By Fred Badlissi
A popular TV show on state-owned China Central Television captivates a living room in Xiejiaqiao, a village in Zhejiang province. It’s called “Happy Hero,” and pits two teams against each other for viewers’ votes.
Today’s broadcast pairs basketball players and cheerleaders against a small group of stunt skateboarders and bicyclists, spinning basketballs and jumping over women to songs like Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” and “It’s Tricky” by Run DMC. It has all of the flash and glamour of most Western-produced shows.
But only 40 years ago, entertainment took a distant back seat to political rhetoric, as television was just one of many mediums used by the Communist Party to perpetuate ideas like “class struggle” and resistance to “Western imperialism” to galvanize generations of Chinese.
Today, the Party’s line is economic improvement, a furnace of productivity that can burn through labor as fast as it does money and the environment. Another casualty, at first glance, appears to be China’s revolutionary past. But as Coca-Cola and the Big Mac have changed from icons of Western decadence to lunch choices for many Chinese, so too have the revolutionary voices of China’s past undergone a metamorphosis.
One such voice is a slogan painted on the side of Lin Wei Meng Tools, Ltd., located on the banks of Xiejiaqiao’s river. It reads “Consolidate, consolidate, and re-consolidate” in large red Chinese characters, a stark contrast against the faded white paint of the factory’s exterior. It was first painted in 1972, when it served as a tea factory during the Cultural Revolution.
Nearly 40 years later, the factory produces wrenches exported to U.S. companies for sale under brand names like Great Neck and Duralast. The factory’s owner, Fan Wei Ping, employs 24 people who work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Those employees have made Fan Xiejiaqiao’s richest citizen, according to anecdotal accounts from the village’s population. That success is due in part, he says, to the slogan.
“It’s inspirational,” Fan says. “Some people wanted to remove the slogan, but high-level party officials and the workers wanted to keep it.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Luo Zhongming, the Vice Township Leader of Henglu County—which includes Xiejiaqiao—since 1998. Surrounded by Chinese Communist Party iconography on the walls of his office’s meeting room, Luo says, “the slogans and pictures have a practical effect.”
But what about post-Deng market reforms, and the lack of any newer-sounding messages?
“There is an affection for the old times,” Luo says. “Mao is rooted in the hearts of the people.”
Luo could be talking about Ding Xi Jung, 76, and Ye Jing Jin, 92, retired farmers who sit in front of Ding’s home just 10 miles away. Ding and his family are one of the many households in the village whose homes have been completely rebuilt through party subsidies. A giant portrait of Mao hangs in his living room, and is visible from the street through an open door. For Ding and Ye, the icons of the Cultural Revolution transcend simple nostalgia and inspiration. Mao’s revolution was their liberation.
Ye talks about his experience working for the land-owning classes that flourished under the Nationalist governments of Sun Yat-Sen and Chang Kai-Shek. “We had no land before Chairman Mao,” he says, which made it difficult to produce food for his family. “Chairman Mao’s Revolution gave us land, and we were able to eat.”
The Cultural Revolution and China’s Great Leap Forward, during which millions of Chinese died due to famine, weren’t issues for Ding. “[Under Mao] the technology was different,” he says. “Fifty years ago, we would have to survive on one kilogram of grain a month. Today, we can have one kilogram of grain a day.”
That, according to Ding, is because subsequent leaders like Deng and current leader Hu Jintao have followed Mao’s original intent. Noting the more recent party slogans that pepper the village, Ding says that they “help make the village better.”
Sometimes food isn’t enough.
Wang Xing Cai, 64, is a member of Xiejiaqiao’s only church, which is officially recognized by the state. He converted after experiencing health problems, but found a deeper meaning in the gospel—a sense of purpose that the Party could not provide. On the eve of market reforms and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Wang resigned from the People’s Liberation Army and the Party in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment.
“It was a very difficult decision as I was heavily criticized for leaving [the Party] and fully committing myself to God,” Wang says. He adds a major reason for doing so was the now 200-strong community in the village of believers who offer prayer and assistance. “When trouble comes, believers will come instantly to help,” he says. “The Party can never do that.”
His piety is reflected in the ascetic nature of the church, which is free of statues or pictures of Jesus and other Christian figures. Two crosses – one embroidered on a massive red drape and the other atop a podium – serve as the church’s only symbols of the faith. Juxtaposing Christianity with the Party, Wang says he believes his church doesn’t need excessive icons to get its message across.
“The cross is not just a symbol of our faith, but a symbol of our life,” he says. “Extra symbols would only detract from our spirituality.”
Reflecting on the Party’s changing focus from revolution to economic development, Wang says: “Slogans of the party can change, but the Bible won’t.”
The change is evident, as pictures of European-style villages are on display throughout Xiejiaqiao, promising a better future, courtesy of the Party. That better future has already come to Chen Yeping, a village bamboo farmer who has been able to send both of his daughters to universities. His elder daughter works in a securities trading firm, and the youngest is beginning college at a medical school in nearby Hangzhou—a situation that wouldn’t have been possible only 30 years ago.
As a farmer, Chen experienced the worst of what the Cultural Revolution did to China, and remembers how life was. Instead of relating stories of woe, he pauses for a few seconds. With his younger daughter standing just a few feet away, Chen continues.
“The things [the Party] said during the Cultural Revolution were wrong,” he says. “But the things they say today are right.”