Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, Appendix V
Chen Jo-hsi (陳若曦, 1938-) was an established writer from Taiwan when she and her husband decided to relocate from the United States to China, just as the Cultural Revolution was engulfing the country. After seven years spent living in Nanjing, the provincial capital of Jiangsu, Chen and her family were finally able to leave the People’s Republic of China in 1973. Following a period in Hong Kong, they settled in Canada.
‘Though Chen Jo-shi was already an active writer when she first entered China, she did not write a single line during all the years she spent there. Once out, however, she was suddenly seized by an overwhelming urge to bear witness in writing to all the people she had left behind — old friends, passing acquaintances, simple men and women who, in their very deprivation, humiliations and trials, had impressed her with their quiet dignity and irreducible humanity. Perhaps, unconsciously, she was also trying to find the meaning of what had been both the most momentous and the most sterile period of her life, and to come to terms with it; in retrospect, she was attempting to give it sense and value, to make artistic coherence out of its confusion and chaos, to redeem through literature a heart-breaking experiment in human wastefulness.’
— from Simon Leys, ‘Chen Jo-hsi: A Literary Witness of the “Cultural Revolution” ’
reprinted in Broken Images, New York, 1979, pp.38-39
Chen Jo-hsi’s story ‘The Execution of Mayor Yin’ 尹縣長 caused a sensation in the international Chinese reading world when it appeared in the pages of Ming Pao Monthly 明報月刊, the leading literary journal of Hong Kong, in 1974. The Chinese original of the following story, ‘Nixon’s Press Corps’, was included in the collection The Execution of Mayor Yin 尹縣長 published by Yüan-ching Publishers in Taipei in 1976.
‘Nixon’s Press Corps’ 尼克森的記者團 previously appeared in China Heritage Annual 2017—Nanking. It is reproduced as part of ‘1972 朝 — Coups, Nixon & China’, a joint miniseries that is part of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium and Spectres & Souls — Vignettes, moments and meditations on China and America, 1861-2021:
- 嘩 — The Coups of 1971
- 見 — A storied Handshake, an excised Interpreter & a muted Anthem
- 撼 — A Week That Changed The World
- 蒞 — Nixon’s Press Corps
- 迓 — ‘Welcome to China, Mr. President!’
- 迥 — Dissing Dissent
- 鞭 — The President & The Chairman in Retrospect
- 書 — A 2012 Letter to the Chinese Embassy
The modified Wade-Giles romanisation of Chinese names and terms used in the original translation has been retained.
Until only a few years ago, Chen’s story about pervasive social surveillance seemed to be little more than a quaint, if chilling, memento of Maoist China. In the ‘zero-Covid’ era of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, however, its resonance is undeniable.
— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, The Asia Society
President’s Day (in the United States)
21 February 2022
Nixon’s Press Corps
Chen Jo-hsi 陳若曦
The bugle calls blaring from the loudspeakers that greeted our arrival at school in the morning seemed to be louder and more insistent than usual. Just as we were wondering what it was all about, one of the teachers told us that an emergency meeting of all departments had been called. My husband and I hurried over to the large classroom in which such meetings were usually held. It was already packed with teachers and workers. Lao Ho, the head of the Department Revolutionary Committee, and Lao Tiao, the delegate from the Workers’ Publicity Corps, were sitting along in the front row; Lao Ho was leaning over and listening intently as Lao Tiao, head bent and eyes crinkled, whispered into his ear. As always, my husband and I silently went our separate ways to join colleagues from our own teaching groups.
‘Why are we having another general meeting?’ I asked a colleague as I sat down.
‘I hear it’s on account of Nixon’s press corps. It seems they’re actually coming here,’ she whispered back.
This news eased my concern. I leaned back in my chair and waited for the meeting to begin. As long as they weren’t launching some political campaign or purging someone, I had nothing to worry about. In preparation for Nixon’s forthcoming visit, a general study of all pertinent documents had begun three months earlier. The visit had already become a familiar and accepted thing. One would think that after twenty years of attacking ‘American Imperialism’ as the number one enemy, it would be difficult for people to change their way of thinking to such an extent that they would shake hands and fraternize with the President of the United States. But after an intensive reading of all the circulated documents, their thoughts began to fall in line with what they read. No one ever publicly questioned the contradictory statements or this about-face in Communist policy. When it was announced that Nixon’s press corps would be passing through Nanking, the provincial and metropolitan commissioners made elaborate preparations for the visit. Even the street committees were given sample questions that the correspondents might ask, so that everyone could practice giving appropriate answers.
The loudspeakers stopped promptly at eight, and we all checked our watches.
Lao Ho was the first to address us. ‘Good morning, comrades! By direction of the provincial authorities, we have called this meeting to complete preparations for receiving Nixon’s press corps. The eighty-man press group traveling with Nixon may pass through Nanking tomorrow for a one-day visit, so we must be ready. Today we will suspend all normal activities in order to have a general clean-up and to tidy up the lawns. All laboratory equipment must be cleaned and labeled in both Chinese and English; if necessary, get some help from the Foreign Languages Section. We believe that the reporters will be in Nanking for the day only, so the possibility of a visit to our school is very remote. But as Chairman Mao has taught us, “Do not fight unprepared battles.” Therefore, we will proceed with preparations in order to be ready for any and all contingencies. We will now ask Lao Tiao, Chairman Mao’s good worker from the Publicity Corps, to say a few words to us.’
Lao Tiao stood up slowly. His small eyes coldly swept over the hall. He cleared his throat loudly and placed one foot on the chair beside Lao Ho. With his right hand on his raised knee and his left hand resting on his hip, he was the very picture of self-assurance and arrogance. Not a sound was to be heard in the classroom, as all eyes were on his raised leg. He reminded me of the villain, Tiao Te-I, in the revolutionary Peking opera Sha Chia Pang.
Lao Tiao began with the usual line about the world revolutionary movements signaling the end of the road for American imperialism. Then he said that Nixon had been forced to come begging for peace, and he repeated some of the standard doctrines and policies. Then he reminded everyone: ‘It is of the utmost importance for us to grasp the characteristics of these reporters. They have their “three excesses”—an excess of running around, an excess of questions, and an excess of picture taking. But we have our ways of dealing with them: We must maintain an attitude neither overbearing nor humble, neither too approachable nor too distant, neither … er, er … in other words, if we maintain an attitude of the “three neithers” in dealing with their “three excesses,” we shall remain invincible.’
Suddenly he raised his voice and declared emphatically, ‘Don’t go milling about on the streets tomorrow unless you have something important to do! There are some who must pay special attention to this, who must behave themselves and refrain from any untoward conduct!’
At first I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But my face burned when it dawned on me that I might be the object of this veiled warning. I didn’t dare look up, for fear that I might meet other people’s eyes. I felt so uneasy that I was barely able to sit still. This kind of oblique attack—mentioning no names, but letting one ‘find one’s own seat’—was devastatingly effective. Protesting one’s innocence was interpreted as proof of a guilty conscience, so the only thing to do was to swallow the whole thing, no matter how distasteful.
After the general meeting we separated into various discussion groups. While the leader of our group was off receiving his instructions, Hsiao Wei, our news-monger, whose wife had just come from Peking to visit him, took the opportunity to let us in on a bit of gossip. Rumor had it that during Kissinger’s second visit, a woman dashed out to accost him with a written complaint as his car was passing along Changan Boulevard. She was immediately hustled off by plainclothesmen and jailed as a counterrevolutionary. The woman’s husband was an old Party cadreman who must have been purged during the Cultural Revolution. Evidently she tried to enlist Kissinger’s help in bringing up his case for reconsideration.
‘She had a lot of nerve but very little sense,’ Hsiao Wei said. ‘She should have known that they wouldn’t let anyone get close to a foreign visitor, especially Kissinger!”
Although this was only a rumor and there was no indication that the woman had been an overseas Chinese, or a returnee from the United States like me, I played it cautiously anyway. As soon as the discussion began I stood up and declared that, except for going directly to and from the classroom, I would not budge from my home all the next day, not even to go to the market. A rightist in the group also made a similar declaration. Afterwards, as we were cleaning up, our group leader came up and patted my shoulder. ‘Don’t be so touchy, Hsiao Hsin, Lao Tiao didn’t necessarily mean you.’
My only response was a forced smile.
When we went home at noon, both my husband and I were feeling very depressed. We ate our lunch in silence.
‘We won’t even be going to the market tomorrow,’ I said, ‘so you had better go now before you go back to work. Just pick up anything—a vegetable or two will be enough.’
He was somewhat taken aback for a moment, but he nodded, and went out with the market basket. I was too weary and dispirited even to clear the table, so I just sat there in a daze until a knock at the door brought me around.
‘Who is it?’ I asked as I opened the door. It was Hsiao Miao, a member of our neighborhood committee.
‘Hsin Lao-shih, have you finished lunch?’
‘Yes, come in.’ I made way for her. ‘Is there something on your mind?’
‘Yes,’ she said solemnly, ignoring my invitation. ‘We’ve received orders to clean up the courtyard because Nixon’s press corps is coming tomorrow. We are to pull up the weeds, remove the litter from all the nooks and crannies, and …’ Here she hesitated. We also have to take down all the drying racks over the windows. They’re afraid the foreign visitors will find them an eyesore.’
‘Take down the drying racks?’ Although this struck me as funny to the point of absurdity, I was unable to laugh.
‘Hsiao Miao,’ I said, ‘with all the famous scenic and historic sites in Nanking, why would the reporters take the time to come to this isolated area during a one-day visit to the city? And if by chance they happened to pass by here, they will be sitting in cars. And even if they were to stand on top of the cars they still could not see through our gate, to this building four rows back. They wouldn’t even be able to see the roof, let alone the windows!’
‘I’m just acting on orders from the neighborhood committee.’ She sighed, spreading her hands in a gesture of helplessness. ‘I have to take mine down even though it was put up only last month.’
I couldn’t encourage her to refuse to tear hers down, but I shook my head to express my opposition. We had gone through a lot of trouble to put up our rack two years before. My husband went all the way to the old Confucius Temple area to buy the bamboo poles, and since wire was not available in the markets, I begged a colleague to get me a small roll of it from his laboratory. Then my husband and I spent almost an entire day putting up a rack with three cross pieces outside our south window. It was sturdily built and strong enough to sun a pair of quilts. But two years of wind and rain had already rusted the wires, and if we tore the rack down now we would never be able to put it up again.
‘I can’t take ours down,’ I declared stubbornly. ‘You have my word that I won’t hang any clothes out tomorrow, but I simply can’t take it down. If I did I wouldn’t be able to put it up again. Where would I hang our clothes to dry then? After all, Nixon’s reporters are people too. It’s unlikely they would say anything when they saw the racks. And if they did, we could take the opportunity to “reeducate” them and teach them a thing or two!’
Hsiao Miao had no answer to that. She just looked distressed and waved her hands. ‘All right, but don’t say I didn’t notify you.’
That afternoon as I walked through the dormitory gate on my way home from work I saw all the elderly people cleaning up the yard. Some were raking leaves, others were removing dead grass. Because of the cold, they were so bundled up in heavy clothing that their movements appeared even slower and clumsier than usual. The drying racks for the first row of houses facing the road had all vanished. As I walked farther in I saw that most of the racks in the next row had already been taken down, and the rest were being dismantled. The people were working in sullen silence. I was relieved to see that our rack was still safe and untouched, although those around it were gone. One neighbor was just removing the last piece of wood from his rack; he broke it off with a resounding crack and threw the pieces to the ground without a glance. Our rack stood out in lonely splendor in the deepening dusk. I didn’t know whether to feel proud or apprehensive.
My husband and son came home before long. As soon as he entered the door my husband cried, ‘This is sheer madness—a single word and everyone is dismantling them! Just now someone asked me, “Are you really going to leave yours up?” I could barely keep from asking him, “Why are you tearing yours down? If we all refused, what could they do about it?” ’
‘That’s enough,’ I interrupted, glancing at the child.
He immediately dropped the subject.
‘Be a good boy and go play in the other room. Mommy will call you as soon as dinner is ready.’
With the child out of the way, my husband followed me into the kitchen and demanded, ‘How about it? Do we tear ours down or not?’
‘Of course we don’t!’ I declared indignantly. ‘Just because of Nixon’s visit, they want us to slap our own faces! The whole country has been frantic for almost three months, and, now, just because some members of his press corps might pass through here for a day, we’re supposed to turn the place upside down for them. We’re not even free to go out on the streets! What makes them think I’d want to see the reporters anyway? I’m not even interested in Nixon himself! I still remember his disgraceful performance on television during the California gubernatorial elections. He dragged in his dog, Checkers, to get sympathy for his defense against bribery charges. My American roommate was so disgusted that she called him “political garbage!” Since we’re never trusted and we can’t afford to protest, we can let an inanimate object like our drying rack stand up for us. The most they can do is tear it to pieces.’
My husband tried to soothe me, ‘All right, all right, we won’t tear it down. Just don’t make yourself ill. Get dinner ready while I clean up the yard.’
We had made our decision, yet I was so distracted I couldn’t cook properly. The rice was burned, and the spinach was still raw. Neither of us had any appetite, and we couldn’t find anything to talk about, so we hurried through the meal in silence. Only our son, in his innocence, was his usual self, eating heartily and chattering away.
I had just cleared the table and was about to pour some water to bathe the boy’s feet, when my husband rushed in from the other room in great agitation.
‘Kao Sao is coming this way, probably to our house. I can’t bear that woman, so you’d better talk to her. If she’s here about the drying rack, don’t argue with her; just take it down!’
I grew uneasy at the mention of Kao Sao’s name. It had never occurred to me that this affair would warrant a personal visit from the chairwoman of the neighborhood committee of our dormitory area. She came from a good background—before Liberation her family had been impoverished, I was told—and her husband was a laborer and a Party member. Ever since the founding of the school she and her whole family lived in our dormitory gatehouse, and she was given the responsibility of delivering messages. Though she was still under forty, she was very experienced and capable, especially in handling purges within the dormitory. When she attacked the women, the old, and the weak she was truly awesome. Because of her good background, she had felt free to bear six children, one after the other, but since her husband’s wages were insufficient to support them all, they relied on welfare from the state to get by. No shining example of planned parenthood herself, she was nonetheless a staunch supporter of birth control and an eloquent advocate of abortion. She had had little education, but she had been born with a glib tongue, and with her high-pitched voice and caustic remarks, no woman was her match. Mao Tse-tung has said that women hold up half the sky, and it seemed to me that in the corner of earth where our dormitory was located, Kao Sao held it up single-handedly.
‘Stay here and don’t come out,’ I said as I pushed my husband back into the room. I hurriedly wiped my hands, put my son’s shoes back on his feet, and scooted him into the other room. Just as I shut the door behind me, there was a knock on the front door.
Sure enough, there stood Kao Sao.
‘Hsin Lao-shih, have you already had dinner?’
Her words were polite, but her face was cold and unsmiling. With her hands held behind her back, she looked me over from head to foot to show that she meant business and was not to be trifled with.
‘Yes, I have!’ I answered. My heart was thumping wildly, and I could hear my own breathing, but I remained standing in the doorway, unwilling to give way.
‘Are you here because of the drying rack?’ I decided to come right to the point.
‘That’s right. Yours is the only one left in the entire dormitory, and if it’s not taken down you’ll be putting us in an awkward position with the authorities.’
Naturally, I repeated the reasons I had given Hsiao Miao that morning. But Kao Sao proved a formidable opponent. She said nothing about the possibility of the reporters’ passing along our road, but stressed instead the importance of discipline within the revolutionary ranks. She even quoted many of Mao Tse-tung’s sayings, so that in the end, my refusal to dismantle the rack became a political issue. Political pressure is too heavy a burden to accept lightly, and so my anger mounted as I listened to the harangue. Curiously enough, the overall effect was to quiet me down.
Finally, I said calmly, ‘I don’t think you should make so much of this. After all, it’s only a small matter, and my refusal to tear the thing down isn’t unreasonable. In discussing any issue, one must begin with the major premise, which in the present case is that we should put our best foot forward for our foreign guests. There is no problem here, because I am in complete agreement with the premise. The question is this: What is wrong with drying racks? Even in America there are still many people who hang their clothes out to dry in their backyards…’
‘I don’t know what they do in America, and I don’t care!’ she interrupted me with a wave of her hand. ‘This is China, and we do things the Chinese way.’
This argument shamed and distressed me. I stared at her and my cheeks burned as I listened to her high-pitched shouts. The neighbor opposite us gingerly opened her door a crack and stuck her head out, but she quickly closed the door when she saw Kao Sao.
‘Nobody knows whether the foreign visitors will pass by here or not, but even if they don’t, tearing down a drying rack is at most a small sacrifice for the revolution.’
‘The state does not advocate unnecessary sacrifices!’
Compared to her strident voice, the tone of my protest was low and my voice was small, shaky, and very weak.
‘If the foreign visitors do come through and you’re the only family whose drying rack is still standing, we in the Party cadre will have to bear the onus of your refusal to carry out our orders. And even if they don’t come, what will the other people say? “Hsin Lao-shih was right in refusing to tear it down!” It will make it difficult for us to carry on in this area in the future.’
I felt like shouting that she was being selfish and thinking only of herself. But she was no one to tangle with. I restrained myself with such force that I trembled all over. There was a sudden pain in my chest, and I couldn’t breathe. I pressed my hand against my chest, and, remembering my husband’s admonition, decided to give up the argument. I could never get the upper hand with her.
‘I’m not going to tear it down,’ I told her. ‘If you want it torn down, do it yourself. And you can be responsible for putting it back up when the foreign visitors have gone!’
She was stunned.
‘How can I take it down for you? She quickly changed her tune. ‘To welcome foreign visitors and clean up the environment is a voluntary action by the revolutionary masses; the Party would never force it on anyone. If you don’t tear it down, then the onus is on you, and if anything happens, don’t say that we didn’t try to carry out our responsibility!’
I hadn’t the strength to answer. I just stared at her inverted triangle of a face, which seemed to be growing longer and sharper; her eyes were as arrogant and cold as Lao Tiao’s.
‘Then that’s that!’ She spat out the words and walked away with her arms behind her back, her head held high. The hard nylon soles of her cloth shoes tapped a sharp tattoo on the cement outside. I shut the door.
That night I didn’t sleep well. I woke with a start several times.
The next day passed quietly and uneventfully. On the third day we heard that Nixon’s press corps had shown no interest in Nanking and had gone directly to Hangchow. Two French reporters were the only ones who stopped over, and they had merely strolled around New Market Square before joining the others the same night. And so the people in our dormitory began to pound and nail, as family after family slowly put up its rack again. Long after Nixon left China and arrived back in the United States, the drying racks in our dormitory had still not been completely rebuilt.
- 陳若曦,《尼克森的記者團》, translated by Nancy Ing and Howard Goldblatt and collected in Chen Jo-hsi, The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1978