Essays on Literature
Essays on Politic and Culture
Leaving the Twentieth Century: My Ten Days in Beijing.
22 Dec 1999.
We flew into Beijing from London in the afternoon and used the New Capital Airport Terminal for the first time. The silvery grey nineties’ style building, spacious and attractive, constitutes a striking contrast to the older buildings constructed in the seventies. But the familiar ‘long dragon’ was still there: too few passport control points in customs still, leaving several hundred Chinese and foreign passengers mingling together with no choice but to stand in line and wait.
Leaving the airport and driving out, the sky was bright blue and the distant hills clear and distinct – a typical scene from memory of a Beijing winter’s day. E asked the taxi driver who told us that first of all there had been a strong wind the previous few days that had blown all the pollution away; then because of the upcoming Millennium some of the more heavily polluting factories had been ordered to temporarily halt production to preserve the views for the new year celebrations. “Usually, there’s a thick grey smog all day.” said the driver.
YoYo’s mother lives close to the eastern gate of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. She joined the revolution before 1938 and now gets a (meagre) vice-ministers pension. As soon as we saw we each other we exchanged a few pleasantries then settled down to complaining about the cold-shoulder treatment given to the old veteran cadres, now with no jobs and no rights. And actually her toilet, which was broken when I last returned to China more than a year ago, has still not been repaired. Each time after use it has to be sluiced with a bucket of water. (I mention in passing that in all my time in China I seldom saw a toilet in anyone’s home that didn’t have a problem.)
At night I need two duvets. I’d forgotten how feeble the heating in Beijing homes is.
23 Dec 1999.
Twelve degrees below zero. This, I hear, is the coldest day in Beijing for 20 years.
We got up early, eager to see Beijing and stroll around the famous Hongqiao Market and Weishui Street Market with my younger brother and his wife. Both markets have stalls run by license holders (previously they were ‘black markets’) and are extremely large: Hongqiao Market covers four floors from top to bottom (and has only just had fire alarms installed) and Weishui Street Market spreads through several streets in the open air. Both buyers and sellers were holding jars of hot water to warm their hands in the bitter cold. But the stuff on sale is all very appealing: an extremely beautiful metre-and-a-half long string of sea-water cultured pearls, each one big and round, being sold for only 240 RMB [US$29]; well-made imitation brand-name clothes are everywhere to be seen – Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Versace, Christian Dior, Chanel etc. can all be bought for between 50 and 100 RMB a-piece; fake brand-name bags and handbags made with synthetic leather for a fraction of what the original would cost.
The vendors were nearly all ‘fiver profit, flog it’ folk from Zhejiang Province – no one else can compete with them. Western tourists made up most of the buyers, most of them Russian or East European wholesale marketeers (Beijingers call them Big-nose peddlers) whose Mandarin is very rough, but the stall-holders English is correspondingly basic. There were a lot of Chinese people asking prices but very few took their money out and bought anything. “Business is so hard,” a stall-holder said. “Everyone’s hanging on tight to their money in case of any trouble in the future.”
After strolling the markets we went to ‘Bars Street’ near San Li Tun – the foreign embassy district – with its dozens of bars and cafes to buy some pirated CDs. To avoid being seen or caught by the police, the buying and selling of CDs is all conducted inside the bars. On the street someone asks: “You want CDs?” “I want classical music.” “Come with me.” In a bar still being fitted out, without any tables or chairs yet, the CDs packed away in a holdall were famous western brand-name companies’ recordings, mass-produced in Beijing. I bought some David Oistrakh (a five-disk compilation), Mozart (The Complete String Quintets) and A. B. Michelangeli (The Haydn Piano Concertos). The originals would have been $10 a disk, but the pirated ones are only 7 RMB (80 cents) – and I hear the actual cost of printing is less that 4 RMB per disk. Holding them in my hand, I thought of the argument between the Chinese and western governments over intellectual copyright and wanted to laugh.
Compared with the last time I came here, Beijing is much more clean and spacious. I hear that because of celebrations for the 50th National Day since the founding of the state, construction projects were brought forward and completed ahead of schedule. The areas around Wang Fujing and Tiananmen have all been re-laid with granite flagstones (some people say they saw sanitation workers using huge vacuum cleaners). But walking through the streets of Beijing, this ancient city is already completely unrecognisable. Its buildings, apart from those inhabited by the nouveau riche, are utterly without taste or style. I suddenly thought, only an autocratic society can so ‘decide’ at a stroke to change an entire city’s appearance.
The officially announced figures are: total spent nationwide on projects for the 50th National Day – 900 billion RMB (US $11 billion).
Evening, went out for the first meal since being in Beijing with my brother, sister-in-law, YoYo and the poetry critic ‘T’. Delicious spicy Sichuanese food.
24 Dec 1999.
In the morning, we were picked up by Ms. ‘L’ who I met during my last return to China, and taken to a Beijing home-cooking restaurant on Guangxi Road. The rooms were decked out in traditional fittings with red wooden furniture and when customers entered or left, the waitresses chorused “You’ve arrived! Three guests!” or “Farewell! Three guests!” They radiated smiles, were polite and considerate but of course, it is all just part of the job. I can still see in my mind’s eye the famous fearsome ‘cold dish’ waitresses under the state-owned system of ten years ago. The changes brought by commercial competition have been fast, but it seems like a lifetime ago.
Ms. ‘L’ was born and bred in Ningxia and once travelled on foot around various places in China’s western regions. She came to Beijing many years ago and makes a living as a freelance writer. She has just had a collection of prose published, Melancholy of the Western Regions which is part of New Youth Collection – the name comes from a famous innovative magazine of the ‘May Fourth Movement’* – and is one book in a set of five by writers, all born in the sixties. Among them is Yu Jie, regarded as today’s most praiseworthy university student writer. Flicking through his book, I chanced upon a criticism he makes of a currently very well-received writer, Yu Qiuyu: he points out that Yu Qiuyu, forever instructing others to ‘face history,’ is in fact doing his utmost to avoid his own history as a propagandist for the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution. He hit the nail, one may say, fairly and squarely on the head.
This whole set of books was brought into being, from commissioning the manuscripts through to buying the publication number and the printing by Mr. ‘S’, a literature merchant. (Publication numbers are still controlled by a state system, but state publishing houses can sell their numbers on to private literature merchants, thereby ‘creating income.’ A normal price for a registration number is around 15,000 RMB but whether one book is being published or a set, only a single publication number is needed. To keep costs down, therefore, merchants prefer to publish sets.) The literature merchant then arranges for reviews to appear in the press (if critics are not friends, they have to be paid 1,000 RMB per review).
Ms. ‘L’ hopes YoYo will give her next novel for publication to Mr. ‘S’. This would be a good thing for YoYo, at least financially: her collection of stories, The Substitute’s Blues, has just been published by the state-owned Chinese Workers’ Press. She’s not been able to get a single penny for it and was instead given 350 copies of the book in lieu of a fee. Literature merchants, however, usually use the method of “buying up” – making a one-off cash payment to the writer. This is a lot better than the blatant exploitation by the state.
The N. J. Star software used by YoYo to write the foreword for the New Youth Collection is the most popular Chinese word processing system outside China, even though it’s a little out of date now. But Ms. ‘L’s Chinese computer couldn’t read it, nor could it change it to another format. Once again, we’re made to lament the complications of the Chinese language environment.
A cold is coming on. I went to the pharmacy and bought some German Bayer brand aspirins.
Evening, Ms. ‘W’ sent a car to take us to her home in Tong County for a dinner party. Tong County is around 15 km to the east of Beijing. I’d always thought it was so far away as to be another place, but using the freeway it can be reached in some ten minutes now. Ms. ‘W’s fashion house, Mu Zhen Liao, has cleverly renewed the language of traditional Chinese clothing, and in the three years since starting up is already one of China’s most successful clothing brand-names. There are now more than 30 specialist shops throughout the country.
The evening meal was most lavish. I met a good many poet friends and a number of artists who have settled in Tong County. After the ‘Full Brightness Gardens Artists’ Village’ (the Western Village for short) in the western suburbs was closed down, they moved to Tong County in the eastern suburbs and established the Eastern Village. Then there was my friend Mr. ‘L’ from the time I was exiled in Australia – a ‘Foreign Work Team’* – re-united now in ‘our own foreign country.’ So many feelings welling up inside.
Very drunk, lodged the night at Ms. ‘W’s.
25 Dec 1999.
Started a fever during the night. Got up at dawn and cancelled plans to pay a call on the writer ‘Y’.
I discussed with the artist ‘Y’ the article I had written for the Kwangju Biennale Art Exhibition in Korea, Fabricated Success and Others. Mr. ‘Y’ told me he’d read it and that he’d also liked YoYo’s commentary on Chinese pop art Who’s Fooling Who? very much. This pleasantly surprised us as it was published in 1992 in the overseas Chinese democracy publication, Beijing Spring. Mr. ‘Y’ said a friend had eventually got it into the country through many people’s hands.
On Ms. ‘W’s invitation, we went to see the clothing factory she’s set up in Tong County. Mu Zhen Liao is a purely privately owned enterprise. ‘W’s father became the factory manager after he retired from the military. With two buildings to the factory, it has a floor space of more than 2,000 square metres employing over 300 people, mainly young women who have come to Beijing from elsewhere in China. The workshops are arranged according to the work process: computer design, then pattern cutting, then hand-stitching, then checking, and so on. In the marketing department we met a salesman from Xi’an. He said that this month in Xi’an alone the total sold was already in excess of 200,000 RMB. “It’s because the goods are good. There’d be no way I could get my hands on it if I didn’t know Ms. ‘W’!”
In the afternoon, at an exclusive Mu Zhen Liao display counter in Beijing’s Yansha Shopping City, we saw Mu Zhen Liao clothes for around 500 RMB a piece, and shoppers falling over each other to buy them. I heard that on the first day of the marketing display, turnover came to more than 60,000 RMB. What I don’t understand is that these clothes obviously exceed the levels of the general standard of living – even a German reporter who bought a sleeveless evening dress said “I can’t find an opportunity to wear it!” So where are China’s white collar workers going to wear it?
Up to now, the success of Mu Zhen Liao has been due to traditional Chinese management – relying on word of mouth and being seen around rather than catalogues or filming television commercials, making it difficult for the company to move out beyond China’s borders. However, the famous Chinese actress Gong Li is going to wear Mu Zhen Liao when she hosts the next Berlin Film Festival.
Just as we were discussing this, the owner of the Film and Television Centre Mr ‘L’ called. When he heard about filming a television commercial for Mu Zhen Liao clothes, he kept shouting “Great idea!”
Had an evening meal with amongst others the BBC’s ‘H’ and the journalist ‘S’ posted in Beijing with the Sudeutsche Zeitung, gathered at a good restaurant in Ritan Park. After the meal we went back to ‘S’s place for a quick drink. He lives in the Diyang Apartment Block on two floors with a view over Beijing. It’s a high specification apartment block for Chinese and foreigners living under the same roof – whoever has the money can buy at US $2,000 per square metre (US dollars only). Security, parking, a cleaning service, all to international standards and all one could ever hope for. Sadly, when we went upstairs to look around, it was angrily discovered that the walls of the building put up only a few years ago are already cracking.
26 Dec 1999.
A fever of 39 degrees, I spent the morning resting in bed.
The publisher Mr. ‘T’, the literature merchant Mr. ‘S’ and the writer Ms. ‘L’ came to discuss YoYo’s novel. Mr. ‘S’ is from Xi’an and despite his honest, naive appearance, has a good command of the publishing business. Not being familiar with YoYo’s work, his questions were very detailed, especially on the topics of a) Is the novel a good read (i.e. is it readable and directly relevant to the market)? and b) Will it stir up trouble with officials?
The literature merchants’ relationship with the publishers is as follows: if the publishing house sells its publication numbers to make money, it must then bear political responsibility for the books published ‘in its name.’ Between money and losing official business, the latter is of course the most important. If there is trouble with a book – at worst it can be banned, followed by being singled out for criticism – in serious cases, the publishing house can be shut down for ‘rectification’ and the leadership changed; in less serious cases there’d be a reduction in its allocation of publication numbers, amounting to a reduction in turnover and economic sanction. Additionally, the co-operation between literature merchant and publishing house would cease – a situation both parties do all they can to avoid. Consequently, when Mr. ‘S’ heard of a detail in YoYo’s novel set during the Cultural Revolution when a girl has feelings of sexual revulsion when looking at a portrait of Chairman Mao in a public baths, he took special note. He felt that although this was a good selling point (sex and politics), he also felt it might cause problems and insisted on reading the whole manuscript before making a final decision.
Despite my illness, drove to a banquet held by the literature merchant Mr. ‘D’. In 1994 Mr. ‘D’ had taken a risk by publishing a book by me and YoYo about living in exile, Humanscapes and Ghost Words. It was good to meet again after so many years. Mr. ‘D’ has just taken another risk by publishing Modern Verse – 300 Poems. Following a completely different principle from before – whereby poems were chosen by official editors – the works selected for this book were all voted on by the poets. He also said he very much wants to publish our books again.
The writer Mr. ‘A’ at the same table, himself the son of a famous poet now no longer alive, has not only written a well-received novel but is also a very dynamic operator on Beijing’s underground antique market.
After the meal we drove to a bar used as a meeting point by Beijing’s artistic circles, ‘The Busy Bee,’ and met with my old friends and poets ‘M’ and ‘Z’. Because today is Sunday, a lot of people had come. I met up again with the editor Mr. ‘W’ who banned a collection of my poetry in 1989, the book-cover artist and designer Mr. ‘W’, and the performance artist ‘M’ amongst others. Later still, the Dalian property agent, poetry lover and patron of the arts ‘L’ came. (He just gave several China-based poets one of the latest computers each, worth several tens of thousands of RMB each.) During a pleasant conversation he said I should call him ‘brother.’ At that point there was a merrily tipsy atmosphere in the bar but the poet ‘Z’ suddenly smashed a beer bottle in the direction of a certain editor, and in a flash his nose was dripping with blood and the place was in chaos. The original nineties’ atmosphere of peaceful chatting and drinking suddenly reverted to the eighties one I was more familiar with. And later – I’m not sure why – a Taiwanese pulled a knife and scuffled with a mainlander, drawing even more blood. Someone joked we had gone back to the civil war of the forties.
Mr. ‘W’ from Dalian invited us to visit – plane tickets, five-star accommodation, travel – all expenses would be paid by him.
27 Dec 1999.
Fever has abated, turned into a cough.
Ms. ‘L’ came to meet us and we drove to the Guolin Feng Bookshop in Haidian for the launch of New Youth Collection. Launch ceremonies have only sprung up in recent years, and are a new way of promoting books and publications. Hosted jointly by the publisher and the bookshop, a general invitation goes out to cultural circles and media organisations for an opening discussion and then a book-signing by the writer. The media then whip up enormous publicity creating a broad response in the market – known in the trade as ‘stir-frying.’ This method was quite effective when it was first used, but later when all books were being ‘blitzed’, faith in the method fell away. However, because Guolin Feng is a famous, privately run bookshop in Beijing, next to Beijing University with its intellectualised and serious readership, and because the book’s title includes New Youth, directly evoking people’s memories of every student intellectual movement since ‘May Fourth’ (including of course, June Fourth) the shop was heaving.
The bookshop is set out in a basement and arranged along the lines of a western bookshop with open-style shelving (which would have been simply unimaginable towards the end of the Cultural Revolution when there was a fad for stealing books). When we arrived, there were already some 200 people surrounding a long table in the bookshop. This book-launch was being hosted by the editor of the magazine, Method, which was famous for its liberal thinking but is now under orders to ‘temporarily suspend publication.’ First, five speakers each talked about one of the five books in the set. I’ve never in my life taken part in this kind of event before, but was required to be the first speaker, on Melancholy of the Western Regions – the story by ‘L’ about her experiences of growing up in western China. I talked about the simple love between the family members described in her book. Her mother was almost illiterate and relied solely on her intuition in her struggle to survive and to protect her children, yet displayed a completeness and abundance of humanity and common sense. By comparison, a century before, the Chinese were chasing after every kind of fashionable social theory with the result that not only did China fail to achieve the aim of modernisation, but actually reached the point where children publicly denounced their parents; where husbands and wives exposed each other; where friends stabbed friends in the back. A century later, even the most basic levels of morality and a ‘faculty for common sense’ have been lost – misguided efforts have forcibly reduced them to less than zero!
The speakers after me are all famous liberal intellectuals in China (many of whose names were seen not long ago in the debate between ‘liberalism’ and ‘the new left’) and many of their opinions are indeed courageous: Mr. ‘R’ from Beijing University stood up and criticised one of the writers in the collection, Yu Jie, for writing forewords to other people’s books, because “It’s so stupid that only Li Peng would do it!” He spoke of Falun Gong: “I am not a member of Falun Gong, but I will defend people’s rights to freedom of belief.” With reference to the extravagance of the government’s spending for the 50th National Day celebrations: “That money belonged to the laid-off workers!” With each point made there was thunderous applause from the audience. I was listening in a daze, not knowing where I was! Feeling unwell still, I said my farewells and was followed out by journalists and members of the audience asking for interviews and autographs. It was lovely to see those I hadn’t seen for a long time.
As I left Guolin Feng the impassioned words were still ringing in my ears. But walking away through the tide of comings and goings on the street, I felt that the reality of apathy and indifference was doubly sharpened by its contrast with what had just happened. Can it be that after all, the Chinese government is genuinely accommodating more voices, or is this in actual fact just a lewd ‘wanker’ gesture from the intellectuals – an outpouring of words sufficient to hide the incompetence of their deeds? Who knows.
In the afternoon, I rested and watched the television news: China’s tax revenue for 1999 totalled one trillion RMB. A large figure. But 900 billion RMB was spent on projects for the 50th National Day – 90% of the whole country’s entire annual tax revenue spent on an official celebration! This would be simply unimaginable in the west! Will tax-payers ever put these two figures together?
In the evening, the sports reporter on the Beijing Youth Daily and one time poet ‘D’ took charge of our night’s programme: first to a banquet at the Women’s Activity Centre (The Women’s Union); afterwards, again to ‘Bars Street’ for drinking and dancing at a bar called ‘Vogue.’ The whole night’s consumption came to over 3,500 RMB (around US $400), and was all picked up by ‘D.’ This is above and beyond by far what he says is the standard of living for a monthly salary of 10,000 RMB. Whatever happened to the underground poet scratching a living in the eighties?
Met up again with the ‘nineties writer’ Mr. ‘L’. We talked about his job in a publishing house which he summed up in one word: “Dirty.”
28 Dec 1999.
In the morning, The Cultural Times reporter ‘X’ came to do a long interview. I understand he’s going to use a ‘Kung Fu Novel’ style (!) to write up my experiences abroad. We spoke for two hours and then the Chinese Newsweek reporter ‘J’ came for an interview too. This magazine is quite interesting. The print quality is very high with a lot of attention paid to the photographs and text. Each edition is divided into a section on politics, a section on culture and a special editorial. The special editorial in the last edition was about a batch of fake new issue 100 RMB notes appearing at almost the same time as a genuine batch. But a close inspection of the political pages, between their attractive covers, shows the content is still bound by official strictures. It seems the Chinese Time magazine they want to produce is still a long way away.
At noon, the BBC reporter ‘H’ invited me to the foreign diplomats’ quarter to give an interview about architecture in Beijing. But I was stopped at the door by a guard because I hadn’t brought my New Zealand passport (and I don’t have a foreigner’s big nose that could act as a passport) and Chinese citizens are not permitted free entry to foreign diplomatic buildings. Having lived abroad for so long I’ve forgotten Chinese regulations.
In the afternoon I went to Hongqiao Beili to visit the old writers ‘Y’ and ‘K’. Just before leaving to keep this appointment as arranged, I rang but there was no one there. I just had to risk keeping the appointment and go. I found the address with the security gate locked tight shut but when I knocked, someone answered. It turned out Mr. ‘Y’ had been locked in. He dropped the key down from the window and I let myself in.
‘Y’, at 85-years-old, is a piece of living history. As a youth in the thirties, he was a writer in the Modernist School, and found a refuge for his ideals with the Communist Party. For several decades he put his heart and soul into propagandising for the Party, becoming a high cultural official and denouncing other people as ‘counter-revolutionaries.’ He wrote children’s stories to maintain a sense of self. Not until the Cultural Revolution when he himself was ‘overthrown’ did he have a real opportunity for sober reflection. He once said: “In politics and culture I have drawn a circle, and in the end returned to the point where I started at 20 years old.” In the eighties, he was one of the oldest members of Beijing’s cultural youth groups. In 1989 he signed the petition demanding Wei Jingsheng’s release, after which there was no news of him for a long time. I’ve not seen him for years but his mind is as agile as ever; he asked me highly detailed questions about Chinese writers he knows abroad. Physically he has been better, with problems in his legs making movement difficult. The truly sad thing is that his wife, ‘K’, herself a poet and editor who was under a lifetime of political pressure, has now developed a paranoid fear of being harmed, every day imagining someone is out to get her. This past decade or so, all of ‘Y’s energy has been spent on ‘K’ to the extent that he has been unable to get down to writing his memoirs. ‘K’ had gone out today with absolutely no word of when she would return, and had locked ‘Y’ into the flat. ‘Y’ could only smile sadly. “A small detail.” What could I say? An age in miniature.
Evening, Mr. ‘L’ from the Film and Television Centre had a dinner party. I met up with many old acquaintances: the poet ‘W’, who I slept next to once in 1983 on a brick kang on the north Tibetan plateau, and who now finds himself in the high position of Beijing Municipal Party Committee Vice Secretary General (known as a ‘helicopter cadre’); ‘G’, who went to prison after June Fourth 1989, later becoming the assistant editor of a certain magazine; ‘X’, who because he read poetry on Tiananmen Square was in exile with us in New Zealand, and is now driving a taxi in Sydney; ‘Q’, whose book Unrestricted War aroused a commotion overseas by asserting: “In actual fact there were a good many Chinese people engaged in the democracy movement just making a fuss to give the foreigners something to worry about.” We talked about twentieth century China, where everyone considers the word ‘revolution’ to be deeply harmful, leading them to a dead end where they then have to turn around and return to capitalism. If this was always known, what was the point of ever starting?
Unluckily for China, democracy and nationalism have been inextricably linked from the outset. How could 400 million Han Chinese agree to let 5 million Manchus establish a constitutional monarchy? The question today is, what ultimately is the nature of modern China’s society? This has to be the starting point for all change but there is no obvious analogy that can be drawn from western history. Some people have suggested: “It would’ve been better if the Chinese people had done a deal with Jiang Zemin where he could have established a constitution, and in return the Chinese people would then have treated him like a ‘real’ emperor. There’s no retirement age and the post can be passed down from generation to generation!” This was hailed as ingenious and people joked about founding a ‘Democratic Monarchists’ party: go back to the beginning of the century and start the reforms all over again. Sadly, history is not a toy.
I can definitely say there was not one person at the meal who still believes in communism (although there was no lack of party members there). So what is it that links them and this regime together?
29 Dec 1999.
Very drunk last night, hung over.
In the morning I watched films at ‘L’s place on a VCD player (a necessity for every urban Chinese home) from the classic Clockwork Orange and the latest Lolita through to the Hollywood productions of recent months, leaving me quite dazed. They were, of course, all pirate copies.
‘H’ came over and told us all the things he has been doing in the years since we last saw him: he was a freelance writer; he went into publishing in a partnership; he made television programmes; he designed buildings in another province, but he fell out with people every time over money.
At noon I went out for a walk to the ruins of the Yuanming Gardens to reminisce, and then decided to go to with Mr. ‘T’ to the flat his work-place have allocated him in Xisan Zu – where I was sent with a work team during the Cultural Revolution. It wasn’t until we got there that I discovered his new home was only a five minute walk from where I’d once ‘toiled over the yellow earth, my back to heaven’ – my hard to forget ‘university of life,’ Huangtu Village. The taxi driver said it was only 10.5 kilometres from here to the city – so close it was hard to imagine. In those days it would have been entirely possible to finish work and cycle home! But the desolation of this place then and being allowed home only once every two months had stretched the distance enormously.
The newly-built ‘Xinyu Commune’ where ‘T’ lives is low-cost housing stock for teachers at 2,000 RMB per square metre, but because his flat was allocated to him with the job, he doesn’t have to pay anything. This benefit of socialism has already reached its end, however. The housing reforms decree that from now on the state will not continue to fund the public housing system, and that all housing must be sold into private hands. This creates an enormous pressure on the majority of wage-levels. (And this is why even though banks are cutting interest rates again and again at the same time as increasing the tax on interest – forcing money onto the market – people still prefer to save their money rather than spend it on consumer goods. A roof over one’s head – a shelter from the storm – is after all the most important thing.) ‘T’ has managed to not miss the boat: although his one bedroom flat is not big, it was free and in future he’ll only have to pay a little to transfer it from public to private ownership.
Having only recently divorced he has gone to great lengths to feather his nest. “At last, I have a quiet, peaceful place of my own.” he said through the ear-splitting noise of electric saws, drills, planes and hammering as a team of migrant workers knocked together an entire set of furniture (including a computer desk).
Should I have told ‘T’ that during the Cultural Revolution, at a place a minute’s walk from his new home, 19 people were buried alive just because they were related to landlords?
From ‘T’s home, I got a ‘black car’ (un-licensed taxi) to Huangtu Village. I could vaguely remember the way but when we got to the boundaries I was stunned: the whole village is a ruin. Between weeds and remaining snows were the broken and dilapidated walls. The road that had originally run north to south through the whole village has disappeared without a trace. The car could only drive around the village boundary but luckily the driver was local and could still point out some of the places I remember: the pond now filled level but the old tree still there; ‘Graduates Dormitory’ had been demolished but two mud brick walls remained (I remember courting there when they were still new!); the high voltage power lines – the ‘Great Steel Pylons’ as we had called them – now so obviously small and old. It was under them that I ‘studied the lessons’ of people’s love and hate of the earth; where is the road where we carried the coffins to their graves? In all this desolation I just couldn’t see it…
The driver said all the land in the village has been sold to a real-estate developer. But because the villagers are not satisfied with their share of the 150 million RMB paid to the village government, clearing the land has been stopped and it remains wasteland to this day. However, an agreement has been reached where work will start on putting up buildings no later than March of next year, and concrete floors will finally bury all the memories.
This is the second time I’ve been back since I fell out with the village cadre in 1977 and left. I can still remember so clearly the first time I went back, in the winter of 1982, at dusk, and also just after going for a walk in Yuanming Gardens. The desire had suddenly welled up inside and I jumped into a taxi, getting there when the sky was completely black. I called on no one but just searched out the dormitory where I had lived for three years. Looking through the broken window the kang, the straw mattress and the papier mache ceiling were as familiar as before. In a glint of light reflected from the snow, a white shadow protruded from the wall. It was there that after the People’s Militia company commander had killed my puppy, he nailed its skin…
At that moment I suddenly realised I was standing at a closing point in history. A village that had existed for who knows how many thousands of years and its ancient way of life was going to finish here. Amongst it were contained the three short years I had spent.
I went to the Lidu hotel by way of the fourth north ring road which was completely jammed. Having eventually made it half an hour late, I met up with my old friend ‘X’. He’s Taiwanese with American residency and is both Vice President and Chinese representative for a certain American company. He’s been permanently based in Beijing for almost two years already and has a wide circle of friends in Beijing’s art world. In 1998 I introduced him to ‘T’ who needed help to support the publication of The 1998 Yearbook of Modern Chinese Poetry. The book had already been printed and sent out to bookshops when the Ministry of Public Security refused permission for the publishers to sell it. To this day no reason has been given although it’s assumed that somewhere between the poetry being written and coming before the editorial committee, there was a problem. But the real loss was seeing the 50,000 RMB support from ‘X’ go up in a puff of smoke.
Ms. ‘W’ of Mu Zhen Liao and the painter ‘Y’ arrived and we all drove off to another of ‘X’s projects, the ‘Pottery Garden.’ With capital from ‘X’, the Pottery Garden has become China’s ceramic arts ‘folk centre,’ in the rented converted offices of a dilapidated chemical factory. The factory only remains open because it makes ointments for ‘X’s American company. Because of this its owners are happy to ingratiate themselves with him.
The Pottery Garden has four kilns of different sizes, and a separate exhibition room, offices, workshops and guest rooms. ‘X’ himself also pays for an unofficial publication, China Ceramics News. Although he is not an artist, he has just been accepted as the first Chinese member of the International Ceramics Association. Both ‘W’ and ‘Y’ are considering designing ceramic pieces to compliment Mu Zhen Liao clothing, and were looking around especially carefully. Moreover, they were extremely moved by ‘X’s appreciation of the arts.
In the evening, ‘W’ invited us, ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘T’ for a meal. The table looked as if an aquarium had been overturned: turtle, snake, lobster, crab and fish in greater quantities than we could ever handle. But ‘W’ kept getting up and leaving the table. It turned out she had another room in the restaurant where she was having a meal with the boss of the Yansha Shopping City who had arranged the exclusive marketing display for her.
30 Dec 1999.
I got up at dawn and watched the television news of the four Falun Gong organisers being sentenced. The details were that after Falun Gong was proclaimed an ‘evil cult’ they refused to renounce their beliefs and continued to organise meetings. The irony is that these four ‘criminals’ with their chests puffed out and heads held high, awesome in their fortitude and brimming with a martyr’s air of dedication, strongly resembled the image of the archetypal ‘Communist Party Hero’ in official propaganda.
Went again to Ms. ‘L’s home and met the literature merchant ‘S’. He’s already asked someone to read YoYo’s new novel and his opinion of it is very high. Because of this he’s anxious to sign a contract with YoYo. They finally settled on conditions of ‘S’ paying 27,500 RMB to ‘buy up’ the book. He’ll first pay a deposit of 5,000 RMB; when he’s been to the publishing house (who will examine the manuscript then sell him a publication number), he’ll pay her another 10,000 RMB. Finally when the book has been printed, the balance will be cleared. The contract was signed but ‘S’ is still expressing concerns. This will be the first novel he’s handled and it’s being said that cultural books are now hard to move. Readers are only showing an interest in books on politics or current affairs, or in works of pure escapism. He hopes that when the book comes out he can rely on our full support, which means finding friends to spread the word on it.
Sadly, I won’t be in Beijing in January when – ‘S’ was saying – all the country’s private literature merchants are going to get together and hold their own marketing fair (book exhibition). The way it works is they find a big hotel where each merchant rents his own room, then lays out the books he has published ready to trade with the other merchants. Because at present the foundations of the Chinese official publishing and distribution systems have withered up, the power of the literature merchant is limitless and each Beijing Literature Merchants Commercial Fair is a grand occasion. Who’s organising such an effective event? Who could put together such a purely capitalist system in a socialist country? This is truly worth a look!
In the afternoon, the one-time poet ‘C’ from Gansu – who’s now in charge of a Beijing computing magazine – came over. Since we said farewell in 1988 she’s had a life of serious hardships and apart from one letter she entrusted to someone, I’d heard almost no news of her. As soon as we saw each other we talked about June Fourth; we talked about how she’d harboured ‘criminals’ who’d escaped from Tiananmen that year. I can still remember being abroad and meeting ‘L’ who had found sanctuary with her. As soon as he said the name of the person who had helped him, I blurted: “You found the right person!” Ten years later and the memory still seems fresh.
‘C’s magazine belongs on the technical shelves, gives away two floppy disks with each edition for the price of 20 RMB and is targeted at the 15 to 20-year-old computer generation. In these days of the ubiquitous internet cafes and ‘cyber-friends’ in China’s big cities, e-mail and the internet have well and truly undermined traditional forms of contact between people. When she heard that even today I still use a pen to write and furthermore don’t know how to use e-mail, she couldn’t stop laughing. “The next time you come back, bring a lap-top and I’ll help you install all the accessories. When you get back to London, just plug it in.”
In the evening, the acclaimed number one ‘star’ of literary circles, the poet and businessman ‘L’, had a dinner party. He has just become the major share-holder in the Hunan-based Yuelu Bookshop, with its thousand year history, and the Yuelu Publishing House. I heard my friend ‘T’ saying that half of the magazines on the news stands are now his. I waited outside the gate of the Chinese Medicine Hospital never thinking that the waiting black Mercedes had been sent to pick me up. ‘L’s mansion covers 2,000 square metres of land and was once the Beijing residence of the warlord Zhang Zuolin. The dignified air of those years still faintly remains in the main house, the garden, the rockeries, the floral reception rooms and the games rooms. Sadly, the levels of taste and the quality of the fittings are not very high, and I found the fake stretch of Great Wall in the garden even less to my liking.
‘L’ enthusiastically showed us his ‘masterpieces.’ He asked more than three thousand experts to rewrite the commentaries for his enormous Anthology of China’s Classics which covers the various schools of the Qin dynasty [221-207 BCE], all the way through to the latter half of the twentieth century. It includes hundreds of beautifully bound works, each set costing US $12,000. The first print run of several thousand was sold out in an instant. He’s just published 100 Masterpieces from the West, entirely in English, going from Plato through to Foucault. With its green fabric bindings and silver lettering, each set is 5,000 RMB and its first run has also already sold out – both sets were bought mainly by private collectors. On the wall of ‘L’s home hangs a large photograph of him with Premier Zhu Rongji.
Apart from the poet guests seated at the sumptuously laid table, there was also a certain stockbroker who is so powerful that when he moves the whole city shakes. My father buys shares too, and because I worry a great deal on his behalf I couldn’t miss the opportunity of asking this expert’s opinion. I told him about my father’s interest in the Lan Tian share issue but he said straight away, whatever my father does, don’t buy them – they’re a con. But when I asked him which ones he should buy instead, he avoided giving an answer.
‘L’s company, ‘X X Culture,’ is the only ‘Culture Company’ listed on the stock exchange. But China’s stock market is currently in a severe slump. The small, ordinary investors have been stuck with devaluing shares so often that no matter what the government does to ‘stimulate’ the market, they still hold onto their money, stand back and observe. Recently, just before the Stock Market Management Law was issued, a big wave of publicity accompanied a large injection of funds onto the market, leading investors to believe the situation was robust and they quickly followed in. But who could have known that on the day the Management Law was announced, the funds would be withdrawn and the stock market would plummet? The majority of investors couldn’t recuperate their original capital and my father was one of many who lost a lot of money. Of course, having a star of the stock market as a guest in your home would have made it a different matter.
After the meal, ‘L’ offered everyone tea. The water used had been especially drawn that very afternoon from a spring in the western suburbs, which has been sealed since the fifties when the water was used as a restorative tonic for Mao Zedong and the Central Committee. After that, we were driven to the Beijing Olympic Village and ‘L’s ‘Beautiful Nights’ night club to see a performance of Cuban and East European singing and dancing. We sat in a private box with waitresses constantly pouring us XO Brandy at 1,800 RMB a bottle and (poor quality) French red wine at 880 RMB a bottle. The stalls below were full of Chinese businessmen and white-collar workers from joint venture companies. ‘Beautiful Nights’ is not actually Beijing’s most expensive night club, but tickets on the door are still 280 RMB each, excluding drinks.
Apart from ‘L’s Beijing address on his business cards, there are also his New York and Tokyo addresses. When he heard that the poet ‘M’ loves Japanese food, he instantly issued an invitation for them both to go to Tokyo next time and ‘live it up a little.’ At the end of the night the Mercedes took each of the guests back to their homes.
31 Dec 1999.
The last day of the twentieth century. To spend it in China, as far as this special ‘Johnny Foreigner’ is concerned, is of enormous significance.
I spent the morning at YoYo’s mother’s place, talking with her eldest son visiting from Lanzhou. He was born in the forties and is now approaching his retirement. He is a member of the post 1949 generation who lost out most on their modern education. After he retires he’ll only receive 70% of his wage, and with a residence permit based elsewhere he’s come to Beijing to try and find work. His knowledge of the way things work is very out-dated. There are four siblings in his family, and the three others have all either left the country or are working for Chinese companies with foreign connections. So he’s the one YoYo’s mother worries about the most. Maybe because of all this he’s always grumbling in verse – China’s contemporary oral literature:
If you find your wages are down,
The leaders are out in their Royal Crowns.
When your wages are down by a third,
The leaders are seen in big Blue Birds.
When you’re paid with a handful of beans,
The leaders swan around in Audi limousines.
(All three are imported luxury cars.)
At two o’clock in the afternoon, on the insistence of the literature merchant ‘D’, we drove to a signing for Modern Verse – 300 Poems at the Xidan Book Superstore. I met the old poet ‘Y’ again who I hadn’t seen for years, the poetry critics ‘X’, ‘Y’, ‘C’ and ‘T’, the poets ‘X’, ‘J’, ‘W’ etc. Because it’s not often that private literature merchants get involved with poetry collections, a lot of the media had come for interviews. Beijing TV, all the Beijing press and the few cultural periodicals from other places were mostly focusing on the issue of ‘commerce and culture’ or ‘the position and significance of poetry in contemporary society.’ Because ‘D’ had placed a great many advertisements in the press prior to the event, a lot of people had come along. There was a constant stream of : “I can recite a lot of the poetry in here.” “We read all of your work at University.” When poets were giving interviews and not at the table signing, readers would rather hold onto their books and patiently wait. People working in the bookshop said that this was seldom seen at book signing ceremonies. The whole event took almost two hours and more than 200 copies of Modern Verse – 300 Poems were sold (a three-book set for 45 RMB).
The poet ‘W’ presented me with a copy of his Memorandum of Chinese Poetry in the Nineties. The inclusion of dozens of important critiques of poetry from ‘June Fourth’ to the present, its chronicle of events for activities relating to poetry and its commentaries on poetry make it a valuable reference source. The background to the publishing of this book has been the recent argument between ‘north’ and ‘south’ in China’s poetry circles: southern poets have used ‘folk’ and ‘colloquial’ traditions as their main focus, as opposed to the ‘intellectual works’ advocated by northern (Beijing) poets, who are also criticised for their adherence to the ‘power of language.’ In ‘W’s preface to this book, he counter-attacks the southern poets, claiming their ostensible discussion of poetry is in fact a rivalry for power and influence. But what has so grieved people for the last half century is the depth of pollution whereby modes of thought have always been in terms of power, and even the world of poetry has been unable to avoid it. The saddest thing is that in this debate, the thing that is lost is the poetry.
I was amazed that ‘L’s chauffeur managed to find us to give us a string of crystal rosary beads. YoYo had lost her wooden rosary beads last night in ‘Beautiful Nights’ and rang early this morning to ask about them. ‘L’ said that if they could not be found he would definitely send a new string. After she received them, she called ‘L’ to thank him and he told her that the abbot from Beijing’s famous Guangji Temple had once personally blessed them. Again, something quite extraordinary!
We got a taxi to my brother’s place in Fang Zhuang then on to Zhao Gongkou to find a VW Santana to take the four of us to my father’s home in Tianjin for 200 RMB. The driver was from Tianjin and has his own car specialising in running between the two cities. He makes the return trip once a day earning an easy 400 RMB. The only hassle is that the competition for customers is fierce, and when we arrived he was involved in an argument with another driver over a passenger.
The highway between Beijing and Tianjin is very good. Driving fast you only need forty minutes, but it takes another hour to cover less than 20 kilometres from the Tianjin exit to my father’s home. Tianjin is a gloomy wasteland, completely lacking the extravagance and colour of Beijing’s eating, drinking and entertainment. The streets are dreary and desolate with no sign on new year’s eve of any festival atmosphere. The driver said it was because there are just so many laid-off workers in Tianjin – originally a centre for state-owned enterprises. With so many people on only 200 RMB a month and barely able to feed themselves, what is there to celebrate? “In Beijing, Fuji apples are 10 RMB for three pounds. Here, no one’s buying at 10 RMB for four pounds.” He said: “In the old days, the working classes were the first in line, but now the state has just kicked them out. They sell their whole life and in the end they’re just sacrificial goods. What a farce!”
I have been imagining every possible way of spending this millennium, but in the end came back to the most simple one: in China, at home with my father. In the past ten or more years, I have missed so many opportunities to share time with him. But this once in a lifetime day is still only a symbolic recompense. I’ve often said that the lives of twentieth century Chinese people are full of too many ‘have to’s’ which are now spoken of and lived out as second nature. At least ‘having to’ have the course of my life suddenly interrupted by my career as an exile (a nondescript New Zealand citizen) has made my life inescapably absurd.
Fortunately, my younger brother the businessman who works himself into the ground, has managed to find the time to come with us. We, my father and my brother’s girlfriend went as a family to a restaurant we’d booked for a New Year’s meal. All the restaurant rooms between 400 and 800 RMB had already been taken – even though we were in Tianjin. The two bottles of wine I’d brought all the way from Europe added a touch of colour to the meal and in our room was a television so we could eat and watch the live broadcast of the new year celebrations at the same time. This year for the first time Beijing Central Television was broadcasting reports sent by specially posted journalists in Sydney, Paris, London and New York, cutting them into their own 24-hour non-stop new year programming. Consequently, many people watched it all the way through without sleeping, waiting to see the fireworks on Sydney Harbour Bridge, London’s Millennium Wheel and everything else going on. But China’s official celebration programme was still full of the same old government propaganda: Jiang Zemin’s congratulatory speech; the Party and state leaders lining up in public; China’s Millennium Temple (modelled on the old imperial Temple of Heaven and Temple of Earth); China’s Millennium Bell (extending the millennia-old imperial tradition of the ‘Bell Casting’ ceremony) all in a cold snap more than ten degrees below zero, with thousands of people (including children) singing and dancing in colourful but thin costumes. The recent ‘return’ of Macao was of course a main theme. The repeated appearance of the characters for ‘Taiwan’ made clear the next objective of ‘Unification of the Motherland.’ The ostentatious opulence, the celebration of extravagance, the care and attention paid to highlighting ‘Times of Peace and Prosperity’ was, in contrast to the plight of laid-off workers in Tianjin, both ironic and very distant. (Television stations were vying with each other to show the series Zhen Guan zhi Zhi, about the founding emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Li Shimin, under whose leadership China’s wealth and renown was to reach a zenith. My father said: “You don’t think they’re referring to Jiang Zemin?”)
After the meal we went back to our father’s home to spend the last few minutes of the twentieth century. The television programmes continued while we talked about our family’s experiences over the last decades: My father was born into the household of a wealthy Han merchant and Manchu aristocracy. After graduating from the Catholic Furen University before he was 20, he cut himself off from his ‘exploiting family’ and joined the communist revolution. His whole life since then has been spent watching all of his dreams from his early years being shattered one by one. His wisdom lay in realising when to withdraw during the insanity of that age: from being a foreign diplomat to working in a university; from being an ‘old revolutionary’ professor to being the ‘backward element’ who fell asleep in public meetings. I suggested to him: “The greatest achievement in your life has been that you achieved nothing.” At least this has offered him some inner peace in the later years of his life. But the reality is still turbulent: the old cadres’ pension can’t keep up with sky-rocketing prices and were it not for the support from my brother and sister, my father would be left to rely on himself. He’s already spent two years of ‘study fees’ on the stock exchange and hopes this year he can start making a profit (even though the news about Lan Tian is enough to make you cry). “But don’t you think from the time you turned your back on your family until now has been a wasted journey?” I asked. My father smiled sadly at the only answer he could give: “I can only think of the people who had it worse than me.”
As the new year bells rang, my feelings were, at least as far as the people of China can say: At last, we have made it through the twentieth century!
In one more second, completely new numbers must be used to write this epoch. But will the century truly be new?