Although I’ve known my husband for four years, there are still a number of topics we’ve only treaded lightly on discussing. The Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward are two of them.
I recently plowed through Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy, a novel that primarily takes place in Shanghai and Green Dragon Village in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. It culminates in covering the Great Chinese Famine, where government statistics estimated more than 15 million excess deaths (scholarly estimates gander between 20 and 45 million). Although See’s novel is a work of fiction, the historical references, sadly, are not.
Dreams of Joy inspired me to pry ZJ a bit more about those times. His parents and grandparents both grew up in the Shaanxi countryside during all three periods in contemporary Chinese history. Much like the characters in Dreams of Joy, 老爸和老妈’s childhood meant surviving with very little sustenance, eating sorghum and other edible, yet undesirable food items. His grandfather, a Kuomintang sympathizer, was sent to a labor camp.
ZJ noted the similarities that exist in our families’ histories when we first met. My father’s father was also sent to a labor camp, in Siberia though, albeit for being Jewish. Judaism also has a very intriguing history in China. Kaifeng in Henan was home to a thriving community during the Northern Song Dynasty, though some arrived as early as the Tang (618-907). In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jewish merchants arrived in Chinese ports like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Harbin. Jewish refugees escaping the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Holocaust settled in China. The Jewish Quarter of Shanghai remains with its synagogue serving as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. On my sister’s first visit to China, we visited the museum and what remains of the Jewish Quarter.
Being Jewish during the last four years in Xi’an always managed to pique someone’s interest: students, strangers, ZJ’s family and friends. I’d always receive a “oh that makes sense” nod as my students would embarrassingly equate my intelligence with my religious/cultural background. ZJ’s friends, when meeting me in person for the first time, would tell us that I looked like or seemed like I was Jewish, although they’d base this on never having met a Jew in the flesh before. The first Chinese New Year I celebrated at ZJ’s childhood home, his parents paid the usual compliment about Jewish intellect. I also heard from any of the previously mentioned parties about Jews and money, our cunningness, exceptional entrepreneurial skills, and political sphere of influence. Israel came up when covered in the news and was often referred to as America’s little brother, in the same way that the American media once considered China as Russia’s younger brother.
I’m certain our families’ histories, a particularly compelling topic, will find its way onto Xiananigans again and might be worthwhile for ZJ (he’s a bit of a history buff) and I to look into together as a side project/hobby.
Are there any coincidental, compelling, or overlapping personal narratives between you and your partner’s family trees?