HONG KONG — Yuan-tsung Chen, an author, leaned forward in an oversize velvet chair to tell the story of the man so hungry that he ate himself.
Once, that tale had seemed unbelievable to her. “I thought that was an exaggeration,” she said. But living in a village during the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s calamitous attempt to catapult China into communist plenty in the late 1950s, changed her view on what extreme hunger could drive people to actually do.
“It wasn’t anyone’s exaggeration, it was as true as real life, but nobody would say it,” Ms. Chen said, recalling the desperation and starvation caused by Mao’s experiment. Historians estimate that up to 45 million people died over the course of five years.
Now, sitting at a restaurant in one of Hong Kong’s most opulent hotels, Ms. Chen, 93, says she has a warning for the world.
Having lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in China’s recent history, Ms. Chen disputes the Communist Party’s sanitized version of its past and worries it has allowed it to continue making mistakes with global consequences.
Her voice drops, barely audible among the din of cutlery and diners in the restaurant: “When you do things in the spirit of Mao, that scares me,” she says, referring to China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.
Her books, she said, are meant to add “blood and flesh” to the official party account and help readers empathize with the Chinese people who have suffered under an authoritarian system. But her efforts have raised questions about whose voice matters when it comes to narrating Chinese history.
Ms. Chen is part of the increasingly small group of people still alive who endured the worst of Mao’s excesses. She says she wants to set the record straight. But her critics — mostly men — have raised doubts about the details of her recollections and accused her of being a fabulist.
She welcomes the interrogation.
Her recent memoir, “The Secret Listener: An Ingenue in Mao’s Court,” was published last year. The book is the culmination of decades of writing and rewriting her personal history. She hopes it will help bring closer attention to places such as Hong Kong, her adopted home, where Chinese history is being rewritten once again, this time under Mr. Xi.
“I know the past fairly well and I can see something is coming,” she said.
Events in Hong Kong gave Ms. Chen the resolve to publish her recent memoir. They include the kidnappings in 2015 of several booksellers who sold salacious stories about China’s top leader and the enormous pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Under Mr. Xi, China enforced a sweeping crackdown on Hong Kong that included an all-encompassing national security law put in place in 2020. Since then, the city has fallen under a cloak of silence that Ms. Chen says she recognizes. “My current situation looks uncannily like the one I found myself in more than 60 years ago.”
Ms. Chen was a child of privilege who grew up in metropolitan Shanghai in the 1930s. She came of age in the early days of the People’s Republic of China, after Mao and the Communist Party took over in 1949. In 1958, she married Jack Chen, a Communist journalist who came from a prominent Chinese-Trinidadian family and had connections with top party officials such as Zhou Enlai.
Ms. Chen worked as a clerical assistant in Beijing’s Central Film Bureau, but she longed to write. Writing eventually became what jolted her out of her cautious optimism for the party and led to a nearly two decade struggle to get out of China.
In 1955, not long after Ms. Chen joined the Central Film Bureau, Hu Feng, a well-known Chinese Marxist writer, was detained for penning a report arguing that literature should allow for greater expressiveness.
His words triggered a purge that rippled through Ms. Chen’s circle of friends and colleagues, some of whom were accused of being part of Mr. Hu’s “counterrevolutionary clique.”
Then, unexpectedly, Mao began to welcome criticism of the party, urging a “hundred flowers to bloom,” a phrase meant to encourage people to speak up and criticize the party’s shortcomings.
Feeling inspired, Ms. Chen began to write. But before she had a chance to finish, Mao started rounding up the critics who had dared to speak out, accusing them of producing “poisonous weeds” instead of “fragrant flowers.”
Critics were executed or sent to labor camps for re-education. Petrified that her manuscript would reveal “poisonous” thoughts, Ms. Chen lit a match to it. “I scattered that manuscript like ashes,” she said.
The act would come back to haunt her.
By burning the first draft of her own story, Ms. Chen participated in what Orville Schell, a China scholar, has referred to as the destruction of historical memory. Some academics have questioned whether Ms. Chen’s accounts can be trusted, or if she has exaggerated her access to party officials such as Zhou Yang, who, she said in her memoir, asked her for advice on how to handle Mr. Hu’s case.
“This is one of the perils of the Chinese Communist Party’s destruction of historical memory,” said Mr. Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. Like others, Ms. Chen, he said, had to write her memoir “sort of stripped of all of her resources except her memory.”
Many of the scenes in Ms. Chen’s memoir come from books that she and her husband wrote years ago, as well as earlier manuscripts. Recently, in her small but sunny apartment on the south side of Hong Kong Island, she stood over books and old manuscripts piled atop a dining table.
She held up yellowing copies of books by her husband, like “A Year in Upper Felicity: Life in a Chinese Village During the Cultural Revolution,” and “Inside the Cultural Revolution,” about the period of political tumult when Mao, fearing that his revolution was being corrupted by compromise, unleashed young Red Guards to persecute officials, academics and others.
She also turned to manuscripts she wrote when she and her husband settled at Cornell University after finally fleeing China in 1971. “Cold Wind” is about her family’s experience during the Cultural Revolution. “The Dragon’s Village” was the basis for the chapters about the Great Leap Forward in her memoir.
“This is why I said I didn’t depend on my memory, and I have my own notes because after we came out, I took notes,” she said, holding a brown envelope with one of her manuscripts.
“The Dragon’s Village,” Ms. Chen’s first book, was published in 1980. Though it is a work of fiction, it is based on her experiences living in a village in 1960 during the Great Leap Forward.
Fearing she might attract suspicion during the anti-Hu purge, Ms. Chen volunteered to go to the countryside to help with land reform. There, she discovered that Mao’s earlier experiment with collectivization had been a disaster. Crops had been destroyed, wooded areas replaced with tree stumps. The land, she wrote, was like “a ruined cemetery where human remains had been dug up and exposed.”
It was clear to her that any success in land reform was an illusion when she met emaciated villagers with tales of family members who had died of starvation. Yet instead of reporting the true numbers of depleted crops, she and other villagers created a Potemkin wheat field for senior Party members in order to keep up the mirage of a bumper harvest.
Scenes like these in “The Secret Listener,” her latest book, read at times like a film script, with detailed dialogue between characters, a method she says she used to make the overall story more compelling.
In the late 1960s, the fury of vigilante Red Guard youth prompted Ms. Chen and her husband to send their young son away to live with his grandmother in Shanghai. Ms. Chen’s husband was at one point punished for being elite, given a new job cleaning toilets and banished to a slum. He would die in 1995, two decades after the family finally escaped.
In her memoir’s nail-biting ending, Ms. Chen describes pursuing increasingly desperate measures to acquire the exit visa she and her husband needed to leave China, with their lives under threat as they became entangled in ever bigger political struggles.
One by one, those in the government who could guarantee their escape were targeted by radical officials.
Chen Yi was a civil servant who had been tasked with helping the couple escape. One day, Ms. Chen looked up to see giant posters with his name on them: “Bash in Chen Yi’s Head and Boil Him in Oil!”
In the end, she and her husband were granted visas because of her husband’s friendship with Zhou Enlai. The visas were issued with the understanding Mr. Chen would promote communism abroad.
Today, Ms. Chen’s voice has been drowned out by party historians who gloss over events like the Great Leap Forward and dismiss the estimates of tens of millions of dead as “historical nihilism” intended to undermine the party.
“They say history is on their side and that means they are right,” Ms. Chen said about China’s Communist Party.
But, she added, “If you know the past and the way they did things then, you can understand better what is happening now.”
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