Mao's little red music book

One day she was a music student at Beijing Conservatory, the next she was a Red Guard in Mao's Cultural Revolution. By Michael Church

Two middle-aged men are sitting by a railway in the Mongolian wastes, reviewing the events of their youth. The first tells, in a voice breaking with emotion, of his love for the daughter of a Kuomintang general and of the "principled" way he renounced her. The second recalls his persecution of university professors, and of fellow-students from "bad families". "I have been dead for the past 20 years," he wails; "guilt has destroyed my life." An oboist and a trombonist, engulfed by remorse: a key moment from next week's BBC2 report on musicians caught up in China's Cultural Revolution.

Children of the Revolution follows nine students from the Beijing Conservatory's 1960 intake as they retrace their steps through teenage docility, youthful revolt, rural exile, and rueful return to their professional roots. They hold a final get-together in a Beijing restaurant whose name and decor celebrate Red Guard nostalgia: good times, bad times, but since those were the times that made us, let's toast them.

One of the nine is a bold and voluble woman called Anxi Jiang, who now teaches music to Chinese children in London. She agrees that Mao's student revolution was a disaster, and admits her guilt in the academic persecutions, but the most striking thing about the way she tells me her story is her total freedom from regret.

"My generation - of 1949 - were the same age as China: we were idealists from birth. Mao had given us our life, and we felt we had to serve his revolution in return." When Maoist ideas began to permeate the Conservatory, she eagerly embraced them. "Debussy was useless and harmless. Beethoven was useful and harmless. Schuman was too introspective." Musical accomplishment no longer counted: what did was political zeal.

Anxi denounced the professor who had opened her eyes to the beauty of Bach, and put up a huge poster: "Using a minuet," it read, "she tried to pollute me with bourgeois music." She helped loot the house of a famous soprano: "I was fascinated by her records, but felt I had to smash them all the same."

As one of the Red Guard leaders, Anxi found herself installed, aged 17, as de facto Minister of Culture. "I carried the official seal, and passed judgement on cases from all over the country. But I grew to hate the rebel groups' power-struggles."

She and some equally disenchanted friends formed what they called a Careless Group - apolitical and peaceable. "We began stealing books from the mothballed university library, and read Balzac, Tolstoy and Dickens." During their ensuing four years of hard labour in the countryside - as obligatory for China's entire student population - she and her friends listened clandestinely to music whenever they could. "If the guards caught us listening to Beethoven, we told them it was music from Communist Albania."

Anxi's break came thanks to Madame Mao's decree that every province should mount performances of her "model" ballets and operas: she was drafted in as pianist to a Shanghai dance class. "It may sound strange, but that policy was part of the reason why the Chinese now win so many international competitions. The only way to escape being sent to the countryside was by becoming a musician."

Readmitted to the Conservatory after the demise of Mao - "some people were angry to see us back there, but we apologised to the professors we had tormented" - Anxi finally completed her degree in 19th-century musicology.

So, does she really have no regrets? She anwers with a ringing peroration. "Many Chinese think my generation is a total disaster: they call us the 'beaten' generation. The young laugh at us, the old hate us. And it's true that many were broken or killed, or committed suicide. But those of us who survived are spiritually rich. We have lived through so many ideas, so many hardships - we have been lucky. We have not lost our moral idealism. We can still be useful to the world."

n 'Children of the Revolution' will be shown on Saturday 9 December at 8.05pm on BBC2

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory