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

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?