One of my parents’ students from China dropped by to see them last night, and I had an interesting chat with him about hiding beauty during the Cultural Revolution.
He was eight when it started… he remembered the Protestant church next door the day they brought out all the illustrated books and pictures, piled them in the courtyard and burned them. He remembered being in high school, and secretly passing around great works of Western literature, finishing a 500pg novel in a night, because that was all the time he was allotted. He remembered a few friends with whom he’d gather privately, and listen to Beethoven.
When we arrived in China, in 1980, the Cultural Revolution was officially over – but you couldn’t tell for looking. Flowers and grass were considered decadent, pigs and geese wandering around the common areas eating off the trash piles were common. I couldn’t tell you how many destroyed works of art that I saw – grass grown over a toppled statue, faces smashed off of a bas relief carved into a mountainside. Everyone wore identical blue padded jackets and pants, and almost every woman I saw had her hair cut short. Beauty was suspect.
But it was there. Under the blue cotton of those padded jackets was silk brocade in myriad colors. (Silk is an excellent insulator). Under the official demeanor, my parents made true friend after friend, people starving for intelligent discussions, freedom of thought. When we moved into our own apartment, my parents ended up throwing party after party – officially because one had to entertain the foreigners, but my parents weren’t party people. No, they’d be packed with folks desperate to have an excuse to dance, get together, laugh.
I will never forget seeing the aging couple waltzing more beautifully than many professional dancers. Both wearing their official blue padded jammies, of course. They’d learned in another time – the time when Harbin was known as the Paris of the East. I wonder how many nights they’d danced together, quietly so as to not let on to the neighbors. How brave they were, to show so many others their skills once again.
Beauty lived on, even under the weight of the official lies. Beauty was valued, even at the high cost that might be charged at any minute, were you found out. Beauty has power.
And beauty cannot be covered in lies. Oh, I remember being taken on lots of official tours. I was greatly fortunate to be able to walk through the Forbidden City, tour the Imperial Palace up close, see those treasures which had not been destroyed – carved jade that would make a sculptor weep. I remember how annoyed the official tour guides were that we had no interest in seeing industrial factories (although the callous disregard for safety has stayed with me for a lifetime*) but that we wanted to see yet more artifacts from their Imperial past. They wanted to forget those things… but we didn’t.
I wonder sometimes if some of what made China amazing has managed to finally be destroyed by capitalism – accepting shoddy for true, ignoring details in order to cheapen the products… Well, even this. True beauty shines above its imitators like a diamond in a pile of plastic crystals. It embarrasses the counterfeiters.
True beauty is of great value, intrinsic value. It speaks to the heart and cannot be denied.
A concept worth pondering.
*I will never forget being toured through the metal factory. We were only 10 feet away from a waterfall of molten metal – not a bit of safety equipment. That didn’t surprise my ignorant eight-year-old self, but what did was the man 2 feet away from that metal-fall. He was wearing the same cotton clothing that we were, his only ‘”safety equipment” a pair of cloth gloves. You don’t have to be an adult to get the instant lesson that human life was worth absolutely nothing to whoever was running the show. I was definitely impressed.