Rebirth of Reason

Sense of Life

A Writer Who Would Have Been
by Hong Zhang

I learnt to read, in Chinese of course, at age 5. The problem was that at that time, about 1969 and 1970 in the middle of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, there was nothing available for me to read. I remember that I had stretched my neck in order to read pieces of newspapers that were used as wallpaper on the ceilings in our temporary house. I could just read anything that had words on it. Most of what was around was the party propaganda stuff. There were very few children’s books and my parents could only afford to buy even fewer of them.

The summer before I entered the first grade, I stayed in one of my parents’ friend's home for a couple of weeks. There I discovered a big book for gown-ups, “Red Cliff,” a well-known Chinese novel about undercover CCP members and their struggles against Nationalists during the three-year Civil War period (1945-1949). The heroes and heroines were later betrayed by a mole and were arrested and tortured by the Nationalist intelligent agents who were trained by the Americans. In the end they were executed and died a hero’s death. The book was very absorbing and was of a much better literary quality compared with everything around at the time. I devoured this book in a few days and impressed the hell out of my parents’ friends. I was so inspired by this book (and by the overwhelming Party propaganda as well), that all through my childhood I aspired to become a communist martyr when I grew up. 

After that summer, I entered first grade. On the first day of the school, I wrote my first ever essay, a denunciation declaration against a little “anti-revolutionary” boy in my grade, who was condemned the second day in an all-school gathering. I could tell that my teacher was impressed when I voluntarily handed her my page-long essay. Fortunately my article was not used during the meeting, which was the first of many such denunciation and condemnation meetings that I attended during my childhood. At the gathering, the little anti-revolutionary boy was standing stooped on the stage, with his two arms held back by two older kids, and a cardboard labeled, “Down with little anti-revolutionary!” hanging by strings on his neck. He was about 7 years old. This familiar scene had been blocked from my memory for many years, until one day about a year ago when my son was also 7, about the same age as that boy, it suddenly came back to me. The horror of it was so beyond comprehension and the moment I remembered it I couldn’t stop myself from trembling.

So from an early age, I showed some exceptional ability to comprehend words and to express myself well, both verbally and in writing. Most of the things we wrote were of our understandings of Chairman Mao’s quotations, of our thoughts regarding People’s Daily editorials, and diary entries that either showed our ever-present vigilance against potential new people’s enemies, or self-critical introspections that were supposed to make us purer and more revolutionary. I was never encouraged to read or write anything outside school assignments. There were so many incidents of people getting in trouble simply for expressing normal feelingd on certain small things in life. I did not, and could not, express any of these “normal” human emotions, such as delight in the beauty of nature, affection for loved ones, or sorrow for the loss of precious things. These “bourgeois sentiments” were considered dangerous because they could erode our revolutionary resolution.

At my home, my parents owned complete sets of translated selected works of Marx, Engles, Lenin, and Mao (my father majored in philosophy at university), and a few biology text books from my mother that were no longer in use. There was a volume of Mayakovski’s collection of poems, “Odes to Lenin.” And that’s pretty much all we had. The world as I now remember it was an ugly and suffocating one and I was starving spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

Towards mid- and late-1970, especially after 1976, the year Mao died, and the Cultural Revolution officially ended, trickles of new things started to appear and I held on to them desperately like a drowning person coming up for air. At the beginning, it was popular science books. My parents bought a set of popular science series called “A hundred thousands whys.”  The series had many volumes, covering math, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc. Each chapter usually had a title such as “Why it’s harder to boil water on top of a high mountain,” “Why rotating planting corn and linguine enforces the fertility of the field,” “What is the oldest stone arch bridge?” etc. Although many of the chapters started with, “The east wind blows and battle bugle sounds, the state of our great socialist country can’t be stronger!” the basic contents were nevertheless fascinating to me, and I read all the volumes over and over again. Later, we also got Gamov’s “From 1 to infinity” and “Asmov’s Guide to Sciences” series. These were among the first Western books that were translated into Chinese and became available after the Cultural Revolution.

Reading these books at that particularly impressionable age (12 to 13) undoubtedly planted seeds for my later career in science. In my middle school and high school years, more and more translated western literary works became available and I devoured them with the same fever as with my first book. Shakespeare, Pushkin, Balzac, etc.—whatever I could find in the library, I just swallowed them, often without much of real understanding. My favorite author then was Jules Verne. I was absolutely mesmerized by his science fiction/adventure stories.

In 1977, after ten years of sending high school graduates to the countryside to be re-educated by the peasants, China reopened its universities to admit high school graduates based on entrance exam scores instead of official recommendations. My only chance in life immediately became clear—instead of becoming a communist martyr, I could now go to university. There was never the slightest doubt that the subjects that I was going to pursue would be natural sciences. The humanities were way too hazardous for common people to study and practice.

I continued my reading in university. By that time (1980s), China was considerably more open. I had access to many fictions from US or other foreign countries—not only the 18th or 19th century classics but also contemporary best-sellers. I read "Les Miserables," the best literary book ever. I particularly enjoyed Herman Wouk’s "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," Arthur Hailey’s "Moneychangers," "Airport," "Overload," "Wheels" and "Hotel." However, besides the heavy course-load of a biophysics major, I have never written anything again.

I’ve been lucky that I have strong inclination in science and have had so far a successful career. My scientific and professional writings have flourished in the last few years. In a way I now feel much more at home expressing myself in English, the language of my adopted country for the last 16 years, than in my native Chinese. And I think I know why. When my parents visited me here after several years, I was shocked at the way they talk, and at the old vocabularies and phrases they use that are, to me, forever connected to the dark age. They seem to have lost the ability to talk with their own language, after being basted in the CCP regime for all their adult lives. In a sense I never learnt to express many of my feelings and thoughts in Chinese, because I never had them back then.

I know that I am not a writer. I do not have the imagination and it’s impossible for me to make up any thing. I do have a few close friends, who possess much stronger and deeper literary sensibility and much more talent than I, but were forced to enter a natural science profession. Some of them have been languishing in a career they don’t really like and are unable to change it. I also think of my parents’ generation, many of them have forever lost their ability to think on their own and the ability to express any genuine feelings with their own words. For two generations, that of my parents and my own, countless would-be writers had never had a chance. 
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