Salient. Victoria University Students Newspaper. Vol. 38, No. 4, 1975
One Woman and a Revolution—Han Suyin
One Woman and a Revolution—Han Suyin
By any standard Han Suyin is a remarkable person. As the Eurasian daughter of a middle-class Chinese family, as the wife of a general in Chiang Kai-shek's army, as a doctor in Malaya, and now as a novelist, lecturer, and historian, she has witnessed and participated in changes of crucial importance to China and the rest of the world. In her historical and autobiographical books particularly, she has attempted to describe and comprehend her own life in the context of the revolutionary changes which occurred in China from the 19th century onwards. The result is a unique view of Chinese history which, while looking at history in human terms, nevertheless remains objective and factually accurate.
In The Crippled Tree', the first part of her autobiographical/historical trilogy, she has written: "I wanted to write a book about my father and mother and about China, and one day the idea took' shape in action, and then it grew, as such seeds do, sprouting and then straightening into a distant shape, a tree of many branches; and as I too lived through years full of change and revolution, I too had to look back, look homeward, and write about that earth-changing time which took place in our generation.
"It was impossible to isolate either my father or my mother from history itself, the history of their period in China ... We are all products of our time, vulnerable to history. I was born because there had been, in China, a Boxer Rebellion (as the Europeans called it) in 1900, and because of this event, which the Chinese call the Uprising of the Righteous Fists, my Chinese father, instead of becoming a classical scholar, perhaps a Hanling Acamedician, married my Belgian mother. The tree is known by its root. I had to go back to the roots."
It is in her role as historian and lecturer that Han Suyin periodically visits New Zealand, under the auspices of the New Zealand China Society. Below are extracts from her interview with Salient.
Salient: In writing the Crippled Tree you have drawn extensively upon the material written by your relatives and family. These writings deal with the political, social and economic problems of the time as well as with family matters, and they are written in a concise, accurate and interesting way. Is this kind of writing traditional? If so, does there exist a large body of material not yet translated or studied, or has this been destroyed?
Yes, there is a large quantity of these writings, there is an enormous amount of study of historical material going on in China. In 1963 Mao Tsetung launched a suggestion, which was a very good one, of writing what he called putting up the family tree of the proletariat, having the peasants and the workers writing their own histories Why should it only be wealthy families? Why shouldn't the poor families write as well. This is called the Four Histories of China and it took on very well. Usually it is the individual family, then the commune or the factory, and they get into groups and write these histories and then relate them to their political wholeness, so it makes for an enormous amount of primary historical material.
Our trained historians all had attitudes which were Confucian. Before historical material can be used there will have to be historians who come from the working class, who have got this attitude, and can see the past in this context. I tried to do this in the Crippled Tree.
Referring once again to the Crippled Tree, one important theme seems to be the hostility between races; for example, the anti-European actions of Chinese towards your mother when she lived in China. Was this phenomenon unique to the time, or do you think there remain anti-Chinese or anti-European prejudices?
The Chinese are often accused of xenophobia, but there is a reason for it; it's the way they have been treated. I know many people in Europe who have studied the way the Chinese have been treated and they say My God, the way they have been treated they should be shooting every one of us. They don't, they've gotten over it, but it's taken the Revolution to get over it.
Right after Chiang Kai-shek they were as xenophobic as anything. On the one hand they took American money, and on the other they just simply hated the people they took it from. You will find the same thing in many areas of the Third World, this kind of ambivalence, or dependence and hatred. But when independence came, there was no need for these feelings any more. Sore feelings have disappeared against the Japanese although they invaded China and caused thirty million deaths.
But this has to be taught. You can't just leave it as it is because, as I say in my lectures, it isn't when you institute a new system that all the old ideas disappear, just like that. They are still there and anybody dan utilise them to make trouble. But I think that on the whole there are no anti prejudices among the Chinese today. On the contrary, there is a great deal of friendship and curiousity, even with the Americans. I mean the Americans, after 22 years of ill-treating China, went of China and nobody did anything against them.
What were the greatest difficulties experienced by people of your generation in adjusting to the new society?
I think the feeling that suddenly I wasn't a sort of special thing but just one among the many. A feeling of drowning, a terrible agony really, described by Mao in 1942 at the Yenan Forum on Art and Literature, when he said that it was agonisingly difficult for the old type of intellectual to get a really new outlook. It was terribly difficult, there's no doubt about it; anybody who says its easy is just lying. It isn't easy to integrate, not to think of yourself and your class, but to think of the workers and peasants. I have noticed among some people who think they are adjusted, or think they are very radical, that they are not, that they are just talking. This difficulty takes time, it takes willingness, it takes self-awareness, it takes humility.
What differences do you see between the young people you meet in China today and Chinese young people of thirty years ago?
An enormous difference in health, in attitude, in everything. I see my nephews and nieces; they are workers, they don't count on becoming doctors or engineers—maybe they will, maybe they won't. They are interested in doing things. It is an entirely different attitude—what can I render of service wherever I am - that is most refreshing, most creative. It is not a feeling of do-gooder either. It is natural. Very often among young people in Europe they say 'What can I do for China?' I say nothing, they don't need you, and this is the hardest thing you can tell them. They have a feeling that they ought to be needed. It is much better to be there ready when the necesstiy comes, not to project yourself forward as a do-gooder, as a hero. That's the whole difference.
That is true for most young people, not all of course. I know a young man from a landlord family who is very brilliant. He wants to stay in Peking, he just wants a job in Peking. Of course you have those people who think they can get away with it. In China they do persuade them, givepage break
'Girl for sale' - common in Old China them a lot of time to make up their own minds, rather than arbitrarily deal with them. We have that kind, but they are a minority, no more than a few percent.
After liberation, the newly-formed People's Government was forced to change traditional institutions very rapidly, without waiting until social attitudes had changed completely. Twenty-five years later, how extensively have these attitudes changed, and in what direction?
Oh, this is such a large thing. I think that the social relations, the relations of production, have changed, but it is not quite true that they were changed by the People's Government. For instance, the collectivisation of agriculture, the industrial pattern, were changed with the mass of the people.
So you can't say the attitudes have changed; the attitudes were always there but they were suppressed. Now the attitudes were released, I should think that 70% were more than ready for change. Mao said in 1955 that it was the party and the superstructure which were lagging behind the base, that the masses were forward and it was the intellectuals who were lagging behind.
And with the Cultural Revolution the people were ready for decision-making and some people in the party were really starting to be a brake upon them. There comes a time when every state has to decide what to do: to choose between using their anachronistic state laws to break the forward movement, or break the superstructure to allow the forward movement, and the Chinese have chosen every time to break the superstructure. Whereas I am afraid that in many countries of the West the opposite is happening. You know very well that your laws and certain institutions are anachronistic. But they are kept, they are sacred cows. What is being restrained is the creative movement of the people to devise other kinds of law, other kinds of institutions. This is what happened in China and is happening all the time. That is why there will be more Cultural Revolutions.
What obstacles are Chinese women facing while working towards sexual equality? Do you believe that it is easier for women to achieve equality in a socialist society?
I certainly do. I believe that equality is not possible in a society without exploitation. I think that the obstacles that the Chinese women are facing still are engrained attitudes, but they have on their side the fact that the society does not have exploitation. There is not the organised strength to hold them down that would be present in any other society. Actually, from the Cultural Revolution onwards one can say that the main battles are ideological, they are battles of the mind.
So you would say that it is impossible to attain the same kind of equality under the western capitalist system?
I think you can achieve some kind of equality, but so long as you still have exploitation in a system it is not possible to achieve the liberation of woman. The liberation of woman is not directed against man, do you see, it is part of man's liberation.
So women's liberation must be a movement for socialism?
That's right, and that is my point: you cannot liberate yourself, otherwise it becomes a sex war. Why? What has the poor guy really done? After all, he is himself exploited. And this is where I confront the women's liberation movements in your countries with total misunderstanding. They feel this is all a question of sex, as if sexual liberation was the key to all liberation. Well, it is not. It can even become a new exploitation of women under another guise by making women more dependent upon man's sexual approval at all times.
What problems will confront Chinese society when Mao Tsetung dies?
Well, it's not a question of Mao Tsetung dying or not. It is a question of the Chinese Revolution. After all, if you think that everything depends on Mao then the Revolution has already failed because a revolution is not made by one man, for one man or for an elite. It is made for the people, and that is why in China the legacy of Mao Tsetung is millions of successors, not just one. If it is a question of handing over power only then the Chinese Revolution is no better than any king transmitting his crown to an heir. This view is totally wrong. The Chinese Revolution is something which for 25 years has tried to educate one quarter of humanity, and it can only continue, because the only thing that you can transmit is ideas, there is no other legacy.
Did Chinese students return from their studies overseas to fight with the Red Army? Did Chinese return to China after 1949 to live or visit relatives?
Yes, some did. There were brave people and there were some who were not so brave. There were some who were really infected by the propaganda. With some it was cowardice which they tried to inflict upon others: they would go around saying silly things like if I go back I will be shot, which delighted the Americans of course. When I went to America in 1965 a lot of Chinese came to see me surreptitiously, they were scared of being seen coming to see me. They asked me (pant pant) You've been to China? How is it?, and since then many of them have gone back and returned having seen their families and villages. I was told when I went back. Oh! but you will have your head cut off, you'll be shor - you were a wife of a general in Chiang Kai-shek's army. I said I don't think so. I'll go anway, and if they kill me they will kill me. Do you know, people came and televised me on the train because they thought this is the last we see of Han Suyin. I mean it was crazy . . . crazy! Even I came to think Oh my gosh!, am I really making a mistake? Never mind, I'll go.