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Alone, Away, Adrift on National Day, 1984

By Yaxue Cao

On the heel of the 2008 Olympic spectacle that awed much of the world, China celebrated its 60th anniversary of the communist rule on Oct. 1, 2009. In the ancient Chinese calendar system where 10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches are combined to designate the sequence of years, the 60th year marks the completion of a cycle, and after that the years start all over again. By the old concept, 60-years is a lifetime.

10,000 military members goose stepped in formation, each consisting of marchers who looked like replicas of each other with the same height, the same built, the same weight, the same haircut and the same expression. After the soldiers, 100,000 civilians paraded in nearly the same sameness along 60 floats with themes such as “progress of the motherland”, “scientific development”, “brilliant achievement” and “beautiful prosperous China.” Another 100,000  participated in the evening gala on Tiananmen Square where “people’s singers” sang “Our Motherland Is A Garden,” “On The Land Of Hope,” etc., and groups from schools and other entities danced in perfect formation in their designated spots the same dances they had rehearsed probably 1,000 times so it looked as perfect as machines against the backdrop of thousands of lights and exploding fireworks.

I was far away from China, of course, but in the parallel world of the internet, I too heard echoes of the day. Needless to say, there were many proud and happy Chinese on this day, proud of their country, happy about the show, and a few were moved to tears. There were the practical-minded for whom the National Day meant little more than the holiday week and what to do with it. A young woman, who was a graduate student in Beijing, jeered at her university’s formation shown on TV for playing too good a puppy.  Then there were those who looked on with coolness. “Why do we need a parade like this?” “How much tax money is that? With that money, how much the government can do for the people?” “For whom is this intended anyway?” On a message board I stumbled upon, a netizen said he watched a little on TV and then turned it off. “It is their celebration,” he or she said, “not mine. I don’t have anything to do with it.” The sentiment struck a chord with me, bringing back my memories of the National Day in 1984.

That year China celebrated its 35th anniversary with a similar military parade and evening gala in Tiananmen Square. I just graduated from college that summer and was assigned a job at a bureau of the State Council that oversaw the administrative details of the organ, such as keeping a fleet of Red Flag black sedans, maintaining a clinic, a bathhouse and a library for internal use, arranging weekend entertainment, and the like. I lived inside the compound on Fu You Street (府右街) in a part of a two-story office building partitioned to accommodate the few new college graduates, and shared a room with Xiao Li, an accountant just graduated from Hangzhou College of Commerce. It so happened that the man, whose sole job was to distribute, once a week, movie tickets to various offices, was attached to the office I worked in. Those were tickets for “internal movies”, mostly noisy Hong Kong movies that were not yet available on the mass market, shown in “internal” auditoriums. As a privilege of being officemates, everyone in the office (there were only eight of us) received two tickets every week when people in other offices received one or sometimes none. Hard to believe, I had never been to any of those weekend movies, not even once. All my tickets went to my roommate. At the time the work days were still six, and by the end of Saturday, all I wanted was to run away from that place.

When the National Day approached, we each received a ticket for a spot in the reviewing stands in Tiananmen Square. When I showed Xiao Li the ticket, she was dumbfounded.

“You are going to watch the National Day parade?” she couldn’t believe it.

“No, I am not,” said I. I had no desire to go.

“What? Why?”

“Don’t feel like it. Do you want the ticket?”

“Are…you…sure?” said Xiao Li, her eyes fastened to the ticket in my hand. I was surprised how badly she wanted it. When Xiao Li first arrived on the job, she was ecstatic. She grew up in western Hunan, and couldn’t quite believe all this was true. But it didn’t take long for her to start, every day when she came back from work, complaining about her co-workers, especially her boss, and scorning the peculiar culture of minor officialdom that she found irritating and despicable. I thought she was as indifferent to this sort of things as I was.

After I gave her the ticket, she asked me a few more times “are you sure?” to make sure I was indeed giving away that ticket.

I normally spent my weekends and holidays with my boyfriend who worked in a college on the western outskirts. But for the National Day, he was picked along with some students and young faculty to perform ballroom dances in the evening gala in Tiananmen Square, and they had been practicing and rehearsing for weeks on end. He hated it. He tried all sorts of excuses to get out of it until his boss warned him to “watch out for your political attitude.” When I last saw him on the weekend before the National Day, all the “dancers” had been given their props: male with a tie and female with a chiffon scarf. I looked at the tie with such disgust as though it was the very reminder of our total subjugation. It was. I felt for him. I at least wasn’t forced to do anything, while he had to go to the Square, put on a happy face, and dance for hours. Yuck!

For years I have been asking myself why I felt so disgusted when I lived in China. But really, it isn’t rocket science. At the core of it is the sense that you are nothing but a thrall; everything about you, from your job to your dwelling place, is held in the hand of the state and can be used anytime against you if you dare not to submit.  Every day there is something that reminds you of this fact, in case you forget.

I spent the National Day alone in my room that, for once, was my own. I might have cleaned and read and wrote in my journal. But it was the quiet that I remember now. I was less than a mile away from the Tiananmen Square, but I saw nothing, heard nothing, and I might as well have been on another planet. I heard the bell from the Telegraph Building on the Avenue of Eternal Peace (长安街) chiming the hours, as I did every night for the year and the three months I worked on Fu You Street, grateful for the unaccounted respite it brought and the company it kept me.

A few years ago, I learned that Liu Bu Kou (六部口,or Six-ministry Crossroads, where the Telegraph Building was) was the location, in the night of June 3rd and the early morning of June 4th , 1989, where machine guns fired, clubs struck, and tanks ran over the students. Because of this knowledge, I cannot hear the nightly chimes across memory the same way as I had before anymore.

You can learn more about Yaxue in her profile, or you can find some of her other writings for sale on Amazon.com. She recently added two more titles: Sheng Shuren–the Story of a Journalist in New China, and The Subject and Two Other Stories of a Childhood in China.


15 Comments

  1. […] View post: Alone, Away, Adrift on National Day, 1984 | Seeing Red in China […]

  2. James says:

    I only lived in China for 10 years, but the odd mix of some people realizing that the government really cared nothing for them, and some people really believing that the Party was a benevolent caring god, still baffles me.
    One friend really surprised me when he said, “The best thing that ever happend to China is that Mao’s sons did not survive.”
    I asked why.
    He said, “We would be just like North Korea.”

  3. anonymous says:

    ‘At the core of it is the sense that you are nothing but a thrall; everything about you, from your job to your dwelling place, is held in the hand of the state and can be used anytime against you if you dare not to submit’. We were taught to be screws for the giant machine of socialism among the childhood,it’s reasonable that someone make sacrifices to the vast majority for the goal of building the Communist Society under the wise leadership of CCP. My uncle is an official of middle-rank in my hometown,therefore,since I was a kid I know the leadership stuff is questionable no matter what has been printed on the textbook or what has been broadcast on National medias such as CCTV .As I grow up,thanks to the habit of reading ,learned what happened all around domestic land and overseas,sorrowfully I was aware of that the China’s specific communism was doubtful too.finally I read a book written by 王小波,there is an article in his masterpiece which called 一只特立独行的猪. There He mentioned a short story ‘我们知道,在古希腊有个斯巴达,那里的生活被设置得了无生趣,其目的就是要使男人成为亡命战士,使女人成为生育机器,前者像些斗鸡,后者像些母猪。’ I could not help myself grinning when I read that paragraph. ‘It’s pathetic while Spartans behave without any self-awareness,nothing but a machine.They should not live like that.’ I sighed.That story inspired me for many times,generally to the human beings,then specially to Chinese.Being screws blah blah,screw you!

  4. Yaxue C. says:

    Fresh off blogsphere:
    回想起,我上小学、中学时,每年国庆都手捧花束,一大早站在广场中间参加组字,文革当工人后,每年提前一个半月脱产练队,为了博得城楼上领袖一笑,我们“首都民兵师”一个多月拔正步,经常练到腿肿喉咙发炎……还好,中年以后才懂得,国庆本该是生活在这片国土上的民众的节假日!只有他们才是这个国家的主人,主人过节就该高高兴兴聚会、休息、秋游,亲友间彼此说点真诚的话语,传递一些有人情味的情谊。http://yuxiangzhen.blshe.com/post/60/722036

    • Tom says:

      Google translated:
      Recall, my primary school, secondary school, the annual National Day are holding a bouquet of flowers, early in the morning to participate in group standing in the middle of the word square, the Cultural Revolution, when the workers after a half year ahead of full-time training team leaders to win the tower on the smile, we “capital militia division, “goose pulling more than a month, often got legs swollen throat inflammation … … Fortunately, middle age, and understand, the National Day of the living in this land people on the holidays! Only they are the masters of this country, on the happy owner of holiday gatherings, rest, fall camp, relatives and friends say a sincere word to each other, passing some humane feelings.

      • Yaxue C. says:

        I suppose google isn’t taking my livelihood away anytime soon–the human translation:

        I remember that, when I was in primary school and again in secondary school, every year on the National Day, we stood in the middle of the Tiananmen Square in the early morning, with boutiques in hands, to form words. When I became a worker during the Cultural Revolution, every year we were taken out from our jobs, a month and a half before [the National Day], to practice formation. To earn the smile of the Great Leader on the Tiananmen, we the “Capitol’s Militia Division” would practice goose stepping for more than a month, often to the point of our legs becoming swollen and our throats inflamed … Thank goodness, now that I am in my middle age and I finally understand that the National Day should a holiday for the people who live on this land! They alone are the masters of the country. As masters, they should be enjoying gatherings, relaxation, fall excursions, etc.; families and friends should be speaking what their hearts dictate and giving each other the love and friendship that’s humane.

      • Tom says:

        Thanks Yaxue, just wanted to get something up there quickly for people with no Chinese.

  5. Tom says:

    People’s Daily just happened to run a series of photos from the 1984 parade, you can see them here http://english.people.com.cn/90783/7609370.html

    • Yaxue C. says:

      To enrich this post, I will add a link where you can watch the 1970 parade (visual quality is poor but you are not up to state-of-art visual anyway):

      http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMzA3MzAxMzU2.html

      I found the link from a friend’s blog. So I am not the only person who tries to make connections between the past and the present as we see them.

      When you think about what was going on at the time (many people died of persecution and many others in faction violence; millions were sent to labor camps, millions; and millions of red guards/students were dispatched to the remotest countryside; schools had baredly resumed classes while factories were not fully functioning…), and what was going to happen very soon (Li Biao died in a plane crash on his way fleeing to the Soviet Union in the coming year, and at the same time Mao was sending words to the Americans, via Edgar Snow–again, that he wanted to establish relation with the US). The Great Leader looked sickly and unhappy, while the mass shouted “Long Live Chairman Mao” so fervently that you worry that they were tearing their throat tissues apart. Among the slogans held over the formations was “Beat Down the American Imperialism and All of Its Running Dogs!”

      Ironic? Yes. Party duplicity? As alwsys.

      Oh, there was the “Capitol’s Militia Division” that the blogger participated in (not necessarily that particular year though).

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        I read your stories of childhood, Yaxue. I enjoyed them very much.

      • Yaxue C. says:

        Thank you so much, 美丽。It is a deeply moving idea that someone in northern Scotland took the time and interest to read these stories about a faraway time and a faraway place.

        ——-
        Correction: it is “Capital”, not Capitol.

  6. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    The world is small these days, Yaxue!

  7. Casey says:

    Yet another great piece, Yaxue.

  8. […] I remember that, when I was in primary school and again in secondary school, every year on the National Day, we stood in the middle of the Tiananmen Square in the early morning, with boutiques in hands, to form words. When I became a worker during the Cultural Revolution, every year we were taken out from our jobs, a month and a half before [the National Day], to practice formation. To earn the smile of the Great Leader on the Tiananmen, we the “Capital’s Militia Division” would practice goose stepping for more than a month, often to the point of our legs becoming swollen and our throats inflamed … Thank goodness, now that I am in my middle age and I finally understand that the National Day should a holiday for the people who live on this land! They alone are the masters of the country. As masters, they should be enjoying gatherings, relaxation, fall excursions, etc.; families and friends should be speaking what their hearts dictate and giving each other the love and friendship that’s humane. (link) You might also want to read Yaxue’s reflection on her experience on National Day 1984 […]

  9. Anonymous says:

    Kenapa aku sentiasa melihatkan engkau mengata kata-kata yang tak bagus pada China dan orang China? Bukan awak orang China juga? From all the articles you wrote,it seems you always look like the doomsayer and naysayer to China? Interesting, 嘿嘿。
    為什麼你老是抱怨你的國家? 難道你只看到缺點,沒有優點嗎? Haha, Be Optimist ! There are no perfect in this world, If 你住的地方發展不好,沒關係,你們可以努力把她建設好!!,哈哈。 tak paya sentiasa asking for sympathy from orang asing, orang westerner to provoke the revolution in China and finally cause the impact on economic, there are no points. This is not a zero sum game, Haha. If your country is no perfect, that was not a big deals, you can use your bare hand and mind to build it to perfect, 積極點吧,不要老是抱怨了。哈哈

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