Last of the Aristocrats

Zhang Yihe is a prominent Peking Opera scholar who was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution for writing about Jiang Qing, or Madame Mao, in her diary. She has written numerous works of nonfiction and two works of fiction (so far). Zhang Yihe’s father, Zhang Bojun, one of the founders of the China Democratic National Construction Association, was named “Number One Rightist” by Mao Tse-Tung. Zhang’s memoir, The Past Is Not Like Smoke, was published in 2004 and immediately banned. In this scene, Zhang Bojun and Zhang Naiqi meet, clandestinely, at the residence of Kang Tongbi, the daughter of Kang Youwei, a key political reformer in the Qing era. 

At great risk to herself, Kang Tongbi agreed to let my father and Zhang Naiqi meet at her house. This was the only time they met during the Cultural Revolution, and it would be  the last meeting of their lives.

My father wore a shabby traditional Chinese silk outfit. “Aren’t you going to change for your meeting with Madame Kang and Zhang Naiqi?” my mother asked.

“The shabbier the better. This way no one will recognize me in the street.”

Zhang Naiqi was wearing a pristine white shirt in the Western style, a gray sweater, suit trousers, and a purplish-blue wool coat.

"Uncle Zhang, why are you still dressed like a commander?” I asked.

“Little Fool,” he replied, “this isn’t the look of a commander. It’s the look of a human being.” He stood up and raised his pipe.

Even though she was only having guests, Kang Tongbi wore an elaborate black satin cheongsam with a dark floral pattern. The collar and sleeves were trimmed with exquisite silk ribbons embroidered with flowers, birds, bees, and butterflies. Fluttering on the collar and the sleeves, the dancing butterflies were all life and spring, even though that was where the garment tore the easiest. Why did the Chinese like to decorate the most delicate areas with the most intricate embroidery? This was the simple echo of the destinies of the Chinese literati, whose most beautiful works ended up being destroyed. Kang Tongbi had also had her daughter, Luo Yifeng, powder her face lightly, and wore a little perfume.

Her splendid attire shocked me. I moved forward to hug her, and  whispered: “Madame Kang, you look stunning tonight! You’re a beauty, the best-looking here.”

“I’m not a stunning beauty, but I need to be made up because we’re receiving very important guests today, aren’t we!”

“What important guests? They’re blatant Rightists. They’re very prominent Rightists,” I said ironically.

The old lady shook her head. “Rightists are all good people, and prominent Rightists are great people. In any case, I don’t care whether they’re Leftists or Rightists; as long as they come to my house, they are guests of mine, and I need to receive them properly. Your father and Zhang Naiqi aren’t just any guests, they’re important guests.” She pointed to the Leader’s portrait: “You see a lot of things when you live to be eighty, but never have I seen someone run the country as he does. Since ancient times China has been known as a nation of manners, and now two best friends who reside in the same city are unable to see each other. Prettifying the name and calling it a Cultural Revolution… there’s nothing cultural about it at all.” Her eyes bulged.

 For this gathering, Luo Yifeng had spared no expense. She had black tea from India, Da Long Pao tea from Fujian, and Longjing tea from Hangzhou. On the side she placed dried chrysanthemum, sugar, and condensed milk. Sheset out gold-rimmed cups and saucers made of refined porcelain for drinking coffee and a few glass cups for drinking tea; if you wanted to have black tea or taste Da Hong Pao, then of course there was a Yixing tea set. Two blue and white porcelain bowls were put to one side. Biscuits, cakes, and crisp sweets were all bought especially from a renowned shop in Dongdan. Luo Yifeng found two imported cigars from who knows where, and placed them in a small wooden box.

Father picked up a cigar and smelled it, then put it back. He sighed and said, “Sitting here, I’ve forgotten the Cultural Revolution is going on outside, and I’ve forgotten I’m an ‘ox demon and snake spirit.’”

Kang Tongbi offered them tea: “Mr. Zhang—have something to eat. My daughter sent people to get it yesterday from the French bakery. I don’t know if it’s tasty, but it’s quite fresh.”

Then Luo Yifeng corrected her: “Mother, that bakery in Dongdan has changed its name to ‘Jinggangshan’!”

 “Where the communists started the revolution? What’s that got to do with a bakery?” asked Kang Tongbi. We all laughed.

After the  pleasantries,  Father asked Zhang Naiqi about recent events at the China National Democratic Construction Association and the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce. “They fired me, so I don’t know all the particulars,” said Zhang Naiqi. “Of all the capitalists in China, Mao protected only Rong Jingren; the rest were attacked.”

Luo Yifeng spoke up, “Actually Rong Yiren wasn’t spared either. His mansion in Shanghai is famous for its beauty, but some Red Guards—children of high officials in Beijing—said the building belonged to the 'Four Olds'"—Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas—"so they set a fire and flames went straight from the first floor to the top floor. Then they tied a noose around Mrs. Rong’s neck, and dragged her down from the top floor to the first floor. She still has a concussion. Mao did, however, let Rong Yiren atop Tiananmen when he was inspecting the Red Guards, and was particularly careful to shake hands with him. The implied meaning was clear: the communists’ policies toward the ‘national bourgeoisie’ hadn’t changed.”

“I talked about fixed interest for twenty years, but in the end the communists decided to get rid of it anyway,” said Zhang Naiqi. “In the past China only had policies but not laws, now they don’t even have policies.”  

Luo Yifeng waved a dismissive hand at him: “The Three-anti Campaign, the Five-anti Campaign, and joint state-private ownership have all been hell for capitalists, and now this latest movement has completely destroyed them. The workers’ rebel factions knew every capitalist’s details, and asked them to hand over a certain amount—if the figures didn’t match up, they would beat them to the verge of death. The results were amazing; the amount of private income the capitalists handed over basically matched their records. Our banks cooperated eagerly, making public figures they usually kept private. They also opened—or pried open—all the safes. Jewels and precious metals, dollars and pounds were all confiscated. When the Red Guards and workers’ rebel factions were searching homes and confiscating property, that’s when they really exhibited their skills: they used blades and hammers and smashed open cane chairs and took out dollars from the heart of the cane. They would even sort through coal used to heat boilers, even if it was piled up, to find bankbooks wrapped in black varnished cloth. Of course capitalists who concealed their personal property would be beaten within an inch of their lives and left for dead.”

Kang Tongbi also told Zhang Naiqi the story of the tragic death of Le Songsheng, the director of Tong Ren Tang. Zhang Naiqi asked Father about the old members of the China Democratic League. Like Father, he was glad Luo Longji—another founder of the China Democratic League and China’s “Number Two Rightist,” after Father—had died early.

“His was a conflicted personality. He had a stubborn temper, but he was also weak, and not a tough guy. He would not have been able to withstand Red Guard beatings, the searching of homes and the confiscation of possessions; he would not have been to get through it like I have.”  

“Who said being a tough guy gets you through this one? Isn’t Huang Shaohong the example?” Father asked with some feeling. Huang Shaohong, a Guangxi warlord who later became a prominent figure of the post-1949 Chinese government, had committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution.

The atmosphere in the room had turned heavy. Luo Yifeng quickly refilled the tea. Kang Tongbi  offered a huge glass platter of fruit with slightly trembling hands.

The conversation turned naturally to their opinions on the Cultural Revolution. Zhang Naiqi commented, “The movement appeared to start suddenly, but in history, as in the natural world, nothing comes unexpectedly. Unknown reasons have been brewing for a long time, and apart from the law, Mao has readily prepared for this in all other ways.”

“I think the internal cause for Mao and the Cultural Revolution was his Emperor complex—he’s so afraid that someone else will take his throne,” Father rejoined. “The external reason is the realities of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Khrushchev after Stalin’s death—he’s so worried he can’t sleep. He even gave it a name: Revisionism. And so waving the flag of Revisionism he wanted to dig out China’s own Khrushchev while he was still alive. As for his conflict with Liu Shaoqi, it’s definitely not as it’s written in the communist newspapers.”

Talking of the political consequences of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Naiqi furrowed those pale eyebrows of his: “The Cultural Revolution created two extremes for China. One is an extreme personality cult; and the other is extreme despotism. Both these things have been around since ancient times, but Mao Zedong brought them to their zenith.”

From The Past Is Not Like Smoke. ©Zhang Yihe. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Alice Xin Liu. All rights reserved.