Fred Engst: Growing up amidst Chinese revolution

Fond memories of Maoist China

Dr. Engst reminisced his childhood at a farm called Caotan (草滩) in Xi’an with emotion. “I loved the farm! You are missing a whole lot if you haven’t lived in the countryside,” he said to the students. “We used to put candles inside our little cups and those were our flash lights. We went hide and seek, we called it ‘catch the spy’ (抓特务). When I watched the movie Tunnel Warfare (地道战, a 1965 Chinese film about a small town which defends itself against the Japanese by use of a network of tunnels during the Second Sino-Japanese War), I dug a tunnel myself in our farm. It was so much fun!”

Happy days at the farm in Xi'an with father and younger brother and sister. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Engst

Another story Dr. Engst told refuted the general opinion of the early 1960s China around the time of the Great Famine. In 1962, Dr. Engst’s grandmother came to China to visit them via the Soviet Union. She tried to teach her grandson English but “failed miserably”. “I refused to learn because of the ‘full stomach’ story,” Yang said. “When I was young, I ate very fast and always had stomachaches. My parents would point to my belly and say ‘Oh my God look at his stomach!’ Then one day, my father wanted to check my English vocabulary. When he pointed to my belly, I said “my God”. My father burst into laughter which made me feel so humiliated that I refused to learn the language.”

Family photo with grandmother Carmelita Hinton who came to visit them in 1962. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Engst

It seemed Dr. Engst only has good memories of China where he spent his childhood and formative years. “I think the first nine or 10 years were the most incredible part of the Chinese history,” Yang said. "During the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), the Chinese people’s spirit, their enthusiasm, was at its peak." He recalled his mother’s failed attempt to build a wind mill to carry water for the farm animals and his father’s failed efforts to introduce four-wheeled cart to the local people in Shaanxi which ended up being cut into two two-wheeled carts because there was no road for it, which he said was a great learning experience for them and was instrumental in their later work and contribution.

Dr. Engst also shared his view on some of the controversial issues from that period of the Chinese history. On the food rationing in China which started in 1955, Dr. Engst said, “People talk about it as if it is a crime. That’s sickening because without it, poor people could not buy grain. Then what happened was what my father saw in Changsha (where people died of hunger on the street),” he continued, “The way some people talk about Mao’s period is lack of historical perspective.”

The Engst family during the Cultural Revolution in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Engst

“Some people condemned Mao’s isolationism,” Yang said, “For the lack of a proper English translation, I want to say 冤枉啊 (meaning being wronged). During that time, if you wanted to trade with the US, you had to agree with their terms. You had to kneel down. That was the issue.” He then told a story of his uncle to prove his point. William Hinton, who left China and went back to the US in 1953, tried to convince his uncle to do business with China. The old man refuted him with one sentence, “We lick them first, then we trade with them.” Dr. Engst said, “It was not that China didn’t want to deal with the West, it was because the condition was unacceptable.”

Not for pleasure

The reason Sid and Joan stayed in China, according to Dr. Engst, was because they wanted “to be part of the Chinese people and to build a new society”. “They were not pleasure-seeking people,” Dr. Engst said. “There is no future for pleasure seeking people. That was my grandmother’s belief, which was also shared by my parents.”

“If they were pleasure seeking, why would they want to come to China, of all places?” Dr. Engst asked.

Joan and Sid in their final years in China. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Engst

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