Xinran Xue

China Witness

© 2008

To the Mothers of China

and my mother, Xujun

Map of China and the Journey


List of Illustrations


Chapter 1: A herb shop, Xingyi, 2006.

Chapter 2: 'Double-Gun Woman' with her family.

Her son-in-law, Lin Xiangbei, with daughter and grandchildren.

Chapter 3: Workers of 148 Corps, 1950s, Shihezi.

With survivors of 148 Corps, Shihezi, 2006. (Photo Kate Shortt)

Chapter 4: Oil pioneers, north-west China, 1950; and in Hezheng, 2006.

Chapter 5: Acrobats practising, 1950s, and on tour, South America, 1990s.

Chapter 6: The news singer reciting, 2006.

Traditional tea house, 2006. (Photo Kate Shortt)

Chapter 7: Lantern workshop, Nanjing, 1950s, and a lantern-maker, 2006.

Chapter 8: A survivor of the Long March, 1947 and 1987.

Chapter 9: General Phoebe as a child, Chicago, 1933, and in Beijing, 2006.

Chapter 10: A policeman with his family, Zhengzhou, 1960s and 2001.

Chapter 11: A shoe-mender woman, Zhengzhou, 2006. (Photos Kate Shortt)

(Unless otherwise indicated above in brackets, photos are from the author's collection and supplied by kind permission of interviewees.)

Glossary and Abbreviations

CCP: Chinese Communist Party, the ruling party of the PRC, founded 1921.

GMD: Guomindang (also Kuomintang/KMT), the Nationalist Party, founded 1912; for many years the most powerful party in China, defeated by Mao Zedong's PLA forces in 1949, when the GMD retreated to Taiwan where it survived as the dominant political party until 2000.

PLA: People's Liberation Army, founded 1927 as the military arm of the CCP to put down GMD rebellion in the Nanchang Uprising of August 1927; originally known as the Chinese Red Army, it was established as the PLA at the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1945, when China's civil war continued and the PLA finally defeated the GMD in 1949. Comprising all China's military forces, it is now the world's largest standing army.

PRC: People's Republic of China, established 1949, at the end of the Chinese civil war.

Han Chinese: the largest single ethnic group native in China, making up about 92% of the population of the PRC.

Hui Chinese: a mainly Moslem Chinese ethnic group, one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognised by the PRC.

xiucai: one of the degrees of the competitive Imperial examinations for entry to provincial government bureaucracy which survived into the twentieth century.

Three Antis (1951) and the Five-Antis (1952): Mao Zedong's campaigns aimed at rooting out corruption and enemies of the state, particularly in bureaucracy and business; targeting his political opposition and capitalists, these movements consolidated his power base

Three Red Banners: the 3 principles held up in the 1950s for the building of socialism – the General (Party) Line, the Great Leap Forward and the People's Communes.

Great Leap Forward: Mao Zedong's Second Five-Year Plan, 1958-60, intended to transform China rapidly into a modern industrial society, which resulted in famine and ended in economic and humanitarian disaster, during which millions of Chinese starved to death.

Reform through Labour (Laogai): a slogan of the criminal justice system of convict labour instigated by Mao Zedong in the 1950s, modelled on the Soviet Gulags.

Four Clean-Ups: a movement, also called The Socialist Education Movement, launched by Mao Zedong in 1963 to cleanse reactionary elements from politics, economy, bureaucracy, ideology.

Reform and Opening: the opening up of China and relations with the West under Deng Xiaoping.


1 yuan (CNY) = 10 jiao = 100 fen

1 UK pound = approx. 14 yuan (May 2008)

1 US dollar = approx. 7 yuan (May 2008)

1 yuan = approx. 7 pence/14 cents (May 2008)


Oil in China has historically been measured in tonnes rather than the more familiar barrels.

1 tonne oil = approx. 7-9 barrels, depending on the type of oil.


This book is a testament to the dignity of modern Chinese lives.

It has been not only a personal journey for me through the experiences of my parents' generation, but also – for my interviewees – a process of self-discovery, of revisiting and refining their memories of the past. While I have wondered what questions to ask, they have needed to think about what answers to give; about how to describe a twentieth century that, in many respects, has been full of suffering and trauma. For Chinese people, it is not easy to speak openly and publicly about what we truly think and feel. And yet this is exactly what I have wanted to record:

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