Eye Witness of the Cultural Revolution
This is a historical article from an early issue of China Now magazine. Visits to China during the tumultuous decade of the Cultural Revolution revealed to Frida Knight that it was not 'all disaster'. This article was written in answer to the entirely negative nature of most reviews of the period seen in the West. Frida was somewhat subject to the state's careful choreography of arranged visits.
I travelled to China via the Trans-Siberian railway in 1966 for six weeks' holiday with my daughter Sofka, then teaching English in Shanghai. My arrival in Beijing was marked by my daughter's welcoming hug, and introduction to the 'reception committee' on the station platform, beneath the benign gaze of Marx, Engels, Stalin and Mao Zedong from giant portraits.
These huge posters were the outward and visible sign of New China's socialism. They surprised me at first, but turned out to be an element of the landscape, along with dazi bao ('great character posters') exhorting us to 'Put politics first!' and 'Serve the people!' and with Mao's propaganda blaring out in many public places and on most forms of transport at all hours.
We were put up for a week in the Friendship Hotel and given a sight-seeing programme which ensured that we saw everything. Visitors today probably follow the same route - to the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, the avenue of tombs. But do they now visit the Revolution Museum, the factories on the outskirts of Beijing and the new housing estates, all witnesses to Mao's social revolutionary zeal? I doubt it. The modern visitors' programme of entertainment must anyway be very different to ours, which excluded Chinese classical ballet and theatre, and consisted mainly of revolutionary dance-dramas like 'The White-haired Girl', 'Serfs' and 'The East is Red', and patriotic music performed by People's Army units. I am now very glad indeed to have seen those operas, brilliantly performed, and so different from any previous music drama experience in history! (I would not however have minded missing a revival of the later Cultural Revolution - operas, Madame Mao's 'Battalion of Women' and the like, which have probably anyway now sunk without trace.)
Beijing in August 1966 was very hot and slightly jittery - in that the streets and parks seemed to be populated by restless young people coming or going to political group meetings; they would settle down into circles for their discussions which were based on the Little Red Book of Mao's sayings, which was a must for everybody. This season of political discussion meant that all the youth were deeply engaged and it was not easy to find a young guide or taxi driver. But we did not recognise these early signs of the storm which was going to break in the next week, with the announcement of the Cultural Revolution.
We heard the news when we arrived at Xian, the first stage of our travels. Here all was quiet, with no signs of anything unusual apart from a long and colourful procession of workers with banners and drums, all very cheerful and friendly.
Just outside Xian the first excavations of the warrior tombs were going on and were good educational material for our guide to lecture us on; so were the premises of the first trade unions, where Mao supporters gathered in the 1930s, ready to welcome the Long Marchers approaching Yanan, some 250 miles away.
Among the sights of Xian is the big ceramics factory, and while we were admiring elegant bowls and dishes and enormous lavishly decorated spittoons, a message came over the loudspeaker that a plane was to leave for Yanan in an hour. Would the foreign friends like to go on it? Of course we accepted this rare chance of seeing remote Yanan - and within a few hours we were being taken round this historic base of Mao's army and its university.
The place probably looked no different from 1938 Yanan - rows of cave dwellings and improvised huts - except for the office for visitors, and the 'museum' containing various cult objects, which have been regarded as sacrosanct for generations. I certainly found it moving to see the relics of the Long March, and Mao's desk and simple furnishings, and the stone table round which he and Anna Louise Strong sat and discussed the Atom Bomb (or 'Paper Tiger') - though I thought hero worship went a little far in having had Mao's horse stuffed and put permanently on show in the little museum!
Our party returned to Xian after two days, bringing on our plane a wounded 'comrade from Vietnam' whose extradition to Xian hospital had been the reason for the trip. There were two more places to visit before moving on: one was the lorry factory, object of great local pride. We admired rows of bright red and yellow trucks, copied in all essentials from western models in the drive for economic independence; and we all had a ride on a truck and found it surprisingly comfortable!
Then there was the Grey Goose Commune or Monastery, at the entrance to the town. It turned out to be a fully operating religious foundation; the Buddhist monk in charge showed us over the building and the garden - flowers at one end, vegetables at the other, and into the library, which had been ransacked by Chiang Kai-Shek's army in the 1930s, and was later occupied peacefully by Mao's men. I was interested to find that the monks had nothing but praise for the revolutionaries, partly because they were left in peace in their home, and also allowed a seat on the Xian town council, to represent their order. I hope the Grey Goose monks survived the Cultural Revolution intact - they certainly were no enemies of socialism, and clearly did not offer any possible threat.
From Xian we went by train to Luoyang, a busy little town on the Yellow River and site of the spectacular temple of a thousand Buddhas. While we stood gasping at the extraordinary 100-foot high effigy, backed by a multitude of tiny, often headless statues, a local guide described how the 'Japanese and US invaders' had chopped off parts of, or whole, Buddhas and taken them away: 'They should he sent back from Pittsburg at once, and America must compensate Luoyang' was the general feeling - in which I certainly shared. If only it were possible!
We were then taken to the local hospital, where doctors had made a breakthrough in surgery, and were attaching the two parts of a peasant's hand, cut in half by a machine. Slightly apprehensive, we went to the peasant's bedside, where some of the surgeons, who had spent 7 hours on the operation, gave us a vivid account of the story, and of their total success. I would not have believed it had I not seen and spoken to the victim of the accident; but having seen the evidence, I believed that in their new society the Chinese truly accomplished miracles!
Our next destination was a little-known town, Anyang, a 'model commune' on the outskirts. Here we had a warm welcome, the usual sit-down round along table, cups of tea and a pep talk from the commune leader, then a walk around. Our hosts were rightly proud of their record production of fruit and vegetables, mainly due to the practice of growing three crops at once for instance, ground-nuts and cotton simultaneously beneath the apple trees; partly also due to great effort put into irrigation of the land by digging wells and small canals. This was an internationally minded community we found when we were asked to sing an English revolutionary song. We had to fall back on the Internationale, which they recognised and joined in declaiming, if not singing!
Drought was the main bugbear of this area, and we were invited to make a detour from our arranged route to visit the Red Flag Canal where there had been great achievements in irrigation by the combined efforts of 30 communities. Their people had diverted a river, and made it serve their needs by digging countless canals over the area. We would be the first foreigners to see this miracle, said Ho, our interpreter. Of course we agreed, piled into a very basic jeep, and bumped along mountain roads to the Red Flag Canal village, where we spent the night, and where no non-Chinese had been seen before. That evening we visited the village store to buy a biro: the whole population followed us along the one and only village street, and swarmed into the shop, much to the annoyance of the owner.
The day we spent on the banks of the Red Flag Canal was one of the most satisfying of my life: I again felt that miracles can happen - or rather, can be achieved by ordinary people co-operating under socialism. The fields which had been described by the locals as dead and dry before 1949 were now well watered and flourishing, producing many different crops and a safe future for thousands of local people. We went back to Anyang to catch the Shanghai express, thinking of the remarkable character of those people who had struggled to subdue nature, and succeeded! and thinking how good they had been to us foreigners in their welcome and hospitality. We were to have one more sign of their friendliness: while waiting for the train on Anyang platform, a message came through that a pen had been left in the hostel and would be sent on to the foreign friends' hotel in Shanghai. The biro made the journey and arrived! I mention this just as an example of the extraordinary honesty and decency of those People we would never see again, but would never forget.
Shuangyashan coal mine in NE China. Workers write big character posters in support of Chairman Mao, 1967
We arrived in Shanghai in early September to find the city rejoicing in the Cultural Revolution spirit. The streets were plastered with dazi bao, and during most of the day were blocked with processions and demonstrations - more carnival than revolutionary in spirit. There was in those early days very little rowdyism, and nobody foresaw the wrongs to come. I left China feeling that all would be well; Mao's wisdom and understanding would prevail. Perhaps I was too optimistic; but many of my friends and daughter certainly supported the Cultural Revolution in those days, and saw the positive side as well as the destructive, throughout. When I hear our Chinese friends, students and visitors to Europe, today describe the years 1966 to 1967 as 'disastrous', I know it is partly true - but what was achieved before then and even during those years, should not be dismissed out of hand.
What I saw and heard in a three-month visit in the winter of 1972 - 73 has some relevance perhaps. After a stormy few years things had quieted down - thanks, I assume, to the disappearance of Lin Biao and to the diplomatic genius of Zbou Enlai - and the prevailing situation had acquired a strange logic. Schools were closed but education of a kind went on; medical training meant providing 'barefoot doctors' with elementary know-how and practice in the field. Beijing University was open to students, but only to politically reliable applicants; so when I was invited to speak about 'life In Britain' to the English department, I addressed a crowd of Red Army men one day, and a contingent from the Navy the next (presumably anyone in the armed forces was a trustworthy Maoist?). It felt strange trying to explain the Western way of life to a sea of red-starred khaki or blue caps, and I did wonder how much they took in!
The university was doing some interesting things at that time. It was by no means 'all disaster', for instance the development of artificial insulin (for treating diabetes) was in full swing, and heaps of pigs liver lay about one laboratory; putting 'practice before theory' a model village was being built by the architectural department; and a friend in the English faculty said that the present courses were much more useful to Chinese society than those he used to give on Geoffrey Chaucer!
In order to show some of China's innovations during the Cultural Revolution, visitors would be taken to a hospital to see Caesarean deliveries being carried out by acupuncture; we toured the Evergreen Commune which was keeping Peking in vegetables through the winter, with fantastic crops of celery, cabbages, tomatoes; we saw the Young Pioneers producing ballet in the Children's Palace, and heard the first London Orchestra play to a full house, a programme of modern English music. The Cultural Revolution was certainly not all suppression -more stimulation and success in many ways, it seemed to me!
The high point of my three months in China was Women's Day, 8 March 1973, when all the 'foreign friends' working in Beijing were invited to a banquet in the Great Hall of the People. Many of them had recently suffered tough treatment: David Crook solitary confinement, Rose Smith enforced exile, others Long-term imprisonment. Zhou Enlai welcomed them back, apologised for the injustice and wrongs done to such good friends, and promised redress. He toured the hall, shaking hands with every one of the 400 guests (he even said 'How do you do' to me in English!) and assuring us of better times. We felt then that what remained of the Cultural Revolution was safe in Zhou's hands; I thought the great achievements were safe too: the communes, Dazhai, socialist education and medicine, women's rights -some of which I had seen developing so splendidly. Alas, Zhou died in 1976, and Mao soon after, their work uncompleted.
But I believe that the Chinese people will come to forget the minor mistakes, the lapses and failures, and to recognise instead the achievements and importance of that work, and carry it forward to success.
The 'Little Red Soldiers' train carrying little passengers from Harbin to Beijing station, 1976
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 : an extract from SACU's magazine China Now 139, Page 14, December 1991
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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