Remaking Historical Narratives: Documenting My Grandmother’s Past 祛蔽和重构:我的外婆小传

By Lui Zhuoran


In the 1980s, the literary trend of “individual historical narration” was born in Mainland China. At that time, enlightenment ideals were introduced once again into China; the state had no longer controlled private life as strictly as before, and restrictions on thoughts and speech were gradually relaxed, causing various ideological cultures to compete with each other in the field of public opinion. People no longer used a single perspective to contemplate the past and present. The literary school of new historicism had finally appeared in China, in which the power discourse was being rejected, and a strong emphasis was placed on individual perspectives and folk positions.


Photo credit: Douban & Douban

Frog and Red Sorghum Family are two representatives of new historicism by Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. Frog takes the One-Child Policy as its theme, portraying the image of “aunt” as a rural family planning worker. Red Sorghum Family takes the War of Resistance Against Japan as its theme and tells the story of Yu Zhanao and Dai Fenglian, the bandit leaders of Gaomi, leading their men to fight the Japanese invaders.《蛙》和《红高粱家族》是诺贝尔文学奖得主莫言的两部“新历史主义”小说代表作。《蛙》以“计划生育”为主题,塑造了“姑姑”这一农村计划生育工作者形象.《红高粱家族》以“抗日战争”为主题,讲述了山东高密的土匪首领余占鳌和戴凤莲率领手下勇斗日本侵略者的故事。

Reading Long Yingtai’s Big River, Big Sea and Qi Bangyuan’s The Great Flowing River.. inspired me to write a story about my grandmother. These two books show how to collect and distinguish historical materials, interact with interviewees, discover a meaningful life story from an interviewee’s experiences, and reflect the grand history from the individual life story.


Like many Chinese female peasants, my grandmother’s story has been overshadowed by an abstract collective concept of the “people’s spirit” endorsed in the official historical narrative. Individuals like her are reduced to a collective “they” which robs them of their individuality. My grandmother attended elementary school for only two years, and she worked for her family without asking for anything in return. Her methodical, unhurried recounting of experiences during Rural Land Reform, the Three-Year Famine (1959-1961) and the Cultural Revolution reflect her adventurous childhood, rough married life, and unthinkable exhaustion.


Unlike traditional Chinese families wherein men are dominant, my grandmother took almost all family responsibilities. She was the eldest daughter with three sisters and one brother. She dropped out of school in second grade in order to take care of her siblings. During the Three-Year Famine, my grandmother had to seek food for the whole family nearly every day. Due to her tireless efforts, her entire family survived even as one-third of the people in her village died of starvation.


After getting married, she was so poor that she and her husband had to borrow money from relatives and friends to pay for essentials. In order to relieve their debt, she pulled cargo on a cart with her husband, day and night. She also had to do farming, babysitting and other trivial household chores. However, the value of what the women like my grandmother devote to family is usually underestimated; at present, explicit and invisible discrimination against women is everywhere, so Chinese society urgently needs healthy feminism to inject energy to promote gender equality.


Attempts to uncover the history of Chinese society during this period are quite difficult. When checking the local chronicles to understand the famine situation at that time, I learned that the local history of my grandmother’s hometown was being compiled by the administrator of the local cultural station. When I asked someone to contact him, I was told that he did not collect historical data about the Three-Year Famine. He further added that he would not collect any material related to politics, and warned me to mind political correctness when writing this article and to avoid making mistakes. I understood him very much because Chinese people are tacit about certain things. However, people will likely forget the history if we don’t discuss major historical events, and forgetting means that we cannot learn anything from history.


Grand historical narratives have brutally controlled personal memories. These narratives tend to praise suffering, but such praise is actually cruel and hypocritical because it is just a fig leaf covered by people who are responsible for the suffering. This shows the real preference of these hypocrites: to sit by and watch people suffer.


In order to fight against the power discourse of history, some non-fiction and fictional works with historical narratives from the perspective of ordinary people are becoming popular in China. Yang Benfen’s Autumn Garden is an 80-year-old woman’s autobiography, whose story ranges from war to peace as she portrays the life and death of a group of small people in the south-central backland of China. Similarly, Jiang Shumei, who only learned to read and write in her elderly years, wrote a family history entitled Times of Chaos, Times of Poor, which reflects the phenomena that individuals have a strong desire for self-expression. Under the individual historical narrative, people can become themselves, life will show its abundance and prosperity, and individual memories will be preserved and transmitted.


Photo credit: Douban&Douban

Both Yang Benfen, the author of Autumn Garden, and Jiang Shumei, the author of The Turbulent Time, The Poor Time started literary creation in their later years with the help and encouragement of their children. Their works emphasize their own family stories and life experiences. 《秋园》的作者杨本芬和《乱时候,穷时候》的作者姜淑梅都是晚年在子女的帮助和鼓励下开始文学创作,她们的作品多是对自家家族故事和人生经历的叙写。

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: