Such Is This World@sars.come

by Hu Fayun

Chapter 25

On the appointed day, Xiao Yong took a call from a client that turned out to be urgent and she hurried off to Beijing. The rest of them rode in Maozi’s car to Teacher Wei’s home. At the gate, they saw him waiting outside with his wife. From a distance they looked like a pair of flames. Each was wearing a red satin top with the Golden Cloud pattern and a Mandarin collar. Teacher Wei wore crisply ironed dark stovepipe trousers, and the lady was wearing a long skirt of the same color, windblown. What was visually striking was that each had a silver head of hair, so they looked like snow-capped mountains on fire. The visitors warmly applauded the old couple’s sense of style. Teacher Wei said they’d had the matching outfits tailored for them.

As a gift, the group had all pitched in to buy a stereo system with some classical CDs and they carried it in, all wrapped in red paper, like a wedding procession carrying a sedan chair with the dowry.

“You really know how to hurt a fellow,” Teacher Wei said. “I thought I was still only sixty-something.” When they were all seated inside, he said, “Looking at you, I realize I must have grown old. When I lived in the compound you were all barely twenty, isn’t that right?”

His wife’s surname was Zhao so they called her Zhao Yi. The two Chinese-Americans were meeting her for the first time: Teacher Wei introduced them one at a time.

“Please sit down,” Zhao Yi said, “It makes me dizzy to see you all standing around.” Her appearance and bearing were quite youthful.

With a housewife finally on the scene, the apartment had a new look. The living room sported a sofa, a coffee table and sideboard, and a TV cabinet: the wood had a fine dark stain. On the wall hung scrolls of calligraphy and paintings by well-known masters. The visitors insisted on touring the home before they sat down. The bedroom was now the typical bedroom of a married couple: the study furniture had been moved into the “Historic Dwelling” museum-style room. Only the can of tea remained, still resting on the cabinet at the head of the bed. The ratty old furniture was all gone from the Historic Dwelling room, which had become a study with two desks, on one of which there was even a computer. A few years previously, when Teacher Wei had been unable to get a couple of articles published, Damo had posted them for him, as well as getting some of his published work re-issued online. Other things as well drew Teacher Wei to the Internet: commentaries of all kinds, e-mails from people inside and outside China, and drafts of articles being sent back and forth. Thus had Teacher Wei and his wife, elderly and white-haired, been dragged into the online world. He liked to say he was the oldest Net newbie in China, and he gave himself the screen name Centipede because centipedes don’t get stiff when they die. But he hadn’t used it much. He’d said, it’s a great name, let’s register it before someone else takes it.

As the conversation proceeded volubly, He Qiye adroitly finished putting the stereo system together. The first disk he slipped into the CD player was Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. But before he played it, He Qiye asked, “Teacher Wei, do you still remember Shostakovich?”

Teacher Wei was taken aback, because he didn’t know why He Qiye had suddenly brought this up. “I remember: the great Soviet composer. Checking whether I’m senile?”

“Do you remember his Seventh Symphony?” He Qiye pressed.

“I remember,” Teacher Wei said. “When I went to the Soviet Union in ‘54, I heard it performed by their national philharmonic.”

He Qiye kept on: “Do you remember how one year you had a discussion with us about Shostakovich?”

Teacher Wei laughed. “I talked a lot in those days. I don’t recall that conversation.”

“A few of us were at your place,” He Qiye explained, “ talking about the Model Works161, and you said The Red Detachment of Women was the best of the lot, artistically. It showed extensive knowledge of Western (especially Russian) music. Many passages echoed melodic patterns from Swan Lake. You compared one of the scenes with the female soldiers to the Dance of the Cygnets.”

Now Damo remembered. In those years, he had lacked an ear for music and about such things as symphonies he had been a complete ignoramus. So Teacher Wei’s comments had been unintelligible to him. Of their group, He Qiye had been the one most at home in music.

Unsure what He Qiye might have up his sleeve, Teacher Wei smiled warily, and the younger man continued: “You said it was a pity that the knowledge of Western music which underlay The Red Detachment was so superficial. The melodies, the orchestration, and the performance were all lovely; but inside, there was no soul. The anguish and joy of the artist, the struggle, the pondering . . . these things just weren’t there. It was hollow.”

At this point Teacher Wei became animated and stammered, “I said these things back then? That wasn’t bad, not bad at all.”

The others chimed in. Damo recalled how Teacher Wei had said whether it was the Russia of the Tsars or the Soviet Union under Stalin, in that land there had always been a solid contingent of writers and artists who for the sake of art and truth, even if threatened with imprisonment or death, would not compromise beyond a certain point: and their conduct exemplified the nobility, the intrinsic worth, of mankind. Though Pushkin was an aristocrat in Tsarist Russia, he dared to write poems aimed at the tyrannical Tsar, such as “To Chaadaev” and “Exegi Monumentum.”162 It was similar with Shostakovich: there was Hitler’s war without, and Stalin’s oppression within; yet he still composed such heartfelt and immortal works as the Seventh Symphony. But look at us, Teacher Wei had said: an army routed, a mass surrender. When the orders come down, not a single individual speaks up. We live like pigs, like dogs. We have no tragedies, only terror; no courage, only frenzy; no dignity, only arrogance; for life itself, no reverence, but we’re obsequious to power. In his most dreadful hours he had clung to the memory of the writers and artists of the Soviet Union, and they had been a light in his darkness.

“Sir,” He Qiye persisted, “on that occasion you said you weren’t sure whether you would ever again listen to the Seventh Symphony.”

“When I was in the USSR in those days, I heard from some friends that Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony had originally been called Leningrad because it was about the cruelty of war. But even more, it recorded the cruelty that reigned inside the country in Stalin’s time. I bought a record of a performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic and brought it home, but later it was confiscated.”

“Would you like to listen to it now?” asked He Qiye and pressed a button on the remote control. From four speakers resounded that heavy melody full of terror and gloom and anxiety. A martial drumming boomed out, like jackboots trampling the heart. Teacher Wei suddenly cried out, “Turn it off! Turn it off! I’ll listen to it by myself, later.”

They were all somewhat shocked. He Qiye turned it off.

Teacher Wei shrugged sheepishly. “Ai, old age brings frailty. I’ll listen to that melody another time, and before I do, I’ll take some medicine. It’s hard for us all to get together. We should talk about happy things.”

They all asked him about his health. “Ah, my health . . . well, you can see what kind of shape I’m in. Internally, I’m told there are no major problems. Around twenty years ago, I didn’t think I had many days to live. Never expected I’d last this long. I got a new lease on life after Zhao Yi, as you call her, showed up. It’s as somebody said: Love makes people young. Works better than any tonic.”

They all laughed. He continued, “Zhao Yi is my third pouring of tea.” Maozi asked what this meant.

“At the first pouring,” he answered, “it hadn’t steeped long enough for the flavor to come out. With the second pouring, I enjoyed only a whiff of the aroma, never got to drink it. Only with this third pouring has the genuine article revealed its fragrance and strength.”

Zhao Yi colored with embarrassment as she listened, and then remonstrated with Damo and the others: “This Teacher Wei of yours, as he goes on living he’s changing from a grouchy old man into a naughty boy who will say anything.”

“It’s true,” he conceded, “in my youth the work of the Revolution left me no time to talk. Then I became a counter-revolutionary and had no right to speak. Now’s my only chance.”

Overseas, He Qiye and Liu Su had sometimes picked up bits of news about Teacher Wei from the foreign press. They asked what the situation was like for him now.

He reflected before he answered. “There’s no comparison between now and ‘55. There are people who don’t like me, but they can’t make me go to jail again. Mostly, they’re content just to harass me a little. Too many people paid the price, you see, and after all, the world is different now. In that era they passed for the incarnation of Truth, of Morality: they claimed to embody in their persons the vast masses of the People. Even I believed it then. But today, though they may talk the same talk, it is with much less conviction; and these days I’m a little more confident than they. Everyone knows the history. If they want to discuss the truth, they’re not likely to get the better of me, so the best they can do is turn a blind eye and pretend not to hear. Anyway, they know I can’t outlive them.”

“Some things,” He Qiye said, “outlast a life.”

“Yes,” he said, “Truth is like that. But time takes its toll. Chinese have always been forgetful.”

The conversation was beginning to turn gloomy.

“After these hundred years of turmoil,” He Qiye said, “the common people aren’t asking for much. Stability. Food to eat. Clothes to wear. That’s all; that’s enough.”

Teacher Wei said, “It’s understandable that the common people would feel that way. For intellectuals to feel that way is inexcusable.”

This was a heavy topic, and no one wanted to pursue it. He Qiye, who had fallen quiet, now changed the subject and pointed out the piano. Damo had noticed as soon as he came in that the biggest change to the living room was the addition of a piano.

“We bought it last year,” Teacher Wei said, “It was a birthday present for my lady.”

“He says he gave it to me,” Zhao Yi countered, “but the truth is it was so I could play for him.”

“Only after we were married did I find out she was an accomplished pianist in her youth. But given that fact . . . why shouldn’t a pavilion so close to the water get the moonlight first? What’s more, at this age, to exercise your fingers on the piano makes you live longer!”

Naturally, they all asked Zhao Yi to play. She played a few short pieces. It was extraordinarily moving to hear such beautiful melodies flow from the fingers of a woman approaching her seventies. Everyone applauded wildly. She became embarrassed and said her fingers hadn’t really got their feeling back yet. If they’d all like to sing, she would accompany them. “Actually,” she said, “the reason we bought the piano was to provide accompaniment for this fellow you call Teacher Wei. When he wants something, I play it; I’m even more obedient than a Karaoke machine.”

Though they’d been his friends for many years, none had ever heard that Teacher Wei could sing. They roared that he must sing something for them.

“Sure I’ll sing,” he said. “I’ve always sung. In the years when I was locked up, I sang those songs one after another in my mind. If I hadn’t, I would have been dead long ago. When I emerged into a loneliness that was harder to bear than when I was locked up, I never stopped singing in my mind, for then too I would have died without it. Very well, I’ll sing for you all a Russian tune, “On the Prairies by Lake Baikal.” I’m not sure whether these eighty-year-old lungs can do it justice.”

Zhao Yi played the introduction. Teacher Wei entered precisely on the beat, with good pitch and tempo and overall a good feel for the music. His voice was somewhat raspy, which matched the desolate mood of the song.

Across wild steppes beyond Baikal,
Where gold lies hid in the hills,
A wanderer trudged beneath his pack
And cursed life’s cruel ills.

His tattered smock and convict’s cap
Told whence he’d fled by night.
Much had he suffered, this weary man,
Suffered for truth and right.

Lifting his eyes he saw the lake
Spread out—he felt so frail!
And at the shore a fishing boat
About to hoist its sail.

He boarded soft, and sat alone,
His voice was sad and low.
He sang a song of his Motherland,
A ballad full of woe.

A wind now whispered at the prow,
“In vain you flee, in vain;
You have no hope, you have no friends,
Your destiny is pain.”

There met him on the farther shore
His aged mother dear;
“Hail, mother! Of our family tell:
Do they live free from fear?”

“Your father sleeps beneath the ground,
Your brother’s banished far,
And iron shackles hold him fast,
Deep in Siberia.”163

The song could have been written for Teacher Wei. Through the many stanzas he sang it steadily without stumbling. One could imagine how, years before, he had sung it over and over. The long, solemn notes were a strain on his eighty-year-old lungs, however, and near the end He Qiye and the others tried to help by humming (they were a bit vague on the words). When he saw people joining him, Teacher Wei rallied and sang with growing force.

When the song was done, even Zhao Yi was moved to applause.

He gave a long sigh. “To sing relieves the woeful heart.”

Song is like wildfire. Once it starts, it gathers strength and there’s no way to put it out. Zhao Yi didn’t need Teacher Wei to tell her what to play next: she knew. As the night went on, sometimes she would jump to the next number after only a verse or two and for the most part they all knew the songs. It wasn’t clear whether they actually felt a desire to sing or just wanted to help Teacher Wei, but in any event, by the end, every song rang out in chorus though sometimes they would let him take a couple of lines solo. And when the notes were very high or called for great strength, He Qiye sang them alone. The atmosphere had gradually become charged with warm emotion and they all got caught up in it. The tunes that Zhao Yi played and Teacher Wei sang were mostly from Soviet Russia, along with a few Western folk songs and early Chinese leftist anthems such as Song at Midnight164, Song of Meiniang165, “Ode to the Yellow River”166, and that anthem of progressive youth in the old days when they had such admiration, even adulation, for the Party: “You are the Beacon”167.

They sang for a long time, with gusto. Suddenly Zhao Yi stopped, saying, “Can’t sing anymore; your Teacher Wei won’t be able to sleep tonight.” Everyone then noticed he was slightly flushed and fine beads of sweat had covered his forehead, and his eyes had a faraway look. So they all returned to their seats. After drinking some tea, they began to chat.

Damo said, “There’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask you, Sir, but I felt that in your case such a question might be somewhat cruel.”

Teacher Wei was slowly coming out of the trance-like state which the singing had induced, and in a surprised tone he said only, “Huh?”

“After more than half a century,” Damo plunged in, “how do you now see the quest and the struggle of your youth?”

Teacher Wei smiled thoughtfully. “You’re right, that is a very cruel question, but an unavoidable one. When a few of us old fellows get together we ask ourselves the same question, and there are many different ways to answer it. Some are quite rational, others have an emotional tinge; some speak after long reflection, while others, lacking any self-knowledge, can offer nothing but the clichés that have been planted in their brains all these years. Let’s put it this way: first of all, for the historical context, I think instead of saying that I chose the Revolution it would be better to say that the Revolution chose me, just as a seed that falls from a tree at any given time will be blown to a particular place by whatever wind is blowing then. And that patch of soil, along with the sunlight and the wind and rain, will make it grow. The seed itself has not chosen all this. You think it’s been your choice but it’s been History’s choice, the time in which you live. You’d have to say this about all of us who were the youth of that time. From May 4th168 on, new schools of political thought and a new culture flourished all across the country. In the dire conditions after Japan invaded the North, it was natural for young people to doubt the authorities and rebel against them. And—this is an extremely important point—the ideas of socialism were remarkably in harmony with the ideological trend of May 4. At that time the principled stance and political agenda of the Communist Party were reasonable and realistic. You need only glance through the Communist newspapers and literature of that time to understand why so many talented and honorable young men and women could give up their careers, forsake a comfortable life and even the love of a family in order to devote themselves to such a cause. That song I was just singing, ‘Ardor,’ came from a left-wing film of the 1930s, Song at Midnight.

Who wants to be a slave? Who wants to be exploited?
The flames of war have engulfed all Europe;
We take our stand for universal love, equality, and freedom...

I would say that the cries of the Left at that time and the slogans of the Communist Party were almost identical to the slogans that would be chanted in 1989 on Tiananmen Square: against corruption, against dictatorship; for democracy, for liberty; they sought a society marked by equality and justice, they sought to save the nation169 and make China prosper . . . In those days young people were more naive than today, and more ardent; in addition to the influence of May 4 there was the moral feeling and spirit of sacrifice that came from our cultural traditions, according to which the scholar bears responsibility for the nation. Therefore in such times as those, it was entirely normal for a young man of promise to dedicate himself to revolution and social progress, especially a young intellectual from a well-off family who never had to worry where his next meal was coming from. On this point, note how we are all prone to be stirred by our own emotions when they are of this type, as, for example, the young college students on the Square were moved by their own dedication. This is always a beautiful thing. But we were too young. We had too little experience of political life. We had had essentially no opportunity to recognize and reflect on the profound influence which the authoritarian culture of feudalism would exert on our great revolution. Still less had we seen and pondered the real facts of the Soviet dictatorship and its fatal flaws. Because our party was then still out of power and was subject to persecution and repression, it had to be scrupulous about standing on the side of the masses, on the side of historical progress, in order to appeal to people’s sense of morality and justice. The pity is that until the very founding of the new nation, we never had occasion to properly reflect on the problems of our revolution in a theoretical and systematic way. Our victory was too sudden, too smooth. During the time at Yan’an, a few people had already recognized the first symptoms of the problem, but thanks to the Japanese and the KMT no one could pay much attention to it. I remember once in the late Seventies I watched the film Visitor on Ice Mountain170 again. There was a throwaway line that brought tears to my eyes. The soldier who’s disguised himself as one of the hill people in order to penetrate the bandits’ lair, but who finally gets ambushed and killed: just before he dies, he says to the real Gulandanmu171, “We were too young.” The tragedy of the young causes the deepest grief, though it is inescapable. It was only much later that we had time to ponder the revolution, and the anti-Rightist campaign, and the Great Leap Forward, and the reform of land ownership, and the suppression of counterrevolutionaries172, and the Three Antis and the Five Antis173, and let us not forget a campaign of particular concern to myself, the campaign against Hu Feng; and, yes, the Yan’an Rectification of Styles174. Finally, let us reflect on something that happened in the early years of the Red Army, the campaign against the Anti-Bolshevik league.175 Many of these were undertakings in which I personally took part. And with what spirit I took part in them! Such exaltation, such feelings of self-sacrifice. . . it is excruciating to remember this now. You people who came later can look at these events coolly, objectively, with detachment. But for a man who once devoted all his passion and loyalty and integrity to this cause, there is a painful embarrassment such as none of you have ever known. It is a harrowing pain, and the embarrassment is like being stripped naked in public. That’s why many of us from that generation prefer to close our eyes and not look back, so we can muddle through what remains of our life without being honest with ourselves or others. To be sure, there are also some extremely practical considerations. We’re all old, now; none of us can still support ourselves and take care of ourselves, but it’s not yet time to die. We’ve got nothing left but a little prestige from long ago. In a country where all resource allocation depends on State power, you’re like a helpless baby: your housing belongs to someone else; your wages depend on someone else choosing to give them to you. The mere occasion of needing to see a doctor makes many submissive. You want to go to the hospital? You want a room in the cadres’ infirmary instead of squeezing into the filthy bedlam of the commoners’ ward? You want good care, imported medicine? Want to be operated on by a well-known specialist? Then you’d better not give us any trouble. When they’ve had to choose between life and honor, Chinese have always chosen the former. Consequently, I have told my wife that if some day I get sick and need a treatment that is beyond our means, let it take its course, don’t ask for any favors. I’m repeating this for the benefit of you fellows: if that situation arises, please don’t embarrass me by interceding on my behalf.”

Teacher Wei stopped for a moment and took a sip of water as if still thinking. “I remember I used to tell you that during my arrest and imprisonment I kept believing in this regime, sincerely believing in the theory on which it was based; so I believed, sincerely, that I myself was guilty. Even though I had been wronged and felt dread and despaired of life, I still didn’t reach the depths where I could harbor any doubts. Still less did I suspect that there were any aspects of what I considered the revolutionary program, things that I myself had done, which might require reassessment. I remember in the statement that served as my confession, I mercilessly dissected my offense but also tried to defend myself, pointing out how I had been a progressive at college, how I had made efforts to study Marxism-Leninism and the writings of Mao Zedong, how (after the founding of the new nation) I had taken part in a series of programs to remold my thinking and criticize the work of others. I listed each of the articles I had written in those days, thereby to prove that I had never taken a stand opposing the Party and the People.”

Damo said, “Sir, these articles you mentioned, I once read a few of them in the library. I remember a long piece criticizing The Life of Wu Xun176.

“Yes,” Teacher Wei said, “I still remember that one. The title was ‘From Franz von Sickingen177 to The Life of Wu Xun.’ The theoretical basis for the criticism came directly from the criticisms which Marx and Engels directed at Lassalle’s play, Franz von Sickingen. This approach was very common at that time, among us intellectuals, and we were adept at it: we would cloak a crude dogmatism in an air of refinement and rationality, dropping names in order to sound high-minded as we railroaded our victim. When, later, I myself was taken down, it was by this method. Years afterward, I read newspaper articles criticizing me and recognized they were modeled on articles just like the ones I had written. The articles you mentioned, Damo, constitute an extremely sore point for all the intellectuals of my generation. They left a stain which none of us can bear to look back on, even decades later: they’re like the muddy footprints that keep following you even after you get out of the swamp. I used to wonder, if it hadn’t been for 1955—if I had kept going with the wind at my back, successful and satisfied—what would I have become?”

He looked around at everyone gathered there, as if seeking to read an answer in their faces. They smiled with understanding. “I think the best I could have turned out would have been along the lines of Zhou Yang178, and if I still had any conscience, time would hang heavy on me now. I am therefore thankful for 1955. By accident, it saved a cowardly and ignorant man of culture and set him, unsteadily, on a path from which there was no turning back. That for him to make what should have been a natural choice it was necessary to immolate several decades of his life is an absurdity for which there is no precedent since ancient times. I think others were in my position and took decades to choose a path that was very different from mine, but from which likewise there was no turning back. Even if by now they know better in their hearts, they don’t have the strength to change, and in this way their lot is more tragic than mine, for I am certain that when I die I will rest in peace. The fear must gnaw at them that someday someone will come along and flog their corpse.179 I, too, know there is still much in my own mind and heart that needs to be set right. I don’t know whether Heaven will grant me enough time. I do worry about that.”

Again he looked around as if for confirmation. Everyone was quite moved and grave. What had started off as a merry celebration of an old man’s birthday had turned into something different: a soul had been weighed in the balance. Damo felt bad that he had asked such a question at such a time. Teacher Wei, however, seemed pleased and he asked whether Damo had any more questions. “I won’t say another word,” Damo laughed, “talking about these things spoils the happiness of the occasion.”

“On the contrary,” Teacher Wei said, “my happiness lies in thrice-daily self-examination.180 That I can correct myself even in old age is a great joy. What’s more, there are some problems which can only be worked out through cross-examination. Go ahead.”

“It only occurred to me now,” Damo said. “All these years I’ve heard you criticize the impact of ultra-Left ideology on art. But that’s exactly the stuff you were singing tonight.”

Everyone laughed. Teacher Wei laughed, too. “You’re a tough one; you hit where it hurts. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, I went back to visit again. It had been forty years. My feelings were rather complicated. I felt glad they were finally on a path they themselves had chosen, a path of liberty and democracy. But I felt sentimental for the persons who had wholly dedicated themselves during the course of almost a hundred years to something that had collapsed like a sand-castle. I was familiar with many of their writers and artists and could rattle off the names—indeed, some of them I had even met. Many of these have now been forgotten, even spurned, by history; some committed suicide or just died of grief and shame. This kind of sorrow is hard for outsiders to grasp. But we had so much in common with them . . . you know, those with the same illness feel for each other. Especially our generation, which to a great degree was nourished on their ways of thought, their culture. Red Square was still Red Square, and the Winter Palace was still the Winter Palace; the Neva River was the same as it had always been, with that illustrious warship the Aurora still moored amid its waves.181 But the Soviet Union, that colossus, was nowhere to be seen. The people who had dedicated themselves to it with such fanaticism had also vanished. Objectively speaking, many of them were extremely talented and in any normal society, or even in Tsarist Russia, they would have been a source of national pride. Nowadays we still admire, as always, the names from Tsarist times which glitter with eternal fame: their novels, their paintings, their symphonies and plays remain a treasure for Russia and all mankind. But the geniuses of the Soviet era are gone; hardly anyone remembers who they were, and when they are remembered it’s most often with contempt or hatred. Out on the streets, young men and women stride along, vigorous and attractive and alive; and elderly people with cultivation and gentleness written on the faces under their fur hats, everything in the finest taste, as if nothing had ever happened in their world. Of course there are paupers too, and drunks, and tourists from all over the globe. Once I saw a lovely Russian girl on a boulevard; you know, Russian women are truly beautiful, with a high-born and elegant beauty. She was wearing a fur coat and a fur hat and when she walked past I stopped and stared, without thinking what I must look like; I just gaped at her, you know? It was like catching sight of Anna Karenina. More than a century had rolled by; Stalin had come and gone, and Beria and Brezhnev, and even Mayakovsky who attained the zenith of fame: they had vanished without a trace, every one of them; but the beauty of Anna Karenina was still there, more durable in its tender fragility than all the arrogance of power. Almost all the buildings I had seen forty years before were still standing, but most of the people who welcomed me then had died. Some had disappeared without a trace. At a party, I suddenly felt like singing some Russian songs. After I had sung a few, I discovered none of the people there (most of them were fairly young) had any idea what I was singing. Little Road, Lamplight, The Lenin Hills182—they said they’d never heard any of these. Rock and roll, on the other hand, and jazz, and modern pop music: they sang all those, styles that had nothing in common with the Russian songs I knew. Afterward an old writer told me that he knew all the stuff I had sung but he didn’t want to hear it. I asked why not. He said it reminded him of extremely unhappy things, a painful and humiliating time. Only then did I understand that the feelings which I had for this music were completely different from the feelings they had for it. What we sing is only the love, the struggle, and the beautiful melody; we are singing the songs of a Soviet Union that belongs only to us. Do you still remember, from the years when we listened to enemy radio stations, the signature theme of Radio Moscow?183

He Qiye said of course he remembered, and began to hum the tune. “I think they still use it.”

“It’s a few bars from a famous song,” Teacher Wei said. “A song with a couple of lines that go like this:

We have never seen another country
Where one can breathe so free...

To us this is a vision filled with yearning for a heroic world. But to them, what lies behind this melody is a dreary and terrifying ordeal. It’s just like what happens when Westerners watch the Model Operas today and think they are experiencing an ancient Oriental art form, while for us the gongs and drums and arias bring back harrowing details of the time of the Cultural Revolution. Yet for people who grew up to that music, the instrumentals and vocals and standardized gestures record scenes from their childhood, and the memories may be happy and sweet. So it is with my generation: for all our sharp and sober repudiation of Stalin’s cruel dictatorship and the long and blighting shadow which the politics and culture of Soviet Russia cast upon China, the music of the Soviets—of the Reds—still casts a subtle emotional spell. So I think for any given person with a particular upbringing, this kind of music (even if it’s only on tape) holds a part of your life within it. Here in our country there is a twofold tragedy. Even our private emotional memories have been alloyed with a quicksilver ideological culture that pervades everything. We don’t have an untainted cultural vehicle with which to record our own lives; we don’t have it, not even the least bit... not at all. Other countries have it. Even the poorest and most backward countries have it; even totalitarian countries like the former Soviet Union had it, for in almost every era there were writers and artists who made their voices heard, leaving works that gleam with everlasting splendor, whether in poetry, music, fiction, sculpture, or drama: Akhmatova, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn. And Shostakovich, whom we were just talking about. Years later, the Russians don’t have to be like us: they are not stuck with the embarrassment, the bittersweet ambiguity, of finding all their memories embedded in the kind of art you alluded to. The terror did not stop them from creating great art to enshrine their memories. Once, when I myself was in dire straits, I wondered why I couldn’t write a ballad like the song of Lake Baikal, one that I could sing in after years? We had so many writers and artists, but who among them ever wrote down in song what he suffered during those hard years, what the people suffered, so that by singing it now we might authentically remember the history of our suffering and not so easily forget? To lack such art is a more bitter affliction than the suffering itself. The Russians dipped their pens in their own blood and wrote their memories upon the earth. But we let others write our memories and they used knives to write them, and the only record is our wounds.

“In a few decades, we lost the ability to express pain and grief. We lost the ability to express love. What we got instead was something paltry and preposterous. Once I found myself humming a tune that must have accorded with my mood of the moment, and I realized with a start it was a song from the epic film The East is Red:

When I look up and see the Big Dipper,
In my heart I pine for Mao Zedong. . .

We are talking about the people with the largest population and the longest history on earth: you have to admit, there is something horrifying about this. Even today we have not fully grasped the effect which such a phenomenon must have on the cultural psychology of a people.”

Teacher Wei’s face had become wan. “What Damo brought up might seem like a small matter of tunes to hum and songs to sing, but it’s actually a big problem. This is why the authorities prefer to let third-rate crooners from Hong Kong and Taiwan dominate the market rather than letting songs be heard which might express in an authentic way the sufferings and aspirations of individuals and the masses. Today, when we can’t help recycling the cultural resources of an earlier era, we are unwittingly bolstering the legitimacy of a certain ideology from that era and likewise the legitimacy of today’s Establishment. That is exactly what some people want.”

He Qiye responded with a nervous laugh. “Yep, our generation is even more pathetic. When we get together overseas we wax nostalgic, and though we talk about a lot of things that were unbearable and crazy in the old days, as soon as we start to sing, there’s nothing but adulation for Chairman Mao, ‘the sun of our hearts’; there’s nothing but the Red Guards saluting the Chairman across the grasslands: ‘Mountains and waters acclaim you, songs and melodies sound your praise.’ When you’re singing you feel stirred but also listless, and once the song is over it feels ridiculous. But come on, when we were young, that’s all there was to sing.”

Teacher Wei answered, “When you’re singing, in other words, you have separated what is denoted from what denotes it: or as the proverb says, use another’s wine cup to drown your sorrows. Partly it’s what you’re feeling; partly it’s the opposite. I can remember, a little more than ten years ago when the Army was engaged in a large-scale operation185, on TV they showed a company of young soldiers artlessly singing “In Unity There is Strength.”186 I listened for a while, then yelled at the TV, “What are you singing?!” The song has the words, “Open fire on the fascists, let the whole undemocratic system be wiped out.” It was incredible. All those years of singing these songs over and over again, and it was as if they were in a foreign language that people knew how to pronounce but that had no meaning. I can remember how we sang that song in the late ‘40s when we were fighting Chiang Kai-shek. We’d sing it at rallies; we’d sing it on the march; we’d sing it in jail.

Facing the sun,
Moving toward freedom and a New China,
Glory to the ends of the earth!

This song came from our hearts, so for it to be sung now by that kind of people at such a moment . . . it makes you want to laugh, and it makes you want to cry.

“One more thing. For an individual to sing these songs on account of his emotional needs and a particular history, that’s his personal right; but it’s a different matter for the organs of the State to disseminate these songs among the masses for their own purposes.

“There’s another question,” Teacher Wei finally said, “which is connected with the matters we’ve been discussing. You doubtless remember how we talked about “systemic problems” after the death of Lin Biao, though at that time my language was still fairly restrained and I think I used the term “structural.” To tell the truth, it only occurred to me to raise this point after I had been made to pay such a high price. In other words, if they hadn’t driven me into a corner I wouldn’t have thought about questioning the system. It was just like something that transpired later: when Liu Shaoqi187 had been arrested by the Red Guards and they were having a struggle session against him, he took out a copy of the Constitution and said, ‘I am the President: I am protected under the Constitution.’ He, too, had to reach the end of his rope for the systemic question to occur to him. From our youth, all we got in our education was romanticism, revolution, violence, anarchy, Communism. There wasn’t much rationality; there wasn’t much talk of rules and there was no emphasis on the design of the system. Our spiritual resources were drawn from the French Revolution and the October Revolution. This was the spirit we were all steeped in, like those songs you and I were just singing: boundless enthusiasm without law or morality. It was all about criticizing, smashing, and crushing the old world in order to build a new one, and having a good time while we were at it. I wrote hymns of praise to the Leader; I took part in the earliest mass criticism sessions of the New China; I wrote the first new textbooks for language arts. You could say that the marching students who dragged me through the streets a little more than ten years later, the kids who beat and reviled me, were the products of the education I had crafted. When the revolution came full circle and hit me in the head; when I was cast down so low, with almost no hope of ever being rehabilitated, only then did certain questions occur to me. But by then the cataract of revolution was unstoppable, and thousands upon thousands of intellectuals who had rhapsodized it with devotion, and even revolutionaries of the older generation, were engulfed in the flood and washed away. In recent years my reflections have been painful ones. In ‘55 and ‘66 my fellow-men repudiated me convincingly. Lately I have come close to experiencing that again; but this time it is I myself who repudiate myself, and for a completely different reason.

“The things we’ve talked about today could make a great essay, but I’m afraid I don’t have the strength to write it; all I could manage would be a few personal reminiscences. I wonder if any of you fellows have the time to give it a try?”

There was a long silence.

Before they took their leave, the members of the Qing Ma asked for a tour of his apartment. Damo recognized two familiar things: one was the can of tea, still resting by the headboard of the bed. The other was the couplet, which had been put into two picture frames and now hung on the wall of his study:

Walking beside the stream, I recite ‘Asking Heaven’;
Lifting up mine eyes, I sing the Song of Guangling.

The Qing Ma gang called that birthday of Teacher Wei’s a seminar on political thought and culture, as well as a personal spiritual reappraisal.

Translator’s Notes

  1. the Model Works The eight 样板戏 yangban xi were plays, operas, or ballets with revolutionary themes that had been approved by Jiang Qing, who had been a stage and film actress in her youth and as Mao’s wife exercised considerable influence over cultural affairs even before she led the Gang of Four. Practically no other theatrical works were performed during the Cultural Revolution.
  2. In his 1818 poem “To Chaadaev,” Alexsandr Pushkin openly expressed the longing for freedom felt by one “under the yoke of autocracy.” In “Exegi Monumentum” (1836), he anticipated posthumous fame because “I sang the praise of freedom in a cruel age.”
  3. The original Russian song is По диким степям Забайкалья, sometimes entitled Бродяга (“The Vagabond”). It has been traced as far back as the 1880s, when it was popular among convicts in Siberia. Although the lyrics were later attributed to I. K. Kondratieff, the authorship is unknown, and the song’s large number of variants is typical of true folk music. The Chinese sung by Teacher Wei is a faithful translation of the Russian lyrics listed as Variant #3 in the Songbook of Anarchists and the Underground, a compendium from which the information in this note has been drawn. See ://
  4. Song at Midnight The opening song from a 1937 movie of the same name, Ma-Xu Weibang’s adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. It begins:

    In the empty yard fireflies are dancing,
    On the rafters mice are scampering.
    A lonely figure with a lantern
    Strikes the third watch.
    The wind blows cold, the rain patters on wet leaves.
    In this long dark night, who will wait up with me till dawn?

  5. Song of Meiniang Words by Tian Han, music by Nie Er, composed in 1934 for the opera Song of the Returning Spring.
  6. Ode to the Yellow River This was one section, adapted as a popular song, from the Yellow River Cantata composed by Xian Xinghai to words by Guang Weiran in 1939.
  7. You are the Beacon (你是灯塔) Composed in 1940 by Wang Jiuming to words by Sha Hong; performed at the 1949 ceremony of the founding of the new nation. The song is said to have irritated Soviet cultural authorities, either because its tune sounded suspiciously like that of the Russian anthem Вы жертвою пали, a paean to Russian revolutionary martyrs, or because some of its lyrics suggested that the Communist Party of China stood in the vanguard of world revolution (a place of honor claimed by Moscow). As a result, the song was in disfavor for many years until it was rehabilitated after Mao’s death with the new title ’Following the Communist Party’ (跟着共产党走). This curious history is recounted in a July 10, 2009 article in the Shenyang Evening News, “《你是灯塔》的曲折故事”.
  8. May 4 A movement named after a student protest that occurred in Beijing on May 4, 1919, sparked by the Chinese government’s acquiescence in an unfavorable territorial settlement after the First World War. A broad-based wave of labor strikes followed the initial protests. The movement represented a turning point in nationalist awareness and radicalized many intellectuals.
  9. they sought to save the nation The quest to “save the nation” was a reaction to the widespread (and well-founded) perception after 1919 that China was a 亡国 wangguo, a doomed and humiliated country whose backwardness had put it at the mercy of hostile foreign powers. It would be hard to overstate the role which this sentiment and its compensations have played in the national psychology of modern China.
  10. Visitor on Ice Mountain A 1963 spy movie directed by Zhao Xinshui.
  11. Gulandanmu is the heroine of the film; another character impersonates her on behalf of the KMT. Hence the care to specify “the real Gulandanmu.”
  12. The reform of land ownership (土改) was carried out from 1949 to 1950; the suppression of counterrevolutionaries (镇反) was a campaign that ran from 1951 to 1952.
  13. The Five Antis and the Three Antis Campaigns launched in 1951 and 1952, initially targeting corruption. They evolved into persecutions of businessmen.
  14. From 1941 to 1944 in the Communists’ base at Yan’an, Mao launched a campaign called the Rectification of Styles which in some respects presaged the Hundred Flowers program of 1956-57. An invitation to discussion and debate paved the way for purges that assured Mao’s supremacy.
  15. the Anti-Bolshevik League In 1930 in the Jiangxi Soviet, the Party directed a purge of thousands of Red Army officers and troops suspected of belonging to a secret “AB League.” Originally, the letters may have denoted two classes of members, but the name was soon interpreted as “Anti-Bolshevik.” During the purge, torture elicited both confessions and accusations. Though Mao does not seem to have initiated this campaign, he joined it and guided it. In December of that year, an entire battalion was methodically massacred at Futian. While it must be acknowledged that the Communists were under the pressure of a brutal civil war (and the KMT was attempting, with little success, to infiltrate their ranks), one must also be struck by the paranoia and callous use of terror that foreshadow so much of the subsequent history. See Chapter 8 of Philip Short’s 1999 biography Mao: A Life for an account of this episode and a reflection on its significance.
  16. The Life of Wu Xun A 1950 film about a revered beggar who lived in 19th-century Shandong and used the money he collected to build schools. It was heavily criticized on ideological grounds (starting with a 1951 editorial in People’s Daily) and provoked intense hostility during the Cultural Revolution, when many involved in the making of the film were persecuted. In August 1966, Red Guards exhumed the corpse of Wu Xun and after a public “trial” dismembered it and burned it.
  17. Franz von Sickingen A German military adventurer of the early sixteenth century whose support for Luther and other Reformers was idealized in popular memory. Ferdinand Lassalle, a socialist contemporary of Karl Marx, wrote a play about the Reformation knight which caught Marx’s attention and led both him and Engels to comment on the artistic representation of revolutionary movements and figures. Their letters to Lassalle are reprinted in the volume Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on Literature and Art which has been transcribed for the Web at
  18. Zhou Yang A Marxist literary theorist who was associated with Lu Xun in the 1930s and was appointed Vice-Minister of Culture after the founding of the People’s Republic. During the 1950s he was responsible for the ideologically-motivated persecution of many artists; with the coming of the Cultural Revolution, however, he was deemed insufficiently radical and endured nine years of imprisonment. Rehabilitated at the end of the 1970s, Zhou Yang advocated a “humanistic” interpretation of Marxism which placed a higher value on artistic freedom—a position which, under pressure of the campaign against “Spiritual Pollution,” he recanted in 1983. He died in July 1989.
  19. and flog their corpse Alluding to the revenge taken in 506 B.C.E when Wu Zixu, returning in victory to the state of Chu where his family had been persecuted, exhumed the king’s body and gave it 300 lashes.
  20. thrice-daily self-examination A Confucian practice: Analects 1.4
  21. The crew of the cruiser Aurora sparked the October Revolution in 1917. It is permanently moored as a museum in the River Neva at St. Petersburg.
  22. The Little Road, 1941, words by N. Ivanov, music by C. Podelkov, original title Дальняя дороженька; Lamplight, 1942, words by Mikhail Isakovsky, composer unknown, original title Огонек; The Lenin Hills, 1949, words by Evgeniy Dolmatovsky, music by Yuri Miliutin, original title Ленинские горы. The first two are ballads about love in the shadow of war; the third is a cheerful paean to the part of the capital where Moscow State University was being constructed.
  23. enemy radio stations Such was the tension with and antipathy toward the USSR after 1962 that Radio Moscow could indeed have been numbered among the “enemy radio stations” (敌台).
  24. a few bars from a famous song The melody which Radio Moscow used for decades to introduce its news programs was “Wide is my homeland” (Шиpока стpана моя pодная), words by V. Lebedev-Kumach, music by I. Dunayevsky, written for the 1936 film Tsirk. These words come from the first verse.
  25. a little more than ten years ago when the Army was engaged in a large-scale operation Teacher Wei is referring to the massacre of civilians carried out in 1989 by martial-law troops in Beijing during the June 4th Incident.
  26. In Unity There Is Strength Composed in 1943 by Lu Su, words by Mu Hong.
  27. Liu Shaoqi President of the PRC from 1959 to 1968 (Mao Zedong, who ceded this position to him, remained Chairman of the Communist Party and seems to have distrusted Liu as a potential rival). The cause of Liu Shaoqi’s death in 1969 is unknown, as his body was taken from prison in secrecy and cremated under a false name.