Chinese Journey

A constant contributor to LE MONDE, ALFRED FABRELUCE is a French historian and man of letters who was in China thirty years ago and again this year. His observations filled four notebooks, from which these excerpts have been selected.


WESTERNERS once loved Peking not only for its beauty but also for the astonishing advantages they enjoyed there. In one quarter of the city they were rulers; at their feet they saw a nation of traders and artisans; and on their whims depended the coolies’ hope of life — if they all took a ricksha, the runner would die within a year from heart trouble; if they all went on foot, he would die within a week of hunger. I traveled in China thirty years ago, when it was in a state of anarchy, and I had a lordly status. I now told myself: “This time I’ll be cut down to my right size.” Not at all. The privileges accorded the tourist have, if anything, increased.

At railway stations, I automatically began to make my way to the platform by following other travelers. But the interpreter directed me toward a luxuriously furnished waiting room decorated with flowering plants. If I moved to pick up my suitcase, it was withdrawn from my grasp indignantly, as though I were about to lose face. In the sleeping-car compartment, designed for four persons, two berths were reserved for me, and in the restaurant car, an entire table, from which Chinese were strictly turned away. I would have liked to ask them to sit down but was not sure whether I had the right. (In addition, I suppose, segregation was a quarantine measure.)

I was not, as elsewhere in the Far East, a target for touts and beggars; I didn’t have to burrow every moment in wallet or pocket or keep an anxious eye on luggage. Everything fell into place around me as though by a miracle. In the train, I was not given my ticket but was entrusted by the interpreter to the guard. I was called at mealtime and conducted back to my compartment, surrounded with attention but deprived of all initiative, a silent traveler, both prince and prisoner.

I sometimes questioned the Communists with whom I was talking, but they never directly pressed me; I never found them lacking in courtesy. But why such a display of consideration? Would it really convert a bourgeois? That would be too naïve. Was it designed merely to show that the new China knows how to receive guests? Then I am happy to bear witness: the organization of tourism is perfect. Well, I have kept the rules. Now let us speak seriously.

Conversations, for the most part, are monopolized by Intourist. They ask you what you are interested in, whom you would like to meet. But your requests are not always granted. For days on end they repeat, “We are contacting. . . .” To me these mysterious words evoked a picture of endless telephoning, busy officials, the search of an ideal interlocutor. Nothing of the kind — the conversation never takes place. “Ask us anything you like! We are at your service!”

Like conjurors able to produce rabbits from a hat, they are prepared to offer you a factory, a circus, a curiosity shop, a doctor, a workers’ club, and even a capitalist. I wanted to visit the rural communes; they agreed willingly. Most of the people I spoke with were young, lively, and intelligent, and our conversations were fairly free — more so in the South than in the North, and in the countryside rather than in the towns.

“How many Chinese are there? Four hundred million? Five hundred million? Give or take a hundred million, I really don’t know.”

This is what C. T. Wang, the Kuomintang Foreign Minister, said to me in 1930 as he looked at a map of China in his Nanking office. Twenty years later, Chou En-lai, Prime Minister of the People’s Republic, was equally uncertain. In 1950, he adopted as a working hypothesis the higher of Wang’s two figures. The census of June 30, 1953, was to show a population of more than 650 million. Was this surprise gratifying or disturbing? The sudden gift of a hundred million Chinese may explain the birth-control policy inaugurated the following year by the Government. It also explains Khrushchev’s appeal to Russian women to have at least three or four children, in which some have seen an anticipation of the need to defend Siberia.

Those who examine the figures closely will notice that they include eight million Formosans, twelve million Overseas Chinese, and eight million inhabitants of the desert regions all lumped together. Even according to the People’s Daily, a certain number of the inhabitants were recorded twice over. Many Chinese have only the haziest idea of their age (a child born on December 31 is said to be two years old on the following day, January 1). I have read a scholarly study from which I conclude that 10 to 20 per cent of this frightening figure may represent only imaginary Chinese.

The calculation of food resources is even more problematical. Last autumn, Mao Tse-tung boasted that the grain harvest had been doubled. Claims to a more modest increase would have been admitted by everybody — it was impossible for such immense efforts not to have results. But the claim to a doubled output causes raised eyebrows. What has become of this miraculous harvest? Traveling through China, I looked for signs of it but could find none. Bigger rations? On the contrary, supplies to the towns have fallen off, and I was able to ascertain in a rural commune that state deliveries had not been increased. Exports? They scarcely rose at all in 1958, and China’s recent failure to fulfill some trade undertakings suggests scarcities rather than plenty. Greater supplies of animal feeding stuffs? Unlikely. Stockpiling? I saw nothing of it. What struck me most of all was the lack of conviction on the part of officials whom I questioned. I still remember the look of anguish on the face of one of them when he asked me: “Are you satisfied with my explanations?” I tend to share the almost unanimous skepticism of foreign experts.

The amount of work done is tremendous and the increase in yield real, but for the time being the consumer does not benefit. In the West, production is destined in the end to satisfy the varied tastes of the population; in China, the population has to adapt itself to what is there. As bees feed their queen, the Chinese people are feeding an invisible goddess of production. She is flourishing, as the figures show, and the Party appears to be satisfied. But what does the ordinary workman think when he reads these victory bulletins in his paper and compares them with his own modest meals? I asked a workman what he hoped for in the immediate future. I formulated my question rather ambitiously. “Would you like, first of all, better housing, more leisure?” He answered, with a timid smile of very simple desire, “We would so much like ... a little more pork.”

CHINA,” say the Communists, “has made dazzling progress.” And the anti-Communists, entering into the game, add: “Yes, but only at the cost of putting all the Chinese into barracks.” Using figures which cannot be checked, the two schools continue unshaken in their debate. “Soon,” say the Communists, “a third of the arable area will be enough to feed the entire population. The rest will be forests, pasture, fallow land. The landscape will be changed by the hand of man to stop the wind and stabilize the rain.” And the antiCommunists reply: “The old people are interned, husbands separated from wives, mothers from children. Couples are allowed to meet at rare intervals for a few minutes, while other couples await their turn.”

I saw neither the miracle nor the torture in the two communes I visited. One was in Kwantung, the other, 1500 kilometers to the north, in Chekiang. In theory, the transition from cooperative to communal organization facilitates a “more rational use of labor” and the establishment in each production unit of “a happy balance between agriculture and industry.” In fact, the only change that had taken place in the life of the country people with whom I spoke was the introduction of communal kitchens, and even these did not have the all-embracing character attributed to them. The dining rooms were small and equipped with family tables. There was a choice of two menus, and these could be supplemented, on payment, in a canteen, and the people were free to prepare their meals at home on “rest days” or on days when they were receiving their families or their friends. In the crèches I saw fat children wrapped in flannel, smiling happily, and I saw them claimed by their families after five in the evening. And in the Houses of Happiness — now called more modestly Houses of Respect — only a few old people were without the comfort of their families.

A woman with a job cannot give all her time to her household and her children. Furthermore, she can save time by eating at her place of work. The Chinese are adapting themselves to these conditions, which are becoming a common practice in all countries.

These are some of my impressions of the communes I observed; I do not wish to generalize. Elsewhere the change may have been more radical. Remuneration of agricultural workers in China consists of a small wage payment supplemented by the free allocation of goods — food, clothes, social services. These allowances are called the “ ten guarantees.” In Kwantung I was told that this year wages had been increased and guarantees reduced. There are differences. Unevenly put into operation in the countryside and not yet applied in the towns, communization is at an experimental stage; it is too soon to pass any final judgment on it.

Nevertheless, the system is moving in an unmistakable direction. At Hangchow I examined the plan of the future town. One of the proposed buildings struck me by its size. I asked what it was intended to be. “It’s the dormitory.” That was the first time I heard the word that was soon to become very familiar. A dormitory is a dwelling place for workers separated from their families. The vast amount of construction work in progress in China requires the large-scale transfer of labor. I even heard — but that was in Hong Kong — of vast labor distribution centers, not unlike concentration camps. The work is of a temporary character — constructing dikes, barrages, kilns, storing the harvest. Town dwellers take part for a few weeks or months. It is, they say, a way of getting a change of air in a country where there are no holidays and of getting to know the life of rural workers, thus promoting the fusion of classes. The system is reminiscent of the labor service introduced by the fascists.

Where exactly is the boundary between volunteering and deportation, between the organization of labor and the destruction of the family? One would have to know a great deal about life in China to be able to draw it. The agricultural contribution made by the few intellectuals I met was, it seemed to me, symbolic rather than real. The requirements of production take precedence. The doctors in a hospital I visited in Shanghai sleep at home only once a week, on Saturday (“We have to keep an eye on all the patients”), and in comparison with others they are privileged. Here is the story of a Peking family: the husband’s qualifications made him more useful in Chungking, and he was sent there; his wife remained in Peking, but managed after a time to get a transfer to Chungking. All would have been well but for the fact that, just before her arrival, the administrative machine blindly dispatched the husband to a third city. The compensations? The dormitory is, as a rule, more comfortable than the individual’s home; the man deprived of his wife is consoled by a shower. Bourgeois degradation — socialist progress. No doubt there is an undercurrent of triumph in seeing the roots of reactionary attitudes torn up in this way. That, at least, is the feeling among the activists, against whom Mao, the man of the center, has often had to contend.

IMAGINE yourself dictator in Peking. You are in control of a country that is backward and without large natural resources but with a vast population. You play this trump card. You raise from the sweat of the people the capital which earlier generations failed to accumulate. You enhance their capacity to produce by stirring up enthusiasms, by mobilizing against two enemies: reaction and natural disasters. That is why the day’s work begins with rifle practice (the rifles are of wood) and ends with meetings denouncing floods. You try to rescue them from age-old passivity by encouraging sport and teaching them to use their wits. You praise them by saying that they can do everything and that their traditional medicine is better than modern medicine, that with their own hands they will be able to change the climate. You draw them into an exciting production romance, in which public works represent the ups and downs of life, statistics the spur; failures are sabotage. This technique of stimulation is of Soviet invention, but in Mao’s China, thirty-two years behind, the drug has to be administered in larger doses. In the U.S.S.R. it is possible to envisage machines replacing men, but such a policy applied on a large scale in China would only spread unemployment. The accent is therefore placed on the first — and inverse — phase of modernization: the transformation of men into machines by psychological conditioning.

It may also be that Mao has intended to reach the stage of Communism more quickly than Khrushchev. The Soviet leader’s criticism of the Chinese communes in his conversation with Senator Humphrey appears to corroborate this. But is this a matter of two Marxist and mutually jealous schools, or rather a case of two economies with different needs? Russia is an industrialized country, rich in resources, relatively underpopulated, its people well trained and even — whatever its rulers say — now rather bourgeois in outlook. China, 85 per cent agricultural, has twice as many peasants as the U.S.S.R. has citizens, and its technical backwardness is great. Its numbers are both its strength and its weakness; it must seek other solutions.

ONE evening in Shanghai, the lamps were giving only a dim light. Current was being diverted to the new industries being built in the suburbs. Since this city no longer trades with the rest of the world, a new means of livelihood had to be found for it. There are no raw materials in the locality, but it is being industrialized nonetheless. I saw the factories going up, vast buildings surrounded by wretched bamboo huts. First the machines must be set going; then the workmen can be housed. At the food shops in Hangchow, queues started forming at dawn. At Canton, from my room at the top of the Love of the Masses Hotel, I looked down on the rain-swept street. There were thousands of carts with large palm-leaf umbrellas, like walking flowers. Around each cart there was an entire family, some pulling, others pushing; it looked like an enormous beetle with human legs.

In 1956, when the Indian delegation visited the country, they were amazed to see men acting as draft animals. “But for you,” they said to the Chinese, “cows are not sacred; why don’t you make use of them?”

This animalization or mechanization of man has nothing sadistic about it. It is an inevitable sequel to the nature of the regime and the size of the population. Nor is it any longer imposed by bloody terror, except, I believe, in the Muslim and Buddhist outlying territories. In the middle of a commune I visited, I found a photograph of a reactionary being executed, but this kind of violence has become exceptional. The picture is reminder enough. Criticism has taken the place of direct force, and it is a powerful instrument in collectivized life.

The isolation of the Communist leaders may be their secret tragedy. They would, on occasion, like to engage in free conversation, but when they invite non-Communists to talk with them, the reply, only thinly disguised, is “Get away with you.” This is the fate of a regime determined to fight against human nature; every easing of tension endangers it. It can only advance on the same road, toward power or utopia. If the scale of the undertaking justifies the maintenance of mass mobilization, it also has its uses as a diversion. A great many Chinese are kept frantically busy only in order to make them forget that they are superfluous. The newspapers are full of citations, for children who collected large quantities of leaves, for old men who killed large numbers of flies. It is not a question of what all this activity yields; everybody must be kept interested.

Formerly, a visitor to China found a measure of intellectual exchange possible; he used to share a common frame of reference with his hosts. But nobody I now met had read a line of Confucius.

In Shanghai I visited a workers’ club. It was an enormous building, and the rooms were full of young men tinkering with jigsaw puzzles, making music, doing gymnastics. There was even one quiet room, where some men were sitting around a table. “Creative work,” I was told respectfully as we passed through. Then I was asked for my impressions. I said: “I have seen nobody who was idle and nobody bored. Everybody seemed to be entirely wrapped up in what he was doing. This large house swarming with youth is impressive. But this I find frightening: putting forward as models men who have studied less but spent more time among the people; the student who claims to have mastered in forty-eight hours of intensive work all the knowledge of his absent teacher; the peasant woman who prides herself on having written ten thousand lines without a break; the worker who wrote in one year six stories and four hundred and twenty-three poems and now announces his intention of stepping up his output. In one of your exhibitions I saw — and in the places of honor! — inventions which were no more than childish tinkerings. What a glorification of amateurism! Doesn’t all this arouse resentment among your professionals?”

The reply to this was the argument that the Chinese revolution was still in its early stages and that what was important now was to encourage people to take up creative work; later they could choose among the things created.

This is a Communist Sparta, and it is capable of still greater privations. It can plan and achieve and develop. But any flowering of personality would burst it asunder. It can reckon with war, but not with happiness. The immense labors should, logically, bring an improvement in the people’s standard of living; it will be granted only with reluctance. In any event, the bourgeois pleasures of disinterested culture will certainly be denied.

Can these people be kept indefinitely in their present state of hypertension? Think of a feverish adolescent driving himself too hard, every gesture proclaiming his exaltation. Is he in good health? Or would you expect a breakdown? China is that adolescent.