She opens a bottle of ink and pours it on the man’s face. It traces a black finger down his forehead, splitting like the two prongs of a Manchu mustache and dribbling like baby food onto his suit. She laughs. He does not. His arms are jet-planed behind him, his wife kneels on a floor of broken glass, his daughter shrinks into the corner, pale. Still, the Red Guard looks a lot like his daughter – long braids, energetic face, her voice carrying easily over the slogan-shouting crowd in his living room. “Kowtow!” she screams, holding high over him a tiny red object. “Traitor!” It is a book. He doesn’t need to squint through his ink-stained lids to know what it says on its cover: Quotations from Chairman Mao.
George Orwell may have conjured up giant posters of a menacing Big Brother glaring down from every stairwell, but for Mao, what really mattered in his era was much smaller. It was the things his people carried: his one-inch portrait on the Little Red Book or badges bearing his likeness. Mao didn’t need a Hitler mustache or a reputation for dolphin-shooting to control his nation’s every move. He may have been round and chronically constipated, womanish and a womanizer, but in the realms of politics, war, rhetoric and even poetry, he was a god.
So it is that Mao, looking out from the breast badges of marching Red Guards in the 60’s, staring from a raised red book down at the face of an ink-stained traitor of the 70’s, wobbling in plastic form on the dashes of Beijing cab drivers, and, just this past March, peering out from another raised red book at an elderly audience at the American Repertory Theater, becomes witness to the re-enacted destruction of a family.
The world premier stage adaptation of Jung Chang’s powerful memoir, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, tells the story of a family that is raised, fractured, and finally reunited by the forces that have buffeted China over the past hundred years.
“It was a century of horror, struggle, courage, and bravery,” says audience member Esther Almgren. “A century of the Chinese people’s struggle to find political stability, from the early days of Imperial China, through the Japanese occupation, the Nationalist movement, the Civil War, Communism, Mao Ze Dong’s Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.”
“Why was there no one or no group within the Chinese culture to challenge the power and structure of evil?” Almgren asks. Wild Swans is the story of one man who tried just that, and failed. When we first meet the author’s father, Shou-Yu, he’s a Communist officer and an idealist. To a crowd of farmers that his army has just liberated, he promises a bright future, where they’ll have pork to eat every day. Plow in hand, he works side by side with the farmers to prove his sincerity.
Fast forward ten years. Shou-Yu watches as a famine kills one in every seven people around him. A man in rags comes up to him, desperate, “You promised! Where’s the food you promised us?” Troubled, but still an idealist, he writes a letter to Chairman Mao, calling for change. He is promptly condemned. During the Cultural Revolution, a Red Guard pours ink on his face. The Party breaks his family apart and sends them to work in the rice paddies. When they are finally reunited years later, he can’t stand straight anymore — he has spent too much time stooping in the fields.
Can Shou-Yu still be the still be the idealist he was before the Revolution? In a recent interview with A.R.T., scenic designer Miriam Buether echoes a popular sentiment: “Of course Marx’s ideas are beautiful, but in practice they don’t work. His journey from enthusiasm for these ideologies to disillusionment is really interesting to me.”
Actor Orion Lee, who played Shou-Yu, doesn’t quite agree. “My character still felt that Communism is a worthy ideal,” he writes in an e-mail interview with the HPR. “Some people say Communism is a good ideal but in reality it doesn’t work. He believes that we should always work toward the ideal and reality can be changed.”
Did the failure of Communism itself cause the famine and the Cultural Revolution, as Buether would argue, or should we blame the blundering government for getting it all wrong?
For sixty years, China has lived under Mao’s gaze. For thirty years, pundits have been predicting the imminent collapse of the Communist regime. But the government has survived through Tiananmen Square, the Tibetan uprisings, and will likely glide through Bo Xilai’s fall from grace.
“I don’t see right now the ingredients for a sudden collapse,” said Elizabeth J. Perry, Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government in an after-performance discussion. “But at the same time, who would have predicted the collapse of the USSR? Or of East Germany?”
“The Cultural Revolution may happen again in China,” warned Premier Wenjia Bao in a press conference in March, if China does not reform its system. Jung Chang may be a sharp critic of the Communist Party, and Wen Jiabao may be that party’s Premier, but they’ve both spotted something critical about China’s future. Economic growth models, one-child policies, and proliferating MacDonald’s are important, but this increasingly bling, capitalist society still hasn’t forgotten the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and the man who started it.
In our new series, we will explore how the ten years of the Cultural Revolution continues to impact China today and into the future. Can the Revolution be compared to the Holocaust, or was it more like a religious revival? Our next article looks at the paradoxical stories of an imprisoned official, a young tomboy, and a woman growing up in Burma as told through the research of professors at Tufts, Duke and Harvard Universities. How do these narratives reach beyond Wild Swans to show us how the Revolution has shaped China’s new culture? And behind that giant, calm face still hanging in Tiananmen Square, what can they tell us about the real Mao? Was he a monster or a national hero?