Before I left for the People’s Republic of China I wanted to read Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now by Jan Wong. The only reason I did not read it then was that I did not think I would have enough time to finish it before I left. I enjoyed Wong’s columns in The Globe and Mail and also now in Chatelaine magazine, but I feared that with still so much pre-vacation planning I might not finish the book. I did not want to even think of putting the book aside for a month if I had to interrupt my reading. Knowing a bit about the book already, I feared that it might even be confiscated at the border by Chinese officials so I knew I should not even take it with me for in-flight reading.
After I returned from the DPRK I suddenly had lots of propaganda books and other library books to keep me busy, and unfortunately Red China Blues ended up at the bottom of the reading pile. It has now been five months since I returned from China. Red China Blues tells the story of Wong as a young Maoist who was one of the first two western students admitted to Beijing University. Wong’s newspaper and magazine columns are often hilarious reads, and Red China Blues often triggered on-the-spot laughter.
Wong, who spoke only minimal Chinese before she left for China, enrolled in language classes and was often exasperated by the teaching methods:
“Without a dictionary, I often was stymied by new words. She [Wong’s teacher] would glare and say, rather unhelpfully, ‘Ni bu dong!‘ (‘You don’t understand!’) When she felt inspired, she scribbled brief sentences on the blackboard, but “I like chairs” did little to clarify the meaning of chair. She would have been great teaching the hearing impaired: her last-ditch desperation technique was to shout the mystery word louder.”
Wong found local traditions particulary perplexing. For North Americans, the greeting “How do you do?” is often left unanswered. In Red China Blues, Wong learns that the Chinese seem to be fixated on the stomach:
“During our walks around the lake, dug by corvée, or unpaid labor, during the Great Leap Forward, my guides kept bumping into people they knew. ‘Have you eaten?’ they asked one another, in the standard rural greeting. I finally understood my own preoccupation with food. I was born with Chinese starvation genes. When I first arrived, the question always stopped me in my tracks. I had to think twice. Was I just about to eat, so the answer was no? Or had I recently finished a meal? What about snacks? Did a chocolate bar count? By the time I opened my mouth to answer, the other person was halfway down the street. Eventually I learned no one actually cared. The polite response was always to say, ‘Yes, I’ve eaten,’ to avoid the appearance of angling for a dinner invitation.”
Other examples left her frustrated and often as the unfortunate centre of attention:
“I myself tried so hard to fit in, even learning Chinese body language. To indicate ‘me,’ I learned not to crudely thump my chest the way Westerners did but to delicately point my index finger an inch away from my nose. I adopted the slack-armed shuffle of the local populace. I stopped gesticulating. And I learned never, ever to eat with my fingers. But China was so relentlessly conformist that all lefties were forced from childhood to eat and write with their right hands. My left-handedness attracted instant crowds. ‘Look, she’s writing with her left hand! Maybe she’s retarded?’ or ‘Look, she’s eating with her left hand! How weird!'”
In spite of these cultural hiccups, Wong fervently believed in Mao Zedong Thought and was enthusiastic to participate in manual labour projects, as she believed this labour was essential to the central tenets of Maoism. It also was the path towards cleansing her soul of its capitalist demons and putting her on an even keel with her fellow Chinese students. She had to persuade her teachers and the administration constantly to let her accompany the students on projects such as rice planting.
Immediately after Mao’s death in 1976, China rid itself of Mao and the Cultural Revolution became a historical nonevent. Wong suddenly realized that her education was now regarded as useless in post-Mao China. Even her own university graduation was a hurried and unceremonious affair. People who were staunch defenders of Mao Zedong Thought now had to have a sudden change of opinion and pretend that all they had studied and promoted had never existed. It was a nationwide purge of the highest order.
When I visited Tiananmen Square last summer I am sure I was one of millions of tourists who had set foot on the vast empty space and thought of the massacre that had occurred there in June of 1989. It is a feeling that possesses you as you walk the length of the Square from north to south. I pictured thousands of people gathered there, and then gunfire and tanks plowing through.
Wong was in Peking during the summer of 1989 and she witnessed the building protests and the occupation of the Square. After the invocation of martial law, tensions grew ominous:
“It was clear something would happen tonight. Had the government any finesse, it would have aired a trio of James Bond movies, and everyone would have stayed glued to their television sets. Instead, it broadcast this warning: ‘Do not come into the streets. Do not go to Tiananmen Square. Stay at home to safeguard your lives.’ The government might as well have issued engraved invitations.”
Wong witnessed the tanks, the gunfire, the bloodshed, the stampedes and the ambulances from her hotel balcony which overlooked the Square. I passed by all the luxurious hotels across the street from Tiananmen Square, and remember the Beijing Hotel, where Wong witnessed the horror. Her hotel balcony was even hit by bullets, so she risked her own life to stay outside to document the events of that night.
In spite of the tragic circumstances of that night and the crackdown atmosphere during the Tiananmen aftermath, Wong can still elicit a smile from the reader:
“Norman [Wong’s husband] and I had just stepped out of our hotel at noon when we heard the telltale roar of an approaching convoy. I ducked behind some cedar shrubs in the parking lot to count tanks. Perhaps they didn’t like me taking inventory: the soldiers opened fire. We hit the ground, just like in the movies. We were so close the bullets didn’t whistle. Only six yards, the skimpy shrubs and a wrought-iron fence separated us from them. I noticed Norman’s head was up and realized with a jolt that he was still counting tanks.
‘Get down!’ I screamed. When he ignored me, as husbands do, I hissed, ‘If they don’t kill you now, I’m going to kill you later!’ He got down. The shooting seemed to go on for an eternity. I couldn’t tell if they were firing in the air, at someone else or at us. Something smashed into my right elbow. I screamed, ‘I’ve been hit!’ After the convoy passed, I got up and checked myself. I had been struck by a ricocheting stone. ‘You’re always screaming before you even know if you’re hurt.’ said Norman disgustedly, but he looked relieved.”
Wong could easily infiltrate the crowds and interview the locals since she obviously passed as a Chinese. Whereas other western investigative journalists would have been thrown out of the country, Wong could stay without so much as a disguise. She even described some tense moments where she had to go into hiding while being among a sea of people. With nowhere to hide, her Chinese heritage kept her safe from those in authority who would have stooped to no levels to deport her.
Years after Mao’s death, Wong and her husband returned to China and she decided to give birth to her first child while over there. I laughed at her assessment of the Chinese one-child policy:
“It seemed that China deliberately made childbirth as unpleasant as possible. Perhaps it was a diabolical family-planning plot to ensure the memories were so bad you’d be put off having any more babies. Two women in labor, for instance, sometimes shared a single gurney, one’s head next to the other’s feet. And anesthetic was banned for all childbirth except cesarean sections.
Like many Chinese of the nineties, I saw no virtue in deprivation. I no longer had any desire to haul pig manure or overhaul my ideology. I lusted after creature comforts like anesthetic. So I decided to go to Hong Kong to have Ben.”
While Wong, her husband and young family had resettled in China in the 1990’s, she wrote about the ideological about-face now confronting wealthy foreigners like herself:
“It was poetic justice that an ex-Maoist like me be condemned to manage four Commie servants. I paid their salaries, and they bossed me around.”
Red China Blues ends with the muted celebration of the Mao centenary. Wong was one of the ten thousand invited guests to the Mao commemoration at the Great Hall of the People.
In Red China Blues, Jan Wong will make you laugh, and when she describes the horror of the Tiananmen Square massacre your eyes will be transfixed to the pages as you read her eyewitness account of that night. Although I often read Wong’s newspaper and magazine columns in the past, I had never read any of her books. After Red China Blues, I am going to read all of them.