Seeing History Through The Eyes of One Man

by Jerry Waxler

Note: Read more about the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own “Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire.”

Ji Chaozhu’s memoir “The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry” let me enter the modern history of China, a country so vast and so important on the world stage, it seems like I ought to be talking about it in hushed tones. This planet cannot be understood without understanding this nation of a billion people, and yet, just a few decades ago, China was an ancient dragon, trapped in what looked like an unshakable slumber, set upon by the British and then the Japanese, and creaky in its old ways. Then came Mao Zedong who shook the dragon awake. But he did it behind an impenetrable curtain erected by mutual distrust. Western journalists were excluded and few westerners had inside information.

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In the early 70’s, the walls between the U.S. and China became porous and news and diplomats began to speak. Now in our time, the walls are collapsing and the cultures growing towards each other in ways I couldn’t have imagined. So how do I catch up on all that history?

Ji Chaozhu’s memoir offers a crash course in the history of modern China, provided through the eyes of a man who was in the thick of it. Ji was an English translator for the two main characters of Communist China, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Ji Chaozhu was present during some of the most powerful diplomatic exchanges in the twentieth century.

History this large teaches me about the human race
Chairman Mao believed that China was being held back by their culture’s strong emphasis on worshipping authority and ancestors. He was afraid these backward-looking tendencies had made his country weak. To bring China into modernity he felt it was crucial to undermine respect for the past.

Mao stirred up distrust for what he called “The Four Olds,” Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. The strategy went too far, and this disrespect for the past plunged the country into chaos. In what Ji Chaozhu calls the dark ages of modern China, from 1966 to 1976, mobs of teenagers publicly humiliated and beat people who had attained the very things that make a civilization successful. Like everything that happens in China, the proportions were staggering. Ji estimates that a million people were beaten to death or forced into suicide for their educational, artistic, and social achievements.

Ji Chaozhu compares the period known as the Cultural Revolution with the book “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding in which a group of boys stranded on an island lose all civilized values and revert to the behavior of animals. By outlawing respect for the past, Mao transformed China into a gigantic real-life “Lord of the Flies.”

What does this have to do with the memoir you might wish to write? In my opinion – everything. Memoir writers are the keepers of our culture’s pas. We maintain the long view. By remembering and passing along our stories, we link the past with the present. Ji Chaozhu’s life provides a wonderful motivation to capture and share the story of your life. One person at a time, we memoir writers recount life across decades and help people young and old develop their own best understanding of how to live.

Lessons about ghost writing
Fleeing the invading Japanese armies in the late 30’s, Ji’s family moved to the United States. As a young boy, Ji grew up in America, an outsider intent on blending in. As a student at Harvard, he made many American friends, and enjoyed the bourgeois perquisites of western life. When he left Harvard and moved back to China to support Mao’s new government, he was an outsider again. His years in the U.S. cast a shadow over his authentic Chinese identity.

I love stories about mixing cultures, perhaps because of my own grandparents’ immigration to the United States and my experience of growing up Jewish, a minority religion in a Christian dominated country. Like me, Ji’s two cultures made him feel like an outsider and kept him under constant pressure to unify his two identities. These contrasts and tensions between cultures provide a rich layer that holds my interest.

Ji Chaozhu spent his entire adult life translating back and forth between the two cultures. But when it came time to translate his own long life into a story that could be appreciated by the west, he turned to an accomplished memoir writer and biographer, Foster Winans. Foster brings his all-American past to the table, as well as his skill at converting the events of a lifetime into compelling prose.

Long Span of Time, some good things about a long life
Ji experienced many setbacks in his life. When his family was forced by the invading Japanese army to flee their ancestral lands, his father told him that the Chinese people are like ants who continue to strive and climb, finally reaching their destination, not on wings, but by great and powerful persistence.

His father’s advice to be patient helped Ji cope when, during the Cultural Revolution, he was repeatedly transferred from his diplomatic mission to work on pig farms, supposedly to scrub away his “bourgeois tendencies.” In reality this punishment was regularly imposed by the paranoid regime to maintain absolute obedience.

Memoir Writers Bring the World Together
When Mao won control over the government of China, United States leaders were so disappointed they behaved like small children. At an important diplomatic meeting between the two countries in1954, Zhou En Lai extended his hand in friendship to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles turned and walked away. His insulting gesture made front page news all over China and poisoned the relationship between the two countries for 20 years. As Theodore White later wrote, “It was probably the most expensive display of rudeness by any diplomat anywhere, ever.”

Throughout the Cold War, when the U.S. and China seemed so far apart they would never see eye to eye, Ji stayed focused on his father’s advice, believing in the power of persistence. Over time, he witnessed a much greater understanding between the two nations. And still, Ji keeps applying his passionate belief in harmony across the cultural divide. When thanking the people who had helped him bring his story to the west he says,

“I am indebted to all these good people for taking such care with my legacy and helping me open a window into the soul of modern China in a way that I hope will bring us all closer together.”

In Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing” he says that writing is like magic. It allows people to communicate across space and time. When reading a memoir like Ji Chaozhu’s “Man on Mao’s Right” I feel this magic multiplied by a thousand-fold, or perhaps a billion. By sharing his own world, Ji Chaozhu has opened up a channel through which I can feel the connections of entire nations. And that’s true for all memoir writers. Through our individual story, we help communicate the entire experience of a lifetime, break down the barriers of difference, and create deeper mutual understanding.

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