COLUMN: Columnist shares the breathtaking story of a one extraordinary graduate student

Keith Brumley

Keith BrumleyColumnist

“Life,” playwright Randy Achterhoff wrote, “is not about the number of breaths we take, but moments that take our breath away.”

To be sure, the story of Geng Lang Zhou, SDSU instructor of Mandarin Chinese and journalism graduate student, is breathtaking.

Zhou’s father cared deeply about his nation. He became a member of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s. It seemed better than the existing regime. With Mao’s promise of Egalitarianism, he chose to remain in China rather than move to the U.S.

He became a Yunnan provincial governmental official. Zhou’s mother, a nurse, founded a hospital in the provincial capital of Kunming. As Zhou’s father became aware of the hypocrisy and brutality of Maoist China, he dissented8212;both in personal appeals and through print.

A journalist, Zhou’s father was arrested during the One Hundred Flowers Campaign of the mid-1950s as a counter-revolutionary during The Great Leap Forward, a period of time when an estimated 10 to 20 million people starved to death. He was sentenced to forced labor and required to carry tons of bricks per day in the construction of a coal plant. Zhou’s mother, also an early supporter of the Maoist revolution and People’s Liberation Army member refused to divorce the man. She was reduced from hospital administrator to wall plasterer in the same hospital.

Zhou remembers the time her mother was bludgeoned by a Party member, a blow resulting in temporary paralysis. A small girl, Zhou literally carried her mother for months thereafter.

Then there was The Cultural Revolution, running from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976. At least 500,000 people were killed, with some estimates reaching 10 million. Untold numbers were imprisoned. Zhou remembers a woman who chose suicide. Most targeted were so-called intellectuals, and the Chinese educational system ground to a halt.

Zhou’s father spent 16 years in prison. As relatives, Zhou’s mother and Zhou herself became a part of the Party persecutions and suffered. As late as 1991, after befriending the family of the now retired SDSU Journalism Department Head Richard Lee, Zhou herself was denounced and personally spat upon by her neighbors.

Joseph Stalin is claimed to have said; “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is just a statistic.” This, regardless of who really said it, is the sentiment of tyrants regardless of politics. If enough people are killed, imprisoned, demonized and disappear, nobody will really care. Mao and Stalin each developed a cult of personality with murder, fear and demagoguery as their weapons. Millions of people followed, conforming to the regimes. Their lives are testaments to the stupidity, brutality and banality of humankind’s capacity for corruption and evil.

There are also those whose lives are a testament to freedom and moral integrity. Zhou’s father, who was charged as a counter-revolutionary because he challenged the brutality of Party policy by reporting, among other things, the execution of an impoverished landowner, is one. Zhou’s mother, refusing to follow the Party line by not divorcing Zhou’s father is another. Geng Lang Zhou, who by virtue of being born into a family who actually cared about truth and integrity is still another. These people are by no means statistics

Good journalism, Zhou states, is dangerous. It challenges the status quo. A good journalist reports the truth8212;and the truth can be disturbing. For the family of Geng Lang Zhou, good journalism brought years of suffering. The dedication to tell the truth, however, is what makes Zhou’s story so compelling. She has remained true to her convictions. Her work has been published in the emerging Chinese Republic and that she’s here in South Dakota, a free witness to one of the darkest times of an empire is extraordinary.

I’m now told she’s returning to China soon …partly to care for her elderly mother–but partly because of “differences” in SDSU Administrative agendas. Zhou has never complained8212;but has remained unbent by another’s will. She trusts what she knows and she lives it with honor. It seems appropriate then to quote the ethicist Rollo May: “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice. It is conformity.” Geng Lang Zhou is no coward8212;and she refuses to conform. She has been, is and will continue to be a woman of influence.

Keith Brumley is an SDSU alumnus and current journalism graduate student at SDSU. Contact Keith at [email protected]