In the mid-1980s a story did the rounds at the Central Conservatoire in Beijing, about a group of students sent to do fieldwork in a remote part of southwest China. In one village the peasants seemed not to have heard of Chairman Mao, and when asked “So who’s in charge, then?”, they hesitantly replied “Um… is it called Great Ming dynasty?” They hadn’t even heard of the Qing.
Of course this sounds apocryphal, a kind of Shangri-La story. Generally, however backward the conditions of places we visit, the scars of Maoism are evident. But I’m not sure we can dismiss it entirely…
It was formative fieldtrips like this, evoked in Liu Sola‘s 1985 novella In search of the king of singers 寻找歌王, that inspired the new generation of avant-garde composers like Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, and Guo Wenjing.
Reading Avedis Hadjian’s amazing book Hidden nation, I find a similar case:
The residents of an Armenian village in Sasun, in a photo taken by the photographer Shiraz during a pioneering journey in 1973. Such was their isolation that they asked Shiraz to advise “the Armenian king that there are still Armenians in Sasun.” However, the last Armenian monarch, Levon V of the Kingdom of Cilicia, had been dethroned in 1375 by Mamluk invaders.
Such stories are extreme instances of the Chinese proverb “The mountains are high, the emperor is distant“.