In 1959, Mao was one hell of a proud man. As the new Emperor of China, he’d led an unbelievable boom in food production, completely eliminated the need for medicine and science, and “enticed the snakes out of their caves” with a hundred flowers — all in just ten years!
So he decided to erect ten great buildings to honor his grand achievements. They would represent the people, the peasants, the army, the minorities — each building had a great semantic purpose. He would name them The Ten Great Buildings!
In London, I found the old box of slides. It was hidden in the back of my parents’ closet. I had to move fifteen other boxes to get to it. It hadn’t been touched in decades. I bought a slide scanner immediately, and went to work.
Going through the treasures inside, I keep gagging at the photos that I’m retaking 30 years later.
Some are awfully obvious, like these crackers of the Taj Mahal…
and Humayun’s Tomb…
But these are the de rigeur shots. Of course Dad shot them in 1983, and of course I re-shot them 30 years later. But then I keep finding less traditional shots, like this so-specific angle of one stretch of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu…
This was like the trip to Disneyworld I’ve never taken. My golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory. Our trip to North Korea.
I know you’ve already been. Many times. But walking these two kilometers, I realized why this was one of my mom’s favorite places in Paris. Two kilometers of stacked-up bones, all to us. Entirely alone. So damned romantic.
Well, we made it to the Taj Mahal last weekend. Huge. Overwhelming. Magnificent. I wiped away a tear or two.
Shah Jahan built it in memory of his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. That’s like the awesomest romantic gesture, ever.
But I was also reading William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi at the time. It’s a great book. And according to it, Shah Jahan wasn’t just a mad romantic. He was also the head of one seriously fucked-up family — a generation plagued by incest, murder, harems, fratricide, sororicide and even patricide. It’s less Shakespeare than it is Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Continue reading “Murder, Incest, and Fratricide led to The Taj Mahal?”
On my way out of Deshengmen Tower — where you’ll find a strange collection of ramshackle museums crammed in together — I noticed the most remarkable thing for sale: old North Korean stamps, celebrating European regal excess!
There was the Versailles stamp, which reeks of excessive opulence…
A few hundred yards westward of (the Shun-chih-men) is the place for the Imperial elephants, the Hsün-hsiang-so, a large enclosure in which the elephants of the Court are kept… The intelligent animals are taught to salute the Emperor by kneeling down, and receive a kind of adoration.
Did you know that Beijing has a dozen or so elephants that kneel as the emperor passes by? Seriously.
At least that’s what my book says. It’s a Beijing travel guide from 1897, author unknown, that Charlie Custer found on archive.org. The copy originally belonged to Herbert Hoover, China expat and one-time US President.
“The Brain Hoop” – Loop a rope around his head, and tighten by placing a stick inside the loop and twisting it.
Should none of these do the trick, resort to The Five Penalties – Cut the victim’s nose off, then his or her limbs, after which beat him or her to death. Then decapitate them, chop them into mincemeat, and display the remains in the public marketplace.
Instead of war/hate/fear of the “Learn English” book, this one radiates with the hope, promise, and togetherness that was the one up-side of the cultural revolution. “Everyone was together then,” said a 96-year-old Maoist I met the other day. And these two kids really are.
The little Red Guard — maybe he’s a farmboy, or maybe he was sent down to work in the fields and learn from the people — cradles a rural Red Pioneer. They study characters together. “One… two… three…” “Tractor… atomizer… rice basket.”
The title, 农村儿童看图识字, means “Picture Cards for Rural Children.” One of Mao’s great plans was to educate the entire country and eradicate illiteracy. I don’t know if he really managed that — but this book was part of the effort.
There’s no publisher, date or price on the booklet, but it’s marked up with a child’s doodles, and held together with dusty string.
I laughed when I noticed the marijuana plant, or 麻, in the top left above.
“But doesn’t it make them go insane?” a Chinese coworker asked me, eyes wide, when the topic of smoking pot came up at work. “I hear it’s very dangerous,” another said. Except for a small crowd of dreadlocked Chinese hippies I hang out with sometimes, I know few locals who would admit to smoking up.
As a crop, though, you’ll find its shadow everywhere. In Guangzhou, we walked down an alleyway named “Sell Marijuana Street” (卖麻街). In Shenyang, at a national linguistic conference, my hotel grew tall and stinky plants just outside my window. And a junior farmer should definitely know how to read and write about what they grow.
Back in the cultural revolution, China was in turmoil. Almost anything could get you in trouble. Han Xin, a blacklisted artist, told me that painting the sun the wrong shade of red would mean jail time. Absolutely everything had to be in unquestionable service to Mao and a Maoist China.
And the English books? Well, they were few. But they, too, were one hundred percent revolutionary.
My good friend Ginger recently gave me this incredible English language textbook printed in June 1971, the height of the cultural revolution. It sold for 2 cents, and has 81 pages of Maoist lessons on learning English.
But why would closed-off in-focused China want to study English in 1971? I’d thought it would even be illegal. But no. “With English as a tool,” Lesson Six’s dialogue reads defensively, “we propagate Mao Tsetung Thought among the people of the world. With English as a weapon, we fight against the imperialists, revisionists and all reactionaries.”
It’s absolutely fantastic. Simple grammar is explained with military furor. “I ___ a Red Guard. She ___ a Little Red Soldier. We ___ Chairman Mao’s Red Guards.” (The appropriate forms of the verb “to be” are hand-written in.)
Class discussions are focused along themes such as “Who are our enemies?” and “How many militiamen are there in your company?”
Vocab samples include “re-educate,” “oppress,” “put [as in ‘put proletarian ideology in first place’],” and “running dog [as in ‘Defeat the U.S. Aggressors and All Their Running Dogs’].”
My favorite part of the book is the notes made by the original owner. Some of them are simple — the pronunciation of “construction” (“kan’straksan”), underlined words, lots of marks my linguist friends would probably recognize.
But then, in the middle of Lesson Eight (“The Happiest Day in My Life”), he strikes out several lines. It appears as below:
“At 10 a.m., the happiest moment came! Chairman Mao and his close comrade-in-arms Vice-Chairman Lin Piao walked up the Tien An Men rostrum. In excellent health and high spirits, Chairman Mao warmly waved to the revolutionary masses. Millions of red hearts turned to the red sun. We cheered again and again.”
Lin Biao’s Chinese name, 林彪, is scribbled out. It’s almost unreadable.
In September 1971, a few months after this book was printed, Lin Piao/Biao died in a mysterious plane crash. He was Mao’s planned successor, but Mao was a jealous and paranoid man at this time. Lin Biao may have been fleeing for fear of his life, or perhaps — as is recorded in China — fleeing from a failed coup against Mao. Perhaps he was murdered. Perhaps he died in error. It’s all very unclear. But overnight he went from national hero to national traitor. His name was struck from books like these, his deeds struck from history. I’m sure every version of this book has the same line struck out.
It used to be a retreat. 90 years ago, the French spent 9 months building Bokor Hill Station up as the ultimate getaway: escape from the miserable heat and humidity of Phnom Penh. 900 laborers died while building it, but to the French all these ghosts were worth it. There was a casino, a ballroom, a hotel, and when all the sinning was done, a Catholic church.