Monday, March 11, 2013

xgz: Ping Fu's Fantasy Childhood Life in Communist Shanghai

The following post was published by xgz on his The Daily Kos blog on February 7, 2013:

In Ping Fu's book Bend, not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, the description of her life in Shanghai before the Cultural Revolution does not seem like an average family's life in Shanghai at all. It was even better than an upper middle class American family. Her Shanghai papa and mama had a three-story house, a front yard and a back yard, all enclosed with a gate, and the house was not far from the business district, Nanjing Road. For a family of two adults and six children, their evening meals would have four appetizers  one soup, and eight main dishes. This was less than four years after a nation wide famine that killed thirty million people, in a communist society where Mao himself declared that he would only have four dishes and a soup for each meal. How could this be possible? 
Let me try to figure this one out. 

Ping Fu said that her Shanghai papa ran a factory that made threads. Reading from the description in the book, her Shanghai mama was probably a housewife. There were six children including Ping. They lived in a house described in the book as:
Our family house was peaceful rather than showy, a three-story and three-section villa connecting to a courtyard with a front gate that opened onto the main street of our neighborhood. Surrounding the complex, a stone wall decorated with an ornate iron fence shielded the serene interior from the unpredictable outside world. 
Curved, handcrafted iron and stone balconies adorned the south facade, letting in warm light on sunny days and offering a panoramic view. Standing there, you could glean something of our lives in the early 1960s: the imposing headquarters of the Soviet Friendship Society looming large amid the boutiques and businesses that lined the city's famous Nanjing Road.
This was a huge house by Chinese standard. Her Shanghai family must have been very, very wealthy before the Cultural Revolution. In fact, such a luxurious life might be too rosy a picture of bourgeoisie life under communist rule in Shanghai. Yet there is still something missing in this picture. Where were the servants? There were no mention of any servant in the Shanghai part of the book. The most likely place that servants would have appeared, the scene was like this:
While my older siblings were off at school, I would spend afternoons with Shanghai Mama in the kitchen. She said that food must appeal to all five senses: aroma, color, texture, taste, and love. I'd hang on to her legs amid the sizzle and steam and chopping sounds as she prepared the traditional dinners we enjoyed each night: four appetizers, one soup, and eight main courses.
We will address the problem with the food later. But note here that Shanghai mama cooked a huge meal everyday, without any help. And she managed to keep a three-story, three-section house clean everyday without any help. 
But in China during the 1960's, for a family who lived in such a huge house, it would be unlikely not to have any servants. This was the description of the life of the wealthy in Shanghai before the Cultural Revolution in Cheng Nien's Life and Death in Shanghai:
Not many private people in Shanghai lived as we did seventeen years after the Communist Party took over China. In this city of ten million, perhaps only a dozen or so families managed to preserve their old lifestyle, maintaining their original homes and employing a staff of servants. The Party did not decree how the people should live. In fact, in 1949, when the Communist army entered Shanghai, we were forbidden to discharge our domestic staff lest we aggravate the unemployment problem. But the political campaigns that periodically convulsed the country rendered many formerly wealthy people poor. When they became victims, they were forced to pay large fines or had their income drastically reduced. And many industrialists were relocated inland with their families when their factories were removed from Shanghai. I did not voluntarily change my way of life, not only because I had the means to maintain my standard of living, but also because the Shanghai municipal government treated me with courtesy and consideration through its United Front Organization.
You see, in communist Shanghai, if you were a capitalist, you were forced to keep your servants. It might be that for some unknown reasons Ping Fu's family really did not have any servants, despite they clear need and that they could afford them. It was more likely that simply because Ping Fu never lived there, she assumed that since it was communist China, even her aunt's family did not have servants. 
Later I will provide solid proof that she did not live in Shanghai during her childhood. But before that let me offer another absurdity in her book, the food in Shanghai. Let's go back to the text I cited earlier:
While my older siblings were off at school, I would spend afternoons with Shanghai Mama in the kitchen. She said that food must appeal to all five senses: aroma, color, texture, taste, and love. I'd hang on to her legs amid the sizzle and steam and chopping sounds as she prepared the traditional dinners we enjoyed each night: four appetizers, one soup, and eight main courses. My favorite dish was crabmeat with ginkgo nuts in mint mango sauce.
Ping Fu was born in 1958 in Nanjing. The above scene should have occurred before she started school. In Shanghai, the government requires children start first grade when they reach age of seven which would be 1965 or 1966. The scene above should have happened after she could remember things but before she started school. That puts the scene between 1961 and 1965. What happened in China during that time? A great famine in which 30 million people died of starvation during the beginning of this period. Food ration was imposed everywhere in China, including Shanghai, and continued until after Mao's death in 1976. With severe shortage of food, people were lucky to have one dish on their table. Even the number one capitalist family in all of China, the Rong family, who also lived in Shanghai and whose son Rong Yiren later became the vice president of China (in the 1990's), was only having one dish (soy braised pork) for their meal and it was considered a luxury. Yet here we have an unknown, relatively wealthy merchant family enjoying "four appetizers, one soup, and eight main courses" each night! Not only it was so soon after the greatest famine in China's history, it was supposedly under a ruthless communist rule. Would you believe this story? 
Her favorite dish was "crabmeat with ginkgo nuts in mint mango sauce". Many critics have raised questions about this. Mango sauce was never heard of in China in the 1960's. If Ping Fu's family were able to get it, they must have bought it from overseas and somehow slipped it through the tight customs control by the communist government. I have no idea how plausible that was. But it certainly sounded like an 1001 nights tale. 
Finally, the real proof that Ping Fu never lived in Shanghai. When Ping Fu described that she had never flown in an airplane before leaving for the US, she said:
As I settled into my seat aboard the aircraft, the vent blasted warm air at my forehead. It occurred to me that this was my first experience of temperature-controlled air. I had never flown in an airplane, though I had spent most of my childhood sliding down aircraft wings at an abandoned airfield and dreaming of becoming an astronaut. I had never traveled anywhere outside of China. The farthest I had been from Nanjing, the city of my birth, was Suzhou University, where I had studied journalism and literature.
There are two big clues in this paragraph that tell us where she really lived during her childhood. 
First, there was an abandoned airfield not far from her home, because she had spent "most of my childhood sliding down aircraft wings." This was not once, twice, occasionally, or for a year or two. This was "most of my childhood." If Ping Fu spent most of her childhood in Shanghai, then where was this abandoned airfield in Shanghai? Historically, there had been a total of four airports built in Shanghai. Three are still in use today: Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, Shanghai Pudong International Airport, and Shanghai Longhua Airport. These are certainly not abandoned and had not been abandoned in the past either. One old airport, Jiangwan Airport, was still in use until 1994. None of these airports was abandoned during the 1960's. 
Where was this abandoned airfield then? The answer is the Ming Palace Airport in Nanjing. Ming Palace Airport was the first civilian airport in Nanjing and was located at the center of Nanjing. It was abandoned in 1956. It was only a few blocks from the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where Ping Fu's father was a professor. The time matches - it was recently abandoned and new constructions had not been built. The location matches - it was close to her home, but only if she lived in Nanjing. From this description in her book, it is clear that Ping Fu spent her childhood in Nanjing, not in Shanghai. The whole story in Shanghai was fabricated. 
The second big clue I already mentioned in a previous diary. She stated that the farthest she went before leaving for the US was Suzhou University. But if the book was correct, she spent first half of her childhood in Shanghai and second half in Nanjing. Suzhou is midway between Shanghai and Nanjing. This could not be possible. The only logical conclusion is that she was in Nanjing throughout her childhood. The Shanghai childhood was just a fantasy.

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