I’ve been writing a memoir. For over a year, I’ve been hunched over my laptop, scrutinizing each paragraph, each line, each word that leaps from my head. A memoir is non-fiction, as close to the truth as you can get, and every day, I battle with memory, trying to get everything just right. At times my mind fails me, and when it does I throw a little tantrum and start sifting through the remnants of my past for anything — a photo, a letter — that will nudge those dusty shards of memory and make them whole. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I have the nagging sense that something, some minor detail — a date, a color, a snippet of dialogue — is not quite right. Memory is faulty, after all, and all I and any memoirist can do is try our best to work through the jumbles of our lives and produce a narrative that makes sense.
Which is why, when news first started popping up about the errors in Chinese-American entrepreneur Ping Fu’s memoir Bend, Not Break, my heart went out to her. I hadn’t read her book but it was on my to-read list — I’ve been a voracious reader of Cultural Revolution memoirs since I was a tween, and find personal accounts of those Maoist years painful, horrific, yet rewarding to read. What are these people so angry about? I wondered. Ping Fu has lived a long, hard life. Of course she didn’t get every little thing right. But the more links I followed, the more I realized she wasn’t being accused of things like mixed up sequences or composite characters or whether it was rainy or sunny that day. I’m not going into detail (you can read it here) but Chinese readers were accusing Fu of twisting and fabricating major events, including moments during the Cultural Revolution and a kidnapping in the US. The Guardian looked into it, and Fu conceded to some errors, including one bloody event that was likely an “emotional memory,” not fact.
To me, her admission did cast doubt on the veracity of her book as a whole, but I wasn’t too invested or interested in the issue — I figured there’d be a new disclaimer in her book, end of story.
But four months later, the controversy lives on.
Yesterday, the New York Times ran a column titled Cultural Revolution Vigilantes, that shakes its head at “the Chinese immigrant community” in the US who persistently refute the claims in Fu’s memoir. Apparently there is no consensus on whether her memoir is more fact or fiction, no verdict made as in the James Frey case (which is a very interesting comparison, but not to be explored in this blog post). Suzhou University’s statement against Fu seems to have changed few minds, and the mostly Chinese folks who criticize her are in turn condemned by Western reporters as a mob who can’t face the truth about the Cultural Revolution. Many, if not most of the comments on that NYT column, also refer to Fu’s detractors as a frenzied mass intent on squashing Fu because they can’t face up to their country’s past. It’s not a mere disagreement over Fu’s memoir, but a war between Westerners and Chinese over China’s history.
I am not from China or America, but that NYT column is when I went from apathetic to very interested — because this controversy has turned into a highly racial one, with many Westerners in the pro-Ping camp and Chinese in the anti-Ping one.
The pro-Ping camp seems to believe that, as quoted in the NYT, “there is almost no one in China willing to delve into the Cultural Revolution,” but isn’t that what the anti-Ping camp is doing — digging into her history, their country’s history, finding the history of so many others and comparing those experiences to Fu’s? Millions tweet about the Cultural Revolution on Chinese microblogs, uncensored. China might not actively encourage public discussion of those years — Mao was only 30% wrong is the official refrain — but to say that Chinese people are ignorant and determined to smear and crush Fu in order to suppress the shame of the Cultural Revolution is a claim bordering on racist.
Why Fu? Why is Ping Fu the only “victim” of these “vigilantes”? Why, out of the hundreds of Cultural Revolution memoirs published in the West by expatriated Chinese, has hers incited so much passion and rage? Why hasn’t there been such campaigns against Jung Chang, Anchee Min, Ting-Xing Ye, Hong Ying, Yu Hua, Wenguang Huang, etc.?
And have any of these writers and others like them spoken up for Ping Fu? It would be a very powerful statement if someone other than a white male writer defended Fu, especially a fellow Cultural Revolution memoirist.
The anti-Ping camp hasn’t done itself any favors by being overcommitted to the issue and campaigning for more than evidence and/or a retraction. The human flesh search, the desire to strip Fu of her honors, awards, and achievements, the call to petition the White House to look into her green card application — this drowns out the calmer voices. Why, asks the pro-Ping camp. Why this emotional vehemence? It makes us suspicious. It’s downright frightening.
My husband tried to answer this question by pointing to Elie Wiesel. A few years ago, it was alleged that Wiesel was less than honest about his experiences during the Holocaust. “People were very worked up,” he said. “The very idea that someone could misrepresent something as devastating as the Holocaust… it was an outrage.”
And maybe that’s the reason for this rage, this on-going controversy. The Chinese haven’t had much of an outlet to openly discuss their own devastating past. Now that they can, thanks to the Internet, maybe their desire for truth and outrage at falsehoods takes on a life of its own.
In the end, I’m suspicious of Fu’s book but don’t vilify it. What kept me up writing this post is how this became a disturbingly Western/Chinese divide… it’ll be interesting to see where the controversy goes.