Saturday, February 03, 2018

The uncultured, classless revolution

Reading White Swans, despite its riveting narration, felt like torture when the part of the book dedicated to the Cultural Revolution of China started. Every tale, a misery, an injustice, a travesty. As a reader, I couldn't wait to finish off those 300 pages that describe the ordeal endured by the family of the author, Jung Chang (Zhang Rong) during that period of time. You turn the pages just wanting her to cut a long story short and say: "And a few years after that, Mao died; sanity resumed; everyone apologised, hugged and moved on.' It didn't. Every time I picked it up was with some intrepidation. Of course, reading is nothing compared to being there. The actual length of the "revolution" was over 10 years, between 1966 and 1976 and I could not imagine how people bore it in real time.

Any description of it is required reading for anyone interested in human nature under pressure, politics, China or philosophy. A lot of the people I've spoken to with an interest in China often have no idea. Sometimes they know the misleading name, without really getting to grips with the substance.

It wasn't much of a revolution. It was a tool for the top leader, Mao, to get rid of his enemies, with the whole population in the cross-fire. Revolutions by definition is the population, or a group of people, successfully deposing their leaders or the authorities, usually by force. China has had revolutions. Many dynasties started with one, including the Han and Ming. The last dynasty, the Qing, ended with the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, (famously with "the last emperor", Puyi). And then the communists won the Chinese civil war in 1949, which was the Chinese Communist Revolution, when they removed the corrupt capitalists of the KMT (Guomin Dang) from power over the mainland of China.

The Cultural Revolution wasn't very cultural either. It exhorted people to destroy cultural things, stop independent, individual thought and embrace ignorance. While there is still a degree of this lingering even in the China of today in the fields of politics.

If you don't know about this period of history, I'd recommend you reading about it. In China it is talked about with the abbreviation wenge, but it isn't a popular topic. Wild Swans incidentally is a banned book in China. Prior to this I'd read only a couple of pages of hers, the Chinese version of Mao: The Unknown Story, which was part of one of my favourite anecdotes from China. I bought it in a train station book store in China and carried it in my shoulder bag. When I arrived back in Guangzhou, they scanned all of my luggage and I was called over by the customs officer who pointed at my shoulder bag and asked to open it. My heart was in my mouth. He pulled out the book without checking any of my other possessions flicked through it, said: "Bu keyi" (not acceptable), tossed it into a contraband bin. He asked for my passport, flicked through it, gave it back to me and wave me onwards. I was anxious about any "implications" for me but clearly he didn't want to make that kind of trouble.

I've finished Wild Swans now and I'll probably need a "break" from heavy reading for a while. Still not running, I'll pick my travel books carefully.

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