James was flicking through the channels, as usual. He had earned his nickname, ‘channel hopper’.
“Why the hell can they not leave her alone? For goodness sake, she’s been dead for a few years, end of story.” James was often frustrated with our contemporaries’ obsession with royalty and celebrities.
I looked up from The Culture, our Sunday Times supplement with TV listings, and smiled at him:
“C’mon, James. You know very well. Diana is still making news, because of what she represented. That will not change”, I tried my usual realistic approach, even though I agreed with James that the paparazzi and those crooks who used her name for their own gains should be ashamed.
Two deaths, in the twentieth century, have had a great impact on me, in very different ways. When Diana, the Princess of Wales, died in a car crash in 1997, like millions of ordinary people, I mourned this untimely loss. I remembered clearly the shock and sadness I felt at the time, uncontrollable tears falling silently as I tuned into the late night TV, and again the following morning. I did not leave the house for two days.
Religiously, rather unusually, I followed the events after her death and the funeral on television. I was amazed at the genuine grief gripping the nation, the mountains of flowers, and the grand show of emotion by the British people, better known for being reserved and conservative.
James finally gave up his vain effort to find a channel free from news of the Royal butler’s trial, or boring soaps.
A long buried memory came to mind.
“I still remember Mao’s death, in September 1976. I was at school that morning, when the funeral music began to broadcast through loud speakers, sweeping though the campus”.
Leaving his rocking chair to join me on the couch, James listened attentively as I sank deep in my troubled youth in that most populous country on earth.
“I immediately knew that someone important had died, because earlier that year there had been the same haunting music when Premier Zhou’s died and the bad news was announced”, I recalled. Zhou Enlai’s death caused nation-wide mourning and even grief-stricken demonstrations in Beijing and other major cities.
“But this time, the music was played even more slowly, and everyone stopped what they were doing and waited with bated breath for the news”, I paused for a brief moment, before I continued.
“I was playing basketball at the time, with a few mates. We were all so stunned…You know, it’s not something we were ever prepared for”, I stopped, letting my memories surface, like a page being written and then deleted.
It was a fine day in early autumn, sunny but a little cold. I could not wait for the morning classes to finish, and dashed to the sports ground. I was crazy about basketball and would play whenever I had the chance, even in the height of summer, when the temperature reached a scorching 40 degrees centigrade.
Bang! Another good basket by me, I was delighted. It was then we heard the hauntingly slow music, followed by a deep, emotionally charged voice making the grave announcement that ‘our greatest leader, our most beloved Chairman Mao, has passed away’.
What happened next was a bit of a blur in my mind, but I was aware of the shock at the unexpected news. Everyone near me burst into tears, while some dropped to the ground and started howling.
No more ball games, as the world seemed to have suddenly crashed down around our ears. As if in a bad dream where nothing seemed to make sense, I found myself back in the classroom with other pupils crying their hearts out. I covered my eyes with my hands, as tears slid down my cheeks, like a little stream.
Only much later it dawned on me that some people were probably pretending. Everyone wanted to be making the right reaction and nobody wanted to be seen as unmoved by such a national ‘tragedy'”.
“I was truly heartbroken. What did I know, at the age of 14, and totally ignorant of what was going on in the world?” I faced James, feeling like defending myself.
James, while well informed of the Chinese modern history and showing a degree of understanding in our cultural differences, could not fully appreciate such overwhelming loyalty to someone like Mao.
“You know what? I look forward to dancing on Mrs. Thatcher’s grave”; James looked serious.
In his eyes, Mao represented an evil dictator who was responsible for millions of deaths, but how could he know that many ordinary Chinese people truly LOVED Chairman Mao! How could he fully understand that for many Chinese, Mao was God, the Red Sun and their lifeline, the very centre of the World! How come that God was dead! It was beyond logic and comprehension – the greatest man on earth, as it is in heaven, was DEAD!
That haunting funeral music was played over again and again in the following days, everywhere in the Middle Kingdom, through the loud speakers in the communes, factories, schools and street corners, rural or urban. It was as if to help his people to understand that it had happened and Mao was no longer with us.
My school decorated classrooms and buildings with slogans, declaring Mao immortal, and proclaiming how much we loved him, forever. Mourning verses were written in beautiful calligraphy, hanging on the walls. Normal classes were cancelled and instead we spent our time making colourful paper wreaths.
We were all given a black armband. There must have been nearly a billion Chinese people wearing the black bands and ‘openly displaying’ their grief and ‘declaring’ undying loyalty for their leader. Yet, it was nothing like Diana’s death twenty years later in a different continent, with a media frenzy, continuous TV programmes, and floods of fresh flowers piling up at the gate of Kensington Palace and mourners from all over the world. Mao’s death and subsequent mourning, was altogether a very contrived and rigid affair.
It was announced that the school Main Hall was the resting-place for Mao’s spirit and people were told to come to pay their final respects. Both teachers and pupils were to take turns to look after the spirit, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. I was assigned the night shift, from one to six in the morning.
“It was damn bloody cold. All the time, we had to bow our heads and stand in certain positions. I remember at one point, I looked up at my fellow night watchers, and I nearly burst into laughter”.
Paused for a moment, I looked at James and grimaced. I knew that it was not supposed to be funny, and I should not have felt anything but the greatest loss.
“Fortunately I checked myself just in time. God knows what punishment would ensue if I laughed out loud……. Besides, I was desperate to go to the toilet”.
James picked up and smiled back at me: “I can see that. Now I know why you need the loo so urgently, and how frustrated you become when we can’t find one immediately on the motorway. Do you know that the urge to pee is even more difficult to control in the cold?”
“I guess so,” I replied, the memory raw and clear, “I could not go and had to wait to be relieved. It was terrible. By the time my replacement came along, my neck and legs were stiff, and my suffering was intense. Guess what? The nearest toilet was three blocks away and I could have run the race of my life, but walking was becoming a struggle by then!”
The thought of that chilly September morning made me shiver as I concluded my narrative. James drew closer to me and gave me a warm hug.
In his arms, China and her memories seemed so distant, yet it was deeply embedded in me. For many years I did not want to remember, and I did not want to ask many questions.
Unlike in the West where the 1960s were a time of sexual and cultural freedom, they were the beginning of the most difficult years in modern Chinese history, starting with the ‘unprecedented natural calamities’ (1960-62). Tens of millions of people died of drought and famine, caused by natural disasters and human errors. While the poor weather conditions and flooding resulting in massive food shortage were widely accepted natural causes, the human errors made by Mao Zedong and government policies were less well known within China at the time.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), more ‘class struggles’ were carried out by the Red Guards, resulted in more political turmoil and economic turbulence. When it officially halted in 1976, with Mao’s death and Deng Xiaoping taking control, it was the end of an era of catastrophe and a new beginning for China and Chinese people.
(Written in 2003 – more details about Cultural Revolution can be found in The Same Moon).