AN EVENING AT “THE CLASSIC RED RESTAURANT” AND DINNER THEATER (Red Restaurant （红色经典), 266 Baijialou, 5th Ring Road East, Chaoyang District, Beijing
China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命 1966-1976) was no joke, or was it?
Sometime during my posting in the American Embassy in Beijing (2008-2010), I got wind of the existence of “Cultural Revolution” theme restaurants. One of my Chinese colleagues at the Embassy first mentioned them to me. My initial reaction was disbelief. How could anyone in China treat such a recent era of political madness, turmoil and suffering (1966-1976) as entertainment for restaurant goers? Disbelief then gave way to curiosity, so I called the “Classic Red Restaurant” in the eastern outskirts of Beijing and booked a table for dinner.
As we arrived at the restaurant we were greeted warmly by young girls in pigtails wearing baggy green People’s Liberation Army uniforms with red arm bands just like in the good old days. We were taken to our table and ordered our food consisting of the kind of things that people had to eat during the Cultural Revolution in order not only to survive but also to bring bourgeois intellectuals and city dwellers closer to the lives of the people. The foods were mainly vegetable-and-wheat based. They were not very tasty. However, it was part of the “authentic” experience. Nobody paid us much attention, thank goodness, even though we and a handful of others were the only waiguoren (foreigners) in the room.
The dining room was very large and was packed with people primarily between the ages of 40 and 60, the age group of the former Red Guards (红卫兵) with their families and friends.
The walls were decorated with revolutionary posters and slogans of the kind that were ubiquitous during the Cultural Revolution: slogans such as
Peoples of the World Unite and Defeat the American Aggressors and all their Running Dogs
Our Friends are Everywhere (我们的朋友遍天下 showing that China was not alone in the world.
Women Cover Half the Sky (妇女丁半边天), showing that women were equal to men in China
Friendship First, Competition Second (友谊第一, 比赛第 二),
Study Like Comrade Lei Feng (像 雷锋 同志学习), a model student of Mao Zedong Thought
Other posters were missing such as those proclaiming the great deeds of Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and member of the Gang of Four, or of “The Number One Capitalist Roader,Liu Shaoqi”, or of those criticizing Deng Xiaoping as Liu Shaoqi’s fellow capitalist roader. Mao’s wife had been arrested and disgraced before she died under arrest, and Liu Shaoqi had been posthumously rehabilitated by the number two capitalist roader, Deng Xiaoping.
At one end of the room was a stage.
The show was what you would expect from a kitschy perspective of the Cultural Revolution. Men and women on tractors proclaimed bumper harvests under the guidance of the Communist Party, and girls and boys in army uniforms beamed happily as they sang paeans to Chairman Mao such as The East is Red (Dong Fang Hong 东方红), arguably the most popular revolutionary song of that time and even now. Some excerpts from the song will give you the flavor of what people were singing about back in the good old days.
The East is Red (Dongfang Hong 东方红)
The Sun Arises ( Taiyang sheng 太阳升)
China has brought forth a Mao Zedong (Zhongguo chule ge Mao Zedong 中国出了个毛泽东)
He strives for the happiness of the People (Ta wei renmin mou xingfu 他为人民谋幸福，)
Hurrah (Hu er hei yo 呼尔嗨哟)
He is the Great Saving Star of the People. (Ta shi renmin da Jiu Xing 他是人民大救星)
The Communist Party is like the sun (Gòngchǎndǎng, xiàng tàiyáng, 共产党，像太阳)
Wherever it shines there is light. (Zhàodào nǎlǐ nǎlǐ liàng, 照到哪里哪里亮)
Wherever there is the Communist Party (Nǎlǐ yǒu liǎo Gòngchǎndǎng, 哪里有了共产党)
Hurrah (Hu er hei yo 呼尔嗨哟)
That’s where the people become liberated. (Nǎlǐ rénmín dé jiěfàng! 哪里人民得解放！)
There are any number of websites that provide both descriptions and videos of the shows that are given in these Cultural Revolution theme restaurants.* The only thing that I can add to these is my own reactions.
I was appalled, baffled, angry, and once again I felt betrayed. I wondered what the performers and audience members were thinking. Many members of the audience seemed to genuinely enjoy singing the songs of their youth and watching scenes reminiscent of those days when they traveled around the country cost free on the rail system. The performers, mostly very young people who were born after the Cultural Revolution, seemed happy in their roles mimicking the stilted dancing and acting styles of the Cultural Revolution when everything was either black or white. But it was all fake and left a hollow feeling in my gut. I wondered how anyone in China could be so cavalier about the Cultural Revolution and the excesses of the Party. Estimates of people killed during the Cultural Revolution range from 750,000 to 1.5 million. People were paraded through the streets with dunce caps on. Children denounced their parents and teachers. The really unfortunate victims had signs hung around their necks with their names crossed out in red x’s. They were driven in open backed trucks through the streets, where every so often the truck would stop and someone would harangue against them. Then they were driven to stadiums and executed before crowds of onlookers. I happened across such a group of people standing with heads down on the back of a truck being driven through Canton. I decided that it was time for me to hasten back to the relative safety of the hotel reserved for guests of the state.
I felt betrayed. These people were making a joke of something that had been horrible. But why would I, a foreigner who grew up in a completely different world from that of the Cultural Revolution, feel betrayed? Isn’t that a strange feeling for an foreigner to have?
How can I answer this question? It is how you would feel if a friend of yours came to you and said that he really wasn’t the person you thought he was but someone entirely different. My first encounters with the Chinese of Mao’s day made a very firm impression on my mind. There were smiles and warm handshakes for “friends” and grimaces and threatening words for “enemies.” Hadn’t Mao said “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution.”** And hadn’t that set the Chinese on a mission to identify friend and foe in every encounter? Once again, everything was either black or white. Also, the Truth was always what the Party said it was and one had to show one’s inward grace – to borrow a precept from Catholicism – by manifesting an outward sign, not only by verbally expressing the Truth but by expressing it in exactly the same formulaic words coined by the Party. Thus, when the former President of the PRC and second only to Mao, Liu Shaoqi, fell from grace, he was always referred to as that “renegade, traitor and scab” (pantu, neijian, gongzei 叛徒内奸工贼 ) . When you said those words, only one name could follow, that of Liu Shaoqi. Failure to utter those words might result in having to write self criticisms or worse. He was also called “the number one capitalist roader” (第一走资本主义道路的当权派).
During a visit to China, I recall an occasion at which the leader of the American scientific delegation with which I was traveling made some formal remarks to our dinner hosts. In his remarks he referred to something that usually was couched in formulaic phrases, but he neglected to use the formula. Of course, as a foreigner he wasn’t expected to know what to say. However, the translator, without thinking, automatically filled in the formula. After the dinner I approached the translator, a young man from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and told him what he had done. He was genuinely unaware that he had blurted out the formulaic language that usually accompanied that subject. In effect, these formulae were so closely linked with their subjects that together they became one linguistic unit of thought, such is the power of repetition. It reminded me of my early experiences in Catholic school learning to recite the Baltimore Catechism (revised edition, 1941) often without even knowing what the words meant:
1. Who made us? God made us.
2. Who is God? God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence.
3. Why did God make us? God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.
Deng Xiaoping himself was purged twice under Mao Zedong. The first time was when Mao accused him of following the Capitalist Road. The second was when the Gang of Four had him removed from office. Each time the explanation that you would hear from people as to how he could be good, then bad, then good, then bad, then finally good again was “The facts have shown!” I remember asking a junior official of the Chinese Academy of Sciences about Deng after his second fall from grace. “How can you be so sure that this time you know the truth about Deng when previously you told a completely opposite story about him?” I asked. “Because this time the facts have shown the truth,” he replied without any hint that he understood how ridiculous it was to still believe that he had been told the truth.
My first visit to China in 1973, and several more visits between then and the late 70s, confirmed my impression and understanding of China. In those days Americans had to enter by way of Hong Kong. I was terribly excited about seeing this fabled country that had been closed off to us for a generation. I expected to be positively impressed by the egalitarianism and the state’s appreciation of the hard lives of the farmers and factory workers. In my mind Hong Kong was an example of the wrongs of imperialism. I traveled around China for three weeks with an American study team on early childhood education. Everywhere we stopped we heard the same things said in the same words. We drove past workers bent in two like draught animals pulling huge wagon loads of cement pilings over bridges while motorized traffic passed by. No one in this supposedly egalitarian paradise even thought of stopping to help them pull their loads. When people gave us “brief introductions” to their schools or factories, their sense of fear was palpable, fear that someone among the other Chinese in the room would report them if they said anything out of line with proper Party thought. By the time the three weeks was over, I was delighted to be back in Hong Kong which suddenly didn’t seem so bad.
Many trips to China and many trips around the United States with Chinese scientific delegations in the early and mid-seventies confirmed my understanding of modern China. I did not agree with it and certainly would not want to live under such a system, but it was their business and they strongly defended it as being the necessary way for China to prosper. Then suddenly they changed face. Deng initiated open door policies and economic reforms. The Cultural Revolution was condemned. Suddenly everyone avowed that they were victims of the Cultural Revolution and had suffered greatly because of it. You couldn’t find anyone who would praise the Cultural Revolution. Making money was glorious (paraphrasing a quote from Deng Xiaoping). Even Mao, dead by then, came under criticism. That’s when I started to feel that I had been betrayed, when people that I believed when they told me the way things were now told me the opposite. I recall visiting the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with a Chinese delegation. There were demonstrations going on around campus. At one table several students were selling Mao’ Little Red Book and displaying posters condemning Deng Xiaoping. However, Deng had just been brought back to the graces of the Party. I pointed this out to the students. They were genuinely confused because they had devotedly followed the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party that had just reversed itself again with regard to Deng, but the students still regarded him as a Capitalist Roader. In their idealism they had swallowed what the Party said when it condemned Deng but could not swing their heads around fast enough to espouse the new line.
Thirty four years later I found myself seated in the Classic Red Restaurant watching a parody of the Cultural Revolution. What once was treated as a holy icon was being fed to diners as entertainment. Many audience members seemed simply to enjoy the old songs of their youth. Some audience members probably regarded it as a kind of farce. Others may have thought that at least back in those days one knew what was good and what was bad. Perhaps they wished that the old days would come back. For me, as I said, it left a hollow feeling and a sense of betrayal, as when one loses faith in a religion that once meant so much in one’s life. I had just watched the Chinese themselves treating a terrible time in their history like a joke. “More power to them,” you might say. After all, who better than the Chinese themselves to make a joke of it, if they wish to, as they were the ones who had suffered. But I am afraid that it is symbolic of a dangerous collective amnesia in China to anything embarrassing from their past whereas they are constantly reminded of the sins of foreign aggressors. This refusal to admit the past when combined with the growing nationalism of China’s youth makes for a volatile cocktail.
The most famous non-event in China is the Tiananmen Massacre of June 4, 1989 when People’s Liberation Army troops under orders from Deng Xiaoping killed dozens of protesters in Tiananmen Square. Nobody talks about it because it is taboo and life is good, so why rock the boat? The Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four, the Anti-Rightist Purges, the disastrous People’s Commune policy, the Great Leap Forward and the horrendous famine it caused, all of these are largely ignored.
That I felt betrayed doesn’t matter much in the big picture. However, what I learned from it and from many other experiences that I had while interacting with the Chinese is never to take anything at face value and to question everything. I also came to appreciate the resilience of the Chinese people in the face of immeasurable tragedy.
*Relive the Cultural Revolution (aka The Weirdest Dinner Theater in Beijing) June 6, 2011 / by Andy Deemer , http://asiaobscura.com/2011/06/the-weirdest-dinner-theater-in-beijing.html
**(“Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society” (March 1926), Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 13. ) such as Who made me? God Made me.
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