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Apolitical Blues

March 28, 2012

Well my telephone was ringing,
And they told me it was Chairman Mao.
Well my telephone was ringing,
And they told me it was Chairman Mao.
You can tell him anything,
‘Cause I just don’t wanna talk to him now.

I’ve got the apolitical blues,
And that’s the meanest blues of all.

–Lowell George (Little Feat, Sailin’ Shoes 1972)

Mao's Bedroom: Lushan Mountain, China.

We just got back from a great outing to Lushan Mountain, which is located about a 6 hour bus ride from Nanjing, a meandering trip West on inter-provincial highways out along the Yangtze River valley.  The Yangtze Valley is a place, remarked our excellent tour guide, whose perennial wealth is related to its “abundant water resources,” and this seemed obvious during our tour of its fertile lowlands and rich fisheries.  After the first hour West out of Nanjing, we left the cityscape behind and made our way into some lush and beautiful farmland, still worked in traditional fashion in places, with rice paddy farmers waist high in the water, hard at work with their crops.  But before long, we were approaching Hefei, another booming Anhui Province city of at least 5 million people that I’d never heard of until today.  It’s a bit smaller than Chicago and soon it will be bigger.  Construction crews are working here around the clock to build forests of skyscrapers to house the folks moving in from the further Western provinces who don’t make it quite so far East as Nanjing and Shanghai before settling into what could be called an instant metropolis.  It’s places like this that are the reason that McDonald’s opens a new restaurant in China every single day.

There were several highlights of the Lushan Mountain trip, not least the great company of colleagues from the Nanjing Normal University School of Foreign Languages and Cultures.  We had a fine time in meal conversations using both fluent and pidgin renderings of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and English.  And the spectacular Lushan waterfall hike was itself worth the visit, although our legs are still feeling the muscle pulls from the 1500 step descent to the Lushan Valley floor.  The central attraction at Lushasn, though, was a visit to Mao’s old haunts at the luxurious villa overlooking the Valley.  Communist Party cadres spent time here as well back in the 1960s and 1970s, which is no surprise since the air is mighty clear and cool up here, far away and heavily fortified (in the old days), far from all those people in the urban swelter, bustle, and smog of the Yangtze delta.  Even the Nationalist Chiang Kai-Shek spent years up here, with his wife supervising renovations and landscape development, until they were ousted from power in 1949.  Mao had dozens of houses at various locations in China, but it’s easy to see why this very special place was one of his favorites.

New Skyscrapers in Hefei, Anhui Province, China.

The best inkling of Mao’s ghost here was no doubt his bedroom at the villa: a spacious lair, soundproofed to the hilt, complete with California king-sized bedding.  More surprising was the little display of his imported LP records nearby, a collection that he apparently listened to avidly while ordinary Chinese during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution were severely forbidden to have records or books from abroad.  For many years, it seems, Mao enjoyed working late into the night, keeping lots of books within reach and using his bed as a home office space and enjoying diverse female company when the nocturnal work became tedious.

Chairman Mao record collection, Lushan Mountain.

Days were busy as well.  It was here that he foiled the aspirations of Lin Biao, a rival who had dared to challenge his supreme authority as party Chairman.  It’s odd to sense his presence here and to wander through a kind of museum to his memory.  In other parts of China that I’ve visited, there’s little discussion of Mao by anyone that I’ve spoken with so far, although I’ve not bothered to raise that subject with anyone, just out of my visitor’s courtesy.  Still, Chinese will eventually be in the odd position of coming to a recognition of the enormous harm done by Mao’s policies, but also to a recognition of their new national prominence and prosperity.

Mao’s picture is still on all of the currency, but so far there’s not much public curiosity for delving into the part of Chinese history that he commanded.  Like most controversial materials in this country, the truly critical biographies of Mao are banned here, and you can’t get them on Amazon without a lot of software wrangling.  But for a few dollars it’s easy to buy decks of cards with his smiling face on each one.  Card games are more fun than biographies and histories for most of us, but I can’t help wondering when Chinese historians will be in a stronger position to provide a full account and reckoning of China’s last century.  And I’m wondering whether more than a few of my own talented students will ever get into a mood for asking those questions for themselves.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Terence permalink
    March 28, 2012 8:57 pm

    Nice entry, Jim. Seems like a pretty cool getaway.

    Your story of Mao and his cherished music collection reminds me of a couple stories from my time in the former East Germany. I had a student in Dessau who, 10 years ago, was in her mid 50s. She told me about how she used to train from Berlin to Hamburg in the 1960s/70s to visit an aunt. While there, she’d pick up rock-n-roll records — Elvis, whoever — and smuggle them back in an oversized purse. One time at the border in Marienborn, she got checked by a GDR security guard. He pulled the album partially out, looked at it, eyed her up and said, “it’s not allowed, but I like Elvis, too,” nodded, and left her on her merry way, heart pounding.

    Along similar lines I shared a mutual passion for heavy metal with another student in the Dessau area, this time younger, maybe 25 at the time, who, when younger, used to trade twelve or thirteenth generation cassette copies of forbidden (or very hard to obtain) Slayer, Anthrax, Metallica, and Carcass albums–all through pervasive underground cultural networks of exchange. Rap music also leeched into East Germany through similar avenues.

    Then there is the story of Frieder in Berlin. In college in the mid 70s he became enamored with The Beatles. Acquired an authentic vinyl copy of Sargent Peppers which originated in the Caspian Sea, wound its way through many hands via Hungary and Czechoslovakia before finally arriving Dresden where he was then a student of engineering. Another friend of Frieder’s once showed him a very rare book of complete Beatles’ lyrics with plenty of artwork he had picked up in Prague. Frieder begged his friend to sell him the book — to no avail. Instead, his friend let him borrow it for the weekend, during which time Frieder copied every single lyric to every single song — by hand!!

    I suppose these types of stories are pretty common in societies where the availability of cultural materials is limited or seriously forbidden. Curiously, an American colleague of mine recently pasted me a link for the first episode in the Kennedys mini-series from a couple years back on a Chinese video-sharing site. The quality, with English and Chinese subtitles, was brilliant.

    Smuggling, piracy, illegal copying, etc. serves a very real function within the market of cultural intercourse and exchange in highly restrictive societies. In that sense, Mao’s own private collection of publicly banned cultural materials can be seen (and perhaps should be celebrated) as a role model for how citizens can and should behave in such societies. Piracy is never always a bad thing.

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