Xu Xing rejects mainstream fame in quest for truth

By Liang Chen Source:Global Times Published: 2014-4-11 5:03:02

Xu Xing inspects his broadcast room in the 798 Art Zone in Beijing on March 23. Photo: Liang Chen/GT

Xu Xing never minds being called sanwu - "three nos," as he takes pride being with no permanent job, no social insurance and no house. Normally the term is an insult thrown at migrants or "failures."

Xu became famous as a writer in the 1980s but he gave up mainstream success at 29 to spend his time photographing ordinary farmers who were victims of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Every time he comes to a turn in his life, he says he picks exile, not security. He avoids employment by any firm or agency, and refuses all offers. Freedom, he says, is the most important thing.

After traveling in foreign countries for three years as a visiting scholar, he came back to China, saying his roots are here.

He lived in a rented room in the basement until two years ago when he inherited a flat from his parents in Beijing.

Xu has spent the past seven years producing two documentaries about ordinary people's experience in the Cultural Revolution.

"No one has recorded ordinary people's lives during the Cultural Revolution, and the farmers go unmentioned. But I have to do it. I think ordinary people's lives are worthy of being recorded. It inspires people," Xu told the Global Times..

As he watched one of his documentaries, Crime Summary, being broadcast in a museum that was packed with youngsters born after 1980, he said, "I hope people would never forget this history, and we can reflect upon it."

Rebellious writer

Born in 1956 in Beijing, Xu Xing served as a soldier, then worked as a cleaner at a Peking Roast Duck restaurant in Beijing, where he wrote in his spare time. After his short story collection Variations Without a Theme was published in 1985 and made him famous, the influx of journalists to the restaurant caused trouble.

"My boss said too many interviews had delayed my job, so I quit," Xu said.

Since then, he has never stopped writing and has won many international awards. Many of his books were translated into other languages and welcomed by the market, especially in France, where he lived for several years.  In 2003, he was named a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres.

He has been a visiting scholar in several foreign countries since 1989, including Germany, France and the US.

But his lasting obsession has been with the Cultural Revolution. It's "like a long scar on China's face," he says.

"People should not forget it," Xu told the Global Times, adding that some malevolent or ignorant people are covering up an ugly history.

 "I was so young that I was shocked to see so much violence, blood and conflicts," Xu, who was 10 when the Cultural Revolution started, said.

Instead of getting excited by the violence, Xu said, he was horrified.

"You would see people were somehow excited and fully aroused when they saw blood or got to be violent to others. I really wanted to find out why," Xu said.

Xu was a born contrarian. Even as a teenager, he questioned his peers' Maoist fanaticism. "People were gathered to read the Little Red Book and bow in front of the statues of Chairman Mao. Did they really worship the man deep in their heart?" Xu queried.

After Xu returned to China in the 1992, he made it his personal crusade to record ordinary people's memories about the Cultural Revolution.

His first documentary about the period, My Personal Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution, was based on his own love story. He invited a woman who he had a crush on in middle school but migrated to the US back to China and recalled how the Cultural Revolution cast a shadow over his romance.

"This is the expression of art. To show people how the revolution influenced my own life and my family is also inspiring," Xu told the Global Times.

Xu said he hoped it would cause people to remember the terrible damage done by the Cultural Revolution, especially given that now "some people are plotting to beautify the period."

His biggest hobby is burying himself in the editing room. "Producing a documentary is like a woman giving birth to a baby. You take care of the documentary like a your own child. When it enters the world, you feel empty for a while," Xu said.

His second documentary, Crime Summary, is about farmers who were labelled as "counter-revolutionaries" due to careless talk or accidental actions. One man was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment after he aimed at the statue of Chairman Mao with an air pistol.

Fear inside

"We've heard of stories about famous people being criticized and punished during the Cultural Revolution, but we seldom hear about ordinary farmers' experiences."  Millions of people across the country were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, humiliated, imprisoned, crippled, or murdered. While many histories published in the West have concentrated on ordinary people's experiences, in China attention has focused only on famous figures such as politicians and artists.

That history of the farmers is blank, Xu said, and he has to fill in that blank.

By visiting almost all the countryside in Zhejiang Province, Xu found 13 farmers whose lives were destroyed after they were labeled as "counter-revolutionaries." Most of them were never able to shake off the stigma even after the movement was condemned in the late 1970s and many people rehabilitated.

Xu said he was shocked that the fear of power created during the persecutions has never disappeared among these farmers.

"Now, decades have passed. But you can still feel the fear inside the farmers. Time failed to heal the wounds and scars," Xu said.

Family members, friends, relatives and acquaintances were encouraged and inspired to report and reveal any "suspicious behavior" or "attacks" on the government or the worship of Mao.

During the shooting of the documentary, sometimes farmers would stop talking, ask Xu whether they said something wrong, and request him to delete some "improper" words.

Xu lives alone. His parents died, still regretful about their son's alternative lifestyle.

But Xu has no regrets.

"Freedom is the most important thing," he reiterated.

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