Reclaiming the past: notes from fieldwork in Chongqing

Xiao Mei, PhD candidate from Cambridge University, looks at the response of retirees to a Red Culture campaign in China, and compares this to the new attitudes of youth

When asked what she thought of the “Singing Red Songs” campaign in Chongqing (initiated by the provincial government three years ago, supposedly to lift up people’s spirit), a sixty-year-old retiree and amateur dancer told me about a recent spat between her and a teenage relative: “Young people do not know where their good life comes from. To sing the Red songs is to teach them how to appreciate the sacrifices of older generations. They need to remember and learn to appreciate. Young people are becoming more and more indifferent to anything.”

Quite a typical complaint from an older generation about young people’s incapability of respecting the old days, wouldn’t you say? However, even in China, where young people still have to put up with boring political/ideological lessons at school, a strenuous effort by the Chongqing government to mobilize millions of citizens to sing Red songs is still unusual enough to arouse nationwide curiosity and discussion among both scholars and ordinary people.

After all, when Chinese people are struggling with the almost unbearably fast pace of change towards a modern and equally confusing new era, a gesture to look back to the past is considered eccentric. The Red Culture campaign, brainchild of Bo Xilai, the local Communist secretary, is believed to be more than mere political decoration for the capitalistic development programme.

Instead, the cultural campaign – including singing Red songs, reading classics, telling revolutionary stories, and spreading inspiring mottos – is positioned at the centre of the provincial government’s political agenda. The intense media exposure of the Red cultural activities has sometimes even eclipsed the startling economic advancement bestowed upon this mega-municipality with a population of 32 million.

Numerous interpretations regarding the intentions and political implications for this rather ostentatious reference to the past are being circulated both within and outside of China. But let’s put that aside for the moment and look at how ordinary people participate in the campaign.

Nostalgia for past youth

If you go to the public park close to where I now live, you’ll find dozens of designated areas for singing Red songs. It is even easier to find the favourite spots for retirees, lured in by the sound of beloved melodies from the old days. A 75-year-old veteran soldier told me that his favourite songs were those learned when he was in the army, such as “Little Poplar” (Xiao Bai Yang) and “Returning from Target Practice” (Da Ba Gui Lai). But he was also fond of love songs from Taiwan, especially those composed by Zhuang Nu and sung by Deng Lijun, who was arguably the most influential Taiwanese singer in the 1980s and 90s in mainland China.

The spot I frequent is run by a retired kindergarten teacher, with her keyboard. People pay one yuan (roughly 0.10 GBP) to her for each song she plays for them. She has been there Monday to Sunday for the past three years. Every day she brings a pile of song sheets with her, as well as a bunch of plastic flowers. At times, the flowers are offered to someone who is thought to sing well. But the singer does not actually take the flowers: they are returned to the trolley to await the next outstanding performance.

The singers win applause as well as friendship. The small group of a dozen people, who make up the core of this particular singing spot, have gradually come to know each other, and are always ready to share their life experiences with each other. When someone who usually comes every day fails to show up, people start to wonder if something has happened to her.

The elderly love the “Singing Red Songs” campaign. In China, people retire much earlier than in the UK (women at the age of 55, and men at 60). Many of the retirees talk about the need to find something to fill up their life and the desire to re-establish the feeling of belonging after leaving their jobs. It is a common choice to join a hobby group, be it singing, dancing, calligraphy, or Chinese chess. And alas! It was once just a way to kill time, but now is celebrated and praised as the most worthy of pursuits.

Who would refute the honour of reclaiming the culture and ethos of their generation? Even if it was an age of difficulty and turbulence, most people have painted a more romantic and colourful picture of their youth through the effect of nostalgia, by the time when they are approaching the later stage of life. And more often than not, the more difficult time is the better remembered.

The changed perspective of modern youth

The elderly at the singing spot very quickly took an interest in me too. Apparently not many young people are this interested in what they are doing, and ask about their thoughts. I feel a bit of an outsider, not only because I was actually not that interested in the songs they sing until it somehow became the topic of my research, but also because I am usually the only young person who does not walk straight past their singing spot, but rather stays to listen for hours.

Although the keyboard player insists that there are also young people who come to sing at her spot, it is very rare. Once in a while, a young person will drop by and try one or two songs. And the former kindergarten teacher does not always know how to play the popular songs requested by the young. In any case, taking a stroll in the park is probably not the first choice of the younger generation in their leisure time. If they have craving for singing, they will gather with friends at the innumerable karaoke bars spread over the city, to master the latest hit by pop stars.

But don’t jump too quickly at the conclusion that young people do not participate in the Red culture campaign. On the contrary, they constitute another major group of participants. However, their manner of participation is another story.

Among the younger generation, there is rarely such spontaneous involvement in the Red cultural activities, as in the park just mentioned. As far as university students are concerned, many of them do participate in various Red themed activities, almost all through the organization of their school. Typically, they are asked to join staged performances to celebrate the Red culture, on behalf of their department. For example, one of the universities in Chongqing put on a two-hour-long Red culture performance of singing and dancing, to celebrate the 90th anniversary for the founding the Chinese Communist Party this past July. Students were the main performers, and it took them months to prepare.

Most of the students I have met, coming from very different academic backgrounds, told me that they were not interested, for a few very similar reasons. Firstly, they hate anything that they are pressured to do. Secondly, they do not feel related to the revolutionary years that the campaign is singing the praises of. Thirdly, they have loads of other things to care about.

But I think students’ attitude and feeling towards the Red cultural campaign is more complicated than what they express at first sight.

There is no obvious distaste expressed, except complaint that preparing for a performance uses up too much of their leisure time. To Chinese students, the common reaction towards the mobilization to participate in these old fashioned top-down “you-have-to-do” tasks is more often indifference and sarcasm, rather than overt rebellion. When they finally arrive at a university at the age of nineteen, I guess most of them have undergone training so long that they know how to deal with the boredom of political posturing. It’s one of those things they are familiar with.

In fact, most of the students I have talked to so far do not necessarily disagree with the content of the campaign, at least they claim not. Most of them agree that there must be a way for history to be passed down to the later generation, but they don’t like the ways in which the transmission is being carried out at the present. Although the campaign has included text messaging and weibo (the Chinese tweet) as the main media in the “spreading mottos” action, which apparently target young people, still, things seem suspiciously all too correct, and way too formalistic. It is not difficult to detect students’ distaste for a campaign laced with propagandist teachings and paternalistic preaching.

However, interestingly, and quite surprisingly, when asked if the individual should be responsible for making one’s own judgment between the good and bad, right and wrong, these twenty-year-olds overwhelmingly point out that the government does have the responsibility to promote the positive and the good, though few believe the Red culture campaign, in this case, will have any real effect on people’s morality.

They seem to be much surer that they do not like the campaign than about what exactly is wrong with it – or, if the government retreats from guiding the social morale, who should do so. They seem to be a generation of young people who have learned to be cynical before critical. They trust neither the government, nor the Internet, the former being too hypocritical, the latter filled with rumours. They are more likely to be negative about how things are, than being positive about what they are able to change. There are no young idealists any more.

After all, their more urgent concern rests upon whether their future salary as university graduates is going to afford a respectable life. A large proportion of young people, under the pressure of high inflation, low income, and high social expectation, are still financially dependent on their parents after graduating from university.

Their attitude towards the older generation is, therefore, rather ambivalent in this sense. On the one hand, since they grow up in a relatively open society with much influence from the West, their life style and values are likely to be very different from the earlier generation. They feel estranged in a society where rules are still made by the older generation. On the other hand, most of the youngsters from the city are the only child in the family, where infinite care and indulgence are showered on them by parents and grandparents. They rebel, as young people always do; yet, they are often more dependent on the older generation than they are aware of, emotionally as well as economically.

The retirees, who are blissfully singing Red songs in the park, on the other hand, were more likely to be idealists when they were at the age of twenty. Although life has probably broken their ideals – after going through the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, followed by the social ethos turning increasingly materialistic during the Reform and Opening period (since 1978) – they seem to enjoy bringing back memories of the era of simplicity and naivety through songs that were once inspiring to their young ears and hearts. It was an era when people still believed it an easy task to define good and bad, right and wrong. Not any more, for today’s young people.