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’.

On Visiting a Museum to the ‘Victims’ of Communism

I had come to Transylvania for the last time, for life was calling me to other realms. Part of this visit entailed a return to one of the museums nearby dedicated to the ‘victims’ of communism. I had been taken here some years before, so this was my second visit.

The museum is located in a former prison that had once been a monastery. It is laid out in white paint, with pictures, cells, sculptures, and a distinct story, concerning both the master narrative of the evils of communism and various micro-narratives that are meant to fit within the larger whole. One may spend a few minutes or a few hours perusing the neat and well-designed display. Who could not be swayed by such a depiction, of the misery experienced by those who had simply, for the sake of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, opposed the communist ‘regime’ in Romania?

On the first occasion, I was somewhat confronted by it all, wondering whether such treatment of enemies of the state, aided and abetted by foreign powers, should have so. Did it not breed more resentment and resistance? Would it not have been wiser to follow a gentler, but no less firm path?

However, on the first occasion I had noticed a few anomalies in the smooth narrative. To begin with, those who had actually died in the prison were of reasonably advanced age, between their late sixties and into their eighties. Reading between the lines, one gained a sense that they had died of natural causes. And I could not help notice that there was a reasonable number of former politicians (from before 1947), military leaders and church figures. Common people, such as workers and farmers, were distinctly under-represented. How to make sense of all this?

Not until the second visit some five years later did the pieces begin to fall into place. Four features stood out in stark relief. To begin with, the museum is clearly modelled on the style of a Holocaust Museum, with portrait walls of those imprisoned, brief biographies, copies of hand-written materials, and individual cell experiences. One could stand before a touch-screen and select an individual from the picture and read very briefly about his or her experiences. One could go outside and pause for thought among the sculptures and trees of the remembrance garden. One could be brought up-to-date on the destruction of cultural artefacts (actually, only a cathedral) by the communists. Indeed, one could enter one cell and find a display of communist-era activities, such as newspapers, posters, young pioneer clothes and so on.

The intended effect was what might be called the reductio ad Hitlerum. This became clear when I overheard a discussion outside the museum. Three foreign visitors had just emerged from viewing the display, and one of them commented that it reminded him of Nazi Germany and the museums they had visited there. Another observed that they should go and see the graveyard where the victims had been executed and buried. In other words, the communist ‘regime’ was no different from the fascists.

As I stood by, I recalled the many names I had encountered inside, names of those who were released after two, three or five years. Indeed, the majority of those imprisoned had been released at some time (unless they died of age or illness). It was difficult to see how they could also have been executed and buried. Yet, this is part of the reductio ad Hitlerum, in which the fundamental difference between fascist concentration camps and communist prisons is conveniently glossed over. For the fascists, the camp was the first step to death for the majority of those who were irredeemable, whether for political (communist) or racial reasons (Jews and gypsies). For the communists, imprisonment was for the purpose of re-education and rehabilitation. No matter how much the process may have failed to live up to this motivation, it was reflected in the way many were released.

Perhaps more telling was the way fascism itself was airbrushed out of the representations and narrative. For example, the communist revolution in Romania encountered significant opposition from fascist forces, especially in the southeast near Bucharest. Romanian troops had fought with the Wehrmacht on the eastern front, many generals felt at home among the Nazis, as did politicians during the second world war. Yet all of these simply became the part of the ‘resistance’ to communism, a resistance that was recast as a desire for ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. After all, fascists do make the best anti-communists.

And this brings me back to the former detainees of this monastery-cum-prison. Most, although not all, were what would count as the old ruling class: ancient nobles, landlords, political leaders, generals, priests, and bourgeoisie. They would have been pointedly disgruntled at losing their assumed power under the barbarian workers and common people. Indeed, the period of communism was too short in Romania, and the communists made too many mistakes – such as prisons like this – in their attempt to overcome entrenched assumptions about class privilege. In many respects, this old ruling class is now back in power in Romania, feeling the world is once again as it should be, that Romanian society is ordered for their benefit. And they are the ones who tell the story and build museums like this one.

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.

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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’.

Marx’s Grave: The Comradeship of the Dead

Marx’s Grave: The Comradeship of the Dead

Thrice have I visited Marx’s grave.

First time, happenstance

On a Sunday in 1999, in the midst of a northern hemisphere summer, I was for the first time in England, let alone London. What should one do here, especially the first time? The supposed attractions of the city were many, but they held no appeal for me. At last I knew: I would visit Marx’s grave.

Highgate Hill, where Marx was buried, was as much a mystery to me as London itself. Eventually I found my way on what they call ‘the tube’ to Highgate. A narrow spiral of stairs took me out of the former air raid shelter and into a small pocket of forest. Once again, I had to ask the locals for directions, finally finding Swain’s Lane and the entrance to the East Cemetery.

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Overgrown it was, resembling more a subtropical zone than a temperate one. Tumbling gravestones threatened to disappear beneath a riot of vines, branches, saplings and towering trees. An old woman sat by the gate, sequestering three pounds from me – one for entry and two for the camera. She told me it was the entry fee and I was willing to believe her. She warned me that the cemetery was about to close, so I had better make my visit brief if I was not to spend the night with the bones of the dead.

I strode down the path, followed the left fork past the graves of George Elliott and Herbert Spencer to be met by the three metre gravestone, replete with a bust of Marx himself on the top. At a turn in the path, this grave was not buried in the riot of vegetation. ‘Workers of all lands unite!’ and the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach – ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – the point however is to change it’ – were inscribed above and below the names of those buried: Karl, Jenny von Westfalen, Helen Demuth and a grandson, Harry Longuet.

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I had time to take a few shots with my simple camera and slip away to avoid being locked in. Now I needed a toilet and a beer on this humid London day. On a second beer by the window of the Rose and Crown pub on Highgate Road I scribbled some notes on Marx in London, where he found the most advanced workings of capitalism in England (if only he could see it now!) and sought to analyse its trends and workings. I supposed that some of the buildings would have been hereabouts when the Marx family moved to Kentish Town, with a little more money (thanks to Engels) from the grinding poverty of Soho and a chance for some quieter, less cramped living.

At that time, I was more interested in the living, at least at the time of Marx and Engels. I reflected less on the grave site itself. But that would come.

Second time, coincidence

Eight years later I was in London again – not a frequent occurrence – and this time with my partner. Now it was November, a little cooler, and the path to the cemetery was not entirely unknown. Still we had to pay for entry, up to two pounds each, but nothing for the camera. And still was it overgrown, despite the best efforts of the Friends of Highgate.

But now I became interested in the history, not so much of Marx and family, but of the grave itself. It was of course the main attraction of the whole cemetery, even with its other illustrious residents. The current site is not the original one, for Marx had been buried in Jenny’s modest grave on a small side path. At his funeral, on 17 March, 1883, only eleven mourners were present – a small gathering given Marx’s extraordinary importance since. They were his daughters Eleanor and Laura (Jenny had already died), their husbands and a handful of fellow communists. The ceremony was simple, with brief words in German, French and English, from the leader of the German Social-Democratic party, Charles Longuet (a son-in-law) and Engels. After two telegrams were read out from parties in France and Spain, the small funeral party returned to Marx’s home on Maitland Park Road in Kentish Town for the wake. Sadly, a week later, the remainder of the family was back at the grave to bury his young grandson, Harry Longuet.

What a contrast the following year made. Now over 5,000 people gathered, organised by the Communistic Working Men’s Club in London. Far more than a quiet show of respect, this was a full demonstration, with the plan to march, to the beat of a band, to the cemetery and give rousing speeches in German, French and English. But the cemetery directors were nervous, so the police forced the demonstration to stop in some vacant land near the cemetery. The event was peaceful enough, with people listening to the speeches, cheering and heading home.

In the years that followed, the old grave became a site of pilgrimage. Lenin visited with a group of Bolsheviks in 1903, when they were in London for an early congress.

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In 1956, a large group of Soviet sailors paid a visit and in 1968 the Soviet ambassador formally laid a wreath on the grave, captured in a newsreel:

But the sailors and the ambassador had actually paid their respects at the new grave. More than forty years earlier, people had begun to feel that the run-down state of the grave was unacceptable for a person such as Marx. For instance, in 1923, at the Socialist Annual Conference, the delegate Charles McLean described his effort to find the grave: ‘only after an hour’s search’ was he ‘able to stand at the foot of the grave’. He spoke of the sad state of the grave, feeling that someday ‘there would be international pilgrimages to Highgate Cemetery – just as there were pilgrimages to Mecca by the Moslems’. Surely a better memorial was needed.

The first response came from the Soviet Union. Feeling that the UK government was derelict in its duty, they proposed in the late 1920s to exhume Marx and bring him to Moscow where he would be remembered with due respect. 115 descendants of Marx signed a petition to add weight to the request. It was refused.

Here is the old grave in a newsreel from 1948:

Was there an alternative? On a rainy, cold night in November of 1954, five men met in secret at the grave. They erected a canvas screen, lit some oil lamps and undertook the unenviable task of exhuming the four coffins and their remains. In stealth, they bore the crumbling coffins to a new site, which had been excavated next to the main path where a cedar tree had been felled. The men were sworn to secrecy, so the story slowly leaked out, as the Daily Mail reports. Two more years would pass as Laurence Bradshaw sculpted the massive new memorial: an imposing bust of Marx on a granite plinth with the now famous gold lettering with quotations from Marx and the names of those buried. The planning of the whole project and the raising of funds was undertaken by the Marx Memorial Fund, established the Communist Party. Harry Pollitt unveiled the new memorial before a large crowd in 1956.

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Third time, enemy action

Another eight years were to pass before I returned to Marx’s grave, about which I now knew a little more. As a signal of the changing dynamics of world politics, if not world socialism, I was accompanied by a young Chinese student of Marxism.

Again it was November, again it was rainy and cool, and again it was reasonable walk from the Underground Station. Yet now the entrance had a sizeable booth, set up by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. Entry was now four pounds, with a plea to assist the friends in maintaining the cemetery.

Many have been the visitors before we returned. And not all of them with the best intentions. With the prominent new memorial, right wingers have since 1956 snuck into the cemetery in the dead of night to deface the grave site with swastikas and slogans. In 1965 and then again in 1970 they went so far as to attempt to blow up the monument, as the Camden New Journal reports. On the second occasion, the would-be vandals, believing the bust to be hollow, spent many hours sawing off the nose with a view to pouring the explosives through the hole. A simply knock or two at the beginning would have told them that the bust was anything but hollow. Frustrated, they detonated the gunpowder and shrapnel next to the memorial, causing £600 worth of damage – although most of this was actually the damage to the nose.

Yet the vast majority of those who visit come to pay their respects. On this occasion, we were joined by some others. A man sat quietly by, enjoying a cigarette and pondering the universe and Marx. A Spanish couple took photographs, especially with him holding his fist in the air. We too took photographs, and the Chinese student was thrilled to be at the grave of the man responsible for setting her own government on the path of Marxism.

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Apart from the community of the living, I became interested in the community of the dead. The grave itself has four who keep one another company, including the strong woman and housekeeper Helen Demuth. But over time, others gathered in the vicinity. Earlier comrades include the Trinidad-born Claudia Vera Jones, socialist and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival , and Yusuf Mohamed Dadoo, the Muslim Indian South African communist and anti-apartheid activist (d. 1983). He was interred – with a full Muslim burial – beside Saad Saadi Ali, the Iraqi communist.

These and some others I had already seen in 1999. Yet in 2015 I noticed that the practice continues. Even closer to the Marx grave are those who have died only a few years ago: Nuno de Azevedo (d. 2005); the Russian Wladimir Krysko (d. 2009 at 98); the Australian Ian Mathews (d. 2010); Joseph Kirlew (d. 2011); Dorothy Dove (d. 2011); Lindsay McNeil (d. 2015). Intrigued by the practice, I wondered: is it that the spirit of Marx provides a beneficial aura? Or is it a sense of the comradeship of the dead? If so, the party grows year by year.

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The Politics of Script

‘If we are unable to read the script, then we are unable to read’. So it is said concerning the ‘traditional’ Chinese script. The saying is really a lament concerning the most recent process of simplification of the script. Of course, it was Mao Zedong and others who instigated this change, which unfolded over half a century from the 1930s to the script used by the vast majority of Chinese, in the People’s Republic and around the globe.

But why lament the process of simplifying the script? For some, the very nature of the script has become a marker of an intellectual and scriptural tradition of more than three millennia. For others, a script that can be used by so many diverse languages and dialects acts as a potent sense of unity. So to simplify the script is seen by these people as an attack on the tradition and on the unity of China. However, the script has also been a symbol of class, or better, caste. The ability to read and write belonged to the select few in the imperial administration, especially those who had undergone the arduous examination system for entry and promotion into that service. The result was that no more than ten per cent of the population as a whole were able to use this formidable and complex script. The remaining ninety per cent – peasants – had no hope of learning it and were actively prevented from using it. Writing was not only a means of power, as Lévi-Strauss would have it, but also of caste.

Compare, for instance, the traditional character for ‘horse’ (馬) with the simplified version (马), or indeed the second character in ‘university’ (學 versus 学).

The communist challenge to the traditional script was therefore a challenge to the power of that scribal ruling class. It was, of course, not simply a challenge to the script. The primary motivation was to empower the peasants, not merely through a new socio-economic system and army training, but also through the ability to read and write. The simplification of the script was therefore a means to this empowerment. The first steps were taken back in the 1930s, in the Yan’an Soviet (where the Red Army had ended the Long March). In the makeshift schools established in huts, cave-houses, and in the open, peasants were taught to read and write in large numbers. To ease the process, a simplified script along with the pinyin (Romanised) system was developed along the lines proposed by Qian Xuantong. The success of the project ensured that the new and easier script would eventually become national policy, a policy that continues today with the latest List of Commonly Used Standardized Characters published in June, 2013. Needless to say, the initial act of simplifying the script undermined the very claim to superiority by the intellectuals who had preserved the traditional script for themselves.

In this respect, some of these intellectuals have never forgiven Mao for what he did. Their response has been to establish a common assumption that the simplified script was a dumbing down – for peasants – of China’s literary and cultural heritage. They also managed to secure the astonishing assumption that Taiwan is more traditional than the mainland. Any visitor to Taiwan can see that it is deeply Americanised and more pervasively capitalised than the mainland. ‘Traditional’ is certainly not a word that comes to mind easily, if at all. Yet, many on the mainland insist it is more traditional. Why? It is simply because Taiwan has not broken with the traditional script. Forget the fact that the Guomintang kept that script as an explicitly elitist, anti-communist measure once it had escaped to Taiwan. Indeed, forget the fact that the process of simplification has itself gone through waves from the time of the Qin dynasty of the late third century BCE, with perhaps the most significant effort during the May Fourth Movement after 1919.

In light of all this, it becomes a little easier to understand the Cultural Revolution. ‘To the countryside’ was the slogan. The intellectuals accustomed to their caste superiority, to keeping the cogs of bureaucracy running, to keeping the peasants ignorant, were now told to learn from the peasants. The intellectuals were not, of course, to give up being intellectuals, but to learn a new way of being so. And a crucial part of that process was to use the simplified script. It is a useful reminder of the depth of Mao’s challenge to the vested interests of intellectuals that he also pondered whether to abolish the script entirely and simply use the Romanised pinyin system. Perhaps he took to heart Lu Xun’s statement, ‘If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die’.

I, for one, am grateful for the simplification. Given that it is a little more difficult to learn a new language as one gets older, and given that Chinese is a challenge at the best of times, the process of learning is somewhat easier with the new script. That is not to say it easy in itself, but I am thankful indeed that I do not need to learn the traditional script.

The Villages of Hebei

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‘Qing jin’, she says. ‘Come in’.

Her wind-browned face opens up with a smile and crinkles in the corners of her eyes as she shows me the kitchen. A large wok-shaped bowl sits in a low brick platform. Beneath it the fire of corn stalks is about to be lit to cook the midday meal. Nearby is a simple cutting board propped upon an up-ended barrel; a knife and some fresh green onions lie upon it.

‘Water?’ I wonder. She points outside to the pump, which brings water up from the well. Immediately, she hands me a bowl of water to taste. My eyes light up! Ah, the freshest and sweetest water I have sipped in a long time, especially since I have been living in Beijing for a few months.

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But now I am not in Beijing. I am in the mountains of Hebei province, visiting some small villages. A visit such as this is not really possible for a foreigner travelling on his or her own. In fact, it is difficult even for Chinese people from other parts of this vast country. Dialect is the key, for when locals hear someone speaking their own tongue, they automatically trust them and invite them into their simple homes. Fortunately, I have a local man, along with a couple of his friends, to show me around. Only in this way can we be invited into people’s homes, sit around and talk, share some food and a smoke or two.

Keeping It Simple

Simplicity – this is the key to village life hereabouts, some of them having as few as half a dozen families. As our car pulls up in the narrow laneway of the first village, the local boy (our driver) blasts his horn a few times to let people know we have arrived. Out of the house comes his sister, with the wonderful smiling face and wise, inquisitive eyes. A couple of her children are there too, as well as her mother. After many ‘nihaos’ and shaking of hands, I am invited inside. I duck and pass beneath the lintel of the double wooden gate, with its two fierce demon posters to keep the evil spirits away. All around me are vegetable gardens with new spring crops poking through the soil – the ubiquitous onion family of these parts, joined by some chillies and bitter cucumbers. I pause beside a large barrow, with its handbrake to keep a heavy load from rolling away down a slope (and in the mountains, level ground is scarce). Before I know it, I am persuaded to push the barrow across the yard, posing in ridiculous positions for the inevitable photos. The barrow rolls to a stop beside a wooden lid on the ground and our local boy lifts the lid and beckons me down, down into the depths of an underground storage facility for vegetables during the winter (where they do not freeze).

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As soon as I have squeezed out of the narrow hole in the ground – while pondering the diminutive size of the human beings for whom the hole was constructed – I am led inside, into the kitchen with its cooking stove and peanut-shaped heater. Here are some well-worn stools, for around the heater people sit during the bitter winters, warming themselves, smoking, talking. I walk through to the living area, which doubles up as the first bedroom. Again, simplicity strikes me: a worn lounge, a large bed, a single dressing table resting against the wall, in which all of the family’s clothes are kept. Scanning the plastered walls covered with old print as wall paper, my eyes light up.

‘Xi Jiping!’ I say.

All laugh and nod at the colourful poster of President Xi Jiping and his wife.

But the second and more dedicated bedroom is the highlight, into which we walk from the living space. Here the bed is a large wooden structure with a colourful cover and blankest neatly folded in the corner. Hard beds are simply the norm – good for one’s back I am told repeatedly. To eat, one sits on the bed cross-legged (which I do with delight), with a very low table lifted into place for the bowls of food.

Looking up, I cry out again: ‘Chairman Mao!’

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On the wall is a large poster of Chairman Mao sitting in his wicker chair, cigarette in hand and the mountains of Hunan in the background. What better way to sleep than with the chairman watching over you?

By now others have turned up, hearing quickly of the laowai visiting the village. More ‘nihaos’ and requests for the photographs follow, while the master of the house crouches down to prepare a snack for me. I join her, enjoying the company. She hands me some fresh shallots, freshly picked from the garden. I pass a few around, and munch gleefully on the remainder. Some berries follow, which I have never eaten before. And then she sits in the sun and lights a cigarette. My quizzical look evinces the explanation that women in the countryside smoke more, for they do not have the inhibitions of city girls.


As we talk, I am reminded of a comment from Marshall Sahlins: ‘There are after all two roads to satisfaction, to reducing the gap between means and ends: producing much or desiring little’. Clearly, these people desire little. Even their clothes are few and worn for days, if not weeks at a time. The sheer simplicity of their lives is immensely appealing, an impression that is reinforced by a few other homes. One has only two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom-living room. Up on the hill of a village with only five families, the home is close to the goat herd, with which I mingle as they thrust their mouths into my hands for the corn I hold. Inside the home, I admire the view from the front door, while their younger son comes up beside me and pisses out of the door onto the slope below. In yet another small village, another woman with an immensely pleasant face invites us into her home.


No matter that we – including a foreigner – have emerged from the trees on foot as she is working in a field with her twin daughters. She welcomes us in and calls her daughters to say hello in English – which they do, proudly. Here a mule or two are still used for traction, and a heavy stone hand-mill stands in the midst of the village for hulling grain. Here too the water is fresh from a well, but we must drink it all and not waste it, for otherwise the local dragon will be angry as such wastage.

As we leave she returns to the field with her daughters, engaging in the age-old practices of manual agriculture. An almost fossilised man leading a mule passes us by.


I ask: how is the absence of private property managed? I am told that every ten years or so, the land to be cultivated is reallocated among the villagers depending on family needs and abilities. Now this is an ancient practice, one that goes back millennia: the social determination of production, in which communal concerns are paramount. Private property in land is simply useless in such an environment, apart from the fact that it negates speculation in land.

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The Teacher

In each village, our presence draws out others, who gather not so much to gape at the foreigner, but to welcome us all. Unlike the provincial cities and towns, a foreigner seems no big deal. One of those who says hello is the local teacher in charge of the school. Neatly dressed in white shirt and pants, he invites me to come and look at his school.

A short walk along the dirt road reveals a pair of high gates, behind which are two white-washed buildings with a playground in between. With a massive bunch of keys, the teacher opens one colourful and well-ordered room after another. He shows me walls and blackboards full of the careful examples of how to write Chinese characters, textbooks with stories of the Long March, and – with much pride – the new computer room. But my delight is the teacher’s office, festooned with images of Gorki and Lu Xun … and Engels. Beneath the bearded Engels he stands for a moment, and I manage to capture the moment.

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An even greater delight is the final moment of my visit. In my honour, he pulls the Chinese flag, all red with its stars in the corner. I hold the flag as he raises it aloft on the flagpole, where it unfurls its announcement to the rest of the village.

Socialist the village may be, but it is also traditional. As I pass outside the school gates, I notice a small structure to our right.

‘Is that a shrine’, I ask while walking towards it.

‘Yes,’ says my translator. ‘Here we pray to the local gods’.

‘For what?’ I say.

‘Oh, for rain’, she says. ‘And for good crops’.

The red flag of the People’s Republic flutters close by.

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My access to the villages, to the school, inside people’s homes, and even into the intimacy of conversation in the simplicity of life is predicated on the fact that we have a local boy with us. He may live in the big smoke (a term that takes on whole new meaning in Beijing), but his home is still here. One of the extended family homes is his, and his sisters and brothers are all about. The homes – bar one – that we visit are of his family. A sister here, a brother there, while sons and daughters and parents and grandparent are always present, let alone uncles, aunts, cousins ….


I would still be welcome if this were not the case, but the intimate closeness would not be felt. No embarrassment that a foreigner may have to use a toilet that is little more than a hole in the ground (with a shed), or that he may have to sit on a lounge that has seen far better days. Instead, they simply assume: this is our life, take us as we are, since we take you as you are.

Knowing the strength of kinship structures in theory is all very well, in all it benefits and drawbacks. But experiencing it in the way I do is another matter entirely. It strikes me one evening as we sit around a dinner table, eating local food of goat and fresh vegetables, mostly of the onion family. You wrap the various items in a large lettuce leaf, make a roll of sorts, and daub it liberally with a pungent sauce. And you drink a local and fiery brew. As the spirited toasts begin, I offer a few Australian expressions, repeating them so my hosts learn the specific feel of the drawn-out vowels and their intonations.

‘What is the word for one’s closest friend?’ I am asked.

‘Maaaaaate’, I say, with a drop and then slow rise in inflection as the vowel passes through its various modulations. ‘Actually, it’s a “good maaaaaate,” or “good on’ya maaate”’.

We practice and practice again until they have mastered the peculiarities of Australian dialects.

‘What about Chinese?’ I ask.

‘Bi xuuuuuuuuuude!’ Says our local boy, with a high a sustained ‘uuuu’.

In my turn I practice until I come close.

‘But what does it mean?’ I ask.

‘It’s what you say to your gemener’, he says. ‘Your closest brother. From now on, you are my gemener’.


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