Ha Jin: Exiled to English and Xujun Eberlein: Do I Still Love China?

The China Beat has collected and reposted two thoughtful pieces on how the events of Tiananmen Square and the Cultural Revolution has impacted how overseas Chinese think and feel about China.

In his Sunday New York Times op-ed ‘Exiled to English’, Ha Jin explains why he decided to remain in the U.S. and write in English after the Tiananmen crackdown:

I was in the People’s Liberation Army in the 1970s, and we soldiers had always been instructed that our principal task was to serve and protect the people. So when the Chinese military turned on the students in Tiananmen Square, it shocked me so much that for weeks I was in a daze.

[…]After the crackdown, some friends assured me that the Communist Party would admit its mistake within a year. I couldn’t see why they were so optimistic. I also thought it would be foolish to wait passively for historical change. I had to find my own existence, separate from the state power in China.

[…]To some Chinese, my choice of English is a kind of betrayal. But loyalty is a two-way street. I feel I have been betrayed by China, which has suppressed its people and made artistic freedom unavailable. I have tried to write honestly about China and preserve its real history. As a result, most of my work cannot be published in China.

And on her blog Inside-Out China, Chinese-American Xujun Eberlein posts a personal, introspective piece on her cultural, emotional, and political relationship to her homeland:

Now, do I still love China despite all its political problems? This depends on what one means by the term “China.” When I think of China, what comes to mind are familiar shade of trees, fragrance of flowers, shape of landscape, smell of Sichuan cuisine, peculiar expressions of the Chinese language and intimate faces of relatives and friends. Those, I love. I care. Thinking of them makes me emotional. Thus, China is not an abstract concept to me.

This is also to say, I no longer have an abstract love of China, especially when the name means the state. And that’s okay with me. When I was a child, we were taught from the first grade on to “Love the Party, love the people, love the motherland,” as if the three were one thing. I had taken the concept of the three abstract and unconditional “loves” as granted, until the Cultural Revolution and my “insert” into the countryside disillusioned me and made me realize how those abstract concepts compromised individuals. In the early 1980s, there was a popular saying among those who were actively seeking migration abroad: “I love the motherland, but the motherland does not love me.” (This background might also help to understand the grudge in Ha Jin’s aforementioned novel.) I suspect Drifting Leaf’s situation now is quite similar to those people’s then.

Since my youth in the countryside I’ve grown averse to abstract political concepts. Having lived in two opposite countries has taught me many things, one of which is it’s often less wrong to go for the particular rather than the abstract. The world is being destroyed by abstract concepts and exclusive ideologies. But this is the topic of another long post so I won’t keep ranting here, but I, too, would like to cite the Beijing Olympics as an example: I enjoyed very much watching the Olympics, not because it lifted China’s international image, but because the performance was superb. On the other hand, I still hold the opinion that the huge government spending on the Games could have found a better use in improving conditions for the Chinese population still in poverty.


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