China, 1984

The Wall Street Journal Asia, April 25-27, 2008

–Op-Ed by Ying Ma

It was the fall of 1984. It was before the world began obsessing about the rise of China, before the days of double-digit annual economic growth, before the massacre of peaceful pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square, and before riots in Tibet disrupted Beijing’s preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

I was in third grade in Guangzhou, China. My favorite instructor, to whom we referred respectfully as Teacher Yang, was angrier than I had ever seen. “How could you?!” She chastized me, “You’re the captain of the class! You are supposed to set an example for everyone else.” Pointing at me and at a boy standing alone in the front of the classroom, Teacher Yang thundered, “Were you or were you not part of his gang?”

I looked at the boy standing in front of the classroom. My cheeks were red hot.

A gang was a danger to society. I was a model student and had been handpicked by my instructors to be the captain of my class since first grade. My position required no leadership skills, but I had the best grades, a spotless record and the instructors’ favoritism. I had no business joining a gang, but I was indeed a member of his gang.

His gang consisted of about half of the boys of our class. From time to time, they practiced kung fu on a rooftop. They had no instructor and no idea what they were doing, but they were undeterred. Like numerous other Chinese boys, they imagined themselves one day becoming the mythical kung fu figures described in popular, and riveting, Chinese martial arts tales.

The summer before third grade, the boys invited me to join their group. I did not know, and did not ask, why. I assumed it was because every Chinese martial arts story had a heroine and I accepted the invitation believing that their story could have no better heroine than I.

But even childhood fantasies had a way of becoming an offense under authoritarianism. On this afternoon in the fall of 1984, members of our silly little martial arts group discovered that we were also gang members.

Upon learning of our group’s existence, Teacher Yang exploded into a fit of rage. “Absolutely ridiculous! Is this what I have taught you? To form a gang?” Upon ordering the boy who led the group to stand alone in front of the classroom, she turned to me. “Were you or were you not part of his gang?” Mortified that I could be in real trouble for the first time in my life, I slowly made a noise that sounded like “No-o-o-o-o.”

Teacher Yang apparently did not notice my hesitation or my bright red cheeks. She immediately unleashed her anger on the boy standing alone in the front of the class. “You lied?!!” Pounding the podium with her fist, Teacher Yang demanded to know, “Was the captain part of your gang or not?” I froze and waited for his response. He did not hesitate. “She was not,” he said.

“And you spread rumors that she was! How dare you?!” Teacher Yang pounded her podium so loudly now that she looked as if she might reach over and hit him.

I could not fathom why watching or practicing pseudo martial arts was gang activity, but as the captain of the class, I was not used to questioning my teachers’ judgment and wanted even less for Teacher Yang to be angry with me. The boy, hardly a model student and no stranger to her disapproval, took on her anger, including that which he did not deserve.

“Who else was part of this illegal outfit?” Teacher Yang pounded on the podium again, her face even redder now. One by one, the boys from the rooftop stood up. Unlike me, they did not abandon their friend or their “gang.” As each one rose my face got redder and hotter.

For the next half hour, Teacher Yang continued pounding the table and instructed all the “gang” members to go home and reflect on their wrongdoing. From that day on, our martial arts group was disbanded.

It was only many years later that I realized that authoritarianism is always, always suspicious of organized activity springing up outside of its purview. As children growing up in southern China in 1984, we just wanted to go outside and play. The rules of authoritarianism, however, apply to everyone from the aged to the innocent and are enforced by everyone from media censors to public security officials to guardians of the next generation, like Teacher Yang. Though members of our “gang” could not fully understand what we had done wrong, we admitted guilt and endured the reprimands, or in my case, denied involvement and let others take the blame.

Nothing serious or seriously harmful happened to us “gang” members. After all, we were just children. We were not organizing on behalf of peasants rights, challenging the one-child policy, or rioting against Chinese control over Tibet. Many years later, those who did would discover at gun point or in prison the price that their advocacy would exact. In 1984, I only knew that I had lied and in turn, a boy had lied to protect me.

For the rest of the school year, I tried to ignore him. He said nothing, demanding from me neither the regret nor gratitude to which I felt he was entitled. His friends followed suit and also said nothing. But guilt gnawed at me, until one day, near the end of the school year, I could tolerate myself no longer and groveled for forgiveness. “I’m sorry,” I finally mustered the courage to say to him. He looked surprised, almost as if he never believed an apology was necessary or would be forthcoming. In his look of surprise, I realized that he did what he did because he believed it was the right thing to do.

Six months later, I emigrated to the United States with my family. I never saw or heard from the boy again. Despite her tirade and her disbanding of my “gang,” Teacher Yang remained my favorite instructor for years after my departure from Guangzhou.

Daily life under authoritarian rule is not always about the heroics of political dissent challenging the absurdity of government control. It is also about the ambiguity of the rules and the ambivalence of those who live under them. For some living in China today, this may mean detesting their own government while still condemning protestors in Tibet and their overseas supporters for ruining China’s coming out party before the summer Olympics. For the nine-year-old me in 1984, who imagined myself fit to be the heroine of any story, I discovered, amid ambiguity and ambivalence, that the hero of my story was a boy standing alone in front of the classroom, who taught that there was also friendship and loyalty, leadership and defiance.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Asia © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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