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Chris Maden reviews Paul Pickowicz’s account of a unique moment in modern China’s history.

Paul Pickowicz, A Sensational Encounter with High Socialist China (City University of Hong Kong Press, 2019), 220pp.

In 1971, a year before Nixon’s historic visit, China was closed to Americans. American students had no choice but to pursue their studies in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Paul Pickowicz was one of a dozen or so American graduate students then in Hong Kong, when, by chance, he befriended the editor of Ta Gung Pao’s English-language magazine, Eastern Horizon. Their friendship deepened and one day, out of the blue, Pickowicz was asked if he and his fellow students, members of the Committee of Concerned Asia Scholars (CCAS), would care to visit China?

While the tumultuous years 1967–69 are lodged in popular memory, the Cultural Revolution started in May 1966, and lasted for the entire decade up to Mao’s death in 1976. By 1971, China was at “a unique moment when revolutionary leaders identified China as … high socialist.” China was the vanguard socialist society, practising a pure form of socialism, a beacon for the world.

It was against this historical context that Paul and the dozen other members of CCAS boarded a train at Lo Wu on 23 June 1971. What followed, recounted in this illustrated volume, was experienced through the rubric of a performance, in which the CCAS were both the audience of a carefully crafted script, and players in it. Not only was the CCAS to learn about China; as the first Americans in the country since 1949, China was to learn about them.

The performance was meticulously crafted to deliver a message that was rural and urban, spanning all major cities, and whose cast ranged from Zhou Enlai to the peasants. The stage set included statues, posters and loudspeakers, but it worked on all the five senses. And the CCAS was not the only audience: the performance was a constant reinforcement of “high socialism” to all of China, and to the world.

An entire generation of China scholars had been forced to study China from afar. Pickowicz’s first contact was tactile, with the soil of China. It came after crossing the bridge in Lo Wu and was significant for this reason alone. This was followed by handshakes: with peasants, but also with Central Committee members and even Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Even many years after the visit, a student of Pickowicz’s “want[ed] to shake the hand that shook the hand of Zhou Enlai.” But the most visceral tactile experience was hands-on labour, which was especially important for educated people, “to break down their `attitudes of white-collar superiority’”: to get politically clean by getting physically dirty.

High socialist China was not quiet. Loudspeakers sang its praises from dawn till dusk. But there was also the “unspoken need to sing – literally sing – the praises of high socialism,” with songs that were sung in factories, offices and fields. There was a Babel of dialects, some quite incomprehensible (the author was trained in Putonghua) – even Mao had delivered speeches in his native Hunanese. But the most memorable sound was gunshots. Under Mao’s then designated successor, Lin Biao, the People’s Liberation Army was at the height of its power, and the Revolutionary Committees that dominated all aspects of life were led by soldiers. The author was treated to a display of martial prowess by militia units; one cadre reminded him that the militias were “not the enemies of the American people.”

There were tastes aplenty; visits to model peasant towns with locally-grown produce, but also banquet after banquet. Even a rehearsal attended by CCAS had bottomless snacks – bookended by even more banquets. The sumptuous food was an important part of the script: high socialism had vanquished the hunger and starvation endemic to peasant China since the dawn of time. On Lunar New Year’s Eve, the new custom was for elders to recount stories of scarcity in pre-revolutionary China, followed up with an admonitory dinner of “husks mixed with herbs and bitter wild vegetable soup.”

Scholars tend to focus on what they can read, but most high socialist visual artefacts were not in print, as, in a largely illiterate society, printed matter was held to advantage the elite. This aversion to print extended to science, and especially Western science. To prove the point, the CCAS were invited to witness four surgical procedures in which the patients were anaesthetised solely with acupuncture: which had an unforgettable visual impact.

A less sanguine spectacle was The Red Detachment of Women, which depicted the story of a female hero of the revolution. It was “visually enthralling” both live and on film, but Western in its choice of media: the dance was ballet and the score orchestral. In stark contrast to the shapeless clothes of the time, the dancers wore “skin-tight short shorts.” And, uniquely, it was an almost entirely female cast.

Gender equality was a stated achievement of that time, and the Revolutionary Committees claimed not to know the ratio of men to women serving because “they had never noticed since men and women were completely equal in nature in revolutionary China.” The ratios observed – 5-of-39 and 5-of-47 ­– suggested a different story. And the women still waited at dinner until the men had eaten their fill.

The old China, according to both visitors and old-timers, stank – mostly of sewage. New China was fragrant, but only over the smell of cigarettes. These were all-pervasive though, according to Mao, elites in their many forms stank even worse. The author’s hand-washed socks and underwear, in that hot and humid summer, never dried and so added their part.

The trip ended with a surprise. While they’d been on an unscripted visit to the model peasant town of Dazhai, Henry Kissinger had visited Beijing to lay the groundwork for Richard Nixon’s visit the following year. The CCAS arrived back to Hong Kong to a media frenzy that led to a speaking tour of the US which launched Pickowicz’s long and distinguished academic career.

I myself first visited China in 1986, only the second year it was open to individual tourists. By then, the Cultural Revolution was a bitter folly, not even spoken of. Foreigners were a novelty – children used to leap out and stroke the hair on my arm – and, as during Pickowicz’s visit, I was a visual spectacle and sometimes attracted crowds of “curious but cautious” onlookers. By the time of my travels, however, the gap between what the government said the people thought and what they actually thought was widening, and some I spoke to were frank in their criticisms of the CCP in private discussion. The props – the statues and posters – were still there, along with patriotic music and slogans from loudspeakers first thing in the morning, but nobody paid them any attention; the script had become a thing of the past. Mao’s mausoleum was the single place I heard silence.

So for me, this book is personal. Pickowicz arrived at the height of socialism; I arrived at its end, at the historic juncture at which China turned its back on that ideology, but before today’s China arose. Yet, the photograph on p. 110 is almost identical to one that I took. The uncertain handshakes, the blaring propaganda, the overwhelming cigarette smoke, the traffic-free streets, the uniform, shapeless and drab clothing, the shops with nothing to sell and the cheap tobacco and indifferent food: these were the unscripted China I first came to know.

High socialism is not only gone, but the China that has taken its place is unrecognisable. In words and photographs, this book captures the essence of that era. Superbly produced, elegantly written and sprinkled with humour – pay attention to the image captions (my favourite was “The unforgettable smell of high socialist, collectively raised pigs”) – this book is much more than a coffee-table book; it is a gem. It is an important account of a unique moment in history, and an essential addition to any sinophile’s bookshelf.


Chris Maden, when not mentoring start-up companies to earn his keep, is a novelist, chair of the Hong Kong Writers’ Circle, and a contributor to the Hong Kong Free Press.

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