‘In the grand sweep of human history,’ writes Michael Bristow, ‘this teacher is no one in particular’ – just a scruffy, ageing man born in Beijing two years after the Chinese Communist Party came to power, and whose life reflects, if only by accident, the ups and downs of his country since. His reminiscences would provide insight into, among other things, the Cultural Revolution, and he’d have an anecdote to fit every situation. So far so good.
What Bristow hadn’t realised was that the teacher was a cross-dresser; a habit he didn’t want mentioned in Bristow’s book, as his wife was unaware of it. So the teacher’s life and stories are at the heart of the text, but the man himself remains nameless throughout.
It’s a tantalising detail, and teases away in the background while the larger picture is drawn. The first journey the pair make is to Double River Farm, where the teacher had been sent as a teenager to learn from those who tilled the land, an experience shared by millions of young people across the country.
Nominally, the idea was to make them more communist, though in fact, it was the government’s attempt to bring the Red Guards under control. Mostly teenagers themselves, the Guards, responding to Mao’s calls for political engagement, had become a disruptive liability; closing schools and factories as they questioned people’s commitment to the cause.
But the re-education initiative was a national disaster, akin to sentencing a generation to a term of hard labour: six years of little food, inadequate clothing and makeshift shelter, following which the returnees had to struggle to finish their education. And yet, witnessing the teacher reminiscing with other former exiles, Bristow sees no bitterness: just old friends talking about old times. Nor are there museums, or memorials to the past. An unforgotten period, it’s nevertheless uncommemorated.
But then, perhaps this is unsurprising in a populace accustomed to the frequently absurd consequences of political edicts. In 1959, Mao decided that sparrows were eating too much grain, and launched a campaign to get rid of them. All across the country, people banged pots and pans under trees to prevent sparrows roosting. When the birds dropped to the ground exhausted, they were beaten to death. And as their numbers decreased, insects flourished and multiplied, and ate more grain… A more recent decree forbade any public toilet in Beijing from containing more than two flies at one time. How this is working out remains to be seen.
“A recent decree forbade any public toilet in Beijing from containing more than two flies at one time”
And through all of this, the teacher continues to dress as a woman when the opportunity presents, a practice Bristow has more trouble assimilating than the teacher’s fellow Chinese – Bristow never saw a negative reaction to what the teacher was wearing. This equanimity seems a recent phenomenon: during Mao’s time, the pressure to conform was enormous, so people kept their individuality under wraps. The teacher wouldn’t have dared dress as a woman in the 1980s, he says. That people are now more relaxed about sexual issues, Bristow at first takes as evidence of foreign influences making themselves felt, but contradictions abound: China’s dominant religions, he learns, are largely silent on sexual orientation and gender expression, and a general tolerance towards people’s private lives has thus historically been the norm. And yet homosexuality was officially classed as a mental disorder until 2001. Chinese citizens may feel freer now to express their individuality, but they are only ever ‘just a few poorly chosen words or an unwise action away from detention.’
Change may be coming to China, but the exact shape it will take is hard to foretell. That the people themselves might prove intractable is hinted at in small details, like the signs in trains urging passengers to be careful when choosing a place to spit. ‘It would have been pointless to ask passengers not to spit at all. The best the authorities could do was to get them to think about where to do it.’
Meanwhile, their leaders demonstrate a proven ability to survive: ‘They’ve moved from revolution to Rolex and from communism to Cartier without having to properly explain why.’ While successes are trumpeted, disasters are off limits for discussion, even those that happened in living memory; the political climate, Bristow concludes, ensures that the country itself is pretending to be other than it is.
His choice of teacher, in the end, proves the perfect fit; and their relationship – complex, unsatisfying, with much left unsaid on both sides – an accurate analogy.
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!