Love's Gay Fool. Autobiography of John Alan Lee.


Chapter 8. China in 1956

Red Square, Moscow, 1956. A line of thousands extends from the left and across, in front of the church, waiting to enter the Lenin Mausoleum (on the right).



A frightened group of delegates stretched their legs after a forced landing, halfway across the Soviet Union.



Delegates visit the Forbidden City, Peking.



Wall newspaper: fear of invasion by US-backed Taiwan forces is still strong.

This chapter is 20% of a report I published in 1957. Those familiar with changes in China since the Liberation – the Cultural Revolution, the violent suppression of the student democracy movement, and the “new capitalism” – will find this report an enlightening, though very personal, benchmark. All Chinese spellings are left in the form used in 1956.

October 22. My translator is Pan Shih Chiang, 21. He has spoken English for nine years, and was educated in a Christian school in Shanghai. He can still recall the Lord's prayer but is now a fervid and dogmatic Communist; more of a "true believer" than the Moscow students I met. Pan has some notion of western life, having visited Sweden.

October 23. Each of us has the address of our hotel on paper, and we are free to wander about the city. Nobody has stopped me taking pictures of anything I found interesting. I got lost a couple of times but found someone literate to direct me back to my hotel. Everyone is friendly; they understand that any longnose (foreigner) is in China by approval of the authorities.

The city core is ancient, never developed by western interests. The streets are remarkably clean. Garbage is well disposed of; I see no signs of it, even in back streets. This is a marked change from what Canadian friends, former missionaries here, told me to expect.

The streets are teeming with pedestrians and bicycles. Many bikes are not for personal transportation, but for huge bundles of freight, piled on platforms mounted between double rear wheels. There are carts too, often pulled by men. Everyone is wearing the same blue clothing. Young people are cheerful, and often propose an exchange of badges.

There’s a story behind all the blue clothing. The regime decided to mass-produce one kind of cloth to get as many people into decent clothing as fast as possible. Officials wore the same clothing to make it fashionable.

I’m enjoying personal conversation with Pan. We’re close in age, and both interested in politics and society. Each strives not to offend the other, while adhering to contrary notions of historical truth. Events are providing lots of material. A revolution has broken out in Hungary, and the French, English and Israelis are at war with Soviet-backed Egyptians over the Suez canal. Among my fellow delegates there is panicky talk of "preliminaries of World War Three" and “getting trapped in China.”

Our only source of news is the official Hsinghua press agency. When we compare what we know of the West at first hand with representations in the Chinese news, we sometimes roar with laughter. Our skepticism clashes sharply with the idealism of our interpreters, all members of the Chinese Communist Youth. If revolutionary change does not go well here, there will surely be Great Purges like those in Stalinist Russia. Since they believe that Lenin accurately understood social change, serious mistakes will be blamed on traitors. I can imagine Pan’s blind enthusiasm if he were persuaded to turn against his elders.

Everywhere, people date events in their lives as Before or After the Liberation. It is the great watershed. For an old lady it is being treated as an equal to a man; for a factory worker it is pay on Friday that buys as much on Saturday; for a Christian believer it is the end of corrupt government.

October 24. Today we visited a large secondary school – 1400 students. One major subject of study is Marxism-Leninism. All students are expected to engage in "mutual criticism sessions" about their daily lives. The student organization also monitors the home life and study habits of students, even to hours of rising and sleeping.

October 25. The delegation’s day began with a visit to a new state textile mill. 3000 workers live in huge dormitory flats next to the mill. We are seeing a "model" factory. Working conditions are excellent– as good as the Montreal factory where I worked. Men and women labour alongside each other in about equal numbers and status. The mill produces "model workers" as much as textiles, because China does not have a sufficient pool of industrial workers. The mill takes in peasant labourers, moulds them to factory life, and sends them out as cadres for other new factories.

High levels of production are encouraged by an elaborate Stakhanovite system copied from the Soviet Union. There are production banners, stars and ribbons, Hero of Labour badges, and factory meetings. Model workers are rewarded with holidays at special resorts. Since employment, housing, meals, schooling and friends are all tied together, it is not difficult to bend workers to the state management's will. Trade unions have the same function as in the USSR: liaison, not conflict, between workers and bosses.

In the afternoon we toured the Forbidden City, marvelling at the Imperial Palace. Pan’s comments were an odd mixture of pride in his cultural heritage and anger at the injustice of imperial times.

Next we visited Peking University. As in Prague and Moscow, I checked the library, and to my surprise found it well stocked with current western monographs. Most were in English, but so far only six percent of the students can read English. Russian is the preferred choice of second language. Many professors date from pre-Liberation days (at Yenching University and the American Mission University). They have all passed through "thought reform."

A village scene. “Imagine a lifetime as donkey or peasant.”




Typical scenes in Chinese cities.

October 26. Today we visited an agricultural co-op in the countryside outside Peking. I’m struck by the antiquity of this land. The fields are perfectly flat after millennia of cultivation. Trees and fences are rare. Fields are separated by earth berms, and follow the contours of the land in narrow strips. Both men and women work the land with primitive tools.

I saw a donkey blindfolded and hitched to a pole which in turn drives a water-raising screw in a well. The donkey walks round and round in a lifelong circle. A peasant whacks him sharply to get him moving at a good trot, and water flows out of the well into the irrigation ditch. The peasant goes off to hoe, and the donkey continues, but begins to slow down, noticing that he is not being smacked. When he slows to a crawl, the peasant comes and whips him to a good trot again. Imagine a lifetime as donkey or as peasant.

The village is a hodgepodge of huts, muddy streets, courtyards, and wandering animals, but it is not filthy. Women wash clothing on rocks beside the village pond. Families live in windowless, earthen-floored cottages, yet they are clean and neat inside. Everywhere portraits of Mao Tse Tung smile down.

At the village threshing floor, men operate simple devices: axle-mounted drums with nails sticking out, driven by foot treadles. Others hold shocks of grain against the drums. The grain knocked off is swept into a huge pile for winnowing by shovelfuls thrown into the air. Martial music flowing from loudspeakers sets the workpace.

Co-op members are awarded points for each task done: so many points for plowing a mou of land, or for feeding cattle for a day. The total points awarded over a year are divided into the annual earnings of the co-op, giving each point a cash value. Thus the income of a peasant no longer depends on fertility of a particular field he works, or luck with the weather, but is shared with the productivity of all his neighbours. The co-op leadership also sets aside some earnings to buy new machinery, open a village store, introduce electricity and so on.

We stopped to talk with the wife of a former landlord. She lives in half of what was once her own house. Her husband is working in the fields. The house has more comfortable furnishings than others we saw, indicating her better life in the past. I ask: “Was your family wealth expropriated after the Liberation?”

"No, we used it to buy food, and the government took that." Her intrepid irony comes through in the translation!

October 27. We visited a prison today. The building dates from 1910, when it was constructed by a local warlord. Later it was used by the Kuomintang dictatorship of Chiang Kai Shek. The Communists have converted it to a factory-prison producing textile goods.

We toured some cells. New wooden beds – the same platforms as in most village cottages – drew our attention to the fact that until recently, prisoners slept on the floor. Inmates sleep side-by-side, about ten to each platform. I joked to Pan that when one man decides to roll over, everyone else must too.

Pan laughed, until I asked him to translate my question for the warden: “Is homosexuality a problem, with so many men sleeping together?” Pan gulped slightly but asked, and back came the official reply: “There is no homosexuality in China.”

October 28. Today I joined other Christian delegates in worship at the Anglican cathedral in Peking. It’s a simple building, and unheated (brrr!). We had no trouble following the standard Anglican service. There were about fifty adult worshippers and twenty children.

October 29. This morning our group boarded two special railway cars –dining and sleeping–which will serve as our home for the next three weeks. These cars will be attached to regular trains, and pushed onto a siding when we make stopovers.

October 30. Our first stop is Shenyang, formerly the Japanese city of Mukden, in Manchuria. Much of the central city was constructed during Japanese rule, and is surprisingly modern and western in style. Today we visited both new workers' housing units, simple but clean and modern, and old housing neighbourhoods, depressingly decrepit, with one communal tap serving a whole street.

In the evening we attended a dance sponsored by the Youth Federation. Many young people foxtrot and waltz with skill. When males cannot find a female partner, they dance with each other, exactly like unescorted women in Canada.

October 30. Today we arrived in Anshan, and toured a steel centre constructed by the Japanese in 1927. Some of the machinery is modern but the safety procedures are dreadfully primitive. We had to be careful walking about, lest we step into streams of molten metal flowing through sand. Workers were moving under cranes where sudden power failure would mean death. Most workers wore no masks or safety shoes. Women were doing much the same work as men.

October 31. Today I had my first opportunity to descend far into the earth. Safety precautions in the coal mine are happily more adequate than in yesterday’s steel mill, but when we crept along tunnels not high enough to stand in, I found the coal mostly shale. I could peel pieces off the ceiling. My mouth was open and promptly filled with a downpour of coal dust. I shuddered. How often do tunnels collapse?

November 1. English translations of the Chinese press, which we receive every day, describe the revolt in Hungary. [I have them still]. Eight days into the outbreak, Hsinghua reports “confusion” in the capital, student demonstrations, and a "Revolutionary Military Council." The paper claims: "The Soviet armed forces, which entered Budapest at the request of the Hungarian government, withdrew from the city yesterday in compliance with its request." Apparently the Chinese government has not yet formed a reaction to these events, as there is no statement of opinion, nor the usual epithets.

Delegates were impressed by New China’s efforts to create an industrial base.




I was free to wander city streets alone. My interpeter wrote out a few phrases in case I got lost.



We visit an embroidery co-operative. I’m on the right, next to my interpreter and friend, Pan Shih Chiang.

November 2. Changchung: Today our interpreters swelled with pride as they showed us China's first automotive assembly line. The automatic Russian machinery and methods are as modern as the Ford plant near Toronto, which the Bathurst Street SCM work camp visited. The only product of the factory so far is two-ton pickup trucks. Around the main plant are manufactories for lathes, drills, milling machines and so on.

This modern industrial complex started from scratch with construction of technical schools in 1950. Peasants were recruited and trained as industrial workers. Meanwhile, about 500 experienced workers from other industries throughout China were sent to Russian automotive factories. Another 5000 Chinese experienced in some form of industry were moved to Changchung to begin manufacture of automotive parts. More than three quarters of the workers are under 25, and the ones we talked with (through interpreters, of course) showed great enthusiasm.

November 4. Our special cars have arrived in Tientsin. This city was once ruled by the British, and is English in style. Modern trolley coaches vie with donkey carts for space in the wide streets, lined by buildings that could be in London.

I attended Sunday worship at a large Methodist church, where fifty gathered in a building that once held hundreds. Of course this could also be said of some downtown churches in Toronto! After the service I wanted to chat with some of the congregation but they apologized: “We must hurry to a demonstration in the city arena against the British, French and Israeli military actions in Suez.”

I had Pan all to myself this afternoon. We visited the Tientsin Young People's Club, set in spacious landscaped grounds with charming gardens, an artificial lake, and canals. The main building is quintessentially English in style, with a dance hall, bowling alley, swimming pool and billiard room. Finally Pan admitted that this facility was not built after Liberation, but was once the Tientsin English Country Club.

November 7. We are rolling through countryside, viewed from the comfort of our two railway cars, en route to our next destination, Shanghai. We have not failed to notice the soldiers posted at every railroad bridge along our route. The Communists still fear sabotage by their enemies in Taiwan.

November 9. Hot topic over breakfast: the latest news from Hungary. The Chinese press now calls the uprising a fascist counter-revolution. Our skeptical smirks disappoint our host-interpreters.

Shanghai. We tumble out of the train to find a city remarkably different from any in the north. This is a metropolis, its sky line studded by tall office buildings and hotels. Until its liberation in May 1949 it was a bastion of western capitalism in Asia. Various European powers owned “concessions” in the city, and each was ruled like a colony. Even the language of signs and the voltage of electrical circuits varied from one concession to another, to suit the European ruler. Beyond the downtown core lies a great sea of one and two-storey Chinese shops and dwellings, the worst of them built of mud and thatch.

Christians in Shanghai. There are said to be 150,000 Catholics and 30,000 Protestants in the city, organized into 260 churches; easily the largest concentration of Christians in China. I visited several churches. Because many Christians were originally educated by foreign missions, I did not need an interpreter.

At the large Catholic church formerly associated with Aurora University about fifty worshipped, mostly women. After mass I talked privately with a priest, in French. He said the Catholic church in China still recognizes the authority of the Pope, a stance which causes them considerable friction with the government. He knew of at least ten priests in jail for such offences as refusal to cooperate with the new public health program (birth control).

My interlocutor decried the Vatican for many difficulties. “The church does not understand the popular basis of the revolution, and thinks opposition to Communist atheism is defence of the people. For propaganda reasons the new government has allowed some churches to continue to operate, but has seized control of all Catholic schools and hospitals.”

Dinner with Anglican Bishop K.H. Ting. Before leaving Canada I talked with Christians familiar with the old China missionary scene. K.H. Ting was frequently mentioned. He was SCM study secretary in Canada in the 1940's. Now Ting is the bishop of Nanking. I asked my hosts to try to connect us. With their usual efficiency they arranged a private dinner with the bishop – a thrilling occasion for a 23-year-old.

After conveying greetings from Canadian SCMers, I threw a tough question: “A recent British SCM report says: “The church in China is at risk of rationalizing away its conscience in order to survive under Communism, the way the church did in Germany under the Nazis.” Ting replied that this was a danger for every church under every regime. “The risk might actually be lower here, because there is less confusion about who is Christian and who is against us. Communists are openly atheist, and never make claims to believe in God or have His approval for their policies, while in the West leaders often pretend to be acting for God while actually acting on entirely nonreligious motives. Christians here are reminded every day of their distinction from nonChristians." [As I print off this chapter in 2003, millions of Americans are urging their God-fervent President to wage war on Iraq].

All-seeing eyes. My next experience – back in the company of other delegates – was an evening with street committees. It often puzzles outsiders that the Communists were able to quickly organize the vast population of China into reforms – in contrast, say, to the dismal and bloody efforts of the French Revolution, at least prior to Napoleon’s reforms. The instrument of transformation in China is the street committee.

Each small neighbourhood of fifteen to twenty-five families elects a street committee. These send representatives to district committees covering about 1500 families. The Communist party feeds its directives to the district committees, which in turn assure that they are carried out at the street level.

Each street committee consists of five to seven persons. Its mundane duties include utilities (electricity, water, sewage, garbage etc), rationing (basic foodstuffs such as rice and cooking oil, necessities such as cloth), fire prevention, and so on.

The committee selects subcommittees for these specific tasks. The street committee also organizes literacy classes and newspaper study groups. On the political agenda, it organizes "spontaneous" demonstrations for whatever issue the Communist party wishes to highlight at the moment. Finally, and most importantly for social control, the committee maintains close observation of the activities of all families, especially watching for theft, prostitution, and any expression of "counter-revolutionary" sentiments. These are reported to the police.

Every two weeks, members of the street committee make a thorough house-to-house inspection inside and out, to maintain cleanliness and public health. Lanes and walks are assigned to specific families for cleaning. Proper disposal of all garbage is enforced. DDT is sprayed. Residents too old or ill to carry out duties are assigned helpers. Mothers who fail to provide their children with adequate care are given training. The committee acts to resolve neighbourhood quarrels, and may even intervene in domestic disputes.

Hanchow and Canton. Our next two days were spent touring Hanchow, where I visited the ancient and exquisite stone boat in an artificial lake. After a train ride of 36 hours we reached Canton. For me, the most memorable sight was the community of boat people along the Pearl River. Sixty thousand people live entirely in small boats (about fifteen feet long)– not only sleeping there, but cooking on tiny charcoal stoves, and even maintaining a couple of chickens in a cage.

December 3. Today I had a revealing encounter with a Chinese not approved by our hosts. We happened to meet in the street. I was alone and he spotted my western clothing. In fairly good English, he told me his story. He is a former technician, now unemployed, and hates the Communists, who “hounded me out of job and home.” He fends off starvation by selling whatever he can on the streets.

His family were outside China when the Communists took over, and he has been denied permission to join them. He described his encounters with the political police (which no one else on this trip ever mentioned) and his anger about the distortion of news in local newspapers. Yet he admitted that no one wants Chiang Kai Shek back.

December 5. From Canton we have flown back to Peking. There is snow on the ground, and many people in the street are wearing face masks to keep windblown dust out of their nostrils.

To cap our trip, our hosts arranged a very brief audience with Premier Chou en Lai, and a lengthy interview with Vice Premier Teng Hsiao Ping.

December 6. Tonight, our last in China, our hosts gave us a banquet featuring “hundred year old eggs” (actually buried hardboiled eggs, only a few weeks old) and the famous "Peking duck." We drank more than fifty toasts and everyone went to bed in a totally jolly mood.

December 8. Moscow. Today delegates were invited to stay longer in Russia, but I think not. The news about Hungary is ominous. I did visit the Museum of the October Revolution this afternoon. Its version of history is badly distorted. Although my student guide knew the role of Leon Trotsky in organizing the Red Army, nowhere does the museum refer to Trotsky. George Orwell would have laughed bitterly at a photograph well known in the West, of Lenin addressing workers from a platform. In the original, Trotsky stands on a staircase at the side, but in the museum's copy he has vanished. And in three years Stalin has already been “revised” out of the museum. My student guide remarked that many of the displays once highlighted Stalin, but have been "corrected."

December 13. I'm back at the Rowes' in London, out of money. I've wired home to Muriel for a loan of $200 for boat fare.

December 16. I'm in luck. I got a cheap passage on a small Greek ship, and we are already at sea. Many working-class Europeans are on board, immigrating to Canada. There's lots of folk entertainment, and I’m a popular table partner. Everyone is full of questions about life in Canada.

December 23. Halifax. I’m going to make it home for Christmas.

China’s Vice-premier, Teng Hsiao Ping, bid farewell to the delegation.
(Photo also includes interpreters. I’m in the back row, above our only woman delegate, who sits beside the V.P.).


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