Column

Chinese villages have pretty pictures; the artist knows that beauty’s skin-deep

Barbara Amiel November 13 1978
Column

Chinese villages have pretty pictures; the artist knows that beauty’s skin-deep

Barbara Amiel November 13 1978

Chinese villages have pretty pictures; the artist knows that beauty’s skin-deep

Column

Barbara Amiel

For years I have tried to get a glimpse of that barely visible monolith in the East, the People’s Republic of China. Like a child, with her face pressed against a cold pane of glass on a rainy day, I have only been able to see bent grey figures, shoulders hunched against the adversity of bad weather. No faces, no flesh and blood. I have read all the books and reports about China that I could find, talked to returning visitors who told me of the clean streets, morning exercises and “dedication to building a new land,” and the window only grew foggier. Not because I disbelieved them entirely, but because an ancient culture such as China’s had to be more complex than the account of automatons reading little red books in unison.

I was engrossed recently in the story of the development of Potemkinism.

Field Marshal Potemkin, readers may recall, was a particularly ardent member of Russia’s Germanborn Empress Catherine’s retinue, and the organizer of her famous trip through ® the Crimea. The Crimea, being what it was in the l_

18th century, was deemed by Potemkin not to be up to Catherine’s German standards. And so, the story goes, Potemkin erected a series of sham villages for Catherine to inspect—painted theatrical flats of homes and churches. The Potemkin village has come to be a very handy political instrument in the 20th century. Public relations deem it expedient to put a good face on a bad scene. This gave us one of the most famous Potemkin villages: the Nazi ghetto called Terezin in Czechoslovakia.

Among others, the cream of the Czech-Jewish intelligentsia was sent to Terezin. Many were artists, including the late Karel Ancerl, whom Torontonians remember as a conductor of their symphony orchestra. Terezin being the Nazi Potemkin village, when a delegation from the Swiss-based International Red Cross was invited to visit the ghetto to “see” for themselves how well the Führer treated the Jews, the

whole place erupted in a frenzy of activity. Artists painted shop fronts and signs reading “café.” Streets were renamed. Theatrical flags were held up along the visitors’ route. Half-starved, diseased, and emaciated musicians were ordered to perform a concert. “We were all issued black suits,” wrote Ancerl, “my conductor’s stand was lined with flowers to hide my clogs.” Two days later “all of us, together with 2,500 other ghetto inmates, were sent in a transport to Auschwitz.” Even today

the International Red Cross is in no hurry to make public its report about Terezin. Potemkinism may have worked on them all too well.

China, I have always suspected, has developed Potemkinism to an even finer art. Not only have visitors come back declaring that Mao had eliminated everything from flies to famine but claiming to have seen—and personally spoken to—a new breed of human being. This Chinese human being, unlike their fellow Chinese here in the West (or indeed any other human on earth) enjoyed handing over their liberty and dignity to a new, higher state ethos. A decent, intelligent Canadian such as China expert Charles Taylor was moved, when faced with criticism of the regulation of Chinese society, to remark on CBC radio, that “the Chinese, you know, don’t even have a word for freedom in their language.” The implication was that the Chinese were “different”

and did not need such concepts as individual liberty or Western democracy.

Well, I always suspected that this was a rather patronizing, if not downright racist view of the Chinese. But the Bamboo Curtain leaked less than the Iron Curtain and no dissenters came out of China until very recently. Then, after having my suspicions confirmed by some essays challenging Westerners’ idyllic views (such as Simon Leys’ Chinese Shadows), I discovered an extraordinary book of fiction, The Execution of Mayor Yin, written by a Chinese woman now living in Vancouver.

Born in Taiwan, educated at the University of Taipei and in the United States, author Chen Jo-hsi went to Mao’s China in 1966 with her Chinese husband, both of them true believers in the New Order. She stayed for seven years and then came to Canada and wrote her stories. They are stories of simple people living in a Potemkin world. A world in which streets are cleaned and painted for visitors. Food is stocked in open-air markets for foreigners to see but not for the Chinese to buy. A world in which, though the people evidently have a more communal view of life, they still crave for the dignity that comes from privacy. In Chen Jo-hsi’s largely autobiographical short stories, a people are revealed who may not have a formal word for “freedom” in their language but long for it. It is a long time since I wept for figures on a printed page, but I wept for the old man filled with excitement at the prospect of buying his sick wife a fish, two withered bamboo shoots and a piece of ginger, only to discover after purchasing it, that the fish had to be returned to a market display for the “foreigners.” Artists are like other people: You can fool some all the time and all of them some of the time. But when an artist stops being fooled and combines clarity of vision with a truly extraordinary writing talent, Potemkinism is revealed in its essential nature: a false front presented to our gullible pundits who know even less about the real world than the Empress Catherine did.