Some excerpts from Shayla Love’s exploration of transgenerational trauma after China’s Cultural Revolution:
“Some of my patients’ parents suffered and they become emotional very easily or lose their temper,” Yong says. “The children cannot understand why. One of my patients, her father is very scared, very cautious because he was affected by some events in his family. His cousin was criticised and some relatives were sent to the prisons for many years because they were accused of being an anti-revolution group. So he became very cautious and even a little bit paranoid.”
That paranoia can have ripple effects, Yong says. But he says the Cultural Revolution has been a factor in creating another, stronger kind of anxiety in their children that he sees frequently: an intense desire to be successful and make up for a parent’s past.
Yong says that many of his patients are extremely sensitive to what others think about them: about their work ethic, achievements and career. It makes sense—what others thought of you meant everything during the Cultural Revolution. It was literally life or death.
When I meet with another of Plänkers’s students, Jie Zhong, an associate professor of psychology at Peking University in Beijing, he tells me he blames not only the Cultural Revolution but all the combined trauma that preceded it. The famine, the civil war, the Japanese invasion, the Opium Wars—China has been a tumultuous place since the fall of the Qing dynasty.
“It’s like a special flower that they give to the second generation, the third generation, the fourth, the fifth,” Zhong says. “It’s hard to say the same problem was transferred, but we can find the dynamic [in everyone]. There is a kind of fear, a very deep fear that people cannot bear, and they try to use ways to cope with it, the fear. This fear is very deep and strong. It’s related with feelings of being persecuted, being diminished, or feeling you’ll be killed.”
I could see the path materialize for her as she retold the memory, as if she was walking it again. She says she stood by as my grandmother pleaded the soldier to enlist her daughter. “It made me sick to see my mom beg,” she says. “I knew I had to work hard to be independent so that my mom would never have to beg again.”
It was a 15-minute experience that changed her for life. My mother has worked extremely hard every day of her life since then. I have always known that about her, but now I have a reason why. It helps me understand her, but I still am at a loss about myself.
When I try to explain how the Cultural Revolution has affected me, even after all I’ve learned, I feel like a fraud. I have no memories of it, nothing concrete to offer as proof. No wound to point at to say, Look: I am hurt. Do I have an invisible methyl group bound to a stress-inhibiting gene, or do I have buried subconscious memories of the past? I still don’t know for sure.