Previously: I met Josie, a Chinese language teacher, who tells me that she came to Australia as a political refugee. She grew up in Xiamen, China, during the Cultural Revolution. At that time, many books were banned. But determined readers passed around banned texts in secret, and Josie and her mother used to copy entire books by hand.

‘What sort of books did you copy?’ I ask Josie.

‘Books that reflect human nature, human love, human feelings, because we were sick of political books. French classics: Camellia,’ she says.

I do not know the book so I hazard the name of a French writer, ‘Hugo?’

‘Victor Hugo’s books we all copy. Les’–

‘Les Misérables?’ I suggest.

‘Yes. And Zhòngma. French authors have two’–

‘Balzac?’ – the only other French author I know.

‘Balzac, of course, Balzac. Have you seen The Little Seamstress?’

‘I have only read that in English,’ I confess.

‘Yes, English. But we read a lot of French books. Balzac, Hugo, old Dumas, young Dumas: Zhòngma. The father is called Dà Zhòngma. The son is called Xiǎo Zhòngma.’

‘Oh, they are father and son?’ I ask.

‘Yes. They make an opera. Cháhuā. You know, look like roses?’

‘Roses?’ I’m lost.

‘Very famous opera: Lady Camellia. Everything is illegal. This is why we have to copy. If you are caught, you’d probably be put in jail. It is a political danger,’ she says.

It is obvious that my cultural knowledge is about as bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, so Josie writes the Chinese transliteration of these French names on my notepad.

The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas the younger

Later, I discover that The Lady of the Camellias by Dumas the younger is a poignant tale about a penniless youth who falls in love with a courtesan. But the most startling aspect of the story to me is, simply, their lifestyle. Men fritter away the day in order to go to the opera at night. Then sometime after a midnight supper, the pleasures begin, and these pleasures seem to be the whole point of the past twenty-four hours. Furthermore, it seems that a whole section of French society could afford to live in this way. I am not surprised that The Lady of the Camellias was considered bourgeois, but then, Josie says, ‘Everything at the time was considered bourgeois.’

Josie was also very much influenced by The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, a Czech writer exiled to France. The protagonist in the book, Tomas, is a philosophising sex-obsessed doctor. When Tomas refuses to retract his article criticising the communists, he is barred from practicing medicine, condemned to cleaning windows and eventually dies in an obscure country town.

This book helped Josie to understand how elite Chinese scientists could be sent to far-flung places to tend pigs. Even after twenty years in exile, when they returned home, they were still harangued by family members and neighbours, and they still hung their head in shame. How amazing that in a few short decades, the communists turned the age-old Chinese reverence for the scholar into a crazed hatred simply by renaming intellectuals as class enemies.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being also introduced to Josie the idea of exile as a means of self-discovery, a concept she would hold on to for the rest of her life.

‘Did your father object to you reading all this?’ I ask.

‘No!’ she says. ‘No, no, no.’  

Her father had, in fact, suffered for his way of thinking, which was different to those of his superiors. When Josie grew up, she learnt that her father had been the head of a Military Bureau in another town.

White Fungus

During the Cultural Revolution, he had been denounced and imprisoned by the Red Guards because of his opinions. Her grandfather managed to locate him in prison and negotiated a reduced sentence to house arrest. From that time on, her family kept a low profile and her father grew white fungus in the dark. The family kept him at home, fearing that if he ventured outside and he spoke up in public again, he would have been taken away or tortured or killed.

Soul Mountain by Gao XingJian

After the Cultural Revolution, as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, a body of work known as Scar Literature began to emerge. These works, which include Soul Mountain, spoke of the wasted years, the suffering, the criticism based on the flimsiest of evidence, or no evidence at all.

On its cover, my translated copy of Soul Mountain has a painting by Gao, who is also an accomplished artist. With only a few brush strokes, he has depicted a lone figure standing on a mountain slope. It evokes the loneliness of someone contemplating a vast and unknowable expanse.

‘So during my high school, I read all the time. All this literature, I read, read, read. My mum read with me. We always competed who read faster. I almost forgot all about my schoolwork. In a class of sixty-five students ‘ – she mimes putting a huge book in front of her face and bending to read a small book on her lap –‘wasn’t too bad. I still got into university.’   

By this time, we are both laughing out loud.

From 1981 to 1987, Josie studied Chinese Literature and Finance at the Xiamen University. She shared a dormitory with twelve other girls. The government met the cost of her education, board and lodging. Meals were served at the dormitory canteen. Apart from hand washing her own clothes, she was free to occupy herself with books and lectures and ideas.

Josie rode her beat-up bicycle around the campus grounds, attending lectures in the faculties of Law, Philosophy, or any other discipline in the Humanities that interested her. She was like a sponge. Only when exams drew near did she confine herself to studying her prescribed textbooks.

By 1989, Josie had graduated and was working at the People’s Bank of China. Her employer, the government, provided her with accommodation.

In the first interview, I ask Josie about the Tiananmen Square Massacre on 4 June 1989. She refers to the event as liùsì, six four, referring to the month and date, a neutral name that does not confer judgement. It is the name by which the event is known in China.

‘I had my view of the government, but it was not enough to make me hate them,’ she says. ‘From young, we had been brainwashed: “The communist party gives the citizens a good life.” And my education was free. I benefited from all the opportunities after the Cultural Revolution. I attended good schools. If not for the government, I might be illiterate.’

It strikes me that my understanding and interpretation of the Tiananmen Square crackdown is vastly different to Josie’s. I had seen it through Western reporting and understood it from a Western mindset.

When she reads my first draft, where I quote her verbatim and leave it at that, she says it is too simplistic. Rational educated people should be capable of more nuanced arguments.

She acknowledged that she disliked certain actions of the government, such as the way the government treated individuals. Apart from the horror of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese people in the 1980s had no intellectual property rights, no material property rights. The individual had no rights; they had a political identity but no human identity.

Yet, she could not deny that she was a benefactor of the system. ‘I still love my country. I sometimes still think the government has done a great job.’ Maybe the government did what they had to do. Like a philosopher holding court, she goes on to ask rhetorically: if so many of us benefited from the system, why did so many of us leave? Why did we embrace the West? Because, society needs freedom and the individual needs freedom.

Deep down, this was her dream and her motivation. She craved the freedom to learn and to experience new things. And that is why she and her parents pooled their financial resources to pay for her Australian student visa, a one-way plane ticket and a bit extra for living expenses.

To be published next next Friday May 31: Refuge #14 Ants Everywhere. Subscribe to receive new instalments in your inbox.