In this letter, the author mentioned an article on People's Daily on March 3, 1983, seemingly justifying Fu Ping's claim of (in)fame. But that was half a year after Fu Ping's alleged arrest.
BEIJING — “I remember we heard a nightingale together, on the boulevard near the Sacred Heart convent. But there are no nightingales in North America.” So wrote Mary McCarthy in “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood,” challenging the reliability of memory.
Reviewing the book in 1957 in The New York Times, Charles Poore said, “We all add to our memories of childhood appropriate bits of what we have read or heard since then.”
The fallibility of memory may partly explain the fracas surrounding “Bend, Not Break,” a recently published business-cum-personal memoir by Ping Fu, born in 1958, of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, moving to the United States and founding a successful software company called Geomagic.
Ms. Fu, too, has her “nightingale” moment, in Nanjing. Red Guards, she writes, had sent her there from her childhood home of Shanghai (where she was staying without a residence permit, with relatives) to live at the university where her father taught. (In her narrative, her parents were banished to the countryside soon after she arrived.) There she was forced by Red Guards to watch a teacher “quartered by four horsemen on the soccer field.”
Details like that have produced a storm of opposition from some Chinese, especially in the United States, who accuse Ms. Fu of lying.
The Cultural Revolution was bad for many, they agree, but it’s important to be accurate. Ms. Fu’s story simply isn’t.
“I personally feel that it is very important to use facts and rigid analysis instead of fabricated stories to bridge various knowledge and cultural gaps between China and the outside world,” Kevin Tu, who is Chinese and lives in the United States, wrote in an e-mail.
“While I can easily enjoy reading books such as ‘Mao’s Great Famine”’ — Frank Dikötter’s account of the brutality of the Great Leap Forward — “I just couldn’t accept the fact someone like Fu Ping intentionally misbehaved for personal gain,” Mr. Tu wrote.
Accusations are flying in online forums. Calm voices are hard to find.
Other things the critics don’t believe: that she was “quietly deported” to the United States in 1984 for writing a university thesis about female infanticide; that she was gang-raped by Red Guards.
On that last point, Ms. Fu said by telephone from the United States, “They are in denial.”
Rape happened during the Cultural Revolution, she said. She stands by her statement that she was told to leave, though she agrees “deported” wasn’t a good choice of word.
And Ms. Fu has since said that the quartering by horse was an “emotional memory,” something Ms. McCarthy explored. There may be more admissions to come. “If I have made any factual errors, I’d be more than happy to correct them in the next printing,” she said.
Her critics will be glad to hear that. Perhaps what’s needed to calm the storm is for Penguin, her publisher, to appoint a fact-checker.
Yet the difficulty is that the instant something sounds bizarre, closer investigation finds kernels of possible truth.
She writes that state agents abducted her after they heard about her infanticide paper and that she was detained for three days in stinking conditions. Such things still happen in China.
Ms. Fu sent me a scanned copy of what she said was a letter from a fellow student, dated May 1982. In the hand-written letter, he mentions that Ms. Fu left university abruptly, without graduating, as all the others were finishing their theses — under mysterious circumstances that classmates gossiped about but didn’t understand.
He writes that college officials were saying that Ms. Fu had a nervous breakdown after being jilted. A classmate was named as the former boyfriend.
Ms. Fu said in the interview that this was a cover-up and that in reality she was in political trouble, that her thesis had been secretly passed by a sympathetic teacher to a newspaper and traveled up the chain. Eventually, she said, it caused a national and international scandal about the abuses of the one-child policy.
In the letter, the classmate wonders if the story about the jilting was true. He writes that he spoke to the jilter “for about an hour” about Ms. Fu, but the man was distant and “He says he was also a victim.”
By 1983, state news media were reporting on female infanticide. “At present, the phenomena of butchering, drowning and leaving to die female infants and maltreating women who have given birth to female infants have been very serious. It has become a grave social problem,” People’s Daily reported on March 3 of that year, according to a New York Times article dated April 11.
If it’s difficult to establish the truth, there’s a reason: 37 years after the Cultural Revolution, it’s still impossible to research, discuss or publish about it freely in China. Censorship is harsh — there are well-known people who have much to hide about what they did, some say. Guilt lingers. The result is confusion, despite a deep well of personal memory (memory again!). The field is open for denial, exaggeration and shame. “Proof” is often merely recollection, Ms. McCarthy’s unreliable friend.
Is Ms. Fu telling the truth, but people just don’t know it? Or are “nightingales” singing in a self-dramatizing narrative? Until China opens its archives and permits open debate, we won’t know. Not for sure. Because even “experts” on China are often wrong. The facts just aren’t available.