4 DECEMBER 1982, Page 8

Very flat, Shanghai

Murray Sayle


Revolutions revolve, dynasties fall, but bureaucrats know how to look after themselves. Peking, which did next to nothing to bring Marxism to China, is now its showplace, early Ming jostling with late Stalin around the Forbidden City where China's current rulers, mysterious as ever, deliberate behind unscalable vermilion walls. Shanghai, in contrast, the birthplace of Chinese communism, looks like an in- habited ruin, a city paying in raddled mid- dle age for the sins of a wild, misspent youth.

Shanghai's moral message sounds clearest for the English-speaking visitor and may, indeed, have been arranged for his benefit. The famous bund along the Whangpoo River, where the gunboats of H.M. China Squadron once lay drowsily at anchor, is still dominated by the 120-foot clock tower of the Shanghai customs house, built as a monument to Sir Robert Hart, In- spector General of the Imperial Chinese Customs Service, the man who laboured heroically to get the entire Chinese empire to run on time (his clock still does). Next door the echoing, lion-guarded marble hall of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation is used as a park for bicycles, a rational relocation of space, perhaps, as Shanghai now has three million bicyclists and no private bank accounts.

Just up the bund, in a riverside suite in the former Cathay Hotel, Noel Coward wrote Private Lives. The line about China being big and Japan rather small must have come easily there, and The Master, scribbl- ing 'very flat, Norfolk' between drags on his long jade cigarette holder, may well have been looking out over the dreary mud- flats of Pudong and the grey tile roofs, stretching to the horizon, where the Chinese population toiled in sweat shops and cotton mills to keep the whole giddy show on the road.

The Cathay, now the Peace Hotel, is still in business, thronged these days with raucous American and Australian tourists unaware that they tread holy ground. Over the road is Whangpoo Park, formerly the Municipal Public Gardens where, as every Chinese schoolchild knows, a sign once barked, 'Dogs and Chinese Not Admitted'.

What it actually said, apparently, was that pets had to be on leads, and Chinese

either had to be employees of Europeans, or 'suitably dressed', meaning middle-class, running-dog types. Money, in other words, rather than race or species, was the great separator in Old Shanghai. Dogs are still not admitted to Whangpoo Park, and neither are Chinese, unless they pay 10 feng (two pence) admission charge, the socialist substittite for the Sikh guards who used to separate have and have-not in the bad old days.

Nightlife? with sing-song girls, taxi dancers, opium dens, bars and brothels, Old Shanghai was quite a lively place. 'It is life itself,' Aldous Huxley wrote in the 1920s. 'Dense, rank, richly clotted life. Nothing more intensely living can be im- agined.' Well, it's still possible to eat cream cakes in Kiesling and Bader's Tearooms, now the Shi Lai-lin in West Nanking Road, up to the bourgeois hour of ten p.m., and the Shanghai Coffee House (name in neon and English) is open until midnight. Both places are frequented by foreign tourists, English-speaking Chinese of both pre- revolution and student age groups and, it is said, bilingual secret policemen. Anything gamier, if it happens at all, is private, surfacing only occasionally in the newspapers, as did the recent arrest of a Shanghai man for playing Beatles tapes on his tape recorder and allowing his neighbours, at 50 feng (ten pence) a head, to dance to the degenerate music. One can guess that the torrents of cyclists who choke Shanghai's narrow, human-scale streets around six p.m. by Sir Robert's clock are headed exactly where they should be, home to bed.

Still, Shanghai's lurid past haunts the pleasureless present. Noel Coward and Mao Tse-tung missed each other, by quite a margin. Mao left Shanghai in 1927, when the Chiang Kai-shek clean-out of com- munists, actually a massacre conducted by toughs of the Green Circle Gang drug and gambling syndicate, was in full swing: Noel only arrived in 1930, the year Mao's first real wife, Yang Kai-hui, was captured and executed by Chiang's police. Coward's host at the Cathay Hotel was E. V. Sassoon, the Shanghai tycoon from the family promi- nent in opium, poetry and hairdressing, who may or may not have met the aspiring actress Lan Ping ('Blue Apple') in the heady, doomed Shanghai of the 1930s. But,

The Spectator 4 Dece 1,g lig the attempt, unsuccessful as it turneu,nvi, woman of the People's Republic. 40 years on, Blue Apple, become Cli to make Shanghai once again Chni. revolutionary capital and herself clearly China's Petrograd, the centre Cwohirnldesedemparonddneftosr cThehaep iannd 5ervic".10. as farmers splashed in from the overeh' ofst Ching, Mao's fourth wife, China's cult d director, and ring-leader of the celebraloo 'Gang of Four', used the former villa and racing stables in suhurbo Shanghai as her operational headquarl,ersno, intern liked the look of Shanghai, ari:iao the place drew revolutionaries, esPt:was Marxists, like a magnet. To Russians, 1.1.0. dustry and intellectual life. To their Chli'spot designated by Marxist theory for the ref: the tion. It is the historical task ° to bourgeoisie, Uncle Karl teaches lisiisth, prepare the industrial base for soda arid and in Shanghai we were busy claY, the night running up factories to raee'ble letariat, Marx insists, is the clasdusshtirsita°111P.cilladl charged with the revolution: Shanglialcio, the only one in China, growing everYrowt1" ed delta of the Yangtze River in searc" munist Party, held in a private house lac& sion. The house is now a ginselifil,,'00 the Comintern were also present, °too Chinese records patriotically Pass theal followers, it was just as surely the.,0- born, but both can be c°r:sindrol quintessentially Shanghai people. Ma arrived in July 1921, a rustic delegate to a visitors can see a table set with 12 ',Jed (one for each delegate) and buy, if Elleih,00 sale in China. Actually, two delegates 'role in silence. Perhaps they drank coffee. founding Congress of the Chinese C, °the Rue Wantz in the former French eellatid inclined, the last Mao badges still oPelbico

Easy to see, looking back, why - Neither Mao nor his lady were Shalterfej

theACswerlth; Sass so

job and, possibly, a fortune. t tile

We know, again from Marx, that tile rich exploit the poor wheneveirafer coast is clear, and seldom has it been e'c for than in Old Shanghai. In Mao's tirriei'cot• instance, workers in the Shenshin11°. ton mill, Shanghai, were getting 153,)ned or roughly £100 a year, while the 15,-- or manager was drawing 2,36374014:0 the equivalent of the wages of c;s of workers (Chinese children do these sa-sajc sums at school, instead of our More nile 'Jack can chop eight loads of woo" -Tile Jim can chop six' type of problen1).,pese eternal demands of any serious Chiftlie revolutionary, namely modernisation °6

country, to

y, social justice, and all enectecl humiliation by foreigners, thus interl:, i0 neatly in Shanghai, and nowhere ei"- China. Whiie The theory, however, had gaPs• ;ate exploiters were certainly pouring ' y Shanghai by every luxury liner, le:ti of welcomed by that unspeakably vile br.rvice men, `comprador capitalists in the 0,0 of imperialism' (as the novelist Wu Ji°- vithrote, `To the Chinese comprador, even d e foreigner's fart is fragrant'), the foreign wevh•il,s were bringing with them technology Th"len China could obtain in no other way. sn:e Chinese bicycle, for instance, of which sZle100 million have been made, mostly in itlanellai, is simply a copy of the British l'ejell Gents' Upright a favourite of the . complete down to 'left' and 'right', the , not political sense stamped on Pedals. aesTille bourgeoisie, in short, were doing ex- shanY w.hat Marx's theory required. Chillglial is still the main industrial base of a' Producing a quarter of the entire n7ntryos s'irhe manufactures. Shanghai workers the best paid in China. The department stores, dowdy to our s erstirnulated tastes, carry China's telliwarntes. t Products, and there is hardly a inChina (or in any Chinese communi- tY l he world, for that matter) which goes sila',tiout its Shanghai barber shop or cartighai tailor. Shanghai still, for Chinese, or, in" the flavour of the new, the modern s ,.shon, the revolutionary. the°wiao and his colleagues (one of them teile'aresent strongman, Deng Hsiao-ping) Sha.17211 at party work in the booming , trevoEntiaoina°rfy tsituation h e i 92° s hwi cahi t, ndge s pf t re tt hh ee °4-; 411e inequalities of Shanghai life, r50 me. Somehow, the theory was not chaa. v°11diri.g to the facts of the situation, a ease_nosis made even clearer by the relative hoed, with which Chiang Kai-shek's- tinn :urns crushed the communist organisa Year s'n, Shanghai in 1927, beginning the (L' wandering which culminated in the tvi"g March of 1934-35. coinac)'s great, unique contribution to the disc thunist victory in China was the sha„°verY that Chinese peasants could be w_,rkP,eci into an effective army, while factory 4.ers eh could not. The radical equality trahl-', was all the communists had to offer, n ik•o fi into from a small share of the land ne m landlords, was a powerful raanelivtiZ to farmers to fight, while all too a inr: 'Ianghai factory hands wanted, not 4jo_ "re just scale of wages, but the manag- 0 director's job for themselves. The the riies of the hunted communist rebels of frei11r"`:,7e3°s were, naturally, victory first 40111,: as the prospect seemed) and eco- thenrb'c 13,.rogress later. Against all Marxist lot 'la() picked the farmers, and with a viols° f indirect Japanese help eventually kit even for a dedicated revolutionary, a cave can be dull, especially after par.autand his ragged army reached the com- terriari,v;e _.,saletY of the Yenan Mountains. He Drevp'eu in 1930, not long after his by th.eus Wife had been judicially murdered stunne Nationalists (and, we can presume, his ciied, by an overwhelming sense of loss), falling on a schoolteacher named Seer.: zu-chen who had worked as his tnuc'harY in the wandering years. Tragedy chiki`ed this union, too: the couple's two poss.rkert, left with red farmers as an im- l°1e burden during the Long March,

were never found again. The second Mrs Mao, described as shy and self-effacing, was universally liked by Mao's colleagues, which is often a bad sign. In any event, the marriage was either over, or in i parlous state (Mao's biographers, who seem to share the moral views of Mrs Mary Whitehouse, fudge the point) when the Shanghai starlet Blue Apple, now calling herself Chiang Ching, caught the Chair- man's eye.

Whatever they saw in each other, it can hardly have been a meeting of minds: Blue Apple had completed only six years of primary school (a circumstance her doting husband later used to prove that education was not necessary for a true revolutionary). She had subsequently made her way from the country to Shanghai, like Mao, to try her good looks and undoubted intelligence in the booming Shanghai film industry in the 1930s. Here she married an actor, divorced, slept around (the Shanghai gossips say) and played minor parts in long- forgotten movies (and, years later, when she ruled the Chinese cultural scene, hunted down and jailed the directors who had, she thought, misused her talents).

In 1938, impelled by patriotism and, perhaps, poor parts, Blue Apple left Shanghai to entertain the troops, not of the Communists, but Chiang Kai-shek's army in Chungking. From here, rejected again, she drifted to the Red Zone, and enrolled in the Communist equivalent of Naafi which trained propaganda troops for shows at or near the front. This required some sketchy acquaintance with Marxism, a subject on which Mao himself gave frequent lectures. Blue Apple attended, suffered a coup de foudre and within weeks was sharing the Chairman's cave and confidence.

Mao was 45, an age when many men are attacked by middle-aged itch. Blue Apple was 26, vivacious and pretty (the bespectacled shrew of later years was just another of her many roles). No doubt the Chairman found a bit of Shanghai flesh en- trancing in his harsh surroundings, but such things pass, and a marriage of 36 years needs a foundation more solid than shared political views (although the hidden

'OK, Happy Hour's over.'

psychological springs of political belief and sexual attraction are often close, if not identical). Most likely, the frustrated schoolteacher Mao trained to be found in Blue Apple the star pupil he always wanted. Such relationships, feeding the vanity of both sides, are among the most durable in life. Mao's party colleagues were deeply suspicious of the whole affaire and ex- tracted from the couple a promise that Chiang Ching (Blue Apple now an awkward, embarrassing ghost) would stay out of politics, a prohibition they managed to enforce for nearly 20 years.

Victorious in civil war, Mao blundered in peace from one catastrophe to another. The Chairman never had even a rudimentary grasp of the processes of economic growth, and he had himself specifically rejected Marx's strategy of letting the bourgeoise do the job first. Applied to the problem of China's backwardness, the rough egalitarianism which had served Mao so well in battle (and which, in some way, all effective armies practise) barely managed to provide every Chinese with a blue cotton suit, a bicycle and enough to eat, and failed altogether to keep pace with the exploding population Mao's own theory encouraged.

The problem, of course, is that you can- not modernise a country as vast as China all at once, even if your wife thinks you can. But to modernise in sections, patchily, is to introduce immediate inequalities, and the faster the growth, the grater the ine- qualities. The vile exploitation, the fawn- ing, foreigner-worshipping compradors, the injustice, suffering, zip, excitement and fascination with things up-to-date which made up Old Shanghai are, in fact, all fairly normal in rapidly modernising economies. Inequality and exploitation, or 'capitalism' if you prefer, may not only be inescapable aspects of economic development, they may — fatal to Mao Tse-tung's thought, but well in line with Marx's — actually be the process of economic growth itself.

But the Great Helmsman won his war in the spirit of levelling, rock-ribbed republicanism, and the passion to pull down the mighty from their places is a po- tent one, not likely to be stilled in China for centuries. When the Great Leap Forward — an attempt to storm the heights of modern technology at the head of a ragged peasant army — failed, Mao decided that hidden class enemies had sabotaged his strategy, and a pogrom against 'rightists' began. Prudent men in China immediately adopted the blue Mao suit and the bicycle, whatever their real inclinations, and they wear them to this day. Only in the windows of Shanghai wedding photographers' shops, where brides wear borrowed white satin and orange blossom, grooms gleam in suits, ties and brilliantine, and happy couples pose in Hollywood-type homes (actually painted backdrops) do some hidden hungers sur- face.

So, where a lot of equality had failed to modernise China, Mao and his lady reason- ed that even more levelling must surely do the trick. As last year's resolution on party history puts it, 'the "Cultural Revolution" was responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the par- ty, the state and the people since the foun- ding of the People's Republic. It was in- itiated and led by Comrade Mao Tse- tIang.'; So, when Mao's widow claimed at her trial that she was only following 'Chairman Mao's revolutionary mass line', she was telling no more than the simple truth.

We can, of course, playing the psychoanalytic lynx, see that there was more to it than that. Cheerfully, we know from her trial, the semi-literate failed starlet from Shanghai went about closing the film studios and then the universities in the flashy city that had rejected her, and tumbl- ing her husband's old colleagues, who had dared disapprove of her marriage. The mere mention of two women's names, we are told, sent Chiang Ching into fits of jealous rage: those of Yang Kai-hui, Mao's mar- tyred first wife, and Ruan Ling-yu, Shanghai's reigning movie queen of the 1930s. But, both dead, they were beyond Blue Apple's vengeance.

Two other notable revolutions, we might recall, followed courses similar to China's, long before the days of movie stars. The logic of the English revolution culminated in Colonel Thomas Rainsborough and his Levellers: the last act of the French revolu- tion was la conspiration des egaux, the con- spiracy of the equals led by the romantically-named Gracchus Babeuf. Both these movements were put down by military men, Generals Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte, who went on to restore national unity by appeals to patriotism and expansion abroad.

Will China's revolution tread the same perilous path? Getting rid of Madame Mao and her band of teenage followers was dif- ficult enough, and the new regime badly needs accomplishments of some kind, political, economic or military, to show that they and not the Maos really represent the will of history and the dictatorship of the proletariat. But progress in industry, in manufactured exports and in mechanising China's armed forces all imply an end to China's comfortable, egalitarian shabbiness and the emergence of some new kind of elite. The people of Shanghai may be ready and willing, but a good fifth of the Chinese army are believed to be last-ditch 'conser- vatives', meaning Maoists, meaning former peasant soldiers who owe everything to the Chairman's egalitarian policies.

Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie are at it again, faithfully chasing the fast dollar on Chinese soil, and in the process building a new Shanghai. It is called Hong Kong and, once again, modern technology is flourishing in a flashy, heartless climate of poverty and privilege. China badly needs Hong Kong's money and skill and, just as badly, the kind of triumph that running up the Red Flag and taming the haughty foreign.devils'would represent. The dilemma is interesting enough to examine next week.