City Life: Shanghai

'Grandpa Jiang' goes back to school, seeking the glory of his master
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The Independent Online

No one ever accused Chairman Mao of lacking self-confidence. "For truly great men, look to this age alone," he wrote in a celebrated 1936 poem, which was sung at the Chinese Communist Party's 80th birthday celebration.

Whatever physical barbarities Mao inflicted upon them, most Chinese still rate the Great Helmsman a master wordsmith. To this day, his poetry is required reading in schools across China.

President Jiang Zemin is less certain of his legacy, though – political, literary or otherwise. Unlike Mao, he is only first among equals, in a nation cynical towards communism and reluctant to praise its leaders. So with little more than a year left in office, 75-year-old Jiang is taking a leaf from the master's book.

"Let me grasp my dreamy pen and describe the marvellous scene," he wrote in late May after a visit to the tourist mecca of Yellow Mountain inspired his third published effort this year. "When the day breaks the billowing clouds are red for 10,000 miles."

Once Mao proclaimed that "the east is red" from another famous peak, his words were painted nationwide. Jiang has more modest ambitions, but a new campaign in China's most cosmopolitan city augurs well for a man desperate to be remembered.

Teachers in Shanghai primary schools have started using presidential verse to fan the flames of patriotism in China's youth, and restore some veneration for the current helmsman. "Nowadays, kids admire film stars and footballers, and that's fine," concedes Lu Xiang, a lecturer at the Shanghai teacher training centre, who is editing two new textbooks that incorporate Jiang's poetry. "But as educators we should also encourage them to show respect to our country's leaders."

Last month, Lu trained more than 200 teachers to share the fun and finer points of the work of "Grandpa Jiang", as the President is known to Chinese schoolchildren. The next edition of Lu's pioneering "Read, recite and sing" series, aimed at school "activity" classes rather than formal "political" sessions, will include Jiang's "Random thoughts on climbing Yellow Mountain" besides works by Mao and Zhou Enlai.

Lu, 62, notes: "It's a good poem, with a strong sense of rhythm." But the political message is just as important. "The poem is a piece of art by a great man. Chairman Jiang is a good leader who cares for his people and helped to make Shanghai a better place."

Yet the fruits of China's experiment with capitalism have left a bittersweet taste in a city recapturing long-lost notoriety. Shanghai police last week seized a record haul of 100,000 "extremely nasty" books. The 28 suspects held could be executed for peddling pornography in what remains, at least officially, a prudish land. Lenience is unlikely given their customer base – children in primary and middle schools.

Their teachers complain not only of innocence lost but even sexual harassment in class. Thankfully, Jiang Zemin is coming to the rescue with material that is altogether more wholesome, but just as stimulating.

Jiao Feng, a music teacher, recalls the moment he read Jiang's mountain-top musings. "When I saw the poem, I was so excited I had an immediate urge to compose music for it." Jiao's stirring chords will feature in the new textbooks, so all Shanghai can enjoy the enthusiasm of this 23-year-old composer. His young pupils seem to have got the message. "The poem is very good," says eight-year-old Zhang Yi. "Grandpa Jiang is a pretty good person. He shows how beautiful China's mountains are, and how we should love our country."

Zhang's positive assessment of the President is quite common in Shanghai, where Jiang served in the 80s before Deng Xiaoping helicoptered him to power after the Beijing massacre. His henchmen still run the city propaganda bureau, doubtless the force behind the latest publicity drive.

Praise for the literary talent is not universal, though. A Shanghai writer who requested anonymity for his candour says: "The poem is not in the same league as Chairman Mao's."

A spate of recent newspaper closures included one for perceived disrespect of the President. "Jiang likes to show off, by playing the piano and writing poems ... He's not a bad person, but neither is he a great leader with charisma or great ability. People here feel he can't always take control of the situation, and sometimes feel sorry for him."

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