Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

March 1, 2007

Chinese Lessons

Filed under: China, Communist kitsch, Language, Mandarin, Mao, My research, Publications, Quote(s), Reading — amyjaneb @ 8:11 pm

I’ve finally finished reading John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons.  I’m rubbish at reviews, so I’m just going to pick out a few points that interested me.

In his first chapter he mentions how he first experienced China: ‘through my belly’.  ‘As a child, Chinese food was one of the first cuisines I was willing to eat outside of hamburgers’ (p. 5).  I guess the same could be said about me.  My Mum recounts tales of me sitting in my high chair at a Chinese restaurant in Southend slurping noodles!  And I would imagine that it would be true to say that this is the way most westerners first experience China, through its food (or something vaguely resembling it!).  He then goes on to say how he could remember as nine year old hearing anti-Vietnam War protesters shouting ‘Mao, Mao, Chairman Mao!’.  And later how his interest expanded to Chinese history and current events. (p.5)  But crucially, he states that he never bought into the idea that Mao Zedong had created a utopian society, ‘then voguish on U.S. campuses.’  This is interesting, because for most part, the contemporary and reflective accounts written by westerners I’ve read, at least begin with an empathy for the Maoist regime.

Something else that struck me were Pomfret’s comments on p. 211 about how the Chinese language had evolved to reflect the changes in society in the 1990s.

“Language had evolved, too.  When I first came to China in the early 1980s, pusu (frugal) was a compliment.  Now it had become a put-down, implying poverty and stupidity.  Kaifang no longer meant “open-minded”; it meant “promiscuous.”  Xiaojie no longer meant “Miss”.  It meant “hooker.”  Most notably, the all-purpose Communist greeting tongzhi (comrade) had all but disappeared from everyday speech, replaced by formal titles like Mister and Doctor – underscoring China’s new obsession with class and rank.  The only place Comrade still flourished was among the Bohemian demimonde in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou; it was what homosexuals called each other.  New words appeared.  Little honey meant “mistress.”  Ku, an import from Taiwan, meant “cool,” and hei ke (black guests) meant “hackers.”  On the streets of Shanghai, people bumping into each other said “Sorry,” in English, not duibuqi.  A popular book posed the question “Are You Middle Class?” employing another new term in a society that just a few years ago had fancied itself classless”. (p. 211)

Well, I’m glad I found all that out now – I’d been taught xiaojie for ‘Miss’.  It’s already easy enough to make a faux-pas in Mandarin by confusing tone marks.  The last thing learners like me need are double-entendres to wrestle with!

The other thing that caught my attention was his discussion of his classmate Song and his Italian-born daughter visiting Shaoshan, Chairman Mao’s hometown, in Hunan province.  He describes the town as ‘a capital of Chinese kitsch’. (p. 267)  It’s interesting to me that the Chinese are responding to Cultural Revolution era material culture in some respects in a similar way to how they are ‘dealt with’ in the West.  But, I’m sure there are different reasons behind it.  I like the idea Mary came up with in her comment on my recent post about the reinvention of relics of communism, that these seemingly trivial things are seized upon as a way of blocking out more negative memories and experiences.  Definitely some things to think about…


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