An American in Zunyi


It was the start to another sweltering day in the little Chinese town of Zunyi. I ambled to a nearby food stall for breakfast, where a vintage TV buzzed lazily in the background. A reporter was reciting updates from the Korean Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco. Suddenly, the clink of chopsticks and slurp of noodles paused as news broke that there had been three deaths, and that all three of the victims were Chinese schoolgirls. A man across from me stood up and declared, “All three of them were from our country, huh? Why didn’t more Americans die?”
When the question was repeated, it felt almost rhetorical. “Why don’t more Americans die?” The man’s glare swept over me—I suppose I looked a bit too amused. I wasn’t worried that he would single me out for an American. I have the almond-shaped eyes and thick bangs to pass as a local, and if I stayed quiet, I could spare him the accent that would give me away as a foreigner. But in moments like these, when I find my fellow Chinese cursing my fellow Americans, it’s hard to tell which side I’m supposed to be on.
I was here to study how Chinese people make sense of communist history. Of course, it’s no secret that Chairman Mao’s China has been transformed beyond recognition. Highways and McDonald’s now grace paddy fields that had once held laboring dissidents. Yet in five years’ time, and against all doomsday predictions, China may very well surpass the Soviet Union as the longest-living communist state in history. I wanted to know: is the extraordinary resilience of the regime somehow connected to the way the Chinese think about their own history?
I sat down with young members of the Party, curators of communist history museums, officials at an electricity plant, even retired ladies at morning tai chi. “What makes you proud to be Chinese?” I would ask. “What does communism mean to you?”

Over hotpot in a market stall, one official downed his fourth glass of maotai (Chinese vodka) and furrowed his brows at me: “In imperialist America, capitalist corporations exploit the proletariat without mercy. But in China, everyone is equal.” He gestured to his retinue of waiting workers, who rushed over to replenish his glass. “Workers can share a drink with their bosses anytime. Right?” he roared. The workers retreated, nodding in silent assent. “You Americans are like mosquitoes, drinking the blood of…” That’s when he waved me off, forgetting to finish his sentence.
Another time, I met with a newly-ordained party member, fresh out of college. We spoke about the Opium Wars, the Nanjing Massacre, the Beijing Olympics. We censored ourselves on the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, the escaped dissident Chen Guangcheng, the never-sorry artist Ai Weiwei. I mentioned my grandfather’s adventures in the Korean War; she recounted her father’s loyal services to the Party. We sounded like two Mao enthusiasts, reminiscing about the good old days. Suddenly, she leaned forward and asked, “What do you Americans think about Tiananmen Square?”

As open-ended as my questions had been, I got the sinking feeling that my American identity was somehow getting in the way, an uninvited guest at Mao’s dinner party. But things didn’t really come together until I met that retired lady at tai chi. “This is where my ancestors lived,” she chirped, pointing to a hillside that had been remade into a massive concrete government building. When I expressed regret that they’d been forced to move out, she looked at me in surprise. “It was an honor for us,” she said. “And just over there is the Martyr’s Mausoleum. Shall we go up?” We walked the three hundred steps to the top, where a stern stone statue of Red Army soldiers looked out over the Zunyi cityscape.
I watched as she knelt before the altar, offering incense to the fallen dead. Then, she spread her fingers over their engraved names, pointing out the fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds who had died for “our cause.” She patted the knee of a young Red Army medic, whose bronze smile had been weathered by the years. I looked down at the knee. It was a brighter shade of gold than John Harvard’s shoe. How many pats? I wondered. How many pilgrims? We finished in front of a low stone house with barred windows. “This is where their ashes are kept,” she murmured. I couldn’t see inside, but she could. She had been coming here since her toddler days and remembered how the mausoleum had been built, bit by bit.
I had come here, to the heartland of China’s poorest province, to see how communist tradition collides with capitalist modernity. The drunken official’s Marxist drawl, the college grad’s whispers about Tiananmen, the retired lady’s incense offerings—it’s easy to dismiss these reflections on communism as the fading remnants of a past era, soon to be replaced by the glitter of modernization. Yet in many ways, it is exactly these people who have set the stage for the China’s rise. The American they see in me is a reminder of their own nation’s past weakness, of a “century of humiliation” when China lay helpless against the aggressions of foreign powers. As China scholars Schell and Delury write, this shame has transformed what it means to be Chinese. It is the reason why the official was less interested in proletarian revolution and more interested in making Chinese corporations better than American ones. The man at breakfast was indignant that Chinese schoolgirls had been killed on American soil, not that they had died on a Korean airline. The young party member wanted to know: did Americans understand why Tiananmen had to happen? As for the lady at tai chi, she knew that the ashes of those fallen soldiers would remain on her ancestor’s mountain, whether or not there was a grand mausoleum to honor them.
As the train trundled out of Zunyi and the sun sank behind those ash-covered hills, I found myself absurdly wishing that I were a mosquito. Not in the drunken-boss American-imperialist sense, but in the sense that I could somehow erase myself, perch on someone’s shoulder, and drink in all those conversations meant only for the Chinese. But even as the wish formed itself, I realized how impossible it all was, and at the same time, how okay it was too. I would never be able to see inside that mausoleum. But I had come close.

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