Cape historian sheds light on China’s 20th century

Anne Garton

There are very few retired Chinese human rights activists in our vicinity, which makes 90-year-old Gu Chang-Sheng’s new memoir all the more interesting. He is the author of several histories and biographies in Chinese, but “Awaken: Memoirs of a Chinese Historian” is his first book in English. Half history of 20th-century China, and half personal journey, it’s a book as confounding as it is gripping.

Gu’s story begins and ends with the author’s censorship in China. In 2007, an article on Christianity he published was abruptly banned. Gu wrote: “Here we are in at the beginning of the 21st century with China supposedly emerging as a super power, so why are the authorities … afraid of me? I am a nonentity.”

The action confirmed Gu’s belief that not much has changed in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre. “Democracy and civil rights, despite current trends in China and among its relations, are a long way off,” he said.

Professor Gu is now settled into retirement on Cape Cod, “paradise” he says, astonished and grateful for all the freedoms we take for granted. He lives modestly and productively in senior housing at Tonset Woods in Orleans, befriended by members of his church and community. At age ninety, he is still in good health and feisty on behalf of his favorite cause, the pursuit of human rights in China - “fifty, maybe a hundred years off.” He keeps a sense of humor about everything, he says.

Gu loves the United States, has become a citizen and brought his daughter and grandson to live on the Cape. The coincidence of his visit to the United States, at the invitation of Congress, with the Tiananman Square revolt determined his choice to remain in this country.

Born into extreme poverty in 1919, Gu owes his considerable education and fluency in English to the teachings of an early mission run by Seventh Day Adventists. In return for its efforts, the mission assumed he would dedicate his life to church service. But Gu, always the independent spirit, had other ideas. He renounced Adventist dogma and forged his own style of Christianity. He knew, and knows today, that personal flexibility in these matters is how a man survives in China, and elsewhere.

Seventy years of Gu’s life was endured in pre- and post-revolutionary China. He never joined the Communist party and consistently practiced his Christian beliefs as well as his scholarly pursuits. How he and his family managed this balancing act is the main theme of his memoir, ten years in the making. That, and his clarion call for human and religious rights in China. It is hard to imagine a life more culturally conflicted.

Civil rights remains a passionate cause to a man who has lived through so much of China’s trauma. Working as interpreter, Gu stumbled and suffered through the tragic extremes of twentieth century China. He served in the Nationalist Army, escaped persecution during and after the Japanese Occupation, witnessed the Great Famine of 1959 – 1961 when thirty million Chinese starved to death as a direct result of Mao’s agricultural crusade, and the Peoples’ Republic’s homegrown Cultural Revolution, which wiped out a generation of scholars and educators. Much of his memoir is intended to debunk Mao Ze-dong’s disastrous policies.

His stories of survival, in the memoir as well as anecdotally in our interview, are hair-raising, especially as a witness to the Great Starvation. Gruesome details of that time, things he saw and heard, can never be forgotten or forgiven. Many times he suffered brutal interrogations where “my hair turned white overnight.” He lost track of family and friends; executed, imprisoned or just “disappeared.”

And yet, Professor Gu - at once naïve, plucky and when necessary, shrewd - is someone you root for all the way. Swimming all his life in a pool of sharks, he is, first and foremost, a survivor with skills that put James Bond to shame. None of us wants to swim in that pool. In fact, His unlikely survival in such an uncompromising political landscape is the whole story. And the story’s enigma.

There is an innocence and even modesty about “Awaken” and its author, who says “it’s all in the book. Everything is in the book.” But of course, everything isn’t in the book, nor could it be. It is astonishingly detailed and meticulously assembled, and most of it is new and fresh, coming from the pen of an insider. Still, we want to know more, and we want it deeper and twice the length.

Perhaps the problem is the memoir’s sheer coverage. It’s so expansive that it touches upon every onerous aspect of Chinese life during the last century. It touches, but rarely penetrates. You get the sense that each period of the author’s life, from childhood to his leave-taking could produce a book of its own. This is a man who has lived through all the anomalies and contradictions that exist in China, and has had the leisure late in life to explore, record and analyze it. He’s not just a main character in his own fantastic life, he’s an historian.

But wanting more is not a bad thing. Gu is 90 years old and unlikely to give us the extra books we know he has in his head and that we would like to read. We’re happy to have this particular document at this particular time. The light it sheds on twentieth century China, from a long-lived survivor’s point of view, is breathtakingly unique.

His memoir not only tells a spellbinding story of poverty, imprisonment and lost ideals, it is also the frustrated effort of a man who has worked all his life to be heard in his native land. He writes out of grave concern. He says that “both the United States and China should take care not to start a Cold War between our two countries.” He suggests increasing student exchanges, encouraging the study of economics, literature and history, not just science and technology, so that each country develops a full appreciation of the other.

China has often been called a sleeping giant. Gu Chang-Sheng reminds us that it is now fully awake. The author intends his memoir to awaken us.

The Cape Codder