Come to know history as they have lived it
As society changes to make progress, some fall to the roadside and become irrelevant to the process we call history. In any given society, people fade out from the historical narratives of a nation that validate or invalidate an individual’s identity. As much as we would like to stake our identities in the history that records our existence as meaningful, and believe that we are a part of the story that never dies, we are but only too familiar with the cruel process by which people become eliminated, marginalized, and forgotten by sociopolitical change. As a matter of fact, people everywhere have more in common in this than in any other respect from across all cultures and societies, the very experience of being robbed of one’s identity through the tyranny of history, through conformity in a mass society, through intellectual progress, through aging or dying.
The exhibitions introduce a group of individuals who have nothing in common with the celebrities we read in magazines and journals (let alone in history books). They are a lost generation now in their 60s or 70s that grew up in China during the 1970s, denied a formal education when the country was in a political turmoil, uninitiated for life when the teachers or parents were too busy with their political career to be with them, and ill adapted to the harsh life in rural China to which they were sent to labor along with the peasants. In this social chaos and state of anarchy, they learned to live in the crevices and interstices between the state affairs and private spaces. Some stole from the library and began reading banned book; some tried amateur photograph; some started writing poetry; some met privately to form a literary salon and talked about art.
Their oral memories, diaries, creative writings, self-reflections and old photos—never published before—helped sustain their sanity in an absurd situation. They are records of the great human costs that ordinary people rendered to settle accounts with History. They are raw and very private, written mainly for friends, for fellow amateur poets and creative writers, or simply for self-amusement. These personal memoirs and narratives establish their affinities with the rest of us who at one time or another find ourselves disowned by history and exiled to places we had never thought of going: rural villages, factories, the military, reform labor camps, asylums, or even prison. Their experience and final disappearance into the peripheries of culture where they become irrelevant, is the common cord connecting the true humanists everywhere.
We display their personal effects as no museum or gallery would not because we believe that they are serious works of art, which they are not, but because we want to celebrate their anonymity as a group in whom we see ourselves struggling to remain true to who we are. Their existence as is not wasted; on the contrary, we want to sift through history to find what speaks to us honestly and truthfully about our potentials and dreams, even if never given a chance to be realized. We celebrate these fragmented and broken lives so as to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” On this topic, Carl Jung said the following: “The great events of world history are, at bottom, profoundly unimportant. In the final analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations first take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals. In our most private and most subjective lives, we are not only the passive witnesses of our age and its sufferers, but also its makers. We make our own epoch.” Today as we celebrate the hidden lives of these Chinese youths we recognize our kindred spirits and shared humanity in those who struggle just like we do to achieve meaning in history.
Mostly “educated youth” (zhiqing, 知青), “artistic youth” (yì shù qīng nián, 艺术青年) and “send-down youth” (shàng shān xìa xiāng, 上山下乡), they came of age during the 1970s and found themselves inextricably trapped in the most tumultuous of social changes and upheavals in China. Send to far-flung corners of the country to be reeducated, they had in common strong passions for knowledge and truth that made them rugged individuals tempered by their fair share of personal troubles. In the crucible of the Chinese revolution to make history they came to understand the meaning of history in the form of their very own existence as Mao’s young pioneers, the red guards, rural elementary school teachers, farmers, factory workers, self-exiled vagrants, penniless bohemian artists, underground poets, or even death-roll inmates.
Their personal memories—individual accounts, diaries, creative writings, memoirs, reflections and old photos—represent a variety of perspectives on the official history of China. The writings by LU_Shuangqin, ZHANG_Langlang, MANG_Ke, GUO_Lusheng, LU Xiaoqin, WANG_Ruye, MA Kelu, LI Yinhe, ZHANG Xinhua, Li Nan and LI_Zhilin, are raw and very private, written mainly for friends, for fellow amateur poets and creative writers, or simply for self-amusement. A generation (mis)labeled by the name of Mao as the leader of Chinese revolution, they grew up the byproducts of a history with which they no longer wish to identify. In addition to themselves as exhibits in a history museum, they also bring with them a treasure trough of memorabilia: their old photos taken in the bygone era, original manuscripts of their first creative writing, pencil sketches and portraits of their daily life in rural China, hand-copies of banned books circulated in underground salons, diaries of their youth spent in the countryside. They are the antidote to mass amnesia, the negatives of China’s official self-images, and footnotes to a history yet to be written and emerge from many his or her stories.