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
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The Independent Culture
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