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Editor’s Note: Daoly’s 2018 autobiographical novel In the Pursuit of Truth, published by Liberty Hill Press, is part of The Writers Series, our popular series that showcases novels influenced by or reminiscent of Ayn Rand. The book summarizes the author’s philosophical view and how it formed through his personal experience. Like Ayn Rand’s We the Living, it dramatizes the personal struggle of the individual against the state. The following excerpt, from chapter 8, shows some of the tedium, cruelty, and absurdity of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, now in its tenth year, from the point of view of the protagonist, DR, now a young adult.
During the decade of Cultural Revolution, people experienced horrific events that made their blood boil and eyes tear. People’s suffering, like DR’s father in the hands of the political hooligans, was heartbreaking. Yet in those long and dark years, what people had to bear ceaselessly was boredom –– the same boring, stereotyped, and inflated language repeated by the media and the bureaucrats.
Lin Biao’s monotonous and dragging voice on Tiananmen at the beginning of the Red Guard movement echoed in Chinese people’s ears for years. “Chairman Mao is our great teacher, great leader, great commander in chief, and great helmsman.” Lin might be considered an able general, but he sure gave terrible speeches. He did not even know a pause was needed at the end of the sentences. The adjective great repeated four times, but that was not enough. “Mao is the greatest Marxist of our time.” Now the adjective took its superlative form, but still not enough. At the end of his speech, he shouted in a shrieking voice, “Chairman Mao wansui, wansui, wanwansui.” In free translation it means “Long live Chairman Mao and a long, long life to him.” But that translation, though proper, lost its original flavor. Literally those words stand for, “Live ten thousand years, ten thousand years, and ten thousand by ten thousand years.” If you do the calculation it amounts to one hundred million years; just no one bothered with the math.
What was really meaningful? These words were copied exactly from the hail and cheer to the Chinese Emperors in the distant past. Call it absurdity or hypocrisy if you like; the really old stuff, when serving a “revolutionary” purpose, becomes new. Ironically, it was exactly the same person, Lin, who was Mao’s legal successor, attempted a coup to overthrow Mao and tried to flee to the Soviet Union when his plot was discovered.
Mao’s quotations and poems were composed into songs. His poem songs were quite popular, but his quotation songs were awkward, though people managed to accept them. As for children, they could absorb anything if there was nothing else to learn.
DR loved books, and he often made special trips to nearby bookstores or dropped in when walking by. For a long ten years, the bookstores completely changed. There were no longer picture books like his favorite Tales of Three Kingdoms and Walter Margins, or translated foreign novels by Dickens, Hugo, or Tolstoy. Chinese classics by Confucius, Mencius, or Lao Tsu were rare even before the Cultural Revolution, and now they were nowhere to be found.
On their bookshelves, Mao’s works were always displayed in the most conspicuous positions. Mao had only published four volumes of his Selected Works, mostly in paperback form. To fill the space and ensure best visual effect, the bookstores showed them in multiple sets tied with red ribbons. The little red books of Mao’s Quotations with Lin Biao’s inscription were everywhere in the store. On the side shelves, were the translated complete works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Those were thick volumes and in hard cover, but DR had never seen anybody actually purchase them.
Books of famous twentieth-century writers, fiction or nonfiction, vanished, with the exception of Lu Xun, who was praised by Mao decades ago and who was long dead. It was a common belief that if Lu had lived to 1957, he would have been persecuted as a rightist for his outspokenness.
There were eight so-called Revolutionary Model Shows approved by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, and for many years they were almost all you could get from TV and radio.
The themes of those model shows were all too similar. The leading roles, male or female, all looked like they were living a life of celibacy, because the existence of their spouses was never mentioned. All good things were grace of Chairman Mao. Class enemies never gave up the dream to restore power and always resorted to sabotage. Class struggle was ubiquitous, violent revolution and proletarian dictatorship were the ultimate truth.
Some of the model shows were the Peking Opera in its modified form, where Western musical instruments were used along with traditional Chinese ones. The case was made that if the combination of Eastern and Western medicine had its merits, so was the case for the combination of Western and Chinese music. It raised some eyebrows. As people gradually accepted it as the new style, they still wondered if it would be there to stay.
The real problem was that Jiang Qing was the only person who was allowed to experiment. So much for Mao’s slogan of “letting hundred flowers blossom.”
Paradoxically some of the source of amusement actually came from Mao himself. As a man with talent and power, he enjoyed the total freedom of expression, and he did not hesitate to speak his mind or say things that were different, unconventional, and even outrageous. Sometimes, this could be intriguing.
Mao rarely addressed the nation directly. When he spoke his mind, it was often using the venue where he met foreigners, and the whole content of his talk was almost never publicly revealed. The media would just report that the great leader gave an “extremely important” speech, and left the people guessing the rest. Dissemination of real news was often through back-door channels. If news was from more than one well-informed source, such as the children of the party’s inner circles, it usually would turn out to be true.
“Have you heard that Mao thanked the Japanese for their invasion?”
“You must be kidding.”
“Chairman Mao met some Japanese politicians, who apologized for what Japan did to China before and during the Second World War.”
“What did the leader say?”
“He said China should thank Japanese warlords for the opportunities their aggression created for the Chinese communists to grow their military bases, which eventually led to their victory over Jiang Kai-shek in 1949.”
“Only he can say that, but it was brutally accurate.”
It was almost ten years since the start of Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and on New Year’s Day of 1976, a poem written by Mao many years ago was published that created quite a stir. The poem was entitled “Two Birds’ Dialogue,” in which Mao was the roc and Khruschev was the sparrow. The sparrow wanted to keep the monopoly of nuclear weapons, and the roc was angry. After the ridicules that could be hurled upon the sparrow, the roc finally cursed “no farting.”
The official propaganda team scratched their heads, but they were quite ingenious at coming up with some rationale for this kind of outrageous style of writing. “The great leader uses the language working people can easily understand, which shows his deep feeling toward them and his hatred toward an enemy who deserved to be cursed.”
But to compose a song like that to perform in public was by no means a small feat. It was an unprecedented challenge with the highest degree of difficulty. DR was about to find this out, as one day he went to a large stadium to see a show by the Shanghai Chorus.
As the performance proceeded toward the end, some in the audience began to lower their heads and cover their faces in a nervous anticipation of something extraordinary. Then the moment came. The note for the word “no” was stressed and given a prolonged tail, followed by a sudden drop of pitch of two short notes for those all-important two Chinese characters (meaning, what else, farting). The deep male bass of the chorus accompanied by the brass of the orchestra delivered the rare treat.
Humor and sarcasm can be the medicine to maintain sanity. In the seemingly never-ending, unbearable boredom, people did not stop searching for the new, and people did not stop seeking fun. Sometimes they were lucky to have a gift from some most unlikely sources.