It may be unfair to deliberately let the younger generations suffer simply because some among the elder generation believe that suffering teaches. But the reality is that it does pay for quite many to suffer.
George Elliot said: "Deep unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state." It is not difficult for many, who were born in the 1950s or the 1960s and experienced the country's economic adversity and various spells of political turmoil, to identify with this quote. But the majority of young people born in the 1980s or the 1990s may probably sneer at such a saying, arguing if suffering teaches, why do people then try to become happy rather than feel bitter?
There is apparently nothing wrong with that question. And it is unreasonable and unrealistic to insist that young people with much higher living standards nowadays should suffer the same way as we did. But it does not mean that they should be ignorant of the hard lives their elders led. Reading about how their elder generations suffered is one way for them to benefit indirectly from what they have never experienced themselves.
The 1970s - a collection of stories by some well-known writers, poets and artists in their 60s, 50s or late 40s - is the right sort of book for them to read to try and comprehend the disillusion their parents felt from the ideals that had been thrust down their throats in schools.
Their accounts of personal experience showed how avid they were in their late teens or early 20s in reading whatever books they could grab and how eager they were to express their own ideas by publishing unlicensed magazines or pamphlets in the 1970s when the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) was about to be brought to a halt by the arrest of the Gang of Four immediately after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976.
What is worth mulling about for young people today is the attitude their elder generations took toward life and the awakening of rationality at the time.
Despite the fact that they were educated to hold Mao in more than enough reverence and never question whatever the central authorities had done and were about to do, they became suspicious of the great social turmoil of the "cultural revolution" and started to question the way they were taught to be obedient to whatever they were told.
The irony was that they were told to develop themselves into youth with the ideal of contributing to the realization of Communism and must study hard for that, but the more they studied, the more they became aware of the contradiction between what was expected of them in the remote future and what they were told to become for the time being.
Because of their disillusionment, they took part in protests against the Gang of Four and became the propelling force behind the economic reform and opening up in late 1970s.
In the midst of prevailing materialism and consumerism, it may be hard for those born in the 1980s or later to read about their elder generations. But I believe it does pay for them to do so.
By reading about them, a youth who is perturbed by the financial difficulty in purchasing a house or lack of money to lead a life he or she dreams about, may start to think about the meaning of life, something very few young people ever bother to do nowadays. By doing so, a youngster may develop a healthy attitude toward life, which will give him/her better perspective on current problems.
When we criticize young people for their lack of responsibility, diligence and persistence in their work or even lack of prospects for long-term personal development, we should never forget that it is a kind of suffering to always have a sense of spiritual emptiness. This suffering, if we can call it thus, is different from what we have gone through. What they need is a spiritual compass. And they may have it by reading books such as The 1970s.
(China Daily 11/25/2009 page8)