John Gittings

China through the Sliding Door: Chapter X
Peace writings
Journal articles
Newspaper articles
Family links
1979 - 1991
The Flowers that Bloom and Fade

(a) Cultural stirrings after Mao

(b) The magazine boom

(c) Literary voices from an iron cell


Literature and art were always a political battlefield in Mao's China: the Cultural Revolution had begun with the denunciation of a play which Mao suspected of satirizing him. When I first visited China there were only heroes and villains on the screen and stage. Fiction was not allowed to portray `middle characters', only those who were either thoroughly good or bad. Classical artists painted electric pylons on mountain tops and left their pictures unsigned. Some lively painting came from amateur groups in factories and villages, but the themes were resolutely black and white -- or rather red and black. Propaganda posters were everywhere: many showed Mao as a quasi-religious saviour.

After Mao's death, young writers and artists soon seized the chance, braving Party disapproval to express pent-up feelings. A new wave of literature explored the dark side of the Cultural Revolution. Foreign art was published for the first time in more than ten years. In 1980 I was lucky to coincide with a brief show by an experimental art group -- the Stars -- in an ill-lit upper floor of the Beijing Art Gallery. Many older artists and writers were too numbed by their experiences to resume creative work. The younger generation was taken up by foreign patrons and many went abroad in the mid-1980s. At a popular level, Maoist parables were replaced by (often trashy) adventure and love stories: political journals lost readers to magazines devoted to new consumer themes.

Chinese culture suffered another setback after the Beijing Massacre, as more writers and artists left the country or ceased producing. Some persevered: in 1991 I interviewed Hsiao Ch'ien, a veteran from before the revolution, and Zhang Xianliang, a younger writer who had survived nearly two decades in detention. From very different perspectives both were struggling to produce creative work in an airless environment -- the `iron cell' in Lu Xun's famous phrase. In an equally famous speech during his revolution, Mao had called for a hundred flowers to bloom, but long after his death most of those that managed to do so still faded very quickly. Others preferred to write `for the desk' -- just for themselves and their closest friends.



March 1979, Xinhua Bookshop, Beijing

It would be too much to say that a Hundred Flowers are Blooming in the world of Chinese art and literature after the Gang of Four. But there are a number of promising buds, at least, which have begun to force their way through the hard cultural earth, particularly from the pens and brushes of the new ex-Red Guard generation.

`I was elated in a strange way. I looked up at the poplar trees, their buds and leaves vivid green in the sunshine, set against the blue sky. I knew that I had at last fallen in love'. It is not inspired writing, but A Place for Love by the young writer Liu Xinwu has opened up an area of life which was totally taboo during the Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese now acknowledge that the revolutionary high-mindedness of those years led to a very `unhealthy' situation among young people. On the one hand, as the magazine China Reconstructs admits, `All love was labelled sensual, vulgar, cheap and obscene. Young people could not talk about it, authors could not mention it.' At the same time, the looser social discipline of the Cultural Revolution increased the opportunities for affairs among young people, while society continued to expect them to choose a mate and get married at the recommended age.

The narrator in A Place for Love is a girl called Meng who has fallen in love with a cook, a young man who is not particularly handsome or brilliant. But he is kind and honest, and his `thinking is good.' What will her friends and her family think? For in the absence of any open discussion of the morality of love, what continues to flourish in post-Mao China is the wholly unrevolutionary view that a girl should make a `good match' in material terms.

They look for young men, Meng complains, `as if choosing a woollen sweater to wear.' Her own best friend tries to warn her off the young man, arguing that `you shouldn't find it too difficult to find yourself an actor or someone like that.'

The problem is resolved for Meng through the good advice of her aunt, who tells her that `to deny the place of love in the life of a revolutionary is itself revisionist and decadent.' Real love should be based upon `common ideals and interests', and Meng's love for her boyfriend is `a fine thing.'

Questions of sexual morality have been discussed openly before in China during previous periods of cultural relaxation - particularly in the mid 1950s and early 1960s, and it is a relatively easy area to open up today. But the larger problems raised by the events of the last ten years offer a more complex challenge to contemporary Chinese writers. The current leadership, operating through the Propaganda Department of the Party Central Committee, certainly wants to see the `crimes of the Gang of Four' exposed and satirized in literature and art. Yet the underlying faults in the style and structure of Chinese politics are mostly still present today - how far should they be exposed too?

An even younger writer, Lu Xinhua (still a student at Shanghai's Fudan University) has touched a raw official nerve with a story called Scars. It is tritely written but deals with the explosive subject of how many young people turned against their `bourgeois' parents in the Cultural Revolution.

The narrator is a Shanghai girl who disowned her mother when she was labelled as a bad class element; then volunteered to go down to the countryside and cut of all ties with home. The story covers her journey home after the Cultural Revolution, having heard that her mother is ill. As the train speeds through the dark coutnryside, the young girl stares out of the window reliving her flight from home and her complicated emotions of the last few years. When she arrives in Shanghai it is too late; her mother died that morning. But here too a boyfriend is on hand to turn grief into strength and suggest hope for the future.

Scars was praised in the Beijing newspaper Guangming Daily on three separate counts where the author had `broken through' the usual self-imposed retsraints of recent Chinese literature. He had exposed `the dark side' of certain aspects of the Cultural Revolution. He had also written a story in which the central figure was a `middle character' (neither wholly good nor wholly bad) of the kind which vanished altogether during the Cultural Revolution. And he had succeeded in writing what the newspaper described as a `socialist tragedy'.

But the new director of the Party's Propaganda Department, Hu Yaobang, has let his own less enthusiastic view be known. He said it was all very well exposing the scars of the past, but Chinese writers and artists should not let this task monopolize their attention. What is needed today, Hu told a literary tea party in Beijing at the beginning of this year, is for `Chinese writers and artists to create their best works in praise of China's march towards the Four Modernizations.'

The scars which are exposed in novelettish style by Lu Xinhua are the same ones now being detailed, with real names and real circumstances, by student demonstrators for human writers and socialist democracy in Beijing and other main Chinese cities.

Lengthy accounts have been published on the walls by young people victimized for alleged misdeeds in the remote past of their families. Recent demonstrations in Shanghai have drawn attention to the plight of thousands of studetns who went `down to the countryside' and now wish to escape. A cartoon which was on display showed some dejected members of a youth shock brigade in one of the border regions. They were clearing timber under a hot, hostile sun and they subsisted, according to the artist, on a diet of rice and peppers.

The dividing line between fact and fiction merges very easily in the sort of unofficial art and literature which now circulates among young people in China. The events of April 1976, when a demonstration in Tiananmen Square, mounted in memory of Premier Zhou Enlai, turned into a massive show of hostility against the authorities, has been the source of a great deal of recent unofficial writing.

Poems in all the main classical styles, penned on posters affixed to the side of the Martyrs' Memorial in the square, or simply chalked on the pavements, were copied down by student demonstrators and circulated widely in spite of being denounced as `black documents' by the radical leadership (the so-called Gang of Four) who then controlled official propaganda.

Students at the Beijing No. 2 Foreign Languages College collected these poems with particular zeal. In November 1978 the authorities after hesitating more than two years finally allowed them to be openly published. Chairman Hua Guofeng himself, whose role in the events of April 1976 (when he took over at the expense of the Gang's chief enemy, Deng Xiaoping) remains equivocal, eventually wrote the lettering on the title page of one volume of the poems. One or two of the bolder wallposter writers suggested that he of all people had no reason to cash in on the literature of a movement which he had helped to suppress. Once again the poetry may not be exactly inspired. But it does reveal how strong the tradition of expressing political protest in literary forms remains among young Chinese today.

Meanwhile, after twelve years of suspension, the magazine World Literature, which is devoted to translations of foreign literature into Chinese, has appeared again, with poems by Biswas, a story by Durrenmatt, and a satire by Tolstoy in its first issue. But in the present mood of `learning from abroad', the main constraint upon translations of foreign works is only likely to be space and the shortage of skilled translators.

The real political problems still arises with what is written in Chinese, and by Chinese, about the realities of China today. How these problems are resolved must depend on the wider fate of the whole political struggle now taking place between a reformist Party leadership, willing to make certain concessions in the interests of the Four Modernizations, and an assertive movement of portest among the alienated youth.

August 1980, Beijing Art Gallery

During the Cultural Revolution, a well-known artist [Huang Yongyu] painted a picture of an owl with one eye shut - a light-hearted present for a friend. Madame Mao's cultural apparatchiks got to hear of it, and the painter was severely criticized for `making fun of socialism.'

Recently, in an exhibition of unofficial art in Beijing, another owl-picture appeared. This time the owl had both eyes firmly shut. It was the most obviously political item in the exhibition, but no one objected. The thaw after the Cultural Revolution in China - unlike the post-Stalin thaw in the Soviet Union - has produced official tolerance, on the whole, for the new Chinese experimental artists.

The first show of the `Single Spark' group [otherwise known as the `Stars'] had met with trouble in 1979. Staged in the gardens outside the Beijing Art Gallery, it was broken up by a squad from the local police station. But the authorities relented and allowed it to move into the gallery. This year a second show was also given a ten-day slot, and the official Art Monthly has called for more freedom of artistic expression.

A poem attached to a self-portrait by one of the experimental artists declares:

I am a tree on the mountain top watching the passers by;

I am a footprint in the soil, filled with human sweat;

I am wind, I am rain, I am human.

To a generation of young Chinese brought up in the Cultural Revolution when most art was `collectively' painted ( or else the artist prudently did not sign his name) questions of identity and perception - who I am and what do I see? - are not the hackneyed ones they have become in the West. `The world is getting ever smaller', proclaimed the second manifesto of the Single Spark group. (Their name echoes an old saying, quoted by Mao Zedong during the Revolution, that `a single spark can start a prairie fire.') `Today the only new continent lies within ourselves. To discover a new angle, to make a new choice, that is an act of exploration.'

On the top floor of the Beijing Art Gallery, several hundred visitors at a time, mostly in their thirties or younger, crowded the two rooms of the recent exhbition. Many gathered round a set of questions and answers posted at the entrance by Wang Keping, one of the leaders of the group.

Q. What is this sculpture about? I ca'nt tell what it's meant to be.

A. It is itself. It doesn't have to be like something else in order to be worthwhile.

Q. I can't understand this picture. All I can see are some colours leaping about.

A. You have understood it correctly.

In a cultural environment where foreign art magazines still have to be passed from hand to hand and it is a sensation for Art Monthly to have Van Gogh on its front cover, a lot of the new art is clearly derivative. Picasso, Munch, Leger and Klee can be recognized on the walls of the Beijing exhibition. The nude, the abstract, and the untitled picture are startling concepts in themselves, and need to be justified.

Several pictures are accompanied by subtle, allusive poems, written according to the Chinese custom by a friend of the artist, and expressing the disturbed thoughts of many young Chinese about their country. The owl has attracted this comment:

I loved you without reserve; I spoke to you without scruple.

But now my eyes are downcast, my heart wounded. You have changed, boundless land.

A dark landscape bears the title, Spring is still the Spring. A selfportrait by Yan Li, one of the most assured and humorous of the exhibitors, shows The Artist at Peace - with an escape ladder dangling behind him. In his Life, Friendship and Love, two shirts shake hands on the clothes line.

Some of the most successful works are found among the woodcuts and other graphics which stem directly from the political art of the 1930s and '40s. A powerful set of eight black and white sketches by Qu Leilei, on The Motherland, shows the Chinese people oppressed - in the final scene flattened to the ground - but still asserting their nationhood. Woodcuts by Ma Desheng show the patent weary faces of a peasant with his ox, an old ice-cream seller counting her money.

The story of art in China since the Communist victory in 1949 has differed in several important ways from that of Soviet art since 1917, and this affects the position of the experimental artist today. The tradition of painting in the `national style' (guohua) survived and except during the great political campaigns actually flourished. Socialist realism was imported from the Soviet Union in the 1950s but never established itself as a coherent artistic doctrine. What emerged during the Cultural Revolution was a brand of revolutionary romanticism which contained elements of both socialist realism and the national style. Figures of model workers and peasants scaled the traditional mountain peaks. Electric pylons were placed in the most unlikely places.

The result is that the professional artist in China can now revert to the classic depiction of flower and bamboo, of legend and hero, by simply deleting the revolutionary symbols which they had added on. In China, unlike the Soviet Union, experimentation is mostly in the hands of non-professionals, who are also much less aware of power-war Western art. Many of those exhibiting in the Single Spark show work in publishing, design, or other fringe areas of the art world. Thus it has been easier for the official art establisment - the Central Arts Academy and the Arts Association - to tolerate the unofficials.

To overcome this peculiarly Chinese problem of cultural isolation, the new movement needs more access to artistic stimuli from outside. It also needs more time. It was closely associated with the Democracy Movement which collapsed after activists were gaoled and wallposters were banned: so far the artists have survived.



March 1987, Beijing

Half a mile west on the Avenue of Everlasting Peace from the Great Hall of the People where conservative Chinese leaders are now denouncing `bourgeois liberalism,' there is a display of amazing popular magazines on sale which hardly follow the socialist road.

It is not just the Honda lad on the front cover of Motorbike or the UFO depicted on Flying Saucer, or the generous picture of Sophia Loren presented by World Photography. Nor is it even the double-page spread from the innocuous sounding Sports Illustrated, in which a European girl called Julia Bergman demonstrates the joys of female bodybuilding in frontal, rear and pelvic poses - the secret of success, says Julia, is `good posture, good physique, and a no-fat diet. '

What is really surprising to anyone familiar with Chinese political culture till fairly recently is the nearly complete secularization - an absence of almost any political values at all - of the new magazines. It is the natural result of deliberate attempts to stimulate a consumer society, aided by an open-door policy towards the outside world, in a climate of widespread political cynicism especially among young people who, in Mao's phrase, `know nothing about the revolution. '

The post office where these magazines are on sale still stocks the Communist Party's theoretical journal Red Flag now once again carrying lengthy polemics written by ageing leftists. But many party members no longer bother to read them. A random sample of the top thirty magazines last month showed a fairly equal division into Fashion, Household Goods, Romantic Fiction, Detective Stories, Film and Theatre (especially from abroad), Popular Medicine, and `personal advice'. The lead short story in Flower Garden is about a Chinese soldier on the Vietnam frontier who capturers an enemy scout and discovers that she is a young girl. Compassionately, he sets her on her road home across the border. But she refuses to go: `Please, let me stay with you,' she murmurs. `My heart melted,' says the narrator. `What should I say in return? Anything would be too much! I quickly gave her my arm. Resolutely we turned and headed for the dark woods ...'

This sort of magazine is read by liftgirls and shop assistants or factory hands to occupy their long dull hours of work. For the young married and new urban middle class, there is another range of magazines offering advice on how to brighten life at home.

Last December`s issue of Sino-Foreign Consumer carried a photo supplement on a new shopping arcade in Istanbul, a selection of `international hairstyles,' a profile of an American-Chinese TV presenter (her motto is `Beauty, Brains and Breeding') and a wide range of consumer hints. There are articles on what the Queen eats, what Prince Charles wears, and whether black is a fashionable colour.

Police and detective magazines also sell well, especially on street corners where evening crowds linger. They contain some factual information on legal problems, as well as `real life' tales of crime amd disaster from home and abroad. There is also a new genre of shocking tales about the evil behaviour of the Gang of Four, recently including a study of the dubious relationship between Madame Mao and Kang Sheng, head of secret police during the Cultural Revolution. But in a society where half the population is below thirty, and a tentative sexual revolution is under way, the most popular sections in most magazines are often the pages of `medical' advice. These range from sensible tips on everyday hygiene to more, dubious propositions about sexual technique.

A recent issue of Young Generation - favourite reading matter on long distance trains - carried a tale called `It happened on the wedding night' which cannot help the cause of true sexual liberation in China. This told of a young man who was rushed to hospital after making love three times with his new bride. The first couple of times were on his initiative; third was on hers. Moral: Female passion is hard to arouse but even harder to satisfy. The myth of the voracious snake-woman who can never be satisfied lurks unpleasantly close to the surface of Chinese male fantasy.

In theory those now denouncing `bourgeois liberalism' can cite as evidence the surrender of much of Chinese popular culture to market forces and the appeal of largely Western based trivia. Soldiers in the People's Liberation Army - which is now being promoted again as a political model - were recently warned not to buy unsuitable books and magazines. They should be `educated to take the right attitude towards love and marriage without reading literature that describes sexual relations.'

Yet the real targets of the leftist `conservatives' are the neo-Marxist scholars who were calling last year, with support from reformers led by Mr Hu Yaobang, for political as well as economic reform, including democratization of the Party itself. Some magazine front covers will now be toned down, but the contents may not change so much. The Party ideologues are not really so worried by pop publishing for the broad masses as by the attempt to create a new politics.




April 1991, Beijing

My search for Chinese wen or `culture' begins in the northern town of Anyang, where the word was invented three thousand years ago. Diviners at the royal court of the Shang dynasty scratched early Chinese characters on the back of tortoise shells, applied heat, and interpreted the cracks which then appeared. The Chinese classics are wen, the arts are wen, civilization is wen. Mao's Cultural Revolution was the Wen Ge.

How much wen is to be found in the New China Bookshop on Liberation Street in Anyang, serving a population of a quarter of a million? The answer which will surprise no one familiar with China today is very little. Best sellers: romantic novels from Taiwan; books on the mystical arts; the complete translated works of Dale Carnegie. None of the critical Chinese writers of the 1980s whom we can read in the West. Politics: military memoirs; `Why socialism must replace capitalism'; history of the Communist Party. Nothing about the Cultural Revolution or the Beijing Massacre.

Foreign translations: The New Professional Woman, Megatrends 2000, The Godfather, various Arthur Haileys. No Orwell, Greene, or any serious modern writer. Art: Traditional `mountain and water' landscapes; posters of Mao and army hero Lei Feng; `Famous persons in cartoons', from Giotto to Marilyn Monroe. Nothing modern or experimental, not much Chinese.

Mao once said of literature and art that what people needed was not `more flowers on the brocade' but `fuel in snowy weather'. Here in Anyang there are neither flowers nor fuel. An article in the Beijing Guangming Daily complains that people no longer read books. Confucius praised those who studied without wearying, it says, but now people are only interested in `watching TV, playing mahjong, and looking in shop windows'. The Guangming Daily, once known as the Guardian of China, must share the blame for a society which tries to keep the masses docile with consumerism but denies them intellectual nourishment. Friends in Beijing curse the newspaper's name. It led the campaign against `bourgeois liberalism' among intellectuals, and loudly denounced the `conspiracy' of the 1989 Democracy Movement.

Most of those intellectuals have now either left China, or are writing `for the desk'. `No one minds what you do at home,' explains one prominent writer. `No one bans you from being published - it's just that the publishers find they have run out of paper.' The relationship of mutual contempt between writers and regime is expressed in one of those simple Chinese phrases: `You say your thing, and I'll say mine.'

Most intellectuals have much grimmer memories against which to measure today's sloppy repression. From 1957 to the late 1970s thousands of writers, labelled as `rightists' after Mao's Hundred Flowers movement, often then relabelled with worse crimes, were sent to the countryside or labour camp where there was no desk and no pen. The politics of that period can still only be talked of obliquely. A poet recalls `We were all fooled by the Great Leader. He summoned us to the Zhongnanhai (China's Kremlin) and told us that Wang Meng's criticisms were good. Who could say that the Beijing Party was blameless?' Wang Meng would be `sent down' for 20 years for writing two critical short stories; so was the poet who tells the tale - then begs me not to quote his name.

I have come to Beijing to interview two writers in particular, both victims of the 1957 `anti-rightist' movement, whose books have been recently translated into English. Hsiao Ch'ien, novelist and journalist, now 81, was a wartime correspondent in Britain who covered the founding of the UN. His autobiography, Traveller without a Map (Hutchinson) is dedicated to the memory of the Quaker Margery Fry and the campaigner Dorothy Woodman, lifelong companion of Kingsley Martin. One of his greatest sorrows during the Cultural Revolution was the destruction all of his letters from E.M. Forster. Hsiao still looks on the bright side with the dignity and elliptic humour of his generation of intellectuals.

Except for one terrible night in the Cultural Revolution, he recalls, `I have borne the hardship and disgrace quite dispassionately and have never lost my smile. I took myself to be a reporter and treated life as the ground I was to cover.

`During those six years when my family and I had to live in a tiny gatehouse, I had to go and queue up for a place in the public lavatory on our street, sometimes even during the rain. We had five pits over which we could squat. I might have a tricycle pedlar or a carpenter on either side, or a brick- layer or a factory worker. Ignoring the foul smell and the rain that dripped from the roof, we would chat quite boisterously. These people widened my horizons.'

While Hsiao Ch'ien smiles, Zhang Xianliang - thirty years younger but much better known in China - rages. Unlike Hsiao he was sent to labour camp (where he almost died) and state farm with all the most important things of life still unlived. The reason why he is so famous in China is his reputation as a `sexy writer'. If he really wished to write a sexy novel, he says cryptically, it would have no women in it. His best-known work, Half of Man is Woman (Penguin, 1988) tells the story of a man released from labour camp who finds he is impotent. His new novel, Getting Used to Dying (Collins), interweaves the prison experiences of an embittered Chinese writer with his post-prison experiences in bed. Death - past, present and future - hangs over all.

Zhang scorns the suggestion that those two decades may have enriched him. He was not planning books in his head in the labour camp: he was `thinking about food and how to stay alive'. When he fled, it was `because of hunger, not politics'. His horizons were never widened by contact with the peasants. `Why should I feel for them?' he asks. `They had something I didn't have, a house and family. If a peasant came home in a bad mood, he could beat his wife. If he was feeling happy, he could make love to her.' It is another, harder, sort of honesty. Hsiao tells some twinkling anecdotes of romance in wartime Britain, admitting that `sometimes I got over-involved with emotional episodes'. Poor Zhang was too innocent to understand a labour camp leader who boasted about making love in a ditch while supervizing the workers.

Both writers are cautiously unpolitical. Hsiao is protected by his age and a well-honed art of indirection. `I think I have learnt my lesson,' he says. `I know that one can be the guest of honour one day and a prisoner the next. I now have the habit of never saying anything rashly. This can be very irritating to my wife, for sometimes she finds me equivocal even on some small domestic issues.' (When I visit she is wholly absorbed in the next door study, six chapters into a translation of Joyce's Uysses).

Zhang locks himself away obscurely in Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Autonomous Region where he was first banished. He insists he is not a political writer - foreigners who want to know about Chinese politics should read the newspapers. But Zhang believes that we all have inside ourselves an accumulated deposit of memory - our own and that of hundreds of generations before. It is just that his labour camp experiences have stirred up this deposit more powerfully than anything else. Now he is slowly confecting a novel based on the notes of a prison diary. Perhaps he is taking his time till the publishers can find paper again [the first volume of Zhang's prison diary, translated into English as Grass Soup, was published in 1992].

To discover who else is writing, I consult a member of the Wen Xie - short for the Chinese Literary Association of Writers. Not many are actually writing, just a few hundred out of 4,050 members. `One third are retired, another third are old or senile, the remainder either want to write but cannot be published or don't want to write because the situation is not clear. How can anyone start a novel without knowing what the climate will be like when it is finished?' There are a few exceptions: historical biography is doing well, with `unofficial' histories of modern leaders - communist and nationalist - almost as popular as Dale Carnegie.

There is a Last, Last Emperor craze. The young historian Jia Yinghua has taken up where the Last Emperor's own biography left off, with his release from prison in 1959 - before he married a bank clerk's daughter. Less gripping perhaps than life in the Forbidden City, but it has sold a hundred thousand copies and Mr Jia is planning more volumes. There is also good money to be made writing `enterprise literature' - books which puff one of China's new market-oriented business firms and are distributed gratis.

An old friend confirms this new trend. `There is a cruder, uglier group now,' he says. `After all, people have to live, and there is money to be earned from the new entrepreneurs. These people go with the tide, making money, getting new cars. They are more vigorous and less civilized.' He adds that `XX' - a distinguished writer much translated in the West - now belongs to the past with that whole generation of serious, still moderately socialist, writers with public consciences who re-emerged in the 1980s. We run through the list: who has left, who has stayed, who has given up, who has an ambitious spouse and is trying to keep in with the Party.

Wang Meng (whom Mao had mendaciously praised in the Hundred Flowers to smoke out the opposition), became Minister of Culture in the 1980s, and stepped down after the Beijing Massacre insisting he just felt tired. Now he writes essays about the Dream of the Red Chamber. The Writers' Association is thick with intrigue. Its President, the aged writer Ba Jin (author of the 1930s Family trilogy) has been asked by the Party to step down at the next Congress in September. They plan to replace him with the generally loathed Maoist poet He Jingzhi, acting Minister of Culture. A thousand intellectuals signed letters protesting that he should not become full Minister.

The anecdotes continue, while wisps of willow fluff float outside in the dusty afternoon air. It's time to check in the China Daily to see what's on in Beijing. The listing for Saturday May 4th - it happens to be the anniversary of China's first Cultural Revolution in 1919 - is depressingly skimpy. There is the usual Monkey Creates Havoc in Heaven for tourists at the Beijing Opera Theatre, and a fair amount of acrobatics performed by Chinese railway workers. Plenty of Western music, not much Chinese: Mozart, a lecture on Gounod's Faust and a non-stop concert of American film and British TV serial themes. No plays this year. Last year I remember a cautiously satirical play, The Fields, which hinted at rural contempt for the Communist Party and did not last long. Someone says that Ying Ruocheng (ex-deputy Minister of Culture, the jailer in The Last Emperor) is staging Shaw's Major Barbara, which will be scrutinized for hidden meanings.

Paintings? traditional landscapes, bird and flower, mountains and waters. Opera? The Magic Flute . . . and, surely not, one of Madame Mao's famous Beijing Revolutionary Operas. The regime has encouraged a modest revival of the old heroic themes, though the emphasis is shifted from the individual to the heroic Party. The heroine in Azalea Mountain is the Party's representative in a rural area fighting the Kuomintang. Her real name is rarely mentioned. `Party Representative, please help me to find the Right Way,' cry out the honest peasants. There are some good tunes and for those who wait to the end some fine fighting acrobatics. One actor somersaults eight times into the lap of a Chinese violinist, smashing her chair, which goes down particularly well. Most of the audience is paper - free tickets for morally improving plays or films are frequently distributed at work units. I buy my ticket from a Beijing Construction Company worker who could not face it.

But there is a nice joke going around Beijing about this practice of papering politically worthy productions. The film Jiao Yulu tells the story of a Party secretary in a poverty stricken rural area who laid down his life. It is quite a moving reminder of how well some Party cadres used to behave, and audiences shed real tears. Hundreds of Beijing citizens have thoughtfully bought tickets and sent them to the Communist Party headquarters and to City Hall, with polite notes expressing the hope that senior Party leaders will learn from Jiao Yulu's good example.

So what has happened to wen? The only book on literary theory in that dusty Anyang bookshop was Deng Xiaoping Jiang Wen Yi - Deng Xiaoping On Literature And Art. I search it for clues. It starts with a speech to writers in 1979 telling them that they `enjoy the respect, trust and love of the Party'. But by 1985 Deng is warning them that `bourgeois liberalization means taking the capitalist road'. That was the first ideological shock which led many writers to burn their manuscripts, and prepared the way politically for the suppression of the Democracy Movement in 1989 and the conservative backlash. The collection ends, appropriately, with a document which does not contain a word about `literature and art' but which shook Chinese writers to the core.

It is Mr Deng's speech `to the cadres of the Beijing Martial Law Units' - dated 9 June 1989. `Comrades,' he begins, `you have had a hard time!' He congratulates the army on its restraint in not using tanks. Only soldiers' blood was shed, he says, in Tiananmen Square.

The massacre was on 4 June. A writer tells me quietly how he turned on the television that evening and saw the news readers dressed in dark colours for mourning (they had refused to wear their normal clothes). `I was eating my supper,' he says, `and I knew immediately something awful had happened.' Then, with the precision Chinese always use in describing bodily functions, he describes how he vomited uncontrollably. `It was not because I had a cold or anything like that. I brought up all the food that I was eating. Then I continued to vomit with nothing left inside.'

The self-disgust of the Chinese intellectual smells pervasively in these twilight months in Beijing. The history of repression has repeated itself - this time in a less deadly and often more farcical form. But for those growing old in spirit or body it is one time too much.