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.


Believer Without Belief: Two Levels of Party Membership

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

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

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

‘It’s a long process’, he said.

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

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

‘Tests?’ I said.

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

‘Really?’ I said.

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

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

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

‘What did you say?’ I asked.

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

‘Unburdening? I suggested. ‘Testing you?’

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

‘Go on …’, I said.

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

‘To prepare you for disappointment?’ I said.

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

‘Criticism and self-criticism!’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What about now?’ I said.

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

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

‘Of course’, he said.

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

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

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

‘Yes’, he said.

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

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

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

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

Meeting Isabel Crook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why priceless?’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How did they go?’ I said.

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

She also experienced socialism in power during the Cultural Revolution.

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

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

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

‘What did they do?’ I said.

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

We laughed.

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

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

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

‘How so?’ I said.

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

‘What?’ I said.

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

‘No’, I said.


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

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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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Search for Meaning

‘Chinese people lack a sense of meaning’, he said. ‘They are lost, unsure of what counts, missing a core’.

Four of us sat around a small meal table, discussing the small, everyday things of life – such as life, death, politics and meaning.

‘But what about you?’ I asked. ‘Do you have a core set of beliefs by which you live your life?’

He nodded. ‘Yes, I do’.

‘And you?’ I said to woman next to him.

‘Yes, of course’, she said.

‘And you?’ Now to the woman next to me.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But that’s exactly the problem. In a recent survey, about 70% said that China lacks a core set of beliefs by which to live. But when each person was asked whether she or he has such beliefs, 70% of them said yes, they do’.

This paradox set me searching. Three areas drew me in as I talked with people across China, one concerning the exchange of ideas, another the question of religion and meaning, and a third xiao, filial piety.

Exchanging Ideas: Between East and West

My first foray did not bode well for my search. I was talking with a woman after a lecture I had given for students and faculty at a major university in China. The topic was one on which I had spoken often – Marxism and religion.

‘I couldn’t understand what you were saying’, she said.

‘Was it my English?’ I said.

‘No, no’, she said. ‘We had the English text and a Chinese translation. I read through them both carefully. I could understand each sentence, but they didn’t seem to connect to make a main point’.

‘We’d call that missing the forest for the trees’, I said.

She laughed. ‘Exactly! That captures it’.

After this discussion I was a little alarmed. Had all those overflowing lecture halls, conference venues, small groups and intimate gatherings simply missed the point of what I had been saying until now? Was I that obtuse, unclear, muddled?

‘You know’, she said, ‘whenever a Chinese lecturer speaks, she or he goes straight to the main point, to the core issue. But when you, or any other outsider I have heard, speak, it seems like a mass of detail and I can’t find the main point’.

I had come across all manner of characterisations of Chinese or indeed Asian education. They are taught to listen and absorb the words of the master, it is said, never to think critically or question. On my first visit to China, I found that was absolute crap. Students fearlessly and vigorously challenge all and sundry on the big issues. Chinese academia is slowly catching up to other places, it is said, and it has a long way to go – quality control, intellectual depth, awareness of the richness of Western thought. They may occasionally stumble across the odd book from the West and become all excited about it, but they really don’t know what they are talking about. And on it goes – one chauvinistic piece of grandstanding after another.

But this conversation after my lecture set me thinking, inquiring, returning to ask more. For here lay a profound difference in intellectual life, a stumbling block for many a Chinese student heading overseas to pursue their studies elsewhere. Slowly what characterises a Western approach dawned on me – and the West really begins somewhere around Iran (ancient Persia) with a Near West and a Far West.

An argument works through a mass of detail to a carefully qualified conclusion, the main point held off until the end in a curious form of delayed satisfaction. On the way there it must wade through a mass of detailed commentary, struggle through the thick undergrowth of references and footnotes, deal with objections (real or imagined), until the conclusion. Like a hunter pursuing a particularly evasive quarry, it finally emerges triumphant, the tattered and sorry-looking central point held aloft triumphantly. Never mind that the reader or audience has been snoring for some time now.

By contrast, a Chinese speaker sprints at breakneck speed to the central issue. He or she states it boldly, clearly, and then explores its implications. Now the details appear, the careful attention to a text or idea, the confrontation with objections. Yet all of this is constantly drawn back to the main point, elaborating and reiterating it.

For students brought up in either tradition, the generic expectations become quite distinct, the modes of thought and listening move differently. To a Western student, a Chinese lecture or paper seems blunt and unsophisticated, missing the nuance of an argument. To a Chinese student, a Western speaker simply trots out endless detail, massing together loosely related ideas. During the process, the conclusion is lost amidst the clutter, as though one had no real point to make at all, as though one were afraid of dealing with anything important.

Search for Religious Meaning

Wondering if I would ever find the answer, I found myself at Jining, the birthplace of Confucius no less, speaking with a beautiful woman, with fine features and a glorious smile. (Was my search fated to such encounters?)

‘What is your advice?’ She said bluntly. ‘What religion, if any, should I choose?’

She had approached me after listening to a discussion on Jesus and Confucius. We agreed to walk around the lake, through exquisite gardens along winding paths. She told me of her love of French (the language), of her three years in France, of her teaching, of her daughter and husband, of her study of accounting and her dislike of that subject, of desires to study further. I listened, asked questions, mistook what she sought … thinking it may be a conventional desire to study overseas.

But no, she was in a search for meaning. Difficult to express without sounding corny, but it was very much a personal search, a desire to locate some core that seemed to escape her. Here at last was someone who admitted that she lacked a core set of beliefs – rather than attributing it to others.

‘Chinese are very practical’, she said. ‘If one god will help us achieve something, we follow that god. If another provides a new possibility, we follow that one’.

She had been struck by my self-identification as a Christian communist and wished to know what that meant. After I had explained, we returned again to that question, ‘what should I choose’.

‘Of course, I can’t tell you that’, I said. ‘That is up to you’.

She felt that in the face of rapid changes, of a Chinese modernism, of the appropriation of some elements of capitalist economic relations – in the face of all this, the world she once knew had been turned upside down. Where to search? The West gave false hopes and facile propaganda. The deep return to the Chinese classics, Confucius included, signalled that search and many possible answers. It struck me that such a search is not a signal of crisis but of an extraordinarily creative period in modern Chinese history, one simply not possible in so many places in the world.

But then I asked about her parents. ‘They are communists’, she said.

‘What about you?’ I said.

‘I don’t know’.

‘Do you think it is worth re-examining that extraordinary heritage you have, of engaging in some really creative rethinking over it? After all, I envy you deeply since you actually have had a communist revolution’.

Parents, Children and Filial Piety (Xiao)

In the end, the answer to my exploration of this paradox of meaning may well be found at the mundane, everyday level of relations between parents and children. How do they really get on in China?

I was intrigued by this question, since so many elderly live with their offspring. The thought of my mother – no matter how much I love her – or indeed both our mothers living with us is enough to give me the most dreadful nightmares. So how do they manage in China?

To begin with, the Confucian virtue of ‘filial piety’ (xiao) plays a crucial role. This is the cultural assumption that children of whatever age will show respect and deference to their parents, indeed any elders. Even a brief visit to China will soon evince the great respect and admiration shown for the very old. Of course, people complain that it is breaking down (that kind of narrative is trotted out about every young generation), but it is really as strong as ever.

Intrigued about all of this, I asked a friend whose mother lives with her: ‘what is it like? Does your mother still tell you what to do, like mine?’

‘No, she doesn’t need to’, was the response.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘I know what I should do’, she said.

‘So your mother doesn’t tell you what you are doing wrong, ask where you have been, tell you should be doing something else?’

‘No’, she said.

‘But do you do what you are supposed to do?’ I asked.

‘Not always’, she said.

‘How does that work?’ I asked.

She went on to explain that even though she knows what she should do in respect to her mother, and even though her mother assumes that she is doing what she should do, she doesn’t always do it. Her mother never asks, and she never tells her mother, each one assuming that they are following the unwritten rules, while simultaneously knowing that they don’t.

Got it? It took me a while to figure out this deeper meaning of filial piety. But it makes sense, for in no other way would it be possible to live for years with one’s parents in the same place.

Is this perhaps the secret to the paradox with which I began? In this lived paradox of filial piety we might also find one answer to the paradox of the simultaneous absence and pervasive presence of meaning.

Red Petrograd

Snow blanketed the sky, swirled around buildings, cut visibility to a few metres. Petersburgers huddled deeper in their coats, heads ducked in an attempt to see their way through the driving snow. It was supposed to be spring. In fact, spring had begun not a couple of weeks before with mild temperatures, chattering birds returning to nest, trees budding, first crops sprouting, human beings with inquisitive eyes romping about (and over each other) with the broadest smiles and the randiest bodies. But now winter was back, with its snow storms, bitter winds along the Neva and icy footpaths to negotiate.

I had not come to see a white St. Petersburg; I had come to visit Red Petrograd, home of the first successful communist revolution in October, 1917. For then, after an unsuccessful revolution of 1905 and later the toppling of Tsar Nicholas II in February, 1917, the Bolsheviks had seized power and begun the arduous and infinitely challenging task of creating a communist society and economy. And it had all happened first in what was then Petrograd – later to become Leningrad.

How much of that defining moment of the twentieth century would remain in the city, especially after two decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991? Western news reports at the time presented images of toppling statues of Lenin, the banishing of the old order from memory and history, the divesting of all that had happened since 1917. Locally, Lenin’s memory was trashed by the new order and an effort made to connect with the political path taken by the bourgeoisie after the first revolution in February of 1917. Stolypin had become the hero, the man who attempted to reform the country in a mild middle class manner, but who was swept away by the situation generated by the First World War, widespread economic and social collapse, and the fiery, revolutionary fervour of the masses.

So I set out to find Red Petrograd, with the help of Sergey, who had returned to his beloved city some years before and who walked its streets endlessly.

Finland Station

First would be Finlandskii, the Finland Station at which Lenin and the first group of exiled revolutionaries came back to Russia in April of 1917 (I was there at the same time of year, 95 years later). They had arrived here in the famed ‘sealed train’, travelling from Switzerland, through wartime Germany (the Germans did not object to assisting those who may end the Russian war effort), over the Baltic Sea to Sweden and then by train through Finland to Russia. To their surprise, Lenin and Krupskaya and the rest were met by a massive crowd of workers, soldiers and Bolshevik leaders. They had expected possible arrest on their arrival, perhaps an unnoticed arrival, but not this.

And then Lenin shocked them with his speech on arrival, delivered from the top of an armoured car: the February Revolution was but the preamble, he said. We have not won yet, for we must seize power ourselves. Even his closest comrades listened with open-mouthed surprise, thinking Lenin had gone perhaps a little mad. Had they not already had a revolution? Had not the tsar already abdicated? Were not the various socialist parties already represented in the Provisional Assembly? Lenin would be proved correct, but he spent the next few months persuading his wary comrades.

Before the Finland Station he still stands, captured by a sculptor as he addressed the stunned crowd. Arm outstretched, mouth open to speak, the chin of history jutting forward. But one also notices at his crotch a well-defined fly and a prominent bulge. A joke by the sculptor, or perhaps another signal of his revolutionary virility? But the statue is by no means the only mark of that crucial moment. The armoured car on which he stood to deliver his speech is also to be found, ensconced in a room of the Russian Museum. Inside the Finland Station, preserved within its own glass shed, is the locomotive that pulled the train into the station. Even the second-hand bookshop, upstairs at the station, is reputed to have copies of his Collected Works in Russian. Unfortunately, the upstairs region was closed for renovation when we called, so I was unable to grab my copy (all 55 volumes!).


Walking back over the Neva River, with a view of the gold spires of Peter-Paul Fortress (where Lenin and many other revolutionaries had been imprisoned for a shorter or longer time), we spied the grey outlines of the cruiser Aurora.

Now this is a ship with a history. We were led around by an old fossil who seemed as though he was on the Aurora when it was first launched, late in the nineteenth century. The ship was one of the few that survived the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Ill-fated was that war, at least from the Russian Imperial perspective, but not for the Japanese or even the revolutionaries, who revelled in the humiliation of the tsar’s regime. That unpopular war was one of the factors that led to a crucial radicalisation of the armed forces, so that significant sections went over the communists in 1917.

But Aurora, and the garrison of Kronstadt where it was housed, had gone over long before. Forming their own soviet, voting on all issues, keeping the commanders on a leash, Kronstadt was a hive of revolutionary activity (it was to suffer for being almost too revolutionary after the Bolsheviks seized power, for the Kronstadt rebellion of 1918 was crushed with much desperation).

Back in 1917, the Aurora etched itself into the annals of history by sailing up the Neva River on the night of the October Revolution and aiming its guns at the Peter-Paul fortress. The garrison there soon enough decided to join the Bolsheviks, so the ship turned its guns on the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Assembly (formed after the earlier revolution in February Revolution of the same year) was making a last stand. A blank shot was both the signal to storm the Winter Palace and a reminder that significant firepower was on the side of the communists.

By the time the palace fell into Bolshevik hands, the Aurora had ensured that it would not be turned into scrap metal. Our guide told us of its subsequent duty, its use as sleeping quarters and a training facility for naval cadets and the many honours bestowed upon it. I marvelled at how 570 men could make such a small space their home (hammocks were slung above the dining table at night), at the demountable chapel that could be moved up on deck during fine weather, at the corner in which the two bears on board slept, and at the endless Soviet insignia, badges, posters, flags and honours. Hammers and sickles abounded throughout the ship.

Above all, I stood at the foot of the gun that fired that round in the Revolution itself.

Mars Field

‘What about Mars Field?’ said Sergey as we disembarked.

‘Mars Field?’ I inquired.

‘Yes, it used to the place where protests would first gather before marching out on the streets. But it is often deserted these days’.

I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck and intercepted a drop from my nose as the cold took its effect. After negotiating the windy streets, we walked out into the vast space of Mars Field while the snow continued to flurry about. In the middle is a square surrounded by a two-metre stone wall. In each corner are three fir trees and in the centre of each wall is an opening. At the central point of the square stone wall is an eternal flame that burns to the memory of those who fell in the October Revolution and in the ‘civil’ war that followed for some four years – ‘civil’ since the White Armies were funded, equipped and assisted with troops by the international forces opposed to the new communist state.

But we were in for a surprise: a plaque announced that the eight poems engraved on each side of the entry points to the square were penned by none other than Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky. But who in the world is Lunacharsky? He was a poet, playwright, polemicist, gifted orator, romantic, art and literary critic, prolific writer, expert on the history of religions, revolutionary, inspired first Commissar for Enlightenment in the new Soviet government, key to winning over the intelligentsia to the new project of constructing communism, and even the one who coined the term ‘cultural revolution’. He was hailed by admirers throughout the new Russia as ‘a true apostle of enlightenment’, as the representative of ‘the spiritual dictatorship of the proletariat’. In short, Lunacharsky was one of the most fascinating figures of the Russian Revolution. But he was also the most articulate spokesman for God-building (bogostroitel’stvo), in which he sought to harness the ‘warm stream’ of Marxism in terms of enthusiasm, passion, art, the communist elements of religions such as Christianity, so much so that communism would itself draw upon the best features of religion.

His poems engraved in stone spoke of martyrs, seeds sprouting from the fields of the fallen, of the new world that was being created, of the sheer moments of grandeur to which their grandchildren would bow down in awe.

In each corner of the commemorative square a red flag still flew. A bouquet of flowers lay by the eternal flame.

‘I have not seen that in quite a while’, said Sergey, pointing to the flowers. He also told me how at the most recent annual festival of the paratroopers (held in August, which I had witnessed in all its bacchanalian glory on my previous visit), a section of the parade had veered off and come here to pay its respects.


‘And Smolny?’ I asked.

‘Smolny?’ said Sergey. ‘I’ve never been there, so perhaps it is about time’.

He asked a thick-set policeman, who pointed us to Smolny Institute, a little away from the centre of town. Smolny, hard by a cathedral of the same name (now a concert hall, as it was in Soviet days), was taken over by the Petrograd Soviet, the Military Revolutionary Committee and the Bolsheviks in those heady days of September and October, 1917. It became the nerve centre of the revolution – cars and trucks would race off and back, with urgent messages, leaflets, posters, red Guards, equipment and what have you. Armoured cars stood guard, lights blared, people barely slept, keeping up a frenzied pace as the revolution unfolded. Smolny was a hive buzzing with urgent activity.

Now it is – believe it or not – the Governor of St. Petersburg’s residence and office. As one of the two cities in the Russian Federation (the other is Moscow), here still lies the seat of power.

‘Is there a museum?’ We asked the guard. There is a Lenin room, he told us, but you need to make an appointment to see it. And appointments could not be made for five minutes hence. Next time, we vowed. I was content enough, for before Smolny stands Lenin, in a gesture of urgent speech, clothes swirling about him, intense look on his face.

Lenin looked out over the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship, which stretches out before Smolny. Walk down the wide avenue through its centre and you meet Engels, framed by the cupolas of the Smolny Cathedral – appropriately, for he may have lost his Reformed faith as he became a communist, but he maintained a lively interest in the revolutionary possibilities of religion until his death in 1895.

Engels faces across the avenue to Marx, who stands there in eternal reflection. Unlike Mars Field, the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship is full of people; or children, to be precise, for parents bring their children here to play and meet other kids.

‘Future revolutionaries’, said Sergey with a smile. ‘There’s hope yet’.

Coming Home to China

This is a place where one has never been before, although it is still native to us

(Ernst Bloch, Spirit of Utopia, p. 120).

From using a squat toilet on a moving train to open political discussions, from Harry High-Pants to the cultural revolution, from a Shanghai street to the strange feeling of having come home, this journey through China was a proverbial eye-opener.

I had come for an impossibly quick tour, a string of lectures in Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The original plan had been for roughly three days in each, up to three lectures in each, with a rail journey (where possible) in between for a pleasure and a break. I ended up staying in Shanghai for five days and the vertigo-inducing Hong Kong for barely more than twenty-four hours. But it was in Shanghai that I first felt that strange feeling of having come home at last.

Shanghai? With the total population of Australia gathered in one vast city, with its impossibly bad air (you can see the smog wreathed around the buildings at the end of the street), with its commercial frenzy, crazy bicycle riders, the busiest port in the world … Still it felt like I was coming home to a place I had never been before. This piece is an effort to understand why.


To be sure, China is strange enough to a Western visitor, even one from that country which finds itself caught between the West and the East, culturally hanging onto the last threads of a Western heritage, geographically and commercially part of South-East Asia. The list of its unfamiliarities are potentially endless – language, with meaning hinging on careful attention to intonation and lilt, the seeming chaos of city-life, the traffic, the food, the patterns of social interaction – but they are not what really struck me as so strange. Instead, it was the Harry High-Pants (or bodily carriage), squat toilets on jostling trains, and politics.

Harry High-Pants

One of the perpetually fascinating features of different countries and cultures is bodily carriage, the way the shoulders move just so, whether buttocks are clenched or pushed out, the tilt, sway and way of moving one’s head. Scandinavian men may walk as though they have a pole up their arses, swaggering stiffly, knees bent in a cowboy bow, toes pointed outwards; Australians may move a little more smoothly, slightly slouched, uncertain of their place in the world. But Chinese men of a certain vintage – anything past the mid-thirties – begin to sport a loose pair of pants belted up to the armpits, shirt (polo or button-up) tucked firmly in. In movement, the torso remains still, the legs moving of their own deliberate accord. A street full of such men was a weird sight indeed.

Squat Toilet on a Jolting Train

Yet the High-Pants were only the beginning, for the experience of using a squat toilet on a moving train reminds you that you are way outside your comfort zone. It happened at last on a standard rail journey – about 21 hours – between Shanghai and Zhenshang (near Hong Kong). I had held on as long as I could, but eventually the moment of truth arrived; with bowels ready to burst I realised that to hold on any would lead to serious internal injuries. I also realised that the decision to catch an ordinary train in order to meet ordinary people in China had certain consequences. One of them was the fact that I needed 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 I am sure is travelling much, much faster than it should. What to do? I ignored the sheen of liquid on the floor. Failing that, I tried to imagine that it is water or floor-wash and not piss from the hundreds who have gone before me. I stepped forward and placed my 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. I dropped my pants to a strategic level on my legs to avoid soaking them in the pungent floor wash. I firmly grabbed the handrail directly before me. It was, I realised, there for a purpose. Even though it looked as though previous users had balanced on one foot blind-folded while the train was racing around a curve, I quickly decided that I would by no means try to emulate them. Handrail gripped, eyes wide open, I squatted and let go … and was surprised at how comfortable it really is, despite the initial feeling of having all one’s 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.

I reached for the toilet paper – my own! With some premonition and much travel experience, I had come prepared. This toilet may have had some toilet paper at the start of the trip, but it was long gone by now. I placed the used toilet paper in the basket provided – otherwise I would have blocked the toilet and soon found 300 accusing eyes fixed on me for stuffing up the one avenue for collective relief. Such baskets are of course the reason why Chinese public toilets smell the way they do. Without my precious roll, I may well have had to invoke the old biblical saying: do not let you right hand know what your left hand is doing. As I pulled up my pants, I dug out your vital bottle of dry hand-wash. There was soap, not even water for my own ablutions. Then I did as the Chinese do: sniffed up a good hunk of snot and hacked in the toilet to chase down the steaming deposit I had left behind.

I got out fast; a line of at least was waiting to follow me in and savour my smell.

The Yellow Peril?

My third experience of strangeness was political, although for a vastly different reason to the one I expected. Let me put it this way: the oddness I anticipated – of a communism in which one could not express all one’s political opinions freely – was, to my surprise, about to be completely overturned.

When I arrived in China, my ears were still full of comments like these:

‘China is fundamentally evil and we engage at our peril’, said Andrew Benjamin, an ostensibly intelligent man in Australia.

‘Be careful of those Chinese’, said Tat-siong Benny Lieuw, an ex-pat in the USA.

‘China is dangerous’, said Fernando Segovia, who has Cuban heritage.

‘Make sure they don’t keep you there since they like what you do so much’, said my mother on the eve of my departure for this lecture tour.

One could add many similar observations to the list – a thousand passing comments, misguided newspaper opinion pieces and frowned warnings from the best of friends – but the point is the same: one should be infinitely wary in China. Above all, forget about discussing politics, for soon enough that man over at the other table who had been reading the same page of his book for the last hour would have a quiet word with the powers that be, one’s hosts would receive a quite telephone call and your own application for a visa next time would be held up indefinitely due to unspecified irregularities. All this was of course due to the communist dictatorship in China, where freedom, parliamentary democracy and the right to buy the endlessly useless and badly made products of capitalism were denied to honest Chinese citizens.

My own experience was vastly different: no black limousines and chaperones; no agent appointed to follow me at a discrete distance; no blockage of internet access or skype; no delays at the arrival or departure gates. Instead, the China I found was one of profound openness in discussing all manner of topics.

Around a dinner table in Shanghai they laughed when I told them stories in the newspapers about ‘inscrutable China’, about fears that China was out for world domination, and about the ‘yellow peril’ in Australia. They laughed loudest when I related the fearful and wary statements with which I began this section.

What did we discuss? I had thought some topics would be off limits, so I began cautiously, asking about the nature of contemporary China, about education, wealth and poverty, about a new middle class (the objective conditions exist but there is no subjective identity, which means that the class is unstable may fade away at a moment’s notice), about life in the country, and about communism and capitalism. But soon we moved onto all manner of topics, all of which were on the table for discussion. It was pointed out to me that China is not a violent or aggressive country, despite what is reported in Western media. Intellectuals may be dissenters by confession and conviction, but it was done within a framework in which Marxism was not a marginal approach for a few crackpots or relics for the 60s (if you are old enough); Marxism is part of the mainstream mix, breeding of course its own nominal membership and adherence, but making the debates far more interesting.

We connected through philosophers like Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukács and soon found much common ground, but what I enjoyed being surrounded by sharp minds and the ability to see the complexity of matters, the need to avoid simple dismissal or enthusiastic advocacy. Used to being wary about the Marxist label from time to time, I began to feel as though I had come home in this strange country.

Coming Home?

How could this be, feeling strangely at home in a country I hardly knew? Other elements confirmed this sense of homecoming to a new place, the feel, as Bloch put it, that this place is native to us even though we have never been there before.

With my own sensibilities strongly set to the creative use of space, the dominance of bicycles and trains as modes of human transport, and the rich human interaction of the street, China made itself more and more homely. In countries like Australia, the vast amounts of space have bred an inability to deal with space creatively or efficiently. It is thrown about, wasted, awkwardly encountered, but never made human. In China I was constantly taken with the way the smallest corner became a space for two or three to gather, smoke and talk. On the trains, where scores would sleep within one carriage on the ‘hard sleepers’, a little foldout stool in a busy corridor became a quiet space for contemplation, watching the country go by. And people simply threaded their way through the legs and arms and torsos without a concern.

The trains themselves are an alternative transporter’s dream. With one of the best networks in the world, with passenger trains at 30 carriages or more on each long run, with people accustomed to the feel of human breath, the trains are not to be missed. Forget the bleached experience of flying, the train was for me the way to travel.

If it was not a train, then it was a bicycle. No matter how old, rusty, slow, or loaded up with a household, the bicycle is an inescapable part of Chinese street life. At first it seems like a major miracle that the streets are not scattered with the bodies of erstwhile cyclists, but after a while a certain rhythm begins to show itself. The Chinese approach to harmony, I was told, in which everything flows together in its own way – with the help of plenty of horns and bells and deft weaving. But a city without bicycles is a sad, sad place. On that score, Chinese cities and towns and brimming with joy.

The street itself was perhaps the most fascinating of the lot. In Shanghai, where for a confluence of reasons I was to spend more time than I had planned, I preferred to wander about and sit on the street outside the small hotel where I was staying. Have you been to the Shanghai Expo? I was asked. The museums? The theatre? The temple? No, I preferred the street. For here the fruit and vegetable shop would receive fresh supplies all the long day, selling fresh produce for next to nothing. Next door the Chinese massage parlour plied its trade, the school across the road opened its doors early and closed them late and the phone-booth-sized kiosks on the side of the road sold all manner of wares.

In at least three places an old man with a few pieces of equipment and some spare parts would repair a bicycle’s flat tyre, wobbly wheel, dodgy steering … I was told that these roadside repairers were one reason why Chinese knew next to nothing about repairing their own bicycles, since there would always be someone ready to do the job on the next corner.

But the street never stopped. Old men with Harry High pants spitting, young women strutting, friends talking, a group of boys sucking on a drink, meandering past, an ancient freighter-bicycle passing by with water, vegetables or building materials, motor scooters, often held together with masking tape, buzzing past, children off to school or going home, older women gathering at the vegetable shop to test and discuss the goods, and people stopping to eat, always eating, at a roadside food-stall or in one of the hole-in-the-wall ‘restaurants’. The street was a village to itself and it made me feel very much at home.

All the same, nothing quite managed to do so as much as the centre that had invited me at the university (Fudan in Shanghai). It was not merely the friendly welcome of the people, but above all the very fact that here, in one of the major Chinese universities, they have a Centre for the Study of Marxism Abroad. Every university in the world worth its salt needs a centre like that. If they did, I would feel much more at home in the world.