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revolutionary shenzhen

the revolution haunts shenzhen. revolutionary promises, kept and disregarded, successes and defeats erupt in conversation in part because we are still only sixty years from the revolution and in part because so many revolutionaries came to shenzhen a mere thirty years ago. the present only feels worlds away from mao. in fact, traces of socialist dreams still infuse everyday life.

just yesterday after yoga, for example, i chatted with a classmate named ‘ming’. i had thought he was shiny bright ming, but it turns out he was ‘free airing of voices and expression’ ming (大鸣大放). mao had encouraged free airing of views and expression at the beginning of the anti-rightist campaign (57-59) and my friend ming was born in 1958 and named accordingly. indeed, off the top of his head, he could name four friends, who shared his name.

ming then started reminiscing about his three years as a rusticated youth. he had been sent to a brigade with seven smaller brigades; 23 rusticated youths had been assigned there. according to ming, this situation wasn’t good for either the farmers or youths. on the one hand, the farmers were already hungry and with the youths, there was even less food to go around. on the other hand, the youths missed out on their opportunity to study.

of the 23 youths in ming’s brigade, only 3 were able to pass the gaokao when it was reinstated in 1978. left unsaid, was only those three were able to take advantage of the reforms. the other twenty, ming said, eventually returned to the city as laborers. after all, they had no claim on the villages and nothing (except their bodies) to offer a modernizing society.

although ming is not sure where most of his companions are today, he has returned to his village twice, once in 1993 and once in 2006. he has remained in touch because he eventually earned the respect and affection of the villagers. on his most recent trip, ming noticed that, “material standards have improved, but living standards have deteriorated.”

examples: when he was rusticated, there was no running water and during drought, they drank rain water. by 1993, the village had running water. when ming was rusticated, they ate black mantou (made out of unrefined grain) and today they eat white rice and refined wheat products. they also buy sweet potatoes from elsewhere and have all the meat and oil they need. in fact, when ming was rusticated he dreamed of eating a chicken by himself. he remembered that during the establishment of the pla (august 1) festival every two soldiers shared a whole chicken and that image remained for him a symbol of plenty.

nevertheless, today, the villagers no longer follow the rhythms of the sun. instead, they stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning watching movies, singing karaoke, smoking, drinking, and chatting. they have diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart problems. in short, the villagers have urban vices and urban ills.

“who is working?” i asked.

ming replied that some of the farmers grow cotton for market prices, paying day workers to harvest. however, many are ‘retired’ and live off the remittances sent by children working in places like shenzhen, where the party organizes celebrations of the anniversary of the establishment of the prc and shenzhen’s place in the socialist scheme of things.

so, yes, the revolution keeps giving. i take the 362 bus to yoga. just two days ago, i missed a yoga class because the xibu busline bus workers were on strike. i still do not know the details of the strike, but for four hours or so, we on the 362 route had no bus service, only rumors of worker dissatisfaction and demands.

all this to say, history is what we make of it from our names to our memories to our decisions, today.


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