In Search of Communism

It began in Scandinavia, for I heard rumours that communism – or perhaps socialism – had been achieved in that part of the world by stealth. As Warren Zevon would have it, the deal was done in Denmark on a dark and stormy day.

Or it seemed to be. True enough, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland have built impressive welfare states. Social-democratic regimes have seen to this since at least the Second World War (although a belated liberal turn is systematically dismantling bits and pieces of the system). And true enough, the so-called ‘happiness’ surveys indicate that Scandinavians are among the happiest and most contented people in the world – although how one quantifies happiness is beyond me.

In the end, I was disappointed. Do not get me wrong, I love being in Scandinavia, out in the countryside, cycling and hiking. But socialism it is not. They are bourgeois democracies and aggressively capitalist. As for the much-hyped welfare state, it is designed both to keep everyone consuming and generates a distinct type of xenophobia: the welfare is only for citizens of each state.

I kept looking. Perhaps I could find something in Eastern Europe – a memory perhaps, a cultural framework …

I dwelt longest in eastern Germany, for it embodied the recent history of Europe as a whole. Germany had been two parts for a while, a communist east and a capitalist west, until the east was annexed in 1989. The majority of East Germans were not in favour of the disappearance of their country.

Here at least one could find traces of communism past, strong traces. People over 40 years of age could speak a little Russian; the Free Youth organisation continued, albeit somewhat smaller than in its heyday; well-designed and constructed crockery could be found in any flea market; streets named after Marx, Engels, Ernst Thälmann, Thomas Münzer and others could be found in every town; grand communist-era architecture – Stalin baroque no less – was everywhere, from Karl Mark Allée in Berlin to the small garages found in almost every village. Coupled with this was a conscious effort by the Western Germans to erase any positive memory, associating East Germany with repression and greyness (even the photographs are black-and-white), if not seeking the dubious connection with Hitler, oinwhat may be called the reductio ad Hitlerum

In response, many East Germans push back, noting the destruction of their economy, the deindustrialisation and high unemployment. They remain suspicious of those from the West, while trying to find a place in the ‘new’ Germany. Above all, they have a strong sense that the collective identity they had has not been replaced by anything, whether religion or the nation. So they speak of ‘post-communism’.

While I was there with my partner, we began digging deeper into the history of communism, way back before the arrival of its modern form after Marx. We found that Czechoslovakia had championed Jan Hus, the first real reformer from the fifteenth century. And we found that the German Democratic Republic had made Thomas Münzer, the ‘theologian of the revolution’ (so Ernst Bloch), a hero. Films were made, the East German five-deutschmark note bore his image, and the five-hundredth year of his birth was elaborately prepared and celebrated – just before the DDR was dissolved and colonised by the western parts. Still, the monuments are there, in Zwickau and Allstedt and Frankenhausen and Mühlhausen, tracing the path of the ill-fated yet proto-socialist revolution of the peasants in 1525.

Meanwhile, she dug deep into the Moravian Brethren, the Herrnhutter Brüdergemeinde, who traced their history back to none other than Jan Hus. We dwelt long in the village of Herrnhut, deep in the far east of Germany, in the Oberlausitz part of Saxony. The feel is still there, the peace and collectivism of the village, where Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Puttendorf breathed new life into the movement in the early eighteenth century. So much so that the smallest of collectives became a great global missionary movement, emphasising practice of the collective Christian life over against dogma.

I could no help delving into Karl Kautsky, for all his faults (in criticising and dismissing the developments of the Russian Revolution). Yet, Kautsky had taken up the mantle of Engels by writing a full account of the history of the ‘forerunners of modern socialism’, which ended up being a four-volume work – Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus – that he was unable to complete in his lifetime (he manged only three volumes, so others completed the fourth). Among the many, many movements of ‘heretical communism’, the early days of the Moravians could be located. They focused on communal living, trying the recall the early church, when ‘everything was held in common’.

I also moved eastward, of one thinks of the Eurasian landmass, following the successful socialist revolutions that seemed to escape the Atlantic corridor. I ended up in China, the People’s Republic no less. The word was that China had followed the ‘capitalist road’ since the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, overturning all that Mao Zedong had tried to construct. So when I arrived I did not know what to expect.

At first, it did not look like the socialism that one so often heard touted. According to that version, everyone is equal, paid the same, living simple lives in communes, having property in common, and so forth. Invariably this turns out to be the equality of poverty, for everyone is equally poor. We might call this populist socialism. In China it cannot be found.

Instead, I found a place full of energy, constantly changing as old buildings and old factories were knocked down and new ones constructed. I found people full of energy, keen to learn from experience overseas, but even keener to return to China and enhance their skills. I found people who are experts at self-criticism, never happy with the state of things, always seeking to improve. Endless are the discussions concerning the main problem, the main contradiction in China, and the best way to solve it. And as they do so, they begin to leap ahead of the rest of the world, transforming what they have learnt to becoming the leaders.

Is this socialism? Some in China would say no, holding to some ideal from the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Some would say maybe, feeling that China has still a long, long way to go. And some stress the term, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, deriving from Mao Zedong and championed by Deng Xiaoping.

What in the world does this mean? One may fill the meaning in one’s own way, from dismissal to appreciation. But I suggest it bears the other sense of socialism, which was always about improving the economic wellbeing of all. This is Marx’s famous unleashing of the forces of production, which entails using and refining what can be used. It is the basis of a Marxist approach to human rights, in which the right to economic wellbeing is the basis of all other rights.

For some strange reason, I continue to find it a great relief that the communist party is in power in China. Why? Not only is the party in charge of the strongest socialist state in world history, but it is, after all, the communist party.

2017 April 011

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Filming Chinese Marxism

‘How about some baijiu? I said.

Their eyes lit up in the midst of tossing yet more raw ingredients into a local version of hotpot. ‘I’ll come with you’, said one. ‘You’ll need to know the best one to buy’.

The two of us strode out into the night and found a local shop selling the fiery liquid.

‘How about that one’, I said, pointing to one of the highly priced bottles on display.

‘Ah no’, he said. ‘This one is better … and much cheaper’.

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

‘I’m from Gansu Province’, he replied. ‘And we drink this all the time, especially in winter to keep warm.’

It was a little over 20 RMB, or about 4 dollars. I did not object and we returned with our prize.

We were in Yan’an, in Shaanxi Province, celebrating the last night of our Chinese Marxism tour.

It had begun a week earlier, in Shaoshan (Hunan Province), where Mao Zedong was born, moved onto Ruijin (Jiangxi Province) and finally to Yan’an. It was a ‘Red Tour’ in all its glory – Chinese style.

What in the world is a ‘Red Tour [hongse zhilu]’? Nothing less than travelling to major sites of the revolutionary struggle leading up socialist victory in 1949. I love these places. Why? You can have a Red Tour only in a country that has had a socialist revolution in its history. Some critics may feel that Red Tourism belittles and commercialises the revolutionary struggle. But I take a different approach: all of the tourist sites, the Mao memorabilia, the incessant promotion – these and more signal in their own way the reality of a successful revolution.

But this was a Red Tour with a difference, since we were actually filming a documentary on Chinese Marxism. The documentary (which was also the basis for an online course) would be structured in terms of the life of Mao Zedong and the closely associated founding story of the Long March. We selected five key locations in this story:

  • Shaoshan, where Mao was born.
  • Ruijin, in the south and the centre where the first communist government or ‘soviet’ was established in the early 1930s and where the Long March began.
  • Yan’an, in the northwest and at the end of the Long March, where one finds the cradle of modern China in terms of theory and practice.
  • Beijing, with a focus on the ‘National Day [guoqingjie]’ celebrations on 1 October, when the people’s republic was declared.
  • Mao’s mausoleum, in middle of the epicentre – Tiananmen Square – of a major global power – Tiananmen.

Each site also raised a crucial concept for understanding China today: at Shaoshan it was the theory of contradiction; at Ruijin the question of a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights; at Yan’an it was the form of the socialist state; at National Day it was socialist democracy; and at the mausoleum it was reinterpreting Mao today and the meaning of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

How to film all of this? I gave the camera crew some general guidelines as to what I wanted and encouraged them to let their creative talents loose – which they thoroughly enjoyed! The director-producer ensured that the whole operation went as smoothly as possible, so I was able to explore, reflect, discuss … and pay for everyone’s accommodation, travel and food. The outcome was a vast collection of stunning footage that could be reworked by the studio whizzes back in Australia.

All of this conspired the make the journey itself part of the story.

The places are hard of access, even in our time with it planes, motorways and high-speed trains. Back then, the communists had at the beginning of the 1930s made the crucial turn away from the cities and to the countryside. The remoter the better, since here the Nationalist forces (Guomindang) under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) found the going much tougher in these parts. Shaoshan itself was relatively easy to access: a high-speed train to Changsha, capital of Hunan, and then a bus to the village. Ruijin in the remote mountains between Jiangxi and Fujian was another story, requiring trundling hard-seat trains and an overnight stop in the mountains. And Yan’an, way to the north-west in Shaanxi province, needed yet another hard-seat train, overnight stop in a glorious family hotel and then a flight on the one plane a day to the tiny airport.

Each place has nothing much going for it, unassuming places that force one to reassess the origins of the most powerful socialist country in human history. At Ruijin and especially Yan’an, the communists gained valuable experience in governing, developing comprehensive theoretical insights, and setting China on its current path. Still these places are relatively poor, with mosquitoes aplenty in Ruijin and dust everywhere in Yan’an, but here the small seeds took root and began their phenomenal growth.

What did I love most about the journey?

Perhaps it was the hard-seat trains, with their solitary squat toilet at the end of each carriage, the drink trolleys laden with baijiu or fruit or snacks. Like most on board, we had brought our own food, and were thankful that we had reserved seats – which are themselves three on each side of the aisle. Occasionally, when one had to make use of the toilet, stretch one’s legs, or simply stand for a while in the vestibule to watch the world pass by, a ‘no-seat’ passenger – of which there were many indeed – would make the most of the opportunity and promptly sit down in the vacant seat. What to do on returning to the seat in question? I pondered sitting on the welcoming lap (should it seem welcoming) or perhaps squeezing into the non-existent space on either side, but I ended up ejecting them – ever so politely. It was an exceedingly intimate journey, where one felt secure in the intimacy of bodies of complete strangers.

Perhaps it was the small family hotels hidden in the countryside. Much of our journey we made up as we went along, with our producer deftly locating yet another simple hotel for a ridiculously low price. One had the family living downstairs, with rooms upstairs. If we wished, they would cook food for us in their own kitchen. Another was down a bumpy dirt road, with the night-duty boy sleeping on an old couch behind the desk. We arrived late indeed and tried to warm our rooms with heaters that had a knack of switching off as soon as one drifted off to sleep. The drainage plug was actually the squat toilet – an effective method of ensuring that the toilet was constantly cleaned by the next shower.

Perhaps it was the local buses and endless walking required to get around the sites. Occasionally groups of school children would join us, keen to practice English and witness a rare event in these parts – a foreigner. I duly took it upon myself to practice my Chinese, which was at about primary school (xiaoxue) level. I was absolutely thrilled when they understood what I was trying to say.

Perhaps it was the people, people everywhere. Ordinary people, from the countryside for a trip, tour groups that included the sites in their itinerary, children and parents and grandparents, workers with Mao caps – these and more frequented Shaoshan in their thousands and millions. Ruijin may have been a little different, with sparser numbers due to its sheer remoteness. But Yan’an even in early winter saw group after group pass through. Among them were the Communist Party groups, visiting Yan’an as part of their continuing education program. Here they would undertake classes, visit the many revolutionary sites of the communist base from the mid-1930s until 1947, and try to gain a sense of the ‘Yan’an spirit’ [jingshen]’.

Perhaps it was being the solitary foreigner in these parts. They are clearly geared for internal tourism. Shaoshan may have had signs in Chinese, English, French and Russian, but I saw only two other foreigners among the thousands. In Ruijin and Yan’an I was clearly the only foreigner, and the signs and information boards offered only Chinese characters.

While I became quite used to my difference, I became acutely conscious of the fact that such a Red Tour, with the Long March as its determining narrative, is absolutely vital for understanding China today. And that was my focus throughout: the implications for China today. Why do so many Chinese visit such places? How have these experiences shaped modern China? How has the founding story of the people’s republic been constructed and how is it constantly reinterpreted? It is indeed a founding narrative to rival the best of them, not least because it is a communist story.

In the end, the food made the journey, is the custom in a country where one travels for the sake of the local food. We ate in tiny breakfast eateries, in simple restaurants, on the road. I knew the others would be hungry with all the travel and work. And since I was the elder, it was simply assumed that I would pay – another custom. So we ate and ate and ate, with the requisite baijiu to improve – as they say – the taste of the food.

By the last evening and our last bottle of the strong spirit, belts had to be loosened considerably. The others laughed and observed that they had put on at least five kilograms – the ultimate affirmation.

Believer Without Belief: Two Levels of Party Membership

What does it mean to be a member of a communist party? Should one ‘believe’ in Marxism in order to be so? But what if one does not ‘believe’?

Over lunch in Beijing, I spoke with a reflective younger member of the party. He knew full well what he was doing, why he was the local (student) branch secretary, and what it meant to be a member of the largest communist party in the world today.

‘What was the process of joining the party like? I asked.

‘It’s a long process’, he said.

‘So it’s not just signing a form and paying a membership fee?’ I said.

‘Ha ha, it needs a bit more than that’, he said. ‘You might be invited to join if you have shown leadership or performed well in school or shown some other potential. And you have to do some study and training beforehand. It can be a bit of a long process’.

‘Tests?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said. ‘But the most interesting experience is when you speak with an old cadre’.

‘Really?’ I said.

‘Yes, I had to have a number of discussions with an old man who has been a member for decades’, he said. ‘After that, he had to fill out a report on our discussion’.

‘Did you have to give all the correct answers?’ I said. ‘So he could tick the boxes?’

‘Oh no’, he said. ‘He spent most of the time telling about his misgivings about the party, where it is falling short, about how he is sometimes embarrassed by it’.

‘What did you say?’ I asked.

‘I listened and nodded’, he said. “I was not quite sure why he was doing it’.

‘Unburdening? I suggested. ‘Testing you?’

‘Perhaps’, he said. ‘But I wonder whether it wasn’t more than that’.

‘Go on …’, I said.

‘I think he was trying show me what being a party member means’, he said.

‘To prepare you for disappointment?’ I said.

‘Not really’, he said. ‘Let me put it this way: the only real way to be a party member, a dangyuan, is to have misgivings about it, to be critical of it’.

‘Criticism and self-criticism!’ I said.

He laughed: ‘yes, a good socialism tradition. And we Chinese are very good at criticism and self-criticism!’

‘So it’s not a matter of belief’, I said.

‘I don’t like the word “belief”’, he said. ‘It has too much of a religious feel about it. In fact, the whole idea of “believing” in Marxism, or “believing” in a cause is – it seems to me – deeply influenced by Western patterns of thought’.

‘You mean Christian ideas of commitment?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said. ‘Don’t get me wrong; there is an emotional part to joining the party. It has to touch your passions. But Marxism is not a creed in which you believe. Or, as we like to say: I am a believer without belief’.

‘So he was trying to show you that the best way, or indeed the only way to become a member was to be a critical one, with your own hesitations – a believer without belief’, I said.

‘I think so’, he said. ‘It actually helped me. I could be comfortable about joining the party’.

‘What about now?’ I said.

‘Well, I am the branch secretary here at the university’, he said.

‘So you are clearly more involved!’ I said. ‘Do you approach that task in the same way?’

‘Of course’, he said.

‘Would there be any situation in which you leave the party? Or let me put it positively: what keeps you in the party?’

‘It’s got nothing to do with a better job, promotion, or anything like that’, he said. ‘In my assessment, the communist party offers the best, if not only way forward for China. It may not be perfect, and nearly all members admit that. But I cannot see any other path that would not lead to major disruption and chaos’.

‘You said that at the end of your discussions with the old member, he had to fill out a report’, I said.

‘Yes’, he said.

‘I am intrigued’, I said. ‘What did he write down?’

‘Oh, he said that he needed to put down the correct answers, reflecting the accepted narrative’.

‘Two narratives’, I said. ‘Two levels: the official one and the critical one’.

‘Yes indeed’, he said. ‘The only way to be a member: a believer without belief’.

Meeting Isabel Crook

‘Put that down, mum’, he said. ‘Someone is here to see you’.

He strode into the room, while I paused at the door and looked inside to see Isabel Crook for the first time. Books spilled out of ceiling-high shelves and were piled on the desks that surrounded her. Sitting in the only free space in the room, she had been reading. She did not look up at first, but focussed on putting the book in its place. She stood and walked to the door of her own accord.

Her 60-something son and began to introduce us, somewhat loudly.

‘Hello, I am Isabel Crook,’ she interrupted. ‘Pleased to meet you’.

I replied in kind, with a clear and strong voice.

She smiled. Her no-nonsense hair may have been grey, and she may have been slightly stooped and a little shrunken. But the sparkle was still in her eye and I immediately saw the origin of her son’s energy.

It was the middle of May, 2015, in an apartment built in not long after the communist revolution. They had lived there ever since the 50s, in Beijing.

In the common room – for eating, guests, discussion – she paused and pointed to a poster on the wall: ‘This is priceless’. A youthful Mao Zedong was watching over a long line of marching men and women, holding the red flag aloft.

‘You can’t read the writing now’, she said. ‘It has faded over the years’.

‘Why priceless?’ I said.

‘These posters were all over Beijing when it was liberated in 1949. I managed to get hold of one. It was amazing. We looked all down the streets … students all with red triangular flags waving … the incoming army … cavalry, which was very exciting. It was the most joyful event I’ve ever watched’.

Isabel Crook, along with her husband, David, had been with the Red Army on that victorious day. Most men and women had walked thousands of kilometres in order to get from Yan’an to Beijing But since Isabel was pregnant with their first son, Colin, she was provided with the comfort of travelling in the back of a truck. Given the conditions of the roads after decades of civil war and the anti-Japanese war, I am not sure an old truck in 1949 would have been so comfortable. But she was obviously a tough woman.

We – Isabel, Michael (her second son) and I – sat and talked over a cup of tea. We talked of Mao, Deng Xiaoping, China today, Marxism, as also of families and the initial matters of what one is doing and why. Later, a couple of other people joined us and we made the most of the spring weather to have lunch at a simple outdoor restaurant somewhere on the edge of the Summer Palace grounds.

Isabel and I gravitated towards each other – as we did on later occasions – given our common interests in Marxism and indeed religion. She was born to Canadian missionary parents in Chengdu, China, way back in 1915. While she was brought up as a Christian in China and attended a Christian school, she followed the path of so many, from Christianity to communism. Crucially, her parents – Homer and Muriel Brown – were Christians with a social conscience, although they looked askance at communism (and Isabel’s future husband, David Crook). They reconciled themselves to the fact that a social cause was better than pure self-interest.

After anthropological study in her parents’ home country, Canada, she returned to China in 1940, under the auspices of the National Christian Council in Sichuan province. By 1942 she joined David in England, where she joined the communist party and where they married. Further study ensued, only to return to China in 1947. She has remained there ever since, becoming a participant-observer in the communist revolution itself and especially socialism in power. Many are the jobs Isabel has had, from anthropological researcher, through language teacher to lifelong social activist. Indeed, her commitment was of the sort that led one to action – to supporting an actual communist revolutionary movement on the ground.

Her story has been told many times (as of David), from foreign sources to many outlets in China. Her 100th birthday was saluted by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), her commitment to education and research is often noted (playing down her communist credentials), and even the Wall Street Journal managed to come up with a story. Of more interest are the accounts on CCTV and, above all, the website that tells her own story, simply called ‘Isabel Crook’. With all this information available, I do not need to dwell on all the details.

Her witness of socialism in power is, for a foreigner, second to none. In Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn), a communist area of Hebei province, she and David witnessed the profound effects of land reform already underway. She saw first-hand millennia-long practices being dismantled and replaced with socialist approaches. As she observes: ‘The land reform was obviously going to change the whole future of China’s history, because it would get rid of the feudal system … it would put the farmer in power, rather than going on with the old way’. The result was a hugely influential book, written by her and David, Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village.

And of course, there was the teaching. The new China would need people skilled in English, so they were asked to stay and teach. Over the years, their work would become one stream that fed into what is now Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Over dinner one evening, I mentioned to Isabel that I had been to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Her eyes lit up.

‘I have had students from North Korea’, she said. ‘Ten of them, sent by the government to study English’.

‘How did they go?’ I said.

‘They were very good,’ she said. ‘Although one struggled. I believe in giving marks for actual performance, so his grades were not so good. As they boarded the bus after the course, this student was crying. “Why is he crying?” I asked one of the others. “He knows he will be reprimanded for not doing so well in the course and failing his country.” I wanted to stop the bus and hug him’.

She also experienced socialism in power during the Cultural Revolution.

‘During the Cultural Revolution, I was suspected of a being a spy. So I was put in prison for three years’.

‘Did it make you doubt the communist movement?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’, she said. ‘My sons were on their own, but I knew they could manage’.

‘What did they do?’ I said.

‘They were teenagers’, she said. ‘And they knew how to take of themselves. One day, they realised their visas had run out, so they sent the youngest to the immigration office, hoping they would be deported. The woman behind the desk simply stamped the passports – another two years!’

We laughed.

‘Another time’, she said. ‘Before I was imprisoned but during the Cultural Revolution, one son was in hospital. I was on my way to visit him and the gardener out the front said, “Your son is fine”. In reply to my complete surprise, he said: “I’m the doctor. I am doing my duty as gardener now”’.

‘But what did you do in prison?’ I said.

‘I knew they had made a mistake and decided to make the most of it’.

‘How so?’ I said.

‘I asked for something to read’, she said.

‘What?’ I said.

‘The Selected Works of Mao Zedong’, she said. ‘I read the four volumes through many times. I even noted how many times laughter appears. Do you know how many?’

‘No’, I said.

‘Two!’

We laughed, with Isabel assuring me she remains as ardent follower of Mao Zedong.

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Images, Statues and the Representation of Revolutionary Leaders

Having visited a number of socialist countries – both former and present – I have begun to notice a few differences. It may be called socialism with ‘national’ characteristics. I do not mean the big-picture issues of governance, economics, social organisation and ideology. No, I refer to more everyday matters, especially the practices and naming and representation.

On one of my first visits to Eastern Europe and Russia, I was drawn to a flea market outside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Eastern Orthodox) in Sofia, Bulgaria. Amongst the usual junk stood a gleaming bust of Lenin. ‘Fifty euro’ said the weathered man behind the pile of old goods on the table. I made a half-hearted effort at bargaining, but he could tell I was not skilled and that I really wanted the statue. He would not budge – and soon enough had fifty euro in his fist. But I had the statue, made before 1989. It sits at home, the far-seeing eyes and chin of history still trying to discern the future. Beside him stand a number of comrades who have joined him over the years. These days in Eastern Europe you can find statues and busts aplenty, as the old factories have begun to pump them out for tourists seeking communist chic – Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev. Every flea market across Eastern Europe has them, but they do not quite have the same claim as my original Lenin bust.

Since then, I have encountered the comrades on many occasions in that part of the world. Turn a corner in a metro station in Red Petrograd and there is Lenin, casting his eye over proceedings. Walk through the Square of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and there are Marx and Engels, with children playing at their feet and a majestic bronze statue of Lenin pointing across the square. Explore Stalin’s Seven Sisters in Moscow and be overwhelmed by the symbols and insignia of Soviet presence. Take a road trip in a beaten up Volvo across Bulgaria – with a chain-smoking opera diva as a driver – and see new statues of Dimitrov, the communist hero, or even plaster casts of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Dimitrov sitting around a table at a coffee shop. Cycle along the Spree River in East Germany and, in village after village, encounter a Friedrich Engels Strasse, or perhaps a Karl Marx Allee, or even a Karl Liebknecht Weg.

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The governments may no longer be communist, but the presence is palpable. What about China, where the government is very much the communist party? Any preconception that no-one talks about Marxism or even Mao Zedong is soon dispelled. On a visit to Mao’s birthplace in Shaoshan in Hunan Province, I could have acquired a three-metre statue and taken it home with me (I settled for one of ten centimetres – easier to pack). At the ‘red tourism’ site of the Yan’an Soviet in Shaanxi Province, I haggled over a green t-shirt with Mao’s image and a slogan emblazoned across the front. After paying my respects at the mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, I somehow acquired a pocket watch, silk painting and Beijing Opera style stage set, all with images and writings by the good chairman. In Nanjing, a paper cutter made me a glorious image with Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao all in a line – Maenlestamao, they call it. And in Hunan Province, I marvelled at all the taxis and cars with statues of Mao on the dashboard. He is there to ensure that the driver remains safe on the road.

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Yet I struggled to find a single town, road, street or even tiny lane named after one of the revolutionary leaders. Puzzled, I asked someone. ‘Chairman Mao expressly forbade us to do so’, she said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Well, he did not want us to get too carried away with worshipping him and the others. But there is also a Chinese tradition: you do not use the names of the dead – for children but also for streets and towns. The dead keep their own names’. Perhaps the closest the Chinese come to such a practice is the common saying, ‘Let’s meet at Mao’s statue at nine o’clock’. Of course, this can be said only in China.

Only recently have I visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or ‘North Korea’ as it is known informally elsewhere (the people there do not like the name). Keen to acquire a statue, t-shirt or perhaps another item with an image of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, I began browsing the various shops and markets we visited. I soon found I could buy books written by them and about them, with photographs and paintings inside the books. But statues for sale were nowhere to be seen. They have plenty of t-shirts, but only with flags of the DPRK, place names, messages of welcome or even a representation of the Pyongyang metro. Yet none with either or both of the Kims. As for place names, forget it. They might have Pulgunbyol (Red Star), Kaeson (Triumphant Return), Samhung (Three Origins) and Rakwon (Paradise), but not Kim senior or junior. I asked whether it was possible to get hold of some images. ‘We do not do that here’, I was told, ‘since we regard them as almost sacred’. ‘But what about the shirt pins I have seen? I said. ‘Some have both of the leaders, others have one’. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘they are marks of merit and trustworthiness for those who have shown long-term loyalty. You cannot but them; only the government can give them to you’.

In the cities and towns were statues aplenty, colossal ones of almost Pharaonic proportions. Here we offered flowers and bowed to show our respects in the Korean way. We could take images on our cameras, of either the two Kims who had died, or even of Kim Jong-Un who was still very much alive. Even then, we were advised: ‘Please take whole photographs and not parts of the statue, since that is disrespectful’.

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In Russia and Eastern Europe recalling and respecting revolutionary heroes meant: representations yes, place names yes; in China: representations yes, place names no; in the DPRK: representations no, place names no. From naming everything to naming nothing, from an endless supply of images and statues for purchase to none at all, at a cultural level ‘socialism with national characteristics’ has taken very different forms. I am not sure who shows the greatest respect, since for me the ability to have fun with the revolution is the way of showing the greatest respect. But perhaps this is itself another particular characteristic.

Closed Borders: Visiting and Leaving the DPRK

If you believe the steady stream of items propagated by the corporate media and government agencies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ with closed borders. People are not allowed to enter and its citizens are not permitted leave. If someone does happen to try and leave the ‘hermit kingdom’, he or she is dubbed a ‘defector’. Conversely, anyone who wishes to enter the DPRK is also a ‘defector’ – a recent example being the Chondoist leader, Ryu Mi Yong, who opted to leave South Korea and move to the north to join the bulk of her fellow Chondoists.

I must admit that I entered the DPRK with such a mindset. The warnings from governments like those of Australian, the United States and Canada did not help. They either warn against all travel or strongly advise you to reconsider your travel plans and go somewhere else. I believed that I could visit only with an officially sanctioned tour company (Koryo) and I had read that at most 2,000 foreigners visit the country every year. The very fact that I was able to visit amongst others should already have alerted me to a somewhat different situation, but such is the strength of preconceptions that it did not. Even more, the fact that the flight into the DPRK – a glorious Tupolev 204 – was filled mostly with citizens of the DPRK should have set me thinking. Yet again, it did not.

Only after arriving and spending a few days there did reality set in. Our hotel, Yanggakdo, was quite full, with tour buses clustered outside on any given day. People were constantly arriving and leaving, many of them Chinese but also a good number of people from other countries. For some reason, it seemed to me that Australians were everywhere. I had come with the assumption that we would be largely on our own. Clearly this was not the case. Even at the Demilitarised Zone close by Kaesong, there were buses aplenty, so much so that we were lucky in being the first in a long line of groups visiting the area.

I had to find out more. In one of my many discussions with the older tour guide, I asked. ‘How many visitors come to North Korea each year?’

He thought for a moment and said, ’10,000 or so’.

That made far more sense. Not a huge number by some standards, but way more than anyone would expect.

‘But is this the only hotel where visitors can stay? I said.

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘here are many places throughout the country where you can stay’.

‘So where could I travel?’ I said.

‘Most places’, he said. ‘You can travel in the far north, stay in the countryside, do some volunteer work on farms’.

Later I began to ponder the possibility of spending some more time in the place. I asked about foreigners working in the DPRK.

‘We have a quite a number at different levels’, said another guide.

‘What about universities?’ I said.

‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘foreigners come and teach at some of them. Many come as volunteers through UNESCO, and there is also the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology’.

‘Is that the one funded by Christian groups, with classes taught in English?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said, ‘and it teaches students about many facets of international education’.

‘Would I be able to spend some time at one of the universities?’ I asked.

‘What do you teach?’ he asked.

‘Marxism and philosophy’, I said.

He smiled. ‘Very interesting. I will see what I can do.’

I gave him my email address.

But what about Koreans travelling, working and studying internationally? I was admittedly quite astounded to find out how many from the DPRK do exactly that. Most go to China, but some travel further afield. Indeed, the week before, when I was in Harbin in the north-east of China, I had encountered students from the DPRK studying there. And this was only one example. To be sure, they need clearance from a government agency to do so. But I was reminded of the fact that I too need to request permission to travel overseas, albeit from my university rather than the government.

Even with this knowledge, on the day of our departure, I was still amazed at how many Koreans were boarding the train out of Pyongyang. On the platform were a few foreigners, but most were from the DPRK. Each day the train leaves for Beijing, carrying locals to various destinations outside the country.

Closed borders? If so, the gate is not securely fastened.

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Smells, Spaces and Tea-Houses in the ROC

The passport stamp at Chiang-Kai-Shek international airport in Taipei stated that I had entered R.O.C. – the Republic of China. Once upon a time, in fact not that long ago, the only Republic of China recognised by most countries in the world was that tiny island, Taiwan. And I am sure that once, not so long ago, you would not arrive and feel that something was missing. But it took me a while to identify that missing feature. The first hints came with the cracks in the tile floor, the old fittings in the bathroom, the faded decorations in the main hall: this was an airport not undergoing renovation. Most airports one visits (and I like to visit as few as possible) are in the process of one or another or multiple upgrades – to improve your flying experience, they claim, but really to fleece you more readily. But not at Chiang-Kai-Shek airport. Everything seemed to work, the airport staff alert, but there was simply no need to upgrade, for this airport was not expanding.

Walking the City

The fate of Chiang-Kai-Shek airport, and indeed the legacy of the man himself, was tied up with the convoluted politics of that island. I had time enough to ponder such matters in the days to come, but for now my thoughts were broken off by the arrival of our guides: Michael and Yu-Yeh. He felt rather important, having been delegated to chaperone an overseas ‘professor’ – a title that stuck no matter how much I tried to disabuse him of the moniker. Yu-Yeh had far greater depth, preferring to stick to her Chinese name.

We buzzed off on the freeway to Chung-Li while I got my bearings. Freeways are not among the most beautiful of human creations, easily run down, full of heavy metal pollution, scars on the landscape. But the trucks belching along beside us were battered, the articulated buses tipped up in the middle, and the air was a permanent soup. It was obvious that this part of what is really a beautiful island was the dumping ground for filthy American-style industry. Thankfully we slipped down to Chung-Li soon enough, but not before I had asked about their names.

‘How come you are Michael?’ I said. ‘And you are Yu-Yeh? One in English; one in Chinese’.

‘Huilin is my Chinese name’, said Michael-Huilin.

‘And Lisa is my English name’, said Yu-Yeh Lisa. ‘But I don’t use my English name much’.

‘How does that work’, I asked. ‘Do you get two names at birth or do you choose a name that means the same in English? I remember a girl of five who moved to Montreal a few years ago. Her name was unpronounceable for English speakers – Xi Xun I think. In a week or so she became Michele’.

They both laughed. ‘No, we simply choose an English name that we like, or perhaps that has a meaning we like’.

‘So you are like a parent choosing a name for its child’, I said. ‘Except that parent and child is the same person – you – choosing a name for yourself at your own birth!’.

They dropped me at the university rooms where we were to stay for the night. Simple rooms, firm beds, disposable indoor slippers (which I still love to get), a fistful of travellers’ toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste.

But we were to go to a Hakka restaurant, deep within Chung-Li. The sun had set and we had to walk the city to get there. Anyone who has threaded his or her way through an Asian city will tell you about the new and battered motor-scooters, with parts and people hanging off them at curious angles, billowing smoke and pushing through the smallest opening, brushing pedestrians and cars on their way through, or about the bicycles themselves, ancient, bearing loads of every conceivable and even inconceivable item, or about those who choose to ride with face masks at silent protest against the poor air quality, or about the people weaving and winding their way through the organised chaos, dodging puddles and cars and motor scooters and bicycles and piles of vegetables and fruit and tables with goods.

But what intrigued me about Chung-Li (and, I was to find later, Chinese cities in general) is the organisation of space. It is though it is organised to ensure the immediate presence of human breath: shops much smaller, often mere alcoves with a pot and a few plates, signs impossibly large and bright in the night sky and of course tumbling over one another. In any other culture it would be would call a crowd, crammed, claustrophobically suffocating, but not here. It is perfectly possible to find a quiet spot of one’s own – a table in a corner where two or three could sit quietly and talk, a chair in a place not stepped in as often, a chance in the to and fro of people to reflect quietly, oblivious to the world a hand’s breadth away.

Visitors from Taiwan to my town – Newcastle – comment on how few people there are on the streets – and this during the busier times of the day. To me, of course, the streets seem full enough here, while those in China are at first overwhelmingly dense.

But our group threaded its way without wavering to the restaurant, where we were treated to a magnificent array of food, from succulent and mouth-watering vegetables, through glorious fish dishes and those that used parts of animal and plant I had never imagined possible for food, to a final triumph: a vast bowl of soup with every conceivable and inconceivable ingredient. From this we poured out helpings into our small bowls and sipped from the bowls themselves.

Not only was it a celebration of simplicity and the sheer pleasure of eating, but it also began to explain why Chinese toilets smell the way they do (the habit of throwing the toilet paper in a large bin, emptied every hour by some poor soul, only enhanced the aroma). After a few days of eating such food, my turds too began to have that distinctive, rich and earthy smell that only Chinese food can produce. The subtle transformation of the interlaced tastes of the food into the pungent and aromatic smell of what comes out the other end is impossible to describe, but it is certainly not the dull and cloying smell of a Western ‘poo bat’.

People

With a camel hump of a stomach and more Chinese beers than I care to remember, it was time to leave. But not before we had said our profuse thanks to the proprietor and cook. The reverential passing over of business cards – with two hands, a bow and an admiring study of the card (and its frequent spelling errors) – along with the introductions in strict order of rank were all done with comments about how the proprietor was a very good friend of our host, whose wife also is Hakka.

Our group was a grand mix: Kenpa, the impossibly young professor who seems to found the elixir of youth, Philip, the academic entrepreneur who kept talking of settling down quietly and writing but enjoyed the hurly-burly of deals and travel and opportunities, and Gan, the old Chinese theologian who wrote in German, for Germany provided one strong model of the intellectual life even here (that his wife was German no doubt strengthened the links for him).

In fact, it was during his presentation later on that I felt as though I had suddenly joined the United Nations. Gan had handed out a thick wad of notes for his lecture, all of it written in pompous German; he delivered his talk in Chinese; but we had a translator working away simultaneously, whispering English into one ear while the Chinese seduced the other ear.

Here too the question of status returned with a vengeance. Too used to the intellectual flexing and subtle competition between silverbacks that characterises intellectual life in the USA, here there was no question about one’s status: prominent place markers indicated that the professors should sit in the first row (partners were given the status of professor to ensure their place in the first row), the slightly less important guests should sit in the second row, and the unidentified riff-raff was permitted to sit in the outer row. No contest, no need to put on a posing routine, no worries.

But it did mean that a faux pas was all too easy to make. The keynote speaker, who had already horrified people by blowing loudly into his handkerchief at dinner in the midst of a swine flu epidemic, decided to stand rather than sit during his talk. He felt more comfortable standing, he said. So when my turn came to speak, I turned to my colleague and said,

‘Should I stand too?

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘That’s only for the president (of the university)’. At the brief opening ceremony and opening of the gathering, the president had stood while every one else sat. Even in his absence we were to show our respect by remaining seated.

The catch is that I am not one for such genuflection to external marks of status and privilege, preferring the first name basis of comrade for any transactions. So I found greater pleaser in our student guides, Michael and Yu-Yeh – especially the quiet and profound Yu-Yeh. They took us to museums and local eateries, but the crowning moment was a tea shop (minus Michael).

Yu-Yeh and two student friends ensured that status and respect was thrown out the window, for one a butch lesbian and the other a Marxist radical who could tell what side of the mountain the tea came from and how it was cut. The three of them led us through the rituals of the tea shop – the serving board with pot and small cups, the way to pour the hot water over the leaves and into the pot, how long to wait, how to pour and drink, and what was best eaten with the different teas. The English might pretend that they know what tea is, the Indians or Sri Lankans might proclaim that tea is their natural drink and flog it off to the world, but the Chinese know that tea is theirs by origin, that the skill of growing, drying and drinking is not learned in a lifetime or even in a century or two, but that it can become part of cultural wisdom only after the odd millennium or three.

Politics

Over tea politics was never far away, especially with a theologian, a lesbian and a Marxist. The first thing I learned, to my surprise, is that Marxism is a vibrant topic of inquiry and debate. But I should have known, given the mainland’s proximity, and yet I had assumed that Taiwan’s resistance to the mainland, US military protection and economic favouritism of that tiny island would have ruled Marxism out of court. Not at all: the proximity of the mainland and the fact that Taiwan has for too long been the dumping ground for the fag-end of filthy capitalist industries means that Marxism is a lively option indeed.

But the overwhelming political filter through which so much passes is the relation to the mainland: to cooperate or not to do so – on that question hung so much. With a surging economic superpower across the Formosan straight, isolation and belligerent talk meant economic exclusion. Cooperation, on the other hand, may mean jobs but it also raises fears that China would act on its long-standing policy of reintegrating Taiwan within its borders. As I was there, the ruling political party was distinctly on the nose and soon to be ousted, not least because of its isolationist stance. With the change of government that followed and the abandoning of the old Chiang-Kai-Shek polemic, direct flights and even passage by ship had been opened up once again. Above all the flow of goods and human interaction has sped up, revealing once again that a soft takeover is far more effective and subtle.