SHANGHAI — On the day 50 years ago when the People's Republic of China was born, so was Shen Guoqing.
She arrived at a propitious moment and in an auspicious house. Her father was a clerk to Madame Soong Ching-ling, the widow of China's nationalist leader, Sun Yat-sen. It was Madame Soong, known to all as the "mother of China," who gave Shen her name. As she cradled the baby girl in her arms, Soong declared the girl would be called "Guoqing," which means "celebrate China."
And, so, the story of Shen Guoqing's life, beginning Oct. 1, 1949, runs parallel with that of the new China. Beijing is celebrating a half-century of Communist rule with great pomp and circumstance, and a very selective memory of the role Mao Tse-tung's policies played. Official retrospectives glorify a strong and unified country but make little mention of the accompanying tragedies and devastation.
Shen, a nurse, wears an elegant silk blouse underneath her white medical jacket, but also the patterns of worry on her high-cheekboned face. For people like her, the mistakes of the past and her concerns about the future can't be so easily erased. In her five decades, she was buoyed by the prospect of creating a new country, then disillusioned by communism's failures, ultimately finding hope only for her child's generation.
"After so much rain and wind in my lifetime, what I want most is calm," she said in her clinic office. "Things are good for me now, but my present life is still not the life I wished for."
Shen recalls a childhood of privilege at Sun Yat-sen's house, a sprawling, low-lying Shanghai mansion in a carefully tended garden. Her father kept Madame Soong's personal records and accounts, and was noted for his fine calligraphy and taste in art and literature. The family grew to eight children, all given names that celebrated the new China. "My father was respected then. Everything was provided for us," Shen said. "It was a very happy time."
When Shen was 7, Madame Soong moved out of the compound, which was turned into a national shrine, and Shen's family moved into a simple house nearby. Shen's father took a low-ranking Communist Party job and, in the late 1950s, the city began to change around them. The abrupt disappearance of cosmopolitan Shanghai's dance halls, cafes and fancy clothes were the beginning of Mao's dramatic transformation of all of China.
In 1958, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, designed to speed China's agricultural and industrial progress. After an initial boom, the country began to experience food shortages, and Shen's father could not provide properly for his eight children. Today, Shen still refers to the period from 1960 to 1962 as "the Three Years of Natural Disasters," a time when the country was plunged into famine and millions died.
But the disaster was more man-made than natural: Mao reorganized the countryside into communes, decreeing that farmers give all their crops to the nation and be fed from collective kitchens. Farmers were mobilized to make pig-iron in crude village furnaces, kill grain-eating sparrows and catch rats instead of tending crops.
Shen's youngest brother suffered so badly from malnutrition that he didn't walk until he was 7 years old.
Almost nobody blamed Mao.
Instead, propaganda heightened to rally people behind the transformation of the country. Mao prepared to launch a Cultural Revolution to smash old traditions and re-create Chinese society in a utopian, egalitarian ideal. Shen's life would change radically.
A 16-Year-Old Idealist Enters the Frontier
In 1965, she watched a film exhorting young people to go to the countryside and help develop the nation. Without consulting her parents, 16-year-old Shen decided to go.
She ended up in Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China, a week's train ride from Shanghai. There, she worked in a factory and eventually became a "barefoot doctor," trained in basic medicine to help the peasants.
"At the time, we were very pure," Shen said. "We thought we were doing the right thing, sacrificing our lives for the development of the country. I could recite Mao's Little Red Book from memory, and we stayed up at night to discuss it. It was a long time until we found out it was a cheat."
Life was much more complicated in the cities. Political turmoil swallowed up Shanghai and communities all over the country, pitting neighbors and families against each other. Her eldest brother Guosheng--which means "Victorious Country"--was labeled an anti-revolutionary because of his artistic talents and family ties to Madame Soong, who was also being attacked. He was ostracized and persecuted until he was driven mad.
Though her father was a local Communist Party leader, he was sent to work in a factory after speaking out in defense of his old friend, the mayor, who was paraded down the street in a dunce cap as a "black hand."