National Day (Guoqingjie) in China

2016 October 029

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

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

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

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

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

But what exactly happened on 1 October, 2016?

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


2016 October 011

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

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

I was profoundly moved by the occasion. Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 October 017


Common Sense? Marxism and Chinese Culture

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

For me, this was enough of a stunning discovery.

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

They admitted they had not read it.

‘Let’s read it then’, I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was I to make of all of this?

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

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

Ideals in the Mountains: Hiking with Mao and his Friends

In September of 1917, the young Mao Zedong went for a few days hiking in the mountains of Hunan with two friends, Peng Zehou and Zhang Kundi (who writes of the hike). They met at the Fishing Bay Market Place in Changsha and initially hiked southward along the Changjiang (Yangze) River. After some 26 li, or roughly 13 kilometres, they stopped for a massive lunch – five bowls of rice and five of pickled vegetables. Since the day was hot, they swam in the deep, clear waters of the river to cool down. Later that afternoon, they reached a mountain called Zhaoshan (near Xiangtan, Mao’s home town).

Young Mao 03

Now they climbed upwards, following a narrow path until they reached Zhaoshan Temple, which had three or four monks. Initially, the monks would not let them sleep in the temple, so they contemplated sleeping in the open. Later, the monks relented, so they ate dinner and went down again to the river for a swim. Zhang Kundi writes:

Following our swim we sat on the beach and talked. A cool breeze dispelled the heat and the rippling waves of the water accompanied our talk like music coming from an unknown source … Under the bright starlight, the trees were a deep green and seemed full of vitality.

Upon returning to the temple in the dark, the monks showed them a massive bed and gave them one small cotton quilt under which to sleep. But the three young friends found a small pavilion, where they sat and talked and laughed long into the night.

‘The Westerners’, Mao said, ‘have a highly advanced material civilisation, but it is limited to clothing, food, and housing, and it provides only for the development of fleshly desires. If human life is just having enough of these three things, clothes, food, and housing, then human life has no value. We must figure out the easiest way to solve the economic problem. Only then can we realise our ideal of cosmopolitanism. If man’s physical and mental powers are concentrated on one task, no task will be difficult to accomplish’.

Peng Zehou said: ‘I have a long-cherished desire to become a monk. When I am a monk, I will invite you all to come and study on a famous mountain’.

‘I too have such a desire’, said Mao.

‘And so do I’, said Zhang Kundi. ‘But your desire is much stronger than mine’.

Kundi writes that he was very moved at the time, and the words of a poem came to him:

Wind blowing in the trees, music of the heavens

Desires and rewards cannot be perceived, and shed their forms

The following afternoon, they went swimming again, and then climbed another mountain, where their friend Cai Hesen lived. The discussion among the young people turned to revolution. They advocated – idealistically – a family revolution and revolution of students and teaches – without force of arms. All that was needed was a replacing of the old with the new. Chinese people, they agreed were slavish in character and narrow-minded. They acted like masters at home and like slaves to the rest of the world.

Mao in the mountains 01

On the last day of their hike, they rose very early and climbed the nearby Mount Yuelu. While descending, a cold mountain wind came up and the air was clean and crisp. Bathed by the air and the wind, their minds were lucid and the worries of the ordinary world seemed far away. But by lunch time, that world returned and the hike and its talk and dreams seemed far away.

(Based on a story by Zhang Kundi, September 1917)

The Yan’an Spirit

Roland Boer

‘Are you coming to Yan’an for the food or for Chairman Mao?’ he asked.

‘Chairman Mao’, I admitted. ‘But food?’

‘We love to travel for the local food’, he said. ‘It’s a major reason for going to a new place in China’.

‘What local foods do you recommend?’ I asked.

In reply he reeled off a series of local dishes, the names of which immediately escaped me. I guess we’ll find them, I thought to myself, even if by accident.

I was talking with a young man in the corridor of the overnight train – the T43 – from Beijing. He was a local returning home, keen for a rare chance to practice his English, while I was keen for some local knowledge and the vain hope of improving my atrocious Chinese. Propping ourselves up on the window, we chatted and watched the early light gradually pushing its way into tight gullies, steep orange hills and winding rivers of the loess plateau in the northern parts of Shaanxi province. Tunnels and bridges there were aplenty in this rough terrain, as also the evidence of flooding from the recent monsoonal rains. Here it was that the remnants of the communist armies had ended their epic Long March in 1938, able at last to rebuild their strength and establish the ever-expanding soviets. A good place to do so, for it was remote and easily defended against the brutal and bloodthirsty anti-communist forces of the Guomintang under Chang Kai-Shek.


Unlike the arrival of the Red Armies some eighty years before, we were travelling in relative comfort. The sleeper compartment had given us a blessed night’s sleep, even with the snores of the old man in the bunk above me, and the girl of four who kept looking sheepishly at the laowai, the foreigners in her very own compartment. Her mother tried to tell her not to stare, but to no avail. The train was to be a good introduction to our experiences in Yan’an, where we were the only foreigners in town, subject to wondering stares, comments, giggles and smiles.

Soon enough, we pulled into Yan’an station, perched on the bank of the Yellow River. Once out of the train, we found our eyes could do one of three things: look up, look long, and look puzzled. Upwards because of the precipitous sides of the ever present mountains, where only a few walking trails and occasional traditional dwellings dug into the slopes might be seen. Long because of the river itself, our eyes following the flow of its yellow water between the mountain sides and towards the centre of Yan’an. Puzzled because any sign we could see had only Chinese characters; no pinyin in sight, let alone any language we knew. Yan’an might boast a million inhabitants in these times, but it is still distinctly provincial. Then again, as the chairman had once said, the whole world should know Chinese. Yet we managed to find a bus heading in the right direction, the town centre and even a hotel that was ridiculously cheap and ridiculously comfortable.

2013 July 042 (Yan'an)a

As I had told the young man on the train, we were here for a reason: to follow in the footsteps of Chairman Mao. Here it was that the communists had rebuilt their strength, using Yan’an as the base from which they launched the anti-Japanese campaign and final successful assault on Chang Kai-Shek. They had settled up the river a little, in Yangjialing Village. Homes were dug out of the hillside, a meeting hall constructed, a centre for arts and literature and much more. So up river we went, to stand where Mao stood to speak at party congresses, where he gave his famous talks on culture and art, where the party central committee met and made those momentous decisions.


Every year, young party cadres come to Yangjialing to swear allegiance to the party and to follow in the spirit of Yan’an. When I stood at same podium where Mao had once stood, the Chinese visitors who happened to be present immediately pulled out their cameras and snapped away, smiling and commenting all the while. Indeed, cameras seemed to appear in almost every hand we passed. At one moment, two women sidled closer and before I knew it, I was in a threesome, held close and snapped yet again.

2013 July 059 (Yan'an)a

After Yangjialing, we walked slowly downriver to the new memorial hall celebrating the Yan’an spirit. China may have communist symbols throughout, but compared to Yan’an, they seem sparse indeed. Every bridge, every building, every road, every poster proudly displays red flags, red stars, hammers-and sickles, and what have you. And before the memorial hall stands a vast statue of a youthful and solid Mao, who looks out over the valley and towards the new Yan’an.

2013 July 068 (Yan'an)a

2013 July 073 (Yan'an)a

Inside the museum hall, we were greeted by life-size pewter statues of the central committee, smiling their welcome beneath a relief sculpture of Yangjialing Village. They pointed the way to over 30,000 artefacts from that earlier time. But the museum curators had not imagined that foreigners would be frequent pilgrims, for all the signs were in Chinese characters. In the end, that was a blessed relief, for one becomes too easily distracted by the captions, texts that attempt to guide understanding. Too often do museum goers spend their time moving from one text to another, without actually pausing to engage with and absorb the item in question.

2013 July 096 (Yan'an)a

We soon made the most of the situation, padding through the endless rooms full of objects lovingly preserved and presented. They ranged from oddly-shaped knives to model villages, from Red Army song books to graphs of the riding party membership, from hand-made banners to Mao’s white horse, from Red Army caps to roughly printed books. I was most intrigued by the samples of writing from the fledgling university set up here in the hills. Anyone with some training would teach, in those cave-houses, halls, or out in the open. Later it would become one of China’s leading universities, Renmin, or the People’s University. But here were large sheets with Chinese characters tentatively drawn – or rather, brushed. Here were some of the books that were printed and avidly consumed. Which books? I found Marx’s works of course, but also some key texts of Karl Kautsky and Lenin, who was hugely influential in the development of Chinese Communist thought and practice at the time. I was surprised (and pleased) to find Stalin as well, although it should not have been a surprise, given that Mao quotes Stalin’s Short Course often. But that was nothing compared to the fact that some of these works were also printed in German and Russian. Obviously, these languages were taught already at that point.

2013 July 084 (Yan'an)a

I was also taken by the section on women in the revolution, with some of the key figures foregrounded, as well as the role of women soldiers in the Red Army. Here was a photograph from that time, blown up and illuminated, of women with bob haircuts and padded winter gear. They were undertaking a drill, holding wooden replicas of weapons, since the real ones were needed for the front – where this troop would soon find itself.

2013 July 089 (Yan'an)a

And I cannot forget the section devoted to Norman Bethune, the brilliant Canadian doctor and communist who was no hypocrite. He acted on what he believed and took himself to Yan’an to become the organizer of the field hospitals. That he would die from septicaemia at 47 only added to his status in the communist annals of the long struggle to win the revolution. For many, he embodies the Yan’an Spirit. His body lies buried in China, children at school are still taught Mao’s eulogy to Bethune, and the highest medical award in China is called the Bethune Medal.

2013 August 002 (Newcastle)a

Finally, we emerged from the place, beset with that curious museum weariness way that seems to come upon one only in such a place. Yet now I could not resist the museum shop, catching them just as they were closing to try on – much to everyone’s amusement – a green T-shirt with a red star emblazoned on the front and a Red Army cap. On our walk back to our hotel along the Yellow River, we pondered the simple fact that to construct a place such as this one needs to have experienced a revolution in the first place.

Yet Yan’an had one more delight in store for us. That evening we were treated to the best Chinese meal I have ever eaten. It was exquisitely cooked, beautifully presented, and cost next to nothing. I was reminded of the young man’s question on the train. We had come to Yan’an to follow in the footsteps of Mao, but in doing so we happened upon the food as well.


Mao’s Mausoleum

Rumour has it that Mao Zedong is regarded as a bit of a joke these days in China. The government might pay lip service to his name, but they have gone far from his legacy – or so the common wisdom has it. In the pursuit of wealth in the new capitalist China, Mao’s memorabilia is the stuff of tourists and not locals. Marxism – well nobody talks about that these days. Even the Chinese word for comrade, tóngzhì (‘of the same mind’), has slipped from common usage and is now used by gays and lesbians.

What of his mausoleum, in the middle of Tiananmen (Gate of Heaven) Square? Is it forlorn and abandoned? Is it visited at most by the odd wizened peasant, bent and shrivelled, who still keeps the faith? Is the square festooned with advertisements and shops and fashion-conscious Beijingese, leaving the former chairman to his ignominious fate? Do wily Chinese hawkers throng the square, forgetting the man from Hunan and using all their tricks to deprive visiting of their cash?

On a sweltering August morning I decide to visit the mausoleum, not sure what to expect. Striding through the early Beijing haze, I pick my way past steaming, freshly cooked street food, of the sort that is eminently tasty – although I have it on good advice that one should make sure it is cooked before your own eyes. Which I do, before downing breakfast with much relish. Meanwhile, a blue-uniformed woman picks up odds and ends of rubbish with a long bamboo pair of pincers in the perpetual war against Beijing litter. I have seen the same type of pincers hanging on the wall of squat toilets in slow overnight trains.

The metro tunnel soon after sunrise seems packed already, although this is nothing compared with the real peak hour. Heads with black straight hair of varying lengths bob up and down to their own rhythms, all part of an unwitting dance as we cross from one metro line to another. Bodies move in the almost imperceptible particularity of the locals: men with barely a movement above the waist; women with a definitive flick of the hips. On the metro I stand, pretending to surf and stare at the map. Locals wonder whether I am lost, trying to make out where to alight. But I am undertaking my daily lesson in Chinese script, correlating the mix of pinyin and translations with the script itself – north (bei), east (xi), gate (men), big (da), mouth (kou), capital (jing) and so on. It is my version of a child’s flashcards. Tiananmen West station is almost empty and only few alight here. Excellent, I think. I should have the place to myself …

Hardly. To me it seems as though the square (when I at last figure out how to get in, through the tunnels and security checks) is already chock-full. Tour group leaders hold up flags as rallying points; members of these groups wear silly hats in bright colours as a kind of contingent clan identity; people stream in and out of the toilets; weary parents with children sag and seek relief; thousands mill about, photographing, acquiring red flags, drinks and snacks from the beverage wagon. In reality it is far from full, as I would find out soon enough.

Massive is the square. It is flanked by impossibly huge buildings – the national museum, a library, a couple of temples, an exquisite red structure with the portrait of Mao spread across its side. For a moment I think that is the mausoleum. But no, the mausoleum is in the centre, seemingly on the horizon from where I stand.

The closer I draw, the larger becomes the line, five abreast, centimetering forward to enter the mausoleum. Before I can go a step further, a guard motions to my camera: ‘In the locker’, he says. Aforesaid locker happens to be an awful distance away. And still the crowd swells. By the time I join the line, really a wide column, it encircles half of the mausoleum. Well over a thousand comrades shuffle slowly along. With our small steps, we sway from one side to another. Long steps make one’s head bob up and down; short steps, like now, make one sway. So I join another slow dance, the swaying dance to see Chairman Mao.

Where are all the old comrades? The occasional old fogeys with dodgy legs, walking sticks, wheel chairs, the grace of bent backs, shrunken bodies and grey-white hair are given the fast lane – even though their pace is no quicker than ours. In the main column, it is mostly younger people, either together with friends, or family groups, or on their own. I had not expected this. Nor had I expected the quiet orderliness of the line. Unlike the usual ‘flexibility’ of Chinese lines, in which one cuts in, opens up a space, calls over backs, slips between legs, thrusts a finger through a gap, people keep their place. To be sure, or two try to jump in, but a guard curtly orders them back.

Eventually we round the final turn, to the front of the mausoleum (I had started at the back of the mausoleum). With plenty of time, we shuffle on past a colossal sculpture. One of four, it depicts a brave man, bare chest thrust out to the enemy, a serious and vigorous woman beside him, others following with guns, ammunition, sabres, what have you. The Red Army in the civil war, I surmise. We turn again and face the front steps of the mausoleum. Another security and I.D. check, a small bouquet of white flowers to be bought if one wishes.

On the first step of the temple-like stairs, I am struck by the realisation: this is just like the Confucius temple I visited in Nanjing. A little smaller, but there too one climbs stairs, there too one finds a figure (albeit a statue), there too one leaves flowers, there too one offers silent respect and perhaps a request. But there too it is simply a significant historical figure, one crucial for the making of China, whom one reverences as one does the ancestors. Indeed, the first chamber of the mausoleum has a white, marble statue of Mao. He sits on a chair, legs crossed, a smile on his lips. Behind him is a large tapestry of the mountains of Hunan, his birthplace. Here the flowers are left (and I thank heaven (tian) that I didn’t waste money on those things.) A black-attired usher urges us to be quiet as the throng splits into two lines to enter the towering chamber with the sarcophagus.

Before me is a clear glass sarcophagus, far, far grander than I had expected. It is large enough for two guards to stand within, a couple of metres away from his shoulders, immovable in green uniform. A warm, yellow light beams on a point at its other end. It is his face, which gradually comes into view. The rest of his body is covered with a red-starred dark cloth on a substantial bier. But I focus on the face.

A double chin smaller than the photographs, the wart under his lip barely visible, eyes closed, lips made up for some colour, the hair dark and receded from his forehead. I had expected that we would be ushered past at a cracking pace. But no, we are allowed to slow down, pause, look long and hard. I feel as though I am in his presence for a long time.

We pass out of the chamber, into a small hall at the back and down the stairs. Before me in a courtyard are spread stalls, around which people throng – Mao memorabilia, of course. Once again I am surprised, for everyone seems to want something, a memento of the visit. So I succumb, checking out all the stalls. I end up with plenty of loot: a Mao pocket watch; a concertina stage set in the Beijing Opera style, but now with images from Mao’s life and Chinese text; and a wall hanging with that famous image of him reading out the announcement of the establishment of the PRC in 1949. He purses his lips, pausing, slightly nonplussed. It is as though he is thinking: ‘what idiot wrote that line? I don’t recall discussing that statement’. Or maybe, ‘how the hell do you say that in Putonghua? Ah well, I’ll just have to do it in Hunanhua, my own dialect’.

Once outside, I notice that the line has tripled in the half hour it took me to visit. It is 9.00 am and the guards are roping off more sections of the line, so that now it snakes and turns many times. I hear that on festival days it can take three hours to get inside. The chairman is in the minds of more, far more than one might expect.