Penman for Monday, May 23, 2016
A SMALL item in the foreign news caught my eye last week: a note that the 50th anniversary of China’s Cultural Revolution had gone unnoticed—in China itself, with no parades or ceremonies to mark the historic event. For those of us too young to remember, the Cultural Revolution was launched by Chairman Mao Zedong on May 16, 1966, to consolidate his power and purge his rivals within the Communist Party in the guise of doing away with old ways of thinking. To fight the old, Mao rallied the young—millions of “Red Guards” who turned on their parents, teachers, and superiors, feeling suddenly empowered to reject authority and traditional learning and to see themselves as the vanguards of a new age.
Over the decade that the Cultural Revolution ran its course until Mao’s death in 1976, many millions died—from executions and from famine. While Mao’s legacy would live on, there’s firm consensus both within and outside China that the Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated man-made disaster, something the Party itself in 1981 blamed for “the most serious setback and loss for the Party, the country and the people since the founding of China.”
What did this have to do with us and with me? Well, to put it as simply as I can, I was a teenage Maoist, and for a while back there, I and quite a number of like-minded comrades saw ourselves as the local chapter of the Red Guards. Call it madness, but we saw Mao as a demigod, and looked to his China as a beacon of hope and a model for other countries like ours—also beset by centuries of feudalism and colonial rule—to follow.
How did that happen? I had joined the student activist movement and had gone to my first demonstrations in high school, and as soon as I entered college in 1970, I signed up with the Nationalist Corps. It wasn’t a communist organization, but it was a short step from reading Renato Constantino to reading Mao. Mao’s teachings (in contrast to the heavy-duty theorizing of Marx and Lenin) were attractive in their seeming simplicity, in their pithiness, in their rosy optimism. It was chicken congee for the soul.
Until today, you’ll hear 60-somethings from my cadre recite gems, chapter and verse, from Mao’s Quotations (better known as the LRB, or the Little Red Book) like “A revolution is not a dinner party, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” “Dare to struggle, dare to win,” “Wherever there is struggle there is sacrifice, and death is a common occurrence…. All men must die, but death can vary in its significance.” Among my favorites—music to my 17-year-old ears—was “The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you.”
It wasn’t too different from what Rizal or the Desiderata said, especially about the youth as the fair hope of the fatherland, but I think what drew us to Mao at that point and to his brand of Marxism was his emphasis on classes and class analysis, his awareness of society as one divided between rich and poor (with the rich collaborating with foreign powers to keep themselves in place), and the fact (or the fantasy) that in China, things were actually going according to the socialist plan. Very few of us had ever been to China then (famously, of course, three senior activists would get stranded there—Eric Baculinao, Chito Sta. Romana, and Jimi FlorCruz), but we accepted it as an article of faith that Chairman Mao was doing right by his own people.
In Manila, we did our best to copy the flag-waving strokes of Peking Opera (eg, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”), learned about obscure heroes like Norman Bethune, and wore the LRB like a talisman in the breast pockets of our army fatigue jackets. (Procured from US military surplus stores in Dau, it was the closest we could get to the Mao—actually the Sun Yat-sen—jackets that the Red Guards adopted as a uniform, with the red star on the matching cap; but we at least wore genuine “Ho Chi Minh” sandals fashioned out of rubber tires.) At dawn, we tuned our transistor radios to the faint and crackly signal of Radio Peking, for our regular dose of socialist top tunes like the “Internationale,” “Sailing the Seas Depends Upon the Helmsman,” and “The East Is Red”—plus, of course, the daily rundown of the news from the global war on US imperialism. An enterprising fellow even then, I corresponded with a Hong Kong bookseller who seemed only too happy to mail me copies of the Peking Review, even if I had no money to pay him.
Only years later did the failings of Mao’s experiment and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution emerge, revealed not so much by Western propaganda as by the Chinese themselves, who had suffered the most from its excesses. It would take time—and, indeed, a personal visit to China—to appreciate this disconnect between our long-distance romance with Mao’s socialist paradise and cold reality.
It was in July 1987 when I was finally able to set foot on hallowed ground—Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where I was doing a cultural exchange visit along with writer-friends Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. We had been assigned a translator and a minder, whom we’ll call Chang—a tall wisp of a man who spoke decent English and who was working, he said, on a translation of a biography of Elvis Presley in his spare time. (Had he ever listened to Elvis? No. We sent him a cassette of Elvis from Manila.)
Standing just meters away from Mao’s mausoleum—there seemed to be thousands of Chinese visitors waiting in line to go in—I asked Chang if he could help me see Chairman Mao. “What you want to do that for?” he asked incredulously. “He killed my grandfather in the Cultural Revolution!” Ooops—I tried to say that I was sorry to hear about his angkong, but I had to tell him that I was once a Mao fanboy and just had to meet the man, even his current state of embalmed repose. Chang still didn’t seem ready to believe me, so I sang him the first few lines of the “Helmsman” song: “Sailing the seas depends upon the helmsman, life and growth depend on the sun, rain and dewdrops nourish the crops, making revolution depends on Mao Tsetung Thought!” Chang shushed me up before a crowd could gather: “Okay, okay, I bring you inside, but hurry, okay?”
And so I filed past my fallen idol, awash in conflicting emotions; frankly Mao’s waxen face did little to exude revolutionary vitality, and in just two more years that same square would be bathed in fresh young blood.
I would return to China many times since then as both tourist and writer, and at one point I would chance upon a Mao jacket in a backstreet shop in Shanghai—you’ll never find them in the glitzy stores—and some days I wear it to remind me of what people today will surely say was a youthful folly. Sometimes I’ll stick a most unproletarian Montblanc into the breast pocket, but then again, it’s where the real Chinese revolution led—the freedom to shop for baubles on Nanjing Road.
[Image from chineseposters.net]