Flying High Out of a Tibetan Valley is the story of the life of Jing Liming, an ethnically Chinese intellectual who was born and raised in the Amdo region of Tibet. The story relates her struggles from her birth in 1955 through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and her successive journey of becoming an English professor and translator (which takes the story through the late 1990s). The story takes place predominately in Tibet and Sichuan in China. It is a very passionate and inspirational work that reeks of political criticism. Ultimately, it is an exoneration and celebration of the author’s perseverance and indomitable spirit.
Book Review of Flying High out of a Tibetan Valley by Jing Liming
Flying High Out of a Tibetan Valley is the autobiography of Jing Liming, an ethnically Chinese professor, translator, and interpreter that grew up in the Amdo region of Tibet. The life of Jing Liming was wrought with political strife and defined by her willpower to overcome hardship. The work is clearly not a work of orthodox historical research, nor does it claim to be. Instead, as a memoir, her autobiography has a clear agenda: to vindicate herself, her struggles, and her ideals. While the book is strongly biased by political turmoil and the author’s personal goals, a bias that distorts the history, the work is also both educating and fascinating, and it sheds a great deal of light on the effects that the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the successive political trends in China had on the individuals of the countless villages and cities that make up the world’s most populous country.
Jing Liming was born in 1955 in Heishui County (Ngawa Prefecture), one of the poorest regions in China. During her early childhood, her family endured the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961). As a child during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), her parents were persecuted and imprisoned; she thus had to support herself at the age of 12. She herself experienced humiliation and persecution by the government and her fellow peers while in junior high and high school. As a youth, she was forbidden from joining any sort of student organizations; even the ping pong team was off limits because of her political status. After high school, she lived in a remote village in Tibet with some peers where she did manual labor and was ‘educated’ by the peasants. Following Mao’s death in 1976, she received her BA and MA during Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform and was eventually granted the opportunity to study in the United States. Today, she continues to travel between China and the United States serving as a teacher and translator.
Despite its strong bias, this book offers a great deal of insight into what life was like in China during the Cultural Revolution and other times of political upheaval. Jing Liming begins the work by describing how her father went from a comfortable position as Vice-Director of the Sichuan Provincial Finance and Trade Department in Chengdu to Heishui County for the sake of helping the CCP build Tibet’s economic infrastructure as the Director of the County Finance and Trade Department. In spite of being the highest paid person there, Jing Liming’s father’s salary was still much less than what he had received in Sichuan. Although her father made this self-sacrifice for the party, it did not prevent his persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Mao Zedong was determined to purge the nation of all remaining ‘bourgeoisie, capitalist, and reactionary individuals,’ as well as ‘poisonous weeds’ (which mainly consisted of books and other articles of culture that did not politically serve the cause of Mao). Both of Jing Liming’s parents were deemed politically dangerous and were successively humiliated, beaten, and imprisoned. Liming herself was forced to denounce her parents (29). The author depicted one particularly vivid scene in which her family burned all their books, including one of their favorites, the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber (52).
Jing Liming’s vivid portrayal of life in China did not end with the Cultural Revolution. She explains how one’s work unit controlled every aspect of one’s life, from where you could live to when you could have children, even after the Cultural Revolution. The author faced petty political attacks even at the Sichuan Institute of Industry and Technology and Sichuan Normal University. It was with discipline, determination, self-confidence, and the help of dear friends that she was able to succeed.
On the other hand, she did not discuss 20th century Tibet that much, despite having grown up there. It simply did not fit in very extensively with her goals in writing this autobiography. The author grew up in a Tibetan village, but she never really highlights or defines any specific person or experience as being ‘Tibetan.’ The vast majority of her friends and enemies have Chinese names. There is one chapter (of 13) in which she lived among and worked with Tibetans (161-200). Within this chapter, Jing Liming describes how Tibetans were generally regarded with a great deal of prejudice by most Chinese people. While she made an effort to live with them and learn their language, her peers criticized their dirty food and dirty way of life. She explains how the Tibetans were very friendly towards her (175). Other than in this one chapter, Jing Liming barely mentions Tibetans or Tibet. This fact may relate more to her agenda than any slight towards Tibet or Tibetens. Jing Liming briefly mentioned her participation in the local dance team (she was later expelled because her parents were politically questionable). While on the dance team, however, she describes dancing a Tibetan dance and how this dance was precious to her, one of the only refuges she had in the abyss of the Cultural Revolution.
Otherwise, outside of chapter nine and the dance, she mainly referred to Tibet as a place from which to escape. She associated the poor and desolate Tibetan town of her childhood with the hardship and bitterness she faced as a child. The title of the book, Flying High Out of a Tibetan Valley, conveys the fact that the author had overcome the trials and tribulations of her Tibetan homeland in order to control her own destiny. When she was finally able to study in America, the author said to herself: “It is time to fly! From an isolated Tibetan area, to America- a heaven, some people say, and a hell, others say” (285). The title of chapter 14, “Dreams of Going to America,” is describing going to the ‘beautiful land.’ America in Chinese is ‘Mei guo’; the word is a homonym whose characters conveniently mean ‘beautiful country.’ In Jing Liming’s mind, she was ‘flying’ out of the backwards Tibet to go to the ‘beautiful country.’ Tibet was a foil with which the author juxtaposed her dreams. Tibet itself was not important; the author’s perception of what Tibet symbolized was, on the other hand, significant.
Regarding the overall tone of the book, Jing Liming’s bias is not surprising given her and her family’s treatment at the hands of the radical communist regime. When someone is repeatedly wronged by a person or institution, they naturally have a bias against that person or institution. As such, Jing Liming was very prejudiced against the actions of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. In her introduction, she outlined the various crimes and “desperate scheme(s),” the exact effects of which were “dark and most horrible secret(s) known only to the top leaders of China” (introduction). This tone is universal throughout her book, as she claimed that “Mao gave his blessing for chaos” (83). At one point, she even referred to the Great Leap forward as the “Great Leap Backward,” and to the Cultural Revolution as “Cultural Destruction” (205). Further, she consistently mocked Mao by referring to him as emperor, partly to make a political point and partly to explain the common, politically accepted view of Mao during his ‘reign.’ She explained that how upon Mao’s death, people were sad for a number of reasons; one of them being that it had been said that Mao was healthy and “unlike normal human beings, he could live at least 130 years or 150 years” (202). She believed this ‘sadness’ was an act, which is to be expected since she had to watch her parents’ repeated beatings. She herself faced endless verbal abuse; she had to denounce those she loved, burn the books she cherished, and hide the most precious aspects of herself from the prying eyes and hateful words of her fellow countrymen. Her life is a testament to the tragic circumstances of her time. Therefore, her work is more of a memoir. She described events how she saw and lived them rather than with the goal of producing an insightful historical account.
Jing Liming criticized not only the actions of the Chinese government, but also denounced the very rhetoric and philosophy of Maoism and the structure of the Chinese government. Throughout her autobiography, she incessantly expressed a clear distaste for anything having to do with politics. By the end of the book, it is obvious that she detested the word ‘politics’ and attached it to the injustice she experienced throughout her life. She also equated Maoism with pettiness and corruption. In the introduction, she explained that how even today, “Maoists continually attempt to control people in many aspects of their lives and their ideas.” She brought this full circle by referring to all her oppressors as Maoists regardless of their de facto connection to Mao himself. For instance, while teaching in Beijing in the 1990s, she oftentimes had to struggle against the principle of the school, the ‘Maoist’ Miao Jenhong (whose actual connection to Mao and/or the more conservative sects of the CCP is unclear). On the other hand, in a caption underneath a picture of her family, she referred to her older brother, Jing Kailin, as an “honest politician” (23), as if the word ‘politician’ by itself meant something terrible. Jing Liming’s fiery bias stretches to attack even the concept of politics itself.
The autobiography’s bias is not limited only to the Cultural Revolution and Mao (though they are the most common antagonists). She criticized the CCP’s response to other events such as student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 by NATO. She also criticized American arrogance and pomposity after her experiences at the US consulate in Chengdu. She utilized an old Chinese saying, “all crows are black,” to describe the global taint that is politics.
Despite the fact that Jing Liming never claims to be a historical authority, her autobiography depends on history to make its point. Every chapter either started with or included several passages in italics that illustrate the recent history and general background leading up to the specific events that the author successively described. She included corrupt people in general (during a time when political connections were apparently everything), but also high level officials including Mao himself. For instance, she claimed that the “Imperial history (of China) was what ‘Emperor Mao’ studied and loved, not Marx or Lenin” (162) since the Cultural Revolution was nothing more than a simple and successful classic witch hunt without any pretence of higher ideals. As interesting as this argument is, regardless of its veracity, the author never at any point cited any evidence other than her own opinion. It is unclear if her descriptions are the result of talking to various people and learning about their motivations, or if they are simply her own interpretations of people and situations based on her own personal views and understanding of human nature.
Her own versions of history also must be viewed in light of the fact that she wrote it long after it had happened. Jing Liming had kept a diary at one point, but later burned it to avoid potential political persecution (194). The fact that this was all written ex post facto (the book was published in 2000) with a passionate bias clearly demonstrates that the author was writing this story not to explore an era, but rather to prove a point and exonerate herself and other intellectuals and victims of political violence. The work is compelling, but, due to the fact that it is bursting with political bias, it contains a scant historical basis. That said, once one understands her background and reads this autobiography with this in mind, it is then possible to appreciate Flying High Out of a Tibetan Valley for what it is—a memoir with a political ax to grind.
Overall, this autobiography is a justification and celebration of Jing Liming’s struggles. Writing this book and fulfilling her dreams of teaching and translating English are her ways of waging war against injustice and the pettiness of politics all over the world. This book is the fruit of her life and labor. She wrote it in English, and other than a few grammatical oddities, the rhetoric is brimming with both clarity and passion. It may not be the most historically reliable work, but it is a valuable homage and inspirational story of one woman’s struggle for and dedication to knowledge and culture. Her life’s work of teaching and translating does foster cultural understanding and she ended her book stressing the importance of education for everyone. The last picture of the book (of the author teaching a group of students) features a caption which describes her students as the future leaders of China who will “honor and stand up for Chinese dignity” (xxxviii).
Jing, Liming. Flying High Out of a Tibetan Valley. Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing, 2000.