The way Ping Fu tells the story, she spent years trying not to write a book.
It was friends and editors who prevailed up on her to tell her life story as a survivor of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In her life they saw an inspiring Horatio Alger tale of a near-penniless exile who arrived in the United States in 1984 to become Inc. magazine’s 2005 entrepreneur of the year.
Today Fu’s name may be better known outside the Triangle than locally. As a founder of Morrisville-based Geomagic, a 3D software imaging company, she was named by President Barack Obama in 2010 to the White House National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Then came her book, “Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds,” published Dec. 31 by Penguin. It chronicles Fu’s forced separation from her family, her decade spent in a re-education center, her experience being gang-raped at 10, and her witness to Red Guards having a teacher drawn-and-quartered by horses.
The book received favorable reviews in this country, but the reaction in China was unexpected.
Fu’s memoir was attacked online as a blatant fabrication by a Chinese blogger, Fang Zhouzi, who mobilized legions of sympathetic followers to torpedo Fu’s reputation. He alleged that Fu was no victim but a member of the privileged elite who is exploiting Western ignorance and gullibility.
The attacks on Fu’s credibility took place in the midst of Geomagic’s pending acquisition by 3D Systems. She says the online offensive is ongoing and could continue for years, based on the attacker’s established pattern.
Still, in an age of faked memoirs, accusations of fakery can’t be dismissed out of hand. Fu, 54, has been forced to defend herself and validate her account. She has acknowledged that her book contains some typos and errors, but she stands by the integrity of her writing as a personal memoir.
In a personal plea in the Huffington Post, Fu wrote that the ferocity of the barrage has caused her to relive the emotional abuse of the Cultural Revolution. “This smear campaign reveals the dark side of China,” she wrote.
In recent months her name has circulated in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The New York Times and other media outlets in a swirling debate about memory, history, victimization and self-reinvention. Last week the Times concluded, indecisively, that “it’s difficult to establish the truth” about Fu’s account as long as China is shackled by censorship and keeps closed its historical archives.
The Daily Beast, an online news site, decided in Fu’s favor. The news site concluded she is the victim of an organized “hate campaign” being carried out by “an army of Chinese bloggers” who may be abetted by the party and government. “The campaign has morphed into a vindictive effort to destroy her life, to have her honors and awards withdrawn, the pending sale of Geomagic disrupted.”
Ping Fu spoke to N&O reporter John Murawski last week about her new memoir and the controversy surrounding it. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Where did the idea to write a book come from?
I talked in the book that (in 2005) I went through a deep training, kind of a psychological and sociology training, and in there I got hypnotized, and I was crying like crazy, and that’s when my floodgate opened the first time. It’s called a Grinnell Leadership Training. He has a hypnotism session, and it’s deep. It’s the first time I experienced that. … I cried through three boxes of tissues. And they asked me why I was crying, and I started talking. … After I came out of the class, I was much more vulnerable and much more open, and that’s when the Inc. reporter was there. I would have never told the Inc. reporter my whole life story if it wasn’t for this session. It opened me up with the past, and it put me in this vulnerable position at the time. … I revealed whatever I remembered basically, and he wrote a big story. That event caused a lot of people following me with interviews, and I was approached by an agent to write a book. I went in, I did some research, I did a proposal, and I decided not to write it. They even assigned me a co-author. We went down that route. We spent a year doing research. We wrote a book proposal. And I pulled out.
Q: Why did you change your mind?
I didn’t want to write a book. It was too involved, too painful, and my daughter was too young. She was just becoming a teenager, and I didn’t want to subject her to the Cultural Revolution at that time.
Q: How was the book idea later revived?
Then my daughter turned 18, and she went to college. And somehow I had a lot of time in the evenings and weekends. You suddenly have an empty nest. And that just triggered me to write a book. My new co-author knows a lot about China. … She’s a ghost writer for the Dalai Lama’s book also, and she’s a Buddhist. … She takes a look at my material, and she says, “Oh my God, I’ve never seen anything like this. You should write this book. I would really like to help you. Why don’t we write a business book? It’s really easy. Let’s pick eight principles of Ping.” … The second thing that happened was I wanted to not write – again. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a book. So I wanted to withdraw.
Q: What happened this time?
I’m an introvert. I never really wanted to write a book. I don’t have a strong incentive to write a book. … It’s a lot of work. So half-way through it, I don’t like what the book is.
Q: How did the book project evolve?
I needed to change the voice. I needed to write this book like I’m sitting on the kitchen counter telling the story to my daughter. So that evolved into adding more of the past into the book. So it’s at that point that I committed to writing the book – because I suddenly I felt like it’s a book worth writing. … I was also trying to show in this book the in-between spaces where the opportunity lies. So the two worlds are China and America, which have different ideologies, but at end the two big countries have a lot of similarities. Two mothers, one is very loving, one’s very analytical. And two fields of study, art and science. And what happened when I combined those – I was trying to show the opportunity lies between the extremes. It end up to be a business memoir because more than half of it is about business, entrepreneurship.
Q: Did you expect Chinese nationalists to attack your credibility?
This caught me totally by surprise. I thought maybe there would be some negative grumblings, but I never expected anything like this.
Q: How do you explain the intensity of the attacks against you?
Forbes did an interview with me, and Forbes translated that interview in Chinese. The translation had some errors in there. … But what really happened is the Forbes article comes one day after The New York Times broke the story about the (Chinese) hackers. My attack comes one day after.
Q: What do you think is Fang Zhouzi’s motive?
He even said in his second or third posting, he said, “I don’t care about Ping being the casualty, what I’m going after is Western Media.” So he mobilized a lot of people to assault every media outlet that’s here.
Q: How did the attacks operate?
I’ll give you an example on Amazon. My book probably had 37 five-star, all-good reviews the first week I was on a book tour. Within a week the amount of smear they had showered me with was twice as much as Michael Jackson’s book, “Untouchable.” The whole site is smeared. If customers don’t know me, why would they buy the book? It’s entirely negative reviews.
Q: How did Fang Zhouzi affect your book sales?
Tanked, totally. Totally tanked. I was selling 1,500 copies a day before this started.
Q: And after the attacks?
Just few copies a day.
Q: What’s your take on this experience?
This is Internet terrorism. It’s people hiding behind the Internet being extremely cruel to me. They try to smear my reputation, damage my personal life. They’ve done so many things. My ex-husband’s email from Austria and my daughter’s email from college, they put it on Internet and tell people to send them hate mail.
Q: Has it affected your personal life?
I have my security software coming up much more often. It used to be twice a year saying it’s catching something. Now I get it three times a day. It will jump up and say some malicious thing wants to get into your email. There’s high activity of something trying to get into my computer. So my assistant had changed all of my passwords, they came to my house and changed everything.
Q: Do you ever wish you had stuck to your initial instinct and not written this book?
I don’t regret writing the book, but I don’t like the experience because I’m reliving what happened to me when I was 8 years old. I’ve been publicly denounced, publicly humiliated, which is what happens in the Cultural Revolution. I don’t like those people bringing the Cultural Revolution to America. Who gave them the right to invade my privacy? Or attacking other people, or suppressing other people’s opinion? Who gives them a right to try to silence me in this way?
Q: The critics claim they are suppressing lies and promoting truth.
I always said it’s not about absolute truth. It’s a memory. Who can get 50 years of memory right? It’s a memoir. It’s what I remember. It’s my experience. It’s my story. I have a right to tell my story my way. I’m not writing a history book, I’m not an investigative journalist. I’m not a scholar of the Cultural Revolution.
I wasn’t trying to be perfect. I was trying to be authentic and honest.
Q: How do you explain so many people joining this online campaign against you?
I must have stepped on some nerves, obviously, otherwise it wouldn’t have created this much emotion. What I learned is a lot of time when I read those very hurtful comments, those people are telling their own story. They’re angry. And somehow they use this forum to express their own anger or their own hurt. It isn’t even about my story. It makes me think that the Cultural Revolution has been over for many years, but it’s still very fresh in people’s minds. I have gone through the Grinnell Leadership, and opening up, and talking about it, and writing a book. It’s a healing process. And it was painful for me to write it. Those people have not gone through that. So through my book, it’s bringing out the anger, the frustration that maybe they experienced in their life. So I want to extend my compassion to them.
I am still trying to get a handle on what happened.