The Simplest Thing

November 7, 2010

Tariq Ali, The Idea of Communism, London, New York & Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2009.

Mo Yan (Howard Goldblatt trans.), Change, London, New York & Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali is series editor of a new collection of essays, memoirs and short stories provocatively titled What Was Communism? Ali’s own contribution to this collection, The Idea of Communism, starts from the premise that “official Communism” failed in the twentieth century and capitalism was restored in Russia and China. But Ali argues that these facts do not negate some of the basic principles of the initial communist project. His work contextualises Marx’s historical materialism, provides a defence of pre-Leninist communist theory, and discusses the conditions in which “socialism in one country” and Party dictatorship failed. Ali follows Marx in promoting revolutionary views and active democracy with a genuine commitment to such fundamentals as press freedom, diverse (and quality) literature, and critical self-analysis. For Ali, communism is the unachieved but attainable realm of freedom. The bulk of Ali’s series is devoted to voices from within the beast of Stalinist, Maoist or Titoist states, or what Ali calls Utopia’s “misshapen Communist and socialist children.” What Was Communism? includes one contribution about Cuba, individual works from residents of the USSR, Yugoslavia, and China, and a collection of short stories from West Bengal.

Mo Yan’s Change is the fifth book in Tariq Ali’s series, presenting a memoir from one of contemporary China’s greatest writers. Mo Yan is best known for Red Sorghum, his rural love story set during the Chinese resistance to Japan. Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Change reveals the ironic power of Mo’s prose, and Mo’s work is both a record of the dramatic transformations in his personal life from the 1960s to 2010 and an accessible means of reflecting on China’s unprecedented reforms from the earlier age of Maoist autarky. Mo Yan’s narrative flow and anecdotes draw attention to differences in economic relations, political outlook, city landscapes, and even in social, culinary and sexual attitude. The overall picture is one of a decline in Maoist political distortions and increasing economic prosperity, but of a society riven with tensions and plagued by personal and systemic corruption, particularism, and massive social inequalities.

Mo Yan was born in 1955 in Shandong Province, the son of ordinary middle peasants. This fate situated Mo Yan within a less-than-ideal social and political class. Mao Zedong’s revolutionary structure placed a premium on the trinity of Party membership, military affiliation, or an inherited political blood-line traceable to the poor and dispossessed from before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Expelled from grade five on the false charge of giving his teacher (and most importantly the deputy chairman of the school’s revolutionary committee) the nickname “Big Mouth Liu”, Mo Yan busied himself reading classic novels such as Dream of the Red Chamber and Journey to the West and thinking of a career in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He later fantasised about fighting the Vietnamese enemy in the war of 1979 and becoming a revolutionary martyr. (So much for socialist internationalism and peace!) Mo Yan’s death would elevate his parents’ political status: “They would not have raised me in vain.” Mo Yan was not the only Chinese who thought that way: “It may have been a simple, immature way of thinking, but it was the twisted mindset we children of oppressed middle peasants had developed. A glorious death was better than a demeaned existence.” If he survived, Mo Yan would return home to be promoted for his valour. Nationalism and political calculation shaped the destiny of “Mao’s Children.” These children struggled with the class labels placed on them and their families by the Maoist state, and schemed for a way forward.


Mo Yan

As a young boy, Mo Yan lived in a village bordered by a state farm housing “rightists” sent down for reform through labour. Mo Yan’s narrative naturalises and localises China’s mass system of state punishment: inmates were always on hand to carry out menial tasks, to serve as substitute teachers, or to be the objects of political struggle. For Mo Yan these “rightists” were just part of the physical and mental landscape.

Despite Chairman Mao’s rhetoric of women holding up half the sky, Mo Yan’s memoir reinforces the sexist nature of Chinese state socialism. For example, he shared the typical boy’s dream of becoming a truck driver. (It was definitely a boy’s dream: driving was an occupation reserved for men in the 1950s and 1960s, just as Chinese navy ships in 2011 do not allow women to serve.) Trucks were rare and exciting for Mo Yan and his classmates. In the same way, machines became an obsession for Soviet apologists and Chinese fellow-travellers who charted communism’s progress by counting the number of tractors and by weighing the tonnage of steel produced. For these secular dogmatists, as Tariq Ali calls them, Speed + Steel = Socialism.

The state farm’s truck was a Gaz 51, a Soviet-made veteran of the Korean War. It would race down the single dusty road and send chickens and dogs flying out of the way. For peasant children, the money, status, and travel associated with truck driving were enticing. After a short period as a temporary worker, Mo Yan gravitated to another Gaz 51 veteran of the Korean War when he joined the PLA, seeking a way out of village life. Like millions of peasants trapped in their villages by the government’s system of residency permits, Mo Yan did not want to be a racehorse permanently stabled in a cowshed. To be a driver’s apprentice was a sought after prize, and although Mo Yan managed to travel with his master to Beijing, he was disappointed that the driver’s mantle was eventually passed to another soldier.

Mo Yan knows now that Beijing in 2010 is ten times bigger than when he first visited the capital in his old truck, but “humungous and damned scary” Beijing taught the young soldier many things in 1978, with its massive buildings and unusual foreigners with high noses and blue eyes. He queued to enter the Mao Mausoleum to pay his respects “to the Chairman’s remains.” And this experience inspired iconoclastic (and potentially dangerous) thoughts:

“As I gazed down at the reposing figure in its crystal sarcophagus, I thought back to the day, two years earlier, when the cataclysmic news of his death had reached us and when I realized that the world had no place for immortals. We’d been convinced that Chairman Mao would never die. We were wrong. We’d also believed that the death of Chairman Mao spelled China’s doom. But two years later, she not only continued to exist but also began to thrive. Colleges and universities had opened their doors again; rural landlords and rich peasants had emerged from their demeaned status; peasant families were eating better; and oxen belonging to production teams were fattening up. Why, even someone like me was having his picture taken in front of Tiananmen Square.”

The young rustic also saw a Beijing machine that made dumplings, the product of some mad genius. (His mother refused to believe that such technology could exist.) At this time of increasingly mechanised socialism and incipient rural reform, meat was gradually becoming more available to ordinary Chinese. Meat was prized both as food and as a symbol of development. And a dumpling machine unequivocally marked progress. “Now, when I think back, the dumplings that machine squeezed out had thick skins and not much filling, half of which remained in the cauldron from breaks in the skin … These days, dumpling shops take pains to advertise that their dumplings are handmade. Fatty pork was the ideal back then; now, vegetarian dumplings are all the rage. That’s a decent illustration of how things change.” Mo Yan’s book provides many small examples from ordinary life that accrete and accumulate to demonstrate massive change in China from the 1960s to 2010, none more so than in the shaping of Mo Yan’s own career.

Back from Beijing with dashed dreams of becoming a PLA truck driver, Mo Yan taught himself mathematics, physics and chemistry in an attempt to qualify for university. Higher education was gradually re-opening at the end of the Cultural Revolution, but entry remained subject to political recommendation. When this rare opportunity was rescinded at the last moment, without explanation or apology, the PLA political instructor told Mo Yan to respond with the “proper attitude.” Mo Yan then threw himself into fiction writing, submitting stories to PLA literary journals. But he threw his early manuscripts away when his first efforts were rejected or ignored.

In 1981 Mo Yan finally had his first story published in a small magazine, Lily Pond. In 1987 Red Sorghum was made into a film directed by Zhang Yimou, starring Gong Li and Jiang Wen. Change discusses the making of this film in Mo Yan’s home village, and the paradoxical excitement and disappointment felt by the peasants. Although Gong Li and Jiang Wen stayed in a simple county guesthouse with no air-conditioning or private bathrooms, the poor villagers were unimpressed with Jiang Wen’s extravagance in making a four-hour long-distance phone call. (To be fair, Jiang Wen paid for it himself.) As for Gong Li, with no makeup and with her hair kept in rustic fashion to suit the character of a rural woman at the time of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, this celebrity looked just like other peasant women. “Who could have predicted that a decade later she would be an international star, gliding through life with the grace of nobility and flirtatious looks, always the coquette?’

Gong Li as Jiu’er in Red Sorghum

Gong Li as Jiu’er in Red Sorghum (1987)

In passing, Mo Yan notes the nationally reported scandal of an actor in the 1980s. He was sentenced to ten years in prison for having mutually consensual sex with a number of adult partners. “Most people were convinced that he got what he deserved. No one felt that the punishment did not fit the crime. If we used the same standards to judge relations between the sexes these days … how many more jails would we need to lock the miscreants up?”

Mo Yan states rather optimistically that “Moving from ‘everyone is involved in everyone else’s business’ to the protection of individual privacy has been a significant step forward for the Chinese.” But this progress is relative and inconsistent. In May 2010, for example, Ma Yaohai, a Nanjing college professor, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for organising private swingers parties. Eighteen others in the same case were found guilty and sentenced for the Chinese crime of “group licentiousness.” By contrast, everyone knows that the crimes and misdemeanours of China’s rich and powerful are seldom exposed let alone brought to court or punished. Party leaders and their families are protected by a web of mutual self-interest, media control, and a politicized judiciary, just like the Soviet nomenklatura decried by Tariq Ali or the “New Class” exposed by Milovan Djilas.

Although Mo Yan did not know it at the time of filming Red Sorghum, the vehicle used in the dramatic scene where the local civilians use a truck bomb to attack the Japanese invaders was the same farm specimen he admired as a boy. In his memoir this truck serves as a metaphor for the changes in society and human relationships. The Gaz 51 not only resonated throughout Mo Yan’s life, it marked the journey from rural poverty to urban wealth of an exemplar of China’s new breed of assertive businessmen.

After defying his teacher, disrupting the class, and driving a girl to tears, Mo Yan’s rebellious classmate He Zhiwu left his hometown to make his fortune in Inner Mongolia. He succeeded in becoming rich in the politically uncertain years of early economic reform, sometimes through unlawful means such as smuggling cashmere across provincial borders. He returned to Shandong to prove that he had made it. He purchased the Gaz 51 at an inflated price in a futile attempt to marry the girl of his childhood desires. Lu Wenli was the pretty daughter of the farm’s original truck driver. She was popular with her teacher, Big Mouth Liu, and she was the one He Zhiwu had made cry by stating in his “essay” that he wanted to be her father when he grew up.

Lu Wenli did not marry this upstart businessman despite his wealth and confidence, instead she married a politically stable cadre who turned out to be an abusive drinker, gambler and whoremonger. After her husband’s death in a motorcycle accident she refused to become the kept mistress of He Zhiwu, who by this stage had offloaded the truck to Zhang Yimou’s film crew and acquired a pragmatic White Russian wife. The hustling entrepreneur had two children, great wealth, expensive foreign cars in place of the old Soviet clunker, and a desire to claim Lu Wenli as his “little wife” (xiao laopo) in these more affluent and indulgent times. He also had a history of giving and seeking favours – the notorious particularistic ties or guanxi of Chinese culture that defy universalism and egalitarianism.

At He Zhiwu’s prompting, Mo Yan had written a letter to Party officials to help his old classmate relocate from Inner Mongolia to Shandong, and in turn He Zhiwu always provided Mo Yan with lavish food and accommodation. This network of favours among classmates provides insight into the network of relationships, special deals, and back-door arrangements that characterise China today. Relatives, friends, classmates, Party members and “sworn brothers” operate in a web of mutual obligation and interest.

Mo-Yan_ChangeMo Yan is not moralistic or hypocritical about this reality, and his view of He Zhiwu is perhaps shared by many across the world who blend admiration and alarm when appraising China’s recent wealth and assertiveness: “There is a heroic side to the behaviour of a thug, and a thuggish side to the behaviour of a hero.” Mo Yan is neither sentimental nor laudatory, and he does not gild his own actions: Change ends with the rich and influential author accepting ten thousand yuan from twice-widowed Lu Wenli for securing a place in a selective cultural troupe for Lu’s daughter, a young girl who had already qualified for this place through her own talent and efforts. China has achieved extraordinary things in Mo Yan’s lifetime through the talent and efforts of people like Mo Yan, He Zhiwu and little Lu – including leading the world in freeing hundreds of millions of people from absolute poverty – and yet there remain doubts, suspicions and a sense of illegitimacy or missed opportunity in China’s uneven development.

From a position of communist theory and historical research, and from the experience of living in China during a period of unprecedented economic and social transformation, Tariq Ali’s polemic and Mo Yan’s memoir combine to emphasise extraordinary material development, cultural resilience, and political complexity. But they also highlight a total failure to implement socialist democracy. As Bertolt Brecht wrote of communism in 1932: “It is the simplest thing so hard to achieve.”

Photo credit: Tariq Ali 2011 by Boberger, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: MoYan Hamburg 2008 by Johannes Kolfhaus, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: Asian in NY (blog)

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