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Kavitha Dispatch

Fight for Your Right to Party (or Play Cards?!)
July 15, 2000

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The elderly come to relax and meet their friends at the opera
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Abeja and I are here in Chengdu now, the capital of the Sichuan province. There are a ton of wonderful tourist attractions in the area, like giant Buddhist temples and the Panda Research Base, but I have to say, the thing I've enjoyed most about this city is what the locals do in their free time. No, they don't rush around to touristy sites to take pictures. In fact, unlike people in most big cities, they don't seem to rush around very much at all. What the locals here DO do in their free time is relax, and boy do they KNOW how to relax!

Map
From playing chess or mahjong in the park, to lounging around at one of the many famous Chengdu teahouses, old and young alike spend time together passing the day relaxing whenever the chance arises. Abeja and I were surprised to find people napping, chatting with friends, and even drinking tea at the opera! I've never thought of seeing an opera as a place to relax, but then again Chinese operas are very different from any opera I've ever known. Unlike the fancy opera halls back home, the Sichuan opera in Chengdu is in a simple little room full of tables, chairs, and fans buzzing around. It's so surprising to see such beautiful singers dressed in such elaborate costumes and makeup performing in the afternoons for the mostly elderly audience that seem to visit the opera more to meet friends and nap than to watch the opera! I guess everyone needs a place to hang out and relax!

But would you believe that for a number of years in the late 1960's, you pretty much weren't ALLOWED to relax? Well, not in such public places at least. Sounds crazy I know, but all over China, you could get punished and even beat up for doing something as harmless as playing a game of cards! Beat up for playing cards? Punished for hanging out at a tea house? Are you as confused as I was? Let me explain:

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Operas like these were considered 'dangerous' during the Cultural Revolution
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By 1949, the Communist Party had gained control over the war-torn and chaotic land and formed the People's Republic of China. Their leader was the brilliant Mao Zedong. In the early years the Communists brought remarkable reforms to the countryside and greatly improved the living standard for millions of people. By the second half of the 1960's though, Mao's drastic decisions and radical views had led the country in to severe problems such as famine. Because of this, other members of the Communist Party started to join together and make decisions without him. Mao was no dummy; the second he started seeing his power fade, he came up with a brilliant idea to crush all his opposition, including his very own party, and make himself out to be a national hero with ultimate power. With the help of his wife and others they came up with a grand plan---a plan that came to be known as the Cultural Revolution.

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People gather in teahouses to play mahjong
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From 1966-1970, Mao and his People's Liberation Army (PLA) clamped down on writers, artists, teachers, intellects, religious leaders, even Communist Party officials...anyone that was seen as a threat to Mao's absolute power. He had always won favor (and thus gained power) by making his movements "People's movements" and giving power to the common people. He had a vision of a completely unified and equal society, and felt that all people should live like the peasant majority of the country.

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How did the Chinese live without their games?
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So what does this have to do with drinking tea and or going to the opera?

Well Mao and his wife decided that the arts were dangerous, and that certain plays and operas were being used to voice opposition to the party, so they started to attack artists and playwrights. Their mania kept going and soon all arts were under attack. Music was banned, operas shut down and monuments all over the country were destroyed. The more radical his actions, the more people became critical, thus the more people he persecuted. Mao felt less threatened by peasants, who he had helped a great deal during the early years of the communist revolution, so in an effort to gain more support and also to squash the educated people who were speaking out against his mania, he started to attack anything that was seen as bourgeois.

He taught the Chinese that all people should live like the peasants. Thus when Mao found tea houses to pose a threat as gathering places where people talked politics and voiced their concerns, it was easy to convince the masses that tea houses should be closed. After all, what peasants in the countryside had time for such extravagant things as tea houses? Even books were banned. Containing his essays, only Mao's "little red book" was allowed to be printed and taught in all the schools. So, books were burned, magazines and newspapers shut down, and libraries closed. Games like cards, Chinese Chess, and Mahjong--staples in Chinese life--were also banned, because obviously working people shouldn't have time for such "frivolous" activities, right? Well, I have to be honest, it's not so obvious to me yet, but I didn't live during this turbulent time in Chinese history.

Vocabulary

mahjong - a Chinese game played by four persons with 144 tiles that are drawn and discarded until one player secures a winning hand
communist - a style of government in which everything (food, money, land, etc) is shared by everyone equally
persecuted - caused to suffer because of belief
bourgeois - social middle class marked by a concern for material interests and respectability with a tendency toward mediocrity
blacklist - a list of persons who are disapproved of or are to be punished or boycotted because of their beliefs or identity

I cannot even begin to imagine what life must have been like during the traumatic years of the Cultural Revolution. It seems as though things that have always been a part of life could all of a sudden be blacklisted based on Mao's whims. At one point he even declared that lawns and flowers were "bourgeois," so students were ordered to go outside during school and pull up the grass and flowers! I had read about the Cultural Revolution when I was a student in Maryland, and had always found it hard to believe, but now, after coming here, I find it even harder to believe. How could Chengdu survive without its beloved tea houses and traditional operas? How did the Chinese people survive without their games like chess and mahjong?

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As I pass people peacefully basking in the sun in the bamboo chairs at the tea houses, I am especially drawn to the older people, slapping down cards and drinking their tea. These people lived through all those traumatic years, and are now back to enjoying their pastimes again. Sichuan province was in fact one of the most violent provinces during the Cultural Revolution, and Chengdu saw its fair share of horrendous torture and murder during those years. It wasn't until 1981, that the beloved tea houses were able to reopen and the local people of Chengdu were finally able to return to such pastimes after 15 years of living in fear.

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These young people don't know how lucky they are to be able to lounge at a tea house again
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Can you imagine being afraid to play chess with your friends or even to listen to music in your own home? That seems crazy I know, but wait--it gets even crazier. Would you believe that most of the people enforcing those rules were just school kids possibly younger than you? Yup, keep reading to learn more about the turbulent years of China's Cultural Revolution, when high school and university students were given almost complete control to police and terrorize the towns and punish people for doing things like seeing an opera or playing cards...

Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 

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