‘Are you coming to Yan’an for the food or for Chairman Mao?’ he asked.
‘Chairman Mao’, I admitted. ‘But food?’
‘We love to travel for the local food’, he said. ‘It’s a major reason for going to a new place in China’.
‘What local foods do you recommend?’ I asked.
In reply he reeled off a series of local dishes, the names of which immediately escaped me. I guess we’ll find them, I thought to myself, even if by accident.
I was talking with a young man in the corridor of the overnight train – the T43 – from Beijing. He was a local returning home, keen for a rare chance to practice his English, while I was keen for some local knowledge and the vain hope of improving my atrocious Chinese. Propping ourselves up on the window, we chatted and watched the early light gradually pushing its way into tight gullies, steep orange hills and winding rivers of the loess plateau in the northern parts of Shaanxi province. Tunnels and bridges there were aplenty in this rough terrain, as also the evidence of flooding from the recent monsoonal rains. Here it was that the remnants of the communist armies had ended their epic Long March in 1938, able at last to rebuild their strength and establish the ever-expanding soviets. A good place to do so, for it was remote and easily defended against the brutal and bloodthirsty anti-communist forces of the Guomintang under Chang Kai-Shek.
Unlike the arrival of the Red Armies some eighty years before, we were travelling in relative comfort. The sleeper compartment had given us a blessed night’s sleep, even with the snores of the old man in the bunk above me, and the girl of four who kept looking sheepishly at the laowai, the foreigners in her very own compartment. Her mother tried to tell her not to stare, but to no avail. The train was to be a good introduction to our experiences in Yan’an, where we were the only foreigners in town, subject to wondering stares, comments, giggles and smiles.
Soon enough, we pulled into Yan’an station, perched on the bank of the Yellow River. Once out of the train, we found our eyes could do one of three things: look up, look long, and look puzzled. Upwards because of the precipitous sides of the ever present mountains, where only a few walking trails and occasional traditional dwellings dug into the slopes might be seen. Long because of the river itself, our eyes following the flow of its yellow water between the mountain sides and towards the centre of Yan’an. Puzzled because any sign we could see had only Chinese characters; no pinyin in sight, let alone any language we knew. Yan’an might boast a million inhabitants in these times, but it is still distinctly provincial. Then again, as the chairman had once said, the whole world should know Chinese. Yet we managed to find a bus heading in the right direction, the town centre and even a hotel that was ridiculously cheap and ridiculously comfortable.
As I had told the young man on the train, we were here for a reason: to follow in the footsteps of Chairman Mao. Here it was that the communists had rebuilt their strength, using Yan’an as the base from which they launched the anti-Japanese campaign and final successful assault on Chang Kai-Shek. They had settled up the river a little, in Yangjialing Village. Homes were dug out of the hillside, a meeting hall constructed, a centre for arts and literature and much more. So up river we went, to stand where Mao stood to speak at party congresses, where he gave his famous talks on culture and art, where the party central committee met and made those momentous decisions.
Every year, young party cadres come to Yangjialing to swear allegiance to the party and to follow in the spirit of Yan’an. When I stood at same podium where Mao had once stood, the Chinese visitors who happened to be present immediately pulled out their cameras and snapped away, smiling and commenting all the while. Indeed, cameras seemed to appear in almost every hand we passed. At one moment, two women sidled closer and before I knew it, I was in a threesome, held close and snapped yet again.
After Yangjialing, we walked slowly downriver to the new memorial hall celebrating the Yan’an spirit. China may have communist symbols throughout, but compared to Yan’an, they seem sparse indeed. Every bridge, every building, every road, every poster proudly displays red flags, red stars, hammers-and sickles, and what have you. And before the memorial hall stands a vast statue of a youthful and solid Mao, who looks out over the valley and towards the new Yan’an.
Inside the museum hall, we were greeted by life-size pewter statues of the central committee, smiling their welcome beneath a relief sculpture of Yangjialing Village. They pointed the way to over 30,000 artefacts from that earlier time. But the museum curators had not imagined that foreigners would be frequent pilgrims, for all the signs were in Chinese characters. In the end, that was a blessed relief, for one becomes too easily distracted by the captions, texts that attempt to guide understanding. Too often do museum goers spend their time moving from one text to another, without actually pausing to engage with and absorb the item in question.
We soon made the most of the situation, padding through the endless rooms full of objects lovingly preserved and presented. They ranged from oddly-shaped knives to model villages, from Red Army song books to graphs of the riding party membership, from hand-made banners to Mao’s white horse, from Red Army caps to roughly printed books. I was most intrigued by the samples of writing from the fledgling university set up here in the hills. Anyone with some training would teach, in those cave-houses, halls, or out in the open. Later it would become one of China’s leading universities, Renmin, or the People’s University. But here were large sheets with Chinese characters tentatively drawn – or rather, brushed. Here were some of the books that were printed and avidly consumed. Which books? I found Marx’s works of course, but also some key texts of Karl Kautsky and Lenin, who was hugely influential in the development of Chinese Communist thought and practice at the time. I was surprised (and pleased) to find Stalin as well, although it should not have been a surprise, given that Mao quotes Stalin’s Short Course often. But that was nothing compared to the fact that some of these works were also printed in German and Russian. Obviously, these languages were taught already at that point.
I was also taken by the section on women in the revolution, with some of the key figures foregrounded, as well as the role of women soldiers in the Red Army. Here was a photograph from that time, blown up and illuminated, of women with bob haircuts and padded winter gear. They were undertaking a drill, holding wooden replicas of weapons, since the real ones were needed for the front – where this troop would soon find itself.
And I cannot forget the section devoted to Norman Bethune, the brilliant Canadian doctor and communist who was no hypocrite. He acted on what he believed and took himself to Yan’an to become the organizer of the field hospitals. That he would die from septicaemia at 47 only added to his status in the communist annals of the long struggle to win the revolution. For many, he embodies the Yan’an Spirit. His body lies buried in China, children at school are still taught Mao’s eulogy to Bethune, and the highest medical award in China is called the Bethune Medal.
Finally, we emerged from the place, beset with that curious museum weariness way that seems to come upon one only in such a place. Yet now I could not resist the museum shop, catching them just as they were closing to try on – much to everyone’s amusement – a green T-shirt with a red star emblazoned on the front and a Red Army cap. On our walk back to our hotel along the Yellow River, we pondered the simple fact that to construct a place such as this one needs to have experienced a revolution in the first place.
Yet Yan’an had one more delight in store for us. That evening we were treated to the best Chinese meal I have ever eaten. It was exquisitely cooked, beautifully presented, and cost next to nothing. I was reminded of the young man’s question on the train. We had come to Yan’an to follow in the footsteps of Mao, but in doing so we happened upon the food as well.