• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Real China

The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

by Chen Jo-hsi, translated by Nancy Ing, by Howard Goldblatt, with an introduction by Simon Leys
Indiana University Press, 220 pp., $8.95

Six years ago Richard Nixon paid his first visit to the People’s Republic of China. His handshake with Mao Tsetung—the two men profiled by the photographer’s flashbulb against the door of the Chairman’s book-lined study—set the seal on a new era in Sino-American relations.1 In 1960, during his televised debates with John F. Kennedy, Nixon had warned his “fellow Americans” that China’s appetite for global conquest was insatiable.

What do the Chinese Communists want? They don’t want just Quemoy and Matsu. They don’t want just Formosa. They want the world.

Now, almost overnight, an entirely different message was to be broadcast to the American public. While the Sino-US joint communiqué called in carefully chosen words for the “normalization” (cheng-ch’ang-hua) of diplomatic relations and for the development of scholarly and cultural exchanges, the television images that were flashed by satellite to America transmogrified the Chinese hordes that had in “human waves” overwhelmed MacArthur’s troops into a friendly population of hard-working peasants, cheerful schoolchildren, and benign officials all eager to improve their own relations with the people of the United States.

As opportunities for travel to China expanded in the months and years after the Nixon visit, this new beneficent image of the Chinese was reinforced even more. Celebrities accompanied by camera crews reported back on prime television time about the congeniality of the Chinese, praising their orderly civic devotion, their public-spirited commitment to collective welfare, and their extraordinary sexual and social egalitarianism. Our own kind of social idealism was almost instantly projected upon the Chinese, exotic though they remained,2 by delegations of loosely categorized “friends of China.”

During that honeymoon period of Sinophilia many Chinese specialists in the United States felt, I think, profoundly uneasy. Partly this may have been because of their fear that somehow the pendulum of American opinion had swung too far in the direction of idealization. For over twenty years most Americans had thought of China as an implacable communist enemy—a “Slavic Manchukuo,” as Dean Rusk once put it. The public image of China was altogether portrayed in lurid primary colors: a red nation of blue ants programmed to sweep over the world like a yellow peril. Most American specialists on Chinese affairs had tried to correct this distorted caricature, or at least shade it more subtly, but progress had been slow. It was with just a touch of proprietary envy, then, that Sinologists watched television commentators throw China open to the public and in a matter of days knock down stereotypes that academics had combated for years. But how could the Chinese ever live up to the new images that were emerging during this period of adulation? And when the public discovered that China was not a social paradise, would Americans, in jilted disappointment, resort again to those earlier demonic caricatures?

For there was no question but that the surface of Chinese society was going to be sharply disturbed during the succession crisis that was sure to erupt when Mao Tse-tung died. Even the least sensitive US China specialists who visited the People’s Republic in 1973-1976 were quickly made aware of the deep divisions that existed just behind the unified façades of “open-door” universities, model rural communes, and nominally productive factories. But while Sinologists did not want to pretend that the sum total of life in the People’s Republic could be found in the pages of China Reconstructs, neither did many—after such a long period of obscurantism—especially relish tearing down that façade for the American public.

Outsiders of Chinese descent had an even more difficult time, I imagine, deciding how to describe the conditions they witnessed. As ethnic Chinese, they were granted deeper glimpses of the inner workings of Chinese society. At the same time, their cultural background made them all the more reluctant to place the People’s Republic in a bad light. If they were sympathetic with the major goals of social improvement of the regime (and impressed with the steps already taken to reach these goals), then they mainly preferred to remain silent about the defects marring this revolutionary society.

There were, of course, insiders who described the darker side of Chinese life during this period. Some, like the subject of Red Guard,3 Dai Siao-ai, reflected the frustration of idealistic Chinese high school students who had been disappointed by the outcome of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which broke out in 1966. But the perspective of such accounts was quite narrow, and one longed for a more mature account of life within China; one anticipated at some time, perhaps quite far in the future, a truly sensitive insider’s voice.

That voice is now to be heard in Chen Jo-hsi’s The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.4 Chen Johsi, who was born on Taiwan in 1938, was educated at the prestigious National University in Taipei, where she was encouraged by leading members of the “modern literature” (hsien-tai wenhsueh) movement like Yeh Ch’ing-ping and the late Hsia Chi-an to publish a collection of short stories called Spirit Calling (Shou hun). After graduating from the Foreign Languages Department in 1961, Chen Jo-hsi came to the United States to study, first at Mount Holyoke, then after 1963 at Johns Hopkins where she became engaged to Tuan Shih-yao, who was working toward a PhD in fluid mechanics.

During the next few years, a period which coincided with the beginning of direct American military involvement in Vietnam, the two of them, now married, became ardent Maoists. This political conversion was not at all uncommon then, especially for young Chinese graduate students who had been fed a steady diet of anticommunist propaganda in Taiwan, only to learn in the United States of the considerable accomplishments of the People’s Republic of China. Taught in their high school textbooks on Taiwan of the humiliations which China had suffered at the hands of Western imperialists in the nineteenth century and of the Japanese in the twentieth century, intellectuals like Chen Johsi could see that under the leadership of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party the Chinese people had at last “stood on their own feet.”

Their identification with the People’s Republic, therefore, was both militantly nationalist and radically socialist, both politically patriotic and socially idealistic. Professor C.T. Hsia, who teaches Chinese literature at Columbia and knew Chen Jo-hsi and her husband then, has said of them during this period that “in the mutual attachment of youth, they were intoxicated with what seemed to be an extraordinarily noble and self-sacrificing idealism, and this faith was absolutely unshakable.”5 Chen herself has remarked, “We worshipped Chairman Mao then. My husband and I used to read to each other at night from Chairman Mao’s poems and then put his book under our pillows before going to sleep.”6

In 1966, Chen Jo-hsi and her husband, who had by then earned his doctorate, decided to leave the United States for the People’s Republic of China. Their decision to “repatriate” (hui-kuei) to the “fatherland” (tsu-kuo) may have been motivated partly by the knowledge that Chen Jo-hsi was pregnant. In one of her short stories, Chen writes that:

To start with, my husband had not wanted our child to be born in a foreign country, so we had rushed back to China so he could be born here. And even before he was born his school name had already been chosen: Wei-tung—Defend Mao Tse-tung. When he was but a few months old we were lifting him up to look at Chairman Mao’s portrait so that he’d recognize it as he grew up. He would laugh at the sight of his picture, and kick his legs and wave his arms.

Whether or not this was literally true for Chen Jo-hsi herself, she did give birth to a son shortly after reaching China in October, 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution was breaking out all over the country.

For the next two years Chen and her family remained in the Peking Hotel, doing little more than read wall posters, attend meetings to denounce Mayor P’eng Chen, and watch Red Guards march purged leaders like Marshal P’eng The-huai (“arms bound and eyes bulging out under a dunce’s cap”) down the main shopping street of Wang-fuching. The unit that was in charge of overseas Chinese repatriates was in the meantime taken over by militant cultural revolutionaries who “were somewhat antiforeign” as well as rather cavalier about academic specialization. When the time came to assign Chen’s husband, Tuan Shih-yao, to a post, the Red Guard cadre brushed aside his requests to teach or do research on fluid mechanics and instead ordered him to report for work at a waterworks institute in Nanking. After all, they said, water was a fluid, wasn’t it?7

In February, 1969, Chen Jo-hsi and her husband reported for work at the East China Hydraulic Engineering College (Hua-tung shui-li yuan) in Nanking only to find that this school, like every other institution of higher learning in China, had been shut down by the Red Guards. After three months digging coal, Tuan Shih-yao was transferred to northern Kiangsu to undergo “reform through labor” on a May Seventh collective farm.8 One of Chen Jo-hsi’s stories, “Night Duty,” is about that experience, and the chief character, a repatriated mathematician named Liu Hsiang-tung, is a thinly disguised representation of her husband.

For Liu Hsiang-tung the experience of labor reform was devastating. When, in the story, Liu first arrived at the May Seventh School he had been profoundly stirred by the testimonials given by the previous “class.”

At the earlier meeting he had listened to the previous group of teachers get up and expound emotionally on the effects of their having joined in the reeducation process under the poor, lower, and middle peasants in northern Kiangsu province. They had waxed enthusiastic about how their views of life had changed and how their convictions had completely turned around. For them it had been a rebirth. Some teachers had even wept profusely, and he himself had been so moved by what he heard that he clenched his hands into tight fists and his palms were wet with perspiration.

But on the farm, working in the flat endless fields or engaging in listless discussions of The State and Revolution during the campaign against Lin Piao, Liu Hsiang-tung felt himself growing weak and lifeless.

In truth, he could not say when this feeling of helplessness had set in, but it was certainly intensifying as the days passed. He could not help being surprised that within a year of his return to the fatherland his state of mind should have undergone such a great change. He seemed to be getting old before his time. How long was it since he and some close friends, all determined idealists, had stood facing the icy cliffs of the Grand Tetons and recited Chairman Mao’s poem “Snow”? Loudly and clearly they had sung the words, “For men of talent the time is now.” Where had this proud, brave spirit disappeared to?

  1. 1

    Many remembered, of course, John Foster Dulles’s refusal to accept Chou En-lai’s handshake proffered at Geneva in 1954 during the international conference on Indochina.

  2. 2

    Perhaps it was safe to project this idealism upon the Chinese precisely because they were so exotic. What could not possibly work in societies more familiar to most Americans could work there.

  3. 3

    Gordon Bennett and Ronald Montaperto, Red Guard: The Political Biography of Dai Siao-ai (Doubleday, 1971).

  4. 4

    These stories are excellent translations of the uncensored Chinese versions which appeared mainly in Ming Pao Monthly in Hong Kong between 1974 and 1976. The Execution of Mayor Yin is the first in a new series of translations from the Chinese published by Indiana University Press, which will include an anthology of literature from the People’s Republic of China, two novels by the modern writer Hsiao Hung, and an anthology of Ch’ing poetry.

  5. 5

    Hsia Chih-ch’ing, “Ch’en Jo-hsi ti hsiao-shuo” [Ch’en Jo-hsi’s fiction], in Ch’en Jo-hsi, Ch’en Jo-hsi tzu-hsuan chi A personally selected collection of Ch’en Jo-hsi’s writings, p. 4.

  6. 6

    Chen Jo-hsi’s comments at the Berkeley Regional Seminar in Chinese Studies, May 20, 1978 (hereafter, “Comments”).

  7. 7

    Comments.” In another story, “Keng Erh,” Chen remarks, “In those days [i.e., 1968] the status of repatriated Chinese was quite low, especially those who came from America. In the eyes of the rebels, they were either secret agents or incorrigible capitalists.”

  8. 8

    On May 7, 1966, Chairman Mao issued a directive that resulted in the creation of special schools for cadre to engage in manual labor and study Mao Tse-tung Thought.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print