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Historien de la Chine contemporaine, réalisateur de documentaires tv
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'China is very poor and very revolutionary'

Historien de la Chine contemporaine, réalisateur de documentaires tv
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Ce blog est personnel, la rédaction n’est pas à l’origine de ses contenus.

China is very poor and very revolutionary (My first trip to China)

Translated from French by Christopher Jacq


To the memory of my parents

I can still remember this sentence, almost a motto: “Zhongguo hen qiong, hen geming”. “China is very poor and very revolutionary”, the very first sentence I learned in China.

And I can still remember my first “Nihao !” (Hello!) proudly uttered from the window of the trans-Siberian train, in the little border town of Manzhouli just as the train made its way into inner Mongolia.  This was intended for a young soldier standing guard by the railroad.   He stared at me, at a standstill, except for his little eyes following the train’s progress, until he suddenly threw me a belated albeit cheerful: “Nihao, Nihao, Nihao!”…He looked just as young as I was.

This was the 8th of July 1964, twelve days before my twenty-second birthday.  And this first Chinese phrase I actually had learned from Yan, a Vietnamese friend!

I had become acquainted with Yan while the Trans-Siberian was still pulling out of Moscow’s suburbs. Considering this was but the beginning of an eight-days journey I had just arranged a small library above my berth when I heard an accentless voice asking me: « Parlez-vous français ? » (“Do you speak French?”) Yan, who had been studying in Moscow for several years was on his way back home, in Hanoï.  He had just defended his doctoral thesis on Maïakowski…in Russian!

He had already seized a little pocket book, « La guerre révolutionnaire » (“The Revolutionary War”), by Mao Zedong, published by Editions 10/18. Just below the title was a picture of Tian An Men square with the Chairman’s gigantic portrait.  He himself shone right at the top, amidst other officials.  The snapshot had been taken on the 1st of October 1959, for the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

In fact, the Chairman was then listening to a speech by Peng Zhen, then Mayor of Beijing, whom he was sluggishly applauding surrounded as he was by China’s other leading figures, Liu Shaoqi, newly appointed President of the Republic (1), Marshall Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, alongside several representatives of “sister countries” from Eastern Europe. How could I have then imagined that I would afterwards spend a large part of my life studying the history of contemporary China, the Long March, Mao’s biography, his myth and cult?

Throughout these eight days we ceaselessly chatted away.  When it was about politics Yan would switch to a more elusive mode, and even more so if the USSR was involved. It didn’t take me long to understand that he loathed that system, its apparatchiks and rampant corruption.  He seemed more attracted to the Chinese path and its so-called egalitarianism.  It was quite an emotional moment when we finally parted at the Beijing railway station. Unfortunately I never again heard from him thereafter.

And by the way, why choose China? At the time I had been studying English at the Sorbonne university and ignored everything about this country apart from its « Tales and legends », a book which had followed me throughout my early childhood, about the role of its communist party – I had been involved with the « Communist Youth » and was already interested in the figure of Mao.

My parents invited me to pay them a visit the following summer in Hong Kong, where my father Roger, had just been appointed at the head of the local Alliance Française and my mother, Suzanne, was headmistress of the little French school.  Brimming with political awareness – like everybody else did in those days – I decided to go to “Communist China” and applied for an individual visa.  Was I not lucky? It was simply a miracle that in January 1964 General de Gaulle and Chairman Mao had so decided to establish diplomatic relations between France and China just when I needed it ( !). And as the Trans-Siberian was by far the cheapest way to travel to Hong Kong via the USSR, Inner Mongolia and China, this explains why one morning in July I eventually landed in Beijing.

Some of my first memories: in the daytime the streets of the capital seemed almost deserted but for a few bicycles, all of them black, that instilled a little life to the picture.  They would proceed by clusters or two by two, eager to secure protection from the scorching summer sun in whatever shaded areas they could find on their way.  Now and then the scene would be interrupted by the passage of antiquated passenger-packed buses, decrepit lorries loaded with miscellaneous goods or workers standing at the back, merrily laughing away, and a few cars. 

The limousine I had been assigned was a brand new black Shanghai with a white-gloved chauffeur and white cotton covered seats.  The windows were adorned with lace curtains, including the rear window.  There were hardly three or four hotels opened to foreigners at the time: the celebrated Beijing Hotel, the Minzu Hotel, i.e. hotel of the Minorities,  and the Xinqiao hotel, my own abode, near the railway station.  And they were far from packed…

With my guide who spoke a delightful, albeit rather approximate, French, we visited a couple of People’s Communes, both quite impressive in their own way.  The peasants hosting us – we had been joined by a handful of other tourists – were irreproachable in their hospitality.  Together we drank hot water and were even allowed a few questions.

From this moment onwards I started hearing the same leitmotiv, like a recurring tune, the same sentence: “Zhongguo hen qiong, hen geming”. “China is very poor and very revolutionary”.  This motto was uttered with a broad smile and not without flame.

I remember the mud-floored little farms and the large brick bed, the kang, which we were told could heat the whole house in the cold of winter. I remember the small carefully tended plots of land and big fat pigs in their filthy mud. There was this small countryside hospital where jars were lined up containing fetuses of small animals and even babies.  

One early morning, while on our way to the Great Wall, I remember seeing a young athlete all dressed in black performing a strange dance. “Taichiquan” said my guide.  And this magnificent Spirit Way – also known as Sacred Way – leading up to the the Ming Tombs with its rows of animals – elephants, camels, chimeras -, imperial scholars and generals.

I remember a nickel plant, speckless, smiling and most probably revolutionary workers, a tractor plant. “Harvest-35”, these tractors had been labelled. They were red of course, bright red.

I remember once at night being awakened by the indescribable clatter of of hooves produced by hundreds of donkeys, mules and horses on the mainroad east of the hotel.  Each one of these was dragging a cartful of vegetables, fruits and what have you.  But where the hell were they bound for?

I can remember the revolutionary chants broadcasted at 6 o’clock every morning through the blasting loudspeakers of the hotel courtyard where the whole staff was cheerfully doing exercise under my windows: yi, er, san, si... And very closeby, up on the huge Chang’An avenue which cuts across the city from east to west, was that jumble shop selling Beijing Opera accessories.

I can remember my first visit to the Forbidden City – Gugong -, that sleeping beauty of East.  It looked like god-forsaken, but for some scarce visitors, all of them Chinese, few and far between like blades of grass amidst cobble stones.

I remember that string of lakes, the Bell Tower and its sister the Drum Tower, with its little market run by peasants, and that visit I once paid, near Zhong Nanhaï – the CCP’s Holy of Holies, which is the abode of most Chinese leaders – so, more humbly, did I pay a visit to the Beijing Library with its wooden tables and hundreds of green opalines lined up just like a big procession. Because of the heat, most of the doors and windows were wide open. A few students were peacefully engrossed in their work.  A young librarian wearing a pair of thick spectacles led me to the French literature section. There I noted the names of Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre…and Romain Rolland. I was then told – was I ?- that a young assistant-librarian had been working in the same place for several months, back in 1918, he went by the name of Mao Zedong and was under the stewardship of one of the most prominent intellectuals and revolutionaries of the time, Li Dazhao. I must confess that I had forgotten. Time flies.

I can still remember my first steps on Tian An Men Square on the same stiffling day, with this boundless space unfolding before you, - no mausoleum at the time, quite obviously! – and Chairman Mao’s portrait; meanwhile the city ramparts’ destruction was in full swing to the south-west of the old-town. I remember how shocked I was by this act of destruction.

Quite unaware of the diplomatic etiquette, I didn’t know that every French citizen is eligible to join in the national day celebrations on the 14 th of July at the French embassy, otherwise I would have seen Zhou Enlai with my own eyes, and who knows might even have shaken hands with him, perhaps. It’s only many years later that I learned he, as Prime Minister, had come to thank de Gaulle and France for having officially recognised the People’s Republic of China.  Forty-eight years later I still regret this missed opportunity (!).  

Through the work of historians such as Gao Wenqian (2), Roderick Mac Farquhar and Michael Schoenhals (3) we now know that the « beloved » Prime Minister, from the Long March until his very last day, had lived under the yoke of his damned soul of a master.  And although we now know his flaws, treacheries and his own cruelty, it still remains that he played a crucial role in the genesis of the Chinese revolution and tragedy and that had it not been for him, China would have plunged into the abyss.

Every day at the end of the afternoon, my guide and chauffeur would drop me off at the hotel.  After a shower and a six o’clock dinner I would abscond to the old town.  To make sure I didn’t get lost, I always followed  the geometric topography invented during the Mongol dynasty. On the first evening, I would explore a small square.  Then a larger square on the next day ...  I could at last see the real life of Beijingers, eating, playing chess, listening to the radio...  I could thus observe the laobaixing, the common people, taking a stroll outside, men in their undershirts, couples having a walk in their pajamas.  And to my utmost delight I would zigzag between beds people would take outside to sleep in the open air in the small streets and alleys, the hutongs.  In Wuhan, I would later see hundreds of bamboo beds on the sidewalks populated by as many outdoor sleepers.

For fear of getting lost, I dared not venture into the older winding hutongs, except for that which ran east of my favourite street, Wangfujing with its throng of onlookers, stores, bookshops, hairdressers and this craziest of shops selling of sorts of hats and chapkas by the Eastern (Christian) church and the Capital Theatre.  It is in the latter venue, chock-a-block on that occasion, that for the first time I watched a Beijing opera, and that was two years before the dreadful Jiang Jing, Chairman Mao’s wife and future member of the Gang of Four, banned all forms of art except the famous eight revolutionary operas and ballets.

After bidding farewell to my guide and chauffeur at the railway station I boarded a train to …Wuhan. I had already missed Zhou Enlai. I was now in the process of missing Shanghai. It would take me another fifteen years to discover the latter. Second regret.

Wuhan: one of China’s three « ovens ».  Utterly suffocating. Fortunately, after visiting a monstruous slaughterhouse, I was allowed to take a swim in lake Donghu.  There, surrounded by scores of children, I learned two new words: “Laowai” – foreigner – and “da bizi”, big nose.  On the face of it, none of these kids had ever seen a laowai.

After dinner, I was invited to attend a performance of “The white-haired Girl”, one of the revolutionary plays to be soon promoted ad nauseam by Jiang Qing during the Cultural Revolution.  The only foreigner amidst a boisterous and cheerful crowd, I heard the shouts and gibes thrown by the audience to the mean landholder  and excited cheers whenever the heroin tiptoed to glory.  The enthused public was young, most of them wearing a simple white shirt and blue trousers, sandals, and their heart on their sleeve. Poor, proud, happy and …revolutionary! A dozen years later, in hindsight, it felt like I had witnessed the early signs of the Cultural revolution at one of the Great Helmsman’s (and his wife) favourite training grounds.

Exit Wuhan. The more the train headed southwards, the lusher the vegetation, with green rice paddies glowing under the sun, villages surrounded by bamboo groves, banana trees and humongous banyan trees. All this and listening to the revolutionary chants, those of the « national minorities » with their heart rending high-pitched voices! – broadcasted by the train’s PA system while having tea or a meal in the dining car, was enough to make my day.

Canton, Guangzhou. Its dilapidated architecture, its arcades, this pervasive nature growing through and from every gap left in the stone, the beauty of its inhabitants, like a form of erotism that permeated the whole town.  My guide was a young girl, a student in English, and quite pretty to make things worse. Did we fall in love? Methinks we did.  But so mutually bashful and fearful. Not a single word spoken. Just glances.  On the last evening on Shamian island, we walked hand in hand for a few minutes in the dark of night. Or was it a few seconds ? Did I mention to her that it was the very day of my twenty-second birthday?  This I can’t remember. 

As the next day I was to leave their country, the « Head of South China Tourism », in person, invited me to a traditional pavilion perched at the top of a hill to enjoy a dinner of Cantonese cuisine, Yuecai. Simply gorgeous.  I had found my religion: of all Chinese gastronomic regions, Canton cuisine was worth ten thousand stars.  Ganbei!

When I eventually made it to the Canton railway station, a last surprise was there awaiting me: “The President’s Train”.  The chauffeur took me to the very last coach, right at the back.  A luxurious freight car, it was like being in the Orient Express train, with its woodpanels and veneer.  With heavy fans relentlessly stirring the air above our heads. Just a few seats, small tables and at the far end four leather Club armchairs.

Three overseas Chinese were already seated and busy reading their news papers.  The seats were movable and there was a perfectly semi-circular glass structure running from the floor all the way to the roof so that one could watch the railtracks alongside, the landscape and even the sky above.  One of these gentlemen told me that this car had been exclusively designed in the nineteen forties for Marshall Chiang Kaïshek, then President of the Republic of China. A genuine masterpiece.

The tropical landscape was unfolding under our eyes. Villages with houses made of mud and straw, walls covered with revolutionary slogans written in large Chinese characters, peasants planting rice in the paddies.  Images followed other images  just like in a film.  Like this reality I had experienced for a fortnight was turning into fiction.  Was the film beginning or about to end? Was all of this nothing but instigated window-dressing or deconstruction?  The revolutionary chants were covering the racket made by the railtracks. The three businessmen had returned to their reading, heedless of the whole background.

I was watching, listening , like mesmerised.  And deep down inside I felt I would be back over and over again in this strange country where people are proud to tell you with a smile that they are « very poor and very revolutionary ».


(1) Elected by the Chinese National Congress on 20 April 1979. Mao was to remain Chairman of the CCP, the key instrument of power.

 (2)  Gao Wenqian, Zhou Enlai The Last Perfect Revolutionary, 2007; Published in French as: Zhou Enlai, l’ombre de Mao, Perrin, 2010;

 (3)  Roderick Mac Farquhar, Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution, Harvard University Press, 2006; published in French as: La dernière révolution de Mao, Gallimard, 2009.

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