Thursday, May 26, 2016, 8:44 AM CST – China

Outside In


On a Red Hill

The small city of Yan’an, the cradle of China’s communist revolution, is steeped in modern history

Photo by CFP

Mao’s residence in Yangjialing, Yan’an Photo by CFP

Yellow and vacant as the eye sockets of a skull, the many abandoned cave dwellings of Shaanxi’s loess plateau are curiously haunting. The train journey to Yan’an from Datong, a somewhat bleak industrial town, passes many such sights, speaking eloquently of both the age and poverty of this land.

Many of these yaodong, however, remain inhabited to this day. With their low arches and wood and glass facades buried in the hillsides, they perhaps bespeak associations not of absence and decay, but more of a dustier, Chinese version of Tolkien’s Shire. Yan’an, cradle of the Chinese Revolution, is full of them.

Walking through Yan’an, the traveller is first struck by two things – the dust and the stares. Dust, because we are in the famous loess plateau, the silt which gives the Yellow River its defining characteristic; and stares because here, a foreigner is a rare thing indeed. The looks come in all varieties: the covert, the unabashed, the slack-jawed, and the amazed double-take. Entire streets of lounging tradesmen merrily chorus “hallo, hallo, hallo” as one passes by. Photos are taken, and one is given an intimation of life as a beautiful woman – privileged, yet irritatingly suffused with unsolicited attention. Proudly, a cabbie told me the town had one resident foreigner: a black American, at the local university, “but his Chinese is not good.” One can only imagine the loneliness of such an existence.

It was here that an exhausted Red Army found its rest following the Long March, turning this dusty and forgotten corner of Shaanxi province into the Red capital of China. During the long Sino-Japanese War, thousands of patriotic young intellectuals braved hardship and death to make their way here, fired by the dream of a better, fairer China and of resisting Japan. It was to this town that Edgar Snow journeyed, braving Nationalist patrols and marauding bandits, writing in his Red Star Over China about the “Revolution of youth” taking place here in the 1940s, of the idealism and hope surrounding the first chapters of the Communist Revolution, and interviewing such luminaries as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De. Here grew the myth of the “Yan’an way,” that of a supposed perfect period in Chinese Communism founded on principles of egalitarianism, democracy, and popular participation within which a new form of political community was created. The truth, of course, was somewhat more complicated – episodes such as the “Yan’an Rectification Campaign,” where cadres were denounced and purged, highlights that even in this Communist arcadia, Mao’s quest for personal supremacy remained center stage.

The city lies along the now nearly dry middle reaches of the Yellow River, where the current has cut away the soft rock to form a sharp valley. With the exception of its iconic “Baota” Pagoda, Yan’an was razed to the ground by Japanese and, later, Nationalist bombing raids. Today, its buildings are thus a mixture of begrimed tower blocks and, closer to the valley walls, low cave dwellings in the cliff face. A profusion of Revolutionary sites may nevertheless be found awaiting the Red Tourist. In Yanjiling Village, three miles from the center, the erstwhile cave homes of the Communist leadership can be found dug into the cliffs, protective cover from air raids. Communist elders such as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, and Liu Shaoqi had their residences here. In these Spartan homes can be found the stone beds and simple wooden furniture upon which revolutionary change was once plotted. Many display rooms and pictures can also be found – captions and exhibits, alas, require proficiency in Mandarin.

Ducking the low door into Mao’s house, one quickly notices the numerous packets of Zhongnanhai cigarettes, the Chairman’s favorite brand, left scattered reverentially about the small rooms by today’s visitors. As when watching the flower-bearing, genuflecting tourists at Tiananmen Square’s Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, the observer is left wondering about the continued respect still so regularly exhibited towards the man. Aside from the ongoing effects of official propaganda, perhaps one answer lies in the contradictions of his character; he was responsible for catastrophic policies like Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, yet also was a celebrated poet. In the poem “Xue,” or “Snow,” he described the icy landscape he saw around him in the local winter – snow-capped mountains dancing like silver snakes, highlands as wax elephants vying with the sky. This northern land, he writes, has produced many a hero – the first emperor, Genghis Khan; but to Mao, none of them had poetry in their soul. For truly great men, “look to today” – a stunning declaration of confidence at a time when the Red Army was close to defeat.

Yan’an remains dominated by the mythology of his epic victory. A huge statue of Mao, arm uplifted in benediction, commands the square around the city’s Revolutionary Museum, and dotted around the city are the sights of revolutionary remembrance. For a small fee, Communist uniforms may be purchased at many of these, all the better to pose. Everywhere billboards advertise “red” shows of revolutionary song and dance, servicing the “red yuan” of domestic tourists. As might be expected, the Revolutionary Museum contains the triumphalist account of Yan’an’s past. Showcasing the remarkable story of Communist ascendancy in China the exhibits are once again largely in Chinese, with only brief English introductions. Pictures, however, give eloquent testimony of the privations endured here, on the Long March, and during the Civil War. Pointing to a picture of Zhang Xueliang, the northern warlord whose 1936 capture and manipulation of Chiang Kai-shek forced a détente between the Communists and Nationalists, thus changing the course of China’s history, I created a minor stir by using the word “pantu” (“traitor”), to describe his relationship to Chiang. No, I was told – “aiguozhe,” “patriot.” I felt it best not to press the point.

Sightseeing in Yan’an is not without its perils. I was hunted through parks and squares, the white whale to an army of petite Ahabs, wielding their cameras as harpoons. Young couples, teenagers, and children with their mothers all came sprinting after me demanding pictures of this pink, glistening foreigner.

I soon found myself in a night market, searching for roast meat skewers. The proprietor, a small man with an oddly proportioned body, hobbled over beaming, assuming me to be a friend of our lonely American, and offered to call him for me. Gently rejecting his offer, I sat instead with a genial and thoroughly drunk oil worker and his children. We toasted each other with variously slurred platitudes and downed crates of fizzy Qingdao beer, thus lending a highly uncomfortable quality to my ascent of the Baota Pagoda the day after.

Yan’an saw fit to keep a memento of me at my departure. My camera, filled with photos of me lying coquettishly upon Mao’s bed, was plucked from my pocket on the bus to the train station – a cheering note of proof, perhaps, that even in this age of capitalism run rampant, the solid citizenry of Mao’s lands still, from time to time, favor a bit of old-fashioned resource distribution.


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