Sunday, 22 February 2009

Red Guards and old Chinese treasures

To a small boy, the grounds of this institute in Beijing was a paradise, especially the centre strips of large gardens, fountains, endless rows of plants, and tall pine trees providing plenty of places to stroll around and hide, without being seen. The centre strips are extremely long, extending over several large blocks till it meets the institute’s library, which is again grand in scale and style. This zone of gardens to me felt like the Central Park of New York, where one can bury oneself in it and wander for days. And it is the perfect place for children to get a sense of water, soil, plants, and insects like butterflies and worms. There was also a man-made hill in the adjacent staff quarters of the institute, whose countless paths and trails up and down at both slopes provided endless fun. I was addicted to exploring and trying all these paths during hill climbing and often stopped to marvel the tall, majestic pine trees at the top of the hill. To me, this was like the hills in Beijing’s Summer Place right at our backyard. Occasionally, if failing to grab the tangled vines and thus rolling down the hill, I got a dressing down from my parents for wearing dirty cloths.
The chaotic Cultural Revolution shook this tranquil place as well, presenting activities mainly in two aspects. One was the spectres of rallies condemning top institute officials, as the guidelines from the top requested. The Grand Hall served this purpose fine, with rallies held frequently by different political organisations. People were called to step up on the stage to receive criticisms, or two opposing factions staged a public debate there. We as kids could often slip to the front section to watch closely those being paraded and ridiculed, the officials who had been in charge of various administrative affairs, and those opposing delegates in fierce debating and often personal insults. I once resided, due to a shortage of accommodation, in a room which happened to house the number two man in this large institute. As a veteran party cadre, he already had white beard and wore a shirt all the time. As he said little and was always in deep thought when not being dragged out to the rallies, he sometimes looked at my direction to acknowledge my existence in the same room. I was of course a little scare of this silent figure and asked to change to another room to sleep. Those exuberant rebel members, actually young lecturers with high spirit and ambitions, let me move to another place in the building. Years later when verdicts made during the Culture Revolution were reversed by Deng, this senior leader of the institute went back to his old post, and he gave me some passing recognition during a brief meeting of being some kind of roommates.
The leaders of rebel groups made their moves in radical ways, in competition to show their revolutionary credentials, also perhaps for their desire to change social status. One emerging leader, a talkative lecturer, managed to get his fame by getting audience with top officials and instructions from there to rise against the establishment in the institute. With these assurances of his direction, he came back to make bold moves to hit hard on former institute officials with rallies and on other groups seen as not radical enough. When his activities were noticed by top leaders, his position moved up to be in charge of the revolutionary movement in the institute. He soon moved out the dormitories he had shared with others and got his official car with driver, a genuine testament that you have made it in those years in China when people mostly walked to work, at best riding a bicycle. This gain was only temporary, a year later he was put in jail for disrupting the proceedings of the movement when things calmed down. My parents often commented on his rise and fall with pity, on the ground that they knew that guy well since they all began teaching there about the same time. But for many in this movement, a brief rocket rise to the top and grabbing the places of power from old cadres were what they desperately wanted to achieve, even at all costs.

Another exciting activity was the Red Guards and various political groups converging in Beijing to receive Mao’s blessing during his eight mass public audiences at the Tian An Men Gate from the 1966 on. The Red Guards were a mixed bunch, not a uniform organisation of iron discipline, the Brown Shirt type. They were more of the kind of the young and the restless, eager to be part of the process creating a new era of the republic. They were particularly young, mostly teens and some leaders over 20, from colleges and senior high groups. It is understandable that these zealous groups had the urge and energy to carry out political instructions of Mao’s echelon for ongoing movements. Their tasks to attack the establishment caused plenty of shocks to officials at various levels, and many of them undertook long journeys from far corners of the country to see with their own eyes of Mao and his leadership. They roamed around the country, went to Beijing, and fanned out to other parts of the country, or back to their home provinces, all free of charge, on the orders from the top, since this was a mass movement for political purposes, rather than travelling at low costs. The trip to Beijing is a kind of pilgrim to them, and millions of them saw Mao in person. From many of their memories recalling those years, that pilgrim trip and other travelling changed their lives, at least in the sense of giving them the chance to see the many parts of the country for the first time, out of their remote localities.
Since the institute has large grounds, especially at the track and field place, it became an ideal hosting place for many of those groups from all over the country. Those people lived in large tents and in a military manner, lining up to wash, have meals, and attend meetings. The institute provided all support and logistics to these swarming groups. Altercations and fights often erupted among groups of different opinions; they argued passionately over issues of their own localities and were resolved to get a final judgement or justice when they came to Beijing. When two opposing Red Guards groups from the same province or city came head to head, tempers flied, and it is indeed full of air of fierce attacking. To us as kids, this immense tent city proved a fun playing ground for hide and seek, and also for watching the amusement of public quarreling and humiliation if one was beaten in public debate. There seemed no authority in this chaotic mess, as all pledged loyalty to Mao and claimed to have received true blessings from the top. These provincial Red Guards returned to their localities with deep feud and divisions after Mao’s public parades. It is quite understandable that violent and armed struggles among these opposing groups contributed to most of the fatalities in localities during the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, those without direct supervision of the central authorities and with deep vengeance in incredible chaos. It is this kind of torture and death that literary writers have given the most revealing touches, the so-called “scar literature” based on personal experiences or that of close connections. To me, they left a huge mess behind around the institute and especially in that vast sports field. It also heralded a calm-down after the highs of revolutionary fevers, a sign of hollowness amidst the loud calls and echoes from those devoted young radicals.

I moved between two places of dwelling, one in the institute dormitories and the other at the city centre where my father’s institute provided some accommodations. That was a typical Beijing courtyard for well-to-dos, built and lived by those with money before the Communist Revolution succeeded. Its centre court is precisely symmetry, with the long main residence set at the north side, with two side houses at east and west wings, each with its own centre entrance and living rooms. The main house is very long in length, comprising about 8 separate rooms, with quality timber floors and hydraulic heating, rare provisions in those early years. With high roofs and ceilings, these rooms provided an air of comfort and sense of space. There are stone steps up to the front doors and neatly laid large slabs in the gardens. The places of treat are stone stools under the two grape vines at each side of the front of the house, for people to enjoy cool breeze of summer nights. The arched timber front gate of the whole courtyard was guarded by two carved stone lions, and one passes first small rooms leading to the centre court. These are obviously the places for doormen and servants, perhaps also for those who provided transport in horse-drawn sedan chairs for their masters. There is also a side courtyard with several rooms, which might have been used by the head butler of the household. Behind the main court, there is a long and deep galley leading to the back gate, perhaps also for housing more servants, such as numerous maids and cooks. The entire courtyard was designed and built for the purpose to accommodate the masters in comfort and style, also for them to be sufficiently supported by large number of resident servants. It was not grand, palace like, but was adequate to reflect on the owners’ status and financial affluence.
We were of course far from close to that group of people, but since the government assigned that courtyard to my father’s institute as accommodation, and young researchers did need places to live, we moved in to take up one of the apartments with two rooms in the main house, sharing with other of his colleagues, one of then took up the side courtyard used to be for the head butler. We could not get more space, because the remaining, dominating part of the main house was taken up by an eminent historian, Professor Gu, and his family. The main house and the wing houses of the centre court had been his own residence since 1949, as a privilege fitting his status. He was already over 80 by the time of the Cultural Revolution, and in the early 1900s he was well known for establishing the principles or guidelines of studying Chinese history, with both traditional Chinese record reading and memorising, and western ways of systematic analysis. His prestige was so immense that even Mao regarded him as tutor and instructed before the Cultural Revolution to provide him with whatever conditions he desired. Hence the large courtyard as his own residence.
All these niceties disappeared when the mass movement ran its course. Fragile Professor Gu received numerous visitors from organisations which tried to find something useful from him about someone in the past. Once I heard shouting and face slapping in his room, and his wife called police. Social order at this stage was collapsing fast, and places of authorities, such as government offices and police, were under attack themselves. Surprisingly enough, two policemen answered the call and asked the visitors from whatever the organisations to leave. In pre-revolution circumstances, police would have had those people detained on the spot. Due to his fame and some high level coordinating, such intrusions ceased to occur.
His two adult sons were quite friendly towards me and let me enter his part of the house, especially his library, I mean library. I had never imaged that someone had so many books lined up in rows of bookshelves just for himself to use, let alone how he could manage and memorise the contents of so many books there. It was a sea of knowledge and you don’t know where to start. This is particularly stunning, since reading in those days was a risky business, as one did not know which one could be deemed not suitable and thus banned some day. His sons allowed me to take a few books back to my place to read, under the conditions of returning before borrowing others. I read quite some interesting writings, in particular a book by a Russian (then Soviet) author, titled “Blood in Sand” or something like it. Such foreign books were of course already translated into Chinese for publication, just as Gunther’s “Inside Australia”, as well as his other "Inside" books, which I also read then. The book by the Russian writer gave me a great shock for quite sometime, mainly because of its stories about ancient tribes and mammoths, the hunting and surviving, the desperate fighting between man and beast. Its vivid descriptions of human community in the wild and the imaginative quality have left a lasting impression on me, so much so that after reading this, I now find the likes of “10,000 B.C.” laughable. The two Gu sons later moved to other parts of the country and disappeared from the scene. The only one left beside Professor Gu was his much younger nagging wife who complained from time to time about how her husband was such a useless burden and therefore treated him with little care.
The charge to attack and replace those people in power was accompanied by the so-called smashing old Chinese traditions, with unaccountable ancient Chinese artifacts in public places and in individual hands confiscated or destroyed. People holding these things from the past were seen as lacking of revolutionary mantel and made to hand them over. In panic, large quantities of old treasures and handcrafted genuine articles shifted from family homes to antique shops. They were actually dumped there, with little thought from the owners for a good price. Ironically, that was a wonderful time for collectors. A nearby such shop was full of old style Chinese furniture made of rare hard wood and countless all sorts of stuff. They changed hands not through auctions but private sales. Because supply was overwhelming and demand collapsed, not many sales could be made. I went through that shop many times, curious about the items on display. My problem was money, unlike others who did not want to buy for the reason of demonstrating political correctness. Some who dared to buy were either with the right political credentials, such as a factory worker’s family background, or with crazy collector’s instinct and determination. The ones who made the purchases and kept their “loots” were rewarded fabulously in later years; a fine china bowl made by imperial kilns fetched about 5 yuan or less, and could easily get well over half a million in late 1990s. But these treasures were openly despised and thrown away as if the owners committed a sin, so there was no real valuation of those worthy assets.

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