dijous, 5 de novembre de 2009

The night Zhou Enlai was drunk under the table

I was part of a delegation from an obscure British party that enjoyed unprecedented access to the Chinese leadership, including a drinking competition with Zhou - and a very risky argument about literature with Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, who had, after all, instituted the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) by demonizing all but a tiny group of writers and artists. It was so long ago that even the Chinese used the old Wade-Giles Romanization system for the Mandarin language. We were in Peking (Beijing), and read the Peking Review every week. In fact, our visit featured in it.
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A case in point was a bizarre Christmas feast with an elderly American couple, old-style communists who had moved to China and taken up citizenship and party membership. They were brought out because they knew several of the delegation, who had asked about them.

The turkey dinner was odd in several ways. The couple were Jewish for a start, and although our Chinese hosts were trying to be hospitable with the seasonal bird, they obviously found something alien about the idea of cooking an intact animal: it came as a sort of turkey construction kit, disassembled, cooked and then reassembled. As for the couple, it was only many years later that I heard that their goose had been well and truly cooked. They were languishing in prison, brought out and dusted off for us, and then returned afterwards. But nothing they said gave any of us any grounds for suspicion.

The full Gang of Four came along to join Zhou for talks and a banquet on New Year's Eve. Jiang Qing stood out in a sea of nondescript cotton Mao suits. The still striking woman, who had reduced the repertoire of a huge nation to a handful of revolutionary Beijing operas, one ballet, the Red Detachment of Women, and pretty much one classical sonata, flounced in, every inch the imperial consort.

The former actress' cotton greatcoat was draped around her shoulders like a cape, and she carried herself like an imperial consort. When she discovered that I had been studying English literature, she immediately pronounced that Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens' Hard Times were the only two English proletarian novels. Even as I blurted out a negative, I was thinking hard. I saw the rest of the senior leadership of the party withdraw a little in expectation of the thunderbolt to come. Jane Eyre was clearly a bit too close to home. A governess who marries the boss had too much resonance with the career of a Shanghai starlet who married the chairman. I concentrated on Hard Times, pointing out that its hero was in fact a strikebreaker - a traitor to his class in Marxist terms.

Through narrowed eyes, Jiang delivered her ultimate riposte, "You have long hair. It makes you look like a girl." There was a barely concealed sigh of relief around the table. At least it was not "Off with his head!" or "Counter-revolutionary scum".

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