The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Friday, October 18, 2013

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Ruminations on the Revolutionary Past, Chinese Comedy Routines and the Weather

View of the city wall from Redgate Gallery

Well the Beijing blue sky days definitely were a temporary phenomenon. Today the air pollution index reads "301: Hazardous" and the American Embassy's website advises people to stay indoors. Wealthy expats maybe; everyone else is out in the streets as usual, although I notice more cyclists wearing masks today.

After my first week of  Chinese classes  I am waking in the middle of the night with all the Chinese sentences that I wish I had thought of during the day floating around in my brain. Some time ago I read a book of essays by an American linguistics professor about her time in China, 'Dreaming in Chinese,' and that is what seems to be happening to me. And not only am I dreaming that I am speaking, but now that I am (ridiculously) attempting to learn to read Chinese as well, all the characters that utterly bewilder me in class float around in front of my eyes all night while I try to sleep. During lessons I confuse the character for 'potato' with that for 'climb down the mountain' (yes, yes, dumb, I know!) I have a German, a Dutchman and an Italian (I know, it sounds like the start of a joke) who began at the language school a week earlier all eagerly helping me. In my dreams I am fluent. If I ever experience the emotion of pure envy it is not of people with money or power or good looks; it is reserved for westerners who can speak fluent Chinese. At times I hate them with a passion! 

Last night I went to a lecture by French academic Michel Bonnin, about his book 'The Lost Generation: the rustication of China's 'Educated Youth" ' I have read a certain amount about this generation, the "Zhiqing" who include in their number most of the current leaders in the Standing Committee of the Politbureau, including Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, but I had no idea of the numbers. Between 1955, when it began as a Soviet-style experiment after the terrible famine caused by Mao's Great Leap Forward, to the late 1970s when it was finally concluded, almost 20 million teenagers and youth were sent to far provinces, many with no hope of ever returning to the cities from whence they came. In 1962 when Mao said, "Never forget class struggle" 100,000 were sent from Shanghai to the poverty stricken rural areas of Xinjiang Province. Bonnin described the process thus: "One sentence from Mao and 20 million young urbanites became peasants." 

Bonnin has spent many years interviewing those who were 'sent down' to the countryside to be educated by the peasants under Mao's policy, including those who swam from Guangdong to Hong Kong and were (at least initially) accepted as refugees. Later they were redefined as 'economic migrants' and returned to the Mainland (sound familiar, Australia?)
Designer: Revolutionary Committee of the Sichuan Art Academy (四川美术学院革命委员会供稿)
1969, April
Educated youth must go to the countryside to receive re-education from the Poor and Lower-Middle peasants!
Zhishi qingnian dao nongcun qu, jieshou pinxiazhong nongde zaijiaoyu! (知识青年到农村去, 接受贫下中农的再教育!)
Publisher: Sichuan renmin chubanshe (四川人民出版社)

While there are some, including China's current leaders, who have positive memories of this time, there were many for whom it was heartbreaking and lonely, and for whom it created a lifetime of bitterness and regret. It was interesting to hear about the open resistance after 1978. In Yunnan 50,000 went on a hunger strike and sent a delegation to Beijing. They were ultimately successful in being sent home, but the Shanghainese in Xinjiang Province were not so fortunate, and their tragedy and anger continues to play out in that city even now, as I found when I interviewed the performance artist Wu Meng last December. She has been documenting the protests in Shanghai of those zhiqing who are agitating for some recognition of their lost earnings and lost education.. 

Today in the centre of Beijing from a stationery taxi on my way to Redgate Gallery (of course - Beijing traffic!) I watched parents meet their primary school children - many wearing red pioneer scarves - at the school gate. Bicycles sailed past with children on the back. I watched a young father laugh with his cheeky-looking son, then spontaneously take his hand and kiss it lovingly. Teenage girls strolled arm-in-arm. Two men stood arguing on the corner, one so drunk that he listed from side to side like a ship in a storm, the other threatening to get on his bicycle and drive away. Old men rode tricycles loaded with timber, paper and other recycling, and the tiny 'beng beng' vehicles zig-zagged through the chaos. Meanwhile brand new Lexuses, BMWs and other luxury cars manoeuvred aggressively and a cyclist yelled angrily at a taxi driver who had hit the back of his bike. A constant honking of car horns is as much a feature of the Beijing aural landscape as the sound of hawking and spitting. The motto is, whatever you plan to do in your car, honk your horn first, then honk while you are doing it, then honk again when you've finished, just for good measure. The other feature of taking taxis is the radio sound-track. All the drivers listen to comedy routines which I assume are the classic 'xiangsheng' or 'cross talk' double acts. I keep thinking of old-school vaudeville routines when I listen to this; even though I can't understand much of the routines, they  have that style of exaggeration, fast question and answer, and punning. Think Roy Rene speaking Chinese!

Here's a famous routine by comedian Jiang Kun, just to give you the flavour:

A: On the wall of the shop was a piece of paper, and at the top it said NOTICE TO ALL CUSTOMERS.
B: What did it say?
A: It said: “All revolutionary comrades who come in the revolutionary door of this revolutionary photography shop, before asking any revolutionary question, must first call out a revolutionary slogan. If any of the revolutionary masses do not call out a revolutionary slogan, then the revolutionary shopkeeper will take a revolutionary attitude and refuse to give a revolutionary response. Revolutionarily yours, the revolutionary management.”
B: Really “revolutionary”, all right. It was like that in those days. As soon as you went into the shop it went like this: “Serve the People!” Comrade, I’d like to ask a question.
A: “Struggle Against Selfishness and Criticize Revisionism!” Go ahead.
B: [to the audience] Well, at least he didn’t ignore me. [Back in character] “Destroy Capitalism and Elevate the Proletariat!” I’d like to have my picture taken.
A: “Do Away with the Private and Establish the Public!” What size?
B: “The Revolution is Without Fault!” A three-inch photo.
A: “Rebellion is Justified!” Okay, please give me the money.
B: “Politics First and Foremost!” How much?
A: “Strive for Immediate Results!” One yuan three mao.
B: “Criticize Reactionary Authorities!” Here’s the money.
A: “Oppose Rule by Money!” Here’s your receipt.
B: “Sweep Away Class Enemies of All Kinds!” Thank you.

Love it!
Apart from my ruminations about weather, revolutionary history, Chinese comedy routines and the impossibility of ever learning to speak with "yi kou liuli de Hanyu" (a mouth of fluent Chinese) I have also been doing what I came here for: interviewing artists.

Next post - Liang Yuanwei, Han Yajuan, Huang Jing Yuan and Liu Shiyuan

Redgate Gallery from the City Walls