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.
“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.