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Chinese Shadows

Note: Simon Leys is the pseudonym of a Belgian art historian and Sinologist who has lived and worked in China and other parts of the Far East for more than a decade. His book Chinese Shadows—from parts of which the following article is drawn—was the result of a six-months stay in China during 1972. His aim, as he writes, is “not to question the achievements” of the regime, “which, if not always revolutionary as their Western supporters would claim, are still considerable in many fields.” Rather he wanted only to add “some shadows, without which even the most luminous portrait lacks depth, offering a few notes—in counterpoint as it were—about some details that have been omitted for some reason or another by…prestigious witnesses.”

In handbooks on Chinese traditional painting, an advice commonly given to the artist who wishes to learn to paint trees is to sketch them in winter, for then, without the seductive yet confused and blurry effect of their leafy masses, through their stark nudity they can best reveal their inner structure and specific character. These sketches of the People’s Republic of China were made at the end of one of its most rigorous political winters. Faint stirrings of a timid spring were beginning to make themselves felt, here and there, but this did not much alter the drab outline of the scenery.

I have no doubt that a superficial observer visiting China this year might discover a certain amount of quantitative discrepancies between his experiences and mine: since I wrote this book, things have evolved a bit—I mean, the free zone for foreigners around Peking may have been enlarged by a few miles, a few more museums, monuments, and temples may have reopened, a little more variety may have been introduced in the theaters, bookshops may display more books, and so forth. And on the whole the atmosphere may be more relaxed and pleasant. Yet these appearances could be quite misleading if the visitor were to take them for permanent features of the regime. Beneath this welcoming veneer lies, unchanged, a harsh and dour reality, the reality I saw before most of its present cosmetics had been applied—and foreigners who had stayed in Peking two or three years before me had seen it in the raw. It may be useful to know what China actually was like when I was there, since it can and will be like that again at any time. If you do not believe me, wait until next “winter,” and you will find that my book deals not so much with the past as with the future.

Not that I claim for myself any prophetic insight: it is simply that totalitarian regimes have very little capacity for change, and the validity of whatever truths one may gather about them is bound to endure as long as the regimes themselves. (This applies even beyond ethnic and cultural frontiers: I was privileged to work in Peking with a man who had a long and thorough experience of Stalinist Russia, and despite his lack of any previous knowledge of China, he quickly felt at home with the Maoist regime.) Thus, most of what I wrote belongs to a category of observation that, bearing as it does on the basic, permanent nature of the system, should have a kind of timeless relevance.

Other notations here and there may seem to be about less permanent features of China; yet I believe that the passage of time will not make them irrelevant. “Any fool may write a most valuable book by chance if he will tell us what he heard and saw with veracity,” said Thomas Gray,1 and indeed any faithful record kept by a resident of a foreign enclave under the Ch’ing dynasty, for instance, even if full of ephemeral trifles, would yield today a considerable measure of historical interest. Thus I feel that any attempt to update this candid account—like indicating what new embassies have been established in San-li-t’un since I left that ghastly diplomatic ghetto, or mentioning that K’ang Sheng and Chou En-lai and Mao Tse-tung have since died, or that Chairman Mao perpetrated another lousy poem and other equally worthy news items that are in your daily newspaper anyway—far from enhancing its interest would compromise its only asset, which is not that it provides a journalistic report of events but that it confesses a certain human experience, an admittedly subjective yet genuine and deeply felt response to a phenomenon of world significance.

1. Follow the Guide

The Maoist authorities have accomplished a strange tour de force: they have managed to limit China—that immense and varied universe, for the exploration of which, however superficial, a lifetime is inadequate—to a narrow, incredibly constricted area. China has hundreds of cities; only about a dozen are open to ordinary foreigners. In each one, the foreigners are always put in the same hotel—usually a huge palace, set like a fortress in the middle of a vast garden, far away in a distant suburb. In these hotels, the guests enjoy a restaurant that offers the best cooking available in the province, a barbershop and hairdresser, a bookstore that sells luxury editions and art reproductions unavailable in the city itself, an auditorium where films are shown and where artists sometimes come to give special performances for the foreign guests. Needless to say, the local public is not admitted: watchmen at the gate check the identity of all Chinese visitors. In this way, the only contact the travelers have with the towns they “visit” is as they speed past along the boulevards, driving to factories and hospitals in the routine way.

If we see little of urban China, what of rural China! The countryside, which constitutes the true reality of China and where the destiny of the country is being decided, is a complete blank for us. Out of the tens of thousands of villages where more than 80 percent of the Chinese people live, foreigners visit less than a dozen (and always the same ones); these are interesting in the limited way of agricultural pavilions at an international fair.

Since the vast Chinese world has thus been shrunk to the size of a pinhead, there don’t have to be many foreign visitors in circulation for them to get the impression that they are all over the place, treading on each other’s toes. Beyond space and time, a kind of Freemasonry springs up among them, the way it does among commuters on a shared little suburban tram line; thus one learns that French Senator F. sprained his ankle on the staircase of this monument; they show you the place where the Danish writer R. bought a shepherd’s whistle and where the American newspaperman B. bought a walking stick; one travels in the limousine that carried the Italian lady M., ideologist of Maoism. This would be funny if it were Liechtenstein, but when one thinks of immense China being reduced to this puny size, to this cozy promiscuity of a small-town Rotary Club, sadness grips the heart.

The same treatment has been given to the Chinese population: out of eight hundred million Chinese, foreigners meet about sixty individuals. The literary world is represented by two or three writers, always the same, who take care of visiting men of letters; the same is true of scientists, scholars, and so on. It would seem that the thousands of foreigners who visit China each year all meet this inevitable handful of people, for whom greeting foreigners is a full-time job. But if by chance you knew some other personalities—artists, writers, or scholars—apart from those few pathetic mummies who have been cleared to be full-time public-relations men, you may well have to wait a long time to see them again.

The chances you have of meeting someone are generally in inverse ratio to the gain you might enjoy from the encounter: for example, a senator from Texas or an Australian farmer is more likely to be allowed to meet a well-known archaeologist or a specialist in epigraphy—especially if he has not asked to—while it will be very hard for a specialist in those fields to enjoy the same privilege. If it appears that you are less ignorant than you decently should be about current changes in the political or cultural life of China, and if on top of that you know enough Chinese to be able to dispense with an interpreter, all your requests to meet various people, or just to know what has happened to them, will sink without a trace in the sands of a timid and fear-ridden bureaucracy.

Friendship between peoples” is always exalted in China: the slogan is repeated in every speech, written in gigantic ideograms on every wall. But friendship between individuals is efficiently discouraged: the reader will find a number of instructive stories about this in the following pages. If the Maoist authorities, welcoming foreign visitors, run China like a restricted club, it is a colonial club, where meeting the “natives” is frowned upon. The only Chinese people one can talk to without getting into trouble are servants (personnel provided by the service section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), bureaucrats one meets at official gatherings, guides and interpreters provided by the government’s travel agency, and “professional friends.” These last are bureaucrats from the Foreign Office on temporary assignment to keep foreigners company; their names—they are few—come up time and again in the many accounts written by travelers who think, naïvely, that they had managed to make friends in China. As long as they are attached to you, you will find them talkative and pleasant, maybe even warm-hearted; but if you try to prolong the friendship beyond the term of their official mission, you risk disappointment.

2. Peking

It is not easy to foresee how future centuries will judge the Maoist rule, but one thing is certain: despite all it has done, the name of the regime will also be linked with the outrage it inflicted on a cultural legacy of all mankind: the destruction of the city of Peking.

For what they wanted to do to their own capital city, the rulers of the People’s Republic would have been better inspired to have a hideous modern city such as Tientsin, for instance; they could have bulldozed whole neighborhoods, laid out grids of those endless straight boulevards they seem to be so fond of; created vast esplanades and exalting deserts of tarmac for their mass manifestations in the best Stalino-Fascist style; in a word; they could have slaked their thirst for destruction without causing irreparable damage to the monumental legacy of Chinese civilization. Moreover, the architectural ugliness of a city like Tientsin, which reaches almost surrealist dimensions, could have inspired the architects of the new regime as it challenged them in the category of delirious kitsch and petty-bourgeois pretentiousness; the competition would have been keen between the imperialist-colonialist and the Maoist city planners; even better, the various monuments given to China by the Soviet Union which now disgrace Peking would have found in Tientsin a background more in harmony with their aesthetic. But alas, from a Maoist point of view Tientsin would not do: it had no imperial tradition.

In Peking stands one monument that more than any other is a dramatic symbol of the Maoist rape of the ancient capital: the Monument to the Heroes of the People. This obelisk, more than a hundred feet high, the base of which is adorned by margarine bas-reliefs, would by itself be of no particular note if it were not for the privileged place it has, exactly in the center of the vista from Ch’ien men Gate to T’ien-an men Gate. A good sneeze, however resonant, is not remarked upon in the bustle of a busy railway station, but things are somewhat different if the same explosion occurs in a concert hall at just the most exquisite and magical point of a musical phrase. In the same way, this insignificant granitic phallus receives all its enormous significance from the blasphemous stupidity of its location. In erecting this monument in the center of the sublime axis that reaches from Ch’ien men to T’ien-an men, the designer’s idea was, of course, to use to advantage the ancient imperial planning of that space, to take over to the monument’s advantage that mystical current, which, carried along rhythmically from city gate to city gate, goes from the outside world to the Forbidden City, the ideal center of the Universe. The planner failed to realize that by inserting his revolutionary-proletarian obscenity in the middle of that sacred way he was neatly destroying precisely the perspective he wanted to capture for it.

The brutal silliness of the Monument to the Heroes of the People, which disrupts and annihilates the energy-field of the old imperial space by trying to appropriate it, epitomizes, alas, the manner in which the Maoist regime has used Peking: it has chosen the old capital in order to give its power a foundation of prestige; in taking over this city, it has destroyed it.

The destruction of Peking started in the 1950s, when all the pailous that spanned the main thoroughfares of the old city were eliminated. These graceful arches broke the monotony of the streets and gave them a kind of rhythm that was at the same time noble and elegant, but they were guilty of two crimes: they hindered traffic and worse, in the heart of the Red capital, they were feudal and reactionary remnants (most of them had been built to commemorate chaste widows or upright mandarin officials). At that time, an expert in ancient Chinese architecture, Liang Ssu-ch’eng (son of Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, the famous publicist who did more than anyone else to introduce modern ideas in China at the beginning of the century), defended the pailou and fought bravely against the destruction committed in the name of Russian urbanistic principles. He paid for it: not only was his struggle in vain (not one of these charming constructions remains in all of Peking), but he became the target of various attacks, which stopped only when he had recanted publicly, praised the merits of Soviet architectural planning, confessed his errors, and (for good measure) denounced the memory of his father.

After pulling down the pailous, whole blocks were razed to assuage the hunger of socialist town planners for immense avenues, boulevards, and squares; these are intended for the parades, mass meetings, pageants, and rallies, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of participants, that are as essential to the good working of a people’s republic as the old circus games were to the Roman Empire. During the off-season for political grand opera—and this is so in all socialist metropolises, from Moscow to Peking—the paltry car traffic, contrasting with the giant size of these roads, gives them a ghostly appearance.

The vast boulevards call to mind the false airports which cargo-cult devotees in New Guinea hack out of the jungle in the hope that this will persuade their gods to send planes full of treasure: one is sometimes tempted to believe that the building of the Autobahns, now used only by a few dismal cyclists or donkey carts, might similarly be part of a magic ritual, as if miles of macadam might generate the sudden appearance of hordes of hooting, stinking, triumphant cars—simultaneously the nightmare of the consumer society and dream of the socialist one.

In the obliteration of Peking, the next step was to demolish the city walls. Here it must be noted that Peking was not an ordinary city born of the meeting of various economic, demographic, and geographical factors. It was also the projection in stone of a spiritual vision: its walls were, therefore, not so much a medieval defense apparatus as a depiction of a cosmic geometry, a graphic of the universal order.

Before coming back to Peking in 1972 I had known already that I would not see the walls again: the government of the People’s Republic had razed them all. This Herculean labor, begun in 1950, was completed in 1962. But, I thought, if the walls have gone, at least the essential things are still there: the glorious series of monumental gates that still define and organize the city’s ideal space. Even if the physical appearance has changed, at least the gates are there, perpetuating on Chinese soil, as an ideographic character painted on silk or carved on a stele, the sign of Peking.

The panic that seized me when I could not find the gates is not easy to describe. Everyone who has known them must naïvely believe, as I did, that they were immortal, and they will understand my state of mind that day in May 1972, as I rushed breathlessly from Ch’ung-wen men—Hata men is the popular appellation for this gate, from the name of the Mongol prince Hata, who had his palace nearby—all the way to Hsi-chih men, finding only, in place of each gate, the dull flatness of an abnormally wide and empty boulevard. For a while I tried to tell myself that I had gotten lost, that since the streets had changed I had lost my sense of direction, that at the next crossroads I could not miss the massive and protecting shape of a gate, rediscovered at last. This could only be an absurd nightmare: sooner or later I was bound to find the road back to reality—the gate to Peking. I must be having hallucinations—any hypothesis seemed more acceptable than the truth.

Finally, at Hsi-chih men, dead beat after rushing around madly for a whole afternoon, I could not deny the evidence: this obscene stump among the rubble, which the workmen were beating down with their picks, this was all that remained of Peking’s last gate…. As I learned later, its destruction had been postponed because the wreckers had found, during their work, the foundations of a gate of the Yuan era (AD 1234-1368). Archaeologists and photographers were summoned; the K’ao-ku (Archaeology) review published articles by the first and pictures by the second to show the world how much care was taken with China’s cultural heritage under the Maoist regime; when this formality was accomplished, the destruction of the entire monument continued until complete—Yuan remains included. In order to make people believe that it was both revolutionary and cultural, the Cultural Revolution thus practiced (simultaneously or successively) iconoclasm and archaeology. Dead stones loom large in specialized periodicals for the export market, while living stones in the city are murdered.

But why all the demolition? In the particular case of Hsi-chih men, for instance, the only result of reducing it to a field of rubble is to clear the perspective of the Exhibition Palace, that poisonous gift of Soviet friendship, a masterpiece of Stalinoid architecture, whose neo-Babylonian tower in lard, now visible from all sides, succeeds in changing West Peking into a suburb of some dismal Irkutsk or Khabarovsk. Elsewhere, the disappearance of the gates has permitted the widening and straightening of the streets; muleteers and bicyclists do not have to waste two or three minutes going around those majestic sentries; now they can dash in a straight line across a desert.

In Europe one is, alas, used to seeing the beauty of historic cities destroyed to make room for cars. In Peking, it is more original: the city has been destroyed not under the pressure of existing traffic, but in prevision of traffic yet to come. This, at least, is what one must conclude if one accepts the most common official explanation. But official doctrine on the matter is not unanimous; some bureaucrats defend the destruction of the gates by the need to clear the way for future traffic; others say that it was done to obtain building materials—but this is not very convincing, since the army of demolishers could just as well have opened new quarries in the hills around Peking. When cornered on the subject, authorities are vague and strangely laconic. It is rather remarkable that nobody seems to know the true reasons for a job that took so much effort and so many people and lasted for so many years.

In the end, chronology can give us the clue to the riddle. It appears that the destruction of the gates started in 1967 or 1968: in other words, the operation took place under the master slogan of the Cultural Revolution, “Destroy the old to establish the new.” Today, however, various tactical considerations have led the authorities either to deny the depredations of the Cultural Revolution or to lay them to the account of various saboteurs: Liu Shao-chi’i’s disciples, Lin Piao’s followers, rightists, leftists, rightists disguised as extreme leftists, and so on. When one is confronted with a case such as that of the gates of Peking, whose destruction was the work of specialists, well planned and well organized, employing a large work force over many years until long after the end of the Cultural Revolution, one becomes skeptical of the official theory that maintains that all acts of vandalism committed during the Cultural Revolution were the work of irresponsible extremists at the base, acting against the directives of the central power.

One should not be led astray by this “archaeological nostalgia” which seems to appear now and again in my impressions of the People’s Republic. If the destruction of the entire legacy of China’s traditional culture was the price to pay to ensure the success of the revolution, I would forgive all the iconoclasms, I would support them with enthusiasm! What makes the Maoist vandalism so odious and so pathetic is not that it is irreparably mutilating an ancient civilization but rather that by doing so it gives itself an alibi for not grappling with the true revolutionary tasks. The extent of their depredations gives Maoists the cheap illusion that they have done a great deal; they persuade themselves that they can rid themselves of the past by attacking its material manifestations; but in fact they remain its slaves, bound the more tightly because they refuse to realize the effect of the old traditions within their revolution. The destruction of the gates of Peking is, properly speaking, a sacrilege; and what makes it dramatic is not that the authorities had them pulled down but that they remain unable to understand why they pulled them down.

A passage in the autobiography of Kuo Mo-jo2 throws a strange light on this subject. In the last years of the empire, Kuo, still a child, goes for the first time from his village birthplace to the next town, Chia-ting (in Szechuan), and he describes the arrival:

At last, on the left bank, appeared the red walls that surrounded Chiating; the high cornices of the ramparts, rising in a sweeping movement, the imposing arch of the great gate and its gaping black hole like an abyss, was, for all of us, children of the countryside, a prodigiously unusual sight. The grownups on the boat said to us: “Those who cross the city walls for the first time must first bow three times to the great gate.”

We knew it was a joke; nevertheless, on approaching the gate doubts seized us, and we could not rid ourselves of the notion that some kind of ceremonial would have been fitting. In fact, I am not sure that the adults did not themselves have the same sense of religious awe when confronted with the severe majestic splendor of that gate; otherwise, how could they have thought of telling us about that rite? Powerful is the work of man! The walls they build end by having a sacred prestige….

The least provincial town has its temple to the god of walls: psychologically how does this differ from our childish response to the great gate of Chia-ting? Those superb walls are typical of the Szechuan landscape, and one seldom encounters them in other provinces—except in Peking, of course, where the walls are truly majestic.3

A countersuperstition is not less a superstition: under the old regime town walls were venerated; under the new one they are under attack. The fury of the iconoclasts is a negative measurement of the permanence of the sacred powers that ruled feudal society. The tragedy is that the sacred powers dwell not in those innocent stones, whose beauty is sacrificed in vain, but in the minds of the wreckers. Seen in this light, the Maoist enterprise appears hopeless; the regime may well change China into a cultural desert without succeeding in exorcising the ghosts of the past: these ghosts will continue their paralyzing tyranny so long as the regime is unable to identify them within itself. But will it ever be capable of such clear vision? Certain foreign Sinologists, guilty of having noted traces of the traditional way of thinking in the Maoist systems, are the focus in Peking of surprising hatred out of all proportion to their limited audience or influence.

This shows, I’m afraid, how little the Maoist authorities are ready to re-examine critically the old clichés in which they have locked the concepts of “old” and “new,” “feudalism” and “progress,” “reaction” and “revolution.” By refusing to examine the nature and identity of its revolution in depth, the People’s Republic condemns itself to marking time, to struggling in the dark, producing such periodic sterile explosions as the Cultural Revolution. It can have little hope of liberating itself from the slavery of the past as long as it hunts it among old stones, instead of denouncing its active reincarnation in the ideology and political practices of the new mandarins.

For those who knew it in the past, Peking now appears to be a murdered town. The body is still there, the soul has gone. The life of Peking, which created never-ending theater in its streets and squares, the noisy and enjoyable life of the city has gone, leaving only the physical presence of a mute and monochromatic crowd, oppressed by a silence broken only by the tinkle of bicycle bells.

But for foreign tourists, this dead city continues to offer a number of monuments that amply warrant the visit. The Forbidden City has miraculously been preserved (is it because Mao Tse-tung liked now and again to play at being emperor from the balcony of T’ien-an men?). Whatever the reason, this vast gathering of courts and palaces remains one of the most sublime architectural creations in the world. In the history of architecture, most monuments that try to express imperial majesty abandon the human scale and cannot reach their objective without reducing their occupants to ants. Here, on the contrary, greatness always keeps an easy measure, a natural scale; it is conveyed not by a disproportion between the monument and the onlooker but by an infallibly harmonious space. The just nobility of these courts and roofs, endlessly reaf-firmed under the changing light of different days and seasons, gives the onlooker that physical feeling of happiness which only music can sometimes convey. As a body loses weight in water, the visitor feels a lightening of his being to swim thus in such perfection—in curious contradiction to the explanatory notices that the authorities have put at the entrances to each court and building, describing the Chinese imperial regime in terms which would best evoke the dark and cruel horror of some Assyrian tyranny, and which would hardly account for this quality of equilibrium that seems to have inspired the whole city.

The Temple of Heaven belongs to the same aesthetic and spiritual world. Here again, greatness is reached through means that are wholly foreign to gigantism. It represents a perfect harmony, the result of the organization of a homogeneous and unique space where the buildings, the empty spaces, the perspectives, the old trees, and the blue of the sky are all active elements. I do not know to what miracle this pure perfection owes its survival—under a regime for which, elsewhere, beauty in all forms appears to be the sure mark of feudal vice or bourgeois corruption. Up to now, the Maoists have been content with building (in the middle of the avenue linking the Huang-ch’iung yü, the Imperial Heavenly Vault, to the Ch’i-nien tien, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest) a huge crimson cement screen on which you can read the text of the inevitable Mao poem (to tell the truth, it is the least bad one: “Snow”) in the poor and pretentious calligraphy of the author. In 1972 truck convoys were bringing dirt to a spot just west of this sacred way: I was told there was a plan to build an artificial hill there. The plan was evidently to make some sort of proletarian Tiger Balm Garden in the heart of the Temple of Heaven, for the healthy relaxation of the working masses….

The Pei-hai and Ching-shan parks were closed “for maintenance work,” according to signs at the entrances, but the silhouettes of sentries who could be seen patrolling at the crest of those two natural observatories that dominate the city suggested another explanation. It should not be forgotten that the last military coup d’état in China (or countercoup?—since the Cultural Revolution, the question of who holds “legal” power in China is purely academic) took place in 1971. The Chung-nan-hai district—which sheltered Mao Tse-tung and most of his staff, as well as the Central Committee, the State Council, and various national executive organs—was still in a state of semi-siege; not only were the two parks forbidden to the public and under military control but the neighborhood streets were stuffed with barracks; on the bridge between the Chung-nan-hai and the Pei-hai, whence one can see a bit of lawn near the holy of holies, every twenty yards one could see a notice reminding passers-by that it was forbidden to stop while crossing the bridge; at each end sentries made sure that this order was respected.

At night, in the same quarter, it was not unusual to meet patrolling groups of soldiers with fixed bayonets. This situation was of course temporary; we were assured that things were on their way to “normalization.” Except that when normalization is completed it may well appear that it was only temporary, before the next Cultural Revolution. In the end, the problem remains: which, the coup d’état or the period of “normalization,” is the really normal condition for the Chinese government?

3. The Mao Museum

Shaoshan, the birthplace of Chairman Mao, is about fifty miles from Ch’angsha and is visited by about three million pilgrims every year. A railway line has been built from Ch’angsha to transport them there, but one can also reach the village by a good macadam road (in contrast to the dirt roads common in the Chinese countryside) devised for the special needs of the pilgrims. Every 250 yards or so, this Sacred Way is marked by a large red board on which one finds in golden letters some quotation from the Chairman. Shaoshan lies in a bright and prosperous valley; the red Hunan soil is rich and fertile, as is attested by the prosperous appearance of the farms (and the well-known gastronomy of the province).

The influx of visitors does not give the village animation and bustle—far from it. All is orderliness and hushed devotion. The pilgrims move in ranks, by sections, red banners flying. They line up patiently to visit the House where He was born (a large farmhouse which must rouse the envy of many a visitor) and the museum. This museum has been twinned. There are two identical sections, completely and entirely alike in all respects. All the objects to be seen have been made in two sets, so that more visitors can be accommodated at the same time. I cannot imagine what strange reticence prevented the organizing committee from applying the same ingenious solution to the House where He was born also, or why it has not been done half a dozen times over: this would allow at least a million more tourists a year to satisfy their curiosity. No superstitions and childish fetishism about the “authentic thing” here, especially in the museums of revolutionary history, of which the contents are duplicated, multiplied, modified, falsified, eliminated, fabricated, and renewed at will.4

The passage of the Great Man, discreetly noted by small signs, has transfigured Shaoshan. For instance, the duck pond is not an ordinary duck pond but “the duck pond where Chairman Mao used to swim when he was a boy”; the meadow that appears to the ordinary visitor to be a common pasture is “the pasture to which Chairman Mao led the cows.” And so on. On the other hand, the Chairman’s subjects get only scanty information on his biography—whereas foreigners can at least read the autobiographical confidences he gave Edgar Snow long ago.5 To this American journalist, Mao had described his father as a decidedly unpleasant character, a prosperous farmer who ended as a landowner and speculator in grain; they had some violent quarrels, and it was then that Mao, still a child, discovered the brutal realities of oppression and class struggle. These old family quarrels seem forgotten nowadays. In the museum, a large photograph of Mao’s father is made acceptable with the sober caption, “Member of the Working Classes.” Communist historiography follows quite closely the canons, conventions, and patterns of traditional historiography: positive heroes always have humble working-class origins, the baddies are invariably of doubtful origin and suckled vice with the milk of their wet nurses. In this way, Lin Piao, for instance, who is in fact one of the very few leaders with a true proletarian pedigree, has been given quite gratuitously capitalist-bourgeois ancestors. As for Chou En-lai, whose mandarin-patrician origins are well known, there has been a courteous convention that he was born without a navel….

4. Shanghai

The Peking-Shanghai Express leaves Peking early in the morning and gets to Shanghai in the morning of the following day. I have never tired of this trip and I recommend it to all travelers because they can then see for themselves how natural physical conditions render an extraordinary diversified universe, despite the monochrome varnish that has been painted over it during two decades of Maoism.

During the first part of the trip, one traverses the great agricultural plain of northern China; late in the afternoon, after crossing the Yellow River, the countryside changes: it becomes hilly and takes on a distinct character. First you have isolated stony hillocks rising here and there out of the flat plain, then the hills multiply and grow larger and are strung together in ranges. The highest point on the line is reached at T’aian Station, where one can see T’ai-shan, the most prestigious of the Five Sacred Mountains. Confucius climbed to the top, over five thousand feet high, and claimed that “seen from the heights, the world is small.” It is on the T’ai-shan that the most solemn imperial sacrifice to Heaven and Earth was celebrated: in the entire history of China, only five sovereigns were sure enough of their virtue to dare celebrate that rite.

In the harsh Shantung countryside I rediscovered for the first time the graves scattered in the fields, marked by a stele, an old tree, or a copse that are such a feature of the Chinese landscape. Instead of our death-ghettoes, our corpse quarters, here the whole earth is a vast and welcoming cemetery: the dead nourish the earth that had nourished them, and their tombs, like a protecting presence, witness the work of their offspring from generation to generation. The new regime—both for technical and economic reasons (regrouping the fields, leveling the countless tumuli that prevented continuous plowing) and for political and ideological reasons (the fight against “superstition,” the desire to break the old clan ties, woven around the tombs of common ancestors, that bridged the class differences between “poor farmers” and “rich farmers”)—started long ago to expropriate the dead, and has generally succeeded, despite desperate peasant resistance. Shantung was about the only place that I could still find some remnants of this celebration of the mystical union between life and death, between man and earth, which once could be seen all over China.

It is also in Shantung that I saw the enormous amount of work being done to build up the roadbed so as to double the rail line—and this took me back seventeen years. In 1955 I had been struck with the sight, all over China, of such gigantic enterprises done entirely by hand, without the aid of any mechanical equipment. There had been something deeply moving in seeing a whole nation grapple thus with its destiny barehanded, and one sensed a life-force that could not fail to win. But here we were seventeen years later, and long files of coolies were still balancing baskets of dirt on their shoulders. In 1955 that work had been lightened by the hope of better days that were soon to follow; how much of that faith remains? How much of it can remain for these hard-pressed men, with no donkeys to pull their carts or plows, working themselves like beasts of burden, twenty years after being liberated by socialism?

The next day at dawn the traveler discovers an entirely different world. The austere world of northern China has been left far behind; he has crossed the Yangtze in the middle of the night, and now he wakes up in the mellow softness of the Chiang-nan (“South of the River”). In this rich, water-saturated plain, the brilliant green of the rice fields is crisscrossed by canals on which sails pass slowly by. Northern China is the color of dust and earth; here is the freshness of the “land of fish and rice,” China’s Cockaigne. Dotted over the countryside are neat white farmhouses, freshly whitewashed, with black slate roofs.

From Nanking to Hangchow, one finds a string of old towns built on trade and arts, commercial centers and places of leisure. The cultural and economic development of the region was already well advanced in the Six Dynasties period, but received its main impetus under the southern Sung, and since the twelfth century it is here more than anywhere else that the Chinese bourgeoisie directed trade and commerce, while cultivating aesthetic leisure as well. This world, where the art of living had been brought to an extraordinary degree of perfection, has disappeared, but its memory still lingers in the atmosphere of cities like Soochow and Hangchow. On the other hand, since the beginning of this century, Shanghai has been the economic and cultural heart of China, and it expresses the creative genius of its region in raucous modernism. What is striking is that after twenty years of Maoist leveling, each city has remained faithful to its old image: Soochow and Hangchow still keep some of their charm and elegance, and even practice their arts of living to some degree; Shanghai keeps up the strenuous rhythm of a great commercial metropolis, and remains proud of the skyscrapers dating from its imperialist-colonial past.

Shanghai is a paradox: to the Maoist regime it is suspect, the city in China most marked by foreign influence and open to the outside world; but it also led the vanguard of the Cultural Revolution. In the “rightist” restoration that marked the early 1970s, it was the last “leftist” bastion, and it may well become again the base from which extremists try to recapture power in Peking.

Shanghai may have changed radically since 1949, but its atmosphere and populace still have something unique and different about them—quite potent, too, for someone used to the stiff formality that Peking has acquired since becoming Mao’s capital. This is partly due to the size of the conurbation (ten million inhabitants!). In such a crowd, anonymity is possible, individuals have a chance for solitude, personal activities, a degree of privacy. In addition the revolutionary tradition of the city that was the vanguard of the political, social, and cultural struggle of modern China is still alive. The two social elements which, mixed, can bring on explosions—an urban proletariat and an intellectual elite—are larger here than anywhere else.

It is not surprising that the regime has tried—and still tries—to use Shanghai’s revolutionary potential; this was where the first shot of the Cultural Revolution was fired—the famous article written by Yao Wen-yuan under Mao’s direction, which the Great Leader, restricted in power at the time, could not get published in any newspaper in Peking and in the end had to have appear in the Shanghai paper Wen-hui pao. And, again, when Peking is back in its conservative rut and serves forth the latest Maoist slogans in such a way as to defuse their explosive power, Shanghai restores the dynamite in a new review, Hsüeh-hsi yü p’i-p’an (Study and Criticism), which is stiff competition for the traditional Hung ch’i (Red Flag) of Peking. Between Peking and Shanghai, acrimonious dialogue or mutual boycott can be felt today, in the propaganda papers and among the political personnel; they crystallize the contradictions and antagonisms that have torn Chinese leadership apart since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and have prevented the emergence of a homogeneous leadership and stable power.6

The revolutionary character of Shanghai is a two-edged sword in the hands of Maoist power, when this power tends to deny its own revolutionary vocation. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution Mao recruited his first partisans here in 1965-1966; but here he also made his bitterest enemies, when he crushed the proletarian strikes that could have given him his revolutionary vanguard and when he betrayed the hopes of those activist youth who had enthusiastically answered his first call.

As for now, in any case—a remnant of bourgeois individualism? a cynical lack of commitment on the part of people whose hopes were betrayed? or just typical defiance?—one is happy to see pairs of lovers everywhere, completely indifferent to their surroundings, and a striking lack of those proletarian uniforms (virtuous patches and right-thinking cloth caps) which are de rigueur in Peking, and by the general fact that Shanghai girls refuse to shroud their grace in dreary potato sacks as their sisters do in Peking.

Such manifestations of independence, not all that important but at least visible, combine with the quick lilting rhythm of the Shanghai dialect and the agile minds of the people to make Shanghai’s atmosphere tonic and stimulating (in complete contrast to the Peking stiffness and slowness) and to give the city a specific and irreducible quality of which the inhabitants are very proud. The rest of the counry views it with a mixture of fear and suspicion, and Shanghai brings nightmares to Peking bureaucrats. China looks at Shanghai rather the way provincial and puritan America looks at New York: as an urban monster that drains the intelligence, dynamism, and daring of the whole nation, a fascinating and disquieting Babylon in which the country cannot recognize itself.

Economically, Shanghai is a heavy burden on China’s resources, with its ten million customers who must be fed every day. Twenty years ago, the regime decided to decongest this dangerous and restless concentration of humanity, mainly by deporting young people to the countryside and especially to outlying provinces such as Sinkiang. This movement, started in the late 1950s and gaining impetus at the end of the Cultural Revolution, resulted in a decrease of eight hundred thousand people in the municipality.

The First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party took place in Shanghai in July 1921. In retrospect, this has assumed an enormous historical significance, but it appears that at the time the participants did not imagine what prodigious development would follow their modest clandestine meeting: those who described the First Congress—Ch’en Kung-po, Pao Huiseng, Chang Kuo-t’ao—seem to have only a hazy recollection of what happened, and apart from the political motives that everyone may have in rewriting history in his own way, it is puzzling to find that the witnesses do not agree on such simple basic facts as the number and the names of participants, the time and the place where they met; the best historians share this vagueness and uncertainty.7

The authorities have organized a museum with pedagogical aims at 76 (formerly 106) Hsing-yeh Street, which is presented as the site of the First Congress. It was the house where one of the delegates, Li Han-chün, lived in 1921; the Po-wen Girls’ School, often mentioned in connection with the First Congress, is in the neighborhood but appears not to have been a meeting place, only to have housed some delegates. For practical reasons, the organizers of the museum seem to have chosen arbitrarily from among the various contradictory accounts of the event. On the ground floor, one is shown a room furnished austerely with a table and twelve chairs; on the table, there is a teapot and twelve cups; on the wall, a portrait of Mao as a young man, and the guide explains that the First Congress met here, with twelve participants, on July 1, 1921. Actually the date is far from certain; according to the memory of witnesses, the meeting took place upstairs; and twelve is certainly the wrong number. After a moment of silent meditation, the visitors go to the house next door, where one can find conference rooms and convent-style parlors. There, foreigners are offered cups of tea and a short talk on the First Congress, the quality of the discourse being in direct relation to their own level of information.

For example, when questioned, the guide will admit rather easily that two foreigners took part in the Congress8—though this appears to be denied by the twelve chairs and the twelve cups, unless one supposes that the foreigners did not drink and sat on the floor, but since those fellows later “sank into Trotskyism,” perhaps they do not warrant more attention. But, alas, the same appears to be true of about half the delegates: Ch’en Kung-po and Chou Fo-hai left the party some years later, joined the Kuomintang, and finally collaborated with the Japanese. Chang Kuo-t’ao, who was one of the most influential party leaders, defected after losing to Mao in the power struggle. Liu Jen-ching became a Trotskyist and later (during the war) joined the Kuomintang. Li Ta early ceased to play an active role in the party, though he was never a turncoat; after the Liberation, he became president of Wuhan University, but in 1966 he was violently attacked by Red Guards and died of the treatment received at their hands—after having appealed to Mao in vain. Li Han-chün left the party—or was excluded—early, and was executed in 1927 by Kuomintang soldiers; his martyrdom rehabilitated him. Ho Shu-heng, Ch’en T’an-ch’iu, Wang Chin-mei, and Teng En-ming all gave their lives for the party. When one has accounted for the traitors and martyrs—almost equal in number—there remain only two famous living members: Mao-Tse-tung and Tung Pi-wu.9

What the Congress did is usually passed over discreetly, since the main decision adopted by the delegates was in fact to confirm the authority of Ch’en Tu-hsiu, who was later expelled from the party and became the leader of the Trotskyist opposition.

I asked the curator of the museum, who was taking me around, what basic books he could recommend, in Chinese, on the history of the Chinese Communist Party. This question seemed to take him unawares.

Well, er, that is to say, I mean, since the Cultural Revolution, nothing has been published on the subject.”

And before the Cultural Revolution?”

Before that? Oh, yes, well, before that…in fact, there was nothing then either.”

He was telling the truth.10 A directive of Lu Ting-yi in the 1960s explicitly forbade the writing of the history of the party. This is a good example of Chinese pragmatism: rather than have to write and rewrite the history of the party, according to purges and successive crises (as the Russians do), better not write it at all.

Should I describe my visit to the famous diesel factory, where for some years now the welcoming committee for foreign visitors has ‘performed a very convincing act? A worker describes with great gusto and verve his experiences during the Cultural Revolution. Since his tale has already appeared in twenty different reports, to write it down here once again would tire the reader; and in any case, I do not want to compete unfairly with K.S. Karol.

In the famous Foochow Street, the secondhand bookshops were still closed in 1972 and 1973. In Nanking Street, the To-yun hsuan shop (which specialized in paintings and artistic reproductions) sold only propaganda posters and portraits of Chairman Mao in the part of the store accessible to the public. However, for foreigners, a back room was unlocked: there, one could see paintings in the traditional style and reproductions of old paintings. These prophylactic measures to isolate the Chinese from their own culture are applied throughout China. A better example still could be found in the Shanghai Museum in 1973; a wonderful exhibition of ancient calligraphy had been organized, but the public was not allowed to view it. One had to be a foreigner or get a special permit, delivered on application forwarded by one’s “unit”: to go by the notes and commentaries written on the register, few connoisseurs managed to become authorized visitors.

Strolling in the streets of Shanghai. In T’uan-ch’eng, the old “Chinese city,” the hovels are still miserable. The temple of the protecting deities of the city (Ch’eng-huang miao) has been half-razed, half-transformed into a small factory. But the streets around it still shelter a very busy market.

In the crushing heat of summer, Shanghai gives the impression of a human sea that has burst through the dams. Toward evening, the crowds fill the streets seeking fresh air, and the almost total absence of cars leaves the boulevards to them. Slow-moving masses drift to the banks of the Huang-p’u River, and at that blessed hour an antique grace fills the river with a swarm of red and brown sails, as the junks go down on the ebb tide to Wusong and the muddy immensity of the Yangtze.

The above gives the situation as I knew it in Peking and Shanghai in 1972. If the present détente lasts, I am sure that changes will occur: museums will reopen; some ancient temple or other will be restored for the benefit of foreigners; bookshops will sell books again. With the passage of time the shocks of the Cultural Revolution will fade and be forgotten, and the man in the street will again display, in his chance dealings with foreigners, his customary courtesy and friendliness. Instead of having only six Revolutionary Model operas, theaters will have twelve, then twenty. The signs announcing where it is “Out of Bounds to Foreign Visitors” will be put two miles farther away, then four, then six.

All these changes will make life in Peking more interesting and more pleasant, but I think it would be a mistake to believe that under the cosmetic improvements anything basic has changed. All the changes of direction in the party line, not only since the liberation in 1949, but since Yenan or even since the Kiang-si soviet, have been only tactical changes. The vital dynamics of the Chinese Communist regime come from the constant shifting from “left” to “right,” and the continual changes of the tiller’s direction do not in the least affect the ship or her final destination.

Among various descriptions of Communist China made at different times, one may note differences, yet if these descriptions have been made conscientiously and perceptively, they will show more than ephemeral journalistic truths, for modifications will be in quantity, never in quality—variations in amplitude, not changes in basic orientation. Only observers who lack a sense of historical perspective can entertain the illusion that at such and such a time the regime turned a new leaf or started in a new direction. In fact its choices are severely limited by its very nature: in a totalitarian system where authority is held by a military-bureaucratic class, and where power expresses itself through periodic military coups, it is inevitable that times of stress will be followed by times of relative relaxation; it would be absurd to take one or the other of those cyclical phases for a new development.

(This is the first of two articles.)


Chinese Shadows September 15, 1977

Correcting ‘Chinese Shadows’ July 14, 1977

  1. 1

    In a letter to Horace Walpole about Boswell’s Account of Corsica.

  2. 2

    Kuo Mo-jo (b. 1892), a man of versatile abilities (poet, playwright, archaeologist, historian, philologist, politician), is a pillar of China’s cultural establishment who has been showered with countless official titles and honors, but his ruthless opportunism and shameless sycophancy have earned him the universal contempt of all Chinese intellectuals.

  3. 3

    Kuo Mo-jo, Autobiographie: mes années d’enfance (Paris, 1970), pp. 75-76.

  4. 4

    The best example of this museographic industry belongs to the great movement to emulate Lei Feng. Lei Feng was a conscript who died at the age of twenty in a banal accident. Only after his death was it discovered what a humble and admirable pupil of Mao Tse-tung he had been during his short and hidden life. His ideal had been “to be a small cog in the machine” working for the party and Chairman Mao. The biography of Lei Feng had some strange variants before the definitive version was prepared by the writers of the Propaganda Department in 1954. “Lei Feng Exhibitions” were organized in the large cities, simultaneously showing many “original” copies of the hero’s diary. These exhibitions also showed remarkable photographic documents, such as “Lei Feng helping an old woman to cross the street,” “Lei Feng secretly [sic] doing his comrades’ washing,” “Lei Feng giving his lunch to a comrade who forgot his lunch box,” and so forth. Only cynical and impious spirits will wonder at the providential presence of a photographer during the various incidents in the life of that humble, hitherto unknown soldier.

  5. 5

    An integral Chinese translation of Red Star over China was made in Shanghai in 1939 by Shih Chien-k’ang under the title Ch’ang cheng. Reprinted in 1949, this translation was taken out of circulation some years later.

  6. 6

    The downfall of the “Gang of Four” (Madame Mao, Wang Hung-wen, Chang Ch’un-ch’iao, and Yao Wen-yuan) in late 1976 marked the end of Shanghai as a citadel of radical Maoism.

  7. 7

    See Wang Chien-min, Chung-kuo kung-ch’an-tang shih kao (Draft History of the Chinese Communist Party) Taipei, 1965; or Jacques Guillermaz, A History of the Chinese Communist Party: 1, 1921-1949 (London and New York, 1972).

  8. 8

    These were Maring (Henrik Sneevliet), who died in 1942, shot by the Nazis in Amsterdam; and Nikolsky. Nikolsky was a representative of the Profintern, the Trade Unions International, but I heard him called “Niknosky” in Shanghai. Most historians mention Maring and Voitinsky, but it seems that in July 1921 Voitinsky was not in Shanghai.

  9. 9

    Tung Pi-wu died in 1975 and Mao in 1976. (Translator’s note.)

  10. 10

    Except for the short work (forbidden today) by Hu Ch’iao-mu, Chung-kuo kung-ch’an-tang ti san shih nien (Peking, 1951).

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