Shortly before my visit to the last Maoist stronghold in China, I went to the Dashanzi art district near the edges of Beijing, popularly known as Factory 798. Designed by the East Germans during the 1950s and paid for by the People’s Republic of China, the industrial estate looked part-concentration camp, part-Bauhaus, with low, red brick buildings and oversized pipes running parallel to the maze of structures. Factory 798 is an oasis for artists escaping the Beijing sprawl.
One exhibit of photographs captivated me. These were the same pictures I remember poring over in Life Magazine and National Geographic during the sixties and seventies, where smiling pig-tailed girls exactly my age held red books near their hearts and sang of their love for Red China, my country’s enemy. How could these smiling children be my enemy? For decades, these were the only images of China available to the West. Here in the gallery, I learned that the person who took the pictures was named Xiao Zhung, and she had a philosophy. She was one of the few photographers who chose to work for the Communist regime after the revolution in 1949, because she believed it was better to leave some kind of record of the times, rather than no record at all.
Her photographs, all taken when she was employed by the Xinhua News Agency, were painstakingly composed. They showed Red Guards frozen in dance steps; students cheering at a meeting called, ‘Beating down anti-revolutionary ghosts’; grinning cotton weavers writing letters to Mao about reaching their annual quota; smiling families ignoring their rice bowls to read from their red books. As a child, the element of fantasy embedded in these photographs captivated me: model communes, model factories, model soldiers and model children, living in smiling unison among hundreds of thousands of dressed-alike comrades in cities, towns and the countryside. A kind of ecstasy emanated from every picture, exporting a construction of happiness that the West was supposed to believe; that the Chinese people were supposed to believe; that the sensibilities of my childhood wished to believe. Now, two and a half decades into reform, Xiao Zhung called her life’s work by another name: The Irrational Times.
Visiting China for the very first time a few years ago, I could not stop wondering what happened to the revolution; and whether the irrational times had truly been eradicated. When I learned about a village that still lives according to the ideology of Chairman Mao, I jumped at the opportunity to see what life was really like there. Below is an extract of an essay published by The Reader in the UK, also available in the USA.
‘Part of the problem with China is all the levels of management people have to cope with,’ said Lu Bo our translator. We had just flown an hour from Beijing to Henan Province and were driving past cornfields on the way to Nanjie village. Lu Bo, a fixer for international news agencies, was telling Aaron, a photographer living in Beijing and me, about all the bureaucracy your average peasant has had to cope with ever since the economic reforms of 1979 were brought in by Mao’s successor.
‘There are authorities in every capital of every province but every county has its own capital with its own authorities, so you can imagine how complicated things can be…’ Suddenly his voice trailed off because our taxi driver once again sped to within an arm’s reach of a lorry and slammed on the brakes.
In 1984, three thousand peasants in Nanjie decided they were fed up with trying to fend for themselves and turned over all their personal property to a cadre of hard line party bosses to manage. In exchange they agreed to live according to Mao’s Red Book and leave it to their bosses to turn new, free-market opportunities into profits that would benefit them all. If a Maoist village were to spring up anywhere in China, it’s not surprising that it happened in Henan Province. Long before the revolution Henan’s peasants banded together to fend off droughts and flooding of the Yellow River. Henan produced some of Mao’s fiercest ideologues and communized faster than anywhere else. Mao called Henan his ‘model province’ and today, Henan legally recognizes Nanjie as a ‘model village’. Thanks in part to Japanese consultants who advised Nanjie’s party bosses to build the first factory in China to make dried, instant noodles, the people of Nanjie have fared far better than their rural counterparts, with free housing, heating oil, medical care, education, food, and equal wages. But I soon learned that nothing in Nanjie was free.
After a couple hours the roadsides began to bulge with people on rusty bicycles, rickshaws and carts towed by engines belching smoke. We reached Linying the county capital, bustling with mechanics, glaziers, iron-mongers, grocers and restaurants, many topped by billboards of smiling girls selling toothpaste or shampoo. Turning left, we suddenly encountered a wide empty boulevard, spotlessly clean. Adverts were replaced by portraits of sunlit peasants, soldiers and workers. Colossal murals of Stalin, Marx, Lenin and Engels dominated the main roundabout. Giant red characters clutched the walls of white tile buildings. Lu Bo couldn’t read the slogans fast enough for me: No matter how good things are, socialism is best; One man cannot achieve anything alone; If you want to make progress, always learn the Mao theory.
At the visitors’ centre we paid a small fee, then transferred to a battery-powered cart with fuzzy blue seats and a ponytailed minder named Li Yan.
‘Everything in Nanjie is free,’ Li Yan said in a hoarse, monotone voice, ‘including the food. There are 848 households and 3,000 resident members.’ I listened politely as Lu Bo explained a star system in which good work and a clean home were rewarded with points on a scale of one to ten, although some people inexplicably managed to accumulate twelve.
‘So instead of getting rich, they get points,’ I said. Lu Bo nodded and smiled. Born in the seventies, the Maoist system was almost as foreign to him as it was to me. Next we saw where the residents lived: Fifteen buildings, six stories high. We passed factories that made bricks, noodles, flour and spices, then crossed fields of corn growing within city limits. But the streets remained empty.
‘Where is everyone?’ I asked.
Li Yan frowned as I scrambled to take notes. Then her mood suddenly shifted and she announced it was time for a treat: a documentary film about Nanjie which she would play for us in the Culture Hall’s private cinema. This delighted me. Although we were in need of a cup of tea, I convinced my comrades that this was a crucial part of our visit. Secretly, I was excited to see a film about Nanjie, not just because I couldn’t wait to get out of the heat and into the icy air-conditioning, but because I thought I would understand things better if I could only see how the village represented itself on screen. I imagined a ‘March of Time’ prelude: yellowed footage from the eighties showing earth being broken, sunlit peasants plowing fields, drying bricks, paving roads, and an ending that captured smiling children trotting along the ‘Corridor of Happiness’ that ran from their homes to the kindergarten and school. Excitement welled up in me: finally I’d get a comprehensive report on how Nanjie came to be, complete with music, back-story and interviewees stating facts.
Li Yan led us into the dark cinema of three hundred seats where Lu Bo, Aaron and I scattered into separate rows. She disappeared and a video image flickered into focus on the giant screen. It was a close-up of Mr. Wang, the chief party boss of Nanjie who was such a popular leader that he won every election uncontested since 1977. I was pleased to see him since I’d heard so much about him. He looked ruddy and stared directly at me. I waited for a change of shot and listened to the increasingly familiar monosyllabic Chinese.
‘Lu Bo, what’s he saying?’ I turned around.
Lu Bo chuckled. ‘It’s about the grain.’ Aaron suddenly headed for the door, flung it open for light and started photographing portraits of Lenin and Stalin on the walls. Lu Bo and I watched Mr. Wang. I tried to be positive by telling myself that the film was in fact an authentic documentary, because he appeared to be seated at a table addressing a live audience at some kind of conference. I continued waiting for a change of shot, the start of new pictures, some rolling credits or music to signal the prelude had ended and the story would begin. Even a camera wobble would have been a welcome change. But Mr. Wang continued to face forward with no expression, speaking Chinese.
‘Lu Bo, could you translate please?’
Lu Bo stumbled with words. ‘You really don’t want to know. It’s just about the agriculture and how much of an increase in the harvest there’s been.’
‘That’s it?’ I considered Li Yan’s pride in bringing us here, and tried to figure out how many minutes of politeness we needed to show by remaining in our seats. I also wondered if an evening’s entertainment during the Cultural Revolution would have meant watching a talking head of Chairman Mao reporting success by numbers; and how husbands, children and wives might have had to sit for hours on a Saturday night, feigning interest, feigning attention, hoping their boredom would go unnoticed and unpunished.
As I began to fantasize about what it would have been like to be a child or a mother made to watch a movie like this, Lu Bo shifted loudly in his seat and in unison we said, ‘Let’s go.’
In search of a late lunch, Li Yan announced that the free cafeterias in Nanjie had all closed so we had to head for Linying. For the moment, I didn’t mind the escape. Nanjie felt like the Twilight Zone, void of human life and out of commission. Exiting through the city wall was like moving out of a time-melting painting by Salvador Dalí and into the sweat and sensuality of Hieronymus Bosch. Stench from rotting garbage mixed with aromas of steamy soups and oily dumplings as vendors scrambled to serve noisy families.
When we settled on a small cafe, I asked the owner Mr. Shao what he thought about the town of Nanjie right next door. He was only too happy to wave his sword.
‘He says it’s full of losers who can’t help themselves,’ Lu Bo announced, and reeled off the problems: bad management, outside competition, high bank debt and the inability to fire anyone.
‘He also says Nanjie’s corrupt and the GDP’s falling. And to complicate matters, the chief accountant recently dropped dead.’ In a gesture of calm, Aaron poured a round of green tea, but Lu Bo did nothing to soften the blows.
‘When they opened the vault, huge piles of cash were discovered. Then a few concubines arrived from the capital of Henan and a couple more from Beijing.’ Concubine means ‘little wife’ in Chinese. Although they’re officially illegal, it’s not uncommon for men of means to keep them as mistresses throughout their lives.
‘Each of the concubines brought a child and demanded money. So the party bosses decided to pay them off in large and equal sums, and told them never to return to Nanjie again.’ Suddenly I jumped up to go. Escaping into this rollicking, free-to-be-bare-faced market town felt traitorous and unchaste. I wanted to return to Nanjie and try to find something good in the idealism they built their lives around.
I pretended to be in Red China during the seventies as Li Yan led us through Nanjie’s instant, dried-noodle factory. Walking along the windows of a narrow corridor we observed an assembly line of girls down below dressed in white. It looked like the Red China we talked about at my university on Sunday nights as we ate stir fries at gatherings of the US China People’s Friendship Organization, which I joined in part because I liked the food.
Now, years later as I walked through the observation hall of a factory that made Nanjie wealthy and altered the eating habits of hundreds of millions of Chinese, I was somewhat wiser about the ideals and pitfalls of top-heavy political systems. For the moment, I focused on the fact that the assembly line looked paltry in an under-lit room the size of a gymnasium. Twenty girls stood behind a conveyor belt doing the I Love Lucy factory thing. Aaron pointed out that it took three girls to slap on one lid, press it down then re-seat it correctly. Although I knew nothing about industrial efficiency, Aaron agreed that the shop floor was operating at ten or twenty per cent capacity. Li Yan sighed with exasperation as he and I exchanged observations, but by now I’d given up asking her questions: such as why this model village looked under-populated; why the factory of choice was under-performing; and why we weren’t having a frank talk about the fact that Nanjie was in the doldrums. I didn’t see why we couldn’t discuss the fact that no one including profit-sharing Maoists, should have hard feelings that after dominating China’s dried noodle market for nearly a decade, they suddenly face competition.
‘Honestly,’ I’d say to Li Yan, if we could have a proper girl-to-girl chat, ‘it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It can happen to anyone, really: depression, recession, corruption, scandal. Whatever it is, you’ll get over it, believe me. We all do.’
There is no need for moving vans in Nanjie. Every flat has identical furnishings; from the beds, sofas and open unit shelving to the red Mao clock that enshrines every main room. As our electric cart pulled up beside a tower block, Li Yan explained that two-bedroom flats go for two-generation families, three bedrooms for three generations and one, for a single generation on their own. We were met by Mr. Duan, one of the Maoist party bosses. He had arranged to introduce us to a family for Aaron to photograph. We asked Lu Bo to explain that we hoped to be left alone with three families to photograph – that of a peasant, worker and soldier, all classic models of the revolution. But before we were certain that this was confirmed, Li Yan told us that Mr. Duan had chosen a model citizen for us to meet, who had just moved into a three-generation flat because he had a new grandson. When we entered the flat, there was no sign of a baby; and no sign of anyone living there apart from a taut man with a wolf-like face whose eyes showed the tiniest kernel of interest. His name was Sun Yan and he immediately told us he was sixty-five years old and had been cleaning toilets for forty years.
Tension filled the air as we shook hands and took seats in the main room.
When Mr. Duan began talking, Lu Bo turned to me and began: ‘The party boss is telling me that a woman from California once brought him a T-shirt with Karl Marx on it. I think he may be expecting something from you. How would you like me to answer back?’ Mr. Duan gave me a wink. He was a pert man dressed in black with a white belt buckle embossed with coyote in silver. I hadn’t brought a gift, but since I’d arrived here from Washington DC I offered him the gift of politicians – words and hope.
I said, ‘The polemics of Marx and Mao should not be forgotten; Communism is to Capitalism as Yin is to Yang; In order to grasp the ideological underpinnings of one system, you have to understand the other’. This did the trick and Mr. Duan beamed with approval.
‘This is a woman with a passion for Communism!’ he told Lu Bo. Our hopes rose for Aaron’s prospects of getting good pictures, but we had difficulty establishing where the other generations of Sun Yan’s family were.
‘His wife’s away,’ said the party boss.
‘She’s in the bedroom,’ said Sun Yan, pointing toward a closed door. When pressed for the correct answer the party boss changed the subject by telling us how difficult the life of a toilet cleaner could be.
‘He didn’t get married until he was 35 years old. Who would want to marry someone with that job?’ Sun Yan averted his eyes and nodded continuously as Mr. Duan spoke. He had the look of a man who’d been through a bit of re-education.
What I wanted to say to the party boss was, ‘Would you kindly please leave us alone here so we can have a frank conversation with Sun Yan, and Aaron can take his pictures?’ Then I would turn to Sun Yan and ask, ‘So, how was the revolution? How did you come to be a toilet cleaner all your life?’ But with Mr. Duan staying put, I politely stuck with the party line – how Maoism in Nanjie solved everybody’s problems. Sidestepping man-made disasters like the revolution, I asked Sun Yan about a natural disaster instead.
‘Just how did your family survive the famine of 1942?’ I said. Sun Yan promptly replied: ‘We ate the bark of trees.’ Suddenly I couldn’t help thinking exactly what Mr. Duan wanted me to think: If Sun Yan the toilet cleaner owes this spotless apartment and all his free provisions to Maoism, then bless Mao.
‘The secret to Nanjie,’ said Mr. Duan, ‘is the teachings of Chairman Mao. Maoist theory brings people without much education up!’
‘But what exactly makes it Maoist?’ I asked. ‘What’s the difference between say, Nanjie and a kibbutz?’ Lu Bo glared at me, repeating the sound – kib-boots – saying he never heard this word. I restated the question substituting, ‘classic communism minus Mao’ for kibbutz. After some consultation with the party boss, Lu Bo turned to me and said that serve the people is the core of Maoist theory. And only fools can save China. At this point I became totally confused.
‘Surely you’re translating wrong,’ I said to Lu Bo. ‘Surely Mr. Duan is saying only selfless people can save China.’ The party boss frowned so Lu Bo explained.
‘In Communist thinking a man gives up everything, right?’
‘He says, “Here, take my land, take my animals, take everything I own,” right?’
‘So the neighbors say, “He’s a fool,” right?’
‘One might think.’
‘Because only a fool would give up everything; so, only fools can save China.’
I nodded slowly and Mr. Duan nodded too, locking eyes with me as he gave Lu Bo an earful: ‘To serve the people is to work hard for society! Dedication is a worker who expects nothing in return! True and total dedication is a man who will put up with absolutely nothing in return!’
‘I’m getting the gist,’ I said.
Mr. Duan continued. ‘A suicide-bomber is an example of the total dedication Maoist theory means. Someone who throws himself in front of a tank is in keeping with core Maoist principles!’ My nods stopped but my eyes stayed hooked on Mr. Duan’s. Who would have guessed that suicide bombing is a way of bringing Maoist theory up to date? Mr. Duan had more news. Four other villages were turning Maoist, and seven thousand work units across China were now studying Maoist theory.
‘Serve the People is what Maoist theory teaches!’ Mr. Duan said, raising his voice. ‘You serve through discipline! You capitalists don’t understand because you’ve never lived in a communist system!’
‘He called us capitalists?’ I said to Lu Bo. ‘What does he call the profits from his noodle factory then?’ We discussed the pros and cons of entering into an argument over this point. I wanted Mr. Duan to note that I didn’t come here to make judgments; nor did I want him to judge me.
‘He’s probably seen a few reruns of Dallas on TV and to him, you’re one of them,’ said Lu Bo. ‘You think you’ll change his mind?’
Repeating the lessons of Mao – discipline, service and dedication as the staple of fools – Mr. Duan jumped up and shook our hands, a slight smile stealing his pinched expression when we realized we hadn’t taken any pictures.
When the time came to catch our flight back to Beijing, our taxi driver, a Linying man, treated us to the same critique of Nanjie we heard from Mr. Shao, the restaurant owner: Nanjie is full of corruption, scandal and concubines. But when asked to elaborate on the local politics in Linying, the taxi driver repeated the same problems as Nanjie: corruption, scandal, concubines.
Thinking about Nanjie and the Maoist revolution on which it is based, I tried to imagine what it would have been like if I had been born in a watch-and-listen-but-never-speak world. No doubt my record would have been marred from birth: prone to mischief; driven only when on task; easily distracted by conflicting ideas. I assessed my prospects for remaining in school during a Cultural Revolution-type era: Bleak. And my potential for leadership in the Red Guard: Grim. Recommendation for the coming years: Re-education in selflessness. The real question is whether or not I would have had what it takes to become a proper fool.
Photographs by Aaron Deemer