The East is red, even in the West

Chairman Mao lives on in my parents’ strange fondness for communism

Hand drawn vase, teapot, watch, and lighter, all with Mao Zedong. All of the images appear on a soft red background. Art: Eloise Myatt

A spectre is haunting my family — the spectre of Communism.

While other children were singing nursery rhymes about Humpty Dumpty and Three Blind Mice, my mother taught me songs such as “The Little Swallow”, where a young child muses to said bird about how their hometown has been made more beautiful by the construction of large factories equipped with new machines (environmentalism, it seems, was not a large part of leftist ideology back then). The carefully compiled cassette tape in my father’s car might as well have been entitled “Communism’s Greatest Hits” given that it mainly consisted of songs like “The East is Red”, “Moscow Nights”, and perennial favourite “Without Communism, There Would Be No Modern China”. They even took me to the cinema when I was ten to watch a (what I now suspect to be heavily romanticised) film  about the formation of the Chinese Communist Party.

Growing up, it didn’t even occur to me that Communism was a political ideology. More than anything else, it seemed like an artistic movement, whose music and films seemed to make my blood shake with something I now know as revolutionary fervour. And any politics that was talked about was overwhelmingly positive. Just imagine my surprise in year 8 English when I found out while reading “Mao’s Last Dancer” that Communism was not at all what I thought it was.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as a vapid form of “cultural Communism”, one that seems to be gaining momentum in the youth of the Western world one sassy Socialist meme at a time.  “Of course it’s easy for you to romanticise Communism,” the critics argue, “when you’ve never experienced how terrible life actually is under Communism”.

Oh, but my parents have. They both grew up during the chaos that swept China during the Cultural Revolution. My father was the son of workers at the local grain collection warehouse in countryside Hunan — an inland province famous for spicy food, foot massages, and the birthplace of many Communist revolutionaries, the most famous being Mao himself. On the other hand, my mother grew up in probably the most dangerous place to be in Maoist China: a university campus.  But despite their markedly different experiences and upbringings, and the fact that they now live in a capitalist democracy, they both still cling onto their Communist past. There is a deep attachment to the ideology most would have them as being victims of.

Unsurprisingly, there is perhaps not a single name that evokes stronger feelings of respect in them than Mao’s, who, to this day, they refer to as Chairman. It’s a reverence that quite literally verges on religious — for starters, instead of saying “I swear to God”, it would always be “I swear by Chairman Mao”. And it’s not just them. On a personal level, I had friends whose parents still kept a copy of the Little Red Book on their bedside table — heck, I went to school with someone named after Mao. On a wider scale, nostalgia for Communism, bewildering as it may seem, appears to be a genuine phenomenon. A poll by German news magazine Der Spiegel in 2009 found that, of the East Germans they had polled, a majority felt that life was better under Communism.

But where does this attachment come from? My parents assert that it’s from a genuine belief that life back then “wasn’t as bad as it’s made out to be”. Too young to experience, or understand, the fraught political tensions of the time, they instead remember the Cultural Revolution as a time of carefree innocence. As the foundations and traditions of Chinese society were quite literally being smashed to pieces, education and learning became subordinate priorities to revolution. Students no longer had to do homework, or really take school seriously, and so my parents recall long nights playing in the streets, untouched by centuries of Confucian thinking. They concede that they weren’t materially rich, but no one was, and even that wasn’t so bad. Back then, my mother tells me, there was no running hot water, so washing the dishes in winter could be very difficult. “Luckily,” she assures me, a severe shortage of cooking oil meant that pots and pans were much easier to clean. In the matrix of their memories, the negatives seem to, like some twisted arithmetic, cancel each other out.

However, as they delve further into the past, beyond nostalgic recollections of youth, a more disturbing portrait of Maoist China emerges. My father remembers how his primary school mathematics teacher and his wife were driven to suicide after a violent denunciation session, and even after their deaths, all their students had to write criticisms about how they had “escaped facing the people’s justice” in suicide. My mother tells me that two of her uncles were branded as rightists and banished to the countryside. Growing up in a university campus, she witnessed countless struggle sessions, in all their violent, fanatical excess. But that’s just the way things were back then, they tell me, sighing.

“It’s true, everything spiralled out of control so quickly, and many people suffered back then.” my mother says. “But at the same time, there was a stronger sense of solidarity. People were more equal, and it felt like we all shared the same ideals, and were working towards the same goal.”

“You can say we were brainwashed. But you can’t say we weren’t happy,” my father adds.

It soon becomes clear that their attachment to the past isn’t simply a case of selective memory, but rather, an issue of how they interpret their memories, both the good and the bad. To them, the lack of ideological diversity due to state suppression was a sign of great national unity, Mao’s cult of personality a sign of how people dedicated themselves to higher purpose, and the workers who died of exhaustion to meet absurdly high production martyrs fuelled by an inexorable revolutionary zeal. They see the people of Maoist China, including themselves, not as victims, but a generation who made noble sacrifices for the betterment of their country.

It almost seems like a point of pride, and in many ways, it is. Whether the China of their recollections ever existed is questionable, but by maintaining this narrative of Communism, they distinguish themselves from younger generations. With Deng Xiaoping’s sweeping reforms in the 1980s, the world of their youth had gone forever, and in it’s place arose a society they bitterly criticise as being obsessed with money, plagued by a “moral sickness” and gripped by inequality — the present very much informs how they view the past.

“Nowadays we see lots of Chinese women at home not working, hopelessly dependent on their husbands. But that’s not how my generation was raised. We were always told that women hold up half the sky,” my mother tells me.

A world away from the Cultural Revolution, she is nonetheless engaged in a different kind of “class struggle”, fighting daily for her position in corporate Australia, where she often finds herself in rooms where she isn’t just the only Chinese person, but also the only woman. Ironically, she  credits her dogged determination to the “Socialist morals” she grew up with, ones which commanded people to value their labour and work diligently. Communism, ironically, seems to have created the perfect worker for a capitalist system. HS