Unearthing a father’s past – by Xujun Eberlein
In May 2012, a stranger contacted me through my website. A professor of cultural psychology at Hampshire College, Q.M. Zhang was interested in talking about Chongqing, the city I grew up in. What triggered her request for a meeting, apparently, was my article titled “Another Kind of American History in Chongqing,” which had appeared on the Atlantic website the previous year. She was writing a memoir about her relationship with her father, who had worked for the Kuomintang (aka the KMT or the Nationalists, the ruling party of China from 1928 to 1949) in Chongqing during WWII.
By contrast, my own parents were underground Communists in the 1940s. So her father and mine, though unknown to each other, had literally been enemies in the same city.
The two descendants of the once political enemies soon met in person. It turns out that Q.M. Zhang, born and raised in the United States, was about to visit Chongqing for the first time in her life. The particular allure was Sino-American Cooperative Organization, or SACO (Zhongmei Hezuosuo 中美合作所), a wartime US Navy organization that cooperated with KMT’s military secret service called Juntong. Zhang’s father was a Juntong radio man at that time, though he had never mentioned SACO to her. I connected Zhang with a knowledgeable SACO researcher in Chongqing whom I had interviewed for my own research.
The next time I heard from Zhang was five years later, when her book, Accomplice to Memory, arrived in the mail. She had finished the memoir she’d told me about.
A memoir is necessarily about the past, about history: personal, familial, and, for chaotic times like those my parents lived through, inevitably national. To me – and many Chinese in my generation – the word “history” almost never fails to conjure a quote: “History is a little girl dressed up however anyone wishes.” In my childhood during the Cultural Revolution, this vehemently criticized quote was attributed to Hu Shih (1891-1962), a Chinese philosopher and scholar, perhaps best known for his exhortation to “research more on issues, talk less about –isms.” Hu Shih always opposed violent revolution. Mao Zedong had once been friends with Hu, but in the mid-1950s launched a major political campaign against him, which forever vilified Hu’s name. After the dust of the Cultural Revolution had settled, however, people who researched the “little girl” quote never found it in Hu’s work. Nonetheless, this saying is carved into our memories and always associated with Hu’s name. If you ask any Chinese person who still remembers this quote today, chances are that they will tell you, in a disdainful tone, that Hu Shih said it.
In a fundamental similarity, if you ask a mainland Chinese person today what SACO is, most likely they will tell you it was an “American-run concentration camp” that tortured and killed underground Communists. This has happened to me repeatedly in recent years as I encountered enthusiastic sightseers on the site where SACO headquarters once stood, now housing a museum, in the western part of Chongqing. A wartime activity little known to Americans, SACO has been a household name in China for more than half a century – except that this public knowledge I grew up with couldn’t be farther from truth.
As I learned years after I immigrated to the United States, the US Navy’s purpose in setting up such an organization was to obtain weather information along China’s coast to help in fighting the Japanese navy. Requested by the Chinese Nationalists who co-ran the organization, the US Navy personnel also trained Chinese agents with espionage techniques, again aimed at fighting the Japanese. Though the US-supplied techniques and equipment were indeed used in China’s civil war, the Americans were never involved in the KMT prisons that later became known as “SACO concentration camps.”
The Chinese government in the Mao era distorted history for ideological and political purposes, but people who believed, and continue to believe, the disinformation have invested in the belief for so long that to admit its wrongness threatens to negate their own spiritual existence. Interestingly, some commendable SACO researchers who struggle to correct this disinformation in China have the tendency to go to the other extreme, defending the KMT’s massacre of Communist prisoners as a necessary means of maintaining societal stability. Self-righteousness is built in to human nature such that it manifests along the entire ideological spectrum, from right to left. There is no evidence that Hu Shih called history “a little girl,” but if he did, it would have been a disillusioned lament.
This makes Q.M. Zhang’s painstaking search for historical truth surrounding her father both an admirable effort and an almost impossible mission, which is why her hybrid memoir deploys fictional and nonfictional means, as well as some 130 historical photographs.
As it turns out, Accomplice to Memory is not about a father-daughter relationship story per se, though occasionally a delicious detail leaps out of the page, such as the school-age daughter catching her father cooking Chinese sausage to satisfy his hunger after everyone has gone to bed, and the two devouring the delicacies together, “our chopsticks voraciously scraping our bowls as the rest of the family slept.” Rather, it would be more accurate to call the book an exploration of the author’s relationship with her father’s memories. As the narrative unfolds, we follow Zhang simultaneously recording confusing conversations at her father’s hospital bed, diligently researching the period in which her father lived in China, and filling in missing details with plausible imagination.
There are two main narrative threads in the book. The first story starts with her father in America, married, and having raised a family, as the man his daughter knew all her life. We meet her father in his decline, at a point where he is struggling with his own ability to remember both the near and distant past. Failing memory and suspect statements are the impetuses for his daughter to try to drag out more of what happened and build in her own mind the picture of where her father came from. The second narrative thread is made of the musings of his daughter, presented as historical fiction (distinguished by italics) with a character named Wang Kun standing in for her father (a careful reader would notice that this is not her father’s real name). The two threads proceed in parallel, and are interleaved with a significant number of historical photos that help verify (or falsify) and bring the stories to life.
There are also two main purposes to the book. One is to serve as a memoir of a man who escaped from China to America in 1950 to establish a life in Meiguo, the “Beautiful Land.” That memoir is full of nuance about China in the 1940s, and provides interesting insights into what it takes for a Chinese man to prosper in America. The second purpose is to delve into the process of uncovering the truth and to show how events, actions, beliefs and shame interact to build up stories that make such discovery difficult. And, just as the narrative threads intertwine, so do these two purposes.
Untruth and misdirection are universal human characteristics. Every person engages in them to some degree, but how they manifest is strongly influenced by cultural and historical conditions. After World War II, China returned to the active pursuit of its ongoing civil war. Both sides, with such apparently diametrically opposed visions for the country, used similar methods to control and monitor their membership and punish their enemies. The reader will experience horrifying photos and stories of Japanese killing Chinese and Chinese killing Chinese, the latter involving the Nationalists executing Communists and, in the Mao era that followed, the Communists executing “class enemies” (which would have included Zhang’s father). The unblinking portrait of human brutality from all sides can only come from a narrator untainted by ideology.
It is against this background that her father’s story unfolds and the narrator tries to figure out what really happened. Her fictional renderings are based on what has been learned so far – as she learns more, the fiction shifts ever so slightly. The effect is similar to a story that keeps changing as the storyteller tries to adapt what is being told to the expectations of the audience, but the source of that change is almost the opposite. The ability of the human mind to fill in information is astonishing, and the author, with considerable knowledge derived from years of research, manages to paint a clear and compelling picture based on that background and the limited information her father has provided. Her initial extrapolations are, of course, often wrong, and soon evolve into something different.
This narrative evolution is the most significant contribution of this book. If you were to randomly pick two italicized passages from different parts of the book, each would seem as believable as the other. Yet when viewed sequentially, we see how the later fictionalizations contain more and more of what is revealed by the statements and silences of her father. There is a good process of discovery – as well as invention – going on that makes sense of each successive narrative. It may be that this is a book worth reading twice, once for the story, and once to understand how we construct stories about what really happened, and what that tells us about ourselves. ∎