Karoline Kan attempts to weave together a narrative of her generation in her book, Under Red Skies, the first English-language memoir from a Chinese millennial published in the US.
Kan, who was born in 1989 as an illegal second child under China’s one-child policy, says it’s the stories of ordinary Chinese like herself that showcase the real China. Here, she details the experience of junxun, mandatory military training for college freshmen, shortly after starting university in Beijing. Though gruelling, the experience prompted her to learn more about June 4, or the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, an event that defined the year of her birth that was missing from the history books.
Two weeks after my arrival, [my political counselor-adviser] Guan Xin said I had to start junxun, a form of military training all college freshmen in China must complete. It was supposed to give us a tougher mind-set. Junxun lasted anywhere from two weeks to a month. It had been instated after the Tiananmen Square incident on June 4, when the government sent soldiers to clear people out from the square, during which many students were killed.How is this boot camp supposed to make me love the government?
Discussion of the June Fourth Incident was prohibited. I was curious about the movement, but our generation had no way of learning more, despite living with the consequences of it. […]
Junxun sounded ridiculous, to say the least. How is this boot camp supposed to make me love the government and appreciate the party more? I was sure I hated the idea before it even started. [...]
We arrived at what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, in a forest of poplar trees and dark green mountains in the distance, and parked in front of a small compound. Hanging on the front wall was a large red banner: “Welcome, Soldiers from Beijing International Studies University.”
The ceremony started with the raising of the national flag to the music of the national anthem. Our president and the director of the military base gave speeches but I hardly paid attention. My mind was consumed by the twenty or so uniformed men and women who stood beside the stage—I wondered what their roles would be.
We were divided into thirty groups, with men and women separate. I was put in team fourteen, with another forty girls. The jiaoguan, or drill instructors, went around to locate their teams. Our jiaoguan, Liu Lihu, had a round baby face. We were told to address him as “Sir Liu.” He had been a real soldier and had just finished his two years of service…
We got up at 5:30 a.m. and went to bed at 10 p.m. In the morning, we’d run for thirty minutes and then do thirty minutes of junlvquan, or stretching. We were taught to march in military two-steps, moving our legs in unison upon the jiaoguan’s instruction, “one-two-one.” One was left foot, and two was right foot.
<span class="s1">We were taught that obedience is the first principle for good soldiers, even temporary soldiers like us.
We had the same breakfast every day: rice porridge, pickled cabbage, seaweed and peanuts, spicy and salty tofu, and a boiled egg, and had to stand, ten students to a table, to eat. If we weren’t quiet enough while we waited to be served, a jiaoguan could make us squat under the table until the others finished eating. No one was allowed to touch their chopsticks without the jiaoguan’s permission. For lunch and dinner, the formation that marched the most sharply in unison and chanted the patriotic marching songs the loudest was allowed into the canteen first. If our jiaoguan believed we were not trying hard enough, he would delay mealtime. No one wanted that. After a day filled with activities of all sorts, by dinner, it felt as if my stomach had been buried in my back. When the jiaoguan blew his whistle to signal that we could begin eating, we went at our food like a pack of hungry wolves. There were only four communal dishes placed before us, to be shared. For the first few meals, I was polite and ate at my usual speed. One day a girl standing next to me started scooping more than her share into her own bowl, and it became a full-on scramble. I wasn’t quick enough to get much beyond the only things left: dry and tasteless rice and steamed buns. From that day on, I forgot about being polite. Before the jiaoguan blew his whistle, I would already have my eyes fixed on the dish I wanted and had strategized the right angle to stretch out my chopsticks. When I heard the whistle, I’d jump up and grab as much as I could manage to hoard. Within one minute, the dishes were empty; we all ate silently, holding our bowls close.
Everything in training was about being straight. We had to stand up straight, sit up straight, and speak facing straight forward. Before we could go to the toilet or drink a swig of water, we had to ask permission. We were taught that obedience is the first principle for good soldiers, even temporary soldiers like us...
I didn’t understand the jiaoguans’ agenda or their rules. We were not soldiers. Yet every morning we had two hours of “military theory lessons” in the canteen. The dining tables were moved to a corner, and we sat on the floor. A wooden desk was put in the middle of the room for guest speakers from the Party School of the Central Committee, who droned on and on in an almost robotic fashion about Chinese military defense systems, wars, and geopolitics. Most of us ended up falling asleep during their lectures.
In the first few days, Sir Liu would yell at the napping students and take them out to stand in the sun as punishment, but soon this stopped being effective. There were too many napping students, and he couldn’t keep interrupting the guest speaker.
Some speakers read the materials plainly and left, but others relished the opportunity to teach us young spoiled kids a real lesson.
<span class="s1">When you are forced to love something, it loses all its charm.
Years ago, when politics was thrust upon me in school, I felt a need to respect it enough to try to care. I wanted to know what I should think and desire, and I was grateful to have the government there to tell me. My friends and classmates felt the same, but growing up with a mothering government all your life, there is only one thing to do: grow tired of it. I was not interested in learning how to be a Chinese soldier, and I was growing annoyed with being their student. When you are forced to love something, it loses all its charm.
“Do you know why this class is important?” one speaker, Professor Chen, asked.
Professor Chen looked fiftysomething and had a thin, solemn face. His voice was resonant and deep, and he sat very straight. He was decorated with more medals than any other speaker. “You think the idea of war is far off, don’t you?” He paused for a few seconds. “No! We’re very close to war—more than you think. There is a global bully—called the USA—and don’t you forget it!”
A few of us looked at each other, wondering where the heck he was going with this.“Don’t be naive like those students in 1989 who believed Western democracy would bring about a perfect world.”
“Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has never dropped its ambitions to overthrow our party and cause unrest in our country. The US peddles its values all over the world and goes to war with any country who won’t listen. Americans engage in spiritual colonization and call it ‘American culture.’” He sneered. “You need to watch out, every one of you.” He shouted his last plea at a high volume: “Watch out!”
…I was so drowsy I just wanted his speech to end, but he went on. “Corruption is not a product of the socialist system. Russia has a so-called elected president, but corruption is still rampant. India has a democracy, but it’s all chaos. Don’t be naive like those students in 1989 who believed Western democracy would bring about a perfect world.”
Suddenly I perked up, surprised that he mentioned the 1989 incident. Now I wanted him to say more. “Lies!” he said, but didn’t elaborate.
I had heard people refer to the 1989 protest and the June Fourth Tiananmen Massacre; as I mentioned earlier, the protest lasted for more than a month but what makes June Fourth so memorable are the killings.
Although subjects like the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward were still sensitive, people were relatively eager to talk about them. The 1989 student riot seemed to be the most sensitive story, because my family just shrugged away any questions I had about it.
“You are the generation of 1989,” a family friend once said to me. I wanted him to go on, but he didn’t. “You’ll understand when you get older.”
One day, when I was about twelve, I found a copy of Banyuetan magazine that explained it:
That was all I knew.
<span class="s1">Never blindly believe in anything told by your teacher<em>.</em>
But as I’ve grown older, I realize my personal connection with 1989 goes far beyond just the year I was born. Lying in my bunk bed in the Changping military base, I realized that I was no longer a typical Chinese student. I wanted more than to be told when to pee, what to drink, and when to feel that I wanted social change.
During high school, in a class called the Comprehensive History of Modern and Contemporary China, I looked for a chapter in our textbook and on the syllabus about 1989, but there was no mention of it. Normally, I would not have expected to see it, but our teacher, Teacher Xioping, was different from the others. She was in her forties and wore vintage, floral-patterned dresses. On the first day, she wrote on the blackboard, Never blindly believe in anything told by your teacher. In her class, she always threw questions in the air; it wasn’t just about memorization. Her bright eyes were full of expectation. She didn’t ask us to raise our hands. We could talk or even shout out the answers if we liked. She didn’t want robots in her class; she wanted us to learn and study with our whole mind and, more importantly, our hearts. She challenged us to look for answers.
When I told her that the history textbook was missing the year of my birth, she said, “It could never be explained fairly in a Chinese textbook, Chaoqun.” I was disappointed.
She continued: “A Chinese textbook could never illustrate the vibrancy of the 1980s. Don’t rely too closely on these books. When you get older, try to read as much as possible, and find the truth of right and wrong for yourself.”
Teacher Xioping was unlike any teacher I had ever met. She spoke to us of dreams, philosophy, art, and poems— and it wasn’t just the patriotic propaganda. There was an eagerness in her eyes to tell us more, to inspire us, but still, she was like a dancer in chains. She was reluctant to explain too much. She’d get in trouble.
W<span class="s1">e had modern products and entertainment to distract us—to pacify us into submission.
Few of my classmates and friends were curious about June Fourth or admired Teacher Xioping as I did. Questioning was not valued, so the students didn’t bother. Our parents and instructors taught us for years that too much curiosity would bring us trouble. Change was downplayed and criticized, and seemed to be inappropriate for the era we lived in. My generation was already lucky—we had modern products and entertainment to distract us—to pacify us into submission. But I longed for 1989, and filled my days with dreams of what it would be like to challenge, to be vocal, and to change things.
The rest of the junxun passed much faster. During the closing ceremony, the university president and each department’s director spoke onstage again. They were in uniform, but this time so was I. I marched past the stage in lockstep and chanted in unison like a little soldier: “Study hard and protect the motherland.” It was our graduation. We were taught to obey and accept orders, and to enjoy it, to think about nothing and make no decisions for ourselves, just follow and obey …Except, in my heart, I had already made a decision not to.
I was now determined to discover the truth about June Fourth.<span class="s1">
When my classmates and I returned to normal life, things were pretty much the same. We again spent too much time on our phones, and slept in late. We still complained about the food in the canteens. But military training had left some mark on us. I wondered how different it had made me. If college students were as blank as a sheet of clean paper, the junxun was the first color we were painted. Even if it faded with time, it would always be there, part of us. The most blatant mark junxun left on me was that I was now determined to discover the truth about June Fourth.
This following excerpt was adapted from Karoline Kan’s book Under Red Skies, publishing March 12 from Hachette Books. All rights reserved.
via Quartz https://qz.com/1527810/what-chinas-forced-military-training-for-students-is-like/ TV Aerial Installations Wetherby
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