Culture and Anarchy in China

The Sian Troupe; Lost in Canton

Seth Kupferberg spent nearly a month in China last summer. This is the last article in a three-part series on his trip.

There's funny thing about what we saw of Chinese culture. We didn't see that much of it, I guess--after all, we were only in China for three and a half weeks--but a lot of what we did see seemed to be the sort of thing George Orwell called for in England: as thrilling and lively as a boys' adventure magazine, but with subject-matter and ideology a little more up to date. In newspaper articles here it often sounds martial and forbiding, but actually the music on the radio is cheerful and pleasant--a little like Muzak, but a good bit less insulting. Despite its title, "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy" is an exciting short adventure story. The movies are exciting, too, and the huge posters you see at intervals not only seem more reasonable in content than American advertisements but more colorful and better designed, too. And all this is without even considering the fact that before 1949 most Chinese had access to hardly any culture. But obviously Orwell's prescription had something of a double edge--and he didn't say everything should be like a boys' adventure magazine.

The old palaces and tombs and temples are mostly museums now, and they draw big crowds. They may not be quite as big as the Sunday busloads at the Great Wall, where fathers carry picnic baskets and tired babies up the high steps and people scratch their names and provinces like American graffiti. But they're big enough. And there are usually people to answer visitors' questions, even if it's only with a "Buddhism! We don't understand it." Students closed down some of the palaces during the Cultural Revolution, but it seems as though visual arts aren't thought as divisive as some other forms of culture might be. Probably it's because they don't demand education as much: they don't set apart an elite.

The bookstores have lots of the early twentieth century writer Lu Hsun, and lots of Mao, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Stalin, according to one of Mao's speeches that officials are happy to quote if you bring the matter up, was a mixture of good and bad: 70 per cent good and 30 per cent bad. The woman from the Friendship Association said the classic romances always sell out as soon as they're reprinted, and some people also like the poetry of the Tang dynasty. We talked a little with a playwright associated with the Sian Official Troupe, which is 540 people who put on ballets such as The Red Detachment of Women because that's what the movie audiences want to see. They also broadcast folk songs and instrumental music. When we met them the playwright was working on a play about coal miners, so he was spending most of his time in a nearby mine. "Of course I do take part in some collective labor," he said, "but mostly I'm chatting with the miners and collecting notes."

The playwright said he'd never heard of Brecht, which surprised me a little even though concentrating on Western art was obviously unfair--few Chinese playwrights are well known in the United States. But none of us had enough background in Chinese art to ask intelligent questions. The dancers said they'd never heard of Nureyev. One actor said he'd read some Shakespeare and found it similar, in some ways, to traditional Chinese drama, but "far removed" from present-day China. One musician said he'd heard some Beethoven but found it "rather far away from our sentiments and needs." "The Ninth Symphony says all men are brothers," he explained--you can look up the detailed argument in Peking Review--"but how can the workers be brothers to the capitalists? There can't be such a case." Even without words, he insisted, he could identify the class background of a composer; composers from reactionary classes naturally express reactionary feelings.

The Troupe evidently treats Chinese art more generously: a folk singer sang a sad song about a river flowing, and explained that although it provided no revolutionary uplift it expressed the sadness working people had often felt in the past. But the musician insisted that modern Chinese ballets should never end sadly, for fear of depressing the workers and peasants and so working against their enthusiasm and interests.

As you might expect, this attitude sometimes leads to a depressingly inspirational complacency--The Red Detachment of Women reminds me a lot of West Side Story-- sometimes even in ways that. American critics might think of as suburban middle-class: one of the newsreels has a long animated cartoon about some rose-cheeked children sticking buttons on a snowman. On the other hand, at the museum of peasant art near Sian, though the paintings were all cheerful--the director said the art teachers who travel around to communes would probably use a peasant's depressing painting for "teaching by negative example"--I liked most of them very much; they seemed a lot like Unicef Christmas cards. And I liked one of the painters we met, a thin, shy farmer. She said she'd begun to paint because "there are many new things and many good things I want to paint, these things have always been up in my mind but I had no technique--I didn't know how to paint, and these things have been lingering in my mind." She said she'd always liked to draw in school, and that now she thought maybe she could help the Revolution that way, too. That made more sense to me than did the musician who said the Ninth Symphony couldn't speak for China, but it wasn't until the night before we left the country that the issue really came to a head.

We were in Canton, all set for the long train ride through the bright green fields to Hong Kong the next day, and I went out for a last walk. Just walking--through streets, into stores, into parks, with their two-cent admission fees and another two cents to park your bicycle outside--was often one of the most interesting things to do. In Peking there had been Tien An Men Square, where the People's Republic was proclaimed on October 1, 1949--a gorgeous vast expanse of people chatting or walking in the summer evening. In Shanghai there had been the early morning crowd of exercisers, and at night people playing cards or talking in the middle of the street, and the couples standing on the Bund watching the river, and sometimes boys shouting "Hello" or "Okay" because that was all the English they knew. In the countryside there had been the chickens and the children. But in Canton, for the first time, I got lost.

Canton is hot enough so things close down in the afternoon, and it stays open later at night than most Chinese cities. So when I first realized I was lost there were lots of people out. But as I wandered in circles the streets became emptier, until at last there were just people who'd brought out mattresses to escape the heat and an occasional cart, collecting night-soil to take to the surrounding countryside. But I had a land-mark that kept me from getting more lost--a violinist, up on the fourth floor of the building I kept coming back to, practicing a piece I didn't recognize but which was indisputably Western and from what the Sian Official Troupe might have called the rising bourgeois period. And it didn't seem "far removed" at all.

In Hong Kong, we met an American acquaintance who had been in China last spring, and I told him this story. He nodded sagely. "We met some musicians when we were there and asked them what they played for recreation," he said, "and they said Beethoven and a little Strauss."

All this about culture brings me to the Cultural Revolution. It's another one of those things that sounds different when you hear about it from when you read about it, even though what you read about it, even though what you read about it may be accurate. Even the more sedate survivals of the period--the revolutionary Committees or the "Workers propaganda teams" sent into schools by local factories, for instance--sound different close up.

"I was entrusted by my fellow workers in a factory," a team member in the Learn From the People's Liberation Army Secondary School in Hangchow said. "As a matter of fact, by the whole working class. It was a decision of the party organization in my factory." This sounded a little limiting, but at least one of the students in the school said he liked the team. "I used to think it was useless to study," he said. "Anyway, I would have to go to the countryside with an ax, so what did I need general knowledge for? I used to fail math and foreign language and was just average in everything else except sports, so the workers' propaganda team worked with me, discussing what the old society was like and why we need to seize power now, and when I got to high school I passed everything. So I might not have had a chance to meet you without the workers' propaganda team."

None of the factory revolutionary committees we encountered had had a membership change since they were set up, but most of their members said they were pretty sure the Cultural Revolution had broken bureaucratic habits for good. They mostly explained that regularly scheduled elections to the revolutionary committees might well be a good thing--they were originally set up, after all, by mass meetings of people dissatisfied with the old kind of top-down bureaucratic control--but they mostly said that basically, everything is fine. Some other people--especially younger ones--seemed less sanguine, though. "People age who were in high school when the Cultural Revolution started talk about politics all the time," one young woman said, "But maybe things are more back to routine for those who didn't go through that."

I thought that made it sound something like the American movement against the Vietnam war, though it's possible I'm reading into things. In any event, young people who did go through the Cultural Revolution seem pleased if you ask about it, but after the first laugh a lot of them shrug, as though it's a hard period to summarize. "We ran all over the country telling workers what to do and gradually losing some of our arrogance," one former Red Guard said. "I was on the train," said another. "There were many people on the train." For a while a student identification card was good for free passage on the railroads. At Futan University a young teacher gave a fairly detailed account:

"We'll never forget going up to Peking and being received by Chairman Mao--the trains were crammed by all the students, we were very much excited and moved, some sang songs, others did other things. Then we held great debates, and put up posters, and united with good student and a good Marxist-Leninist as everyone we could, and isolated the rest, and then together with the workers we seized power.

"Now all the members of the revolutionary committee are following the proletarian line," he added. A young electric worker in Sian sounded less sure: "Struggle is still necessary," he said firmly. What had he done during the Cultural Revolution? "I made rebellion against the revisionist line," he said, grinning broadly.

I hope that some of this has helped clarify how I found China more good natured than I expected. There were other things, too. There was the retired pharmaceutical worker in Shanghai, proud of the neat 12' by 15' room he shared with his wife and son, and of his ability to save part of their $90-a-month pensions, but apparently prouder of the basket of peaches a visiting relative had brought from the country. There was the Hangchow high school student explaining that anyone could play basketball, but to play for the school team you had to be a good student and a good Marxist-Leninist as well as a good player. Someone asked if basketball stars had prestige in the school, and he said, "We don't talk about prestige so much. After all, we're all students." There was the fifth-grader who said her favorite subjects are reading "about heroes who fight" and swimming, and who wants to be a doctor. She was the only school kid who didn't say "worker" or "peasant." Would she like to be a worker? "Well," she said, "maybe a worker or a worker-doctor." And there were others.

There was also one exception that seemed particularly outstanding--the People's Liberation Army camp we visited. Some of it was all right. There was a young squad leader whom I liked, with a nice smile like a policeman I remember from President Eisenhower's funeral procession. Whenever an officer told a story about being criticized by his men he looked pained and assured us that this was unusual because in general the officers and men got along just fine. He seemed hard-working and sincere and so on, and his men said he was very concerned with their welfare, too.

It was the camp's vice political commissar who I didn't like--a fat-faced, tough-looking character with a scar, who drove around in a chauffeured automobile, explained that soldiers on duty did not have the right to put up critical posters, and almost blew up at a hostile question about the Korean War. I might write off the People's Liberation Army because of him, except for what happened at a high school in Shanghai.

There were three high school girls, apparently best friends, sitting across from me, while one of their classmates gave a talk about the school's history and how the Red Guards served as substitute teachers and so on. He was evidently proud and a little nervous and certainly a little boring, and one of the girls seemed a little amused by it all. One of her friends occupied herself by exchanging Chinese and English words with Shep Hoffman, a B.U. law student who was sitting next to her. When a teacher finally gave her a disapproving look, they switched to playing tic-tac-toe.

Later we asked if any of the students had put up posters criticizing the school, and the third girl nodded vehemently. People elaborated a little--there'd been recent posters criticizing teachers for ranking their students and for tearing up a student's comic book--and then we went outside to play fris bee: teaching fris bee was our main effort at building Chinese-American friendship. When we went back for more discussion, Shep Hoffman asked what people's ambitions were, and the three girls answered--if I hadn't liked them so much, I guess I'd have hated it, it was so pat.

"I want to go to the countryside to be a peasant," the one who'd been playing tic-tac-toe said.

"I want to help transform some barren area into fertile land, and reduce the difference between the city and the countryside," said the one who'd put up the poster.

"I want to be a PLA woman to safeguard our motherland," said the third, the one who'd looked amused. So it was clearer than ever how little I knew; because in a battle between her and the vice political commissar, how could I tell who would win, or whether it would even be a contest? All I could tell for sure is that once in a while, now, I miss Shanghai, where the lights stretch on for miles at night but it feels as though everyone knows everyone else. So I guess that will have to do.