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


Shandong Village

‘I grew up in a small village’, she said.

An open face and a tentative lip, a direct manner and a shy blush, but above all a question mark in her eyes: why had I come? Why was I so full of questions? What is a ‘foreign’ friend really like?

But I was interested in something far different: her life growing up in a small village in Shandong Province. I had been to other villages in China, up in the mountains or out west, but I had not visited this one. The image relied purely on her words.

‘Where?’ I said.

‘Near the big lake in Shandong province’, she said. ‘Zhaoyang Lake’.

‘The one on the border with Jiangsu province?’ I said.

‘Yes, that’s the one’, she said. ‘We lived on the north side’.

‘How many people are in your village?’ I said.

‘Oh, maybe a couple of hundred,’ she said.

‘Do you come from a big family?’ I asked.

‘I am the youngest of five children’, she said.

‘Five …!’ I paused. ‘That’s not what I am used to seeing in China’.

‘Obviously, I was born before the one-child policy came into effect’, she said. ‘I am the baby of the family, born when my mother was already forty’.

‘A big family!’ I said.

‘Many nieces and nephews’, she laughed. ‘When we all get together for spring festival, my parents’ house is very full and very noisy (renao)’.

‘Does any one of your brothers or sisters still live in the village’, I said.

‘One brother and his family’, she said. ‘They help with my parents – who are in the eighties now’.

‘What do they do for a job?’ I said.

‘They are farmers’, she said. ‘But the way they farm has changed much, with technology, computers – you know, all the modern stuff’.

‘But tell me what it was like to grow up in a Chinese village in Shandong?’ I said.

‘I was born in 1970’, she said. ‘I remember we had to go to a well in the middle of the village to get water and everyone worked on the land’.

‘A well?’ I said.

‘We used it for drinking water (after boiling) and washing water’, she said.

‘Does your village still have a well?’ I asked.

‘Yes, of course’, she said. ‘But each house now has running water. At first – I remember the moment when I was a teenager – we had hand held pumps in the house. Pull up and down and the water would come out. Taps and basins came later’.

‘What about the well?’ I said.

‘Oh, we believe the water is very fresh’, she said. ‘But we must make sure we drink it all if we take some’.


‘The local dragon will get angry if we waste it’, she laughed.

‘What did your father do?’ I asked.

‘He was a teacher in the village school’, she said.

‘Did he teach you too?’ I said.

‘Of course’, she said. ‘He taught my brothers and sister, as well as my cousins. He was the only teacher’.

‘What did you learn?’ I said.

‘Many people think it was still a traditional time, before the reform and opening up’, she said. ‘But it was already after the revolution of 1949, so we learnt about the Long March, Chairman Mao, along with reading and writing’.

‘At a young age?’ I said.

She laughed. ‘Yes, our textbooks for reading and writing told the stories of the revolutionary struggle’.

‘And Confucian teaching?’ I said.

‘That was more at home’, she said. ‘It is Shandong Province, after all, where Confucius was born. We are very serious about his teachings’.

‘But why at home?’ I asked.

‘Well, you know …’, she said. ‘During the Cultural Revolution, Confucius’s thought was not so popular. It was seen as part of the old, traditional China that had to be overcome. So we learnt it only at home’.

‘Since then, a new form of Confucianism has flowered, hasn’t it?’ I said.

‘Yes indeed’, she said. ‘But it is a bit different, since it works together with Marxism, or rather, socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

‘What did your family experience during that time?’ I said.

‘Since my father was a teacher, he was seen as one of the intellectuals’, she said. ‘Part of the old tradition in China, held up by the intellectuals. So he was not able to teach’.

‘What did your family do?’ I asked.

‘We farmed like everyone else’, she said. ‘But we were very poor … again, like everyone else. And I remember as a child eating endless baozi, steamed buns made out of wheat’.

‘Not rice?’ I said.

‘No’, she said. ‘Shandong is towards the north and is famous for its wheat’.

‘What about today?’ I said.

‘It is both the same and very different’, she said.

‘How so?’ I said.

‘The village is still very traditional in its outlook’, she said. ‘I am a traditional woman. It is very important to me. But much has changed. Farming has been modernised; the school system has been reformed a few times; my old home now has running water, electricity, internet …’.

‘And you now work in a modern Chinese city’, I said. ‘What is it like to visit your village again?’

‘We all return for spring festival’, she said. ‘At least those of us who do not live in the village’.

‘And your parents?’ I said.

‘They are very close now’, she said. ‘In their eighties’.

‘Why do you say “now”?’ I asked.

‘Well, it was an arranged marriage’, she said. ‘My mother is one of the last of her generation to have small feet. She came from a big peasant family and the marriage was arranged by her family and my father’s’.

‘Really?’ I said.

‘Yes, and they did not really like each other for a long time,’ she said.

‘While all five of you were born’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘I remember they argued all the time. But then, some time in their sixties, they fell in love with each other. And it has been that way ever since!’

Chinese Marxist Ethics

Lunli, they call it in these parts, or Gongchanzhuyi daode – ethics or communist moral principles. These are by no means abstract terms, debated by philosophers with little connection to real life. I encounter it day to day in a very concrete fashion.

Here Chinese tradition meets Marxism in a way that continually amazes and bewilders me. To begin with, the dushuren or xuezhe, the intellectual (literally ‘book reading person’) and scholar has a venerable place in Chinese society. The intellectual is simultaneously expected to devote significant time to reading, thinking and writing – whether scholarly works, moral maxims, poetry, or a range of other genres – and to the good of public life. This expectation is embodied in part in the word yiwu, which means both to volunteer and a duty. One volunteers to contribute in some way to the greater good of society, but this is simultaneously a duty or obligation. Although it is manifested as many levels of social relations, for an intellectual it means service in or for the government, or perhaps work that contributes to solving a commonly recognised problem.

Further, the first character in yiwu is yi (义), a significant aspect of Confucianism. Its literal meaning is ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’, but it also includes ‘human relationships’ and ‘meaning’. Thus, yi involves the intertwining of justice and relationships, in a moral framework of doing good and the understanding of how to do so in a sensible and fit manner. In other words, one must know the underlying reason for such righteousness and not simply follow precepts.

For a scholar, especially a professor, this means that one is engaged and not engaged. Or rather, when one is engaged directly, one longs to be disengaged, to find the tranquillity to think and write and identify the deeper framework. But even in this situation, one does so with the public good always in mind.

By now it should be obvious that the ethics of a scholar are somewhat high.

What about communist moral principles? By now, they have been etched into Chinese culture, distinct and yet meshed with Confucian ideas. A communist is expected to be honest, direct and trustworthy, not concerned with personal gain and focused on the public good.

This morality appears at many levels. For instance, an ethos first developed at Ruijin in the early 1930s – during the first Chinese soviet – focused on providing poor peasants not with communist ideas, but with enough food, clothing, and shelter. They should feel secure (anquan) in life – a fundamental desire of Chinese life. When people find they have such things through the communists, they will flock to join the movement and become revolutionaries.

Or it can be seen in Mao Zedong’s urgings for party members (cadres) after achieving power. In 1949, Mao wrote: ‘I hope that the revolutionary personnel of the whole country will always keep to the style of plain living and hard struggle’. Again, in 1957, he wrote that party members must not lose the revolutionary spirit of wholeheartedly serving the people. Instead, they must ‘persevere in plain living and hard struggle’, ‘maintaining close ties with the masses’.

Chairman (or president) Xi Jinping has been consistently evoking these admonitions from Mao over the last few years, especially in terms of uniting and strengthening the party through the ‘tigers and flies’ anti-corruption campaign – the most thoroughgoing and pervasive in modern Chinese history. As he does so, he and the leadership evoke the deep chords of communist morality.

Already five years ago, a new ‘eight rules’ were promulgated, echoing the ‘eight points for attention’ from 1927. The new eight rules focus on how leaders and party members should reject extravagance and reduce bureaucratic visits, meetings and empty talk. Crucially, the purpose is to strengthen ties between the people and officials, which had been eroded through corruption and power abuse.

That this approach resonates deeply with people shows up in complex surveys, with 80 percent or more of people supporting the measures. Why? Communist morality has become deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and society. If one is a communist, which means a party member, one is expected to live up to these ideals. If one fails, the fall is even greater.

What if you are a Marxist and a scholar? By now it should be obvious that the ethical standards are higher still. The combination of Confucian and Marxist ethics entails an expectation of almost impeccable morality – speaking plainly and directly, being honest, living simply, avoiding any sign of personal gain, and substantially focused on the public good.

National Day (Guoqingjie) in China

2016 October 029

On 1 October, 1949, Mao Zedong announced – in his good Hunanese accent – the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The communists had pondered which capital would be best. Nanjing, literally the ‘southern capital’, had been the base of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek). But Nanjing had what is known as bad fengshui for power. Each of the powers that had based themselves there had not lasted so long. Power was felt to leak out of the city along the Yangtze River. So Beijing, the northern capital, was chosen as the new base of power for the communists.

Since that first and famous declaration on 1 October, the occasion has been celebrated each year. In 2016, I decided to experience the event for myself. Actually, I wanted to film the event with a film crew. Easier said than done, since filming in Tiananmen Square requires special permission – especially for a foreigner.

After much discussion by phone with the Tiananmen Management Committee Propaganda Department, we wrote a detailed application. It included the usual information: who, when, why, and so on. But the crucial question concerned my political orientation. So the application closed by stating that I – Bo Guoqiang (using my Chinese name) – am ‘friendly [youhao]’ towards China, indeed I have a ‘deep affection’, if not ‘ardent love [re’ai]’ for China. Further, my political position is ‘without problems [renhe wenti]’ for China.

This declaration did the trick. After submitting the application, the reply came within in a few minutes. We had received a privilege rare for foreigners: to film in Tiananmen on a major day in the Chinese calendar. The letter of permission, with its all-important seal, was picked up later that day.

This letter was like a magic wand on 1 October. The film crew, director, and I were allowed to enter zones closed to most. The letter opened a passage in the crowd to get the best view. Occasionally, a security guard asked us what we were doing. As soon as he or she saw the letter, they smiled, and even guided us to places for the best shots.

But what exactly happened on 1 October, 2016?

We arrived at 4.00 am to find the square already full of people – in fact, thousands and thousands of people. Quite a number of young people had slept overnight in the square, so as to gain a good position for viewing the proceedings. Indeed, this is a rite of passage for many young Chinese, to do it at least once.


2016 October 011

It was still a few hours before first light. Yet already people stood shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the actual celebration. They talked, took photos, listened to the announcements on the loudspeakers. Here, we were told, Chairman Mao Zedong (Maozedong zhuxi) had made his famous announcement. Mao was clearly present, with his huge picture on Tiananmen gate in one direction and the mausoleum with his body in another.

Finally, a little after six o’clock, at the first glimmer of light, the sound of marching band music began. Everyone craned and shuffled forward to gain a better view. Cameras and smartphones were raised above everyone’s head as they tried to film and photograph the event.

I was profoundly moved by the occasion. Why?

The key for me was the absolute simplicity of the experience. A line of soldiers marched out to the music in perfect formation. They circled a massive flagpole and stood to attention. From their midst three flagbearers came forward, attached a massive red flag and its yellow stars to the flagpole, and raised the flag slowly to the heavens. As the flag reached to the top and unfurled in the wind, hundreds of doves were released. They circled the flagpole and square. The massive crowd let out a cheer.

That was it. It took maybe 10 minutes in total and this is what people had waited hours and hours and hours to witness.

Now, I must admit, I was expecting politicians to give big speeches, to have all sorts of events going on for hour after hour.

But no, the actual event was stunning in its simplicity. In an age of oversaturated media, of an oversupply of information and news cycles, this simple event was all the more powerful. Its symbolism was simple, its time brief, its effect deeply moving.

This is how people actually celebrate and experience the birth of modern China, the People’s Republic of China no less.

But what did they do afterwards? They spent a few more hours in the square, taking photographs, exploring the square (for many had come from outside Beijing), finding somewhere to eat, and beginning to enjoy the week-long holiday that would follow.

2016 October 017

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.

Ten tips on using a squat toilet on a Chinese train

The moment of truth has arrived; with bowels ready to burst you realise that to hold on any would lead to serious internal injuries. You realise that the decision to catch an ordinary train in order to meet ordinary people in China has certain consequences. One of them is the fact that you need to use the same toilet as about 300 others – all in the one carriage, given the Chinese habit of selling no-seat tickets.

Door open, squeeze in, turn around: stop. It’s a squat toilet, on a rocking train that you are sure is travelling much, much faster than it should. What to do?

1. Ignore the sheen of liquid on the floor. Or imagine that it is water or floor-wash and not piss from the hundreds who have gone before you.

2. Step forward and place your feet in the footrests on either side of the rounded, stained-steel trough. It may have stainless steel once upon a time, but not now.

3. Drop your pants to a strategic level on your legs to avoid soaking them in the pungent floor wash.

4. Grab firmly the handrail directly before you. It is there for a purpose. Even though it may look as though previous users have balanced on one foot blind-folded while the train was racing around a curve, you should by no means try to emulate them. Handrail gripped; eyes wide open.

5. Squat and let go. You will be surprised at how comfortable it really is, despite the initial feeling of having all your vulnerable parts dangling low. Let me just say that the position encourages you to do what you have to do. In fact, it usually produces a greater feeling of lightness and relief.

6. Reach for your own roll of toilet paper! Unfortunately, most such toilets may have had some toilet paper at the start of the trip, but it will be long gone by now.

7. Remember to place the used toilet paper in the basket provided – otherwise you will block the toilet and 300 accusing eyes will fix on you for stuffing up the one avenue for collective relief. That basket is of course the reason why Chinese public toilets smell the way they do. If you have forgotten your roll, just remember that old biblical saying: do not let you right hand know what your left hand is doing.

8. As you pull up your pants, dig out your vital bottle of dry hand-wash. There will be no soap and perhaps no water for your own ablutions.

9. Do as the Chinese do: sniff up a good hunk of snot and hack in the toilet to chase down whatever you have left behind.

Common Sense? Marxism and Chinese Culture

‘Understanding the world in terms of Mao’s contradiction method is part of our culture’, she said. ‘We have learnt this since “middle” school.’

For me, this was enough of a stunning discovery.

Then I asked, ‘But have you read Mao’s “On Contradiction”’?

They admitted they had not read it.

‘Let’s read it then’, I said.

So we set about studying Mao’s text from 1937. It was originally presented as part of the lectures on ‘Dialectical Materialism’, delivered in Yan’an in 1937. Later, he drew the material on contradiction from the lectures and thoroughly revised it for publication. Clearly, Mao felt that the essay was vitally important, not merely for the breakthrough it entailed in revolutionary theory – leading all the way to 1949 – but also for framing a way to interpret and indeed change the world.

Our study became a seminar, running over six three-hour sessions. All of the participants were Chinese people who had grown up in China – except for me.

I learnt more from them than they learnt from me, especially in terms of contemporary Chinese culture. Of course, traditional Chinese culture is a complex mix of Confucian influences, Daoist principles, folk wisdom, and indeed some Buddhist factors suitably sinified – to mention but a few items. But tradition changes and adapts. Culture never remains the same.

Contradiction method (the Chinese term) is a telling example. Stemming from the Hegelian-Marxist tradition, reinterpreted in light of socialism in power in the Soviet Union, it was concretely reshaped by Mao in terms of the Chinese situation. Since then, it has been taught consistently in schools for 80 years.

To find out the effect of this process, let me return to the responses from the seminar participants.

One said, ‘This is common sense for us’. Another said, ‘I live my life according to this approach. It is part of who I am’. And another: ‘I just use this principle like a law of truth for my life, never thinking more deeply about how it comes about and where it stands’.

Contradiction is not merely a political ideology (although one person felt it was), but woven into the fabric of personal and collective lives. Most people do not see it as a theory one might study, but rather as common sense, as a framework for understanding daily life itself. This is the result of more than education: as one put it, ‘I feel like I was born with it’. It is as though parents pass it onto children even before they begin school.

A little later, another said, ‘I find it difficult to think about this further. It is too familiar for me, so I can hardly think critically about it’.

Thinking about what is really second nature is a difficult task. No matter how much one may engage in ‘criticism and self-criticism [piping ziwo piping]’ – another socialist feature of daily life – it requires significant effort to analyse such matters. Perhaps this effort will undermine the structure of one’s life, rearrange the narrative according to which one has been living. At the same time, the way contradiction method has become part of daily life is through unexamined key terms and ideas. The effort to think philosophically about it – as participants admitted – can sharpen one’s understanding.

Another said, ‘Of course there is contradiction under socialism. This is obvious. We know this’.

Not only did they find it strange that the European philosophical tradition tended to see contradictions as either-or, as cancelling one or the other out, they also could not see a problem with contradictions under socialism. This is a given; they experience it every day. But they were also keen to emphasise the sheer complexity of contradictions. Principle contradictions become secondary, new contradictions arise, secondary contradictions become primary, and the principal and non-principal aspects are constantly shifting. This is a reality of political and economic planning, but also of their cultural experience. Nothing new here.

The seminars continued. One or two may have demurred, but the majority made it very clear to me that contradiction method is a ‘basic knowledge of our worldview’ – all the way from mundane realities to political life.

What was I to make of all of this?

Could Marxism become common sense, integral to the way people live their lives? Obviously, it could. Obviously, it has.

But could Marxism also become part of Chinese culture in all its complexity? Before the seminar, I had heard rumours to this effect, but I was still unsure. This seminar taught me otherwise: Marxism already has become part of this culture.