|The Light of Knowledge: “My luggage consisted of two wooden crates containing my father’s
collection of Chinese classics, which I’d rescued after my house was
ransacked. I couldn’t read them, though — not because they were
forbidden, but because the form of Chinese in which they were written
was too antiquated for me to understand.”|
Image Credit: Melinda Josie; NYT; 2015
Source: NYT Magazine
An article, in The New York Times Magazine—a first-person account by Su Wei, a Chinese novelist, and translated by Austin Woerner—recounts the time in China when reading classical literature, in any language, was forbidden. This was a dark period, during the Cultural Revolution, in China’s recent history.
In “Privy to the Plot,” Su Wei, who teaches Chinese language and literature at Yale says:
Yet the desire for reading and for knowledge is often greater than the means and mechanisms of state censorship and repression, even if the sanctions are harsh; if there is a will, a way will be found to defeat the will of the censors, and some individuals will read what the authorities deem as “objectionable” no matter the reasons the state authorities give for the ban. The human spirit is marked by a high degree of individual freedom to decide for one’s self what is fit and what is worthy to read. This will always be the case, no matter the times or place.The first novel I really fell in love with I rescued from being used as toilet paper.
When I was a teenager, growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution, our reading list was extremely limited. We weren’t allowed to read anything that was “feudalist,” “capitalist” or “revisionist.” That meant all classical Chinese poetry and fiction; all Western literature; all writing from our treacherous rival, the Soviet Union. Nobody told us specifically what we could read. But the ingenious thing about Chairman Mao’s commandments was that when you subtracted all the books that were objectionable — backward, bourgeois, tainted by religious thought, adulterated by wrongheaded Soviet ideas — that cut out pretty much the entire literary legacy of the human race.
I was 15 and had just started to read in earnest when I arrived on Xipei Rubber Plantation in southern China, on the island of Hainan. Like most well-off city kids, I was coming to the countryside to be “re-educated” through agricultural labor. I came voluntarily; with my entire family either scattered or behind bars for political reasons, there wasn’t much left for me in my hometown, Guangzhou. My luggage consisted of two wooden crates containing my father’s collection of Chinese classics, which I’d rescued after my house was ransacked. I couldn’t read them, though — not because they were forbidden, but because the form of Chinese in which they were written was too antiquated for me to understand.
I was a bookish kid with almost no books to read. When my work squad took breaks from watering rubber saplings, I hid in the shade of the rubber trees, out of the pounding tropical heat, and leafed through my dad’s old books. Shrimpy, bespectacled, the youngest kid in the unit — and worst of all, the child of counterrevolutionaries — I was immediately singled out for punishment by the older city boys, those who would have been in high school if the schools hadn’t been closed down. They pried open my boxes, stole my stuff, put water in my kerosene lamp so the oil would explode when I tried to light it, keeping me from reading at night.
For more, go to [NYT Magazine]