My Friend the Counter-Revolutionary
I had been looking foward to this particular entry in our schedule. Chinese calligraphy is as fascinating to me as it is bewildering, and before coming to China I had doodled about with some characters, oblivious to the correct method or tools. But I was rather tired this morning, and as I walked into class I felt a tinge of weariness: our teacher was a clearly older man, and there wasn't a translator in sight. Wonderful, I thought to myself. I was a little late (this Chinese habit I have no trouble replicating, even if it was not desired in Westerners, who, as everyone knows, are always early if not precisely punctual), so I had missed our instructor for the day's name. I would pick up that it was Mr. Gao- one of the most common names in China, I think.
As Mr. Gao patiently instructed us in the proper writing of characters, I gradually realized that he was rather different somehow. For one thing, he did speak English, quite well. For another, he was very patient: Chinese instructors are, by nature, extremely demanding. It is not impolite or unexpected for them to levy criticism without encouragement, or precious little of it. Mr. Gao, on the other hand, would continually correct our continual errors.
We practised our calligraphy for a couple hours, and managed to talk with Mr. Gao some during that time. He told us a little about himself- such as that he had learned English from American instructors in Kunming during the War. It being China and the question not being rude, I asked him how old he was. Eighty years old, he replied. As class ended, he treated us to a wonderful rendition of "You Are My Sunshine," which he had learned from an American instructor in Kunming.
Our class officially over, he then took us to visit another instructor at the school who did proffessional calligraphy, where we watched the calligraphist weave his great brush over the scrolls into those flowing, incomprehensible (to us) characters. Afterwards, a number of the Americans asked Mr. Gao if there was anyway we could aquire a hand-written calligraphy scroll. He said yes, and would a couple of us like to walk back to his apartment and write down commisions? He is retired, but the school still allows him a little apartment on campus in the teacher's housing building, where he keeps many of his books and memorabilia, and comes to as a sort of retreat from time to time. He explained to me that he still loves to be on campus- it is a mode of life more pleasing than city existence.
You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy
When skies are grey
You'll never know, dear
How much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away.
His little appartment lies on the third floor, up a low-ceiling stairwell. It is small, of course, with paintings and scrolls and photographs hanging on the walls. As Mr. Gao wrote the various lines our group wanted written, I looked at his bookcase. Most of his volumes were Chinese, of course, but one book caught my eye, Mr. China's Son, mainly because it was in English and dealt with China. I took it off the shelf and looked at it with interest. I asked Mr. Gao if perhaps I could borrow it, and he immediately replied yes, and remarked that he was in fact good friends with the author. Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to Mr. Gao for the time, but he invited us to come and visit him anytime- he was on campus every Thursday, at his apartment with his son in Mengzi the rest of the time.
Of course I took him up on his offer the next time he was on campus. My roommate and I walked up the narrow little steps, a couple hours after lunch, past the birds chirping in their bamboo cages. Mr. Gao greeted us warmly and shuffled us to his study, where he proudly showed us his collection of things Western, particularly American. I would soon find that he had a great love for Americans and Europeans, and had in fact visited Holland and France a few years before, having been invited and funded by a good friend in Holland. We then sat down in his tiny 'living room' and drank green tea together and talked. I mentioned that I had read much of the book he leant me, and found it very interesting. I then, somewhat cautiously, asked about his experience in China's history. One is never sure what is acceptable to talk about in China, particularly when politics or modern history is broached. But Mr. Gao was quite willing to tell us his story, as it converged with the awful forces that tore China apart during the twentieth century.
He spent his childhood in Shanghia, during that city's days as a cosmopolitian city, where his father made friends with British and Japanese businessmen. During another conversation he remarked, with a hint of sadness, "My father had many Japanese friends in those days": maybe the only positive sort of remark I heard concerning the Japanese. Then World War II broke out, and his family shuffled about China, finally arriving in Kunming. While there he came into contact with the Flying Tigers and other American militarymen. He spoke of dining with his father with American officers and speaking a little English with them. As the war was in its final stages he entered an academy to learn English, and did a brief stint in the Nationalist Army. But whatever future he had in mind would soon come to a halt.
Yunnan was one of the final areas the Communists seized, but by 1949 their rule was complete across China. The first few years were more or less benign. Mr. Gao worked at a bank in Kunming and got married. But in 1956 Mao began the Great Leap Forward, the prelude to the Cutural Revolution. Mr. Gao was suddenly labeled a 'rightist' and 'counter-revolutionary,' along with a multitude of other intellectuals and educated people. His official crime, he said, was speaking up for a friend of his who had been previously arrested for 'crimes against the people.' He was sent to a specially constructed labour camp, which housed political prisoners exclusively, most of whom were intellectuals from the city. There they were given farm labour to do, and were confined to the camp, with few exceptions.
Mr. Gao described the first few months: they promised he would be detained only briefly, just long enough to be re-educated, to destroy his rightist ways. Within six months he would be released. Then it stretched to a year. Within time the realization sank in: there was no leaving, no escaping. For the first two years he worked almost constantly, twelve, maybe thirteen hours a day, with almost no rest days. Further into his imprisonment the hours decreased, but he remained confined to the camp. He was allowed to visit his parents in Kunming twice, in the span of twenty-one years. For the length of that time he tended pigs and cows. No books, no learning, no intellectual activity.
With the end of the Cultural Revolution and the downfall of the 'Gang of Four' Mr. Gao, along with many others in China, was released and rehabilitated. He was almost immediately sent to what was then Mengzi Teacher's College to begin teaching English, and begin a new life. And that is what he did. He is now retired, and has made extensive friendships with Westerners and travled within China and abroad in the past few years. His first wife divorced him when he was arrested, but he remarried a few years after his release, to a fellow teacher (she is a wonderful lady in her own right, and a superb cook I can report). He does not hate anyone for what was done to him, he told us. He joked that he learned many useful skills, and after being a bachelor for so many years he is quite capable of doing anything that needs to be done. Still, it is obvious that those years deeply affected him, more than I could ever know or imagine. As he related his story his eyes visibly watered a little, and he was very quiet. It was deeply shocking to me: how could this wonderful, friendly man sitting before me have been treated so badly? I have read many accounts of the crimes of the last century, but to actually be talking to someone who was a victim of them: that was a different thing altogether.
Yet he was able to rebuild. Today he is still in excellent shape. One day we played ping-pong together, and he thoroughly defeated me. On occassion he rides his bicycle to school, instead of the bus. In town he walks everywhere, never rides.
Over the next few weeks I had the chance to spend more time with Mr. Gao- including eating at his apartment in town with his wife, a particularly grand treat after weeks of cafeteria and restaurant food. He has had many Western friends over the past several years, and has a thorough-going love of things Western (he was beginning to read The Hobbit this month). The re-education program does not seem to have done its job in that respect! But he also loves China quite clearly, even if his experience with her has been one of 'contradictions.' He has lived and suffered through a remarkable epoch, and is now seeing another period of change. He has some misgivings about all the new descending upon China: he regrets how many old things are being lost, as bulldozers and cranes work tirelessly. We talked about the drug problem that grips both our countries, and what to do about it. He was always ready to discuss such things, and listen to our ideas and conceptions, and then offer a few words of his own. But just as enjoyable was sitting down together and drinking afternoon tea, with few words at all.
One of the things I have gradually learned about China is that, no matter how many experts on it you hear or books you read, it is a nation that will always defy precise categories. Mr. Gao is a wonderful example. The last thing I expected to do in China was make friends with a survivor of the Communist labour camps who sang "You Are My Sunshine" and loved to play ping-pong, even at eighty years old.