The Best China
Yangyang Cheng is a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University, and a member of the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. Born and raised in China, Cheng gained a Bachelor’s in Science from the University of Science and Technology of China’s School for the Gifted Young and, in 2015, she completed a doctorate in Physics at the University of Chicago. Cheng writes a monthly Science and China column for SupChina and her work has also appeared in Foreign Policy and other journals.
The following essay first appeared in ChinaFile on 28 September 2019, a website that has previously published Yangyang Cheng’s work. We are grateful both to the editors of that publication, and to the author, for permission to reprint it as part of our series The Best China. It is also listed as a chapter in the series ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
1 October 2019
Yangyang Cheng in ChinaFile:
- ‘Four Is Forbidden — Finding My Way to the Truth about Tiananmen’, 30 May 2019
- ‘Searching for Home — Peng Ke’s Artificial Landscapes’, 13 September 2019
And, in SupChina:
- ‘Hands That Feed’, 25 September 2019
- ‘Freedom In Dissent’, 28 August 2019
- ‘Communism Is a Faith’, 31 July 2019
- ‘The Highest Exam’, 26 June 2019
- ‘My Science Has No Nationality’, 29 May 2019
- ‘Protesting In The Name Of Science: The Legacy Of China’s May Fourth Movement’, 24 April 2019
- ‘Thicker Than Blood’, 27 March 2019
- ‘The Chinese Scientist and the Foreign Tongue’, 27 February 2019
- ‘For Science, Or The “Motherland”? The Dilemma Facing China’s Brightest Minds’, 30 January 2019
Dear People’s Republic
Dear People’s Republic,
Or should I call you, China?
I am writing to you on the eve of your 70th birthday. 70, what an age. “For a man to live to 70 has been rare since ancient times,” the poet Du Fu wrote in the eighth century. You have outlived many kings and countless men, and you have lasted longer than every other state that has espoused the hammer and sickle. Congratulations must be in order.
I was born a few weeks after you turned 40. We are both October babies, a fact I was so proud of as a child, your child. During a class in elementary school, the teacher showed us a recording of the day of your birth. The audio, raspy with time, still echoes in me as I write, its black-and-white imagery etched in my memory.
“The People’s Central Government of the People’s Republic of China is founded today!” Chairman Mao declared atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, overlooking a sea of red flags and exuberant faces. His portrait hung at the center of the gate, where it remains, next to these words: “Long Live the People’s Republic of China.”
By the end of this October, I will be 30. Confucius said that at age 30, a person should be able to li, versed in etiquette and firm in morals, to stand upright.
I left you over a decade ago for graduate studies in the U.S., where I continue to live and work. Have I learned how to li? Can one ever find solid ground away from her homeland, or should she be condemned to a life of rootlessness?
I am writing to you from a foreign land in a foreign tongue, with a body that used to be inside yours. This is not to be a short message, where a simple “Happy Birthday” would suffice. I am writing to you to rewind time, to shift space, to bridge oceans; to touch the severed cord, and to trace the knotty ties.
What is a passage but steps made of words?
* * *
My family came from Hubei, “north of the lake.” My father grew up just outside of Jingzhou, an ancient city by the middle stretch of the Yangtze River. At a time when your territories had not one ruler but many kings, Jingzhou, or Ying as it was called, was the capital of Chu for over four hundred years, until it fell to the advancing troops of Qin in 278 BC. Qin would go on to defeat all other warring states and establish the first Chinese empire, from whose banner you received your romanized name: Qin, China.
The First Emperor of Qin standardized currency, language, and measures. He buried scholars alive, and ordered the burning of books. How many libraries must be set on fire, how many ideas erased, so an empire can paint a mirage of national unity from the ashes, draw a border around different names and tongues, and call it “all under heaven”?
The brutal reign of Qin was short-lived. Chu fighters played a major role in overthrowing the tyrannical empire, and Chu art and letters contributed significantly to the ensuing Han culture. On the fifth day of the fifth month in the Lunar Calendar, the Chinese people celebrate Duanwu, the Dragon Boat Festival. Legend has it that the date commemorates the Chu nobleman and poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in a branch of the Yangtze after the loss of Jingzhou.
In simplified Chinese, your language, the word for China consists of two characters, zhong, which means central, and guo, which means country. Written as a king inside a square, guo takes shape with a governing authority over a defined territory. Dynasties fall and borders shift: what happens to memories of the old country, when record-keeping is a privilege of the victorious?
By the time my parents met in the late 1980s, they had migrated east to Anhui, where I grew up. I lived with my grandparents in Jingzhou briefly as an infant. I can’t recall it, yet each time people ask me which part of China I came from, I answer, “Jingzhou.” Perhaps it is due to my fondness of the songs of Chu. Perhaps it is out of respect for my elders. Perhaps it is that I never felt at home in Anhui, for conditions in my personal life that I blamed on the place, so I conjure up a beginning before the beginning, a connection to the lost capital by the Yangtze, a romanticized past with kings, warriors, and poets. We all need our origin stories.
Like many Chinese children of my generation, the first popular history book I read was the government-sanctioned Up and Down for Five Thousand Years. A brisk summary of Chinese history from the mythical sage kings to the present day, the thick volume had an image of the Great Wall on its cover. The imposing stone steps and watchtowers were once borders, bony relics of past empires whose bodies you have swallowed.
I never understood the math behind the figure. It felt too perfect: five elements, five fingers on a hand, five vital organs according to traditional Chinese medicine, and five thousand years of glorious civilization. Perhaps you rounded up? You could never lie about your age, or anything else, could you?
I do not recall what prompted the moment in elementary school, when our teacher mentioned that the United States only has a history of some two centuries, compared with your five millennia. The entire class laughed with pride. Meiguo, the beautiful country, was the richest and most powerful of nations, but it was so young, practically juvenile.
I giggled along, a question mark floating in my head that I dared not ask. That evening after dinner, I raised my confusion with my father:
“If China was founded on October 1, 1949, isn’t it younger than the U.S.?”
My father’s answer was brief, his tone unequivocal. He said that China had been China long before there was you; only that with you, “there are no more emperors.”
What does it mean to be a “continuous civilization,” after centuries of fracturing, migration, and conquest? When the last Chinese dynasty crumbled in the face of foreign invasions and internal turmoil, the reformist scholar Liang Qichao notably diagnosed his homeland’s many ills as stemming from a lack of “national consciousness,” where the people were feudal subjects but not modern citizens. The Chinese nation, by its contemporary definition, was created in the early 20th century not out of a self-sufficient perpetuation of cultural heritage, but as a revolutionary necessity to salvage a people.
You were born from the ruins of empire. You are so young, and so old, all at the same time.
* * *
One evening when I was six, I saw on your nightly news jets in the sky, explosions at sea, uniformed men exiting naval vessels and charging the shore, all bearing your insignia. Horrified by the violent imagery, I asked my father if you were at war, and with whom. My father told me not to worry.
“It is not real,” he said. “It is only an exercise.”
“How wasteful!” I exclaimed.
The only life I knew in you was one of material scarcity. My young mind could not comprehend why so much expensive ammunition should be squandered on a fake game of war.
I read from the bottom of the screen, “Taiwan.” I thought the island was just another province of yours, selected for the exercise. It was only decades later when living in the U.S. that I found out the reasons behind your show of force, how a cross-strait crisis unfolded in the months before Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996.
I learned about the Civil War in my middle school history class, the version you would like me to know. You started as an imported ideal, clawing for survival under the corrupt and dictatorial Nationalist government. After the Japanese surrendered at the end of WWII, you fought the Nationalists in what you called the “War of Liberation,” your soldiers the “People’s Liberation Army.”
How many Chinese people opposed you due to political belief, and how many more were simply caught up in the tide of history? Siblings and cousins, parents and children, found themselves split on opposite sides of a merciless conflict; the gulf eventually became a literal body of water, where crossing was forbidden.
I still remember that moment in class, when we turned to the page on the key battles that sealed your victory. The three major military campaigns, named after their locations, were listed in bold. The paragraphs were brief, each concluding with a similar sentence, denoting the number of “enemies annihilated,” including the ones killed, wounded, or who surrendered: four hundred and seventy thousand, five hundred and fifty thousand, five hundred and twenty thousand.
“Weren’t the Nationalists also Chinese?” I whispered to my deskmate, who flashed me an uneasy smile without saying a word. My adolescent self was disturbed by your cold description. You reduced millions of your countrymen to only “the enemy,” their demise a statistic, a badge of honor, a metric of your military prowess guided by ideological superiority.
“Every state is founded on force,” declared Leon Trosky at Brest-Litovsk, as the Marxist revolutionary negotiated the Russian exit from WWI. The Great Helmsman himself would echo it a decade later, that state power is gained “from the barrel of a gun.” I do not dispute your path to power, but is battlefield victory the only condition necessary for political legitimacy?
In the Judgment of Solomon, the wise king was able to identify the imposter, as only the real mother was willing to give up her child to save it from the sword. You often present yourself as a loving, maternal figure to the Chinese people, but so much Chinese blood was spilled as a cost of your crown.
Every Monday morning, my classmates and I stood in the schoolyard and sang your national anthem, “Arise, people who refuse to be slaves! Our flesh and blood shall become the new Great Wall!”
* * *
“Something catastrophic happened in the U.S. last night.”
One September morning, the head teacher interrupted our reading session with this announcement.
A spattering of applause burst out in the classroom. It was before the time of search engines or smart phones, and none of us had heard the news. For the few boys who clapped, the combination of “disaster” and “U.S.” was all they needed to hear. Loud disruption in the classroom was a tantalizing act of minor rebellion, now given license under the pretense of patriotism: You taught us about the “century of humiliation” China suffered at the hands of foreign foes, many of whom continued to wish you harm. If the U.S. was your enemy, its loss must be your gain.
The teacher was stunned. In a stern voice he scolded the boys, who were already looking remorseful.
More information trickled in through the day. The young Chinese teacher described the video she had just seen of the towers collapsing, “They looked like toy houses tumbling down, with all the people in them!” Her voice broke, and the room was quiet.
A collective unease clouded the school in the days that followed. What did it mean to the rest of the world, to you, and to us, when even the U.S., the mightiest of nations, was not safe? Our love for you had always been accompanied by an inferiority complex. Your economy was growing and the infrastructure improving, but you were still a developing country. Life in you, for most of us, was a constant struggle with limited resources and cumbersome bureaucracy.
Every year since kindergarten, there had been a classmate or family friend who moved abroad. We spoke of them and wondered about their new lives, our faces drenched in envy. The best from you would seek to leave you, so it appeared.
I was fortunate to advance through your gruesome education system for a spot at one of your elite universities, where a third of the graduates pursue further education in the U.S. There were weekly “English corners” on campus, where the students mingled with each other and foreign visitors for language practice.
“If you close your eyes and hear me speak, can you tell that I am Chinese?” a freshman asked.
“Your English is great!” said the woman with brown, curly hair. She had just arrived from the U.S.
But fluency was not the confirmation the student was looking for. Did he sound American? Was his accent “authentic,” or did it still carry a hint of Chineseness?
“Well, I can hear a tiny bit of difference . . . but only a little!” but no amount of praise could dispel the extreme disappointment on the young man’s face.
* * *
After Beijing was selected for the 2008 Summer Olympics, thousands of locals, from shop assistants to cab drivers, volunteered to study English. Everyone wanted to make you proud.
The Olympics, to you and the Chinese people, was not simply a sporting event. “The sick man of East Asia,” you said the Western powers used this phrase to denigrate our people at the turn of the 20th century, as their soldiers ravaged our land. But the British were referring to a dying Qing empire; it was the Chinese intellectuals who repurposed the term, using harsh self-criticism to motivate political and social reform. When the strengthening of the individual body was tied to national revival, each gold won by your athletes was one past humiliation avenged. Hosting the game would be your grand unveiling as a global power to be reckoned with.
When the Olympic flame arrived at your capital, I was about to enter my senior year at university. I spent the summer working in a physics lab while preparing my applications to graduate schools in the U.S. As the world marveled at your splendor during the opening ceremony, and the nation cheered you on at the games, I was making plans to leave you.
“You are not watching the Olympics?”
My labmates were surprised as they put up a livestream on the conference room projector.
“No, I am not interested in sports.” I responded.
The one moment from the 2008 games that I made a point to witness in real time was the Jamaican Usain Bolt’s dash to the finish line in the men’s 100-meter sprint. I wrote lavishingly about the race in my diary, how the result broke new ground in pushing the limit of the human body, and brought it up at the dinner table with my mother.
“Which Chinese athlete was in it?” My mother asked.
No, there were no Chinese participants in the final.
“Why would you watch something with no Chinese players?” My mother was slightly indignant.
“Why should the appreciation of athleticism be confined to national loyalty?” I was quick to push back.
It was the last summer I spent in you. When I tried to run away from you, I was also running away from all the personal loss and pain that had happened within you. I had worked so hard for so long to escape the circumstances of my upbringing. The border, your border, was finally in sight.
“You are practically American!” the store assistant said during my first week in Chicago, after patiently helping me navigate the aisles. I took it as a compliment of my English ability.
“You are fully Westernized, aren’t you?” My aunt spoke over the phone on the first Lunar New Year I spent away from you. Her backhanded comment spelled out what my mother would not, that I had abandoned my family because I thought I was better than them.
* * *
A year and a half after I had moved to the U.S., your leader came for a state visit. One of his stops was Chicago.
“Will you be coming to greet President Hu with us?” A Chinese schoolmate asked me a few days before Hu’s arrival. They would be standing by the streets downtown to welcome the motorcade.
January in the Windy City was a harsh time to be spent outside. Sensing my hesitation, the friend added,
“Many of us will be there. We need to outnumber the pro-Tibet and Falun Gong protesters.”
I said I would think about it. I did not know any Tibetans or Falun Gong practitioners, and I had not grasped the complexity of their causes. To oppose something I did not understand felt dishonest.
Had it been another head of state, I might have ventured out for the spectacle, though perhaps not in freezing weather. With you, I did not have the option of being a neutral observer, nor could I simply be expressing love for my homeland. To wave your flag and rally your leader was to give tacit endorsement of your policies. Regardless of my personal views, my very presence would have become part of your propaganda.
When I left you, I had no illusions about your authoritarian nature. You fed me a smorgasbord of your history, some parts decadent, some bare, some missing key ingredients, and many sealed containers forbidden to the touch.
You told me that you liberated the peasants from the landlords, but not about the brutality you inflicted in the process. You described the Great Famine as “three years of natural disaster,” but not as a result of your failed policies. You blamed the decade of turmoil during the Cultural Revolution on a few individuals, but you never acknowledged the full extent of the carnage, or reckoned with the system that enabled it. You have claimed territories as though they have been yours since time immemorial, and you have suppressed minorities to paint a mirage of ethnic unity. You jailed the fact-seekers and silenced the critics, making their names taboo, in life and in death.
I had to leave you to find out the truth about you. With all that you had hidden from me and each lie you told, how could I trust you again? With everything I knew of you now, how could I join the chorus that sings your praise, in hopes of drowning out dissenting tones?
When the big day came, I stayed at my office.
“You did not go yesterday,” my friend said when I ran into him on campus the following morning.
“No,” I said. “It was too cold.”
I saw a lengthy post on social media a few days later, written by another Chinese student, detailing her experience at the rally. She stood outside for hours, but the motorcade took another route. She wished she had put on another layer, but was so glad she was there. A sight of the president’s vehicle was only secondary in significance compared with the participation itself, to be surrounded by one’s own, to feel close to home on a foreign land, to assert one’s national identity and be unapologetically proud of it.
I stared at her post for a long time. Was she naive? Did I deserve a pat on the back for my conscientious objection? I knew I would not have chosen any differently, yet a part of me envied her, not because she had an experience that I did not, but for the possibility of a life less burdened, less adrift. If only I could accept you without questioning, support you without doubt, love you because I was supposed to. I had made our relationship complicated, and it could never be simple again.
* * *
“Do you feel American?” The reporter asked me over the phone. She was doing a story on Chinese scientists in the U.S., and how the administration’s new, hostile policies had impacted their lives.
It was the summer of 2018, my ninth year in the U.S. When I boarded the one-way flight out of you, I had believed America to be everything that you were not, because I needed to believe my life in the new country could become everything that it was not in you. If I was tethered to you by the fate of birth, I was determined to forge a new bond as a matter of choice. Substituting one national myth for another is such self-deceiving laziness, but emigration requires a leap of faith. The light on the other side of the ocean had inspired the journey, but once ashore the shadows appeared.
A few weeks before the 2016 election, the journalist Michael Luo published an emotional open letter in The New York Times, addressed to the random woman on the street who yelled at him and his family, “Go back to China!”
“I was born in this country!” Luo yelled back. It was an irrefutable defense against the racist insult. Luo’s parents fled you, first to Taiwan, and then to the U.S., where their children were born and raised. Much as I understood Luo’s anger and pain, a part of me could not help but feel petty jealousy. His response was one that I could never use. I played out the scenario a million times in my head: What else might I have said, other than a direct rejection of you?
“Go back to China!”
“I do not want to!”
If only the world is so generous, that wanting is deserving.
“Regardless of your passport or your accent—your English is great, by the way—you are as American as I!” A dear friend, American by birth, sent me this message right after the election.
I wept as I read it. I was deeply touched. But I also understood that his statement was as much rooted in privilege as kindness. Without a birthright claim to the land, I am only in the U.S. because I have something to offer, a specific set of skills that the government deems valuable, like a price tag on a commodity. Unlike him, my simply being is not enough.
The following spring, I went to one of your consulates to renew my passport. When your officer handed me the maroon-covered booklet, the third I’d had and the first from outside you, I felt a surge of gratitude. In the weeks between booking my appointment and getting the document, I had been consumed by an inexplicable fear that something might go wrong, that you had discovered the times I criticized you in public and would refuse to acknowledge me, that I would become stateless, a lost soul on foreign soil. For all my disappointment in you and estrangement from you, my personhood relies on your confirmation. My movement in this world is simultaneously constrained by you, and made possible through your existence and my existence within it.
“No, I do not feel American,” I told the reporter. “Because I am not American. Citizenship is not a feeling.”
* * *
The public lecture was about to start. The host went through the usual logistics, phones on silent, locations of emergency exits, Q&A at the end. Then she added that no cameras were allowed. The event was on the record and the speaker list was publicized, but the identities of the audience must be kept confidential for their protection. Despite being on a U.S. campus, the organizers were concerned that you had eyes in the room, and for good reason.
The title of the program was “Human Rights Crisis in Xinjiang.” Xinjiang, “new frontier.” The homeland of the Uighurs, a Turkic people, fell to the Manchu empire’s westward expansion, from whose conquest you claim most of your territory.
The first time I saw a map of you, I thought your shape resembled the face of a young girl, with two messy ponytails sprouting up. I had hair like that when I was little. I saw in your body a reflection of myself. My mother smiled and said your contour is that of a rooster, whose crowing ushered in a new dawn for the Chinese people. She pointed to Beijing, your heart, Jingzhou, a spot in your belly, and the vast region in the northwest, the upper part of your bushy tail, “That is Xinjiang.”
The map included 56 colorful drawings on the bottom, each a smiling figure dressed in traditional clothing, representing his or her ethnicity. My family is Han, the largest group comprising over 90 percent of your population. One of my elementary school classmates said that he was Mongolian, but he had never ridden a horse or seen the grasslands. “You are fully Hanitized!” We joked. He laughed along, pulling one arm out of his sweater sleeves, in a crude imitation of how his ancestors had dressed when galloping across the steppe.
“People say I look like I’m from Xinjiang!” My mother used to boast, her wide eyes and tall nose admired in a society infatuated with Western beauty standards. As a child, I watched animation and read comic strips featuring Afanti. The donkey-riding wiseman originated from Uighur folklore, and was one of the most popular cartoon figures of my generation.
All 56 ethnic groups are one big, happy Chinese family, so you claimed.
One by one, the panelists gave presentations on the crackdown happening in Xinjiang, with high-tech surveillance, mass collection of biometric data, and over one million Muslim minorities held in concentration camps. You gave the camps a euphemism, “re-education centers,” where the curriculum is political indoctrination, Mandarin lessons, and forced labor. You jailed scholars and artists. You destroyed mosques and burial sites.
In a few short years, you have turned an entire region into an “open-air prison,” and being Uighur was the crime. You once had a more inclusive ethnic policy, but as you become more powerful and more willing to wield that power, there is increasingly only one politically-correct way to be Chinese.
One of the panelists was a Uighur-American activist whose sister was held at one of your camps. “I am so sorry,” I said to her after the event, fumbling to find the right words. “I cannot speak for anyone else, but as a Han Chinese, I must apologize to you…”
“No, no,” She stopped me. Holding both of my hands, she said, “It is not your fault. It is the government.”
But I am complicit by my identity. You have branded us with your actions. When this part of history is written, my people will be remembered for what you have done.
* * *
“Today’s Xinjiang, tomorrow’s Hong Kong,” the chilling statement, shared on social media and included in protest videos, is a show of solidarity between your two farthest corners, and a dire warning from the Hong Kong people of their city’s future within you.
The global metropolis on your southern tip has been on edge since the beginning of this summer, when an ill-advised extradition bill ignited city-wide protests, further inflamed by an unresponsive government and incidents of police brutality. As the movement rages on into the fall, its purpose has manifested to be much more than just a single piece of legislation, which the government has eventually agreed to withdraw. The people of Hong Kong are defending a collective identity from being wiped out by your oppressive policies, and demanding fulfillment of the promises you made to the former British colony: freedom, autonomy, and universal suffrage.
On the first of July in 1997, my mother and I watched on TV the lowering of the Union Jack, and your five-starred banner flying high. We sneered at the departing British officials, and cheered to the tune of your national anthem. The handover felt like a vindication, a historical wrong corrected, a stolen child reunited with its family. It did not occur to me at the time, and not for many years after, that for many Hongkongers, the transfer from one empire to another hardly felt like a homecoming.
“The ones who are not of my kind, their hearts must be different.”
Your most fervent supporters criticize the protesters in Hong Kong with this ancient phrase. Originating from the Commentary of Zuo, published in the fourth century BC, the line was used by officials in Lu, the birthplace of Confucius, to denigrate the people of Chu, where my ancestors lived. I wonder if the ones who hurl this quote in your name recognize the historical fallacy, whether they need the aggressive rhetoric to hide their own insecurity, whether they scream to drown out their inner voices of doubt.
Ethno-nationalism is always the most violent when used to define the self against an other that is the most similar. Who is “your kind”? What grants you ownership of a land, if not the will of its people? What does it say about your “heart,” when the quest for democracy becomes a treacherous act?
Ironically, in your first decades, when Chinese tradition was deemed “counter-revolutionary,” Hong Kong under British rule was a refuge for Chinese culture and languages, where they blossomed into vibrant bodies of art enjoyed to this day. The island remains your last bastion of shrinking freedom, where your history can be discussed openly and honestly, where your characters can be written without fear of censorship, where your exiled may find temporary reprieve. Even if I am being completely selfish, I know that when the people of Hong Kong put their bodies into the streets against tear gas and water cannons, their cause is also my cause.
* * *
You have cancelled the annual National Day fireworks in Hong Kong this year, a small concession to the protestors, a little damper on your upcoming celebration. Security has tightened across every part of you, movement and Internet access restricted. There is a heavy human cost behind every glamorous show you put on, including the one-and-a-half million residents displaced for the Olympics in 2008.
“No kites, pigeon flying as China preps for 70th anniversary,” read the headline from the Associated Press. Your big day was still weeks away, but the sky of your capital must be kept void of distractions, so rehearsals could be held for your air show. You are planning to outdo yourself, with new tools in your arsenal ready to parade.
I chuckled at the report. An imperial Chinese idiom came into mind, “The officials can get away with arson, but ordinary people are not even allowed to light a lamp.”
20 years ago, when you turned 50, I watched the live broadcast of your birthday parade. The procession was an impressive display of wealth and power, at least in the eyes of a child who grew up in the provinces. Tanks and armored vehicles rode down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, some carrying missiles with their pointy noses held up high. Fighter jets soared through the clear October sky, leaving behind long, white tails. Squadrons of soldiers marched in lock step, all of their heads swerving right the moment they passed the Gate of Heavenly Peace, shouting in unison, “Greetings to the leader!”
When the women’s squad appeared on the screen, my mother nudged me to pay closer attention, that I should look up to them, healthy, disciplined, patriotic, the pride of a nation.
My mother said that everyone wants their country to be strong, that only a powerful nation can defend its people. But your military pledges its allegiance first and foremost to the Party, not the people. At the time of your semi-centennial, I had no idea that your tanks had been on the same streets 10 years and four months prior, not as a ceremonial force, but an occupying one. In response to a peaceful demonstration demanding more free expression and government accountability, you invaded your own capital, and covered up the massacre. For the survivors, the witnesses, the loved ones of the victims, are they triggered by the sight of your grand celebration every year, parading the same tools of slaughter?
It says so much about you, and nothing kind, that you remind people of your birth by showing off your ability to kill.
* * *
“When was the last time you were in China?” People ask me.
I tell them that I left you 10 years ago, and that I have not been back.
“That is a really long time!”
Yes, yes indeed. Too long.
“Don’t you miss home?”
I always struggle with the proper response. Either side of the answer comes with a crushing admission of guilt; unless the question is rhetorical, it is already an indictment.
I miss home, and miss it dearly. I have not been back to you because I am a coward. Many things unsettle me, even the thought of them sends a shiver down my spine: borders, some people, my childhood, the dark side of you.
So much has changed with you over the course of my life, especially in the past decade. You are no longer an impoverished backwater vying for a seat at the table, but a global superpower bending rules to your will. When I started writing about you a couple of years ago, your authoritarian downturn had prompted me to speak up, often critically. I write to reclaim my identity as a Chinese woman, when you purport to speak for a people; to free myself from the fear you planted in me, that your reach extends beyond your borders. My words, however clumsy, are also my atonement, my feeble attempt at fulfilling my duty to my country and my people, even if every line extends our distance, every paragraph stands between us, every article is another wave, till the water becomes too perilous to cross.
I have never found words out of anger, however often you make me mad. I write about you out of sorrow, because of love. I sometimes wonder how much of that love and the sense of responsibility it breeds are a result of ego, now that I have been absent from you for so long. Does your story need my interpretation? Is writing about home without returning a form of betrayal? Is longing an act of trespass?
In preparation for this letter, I went online and watched the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics for the first time. I felt I needed to do so, in case there was anything about you that I had missed, or should remind myself of. The performances went as I had expected. You spent most of the evening celebrating the history and culture on your land: an ancient civilization roaring in its modern reenactment, unapologetically proud of its rich creations. The seas of drummers and dancers, perfectly synchronized, were particularly striking. How much of your strength has been in numbers, with uncompromising uniformity demanded of each individual?
Yet your confidence abided in the final segments, when you were presenting the modern era, China as you. Who are you? What makes you unique, if not for a past before you? Maybe you were still searching for the answers yourself, like the schoolchildren you had on stage, tracing the lines of a sketch, filling it with color, still learning and growing, before they could make their own painting, and give shape to their own imagination.
I cherished most moments and frowned at a few, feeling guilty in the latter for my cynicism. The hours-long extravaganza concluded with the final stretch of the torch relay. Li Ning, your “Prince of Gymnastics,” suspended by wire, ran horizontally in the air along the walls of the stadium, holding the flame in his right hand to light the caldron. The official theme song played in the background, “You and me/ From one world/ We are family. . .”
The stunning scenery blurred as my eyes filled with tears. Perhaps the heart, like the body, does get softer with age.
Why did I so stubbornly avoid this when it took place? As I gazed through the screen towards my younger self at the time of the game, I saw a scared child in cosmopolitan armor, the fragility underneath her hardheadedness. She spent the final months in you in a cocoon of self-assigned tasks, keeping busy so there was no time for sentimentality. She was packing up her old life, and getting ready to bid you farewell. No one is fully prepared for departure, until departure happens, and then it is reality.
I was afraid to look at you, knowing soon the sight would be in the rearview mirror, shrinking into memory. A decade later and an ocean away, I have rewound the tape of my life in you a thousand times, playing each frame in slow motion. I search for you, backwards in time, or through the eyes of others.
I cannot look away from you. You are my bloodline and my imagination, the sheriff and the judge, the hunter and the prey. You are a Party pretending to be a country, and a people in search of an identity. You are three thousand years of words and song, the ode and the siren; seven decades of struggle and survival, the triumphs and the tragedies.
I carry you on my face and in the syllables I speak. I am of you and by you. You are inside me, even when I live outside you.
May my memory be your witness. May my words embrace you where my body cannot reach.
- Yangyang Cheng, ‘A Birthday Letter to the People’s Republic’, ChinaFile, 28 September 2019