Forgiveness as a Tool for Healing: A Comparative Reading of Two Autobiographies - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Forgiveness as a Tool for Healing:

A Comparative Reading of Two Autobiographies




Armstrong State University


The authoritarian rule of Mao Zedong (1893–1976) in Modern China and the Hutu militant government that took over in Rwanda after the death of President Hayarimana (1937–1994) each caused massive suffering and deplorable acts against their countries’ populations. In the case of China, Mao’s Cultural Revolution raised armies of young, poor, and un-educated Red Guard that waged war on any capitalist factions in the country and anyone that dared defy the Communist Party’s new direction. Nien Cheng was just such a capitalist and her position at the British company Shell made her a target and enemy of the state. Cheng's story is immortalized in Life and Death in Shanghai, her autobiography. In Rwanda, centuries old conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes erupted in genocide of the Tutsis at the hands of very similar young, poor, and un-educated men that made up the Interahamwe. Immaculée Ilibagiza is a Tutsi survivor of the Rwandan Genocide, and gives her account of the vicious behavior that was unleashed when the military government came to power and incited hatred amongst the lowest and easiest to manipulate classes of society in her autobiography, Left to Tell. These stories of mass murder and torture at the hands of government are commonplace across the globe, but these two women showed extreme courage in the face of danger and even forgiveness for their enemies and attackers.


Just as Nien Cheng remembers losing everything in the Sino-Japanese war, Immaculée’s parents remember rebuilding after previous massacres in Rwanda in the 1950s. What both women come to find out is that with the right motivations from people in power, common citizens can turn in to killers and it can always be worse than before. Cheng spent almost seven years in prison under constant interrogation and torture through struggle meetings where she was forced to stand and be berated by party members and her former colleagues. Cheng sought to clear her name and restore her honor that was taken by allegations that she was a British spy.  The government’s Cultural Revolution wanted to reform the capitalist instead of murdering them, although from Cheng’s perspective the communist were murdering the nation’s morals and corrupting its youth.  Immaculee’s imprisonment was quite different. She spent three months in a tiny bathroom with eight other Tutsi women all hiding from the Interahamwe death squads that tried to kill all the Tutsi’s in Rwanda. This was not a political revolution as much as pure murder through fear. Hutus feared the Tutsis would come to power through the rebel fighters of the RPF, Rwanda Patriotic Front, and sought to strike the first blow by killing all of the “cockroaches.”


Both violent governments in the history of the 20th century, China and Rwanda, used tactics that are quite commonplace in authoritarian rule. They appealed to the young, poor, and un-educated to strike back against the government’s enemies by using propaganda and hate as fuel for the violence. Many young Chinese quickly joined the Red Guard because of loyalty and the desire for equality in the nation, while many joined out of fear of being outcast and lumped in with the enemy. Mao’s Red Guard mindlessly repeated and acted out the propaganda given in slogan books and played on the radio from their God, Mao, while destroying property and the human spirit in order to rebuild it in Mao’s vision. In Rwanda, the prejudice and hate already existed and the first murders of Tutsis in public that went unchecked unleashed a wave of Hutu violence. The same young were manipulated, given weapons and a cause, and through radio propaganda told to kill all the Tutsis. The President, in a radio announcement, not only called for death of Tutsis, but also praised the young murderers for their work. He sent them food and alcohol, and said, “After you finish the job and all the enemies are dead, we will live in paradise.” (Ilibagiza, 98). The promise of a better country without the presence of the enemy was just what the lower class wanted to hear. Being Red Guard or Interahamwe, the young and poor received government encouragement and power where they had none before. Having the power to enter a home, search, and torture the people believed to be responsible for their position was certainly appealing to those previously powerless.


Immaculée and Cheng both suffered a similar fate in the way they watched their country and friends turn against them.  Even though their accused crimes were being a Tutsi and a capitalist, the real reason for their persecution was their education and status. Cheng lived in prison while the outside only knew what the government accused her of and endured violent struggle meetings where people abused her physically and verbally all while demanding confessions to their false allegations. Immaculée experienced a different sort of persecution.  First, her friends and neighbors turned their back on her when the killing began, and second many actually joined the mob trying to kill her. Under the pressure of death squads, in both countries, many people submit to the violence and join opposed to becoming the target themselves.


Both of these stories are full of violence and human rights violations, but they share a common theme of forgiveness and empathy towards the perpetrators. Cheng reasons, “If I were young and had had a working-class background, if I had been brought up to worship Mao and taught to believe him infallible, would I not have behaved exactly as the Red Guards had done?” (Cheng, 79). Immaculée survives the ordeal in the bathroom through her spirituality and finds forgiveness for those that killed her family and hunted her. Despite her dire situation, Immaculée knows that the only future for Rwanda is if the tribal factions can forgive past injustices in order to forge a peaceful alliance for the country. Both women survived their tribulations and shared their stories through autobiographies in order to inform the free world of the devastating consequences of power unchecked.



About the author

Francis Tannie Arnsdorff, a senior history major, a member of Phi Alpha Theta and Undergraduate Research Assistant to Dr. Jason Tatlock in the history department.



Recommended citation

Francis Tannie Arnsdorff, “Forgiveness as a Tool for Healing: A Comparative Reading of Two Autobiographies,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 3, no.1 (Jan. 2013).




Ilibagiza, Immaculée.Left to Tell: Discovering God amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. New York: Hay House, Inc., 2006.    

Cheng, Nien. Life and Death in Shanghai. New York: Grove Press, 1986.

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