teaches at
Yale, enumerated aspects of the Chinese tradition that seemed to explain
the country's modern-day dictatorial nature and the violent suppression
of the democracy movement in June. Specifically he said, there has long
been a tradition of protests by intellectuals against immoral leaders and
an even stronger tradition of repression, all of which was played out in
Beijing this year.
"China has never been able to come up with a concept of a loyal opposition",
he said. "For 3,000 years, the authorities have tried to keep people
from getting together and speaking freely."
A different view was offered by Su Wei, a writer and critic who escaped
from China in June. Mr. Su said that the last 40 years had imposed on China
a "Communist Party culture," which, he said, is similar to the
culture of underground organizations. Each person, he said, has to answer
to the Communist Party, or, more specifically to one of the Communist Party
warlords, since the party itself is divided into factions.
"That's where you get your culture, your identity." Mr Su said. "It's
very similar to the society of the Mafia."
Thus in Mr. Su's view, China's present circumstances are more a product
of this "Communist culture" than they are of tradition. One result
of the Communist culture, he said, has been "the systematic destruction
of the most brilliant in China." The "best and the brightest," those
who show independence of spirit, are crushed, leaving behind "the
most retarded, the most dictatorial, and the most moronic."
Moreover, the methods used by the cultural authorities have given rise
to new and malevolent cultural traditions, Mr. Su said. He identified these
as the tradition of lying, the tradition of threat and the suppression
"This is what we have to fight against", he said. "It is
a culture dominated by the party that has suppressed free thought and is
sustained by lies, by threats and by a requirement to forget."
[From The New York Times, October 7, 1989.
Reprinted with permission.]
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