Past and the Present

Imagine Beijing, China in the year 1972 – people are being starved to death, the economy is failing, and civilians are forced to work in factories and farms. Yet, every single citizen believes that they are happy and the leader of all this (Mao Zedong), is basically the best person ever. This is the setting described in the exposition of the autobiography I am reading, Red China Blues, by Jan Wong.

At the time, Jan Wong was a Chinese-Canadian college student who lived in Canada her whole life before coming to Beijing and enrolling at Beijing University. She was also a starry eyed believer of “Maoism”, along with the rest of the nation. Everyone thought they were having a pretty good life, when, in reality it was horrible, “…the crowds passionately jostled and shoved for a glimpse of a clunky refrigerator or a pair of leather shoes. I didn’t know these were the best goods China produced, and that even if they had the money, the window-shoppers couldn’t buy anything. Everything on display was exported for hard currency” (Wong 18). This is a complete opposite of the shopping situation nowadays. You can buy anything in China now- and when I say anything, I mean anything – especially with the development of online shopping sites like Taobao, Amazon and JingDong. There are shopping malls bursting with international clothing brands like H & M and Gap, as well as Apple stores and IKEAs, among several others.

China has changed so much and so fast since the Cultural Revolution that was only about 40 years ago. Before, “The only billboards had either Mao’s quotations…or else propaganda paintings of happy workers, peasants and soldiers. Busts of Mao, usually in pure white, decorated office lobbies and meeting rooms. Outdoors, towering Mao statues…acknowledge homage from the masses, dominated university campuses and city parks” (18). However, in modern times, skyscrapers built from glass, metal and plastic dominate the city of Beijing, and the billboards are full of advertisements. Office lobbies replace the Mao statues with majestic fountains, the latest widescreen TVs, modern art and plush sofas.

In addition to these major changes, instead of “revolutionary opera blasting over the loudspeakers” (17), nowadays there are these really annoying Chinese versions of “pop music” with random bursts of an English word in the chorus (because they think it makes the song more cool or something) that are played a lot. In some “cooler” stores they play the latest American pop hits that I can actually recognize, which is much better than revolutionary songs, much less revolutionary opera.

This novel has taught me so much about the Cultural Revolution just from reading the exposition, and has given me an overall much better understanding of it. Beijing has changed so much in just forty years, from the utopia everyone was led to believe was true while secretly being forced to basically become slaves of the Communist Party, and I am shocked how different our lives are now compared to the lives of teenagers such as Jan Wong in the exact same place not that long ago.

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