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  • Micro Life in Macro HistoryThe Year in China
  • Chen Shen (bio)

Me Shu-yi's family memoir, 《寻常百姓家》 (Ordinary family), details the experiences of her parents between 1919 and the late twentieth century. The author's family came from a peasant background, relocated from rural to urban areas, and underwent various twists and turns amid the huge historical upheavals of twentieth-century China. The memoir's depiction of common people and everyday life in historical context was acclaimed by critics as a significant development in Chinese historiography. In fact, the author claims that the point of the memoir is to show how common people may find a way to survive in the midst of various historical changes (258). The significance of this work goes beyond how personal oral history could be a complement to grand historical narratives. The author's main goal in writing about the lives of her parents is to uncover the spirit of the individual within the macro-history—not to explain particular historical occurrences in the shifting times of the twentieth century. Me Shu-yi is acutely aware of the subjectivity of her parents, and observes how it manifests and changes, being constantly constructed and constructing, obscured and accentuated.

Different stages of life for her father and mother were marked by the founding of the People's Republic of China; the Three Anti (against waste, corruption, and bureaucracy) and Five Anti campaigns; the Cultural Revolution; the Reform and Opening Up; and other political events. Such a framework is used in this narrative because history influences everyone's lives in some way, and because people's actions throughout those events reveal their personal subjectivity and ideals.

The author notes that her father Me Aiguang's self-awareness emerged in his twenties, when he attempted to be a merchant, rebelling against his father's manner and lifestyle. In their hamlet, the father's father and uncle, who were dedicated and economical farmers, had created a family business. According to tradition, as the only boy in his generation, Me Shu-yi's father was supposed to inherit it. But because he had spent his school years traveling to large cities, he dreamed of making money more quickly, and turned to stock trading, which was first established at [End Page 13] that time in China. The family, however, saw conducting business in the city as rebelling against the customary means of obtaining the wealth necessary to maintain a big family. It might even suggest he planned to leave home.

Me Aiguang's self-awareness was reinforced by a sudden setback. As a young, inexperienced guy in his twenties, he quickly lost money in the stock market, and almost lost all of the family's possessions. In response to this failure, he penned a letter to his wife containing a thorough self-evaluation. He concluded that he had three options: commit suicide to atone for his faults, ask his clan for forgiveness, or go adventuring by himself until he could pay off his obligations. Desiring to justify an independent path, he chose the third option. Fortunately, it only took three years to see success. Completing an identity transition from farmer to businessman and shifting his livelihood from rural to urban gave him a fresh start in the family. His failure at trading stocks in the early 1930s resulted from his experience as a common farmer. It was his personal aspiration to become wealthy by relocating to an urban area that set him on the path to his independence, self-discovery, and wealth. His accomplishment is characteristic of a common person's modernity at this historical moment.

Her father's self-created dream gave him hope when he later suffered hardship. He could readily donate or throw away antiquities during the Cultural Revolution, but he was unable to do so with the 5.9 million shares of Kailuan coal mine stock, which he saw as a symbol of his success as a businessman and his optimism for the future, even if the shares could not be purchased or sold temporarily. But because the Kailuan coal mine was owned by a British corporation, it could be used as proof of his connections to...