At dinner last night I heard something hopeful. We were at the Lao She Tea House - which I would not really recommend: it is not a historical preservation of the famous author's Beijing but, rather, just a savvy use of his name for a business. We saw a show, some of which was bizarre (I kid you not, they did Olympic Tea Pouring...), and some of which was enjoyable (some old singing and rhyming).
Dinner beforehand was much more interesting. I was sitting next to a young Chinese graduate student. His English was quite good so we were using that for the most part of our conversation. He is thirty-something and has taught high school. He left that job to get a master's degree in cultural studies, hoping to go on for a Ph.D. somewhere, or just advance up the career ladder in one way or another. Our conversation was ranging far and wide, and I cannot remember how we go onto to the topic of politics. I guess its not too surprising that I brought it around to those sorts of issues. In any event, I mentioned the Great Leap Forward. He said his grandfather had relatives and friends who had died. His family home and farm (his parents still live there) is in Henan province, which was devastated during the Great Leap Forward. At one point, he leaned into me and said: "you know, when the Japanese attacked China, 20 million people died, but during the Great Leap Forward 30 million died." His number for the Japanese attacks is wildly inflated, but he definitely had the comparison correct. More Chinese people died during the GLF than during WWII.
I don't think a Chinese person in China has ever made this comparison to me. It is certainly not taught in school. It is a national embarassment and general not raised with foreigners. This fellow is clearly cognizant of the sad history of the Chinese Communist Party and willing to talk about it. He can, no doubt, understand the hypocrisy of some of the Party's criticism's of Japanese imperialism. And, I imagine, he and people like him can understand the dangers of nationalist propaganda that ignores or denies the self-inflicted tragedies of recent Chinese history.
When hard and cold truths penetrate the fog of nationalist historical forgetting, it is a hopeful thing.