Prof. Edward Peng (One of Many)

by Jay Nordlinger

On Wednesday, I had an item on the Cultural Revolution, which included this snippet from a reader:

I had a Chinese professor who was the only one in his family of four to survive the Cultural Revolution. When his sister was executed under some political pretense, his parents were presented with the bullet that killed her along with a bill for the bullet. Both parents ended up killing themselves after years of persecution for being part of the educated class. The son, who was intellectually gifted, spent the next eight or so years digging ditches.

Since then, the reader has sent another letter, saying more about his professor. Here is part of the beginning:

If anyone had a right to be bitter and disillusioned with life and providence, it was he. But he was one of the most relentlessly upbeat, positive, and grateful persons I have ever known. He was a constant source of uplift, and it was a delight to be in his presence.

The letter is longish, and I will print the rest after the “jump.”

When he told us his story about the Cultural Revolution (all the students in his literature class were Westerners), he closed the doors to the classroom, and then solemnly pleaded with us not to share his story outside the classroom, particularly with any Chinese students, since an unknown but predictable portion of them were planted Communist-party informants, sent there, in part, to keep tabs on other Chinese students and report on them. That was a sobering revelation: that even at BYU, in the heart of America and Mormon country, a Chinese person still had to watch his step and could not speak his mind freely. Other Chinese students told me the same thing.

Yes, I was told that too, at the universities I attended. I have specific memories. But I should let the reader continue:

He had never left China until his late forties. He had no formal degrees because education was denied him during the Cultural Revolution. Instead, he was tutored by his father, an academic, at home. Despite having no academic credentials or higher education to speak of, he became a published and respected authority in ancient Chinese literature and Japanese poetry, and had a larger English vocabulary than I did, as well as working knowledge of German.

I interviewed him for a class project once. He said that he was struck by two things when he arrived in America (just a few years before, in the mid 1980s). His first night here he went to a 7-Eleven, and was shocked and bewildered that the store employees were actually helpful and friendly. He had to go back several times to confirm this was actually the case. He had never experienced that before.

Second, after he got to his teaching job in Utah, he saw a story on the evening news about a rescue effort taking place in one of the canyons to locate and save a lost hiker. To him it was mind-boggling that massive amounts of resources, time, and man-hours were spent in the search for one wayward individual. He had never seen such an effort geared toward an individual in all his years in China, and noted that any similarly situated individual in China would be on his own.

As you can imagine, he had no love for the Communist party. He noted that, ultimately, Communism was an ideology built on hate, and could survive only with the presence of enemies, real or imagined. More often than not, the party fabricated enemies (see Falun Gong) in order to rally support and/or divert attention from its own ineptitude and shortcomings.

He has since passed on, but I still think of him often. God bless Professor Edward Peng.

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