Filming Chinese Marxism

‘How about some baijiu? I said.

Their eyes lit up in the midst of tossing yet more raw ingredients into a local version of hotpot. ‘I’ll come with you’, said one. ‘You’ll need to know the best one to buy’.

The two of us strode out into the night and found a local shop selling the fiery liquid.

‘How about that one’, I said, pointing to one of the highly priced bottles on display.

‘Ah no’, he said. ‘This one is better … and much cheaper’.

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

‘I’m from Gansu Province’, he replied. ‘And we drink this all the time, especially in winter to keep warm.’

It was a little over 20 RMB, or about 4 dollars. I did not object and we returned with our prize.

We were in Yan’an, in Shaanxi Province, celebrating the last night of our Chinese Marxism tour.

It had begun a week earlier, in Shaoshan (Hunan Province), where Mao Zedong was born, moved onto Ruijin (Jiangxi Province) and finally to Yan’an. It was a ‘Red Tour’ in all its glory – Chinese style.

What in the world is a ‘Red Tour [hongse zhilu]’? Nothing less than travelling to major sites of the revolutionary struggle leading up socialist victory in 1949. I love these places. Why? You can have a Red Tour only in a country that has had a socialist revolution in its history. Some critics may feel that Red Tourism belittles and commercialises the revolutionary struggle. But I take a different approach: all of the tourist sites, the Mao memorabilia, the incessant promotion – these and more signal in their own way the reality of a successful revolution.

But this was a Red Tour with a difference, since we were actually filming a documentary on Chinese Marxism. The documentary (which was also the basis for an online course) would be structured in terms of the life of Mao Zedong and the closely associated founding story of the Long March. We selected five key locations in this story:

  • Shaoshan, where Mao was born.
  • Ruijin, in the south and the centre where the first communist government or ‘soviet’ was established in the early 1930s and where the Long March began.
  • Yan’an, in the northwest and at the end of the Long March, where one finds the cradle of modern China in terms of theory and practice.
  • Beijing, with a focus on the ‘National Day [guoqingjie]’ celebrations on 1 October, when the people’s republic was declared.
  • Mao’s mausoleum, in middle of the epicentre – Tiananmen Square – of a major global power – Tiananmen.

Each site also raised a crucial concept for understanding China today: at Shaoshan it was the theory of contradiction; at Ruijin the question of a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights; at Yan’an it was the form of the socialist state; at National Day it was socialist democracy; and at the mausoleum it was reinterpreting Mao today and the meaning of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

How to film all of this? I gave the camera crew some general guidelines as to what I wanted and encouraged them to let their creative talents loose – which they thoroughly enjoyed! The director-producer ensured that the whole operation went as smoothly as possible, so I was able to explore, reflect, discuss … and pay for everyone’s accommodation, travel and food. The outcome was a vast collection of stunning footage that could be reworked by the studio whizzes back in Australia.

All of this conspired the make the journey itself part of the story.

The places are hard of access, even in our time with it planes, motorways and high-speed trains. Back then, the communists had at the beginning of the 1930s made the crucial turn away from the cities and to the countryside. The remoter the better, since here the Nationalist forces (Guomindang) under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) found the going much tougher in these parts. Shaoshan itself was relatively easy to access: a high-speed train to Changsha, capital of Hunan, and then a bus to the village. Ruijin in the remote mountains between Jiangxi and Fujian was another story, requiring trundling hard-seat trains and an overnight stop in the mountains. And Yan’an, way to the north-west in Shaanxi province, needed yet another hard-seat train, overnight stop in a glorious family hotel and then a flight on the one plane a day to the tiny airport.

Each place has nothing much going for it, unassuming places that force one to reassess the origins of the most powerful socialist country in human history. At Ruijin and especially Yan’an, the communists gained valuable experience in governing, developing comprehensive theoretical insights, and setting China on its current path. Still these places are relatively poor, with mosquitoes aplenty in Ruijin and dust everywhere in Yan’an, but here the small seeds took root and began their phenomenal growth.

What did I love most about the journey?

Perhaps it was the hard-seat trains, with their solitary squat toilet at the end of each carriage, the drink trolleys laden with baijiu or fruit or snacks. Like most on board, we had brought our own food, and were thankful that we had reserved seats – which are themselves three on each side of the aisle. Occasionally, when one had to make use of the toilet, stretch one’s legs, or simply stand for a while in the vestibule to watch the world pass by, a ‘no-seat’ passenger – of which there were many indeed – would make the most of the opportunity and promptly sit down in the vacant seat. What to do on returning to the seat in question? I pondered sitting on the welcoming lap (should it seem welcoming) or perhaps squeezing into the non-existent space on either side, but I ended up ejecting them – ever so politely. It was an exceedingly intimate journey, where one felt secure in the intimacy of bodies of complete strangers.

Perhaps it was the small family hotels hidden in the countryside. Much of our journey we made up as we went along, with our producer deftly locating yet another simple hotel for a ridiculously low price. One had the family living downstairs, with rooms upstairs. If we wished, they would cook food for us in their own kitchen. Another was down a bumpy dirt road, with the night-duty boy sleeping on an old couch behind the desk. We arrived late indeed and tried to warm our rooms with heaters that had a knack of switching off as soon as one drifted off to sleep. The drainage plug was actually the squat toilet – an effective method of ensuring that the toilet was constantly cleaned by the next shower.

Perhaps it was the local buses and endless walking required to get around the sites. Occasionally groups of school children would join us, keen to practice English and witness a rare event in these parts – a foreigner. I duly took it upon myself to practice my Chinese, which was at about primary school (xiaoxue) level. I was absolutely thrilled when they understood what I was trying to say.

Perhaps it was the people, people everywhere. Ordinary people, from the countryside for a trip, tour groups that included the sites in their itinerary, children and parents and grandparents, workers with Mao caps – these and more frequented Shaoshan in their thousands and millions. Ruijin may have been a little different, with sparser numbers due to its sheer remoteness. But Yan’an even in early winter saw group after group pass through. Among them were the Communist Party groups, visiting Yan’an as part of their continuing education program. Here they would undertake classes, visit the many revolutionary sites of the communist base from the mid-1930s until 1947, and try to gain a sense of the ‘Yan’an spirit’ [jingshen]’.

Perhaps it was being the solitary foreigner in these parts. They are clearly geared for internal tourism. Shaoshan may have had signs in Chinese, English, French and Russian, but I saw only two other foreigners among the thousands. In Ruijin and Yan’an I was clearly the only foreigner, and the signs and information boards offered only Chinese characters.

While I became quite used to my difference, I became acutely conscious of the fact that such a Red Tour, with the Long March as its determining narrative, is absolutely vital for understanding China today. And that was my focus throughout: the implications for China today. Why do so many Chinese visit such places? How have these experiences shaped modern China? How has the founding story of the people’s republic been constructed and how is it constantly reinterpreted? It is indeed a founding narrative to rival the best of them, not least because it is a communist story.

In the end, the food made the journey, is the custom in a country where one travels for the sake of the local food. We ate in tiny breakfast eateries, in simple restaurants, on the road. I knew the others would be hungry with all the travel and work. And since I was the elder, it was simply assumed that I would pay – another custom. So we ate and ate and ate, with the requisite baijiu to improve – as they say – the taste of the food.

By the last evening and our last bottle of the strong spirit, belts had to be loosened considerably. The others laughed and observed that they had put on at least five kilograms – the ultimate affirmation.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.