3-9 April 2015 #752

Harder to forgive than forget

“Have Nepalis forgiven the horrors in the war or have they simply forgotten?”
Qianyi Qin

ANTI-CULTURAL: Students perform a skit during the Cultural Revolution in China’s Jiangsu Province in 1974.
Wandering in Kathmandu along streets lined with handicraft shops and admiring the country’s breathtaking scenery, it is hard to imagine that there was a war raging in this land till nine years ago. 

There are posters of Chairman Mao with his enigmatic smile at some street corners in Kathmandu, a rare sight back in my home city of Beijing. A large portrait of him does look down on Tiananmen Square, and every day thousands of visitors from all over China come here to take pictures in front of the Great Helmsman.

Memories of the Mao era are fading in China. Beijing urbanites today walk along fancy boutiques  on wide boulevards where brutal atrocities against citizens and intellectuals took place during the  Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution 50 years ago.

Here in Kathmandu, I wondered, have Nepalis forgiven the horrors in the war or have they simply forgotten? I didn’t learn about the violence of Mao’s regime in school, where the history textbook only lists dates for the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and summarises them in a few sentences. The great famine, the torture and killings are not mentioned. 

My Grandpa was a history teacher in a high school in Ningbo of Zhejiang province during the Anti-Rightist Movement in the 1950s. Teachers were threatened since all intellectuals were potential ‘rightists’, and the party set a quota in each area for the number of ‘rightists’ who had to be punished.

Every knock on the door set off panic. Everyday more and more of his colleagues were publicly humiliated by their own students and later forced to work in labour camps in remote areas. There was one young music teacher in my Grandpa’s school, a talented pianist, who drowned himself in the toilet rather than face public humiliation and torture. 

Nepali students studying a ‘revolutionary curriculum’ in Rolpa in 2002 raise the ‘red salute’.
Then one day, my Grandpa was also dragged out by his own students to the auditorium, where they verbally and physically abused him in front of hundreds of others. Did he ever forgive his students? All I know is that he kept on teaching for 30 more years and many of his students made it to top colleges. Some still came to visit him, and he always looked happy and proud to see them. 

He’d welcome them into the living room and talk for hours over cups of tea. I don’t know if he remembered the ones who had humiliated him, but he seemed to have forgiven them even though no one ever apologised.

Can anyone really forgive without an honest acknowledgment of the trauma, and genuine repentance? In recent years, some former red guards have apologised to their teachers. Shen Xiaoke, now 63, wrote a letter to his former high school secretary, Cheng Bi, now 87.

Another student, Hu Bin, also apologised for forcing her into writing a letter of confession. After reading the letters, Cheng expressed gratitude to the students, comforting them that they were also victims. 

But those who said sorry are a minority. Shen said he could apologise because he did not physically abuse his teachers. 

“Those who made comparatively lesser mistakes are more fit to write the apology letter: we have less pressure,” he said.

For those who beat ‘Rightists’ to death, it’s harder to gather up the courage to apologise and few were prosecuted. But they have to live with haunting memories and guilt.

More than 50 years have passed since the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution

Most of the victims are either dead or in their 80s. Though the Party revoked most of the convictions, it still insists that the Anti-Rightist Movement was correct -- only that the scale was too big and many (about 550,000) were falsely convicted. 

Those sent to labour camps were re-admitted to their former institutions but were denied the salaries for the 22 years spent in detention. Compensation for families of the victims was not adequate and their demands for genuine apology from the state are ignored. 

Their wounds have not healed but memories are fading. Young Chinese want to move on. There is no museum dedicated to those who suffered, while Mao chic souvenirs are popular among tourists. 

The mainland media is mute on sensitive historical issues. Scholars overseas have been actively studying the Anti-Rightist Movement and documenting the stories of the victims, but their books are heavily censored and banned in mainland China. 

The state wants the people to forget the horrors of the past, and many Chinese seem to want to go along with it. Many like my Grandpa may have chosen to forgive, but I can tell from his eyes that he always carried the burden of memory that left a permanent scar in his heart. 

It is harder to forgive than to forget. To forget, one simply hides from the past and doesn’t look back. But to forgive takes true courage. It is a painful psychological process that requires complete honesty and deep self-introspection. As Lewis B Smedes put it: “When we forgive evil we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look the evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it.” 

I hope the Nepali people will bring justice to the victims and honour the history of the abused and humiliated. It is important to pursue justice for the victims and their families before time erases memories so as to prevent the abuse of power and ensure the rule of law in the post-conflict period. Nepal’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a good start, but only a victim-centered approach will work. 

A nation is composed of individual human beings, and every one of them has a conscience. A nation can choose to be honest with its past, acknowledge those who suffered and were humiliated, try its best to right the wrongs, ask for forgiveness and then move forward with a clear conscience. 

Or, it can choose to forget, sanitise wrongdoings and drift along in collective amnesia. At the end of the day, the true greatness of a nation does not lie in its wealth, but in the honesty and courage with which it confronts its past.

Qianyi Qin is a Chinese citizen and a student of Humanities at Yale University in the United States. She was recently in Nepal studying human rights..

Read also:

Another Maoland, Aruna Uprety

Great leap sideways, Shiva Gaunle

The poorer the people, the more revolutionary they are”, H Forster- Latsch

Demystifying the Long March, Sun Shuyun

Just justice, Editorial

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