From Our Pages: “It Cannot Be Conceived.”

American idealists in two Chinese revolutions, Cultural and capitalist.

Mark Wyatt, China, 1996.

By Julie Anderson

In June of 1966, when high school and college students in Beijing began, in the Chinese phrase, “making revolution” — beating teachers and forcing them to crawl on burning cinders, drink insecticide, wear dunce caps, and beg for mercy­–the government responded by sending the small foreign community in Beijing off to Beidaihe, China’s exclusive seaside resort 175 miles east of the capital.

Mao and niece at Beidahe, 1960. Wikimedia.

Only one event made an impression on them as they relaxed on Beidaihe’s warm yellow sands: Mao Zedong’s historic swim, at the age of seventy-three, down the Yangtze River on July 16 of that year.

Growing up in the second half of the century, I had always assumed China was completely closed off to foreigners during the Cultural Revolution. Then one day in graduate school, Frederic Wakeman, the late and eminent professor of Chinese history, overturned that assumption with a simple anecdote. A British friend of his had recently traveled to China and shocked a cabdriver when he hopped into a taxi and explained where he wanted to go — in perfect Beijing street slang. The cabbie was so taken aback that at first he was unable to speak, let alone drive: How could this waiguoren, this outsider, be talking like someone who grew up in the alleyways of Beijing?

The expats moved to China to participate in one of the greatest social experiments in the history of humankind.

Over the years, this story has stayed with me and made me wonder about those foreign Communists who didn’t observe the Cultural Revolution from afar but actually lived through it. What was it like for them? They moved to China to participate in one of the greatest social experiments in the history of humankind: the remaking of a vast country from a tradition-bound, feudal state into an egalitarian, Communist utopia. I almost envy their sheer messianic fervor — how wonderful to devote your life to some larger cause! And yet, the Cultural Revolution turned out to be one of the biggest disasters of the twentieth century.

I yearned for a better place, a better life, a better version of myself … just maybe, I’d find this in China.

Accordingly, that August, I left New York City and found myself in a nearly deserted airport somewhere outside of Beijing. The airport was tiny — about half the size of one of the terminals at JFK — and reeked of ammonia and old cigarettes. I kept looking around for more of it, as if, somewhere, another ten terminals existed that I had somehow managed to miss. How could this be the airport of a major world capital? Instead of people, the noise of cicadas filled the place; their insectile hum would rise to a deafening pitch then recede, only to start over again a few minutes later.

In Chinese, there’s an expression: Bu ke si yi — “It cannot be conceived.” In other words, it was beautiful beyond imagining.

Satisfied with my reaction, Mr. Wu continued. “It has been raining cats and dogs here. As you know, when it rains, it pours! But now the rain has stopped and I am on cloud nine.”

Postcard, Tiananmen Square, 1970.
Postcard, Tiananmen Square, 1988.
Rittenberg’s memoir, published in 1993.

Rittenberg came as close to achieving a real understanding of the country as any foreigner could. Incredibly, the Communist Party even made him a full member.

Unlike other members of the foreign community who believed they should stay out of Chinese affairs, Rittenberg belonged — even after that terrible incarceration — to a small group of Westerners who became completely immersed in the Cultural Revolution, considering it the opportunity they had been looking for to make the country stronger and better than ever He spoke Mandarin with astonishing fluency. Thanks to his linguistic talents, his total commitment to Communism, and to having a Chinese wife, Yulin, and children, he came as close to achieving a real understanding of the country as any foreigner could. Incredibly, the Communist Party even made him a full member, a rare distinction even among native Chinese.

Rittenberg spent more and more time “making revolution,” which meant attending “struggle sessions” in which colleagues verbally and sometimes physically abused each other, to purge all “reactionary” thought.

His involvement escalated from there. To his wife’s great chagrin, Rittenberg gave away their prized collection of antique furniture and spent more and more time “making revolution,” which in this case meant attending so-called “struggle sessions” in which colleagues verbally and sometimes physically abused each other, to purge all “reactionary” thought. Rittenberg also wrote self-criticisms and gave numerous talks on the Red Guard lecture circuit. Incredibly, he rose to become the number-one man at the government’s Broadcast Administration.

Propaganda poster.

Mrs. Zhang, our friendly, easygoing English Department head, looked more like a girl of the 1950s than a woman of the 1990s.

I was eager to leave the school and see what I hoped was the more cosmopolitan part of Beijing. Cycling through cabbage fields, then boarding a subway downtown, however, I began to realize that the whole city had a 1950s Stalinist feel to it. It was as if China had taken a few tentative steps toward westernization, then become frozen in place when the Communists took over in ’49.

Mark Wyatt, Hutong 1, People’s Republic of China, 1996.

True, people in China didn’t have much in the way of money or luxuries, but they had, I felt, a tremendous gift: the gift of time. Abundant, luxurious time.

Many days I would wander among the hutongs, imagining what my life would be like if I lived in Beijing permanently, if I didn’t have to think about a career or how to support myself. I’d have time to write! To be a real artist! Though I never said it out loud, I felt secretly envious. True, people in China didn’t have much in the way of money or luxuries, but they had, I felt, a tremendous gift: the gift of time. Abundant, luxurious time.

Rittenberg began rediscovering his faith — if not exactly in America, then at least in the basic principles on which it was founded.

What fascinates me is that, during this period, Rittenberg unconsciously began to adopt a survival strategy opposite to what he used during his first stint in prison. Whereas the first time around, he had tried to squash every vestige of individual personality out of himself, this time he began to whisper under his breath, “I am entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and no one can deprive me of those rights as long as I refuse to give them up.”

I learned that every class I taught had a spy in it, a student selected by the Party to watch what the American teacher said and how the Chinese students responded.

The situation didn’t pose any real danger to me — at worst, I risked being kicked out of the country — but if my students said anything against the Party, they could be sent to jobs at factories in the farthest reaches of Qinghai or Gansu Provinces.

Everyone under the age of thirty, it seemed, wanted to buy and sell something, preferably something they could export to America.

Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that when it comes to American visual archetypes, I fit the bill pretty well. The attention I got came partly due to being five-eight, thin, and young, with naturally curly blond hair trailing down my back. But while my height and hair color made me stand out, it was when I confirmed that I was American — not French or German or British — that people’s eyes would truly widen with excitement. Does everyone there have a TV and a refrigerator? they demanded to know. Do all Americans have a big house like on Dynasty? (Dynasty was the one American show permitted on Chinese TV, because China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, allegedly loved it. Deng, long an advocate of opening China up to business with the West, no doubt wanted people to be entranced by the materialist fantasy the show depicted.)

Mark Wyatt, Hutong 2.

I’d often get lost not because my sense of direction was poor, but because familiar guideposts — hutongs, outdoor markets — had suddenly disappeared.

Unsurprisingly, my Chinese students greeted each new hotel, business, and franchise with great enthusiasm, lining up for hours before the first McDonald’s opened. This was, in fact, the biggest event that happened in Beijing the whole year I lived there; my students couldn’t wait to get a taste of the West. Nor did their enthusiasm diminish even after they’d eaten Big Macs and declared the huge beef patties and slabs of slimy cheese on them disgusting.

Golden arches on temporary display. Laws have recently banned such large outdoor signage. http://en.people.cn/200203/01/eng20020301_91233.shtml.
Rittenberg and his wife, Yulin, in the USA.

Rittenberg’s specific mission, he claims, has always been the same: “to continue to labor on the bridge of understanding and cooperation between the peoples of America and China” … only now he does so by bringing businesses to China to boost its economy, improve its telecommunications, and create jobs for ordinary people.

Did Rittenberg renounce his early Communist ideals completely? The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to believe the answer is no. Rittenberg, the “man who stayed behind” and then returned home, has written that in the future “more and more people will examine the possibility of a higher form of society, which could offer powerful economic incentives, as does capitalism, but with more fairness, diversity, and freedom.” What’s more, his specific mission, he claims, has always been the same: “to continue to labor on the bridge of understanding and cooperation between the peoples of America and China” … only now he does so by bringing businesses to China to boost its economy, improve its telecommunications, and create jobs for ordinary people.

Idealization and demonization are really two sides of the same coin.

I, too, have changed over the years, and so has the way I understand China and Beijing. I no longer romanticize the old Communist city I inhabited twenty-five years ago with its poverty and paranoia. Nor do I completely demonize the new capitalist metropolis that came into being before my eyes with its corruption, overconsumption, and disregard for the environment.

Photo credit: Polly Lockman.
True stories. Honestly.

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