Ever since Marco Polo returned from his travels through Asia and wrote his Descriptions of the World, European interest has been focused on the mysterious empire in the East he called Cathay. Its wonders, its culture, civilisation and fabulous riches became the envy of the western world.
This has not waned over the ages. We adopted many of China's achievements, traded among other things for silks and opium; our scholars studied the writings of Confucius, Lao Tse, Lin Yutang; my generation even shed tears over Pearl S Buck's novels. Yet, nobody really ever discovered the true China. It was and has remained an enigma, its affairs almost forgotten or put aside, because of its rigid isolation.
When lately China recaptured the world's attention, it happened for all the wrong reasons. For despite its noble past, the wisdom of its philosophers, China, like the rest of us, has been afflicted by the malaise of our century: the renaissance of warfare, cruelty and violation of human rights on a medieval scale.
After each catastrophe, survivors told their tales, bearing witness to the suffering of man, inflicted by his fellow men. But as long as it happened to other people in other countries, nobody cared too much, probably didn't even listen.
Now another voice has been raised. It comes from Jian Guo Wu with his account of The Meandering Stream, a novel with strong autobiographical overtones. Set in China after the Cultural Revolution, it reports the plight of middle-class young people, who have been sent for re-education to an area far inland. Living under the most primitive conditions, deprived of personal freedom, and being harassed by the corruption of Party officials, these Zhiqing work, they endure and hope.
"'You people should know why you were brought here', shouted Yang, refusing to allow the conflict to settle. 'You came here for re-education, didn't you? It doesn't matter how educated you are, how many books you've read. It doesn't matter that we farmers can't read! You people still have to learn from us. That is our Great Party's policy.'A most ordinary story, one might think, considering the daily barrage of sensational news which has dulled our senses. Because we have heard it all before, from Hitler's to Stalin's slave labour camps to the killing fields of Cambodia and the ethnic cleansing going on everywhere around the globe. When the author pictures a young girl's world being taken to pieces by those powers above, it breaks your heart.
'You're right, Secretary Yang', Hua replied, pushing Chai and Zheng back inside, and closing the door behind them. [...] her father had told her a fundamental truth; that there is no point in arguing with ignorant people. The farmer, she was dealing with here, was also their boss, and if he didn't get his way today, he could cause trouble for them in the future." (p.19)
"Coming to the rock from where one could see a big waterfall, a big pool at its base and the meandering stream stretching as far as the eye could see, Hua suggested a break.Wu has seen the mindless bureaucracy as it really is: an executioner as deadly as a firing squad, with its relentless pursuit of regulations; unforgiving, impersonal and destructive. What must happen to stir anyone's conscience?
'Darling ...', she hugged Jing to close to her. 'After Mummy leaves, maybe you will come across some troubles or across something you don't understandSometimes maybe the local children will tease you. Sometimes maybe Xinping and Uncle Deng will say bad things to you. Or sometimes you will just feel sad and lonely because you miss your Daddy and Mummywhenever you have troubles or worries, just come here to watch the stream, watch the running water, and the waterfalls. You can free yourself from any troubles here.'
'How can I?' Jing looked at her mother.
'Look at the water how it flows in its own direction. How generous it is, destined to flow deep into the heart of the valley. How brave it is! It flows constantly, and when still, it is smooth. How just it is! It always flows from high to low, and how merciful and modest it is. So you should try to be like the stream. Generous, brave, just, merciful and modest.
'When you miss Daddy and Mummy, you should trust with all your heart that you will meet us again; you must have a strong will like the water, which always flows to the east, no matter how the river bed twists and turns.
'When you're abused by other children or adults, you should be forgiving like water that accepts all the dirt and washes it away. You should also try to be a person of wisdom, like water overcomes everything even though it's gentle. When I leave, maybe nobody will answer your questions. So you just come here to watch the water and the water will give answers. Will you do that for me?'
'I will', Jing nodded, gazing at the water, until it turned dark." (pp.134,135)
Perhaps one day people will wake up and, remembering what human suffering is like, get their priorities right, before they start bickering over the latest tax increase or a tree in a neighbour's garden. It might be a beginning.
The Meandering Stream is a moving story, a powerful and strong story, which may haunt the reader. But it needed to be told. And it goes to Jian Guo Wu's credit that he had the courage to do so.