The New York Times’s Joe Nocera devoted his latest column to defending Ping Fu, the Chinese-American author of the factually-challenged memoir “Bend Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds.” Nocera set a curious task for himself: Fu’s shaky relationship with the truth is so well-known that there’s an entire Amazon forum devoted to debunking the book’s alleged lies, errors, contradictions and other sins.
The problems do appear to be many. For example, the book’s first line claims Fu was deported from China (her bio on her publisher’s website repeats as much), despite there being no record to substantiate the claim. In January, she told Forbes: “We could say that was a literary interpretation. I was asked to leave. My father helped me to find a visa to the US. I was told not to talk about it or to file for political asylum. My interpretation was I involuntary left China….If someone wants to say this is not deportation, fine. That’s my interpretation.”
In February, she told the Guardian that in her draft she hadn’t employed the word “deported,” but her co-author and editor proposed it to “attract readers.” (The edition currently available for preview on Amazon uses the word “expelled.”)
It’s hard to imagine Nocera devoting a column to another alleged fabulist (where is his piece defending James Frey, the disgraced author of “A Million Little Pieces”?). So why did he devote a column to Fu?
His answer seems to be that he’s offended at how the Chinese immigrant community in the U.S. has made something of a hobby out of debunking Fu’s book: “Yes, Ping Fu’s book has mistakes in it. But it is hard to see how they justify the level of extreme, unrelenting vilification she has suffered. Her real sin, it appears, is that she stirred a pot most Chinese would prefer to leave alone.”
In other words, Nocera sees in Fu, and her memoir, an imperfect voice for truths that the Chinese government, citizens and immigrants to the U.S. prefer not to speak of: “Three decades later, there is almost no one in China willing to delve into the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese government does not exactly encourage discussion of the subject. It remains a deeply painful subject to those who lived through it.”
This would be a shaky defense of Fu if it were true. But it’s not.
The Cultural Revolution -- painful as it was -- is widely discussed, written about and even the subject of films in contemporary China. There’s an ongoing conversation about the Cultural Revolution in the social media spaces that have become the country’s de facto town squares over the last five years. As of Sunday evening in Shanghai, a search for the term “Cultural Revolution” on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging service, brought up more than 23,371,000 results, with a new one appearing roughly every 15 to 20 seconds. Some of those are photos and accounts of victims of taken during and after the decade-long reign of terror; some draw comparisons between recent events in China and the horrors visited on the Chinese people during the period; and some revel in old Cultural Revolution artifacts and kitsch.
Likewise, Fu is hardly the first Chinese immigrant to publish a Cultural Revolution memoir in the U.S. Many have preceded her, with plenty garnering praise from within and outside the Chinese immigrant community.
One of the most striking characteristics associated with the Cultural Revolution microblogging -- and the wide-ranging contemporary dialogue about the period in China and the U.S. -- is the relentless desire to recapture, reveal and understand what really happened during that tragic decade. China’s netizens and its emigrants want the truth of the Cultural Revolution, just as Jews want the truth of the Holocaust, and Cambodians want the truth of Pol Pot’s reign of terror.
Anyone who challenges such a quest through censorship, exaggeration or fabrication is going to be the subject of, to use Nocera’s words, “unrelenting vilification.” Deservedly so.