Spirit Under Siege

Witnessing History: One Chinese Woman's Fight for Freedom


| May / June 2006


For some memoir writers, an innate sense of story transforms an ordinary life into dazzling allegory. For others, an extraordinary life is the root and cause of the chronicle. Then there's Jennifer Zeng. Perhaps for those who survive exceptional circumstances, details become commonplace. Perhaps solidarity instructs her, one among thousands persecuted, in humility. Either way, in Witnessing History, Zeng provides a rare first-person record of a controversial period in recent Chinese history, and remains throughout staggeringly humble.

But it is an astute humility. Zeng delivers a straightforward account of the Chinese government's suppression of Falun Gong that began in the mid-1990s and continues today. While she declares her story personal, the well-researched text propels the book beyond mere memoir. Her experiences are emblematic: Zeng was sentenced to forced labor in spring 2000, after an official declaration deemed Falun Gong illegal and landed thousands in detainment.

The Chinese government called Falun Gong an 'evil cult,' but Zeng credits the Buddhist/Taoist practice, which incorporates qigong mind and body exercises, with saving her life. While the early chapters roll past with an unwieldy speed -- Zeng's adoption of Falun Gong, and her resulting awakening, receive a scant 20 pages -- once she's in detainment, her writing is redolent with detail. Her accounts of daily injustices are heartbreakingly frank. 'That was how I involuntarily became an accessory and witnessed tragedy after tragedy,' she writes. 'I was terrified that one day my spirit would shatter completely.'

But as much as Witnessing History chronicles religious persecution, it is ultimately Zeng's story. Throughout her narrative, one can trace the trail of political and personal growth: her drive to share her experience leads her to fake a reform, flee China, and seek asylum in Australia. It is a remarkable, believable evolution.
-- Julie Hanus