Absence and Presence: reflections on China’s past

On Sunday we joined a motley group of international academics and students on an outing to Xikou, near Fenghua, a town about 20 miles south of Ningbo and the ancestral home of General Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Nationalists in China from the mid- 1920s.

In drifting mist we climbed up a rocky path to the General’s mountain top summer residence, a small villa on a natural platform hundreds of feet above a valley lined with bamboo forests. We couldn’t see anything of the view, but all the same could get a sense of the strategic significance of the villa’s situation. It was a beautiful eyrie, where the General could survey the enemy and plan his next move – all in western style luxury. He made a last visit here in 1949 before fleeing to Taiwan.

Not surprisingly, the villa did not survive the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and what we saw was a complete modern reconstruction. How could it have done, given that Chiang was leader of the losing side in the civil war that beset China after the defeat of the Japanese? Nevertheless, there was something deeply disturbing about the idea of a group of presumably young people ascending a steep mountain path with the sole intention of torching a house which no longer had any purpose.

It is quite difficult to unravel the complex legacy of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, officially known as ‘the ten years of chaos.’ Of course, it is still well within living memory as I have found when I have interviewed people in my Ningbo park. Often people speak about it obliquely – ‘I used to play the ‘er hu’ (a two-stringed instrument) at school but I stopped. Now I’ve retired I’m able to play again.’ The ‘stopping’ actually happened because the instrument was banned during the Cultural Revolution, but people rarely say this, especially not to a foreigner. The passionate enthusiasm for the local style of opera performed in the park, Yue Ju, maybe also relates to prohibitions in the 1960s. Now people born in the 1950s or earlier can sing and perform it again, and the local adult college teaches courses to aid the revival.

Some interviewees told me about how they had been ‘sent down’ to the countryside when they were 17 to work on farms, thousands of miles away in the wild north east of China. This happened to 70,000 school leavers in Ningbo alone. Many stayed for 13 years, with only one visit home a year – some never returned. Brutal as this experience doubtless was, the park is also a repository for nostalgia for this period, when perhaps things seemed simpler and the group ideology gave people a sense of purpose.

Some areas of the park are used by people to sing ‘Red’ songs – the music that was allowed during the Cultural Revolution, and some interviewees talk about how much they liked the music and working in the remote forests and fields. I discovered that there is even a museum just outside Ningbo full of memorabilia from this experience, including winter clothes, vintage radios, farm implements and so on. This is a very different account of the past from what I’ve read in say ‘Wild Swans’, famous in the west and known as ‘scar’ or ‘wound’ literature in China.

Of course the Cultural Revolution was a time of terror for many people, especially teachers or anyone identified as a ‘capitalist roader’ and my research has uncovered some horrible episodes. One educated man, perhaps a teacher, in an online posting recalled the public humiliation he underwent in the stadium that used to be next to the park. He still felt unable to speak out, despite the changes in society.

How are people coming to terms with this violent episode and their role within it? A Guardian article last week described how a woman in her 60s who had been a leading Red Guard wanted to express remorse for her actions in helping to kick her teacher to death. She sought forgiveness from the still surviving husband of the dead woman. He refused to see her.

The way China deals with the past is always to look forward. ‘Truth and reconciliation’ are not in the lexicon, and perhaps never can be given the sheer numbers of people involved. Everything is focused on the needs of the economy and how to make China rich now. And that is of course at the root of why Chiang Kai Chek’s villa has been rebuilt, along with a massive Buddhist temple on the adjoining site. They are tourist attractions and can bring in money to the region.

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Food issues

Today our Aiyi arrived back from a week long break in Anhui, her home province. She came bearing a gift for us – about 20 eggs. They were unwashed and clearly straight from the hen, as it were. I was delighted, but at the same time wary. How do I know they are safe to eat? Of course, I couldn’t say that to Xiao Wu, and I at once stored them in the fridge. Are they more or less likely to cause us harm than the ‘cleaned’ eggs (as they say on the pack) from the supermarket, which presumably have come from battery farmed chickens, doubtless full of chemicals of one sort or another.

This is a frequent dilemma in China. ‘Safe’ food turns out to be quite the opposite. Baby formula made abroad is more or less chained to the shelf in our local supermarkets because of the desire for it following the terrible scandal of poisoned mild powder. On the other hand, ‘organic’ food is hard to come by and difficult to assess in terms of its safety, never mind its authenticity.

Last week I bought a fresh looking chicken from a stall on the street near our market. It was vastly overpriced, but the farmer who sold it to me assured me it would taste excellent. When I got home I donned rubber gloves (vegetarians look away now), chopped off its head and feet (Chinese people look away too – sorry about the waste) and took out its innards, which were still in situ. It is years since I have performed this operation or even witnessed it. I remember my parents buying ‘real’ poultry from Kingston market in the 1960s and 70s which required similar treatment.

We duly cooked the chicken very thoroughly in our recently acquired oven. It was a stringy as usual and didn’t taste of much. Our digestive systems played up for about 3 days afterwards although we are now recovering. Fintan’s PA had a fit when he told her where I’d been shopping. But was it necessarily the chicken? How can we know? Sadly, it has probably put me off continuing with such adventurous shopping.

Some students on campus have decided to set up a small business supplying organic vegetables. They have made contact with some local organic farms and each week you can order a selection of seasonal vegetables. In this case I think that organic means that the vegetables have not been treated with shed loads of fertiliser, as seems to be the norm.

Spraying against pests is undertaken with alacrity on campus and on our compound. Every few weeks men with tanks on their backs walk around spraying and we are warned not to go near for a while. Tree trunks are painted with a lime-wash mix which kills off any insects that might have survived the air attack. I’m told that the chemicals used have pretty much been banned from Europe for the last 30 years or so. While it might keep down the mosquitoes, the range of birds on our compound is very limited, perhaps because of the lack of insects.

Although they may be overly dependent on fertilisers for quick results, local people are extraordinarily resourceful about finding spaces on which to plant vegetables. Many of the poorest people are farmers who have lost their land to building. Shacks and small plots spring up on the banks of the many canals and streams. On my cycle route to the campus I pass a stretch where there is a substantial strip of empty earth between the wall of another college and a hedge that is the pavement boundary. Around March, guerrilla gardeners quickly moved in and cultivated the empty land. Broad beans and peas came into flower. But them one morning a JCB type digger arrived and began digging up the plants. Clearly the planting was subversive in some way, or maybe just untidy, and couldn’t be allowed to continue.

The whole approach to creating a garden in an unlikely spot reminded me of the elderly people I meet in my park. They have been displaced from their old houses and now live in presumably comfortable high rise blocks. But they come back to the small intimate spaces of the low pavilion buildings, gather in tight groups, drink tea and eat snacks and apparently try to recreate something of their old life. Happily, they don’t seem to get moved on.