Essays: Mao and Miao-yu |
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Mao and Miao-yu

BOING! As a bronze gong quivers softly in the sunset we sigh farewell to the Beeb’s Chinese Week, of which Julian Pettifer was the undoubted star. Receptive but sceptical, keen but judicious, he did a good job of sorting out fact from fiction.

On the evidence available, Pettifer was the only man in China who was not wearing a peaked cap. The current population of China, at the time I begin this sentence, is somewhere near 900 million, which adds up to a lot of peaked caps. It seems likely that the purpose of the peaked cap is to shield the wearer’s eyes from Chairman Mao’s radiance.

Death has not dimmed Mao’s lustre. Rather the reverse — as was shown by a marvellous film called Unity Dam (BBC2), in which warring villages were united by the charismatic leadership of young Chang Miao-yu, whose correct Mao-thoughts routed the heavies bent on restoring capitalism. Identifiable as the hero by his Westernised physiognomy — he looked a bit like Ricky Nelson — Chang quoted Mao at the drop of a cap.

Exhorting the confused peasants to build a dam, Chang advanced an argument they found hard to refute. ‘It will link our hearts with Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line,’ cried Chang, ‘and the dictatorship of the proletariat will be further consolidated!’ As the camera zoomed in on his transfigured features, shouts of agreement went up from the peasants. ‘The Party branch decisions must be faithfully carried out!’ they would cry in unison. Not, in any language, an easy thing to cry in unison.

But in China, as in the Soviet Union, unanimity is the most abundant revolutionary product. That, and leadership. The ideal thing is for everyone to agree, which they can’t do until the right leader tells them what to agree on. Built into this assumption is a contempt for ordinary people which is hard to distinguish from similar excesses along the capitalist road, but in China’s case there is obviously no use complaining.

Chinese Week did a better job than the earlier Russian Week of weighing the gains against the losses, but once again the Beeb was stuck with the awkward fact that the available footage is, from the Party’s viewpoint, more plus than minus. There are no films of Mao conducting a purge. There are, however, any number of films by Joris Ivens. If it had not been for Pettifer’s slogging leg-work, Joris Ivens’s China (BBC2) would have been the only China on show.

Not that Ivens’s diligence is to be sneezed at. He can point his camera at a Chinese fishing village for days on end, until it is thoroughly established that Chinese fishing villages are mainly inhabited by Chinese fishermen, who devote their lives to catching fish. Anything happening, even if it is hardly happening at all, is grist to Ivens’s mill.

Training at the Peking Circus (BBC2) was likewise directed by Ivens, but had a certain amount of zing. The subject matter helped. Circus is a big thing in China, just as it is in Russia. There is no mystery about this: in Communist countries folk art necessarily flourishes more than the other kind, first of all because it is aimed at the folk and secondly because it is not dependent on ideas. There is not, or anyway ought not to be, anything ideologically controversial about a man standing on his head on a slack-wire. There were numerous close-ups of a man doing this. The wire threatened to slice his head in half like a cheese, but even upside down he was still smiling. They were all smiling. In China Entertains (BBC2), which featured the Tientsin Acrobatic Troupe on tour in Sweden, they were still smiling. The conjurer looked exactly like Chairman Mao.

The Chinese Way (BBC2) was the programme that told you most. Fronted by Pettifer, it looked at a couple of show-place commune-kibbutzes, one of which has been so madly successful that it is piling up a surplus. As far as Pettifer could tell, there were no plans to redistribute the profits in the form of supplementary wages to the poorer communes. The poorer communes would just have to catch up, presumably by linking their beans with Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line.

Mind in China has plainly been rubbed out for keeps. In Russia it has been harder to get rid of, partly because of the richness of the pre-revolutionary literary tradition, of which the last great pearl was Chekhov. His name cropped up several times during the past week. On Arena (BBC2) there were impressive excerpts from the Riverside Theatre production of ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ Michael Frayn was interviewed on the subject of the same play, which he has just finished translating for the National Theatre. But the star turn was Trevor Griffiths, who told us why, in adapting Chekhov, it was necessary to give the author a bit of a hand, since he did not know a lot about politics.

Trevor Griffiths is a writer of integrity and force, but like so many playwrights of his generation he has more confidence than humour. Chekhov, who was in the opposite case, knew everything there was to know about what was wrong with Russia, but automatically distrusted anyone who was confident about how to set it right — a wise suspicion, as events later proved. In Chekhov’s view (which Mr Griffiths will find clearly expressed in his letters) the task of the artist was not to seek a solution, but to state the problem. Chekhov’s robustness is composed entirely of subtlety. No wonder, then, that most productions of his plays fail short.

The Seagull, BBC1’s ‘Play of the Month,’ was a brave try. Michael Lindsay-Hogg showed his customary delicacy with the camera, always on the right face — which is often the listener’s rather than the speaker’s — on the right line. Some of the casting was well judged, especially Julia Schofield as Nina, who was a strong enough personality at the start to come apart frighteningly at the end. Georgina Hale (Masha) transplants well to exotic settings, perhaps because of her strange way with the English language, of which she speaks the consonants and sings the vowels.

But elsewhere in the cast something had gone wrong with the various ages, so that men who were supposed to be 60 looked 90 and other men who were supposed to be 55 looked 40. Nor is there any reason to suppose that Mme Arkadina should carry on like Sarah Bernhardt on her last leg.

The Observer, 12th February 1978