In the light of later exposés of the Cultural Revolution, the acquaintance with Chinese society of laowai (“Wogs”)* from my generation, idealistic students at Cambridge, now inevitably seems somewhat less than well-informed.
The great Frances Wood, long-term curator of the Chinese collection of the British Library, and whose insights and mellifluous voice regularly inform BBC Radio 4’s series In our time, evokes that generation’s experience of revolutionary China in her brilliant memoir Hand-grenade practice in Peking: my part in the Cultural Revolution. The blurb makes a good summary (extra points too for eschewing the standard “smorgasbord” and “picaresque swathe”):
In 1975 I went to Peking for a year, together with nine other British students who had been exchanged by the British Council for ten Chinese students.** The latter knew exactly what they were doing: learning English in order to further the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. We were less sure.
From 1966, China had been turned upside down by young Red Guards who were encouraged to “Bombard the Headquarters”. Professors, surgeons, artists, pianists, novelists and film directors were attacked for their bourgeois pursuit of excellence or their attachment to decadent Western ideas.
Though by 1975 there were no longer violent street battles or badly beaten bodies floating down the Pearl River, we found Peking University governed by a Revolutionary Committee of workers, peasants and Party members determined that we should not learn too much and become experts divorced from the masses.
With our Chinese classmates, we spent half our time in factories, getting in the way of workers making railway engines, or in the fields, learning from peasants how to bundle cabbage or plant rice seedlings in muddy water. Heroically, we stayed up half the night to dig rather shallow underground shelters in case of nuclear attack. Much of the rest of the time was spent in class, with two compulsory hours of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought every Saturday morning and compulsory sport, which included hand-grenade throwing. I studied Chinese history which had to be revised overnight when Deng Xiaoping was criticized for the second time and erased from the record. The constant hammering of political rhetoric, broadcast from tannoys hidden in every tree, and the endless expositions of Marxist-Leninist dialectic were only interrupted by funeral announcements as yet another ancient revolutionary went to join Karl Marx.
Just after I returned home, the Great Helmsman himself, Chairman Mao, died. Within weeks, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was not only over but renamed “The Ten Disastrous Years”. The reinstated Deng Xiaoping bounced back and declared that it was glorious to be rich: all my helpful digging and enginemaking had been a mistake.
To some, the book may seem to make light of what was a distressing period for Chinese people, but as Frances notes:
To all those in China who suffered terribly at the time I apologize for my determination to amuse myself and be amused by what I found. I only began to discover what was happening to China’s intellectuals [not just them, I might add—SJ] when I got home.
With quaint stoicism Frances and her fellow-students learn the arts of aimlessly moving rubble, the “ceremony of entering into traffic” (as a Chinese student interpreted the phrase rite de passage) on rickety bikes, and the labyrinthine system of coupons, chits, and travel permits. Cabbages play a major role. Her description of the dangers of eating the baozi dumplings of unheated restaurants in winter brought memories flooding back (also evoking Bill Bailey’s “soaking in the hoisin of your lies“):
They were difficult to pick up and dip in soy sauce at the best of times, even if you had all your fingers free to manipulate the chopsticks. Eating them in in an outer coat and padded cotton mittens was a very messy business, and it didn’t take long for the front and cuffs of our coats to become stiff with soy sauce and bits of baozi.
Frances relishes her excursions in search of imperial architecture—which, distressingly, even in those revolutionary times (despite the best efforts of the Red Guards) was much more abundant than today.
With vital government departments depleted, and “so-called experts” dismissed, in favour of glib and dangerous populist slogans (now where have we heard that recently?), Frances reflects on the weird campaign extolling Lei Feng, with its classic song
I would like to be a tiny screw… Put me in place and screw me tight.
Meanwhile, pressed into finding a party-piece to compete with their North Korean and Albanian counterparts, the UK students soon become adept at trotting out “the British national song” Old MacDonald had a farm. On other occasions, wheeled out for visits of foreign dignitaries, they feel like model prisoners.
As she devours “negative teaching material“, Frances identifies many experiences familiar to foreigners in China, like holding a fluent conversation in Chinese with a local, who then suddenly interjects, “Can you understand Chinese?” Even her final chapters on the culture-shock of returning to Blighty, bewildered by excessive choice, rank alongside the dénouement of Nigel Barley’s The Innocent anthropologist after his stay in Cameroon.
In his introduction, Oliver Pritchett regards Frances as part of the great tradition of intrepid British women explorers—reminding me of Ronnie Ancona’s spoof. The book is perceptive, hilarious, and warm-hearted, and you must read it at once!
All the while, amidst the deep waters and raging fire, I was granted a welcome dispensation to remain safe in the ivory towers of Cambridge. When I wasn’t drunk in charge of a string quartet (with grateful thanks to Adnams and Bartók), my own naïveté focused on obstinately reading Tang poetry and Huineng’s Platform Sūtra, inspired as I was by fine scholars like Denis Twitchett and David McMullen—as well as Laurence Picken‘s work on Tang music, and Michael Loewe’s training in Han-dynasty texts. As Frances observes,
Learning Chinese then was like learning a dead language: there seemed no hope of ever using it in China.
For me (rather like the attitude of the LA Phil board towards composers) it wasn’t so much a case of “no hope of using it in China” as “no danger of having to use it there”. My classical bent went along with my stammer—reluctant even to speak English, I couldn’t imagine ever trying to communicate with foreigners. Quelle horreur!
For the early inspirations that drew me to Chinese studies, I wrote a series beginning here.
This photo was also taken in 1974, as I went for an exam in spoken Chinese—a concept hardly less ridiculous now than it was then. The fusty pursuits of Tang history were already somewhat antiquarian in an increasingly leftie Cambridge, and hardly appealed (then) to my fellow students. Apart from Frances and Craig, others like Beth McKillop and Nick Menzies, as well as students from other UK universities, were plunging into the fray and Becoming At One with the Masses with extended stays in China as part of their course. Some were rather keen on the revolutionary baptism; the tastes of others were more historical (in China, as Frances notes, “History was regarded as a very dangerous weapon which could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands”). More than flared trousers, history—which had then seemed like, well, history—soon came back into fashion, and many of my fellow-students later became distinguished sinologists of imperial China; but unlike me, they had already noticed that one’s studies needed to be grounded in some kind of current reality.
Still, I suspect few of us were at all clear by this stage that the Labouring Masses were in a depression that must have seemed terminal, bitterly disillusioned with constant lurches in central policy, and suffering from constant hunger; or that this was already prompting a “silent revolution” in private enterprise, some years before decollectivization became an official policy.
Craig’s own caption:
Shock and awe on childish faces as Foreign Friend massacres the greatest hits of revolutionary modern Peking opera, Yan’an, 1975.
Becoming At One with the Masses: revenge for Langlang.
“Wow—Taking tiger mountain by strategy! Don’t get to hear that much—just what we need!”
Back at Cambridge my only compromise to modern China (indeed, anything after the 9th century) was taking supervisions with Paul Kratochvil, although his expert guidance consisted mainly of plying me with beer and jokes in the pub—for which I’m eternally grateful. But in the vein of Arthur Waley, cocooned in a disembodied dream of ancient oriental wisdom, I only began spending time in the Real China a decade after my fellow-students; whereas they evidently got time off for good behaviour, I’ve since made up for my insouciance by spending the last three decades traipsing around dusty Chinese villages trying to document the fortunes of ritual culture under Maoism, learning to read between the lines of the arcane socialist vocabulary that Frances explores so tellingly.
Still, my first trip in 1986 was hardly prompted by any desire to engage with modern China: I went in search to clues to Tang-dynasty performance practice in living genres. It was only when I found folk culture a vibrant and fascinating theme that I switched my focus to modern society and the ethnography of local religion.
Since 1993 my lengthy stays Becoming At One with the Masses as guest of the Gaoluo ritual association, and later the Li family Daoists, belong under the heading of dundian, “squatting”, or more elegantly “making a base”. I was never dragooned into moving rubble, but in Gaoluo I did spill the occasional bucket of water from the well—and in 2013 I managed quite effectively to get in Li Manshan’s way (my book, pp.132–3):
Coming across the phrase Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin… as I made inept attempts to help him with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it is a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants.” The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty.
For my counter-productive work on the harvest we reached a deal whereby Li Manshan would pay me at the rate of 1950s’ work-points. As I suggested that he might extend this arrangement to my sessions depping in his band for funeral rituals, that month I must have earned several pence—almost enough to buy a dough-stick back in Beijing.
How I envy Frances’s early excursion to Datong and its temples, the Yungang grottoes, and even a nearby coal mine. From the train she observed the very villages where I was later to immerse myself in household Daoist ritual groups like the Li family—then nearing the end of over a decade of forced inactivity. In 1974 Li Manshan and his wife had their second daughter, Li Min; their son Li Bin, later to become the ninth generation of Daoists in the lineage, was born in 1977.
The innocence of us laowai at the time is all the more reason why we need to continue our quest to understand the period—and those before and since.
In a topical—somewhat older but no less relevant—kind of remembrance, Frances features in the new Channel 4 documentary Britain’s forgotten army. Meanwhile our teacher Michael Loewe is still going strong at the age of 95. Craig couldn’t attend his lecture at SOAS recently, since he was himself giving a talk on Freud and China—one of those niche Mastermind topics like Norman Wisdom and Albania (I know which I’d choose).
 Among many great sites for photos of the Cultural Revolution, see here. For another account, leading on into the reform era, see here. For a major survey, see Beverley Hooper, Foreigners Under Mao: Western lives in China, 1949–1976.
* If the more polite term waiguoren (“foreigner”) was in use in the 1970s, then by the time I arrived in 1986 the more informal, and less diplomatic, laowai was often heard as we walked the streets. Or at least that’s what they always shouted at me… See sequel here.
** For the British Council to send ten UK students to Beijing in exchange for ten Chinese students sounds like a hostage deal gone wrong. Maybe bumbling Boris has this up his sleeve?