October 21, 2009

Sixty Years and Three Parades: Semantics and the Long March of Conservative Reporting on China

Sixty Years and Three Parades: Semantics and the Long March of Conservative Reporting about China
The year was 1984. I was in the People’s Republic of China where I was a graduate student at the Beijing Central Art Academy and my husband was an English professor at Beijing Normal University. The mysterious date made famous by George Orwell’s novel about totalitarianism found us in China, about to witness a parade of thirty-five years of communist rule. Our travels in China for the previous three years had been exotic. We had lived in Baoding, in Changchun and finally in Beijing at a time when China was an exciting albeit a challenging place to live - just opening to foreign markets and foreign education. We felt privileged to have been able to have seen so much of this vast country, to learn the complex language and the fascinating culture.
Subsequent travels could never quite compare to the intensity of the China experience.
It was exciting to actually witness, as a culmination of our China years, the longest, most colorful parade I had ever seen.
Unfortunately I now only have a few blurry photographs remaining from that time ( a valiant search may eventually turn up the rest). These photos of the whole fantastic thing were taken from such a distance that details are hard to make out. But the impressionistic dream-like quality of them matches the fuzziness of a quarter of a century time passed since the event.
But some things remain as clear as if I had seen them yesterday, with the more recent events of China’s 60th anniversary parade bringing them back into sharp perspective.
Before the parade began, my husband and I took our places high in the bleachers overlooking Tian An Men square. In the large square over the far side of Chang An Boulevard we could see thousands of people holding variously colored pom poms. On cue they would hold up pom poms to spell out "1984" in white on green - about a square mile of that famous date in history and literature.
To announce the beginning of the parade, Premier Deng Xiao Ping was driven down Chang An in a long black limousine. He stood upright in the car in a position of great vulnerability to this American’s eyes, ( given our own country’s record of trying to pop off our national leaders). Then Premier Deng announced in his chirpy southern Chinese dialect the beginning of what was to be a short introductory military parade. The military parade had a tank, a missile and contingents from the army and navy. It seemed somewhat obligatory and not particularly memorable. After the military introduction Deng Xiao Ping returned to announce "And now let the People’s Parade Begin!"
With that announcement the square blossomed into vibrant colors. The people in the square held up large swaths of indigo colored cloth undulating in unison to create a giant ocean of waves. Men in turquoise blue silk costumes danced down Chang An Boulevard holding what looked like large tambourines decorated with flames of brightly colored silk which rippled when they swept the air with them. Behind them a man carried a white orb on a stick that was chased after by several people dressed in a dragon costume. The orb was the pearl of happiness which the mythological dragon pursues in heaven but never captures. There were floats of just about every kind. My husband’s students were featured in one that was supposed to represent a giant unfolding lotus. The students, dressed in white, bent backwards in unison to represent the opening of the lotus blossom. From our distant vantage point, they looked a bit like cocktail shrimp but they made a good effort.
Periodically, balloons would fly into the air and packages of gifts would into the crowds. The people’s parade lasted several hours and was packed with colorful floats and exquisite costumes. Nightfall brought out the fireworks display and dancing in the square.
What was interesting for me, and a bit shocking, in my experience of the 1984 parade was that it was followed closely after by a return visit to the United States. I could see the U.S. media coverage of the event that I had just witnessed. What first astonished me was that there was no coverage of the "people’s parade," which was about 80% or more of the event. Instead the entire parade was said to be a "military parade." Pictures of goose stepping throngs in army outfits proliferated along with big red and scary headlines. There were endless news videos of rows upon rows of tanks. Since I only recalled seeing one tank I wondered at the spontaneous generation of several. Looking closely at the news coverage, however, I noticed that the camera panned the same tank over and over again to make it look like several. (If my memory doesn’t serve on this and I can find a photo of more than one tank from 1984 I’ll post it). The text to accompany these images tended to follow suit with strongly worded intonations about the Chinese flaunting their military might. I especially recall the striking lack of color in the reporting - the jargon being as depressing and dull as the flattest and greyest images that could be conjured of the event. I attributed the tone of the coverage and the misrepresentation to the cold war politics of the Reagan era and thought no more of it, except to say that from that time onwards, I took the U.S. media coverage of events abroad with more than a little grain of salt.
Years passed. We moved to Holland. We moved back to the United States. I returned to graduate school in New York. Then the last decade of the twentieth century brought us to Orangeburg, South Carolina. Our new house had been owned by a young couple, a jeweler for several decades before them, and a doctor before her. Now here in Orangeburg there is a peculiar institution of historic preservation by means of shoving your unwanted belongings into crawl spaces beneath the house, never to be retrieved again even by subsequent owners of the house. The clean living young couple who owned the house for a year before us, however, unfortunately threw away tons of vintage medical paraphernalia from 1930's and 1940's. But there were other items that were still retrievable and made for a great archaeological dig in the basement. Local civilizations past emerged; an old target with metal squirrels on springs that I used in a mosaic, a half buried "Colored Persons Waiting Room"sign that I gave to a friend who subsequently used it in a collage. Through the debris I found a box of National Geographic magazines from the 1940's that were in pristine condition. The one from September of 1949 caught my eye. In this issue was an account of the communist forces arriving in Beijing (then called Peiping). The article, entitled "Power Comes Back to Peiping," was written by the former ambassador to China, Nelson T. Johnson, by W. Robert Moore and by the photojournalist David D. Duncan.
The recent news about the sixty year celebration of communist rule in China spurred a desire in me to revisit the events that started the People’s Republic of China. So on a cool October day, I opened the vintage National Geographic and began to read, transported by colorful photographic plates and words of wonder to the events of sixty years ago in China, 1949.
1949 on the streets of Peiping. World War II was over, the Japanese invaders were vanquished and the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists was concluded, with Chiang Kai Shek retreating to Taiwan. There was nothing to do but wait...for the communist forces to march into Peiping. And in they came. From David Duncan’s photographs, we know that they came into a world of exuberant color and a city rich in history. What a tale these three writers told! And with an enthusiasm that required a liberal use of exclamation points!
The writers emanated a sense of awe in relating their tale of Peiping - from its earliest inhabitants through the end of World War II. There was a palpable excitement about their even being in the "God-Emperor’s" city - a city with a long tradition of pomp and grandeur. This was a city described as a "majestic, glittering metropolis" resulting from "genius and work." The writers expressed marvel at the newly opened museums of art and culture: "Where is another people who can display a similar wealth of creative craftsmanship over a space of 4000 years?" they asked incredulously. Their wide-eyed wonder was charming and their attention to exquisite details enchanting.
I learned a few new points of history myself as I read "Power Comes Back to Peiping." There were interesting maps and a detailed history of the structure of the walled cities within the city - five cities in one with nine gateways. I also learned that the strange beast that I thought was a myth, the si bu xiang, was an actual animal. It was a deer that had long been extinct in Peiping but which had apparently been preserved as a living specimen in a zoo in New York. ( The Chinese, who couldn’t figure out how to describe it, simply called it si bu xiang, which roughly means "four things its not like"). As well as a keen interest in history, the writers of ‘49 were fascinated with cultural details and David D Duncan liberally photographed them. The photographs were truly artistic gems. Two of them featured Chinese citizens modeling richly embroidered traditional coats - one a 250 year old imperial yellow silk coat with gold embroidered dragons.
In an almost surreal juxtaposition, the photographs show street vendors and roadside performers distracting crowds in and around the invading army. The "Peiping Bathhouse Guild" puts on a performance on stilts. Vendors selling fragrant pears and plump persimmons tempt shoppers. The photographer himself buys oriental carpets and lets us know that he got them for the bargain price of about $20.00 each! !!! !!! In an oddly anachronistic performance, a Chinese flutist plays "Deep in the Heart of Texas."
It is heart wrenching to read the sanguine expectations for China - the newly opened parks and museums for the people and the promise of a better life - and know what lies ahead. I look at mothers proudly holding their babies and realize that when these babies become teenagers China will be in the grip of the great Cultural Revolution. Will they join the ranks of the infamous Red Guards and do havoc to the country -destroying "the four olds?" It is sad to know that just one year after this article was written, the authors will be separated from the country they were so captivated by with the advent of the Korean war. There will be the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the fifties. There will be purges and crackdowns - culminating in the terrible Tian An Men Massacre of 1989 ( This was a year I was supposed to be working there but for obvious reasons my gig was cancelled).
The United States, in an eerie parallel to the purges of the communist world, suffered through the McCarthy era of the early fifties. In our own crackdown some of the best and brightest in academia and in the entertainment field were purged - blacklisted, forbidden to work and even imprisoned. They were labeled as leftists and had their lives turned upside down and careers ruined. China followed suit in the later fifties by purging intellectuals who didn’t toe the party line from their universities too. Over there they were called rightists. (Maybe our leftists and their rightists should have just switched countries and spared everyone the misery! I did, in fact, know a family of refugees from McCarthy era America who had emigrated to the People’s Republic of China)
There were terrible consequences to these purges. Backwardness, loss of civil liberties, you name it. Since many of our own blacklisted artists and writers were from the African American intelligentsia, the nascent civil rights movement of the 1940's was undermined when these intellectuals left the United States, leaving it to the next generation to pick up the pieces and start over again. Indeed, the "Colored Person’s Waiting Room" sign I discovered in the 1940's strata of my basement dig could just have easily been discovered in the 1960's zone.
Senator Joe McCarthy, and his witch-hunt days, died in 1957. His excesses have most assuredly been discredited. But is it possible that he still casts a long shadow into the present day? Is it even possible that his brand of red scare tactics could rise again? Certainly the fundamental base for reporting on China that has been in place since 1949 could contribute to at least a partial resurrection of his ideas. A friend and former fellow teacher in China gave me a lovely present of a book by John King Fairbank, The Great Chinese Revolution 1800 - 1985. His observation of post 1949 writing about China was as follows:
"Once we reach the People’s Republic of China in 1949 the scholarly literature on China changes remarkably from historical studies to social science studies. China’s going communist spurred a great western effort to understand the new enemy." Fairbanks notes further that the new academic talents on China were recruited from the fields of "geography, economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, and social psychology, in order to know the enemy" (italics mine).
I would take issue with Fairbanks’ disdain of these disciplines as necessarily being inherently inferior to history as a means to critical understanding of another culture, but would add that, on balance, voices of artists, writers, linguists, and legal experts should not be so arbitrarily discarded either as valid witnesses to the complex culture of China. But I would venture that soliciting the expertise and commentary from anyone solely for the purpose of finding enemies, ultimately serves no one.
I lived for many years in China, and returned several times as a guide and translator. My educational background and interests are in Chinese language, art, science, and writing, with a healthy love for history thrown into this mix. With this in mind, I look for commentary on China which informs and enlightens. In the most recent coverage of China I don’t find that. What I do find is what John King Fairbanks rails against and what Senator Joe McCarthy would probably find satisfying.
The following comments were extracted from the LA Times and the New York Times. Both of these articles describe the Sixty year celebration parade in China as a "military parade" only. Given my experience with the American press in 1984, I suspected cold war politics still in play so wrote to an American friend on location in China and asked him if the parade that he watched in Beijing was indeed a military parade only, or, as I suspected, a short perfunctory military introduction to a civilian parade. He concurred that the latter was indeed the case. I later checked in with BBC and saw that their coverage more accurately provide readers with the breakdown of civilian versus military in the parade. The BBC also provided very helpful time lines along with facts and figures of China’s development over the last sixty years.
The American journalists, after dubbing the myriad floats, balloons, and dancers a "military parade" in its entirety, they proceeded to describe this event in terms that have a decidedly cold war flavor. In Sharon La Franiere’s and Micahael Wines’ article in the New York Times, October 1, 2009, they describe a "vast display of military power" with weapons, they tell us that "one day could be used to counter American Aircraft carriers." This they’ve-got-the-big-guns-and-they’re-pointed-right-at-us rhetoric rings so big and red and scary it would do Joe McCarthy proud. The language used to describe the parade was almost universally condescending, using phrases like "indisputably retro," and "kitschy." The parade is found to be flawed in the LA Times, as well, for purportedly reusing old material from previous parades. It is, of course, vitally important that the American public know that the reds put on parades that are like last year’s dresses.
Both articles made much out of the "totalitarian" aspect of this parade not being freely open to the public and that most people had to watch it at home from their television sets. Anyone who has lived in Beijing and walked its streets knows that even on a day without the street being taken up by a parade and with every inch of the public square filled with performers, the crowds are such that everyone is shoulder to shoulder. The public could not possibly fit on the side of Chang An street during this parade unless they were perhaps standing stacked up on each other about ten high. I also find this accusation somewhat ironic in that, as a citizen of Orangeburg, South Carolina, I was not allowed to attend the Democratic Primary debate at the local college last year. The public was not invited. Although it was just up the street I had to watch it on my repressed little television in my oppressed little living room. But I think in both cases there was more of pragmatism than totalitarianism in this- in either case there was only so much room for human bodies.
At the Chinese sixty year anniversary parade, Hu Jin Tao, as he addresses the throngs, cannot stand up and wave right to the American journalists. In the New York Times article Hu Jin Tao is described as giving "a bromide-filled speech." (We are never told what the words actually are) and waving "stiffly." Barbara Demick, reporting in the LA Times, describes Hu Jin Tao as looking like "half of a severed statue." As to the parade itself, Barbara Demick occasionally forgets herself and allows for some descriptive and colorful language in her article. She breaks with the droning style with a surprising reference to Zhang Yi Mou’s fireworks display. But she quickly remembers where she is at and what her job is and reminds us that when the parade participants lift multi-colored pom poms it is a "depersonalizing technique." This is the first time I have heard of color pom poms being used as weapons of mass destruction of civil liberties but I am guessing that the conclusion was arrived at through the tautological reasoning that since North Korea had used similar pom poms and North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship, so it must be that their use in a Chinese parade spells out totalitarianism. I am not saying here that China is not totalitarian. I just believe that it did not come via the pom pom route.
What I found ultimately most poignant about the New York Times article was something not
contained in the body of the article itself but it did speak volumes to me. It was a question for reader response set in a column off to the left of the article. The question read, "Can China spread wealth and become a consumer society?" I was saddened to see that question placed where a better question would be "Can China ever become a democracy?" The latter question would come from a free-thinking truly democratic society with a genuine interest in human rights. The former question is one that would only be posited by a society where consumer interests are the greatest priority. I have been hearing several permutations of the first question for decades. I heard it often repeated while in China that "All China needs is a free market system." I would always respond that instituting a free market system in the absence of a democracy where there is rule of law would only result in corruption, exploitation, and environmental pollution. At least Barbara Demick references the severe air pollution in Beijing, and the Chinese attempts to diffuse it at least temporarily through cloud seeding. It was interesting and informative. But does she not make the connection between the free-wheeling unrestrained pursuit of capital through unregulated industry and the air pollution problem? No. We don’t need to turn China into a massive land of consumers fashioned after ourselves. We need to support their civil liberties as we should our own.
One way to support human rights in China is to first have responsible reporting from China that reflects an understanding and respect for its people. A good start would be to assign journalists who speak Mandarin and Cantonese to cover the country. It would also help to break the cycle of cold war political hyperbole in writing. There are enough problems in China to report on them straight, without didactic ideological embellishments. It becomes difficult to take seriously a story that includes the pom pom theory of political repression.
People do have a right to know what is happening in the world in which they live. Borrowing an analogy from our own legal system, we know that it is possible for a guilty person to get away with a crime if the prosecution argues his case poorly. Bias, sloppy detective work, not following due process, can get a case thrown out of court. Similarly, in the court of public opinion, when news comes to us packaged in propagandized form and found to be politically biased, or misrepresenting of the facts, we may very well close our eyes and ears to its message. In this way, any potentially serious news will be thrown out along with the language and methodology that brought it to our attention. We need to have our curiosity abroad represented by people who give us answers rather than serve us agendas.
I am curious about many things in China. I would like to know more about what is happening in Chinese museums, in the field of science. I would like to know about advances in the field of history and archaeology - maybe even writing about it that includes an exclamation point or two.
If the United States continues to dispense people around the world on the basis of their ideological allegiance rather than on the basis of their intellectual acumen, then the worst of what happens in the world in which we live will never be fully comprehended and the best of what happens in the world we will be prevented from even knowing.
In the mean time, in the arena of world news - happy reading in the BBC!
In the process of my background research for this article, I discovered that David D Duncan, the photojournalist who wrote the original 1949 National Geographic article about Beijing at the beginning of the People’s Republic of China is still writing and making beautiful photographs at the age of 94. What enthusiasm and a love for beauty will do!

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