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Keeping the past alive (2)

(Global Times)

08:35, December 15, 2011

Hunger pains

Yang recalls the hunger pains she suffered during the famine that hit China between 1959 and 1961 when she was in middle school. She writes poignant stories about dipping her finger in a small bottle of salt just to have a taste in her mouth. She and her three brothers cooked and shared a dead sparrow; the only meat they had had in months.

Yang started writing online and later in magazines in 2009. Her visceral descriptions of hunger, public executions and humiliations were an instant hit.

For decades Yang had buried her stories partly out of fear and because she felt they had been widely experienced by so many people her stories seemed insignificant.

"I thought that you should just let go, that it's old-fashioned to talk about the past," said Yang, who also writes songs and is a former employee of her local government.

"I also thought that the young people knew all that had happened," said Yang.

Zou Xueping, 26, a graduate of the China Academy of Art, was surprised how little she knew about her parents' and grandparents' past. "The textbooks only talk briefly about the three-year natural disaster. We don't really know what happened," she said referring to the famine.

Driven by curiosity, Zou returned to her village in Shandong Province in 2010 and began interviewing villagers over the age of 70.

"They were surprisingly stoic when telling their stories, about not having enough to eat and people dying," said Zou.

Zou videotaped the interviews she conducted with 17 elders and turned them into a documentary that now forms part of the "Memory Project" initiated by Caochangdi Station, a Beijing-based art studio where she works.

So far the project has collected stories from 413 elderly people in 14 provinces, who were interviewed by 29 artists and art students.

Hearing the oral histories of her villagers caused Zou to rethink her education. "I never doubted the textbooks before," said Zou. "But after I talked to people in my village I started to wonder which parts are true and which aren't," she said, adding that she feels a sense of urgency as many of her subjects are aged and won't be around much longer.

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