I was listening to the NPR news in the morning last week as I drove to work, and heard the promotion of a book by Ping Fu titled "Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds." It was an amazing story of someone who suffered through the Cultural Revolution in China, then succeeded in getting herself an education and made a fortune in the US. Truly amazing.
I was simply amazed when I heard the story. When I got home in the evening, I searched for more details about the story, wanting to know more because this story was simply too good. As I learned more details, some minor inconsistencies began to creep up. I explained them away by convincing myself that either the author remembered wrong, or the reporters who reported the story got the details wrong.
But as I found out about more and more details, the story made less and less sense. Finally, I saw the criticism by the Chinese freelance writer Fang Zhouzi (who just received the combined Nature and Sense About Science inaugural John Maddox Prize for standing up for science). His analysis convinced me that the whole story was made up.
I was a young child at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. My home and those of my close relatives were all ransacked by the Red Guards. They took away almost everything from us. For a brief period afterwards, my parents were away from home and I was taken care of by one of my cousins who was the middle school age. When she walked me to the kindergarten before going to school herself, the other kids in the neighborhood would spit on her. This period was so brief that I have no memory of it. My parents came back very soon and we had a basically "normal" life, considering the circumstances.
The reason I told my own experience during the Cultural Revolution is to provide the background for my criticism of Fu's book. I did not read her book itself, but read the story told in the book from the Chinese version of the Forbes article and other reports on the book, including the NPR story.
The first incredible detail in the book is the claim that Fu was taken to the labor camp at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution while she was eight years old. She stayed at the labor camp for ten years. She also said that she had to take care of her four year old sister. This means that the labor camp had children as young as four years old. Of all the people who went through the labor camps before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution, there had not been a single person who reported seeing young children in a labor camp.
A photography of her from that period provided by herself in fact contradicts her story. The photo shows her with a group of children posing in front of a flag. The Chinese characters on the flag read "Red Guard Brigade". All of the children in the photo wore armbands indicating that they were members of the Red Guard. I remember these armbands because many children were not allowed to wear them due to their "bad" family background. The photo shows that they were in a park. In fact, this was a park in the city of Nanjing. This was probably a photo taken when this group of Red Guard toured the park, perhaps on a weekend trip. It is clear that instead of being sent to a labor camp, Ms Fu was a member of the Red Guard herself.
The second incredible detail was how she got into college. She said that she entered Suzhou University in 1977. This was incredible in two ways. First, Suzhou University did not even exist until 1982. Although it was first built in 1900, it was split into several colleges in 1952 after communists took over China. The main part of it became Jiangsu Teacher's College. In 1982 it was merged with some other colleges to form Suzhou University again. Let us be charitable here and assume that she entered Jiangsu Teacher's College in 1977. But then there is a bigger problem. In 1977 entrance into a college was a privilege reserved for the political elite. It required going through a political evaluation. People who had questionable political backgrounds were not allowed into college. If as she said that she spent ten years in a labor camp, that would definitely disqualify her from any college. Conversely, if she indeed entered college in 1977, it would mean that she was a member of the politically privileged during the Cultural Revolution. This would also be consistent with the possibility that she was a member of the Red Guard.
But let us be charitable again and assume that she remembered wrong again. She would actually take the first national college entrance exam after the Cultural Revolution in 1977, and entered college in 1978. But even then it would not be consistent with her story. There was still the problem of political evaluation which was still used in 1977 but dropped in the subsequent years. There was also a problem of how she was able to study for the exam. In 1977 because it was the first exam in more than ten years, there were many times more people who took the exam than what would be on average. The competition was fierce, and the admission percentage was extremely low (about 4.8%). It would be highly unlikely that someone without any formal education would have been able to pass the exam. I had several cousins who took this exam, and none of them passed.
The biggest question was how she came to the US. She claimed that she wrote an article about infanticide in China while she was in college. This article was said to be published on the People's Daily in 1981. Its publication led to an UN sanction against China's one-child policy. As a result, Fu was jailed for a few months, then was exiled to the US. This was just not something that could happen in China in the early 1980's. First of all, People's Daily would never publish such an article. Indeed, no one has been able to find such an article during the time she claimed. Second, the UN never imposed any sanctions on China for its brutal birth control policies, as much as many people wished that it would. Third, exiling dissidents to the US was not a practice by the Chinese government in the early 1980's. A famous dissident of that period, Wei Jingsheng, was not exiled to the US until 1997, after spending 18 years in various Chinese prisons.
In the early 1980s, it was very hard for anyone in China to be able to get permission to leave China and study in the US. That Fu was able to do this would indicate again that she was from the privileged class, not persecuted as she claimed in her book.
Let me end by quoting a review by a reader Farside Z on Amazon:
There is a very logical explanation of the two extremely opposite reviews of this book. It's what your mother tells you - If something looks too good to be true, it ain't.Taken at face value, the book is truly inspirational. The author's life experience is a triumph of human spirit in spite of overwhelming odds and adversities against her. It is simply out of this world.
The sad truth is - it is. The stories are more than perfect because the author is not inconvenienced by fact or historic accuracy. She made up most, if not all, her stories for sensationalism and personal gain. China was brutally dark and oppressive during the culture revolution, but what the author described plainly had no credibility with people who had lived through the period.
This is why people are speaking out and where the lowest ratings come from. Tragedy and suffering are not pretense for personal agenda, especially when they are false. Sympathy and admiration are to be earned, not manipulated.
People are rightfully outraged because the author's insincerity undermines the genuine catastrophe of the culture revolution. She takes advantage of people's trust and makes a mockery of their compassion.
By now, the author should have realized her stories have backfired. It's time to face your conscience and apologize to the people that are lied to.