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’.

Chinese Wedding

‘Eternal Vow Group’, said large neon letters high above the doorway. What better place could be found to get married? In order to find it, I had left at daybreak, to travel by metro, car and foot into the countryside east of Beijing. A rural wedding, I was told, so I came expecting tradition, farmers, the whole village, strong spirits (baijiu) and much revelry.

Not quite, for the venue was a marriage centre in the local town. Beijingers also came here, but they did so because they had moved not so long ago from the villages hereabouts and into the city for work. Much family remained in the countryside, so it seemed logical to hold the wedding closer to home.

The vows may not always be so eternal, but the need for human beings to surround with ritual the issues of sex, relationships and the mutual fruit of a couple’s loins does seem to be eternal and indeed universal. In both cases, it depends on what one means by ‘eternal’ and ‘universal’. Eternal rarely seems to mean forever, except in a romanticised imagination, and universal includes a bewildering array of diversity that renders the term somewhat tenuous and loose.

As for the couple in question, he was in the second half of his thirties and already had a child from a former marriage. He was here for his second bout of eternity. She was 35 and had not been married before, although not for want of searching. Like so many Chinese women, she belied the traditional adage that a woman past 30 is unmarriageable, a ‘leftover woman’ who was by now too independent to be attractive to a man.

The basic ingredients of the wedding were familiar to me. A heterosexual couple in ‘love’ wanted to indicate a desire to be recognised as such in an official way, to have children and to restrict their sexual activity to the mutual use of each other’s genitals. Indeed, she had had an abortion a few months earlier, since she did not want to have a child outside marriage. Yet the rest of the wedding was a curious mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

The formalities began at 11.18.

Curious, I asked why. What is wrong with 11.00 am? The key, it turns out, is the number 8. Said ‘ba’ it is supposed to sound like ‘fa’, meaning good fortune, wealth and happiness. So as long as one can get an 8 in somewhere, one is off to a good start. I am told – with no way of checking the veracity – that the phone number, 888888888, sold for more than one million RMB in the province of Guangzhou. And the number one, yi, is often said as yao, which is very close to yao, of which one of the meanings is to want or wish. So 11.18 reads as yao yao yao ba, indicating one hopes the numbers align and the marriage is indeed blessed with good fortune.

We gathered outside in a September sun, which can already be quite fierce in China’s northern parts. The pavilion itself was festooned with flowers and draping fabric, echoing traditional practices. Traditional too were the brief speeches by key personages, the ubiquitous hongbao (red envelopes stuffed with cash) as wedding gifts, and the mutual drinking of wine from two cups tied together by red string. The rest was a curious mix that seemed decidedly less traditional and more in line with China’s continual efforts to reshape foreign traditions to its own concerns. Thus, the bride wore white, which is really the colour of death. The groom wore a suit and the effervescent master of ceremonies was rakishly attired in a tight suit, whites and a tilted brimmed hat. I caught the groom in a reflective moment, wishing I could ascertain his thoughts. Was he thinking, ‘here I go again?’ Or perhaps, ‘I can’t wait to get plastered later’. Or, ‘I can’t believe a woman like this has picked as asshole like me’.

With touches of sunburn by the close of the open air ceremony, we retired inside for the meal. One could, suggested the one who invited me, simply slip into a seat at any number of the other ‘receptions’ going on at the same time. I might have had to endure another version of the video display, showing the newly wedded couple in all manner of goofy, romantic and suggestive engagements. But such a video was also showing at the one I was supposed to attend. Remarkable how appropriate lighting and careful camera angles can make one look younger, slimmer and more vigorous than one really is.

Like other weddings, the food was piled high and the alcohol in almost unending supply. Some made the most of the food, others of the alcohol, and some of both. But unlike other weddings I have attended, the bride at an appropriate moment gave a symbolic dowry to her groom’s parents and then served them tea. By this time, she had slipped into more conventional Chinese wedding gear, where the colour red (not just a socialist colour) marks the anticipated good fortune and happiness.

To show their appreciation for all who had come to wish them heart-felt and less-than-heartfelt wishes, bride and groom proceeded to visit each table. The women were offered a tray of chocolates from which to choose, while the men were offered a cigarette and a shot of baijiu, the wicked spirit beloved hereabouts. With each man, the groom knocked back another toast, working his way through – by my calculation – almost two bottles of the stuff.

Here one had to wish them all the best with various formulae: gongxi xinhun (congratulations for being newly married); zhu nimen bainian haohe (I wish you a hundred years of happiness together); yongyuaihe (may you bathe forever in the river of love) – although the last one is potentially a little frightening.

I sincerely wished them the best in my broken Chinese, although not so much the river of love. Having been through three or four ‘serious’ relationships in my time, I hoped that they could find a way, through all the challenges, to what the ancient Greeks called pragma: the long-lasting love that has weathered all manner of crises so that a couple still sparks when they are together.

Chinese Bathhouse

I was surrounded by naked Chinese men.

Some were lathered in soap and suds, rubbing crotches and backs and hair. Some were drying off, vigorously and with some relish. Some were striding back to their lockers, their family jewels peering out of thick black bushes. And others were bent over, pulling on pants or shoes.

I was in a Chinese bathhouse – for the first time.

Until now in China, I had been accustomed to wash in a somewhat private bathroom. The door could be locked, the shower curtain could be pulled – in case someone else wished to use the toilet. And if anyone was to share the shower with me, I preferred to offer the invitation myself.

But in the midst of a Beijing winter, the hot water system in our apartment block gave up the ghost. At least two weeks to replace, we were told, especially since ecological concerns were now a priority. Solar panels would replace the old system. More like a month or two, I thought.

We could, we were told, harden our bodies with cold showers. Or we could take ourselves to the bathhouse, a couple of hundred meters up the road.

For me there was no choice.

I gathered up my towel, soap and change of underwear and soon found myself amongst young men and old, all making their way to the bathhouse.

At the desk, I bought a swipe card for repeat visits – should I feel compelled to return. I was also given a locker key on a flexible cord. Not sure quite sure of the purpose of the cord, I let it dangle from my finger for now.

To enter, one walks through a turnstile after swiping the card, much like entering a metro station. Turning the corner, I came across a vista of naked and half-naked men doing their thing at the lockers. Some had already showered and were towelling off, or in the process of donning clothes. Some stood at lockers, stark naked, as they peered and poked inside. And some, like me, were about the begin the process.

If one has been in a gym elsewhere in the world, the scene may not have been out of the ordinary – except that here the lockers and benches were cheek-by-jowl, with men filling every space in between. Think of a Beijing metro in peak hour …. By fate, my locker happened to be other end of the long room, so I found myself having to brush quite a number of cheeks on my way through. There was no other way.

I finally wedged myself into some space near my allocated locker and put on my best I-have-done-this-thousands-of-times-before air as I proceeded to strip down. Naked, I too stood in front of my locker and deposited my clothes, concentrating intensely at the fascinating contents therein. Best not to peer inquisitively around at the others.

The fascination wore off after a few seconds, so I strode into the shower room and was immediately enveloped in endless pairs of buttocks, shoulders, bushy crotches and black heads. They seemed to go on endlessly. I managed to find a free shower head, recently vacated. That it had no rose made no difference to me.

But now I faced a quandary: my usual practice is to piss on my feet, having been told quite some time ago that it is best treatment for tinea. Clearly, this would be seen as particularly uncivilised in a such a place, so I refrained – for the sake of what they call wenming, civilisation and culture.

Another quandary: water was needed, but no tap handles were to be found. What to do? My neighbour kindly stepped over, smiled, and showed me the slot for my swipe card. Ah, it was still in my locker …

With card finally in the slot, the red-letter display told me I had a maximum of 6 minutes to shower. Generous enough, I thought, but not really enough to time to ponder the universe while encased in the solid stream of warm water. I aimed for three minutes, wishing to save some time for the next occasion.

And yet, this brief time was enough for me to gain a number of research findings: 1) Chinese people are very clean, even in parts one would not usually think about cleaning; 2) Chinese men are not afraid of their bodies, no matter what shape or size; 3) Speaking of size, I was head-and-shoulders taller than anyone else in the showers; 4) My body in general is very hairy by comparison. Some Chinese men may have fine hair on their buttocks and legs, but they are not coated in fur. Until now, I had thought I was only lightly covered, but I guess I was comparing myself to the hairier creatures of God found in many parts of the world. They are not to be found here.

Pleased with my research activity and somewhat cleaner, I returned to my small space to dry and dress – somewhat enjoying the process. My slightly anxious, if excited, mood of earlier had dissipated.

Instead, I was taken with the collective nature of our shared ablutions, but also with the way people hereabouts can manage space in the midst of many, many others. There is always space for one more – and it makes no difference if you happen to be a foreigner.

[For the sake of modesty, no photographs are attached to this post]


Beijing’s Power

Why is Beijing so appealing?

It took me some years to realise its appeal. Initially, Shanghai felt friendlier and more appealing. It has always been a port city, at the intersections of the world. Foreigners have been in Shanghai for centuries, leaving their mark in the fabric of the city, in its architecture, spatial configurations and even culture. Somehow, a massive city like this seemed to enable one to find a corner in which to be at home.

Beijing, on the other hand, was too vast, too polluted, too constrained, too fast, too foreign, and simply changing too much. In my early years, I had gone a little crazy, preferring to get out of Beijing whenever I could, taking the train to various corners of China while supposedly a resident and working in Beijing.

But gradually it grew on me. More recently, I found myself wanting to pause in Beijing, for a reason that was not entirely clear to me.

Initially, I simply stayed in my apartment, venturing out for food and exercise. But after a week or two, I found myself setting out to the find out a bit more about this constantly changing city.

It helps if you know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone … (guanxi). Things happen this way, from getting a phone to finding an apartment. Speaking a bit of the language makes a huge difference, but you will always be a foreigner, even if you were born and bred in Beijing. But if you know someone, then you may as well be a local. No more special prices for foreigners. No more smiling deals where you think you have bested someone in bargaining only to find you have not. Guanxi goes a long, long way.

Initially, I began to think it might be the beautiful days, with clear skies and crisp air. I kid you not, for Beijing has plenty of these (as well as plenty of days where it is better to stay inside). A clear Beijing day calls you outside in a way that you cannot resist.

Or perhaps it was the food. Again and again, I found that a famous chef in charge of a major restaurant had decided to go back to basics and make one dish she or he loved best. It may be a simple noodle dish or dumplings, but all attention would be focused on making sure that every iteration of the dish was as simple and as perfect as it could be. No second best would be allowed.

Perhaps it was the language, which I had been learning slowly but surely, putting it together piece by piece. I am not a natural when it comes to learning language, for I need to work persistently and doggedly until it ever so slowly becomes part of my ways of thinking.

Or perhaps it was the regions of Beijing, from the huangsheng (close to the old imperial centre, within the second ring road) to the jiaoqu or shijiao, the outskirts of the city. Here are the villages being absorbed by the ever-expanding limits of the city. Here are the small plots where one can grow vegetables. And here are the traditional compounds (siheyuan) where one can ‘buy’ (really, a long lease) a place to get away from it all.

Perhaps it was the seriousness with which Beijing takes public transport. For instance, the metro is one of the best in the world. Already, its 550 km take 6 billion passenger rides a year (almost the total of the world’s population). Within ten years the total distance will almost double. You can literally get everywhere in the expanse of Beijing by metro. Why would you drive, as the beautiful people like to do, or indeed take a taxi, as foreigners do?

But I finally realised that Beijing’s appeal is none of these things. Or rather, they might be part of it, but they do not constitute the main reason.

Quite simply, Beijing is the centre of power. Not just any power, but the centre of the most powerful socialist state in world history. To be sure, Beijing has been a capital for a few centuries, but even this makes it a relative latecomer on the scene of political power in in light of China’s long history. But it oozes power. Power is part of Beijing’s fabric. It is not for nothing that the communist party chose it as their capital. Here the communist party continues to wield power, with President Xi Jinping invoking Chairman Mao in a way not seen for quite a while. Here security is a paramount issue, so much so that you know when a major event – the annual parliament, a meeting of the politburo, a congress – is happening due to the security personnel everywhere.

And here Chairman Mao lies in state at the fulcrum of this power, in Tiananmen, the gate of heaven. This is socialism in power, and it fascinates me, draws me in, makes me want to be part of it and understand it.


Crumpled Shirt and Dirty Shoes

Sartorial elegance: the ability to appear stylish and well-groomed without appearing so. Although it applies as much to one’s hair, shaving and smell, its key is the cladding that one wears to cover the body. After all, the word ‘sartorial’ comes from Latin word sartor, tailor.

I had always prided myself on not requiring the usual signals of sartorial elegance. I would wear what I wanted when I wanted, without concern for style or fashion. As long as my single pair of shoes fit the shape of my feet, were comfortable, and could be worn on all occasions – from hiking up mountains to weddings – I was happy. As long as the pants could be worn for a week, be washed overnight and be dry the next morning, I was content. And as long as the shirt was clean and dry, I could not ask for more.

In China, others were not so happy.

For an eternity they tolerated my sartorial preferences. They did so with a glance, a stare, a polite smile. Until at last of them dared to ask.

‘Doesn’t your girlfriend or wife care for you?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, standing still on the footpath.

‘Well, your shirt is crumpled’, she said. The others in our group murmured agreement.

‘It’s a t-shirt’, I said. ‘Who irons a t-shirt?’

‘And when you signed the new contract last week, you wore a crumpled shirt’, she said. ‘And it was not tucked in. It was hanging outside your pants!’

‘Are you serious?’ I said. ‘I haven’t owned an iron for more than 15 years and I prefer to wear my shirts out’.

‘What about your girlfriend or wife?’ she said.

‘She is even more scruffy than I am,’ I said. ‘Crumpled shirts, old and torn clothes hanging out, hair messy … a grungy look, we call it’.

This was the moment for genuine consternation. How in the world could a woman not be concerned with creases, crumples, and tucked in clothes?

But that was not the real issue.

‘Anyone who looks at you does not think about whether you can take out the creases in your crumpled clothes’, she said. ‘They immediately think your girlfriend must not really care for you. They will think badly of her’.

‘It has got nothing to do with anyone else’, I said. ‘I prefer not to worry about these things’.

‘And your shoes’, she said.

‘What about my shoes?’ I asked.

‘They are muddy’, she said.

‘Well, yes,’ I said. ‘I have been hiking a couple of days ago, so they have some mud left on them’.

‘Your girlfriend really doesn’t care about you!’


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.


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

IMG_3057 (1280x853)

Only in China

Is it still possible to have a unique experience, one that you cannot have anywhere else? Or has the world become thoroughly homogenised? Sometimes it seems so. Wherever you go, it is the same experience, over and over again. A European city centre, a restored historical village, a hotel room, a museum, food, coffee, beer – in one place after another they seem eerily the same. Should tourism begin on Mars, it too would have the same experience.

I beg to differ. It is the unexpected moments that are unique, moments that can easily pass you by in the myriad events of everyday. To see them, you need a peripheral vision, a seeing out of the corner of your eye; or, as I prefer, a relaxing of the shoulders, a slowing of the breath and an easing of the mind so that you can catch them before they pass.

Mao’s Statue

We had been talking about a possible trip to Suzhou, a little up the road from Shanghai. She was keen to show me around the fabled town, with its canals and boats and cuisine. Indeed, beautiful girls come from Suzhou … or so goes one of the sayings.

As a neophyte to matters Chinese, I asked: ‘what time suits you best?’

‘How about Friday morning?’ She said.

‘Excellent’, I said. ‘Where shall we meet?’

‘I’ll meet you by Mao’s statue – the big white one at the front gates – at 9.00 am’. She said it as though it was the normal suggestion in the world.

Student party meeting

Over a simple lunch of long noodles, two students and I sat talking. Spring it was, after the first rains of spring in a cool Beijing. They had wanted to take me to a kosher dining hall, provided for the Chinese Muslim students. It had the reputation for good quality clean food. We had lined up to order our dishes and I tried to read the menu on the wall above. Some characters I could recognise, some not. They translated where necessary while we waited our turn. Soon enough, the dishes were ready, announced on the loudspeaker. We picked up our bowls, found some seats and slurped away.

The dapper student looked at his watch and made to move.

‘Excuse me’, he said. ‘I need to go to a student party’.

‘A party’, I said, thinking it was one of the regular student parties that happened with extraordinary frequency. ‘At lunchtime?’

They laughed.

‘No’, he said. ‘It’s the student branch party meeting. I am the secretary’.

It hit me: ‘Are you a member of the student branch of the communist party?’ He had not struck me as a typical member, but then what is a typical party member?

He smiled. ‘Yes, and I am the secretary, so I need to be at the meeting’.

Young Pioneers

Intrigued, I began to ask students about party membership. At an afternoon gathering some weeks later, we discussed reasons for joining the party. Some said it was for a better job, others because a grandparent was a member and had influenced them deeply, and others because they felt they could contribute on their own small way to the collective good.

‘What about young pioneers?’ I asked.

‘We have that in the schools’, a young woman said. ‘It is a mark of honour to be invited to join the young pioneers. It may be for academic achievement or for sport or even for some service’.

‘Were any of you members?’ I asked.

Nearly all of them nodded.

‘Do you have young pioneers in your country?’ Said the young woman.

Of course, every country should have such an organisation.

Foot Binding

A slightly older student, of about 30, had finally realised her dream to come to Australia and spend a year of study here. She spent a good deal of the time travelling and a little less on her study.

In one of our many discussions, she said:

‘When I was six years old, my grandmother said to me that I should have my feet bound, just like her. I was really frightened and lay awake at night’.

‘She must have been born before the communist revolution’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But she was very traditional in her attitudes’.

I had thought that such a practice had been abolished with the communist revolutionary victory of 1949. Perhaps not in the minds of some.

She continued: ‘During the revolutionary war, women used to fight in the Red Army. They would have natural feet and cut their hair. When one of them was captured by the Guomindang nationalist forces, she would be shot immediately. They assumed that if she had natural feet, she was a communist. The practice of foot-binding goes back to the Qing emperors. Since they were Manchu nationality, they made the majority Han women bind their feet as a sign of subjection – or at least those of the upper class. It became a custom.’

‘Did your grandmother ever make moves to bind your feet?’ I asked.

‘No’, she said. ‘But it really frightened me, since children are supposed to show deep respect for grandparents’.

That’s Socialism

Another young woman and I were walking past a student dormitory, where washing hung in the windows.

‘How many students share a dormitory?’ I asked.

‘Six to eight for undergraduates’, she said. ‘Four for masters and two for doctoral students’.

‘Does anyone have a single room?’ I asked.

She laughed. ‘No, we all share’.

A little later we had eaten in a dining hall and were on our way out.

‘I usually eat there’, she said. ‘The food is cheap but freshly cooked’

‘Who else eats in a dining hall?’ I asked.

‘Everyone’, she said. ‘Students, professors, gardeners, maintenance workers …’.

She paused for a moment and said: ‘That may be socialism! I guess we have it in ways we do not realise’.