BOOK REVIEW / Min and Mao: An extract from 'Red Azalea'

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IN SCHOOL, Mao's books were our texts. I was at the head of the class on the History of the Communist Party of China. To me, history meant how proletarians won over the reactionaries. Western history was a history of capitalist exploitation. We hung portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin next to Mao in our classrooms. Each morning, we bowed to them as well as bowing to Mao, praying for a long, long life for him.

My compositions were collected slogans. I always began with this: 'The East wind is blowing, the fighting, drumming, is beating. Who is afraid in the world today? It is not the people who are afraid of American Imperialists. It is the American Imperialists who are afraid of the people.' Those phrases won me prizes. I was at the school day and night promoting Communism, making revolution by painting slogans on walls and boards. I led my schoolmates in collecting pennies for the starving children in America. We were proud of what we did. We were sure that we were making red dots on the world's map. We were fighting for the final peace of the planet. Not for a day did I not feel heroic. I was the opera.

I was asked to attend the school's Revolutionary Committee meeting. It was 1970, and I was 13. I discussed how to carry on the Cultural Revolution at our Long Happiness Elementary School with the Committee people, the true revolutionaries. Phrases from the People's Daily and Red Flag magazine poured out of my mouth. My award certificates were my mother's pride. My name was constantly praised as 'Study Mao Thoughts Activist', 'Mao's Good Child' and 'Student of Excellence'.

The school's Party Secretary, a man named Chain, was a worker's representative from the Shanghai Shipping Factory. He was about 50 years old, extremely thin, like a bamboo stick. One day he called me in. He told me excitedly that the committee had finally dug out a hidden class enemy, an American spy. He said: 'We are going to have a meeting against her, a rally which 2,000 people will be attending. You will be the student representative to speak against her.' I asked who it was. Wrinkling his eyebrows, the Secretary pronounced a shocking name. It was Autumn Leaves, my teacher.

I thought I had heard him wrong. Autumn Leaves was a thin, middle-aged lady andseriously nearsighted. She wore a pair of dark glasses and had a hoarse voice and a short temper. She loved Chinese, mathematics and music. The first day she stepped into the classroom she asked all the students if any of us could tell what her name, Autumn Leaves, meant. No one was able to figure it out. She explained that there was a famous poem written in the Tang Dynasty in praise of falling leaves. It said that when a leaf fell naturally, it symbolised a full life.

She was an energetic teacher who never seemed to tire of teaching. Once she completely lost her voice while trying to explain geometric progression to me. When she finally made me understand, she laughed, silently like a mute with her arms dancing in the air. When she knew that I wanted to improve my Chinese, she brought me her own books to read. One day when it was raining hard after class, she gave students her raincoat, rain shoes and umbrella as they went home. She herself went home wet. The next day she had a fever, but she came to class and struggled on, despite her fever. There was no way I could picture Autumn Leaves as an American spy.

As if reading my mind, Secretary Chain smiled and asked me if I had ever heard the phrase: 'Raging flames refine the real gold.' I shook my head. He said: 'It is time for you to test yourself out to see whether you are a real revolutionary or an armchair revolutionary.' He recited a Mao quotation: 'To have a revolution is not like having a dinner party, not like painting a pretty picture or making embroidery. It is not that easy and relaxing. Revolution is an insurrection in which one class overthrows the other with violent force.'

I found my words were blocked by my stiff tongue. I kept saying: 'Autumn Leaves is my teacher.' Secretary Chain lita cigarette and told me the fable of 'A Wolf in Sheep's Skin'. He said Autumn Leaves was the wolf. He told me that her father was a Chinese American still living in America; Autumn Leaves had been born and educated in America. Secretary Chain said the capitalist sent his daughter back to China as a secret agent of the Imperialists and was using teaching to destroy our minds. I asked what I should write. He said: 'Tell the masses how you were mentally poisoned.' I said that I did not quite understand the words 'mentally poisoned'.

Secretary Chain laughed loudly at me. He said that I had already become a victim of the spy who had almost killed me with the skill of the wolf who killed the sheep leaving no trace of blood. He made me feel disappointed with myself. He asked me the name of the books Autumn Leaves had loaned me. An Old Man of Invention, I began to recall, The Little Mermaid and Snow White. He asked for the author's name. I said it was something like Andersen. Secretary Chain raised his hand in the air and furrowed his brow. He said: 'Stop, this is it. Who is Andersen?' 'An old foreign man I guess,' I replied. 'What were his fairy tales about?' 'About princes, princesses and little people.' 'What does Andersen do now?' he asked. 'I do not know,' I replied. 'Look how careless you are]' Secretary Chain almost yelled at me. 'He could be a foreign spy]'

'Youknow we found Autumn Leaves's diary and it had a paragraph about you,' he said. 'She said that you were one of the very few children who were educable. She put quotation marks around 'educable'. Can you think of what that means?' Without waiting for my reply Secretary Chain concluded: 'It is obvious that Autumn Leaves thinks that you can be educated into her type, her father's type, the Imperialists' type.' I had been set up as a model by Autumn Leaves to influence the others.

My world turned upside down. I felt deeply hurt and used. I said to Secretary Chain that I would speak tomorrow. He nodded at me. He said: 'Our Party trusts you and Mao would be very proud of you.'

'PULL OUT the hidden class enemy, the American spy Autumn Leaves] Exposeher under the bare sun]' the crowd shouted as soon as the meeting started. Two strong men escorted Autumn Leaves on to the stage. Her arms were twisted behind her. Only a few days had passed since I had seen her, but it seemed as though she had aged 10 years. Her hair had suddenly turned grey. Her face was colourless. A rectangular board reading 'Down with American Spy' hung from her neck. Two men forced her to bow to Mao's portrait three times. One of the men bent her left arm very hard and said: 'Beg Chairman Mao for forgiveness now]' Autumn Leaves refused to say the words. The two men bent her arms up backwards. They bent them harder. Autumn Leaves's face contorted in pain and then her mouth moved. She said the words and the men let her loose.

My mouth was terribly dry. It washard to bear what I saw. The string of the heavy board seemed to cut into Autumn Leaves's skin. I forgot what I was supposed to do until Secretary Chain came to remind me of my duty. 'Long live the great proletarian dictatorship]' I shouted, following the slogan menu. I saw Autumn Leaves struggling with the two men who had been trying to press her head towards the floor. When her glasses fell off, her eyes closed tightly.

The crowd shouted 'Confess] Confess]' Secretary Chain took the microphone and said that the masses would not have much patience. Autumn Leaves kept silent. When kicked hard, she said that she had nothing to confess. She said she was innocent. 'Our Party never accuses anyone who is innocent,' said Secretary Chain, and yet the Party would never allow a class enemy to slip away from the net of the proletarian dictatorship. He said now it was time to demonstrate that Autumn Leaves was a criminal.

I stood up and felt dizzy. The crowd began clapping. Taking out the speech I had written last night, I suddenly felt a need to speak with my parents. I was afraid. I had not gone home last night but slept in the classroom on the table with other Little Red Guards. Five of us wrote the speech. I regretted not having my parents go over the speech with me. I took a deep breath.

I read to the crowd that Autumn Leaves was the wolf in sheep's skin. I took out the books she loaned me and showed them to the crowd. 'Comrades,' I said, 'now I understand why Autumn Leaves was so kind to me. She was trying to turn me into an enemy of our country, and a running dog of the Imperialists]' I read on. I tried to remove my eyes from Autumn Leaves, but she caught them. I was terrified when I saw her staring at me without her glasses. Her eyes looked like two ping-pong balls that almost popped out of her eye sockets.

Autumn Leaves began to speak slowly to the crowd with her hoarse voice. She said that she would never want to turn any of her students into the country's enemy. She broke into tears. She said that her father loved this country and that was the reason she came back to teach: 'Spy? What are you talking about? Where did you get this idea?' She looked at me.

'If the enemy doesn't surrender, let's boil her, fry her and burn her to death]' Secretary Chain shouted. He walked to the microphone. He told the crowd that this was a class enemy's live performance. It had given us an opportunity to learn how deceitful an enemy could be. 'Can we allow her to go on like this?' 'No]' the crowd shouted.

Secretary Chain was ordering Autumn Leaves to shut up and accept the criticism of the revolutionary masses with a correct attitude. Autumn Leaves said that she could not accept any untrue facts and that a young girl such as me should not be used by someone with an evil intention. 'You underestimated our Little Red Guard's political awareness,' Secretary Chain said with a scornful laugh.

Autumn Leaves called my name and asked if I really believed that she was an enemy of the country. If I did not think so could I tell her who assigned me to do the speech. She said she wanted the truth. She said Chairman Mao always liked children to show their honesty. She asked me with the exact same tone she used when she helped me with my homework. I could not bear looking at her eyes. They had looked at me when the magic of mathematics was explained; when the beautiful Little Mermaid story was told; when I won the first place in the Calculation with Abacus Competition; when I was ill - they had looked at me with sympathy and love. I had not realised the true value of what all this meant to me until I lost it for ever that day at the meeting.

My head felt like a boiling teapot. Autumn Leaves's eyes behind the thick glasses were like gun barrels shooting at me with fire. I turned to Secretary Chain. He nodded at me as if to say: Are you going to lose to an enemy? 'Think about the snake,' he said.

Yes, the snake, I remembered. It was a story Mao told in his book. It was about a peasant who found a frozen snake lying in his path on a snowy day. The snake had the most beautiful skin the peasant had ever seen. He felt sorry for her and decided to save her life. He picked up the snake and put her into his jacket to warm her with the heat of his body. Soon the snake woke up and felt hungry. She bit her saviour. The peasant died. 'Our Chairman's point,' Secretary Chain had said, 'is that to our enemy we must be absolutely merciless.'

I turned to look at the wall-sized portrait of Mao mounted on the back of the stage. The Chairman's eyes looked like two swinging lanterns. I was reminded of my duty. I must fight against anyone who dared to oppose Mao's teaching. The shouting of the slogans encouraged me. Secretary Chain passed me the microphone. I did not know why I was crying, but as I took the microphone I heard myself calling for my parents. The crowd waved their angry fists at me and shouted 'Down] Down] Down]' Finally, I gathered all my strength and yelled hysterically at Autumn Leaves with tears in my throat: 'Yes, yes, yes, I do believe that you poisoned me; and I do believe that you are a true enemy] Your dirty tricks will have no more effect on me] If you dare to try them on me again, I'll shut you up] I'll use a needle to stitch your lips together]'

TEN YEARS later, after the Cultural Revolution, when I heard that Autumn Leaves was invited back to the Long Happiness Elementary School as a senior adviser, I went to visit her, intending to apologise. Since I knew she had a habit of working early in the office, I went at seven o'clock in the morning in late spring. The shadow of tree leaves projected by the sun on the ground looked like a huge net.

The stage where I delivered my speech was still there but was washed greenish and had rotted through the years. As I stepped into the building where I used to attend classes, I could feel my blood start to run fast and my legs get heavy. Autumn Leaves was sitting alone in front of her desk, reading. I felt time had stopped. Nothing had changed a bit. I had never grown up.

I stood for a while trying to get my courage together. Autumn Leaves looked the same, although her hair had turned white and her wrinkled hands trembled slightly as she turned a page. Feeling my presence, she put down the book. Raising her eyes behind the thick glasses, she looked at me. The pupils - how familiar they were] Her eyes turned cold and hard as she seemed to recognise me. When she turned her head slowly away, I went up and told her my name and the reason I had come.

There was a silence. The intensity in her eyes began to subside, I heard the familiar hoarse voice say: 'I am very sorry, I don't remember you. I don't think I ever had you as my student.'

'Red Azalea: Life and Love in China' is published on Thursday by Gollancz at pounds 16.99

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