Spirit Under Siege

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

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