Old 100 names: Witnesses of China's history
- 19 October 2012
- From the section Magazine
Chinese has a word for the people whose names don't make it into the history books - the Laobaixing or "old 100 names". They have witnessed history, even if they have only played a bit part. They have also inherited their community's folk memory and will pass it on to their children.
Mountains behind. Blue sky above. And all around a forest of gold spears. Mei Jingtian is harvesting his maize with a scythe. It's a scene which can't have changed much in hundreds of years.
The sweetcorn is fine this year. Heavy summer rains have made the cobs swell.
He plaits the cobs by their leaves ready to hang over a rope in his courtyard. There'll be plenty to sell.
Mr Mei's forbears have been farming under the shadow of the Great Wall since the mid-17th Century.
But as well as farming, he works as a fire warden, walking the hills on either side of the Great Wall warning tourists to put out their cigarettes. The autumn air is hot and dry - forest fires are a constant danger.
The valley commands a strategic pass, Shixiaguan. Four hundred years ago, China's Ming dynasty emperors built a fortress here to keep the northern tribes at bay.
Mr Mei leads me through walnut trees and sunflowers to a well which he says may be even older.
Water is a problem across China. There's either too much or too little.
In fact, there's a theory that taming water drove the emergence of the state - a bureaucracy to manage irrigation systems and despotism to force people to build them.
"Some historians have described China as being a hydraulic society, that the control of water is absolutely everything," says Frances Wood, curator of the Chinese collection at the British Library.
"You have these great river systems. The Yellow River picks up huge amounts of this yellow earth and so you get the river silting up and it will occasionally burst its banks. And when it bursts its banks, it crosses thousands and thousands of miles of agricultural land.
"And that's happened 10, 15, 20 times in Chinese history."
The disruption caused by the floodwaters has sometimes helped trigger rebellion, and the collapse of central power. Analysts often say that the Chinese public will put up with quite a lot, because they fear the alternative - disunity.
"A lot of people would almost rather anything than getting to a position of break-up of central power, because it's a very, very frightening thought," says Wood.
"They do have very good examples. You get things like Chiang Kaishek breaching the walls of the dykes of the Yellow River, deliberately flooding areas and so on. The chaos that can happen in warlord times is very frightening for ordinary people."
In 1938 the Nationalist leader Chiang Kaishek was trying to slow the Japanese invasion of China. But flooding the Yellow River killed at least half a million ordinary Chinese and made another three million homeless.
In Shixia village everyone over 75 gets a free lunch from the local government. There's a round table seating about 10 people, each with an airline style lunch tray in front of them. On the menu, stir fried meat and veg with rice.
The veteran here is a 90-year-old in a blue cotton jacket who fought the Japanese in his youth.
His name is Zhang Sengqi and he says he was just 16 when he was captured by the Japanese.
He thought they were going to kill him but he managed to convince them he was only a farmer not a communist guerrilla so they let him go.
An old lady remembering the same period says girls had to hide or they'd be raped by Japanese soldiers.
But it wasn't just Japanese soldiers who made life miserable for Chinese women.
In the old days, Li Shulan says, they had to do what their own men folk said and had no say in anything. Women were chattels. She herself was sold as a child bride at the age of six, got no schooling and was forced to supplement her meagre rations with wild grasses.
She sings a song about the misery of being a woman, looked down upon from birth, thrown away or given away.
"Oh sisters let's unite now and destroy the old order, abolish arranged marriages, fight for the day of liberation and win equality between men and women," it goes.
Well the communists did give women a better deal, and they promoted literacy and got rid of the landlords. Many ordinary people wanted to believe that these were the righteous rebels who occasionally turn up in Chinese history to get rid of a corrupt regime and drive out a foreign invader.
And as they stack their trays and prepare to go home for an afternoon sleep many of these old people remember life before and remain grateful to the Party today.
Folk memory is strong here. There are many stories handed down from generation to generation.
Mr Mei explains to me the part his village played in a crucial moment of history, as we stand on a ridge looking down at a narrow pass with mountains rising steeply on either side.
The year is 1644, one of those moments when the mandate of heaven changes hands.
Peasant rebel Li Zicheng is determined to sweep away a corrupt Ming emperor and only the Great Wall stands between him and the capital.
Mr Mei says the gate that guards the pass is impregnable from the front. But a farmer knows a secret tunnel just above us and shows it to the rebels.
Li Zicheng and a small band of his bravest men crawl through the tunnel, scramble down and attack the gate from the rear. They kill the guards, open the gates and the rebel army gallops through the pass to capture Beijing.
It's a story with a sad ending for the village though.
Only a year later, Li Zicheng is overthrown and forced to retreat north. He holds the locals responsible for the loss of some of his soldiers. So he rounds up the entire population - hundreds of people - and has them slaughtered.
Mr Mei and the other families who live here now are descendants of those who moved in after the massacre.
Lots of countries have a bloody history, but is China's history bloodier than most?
"Do not be alarmed if there should be war. It would merely mean getting people killed and we've seen people killed in war. Eliminating half of the population occurred several times in China's history," says Chairman Mao, as he enthuses about China's nuclear weapons programme in 1958.
Despite claiming to speak for the people, Mao was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions in failed economic experiments and political purges. And war was his natural element.
"We have no experience in atomic war. So, how many will be killed cannot be known. The best outcome may be that only half of the population is left and the second best may be only one-third.
"When 900 million are left out of 2.9 billion, several five-year plans can be developed for the total elimination of capitalism and for permanent peace. It is not a bad thing."
Is there a more callous quotation in history? I can't think of one in Chinese history, although many emperors have shown a similar disregard for human life. China's political dissidents see the one-party system as the problem.
During the Tiananmen Square democracy protests in 1989 one of the leaders, Liu Xiaobo, said China had had enough of emperors - communist or Confucian.
"For several thousand years, Chinese society has been living in a vicious cycle of a new emperor replacing an old emperor. History has proved that when an unpopular leader steps down and a popular leader steps up, this does not solve the essential problems of Chinese politics. What we need is not a perfect saviour, but a perfect democratic system."
Liu Xiaobo has since won a Nobel peace prize but is serving a prison sentence for subversion.
The Communist Party has moved away from personality cults towards collective leadership, and offered the people a deal - one-party rule in exchange for the good life.
Bathrooms, central heating, refrigerator… the key comforts of city life have come to Shixia village, and I don't think I've ever seen a TV bigger than the one in Song Aiping's front room.
Song Aiping had breast cancer last year, and most of her treatment was covered by state health insurance. Life now is good, but when we get onto history her eyes fill with tears.
Her father was a school teacher and in 1966 during the political frenzy of the Cultural Revolution his own pupils denounced him as a counter-revolutionary. Song Aiping remembers watching in terror at struggle sessions where they hauled him up on stage and beat him.
In the end he could bear the shame no longer and hanged himself.
No-one would help cut down his body. No-one would call a doctor. Everyone wanted to keep their distance from a family in disgrace.
Song Aiping was 12 when her father died and she's 52 now. But she still seems traumatised by the horror of that day.
For Song Aiping's generation the trauma was the Cultural Revolution. For her parents' generation it was Japanese occupation and civil war.
One cannot help being struck by just how many despots, rebellions and invasions the Chinese people have endured. But then there are the glory days, like the magnificent Tang and Song dynasties, which occurred while Europe was still in the Dark Ages.
Europe had already embarked on the Renaissance when the fortress was built on the Great Wall at Shixiaguan.
Mei Jingtian explains that 50 odd years ago, when he was just 16, he was ordered to help pull down the 16th Century fortress's gate tower.
But these days, when he's not harvesting his maize or preventing fires, Mr Mei is rescuing history.
He shows me a slab of stone about as big as a gravestone but twice as thick. It once sat high above the fortress gate. Two characters carved into the stone read: "Welcome to the rising sun."
This slab disappeared along with the rest, buried for 40 years under a neighbour's foundations till Mr Mei dug it out.
Soon all the slabs will come to light. The government wants to develop the area for tourism and has built apartments for the villagers a few miles away. They don't want to go but history has taught them deference to a paternalistic state.
"China has always been like that. I would say it comes from Confucianism," says Yang Shu, a cinematographer who's worked on several historical films.
"The emperor, the minister, the father, the son, that's the order of the society. If you belong to the lower rank, you don't have any right to say anything. You've been ruled by your father. And your father by the ministers. And them by the king. So always been like that.
"It's not only the present government. It's just in the culture."
In the past decade, though, China has seen a new kind of people power - protests about environmental pollution or land disputes organised via social media and mobile phones.
"Today we're seeing really for the first time, the old 100 names, able to articulate their ideas in a kind of public sphere," says Kaiser Kuo, now a spokesman for Baidu, China's largest internet search engine.
Internet penetration is only about 40%, he acknowledges, but that 40% does now include a lot of people who have very ordinary jobs in cities or small towns, and even some villagers.
"Their voices are now heard, in cyberspace at least," says Kuo. "And that has come to function as a kind of public spirit, that China has never in its very long history actually had.
"I think that this is absolutely unprecedented, and it has given the Chinese leadership itself a vantage point, on the feelings of ordinary citizens that I think perhaps has made it a more responsive and deliberative and participatory leadership."
The big TV is on in Song Aiping's house. She and her husband do have a computer but far from being online, it's not even plugged in. They like watching the news.
Tension flared last month over some Pacific islands - disputed territory with Japan. Now the row is a huge story on state TV.
Critics say the Chinese government is cynically wrapping itself in the flag, targeting an old historical foe to distract from domestic problems in the run up to next month's Communist Party congress.
But Wang Mangang, Song Aiping's husband, wants robust action.
He says the government response is weak, and ordinary people like him, old 100 names, think they should take back the islands by force. This is not the China of 50 years ago, he says. Now China is strong.
The islands are a problem left over from history and so are the emotions surrounding them.
There is a lot of unresolved history in China, some of it too recent and too painful to address, but not far below the surface. And deep history matters too - the cycles of unity and fragmentation, and the deference punctuated by rebellion that defines the relationship between people and state.
I suppose we are all driven by our history in ways that are conscious and unconscious. If China's new leadership gives citizens a chance to shape their future, their past will be present to all of us.