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  Beijing Scene


In September this year, Time magazine published a special issue devoted to the 50-year history of the People's Republic of China. Entitled "China's Amazing Half-Century" it is a collection of personal accounts which chronicle events and experiences over five decades of Communist Party rule. Although never published in China, Time magazine has granted Beijing Scene permission to republish several of the articles. Covering women's issues, popular literature, avant-garde film and rock 'n' roll, each of the four articles selected offers a unique perspective on contemporary Chinese culture and society.



China's best-known rock musician, Cui Jian, writes about his musical career and his seminal1986 concert at the Beijing Worker's Stadium, which marked the birth of the rock scene in China. His hit song "Nothing to My Name" became an anthem for China's first post-Mao generation.

On a cool night in 1986, I was invited to take part in an unprecedented concert held at the Beijing Worker's Stadium. The place was packed. I sang an original tune, "Nothing to My Name," which people seemed to like. When the concert ended and I stepped outside, I saw some kids on the street imitating my moves. Few Chinese, myself included, really knew what rock 'n' roll was back then. But we knew it was something that gave out energy. It was music with a message.

My musical odyssey began early. My father, a trumpet player in the People's Liberation Army, began teaching me the instrument when I was 14. My tastes were strictly classical. In 1981, I joined the Beijing Symphony Orchestra and played in it for seven years. Things began to change in 1985, though, when the British group Wham! gave a concert at the Worker's Stadium. A year later I heard my first Beatles tape. I started listening more and more to rock and writing songs. I learned to play an electric guitar that a friend of my father's had given me. After the Workers' Stadium concert, I formed a band and made rock my life.

Things are different now. Rock has become commercialized, and the performers want to make money by playing the same music. Yet there is also a younger scene keeping the spirit alive, playing in fringe bars. Rock and roll is about equality. Some Chinese are slaves to Western culture; others look East. I say f--- all of them and be yourself. That's what I like about rock and roll. You can talk straight.


International award-winning director Chen Kaige writes on the world-famous Beijing Film Academy, and China's "Fifth Generation" of film. The moniker refers to filmmakers who graduated in the early 1980s such as Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Not One Less), Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite) and Chen himself. His works include the internationally acclaimed Farewell My Concubine, Yellow Earth, and most recently The Assassin.

I never expected to attend the Beijing Film Academy. My father was a film director, and as a child I used to go on the set to watch him. But I actually thought it was pretty boring; it just seemed like a lot of people shouting. I wanted to grow up to be a scholar instead and study classical Chinese literature, living my life behind a desk. I didn't think I would be very good at working with people, or that I would ever understand how to make people happy. To be a filmmaker you have to be able do that.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, I wanted to go to Peking University. The problem was, like many other people of my age, I wasn't able to finish middle school. All schools were closed when I was between the ages of 12 and 17. A friend suggested that I try to get into the Beijing Film Academy. The exam was less demanding; he was sure I could pass.

The first time I took the test, I failed. It was extremely disappointing, because I desperately wanted to attend. A professor later told me they thought I had answered the questions with a know-it-all-attitude because of my father. Miraculously, they decided that year, 1978, to accept more than the usual number of applicants to the directing department. I was allowed to take the exam a second time and passed. I was very proud to get in. Three thousand people had applied, and only 28 were accepted. Many talented individuals didn't get to go. We were all very lucky.

The school was in Changping county on the outskirts of Beijing. Because colleges had been closed for so long, our professors had not taught in more than a decade. They told us that all they could do was show us films. So we often boarded a bus to the Beijing Film Archive and watched movies. It was great! We saw lots of American and Russian films. It seemed like one long party. We had the freedom to see whatever we wanted, say whatever we wanted and dream about what we wanted to do in the future. We knew nothing about films. All we had was passion, and we became passionate about filmmaking. None of us liked Hollywood products. We all preferred thoughtful European films and art-house movies to the big moneymakers.

The filmmakers of the Fifth Generation, as we were later called, were unique because we had all endured the hardships of the Cultural Revolution. I, for one, had something I really wanted to tell people, a message. Each of us was determined to tell people the truth. And we refused to compromise for the sake of political ideology. Making propaganda films was out of the question. My generation of film directors chose to fight to do what we wanted to do, instead of what others told us. We didn't want to make the same mistakes that directors of my father's generation had.

When I graduated in 1982, I was sent to the Beijing Film Studio to work. I was given a script called Yellow Earth, a story about a wandering communist soldier who travels to a farming village in northwestern China to learn folk songs as part of a propaganda effort to mobilize peasants against the Japanese. At first I wasn't sure if I wanted to turn it into a movie, but I did want to see the sites described in the script. So four of us, including cameraman Zhang Yimou, spent a month traipsing through northern China. We had to walk for part of the trip because we didn't have a car or a jeep. I was stunned when I saw the Yellow River in Shaanxi for the first time. At that moment I knew that I had to make the film.

Because the directors of the Beijing Film Studio were not yet retired, there was no chance for someone as young as myself, who wasn't interested in creating propaganda, to get permission to make a film. We decided to apply to a smaller entity, Guangxi Film Studio in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province. The people who ran the studio weren't sure whether or not they liked the script for Yellow Earth. But after four hours of trying to convince them that it would work, we got the project - and the financing.

Filming took about two-and-a half months. Our budget was only US$50,000. It wasn't much money, but at the time it seemed like a lot. After the film was done we realized we had made something special, that we had departed from typical storytelling form. A leading official in the Beijing Film Bureau said initially that he would "never sit in a dark room just to watch a film like that." We went to his office, without an appointment, and argued with him. He said we clearly didn't know what we wanted to say in the film, and that it didn't make any sense. But two months later the film received good reviews at the Hong Kong Film Festival; later it won the best picture award at the Hawaii International Film Festival. When Zhang Yimou and I returned from Hawaii - my first trip to the United States - the Chinese censors said the film was okay because overseas audiences liked it.

It was not until the mid-1980s that the West discovered the kinds of films we were making. Most of these movies display an intense and beautiful visual style, and a plain and simple form of narration. The spirit was cultural humanism. We were all influenced by our experiences during the Cultural Revolution. It's ironic that Yellow Earth is still making money today. (Of course, the budget was so low, it was not difficult to turn a profit.) But back then we weren't even thinking about money. It was financed by the state-run Guangxi Film Studios!

Even though the Fifth Generation was one of the first groups of Chinese directors discovered by the West, it was far from the first to make impressive contributions. Soon after the motion picture industry was introduced in the 1920s, China experienced a golden age. Films made by top directors found favor in the eyes of the city's petty bourgeoisie. The distinctive style of realism reflected in the films came even earlier than that of Italian neorealism. In the 1950s, some new films, which had remarkable narrative techniques, still managed to emerge, though their subjects were highly politicized. These new films were dually influenced by both Hollywood and the Soviet Union.

During the Cultural Revolution, China made almost no feature films except those based on Peking Opera or ballets known as "revolutionary model operas." It's funny that the characters in these films were divided into "heroes" and "enemies" in the same way they are today in Hollywood.


Wu Qing is a professor of American studies at the Beijing Foreign Languages University and a deputy to the Beijing People's Congress. She writes on the Forum for Women's Rights that took place in Huairou at the same time as the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

In the first week of September 1995, it rained every day in Huairou, a picturesque town situated an hour's drive northeast of Beijing. But the town was actually flooded by women - thousands of activists from around the world who had flocked to Huairou to participate in the NGO Forum on Women, the sister confab to the United Nations-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women being held in Beijing. The delegates were not to be deterred by the weather. Everywhere I saw women sitting amid the downpour discussing, mobilizing, advocating, organizing, educating, negotiating. When no interpreters were available, they used body language to get their message across. The initiative, persistence, and fighting spirit of the participants was overwhelming.

More than 40,000 women came to Huairou with passionate concerns, as they knew the more official conference in Beijing would be limited to a fixed agenda on multilateral issues. At Huairou, we debated the finer points of critical problems like prostitution, violence toward women, female suicide and inequality in the home and workplace.

China has more women than any other nation. And after working for more than a decade on issues dealing with women and development in China, I realize the country has at least as much need as any other for the kind of energy and initiative that came out of the Huairou conference.

My involvement with such issues began in the summer of 1990, when I visited several villages in Huining county, one of the poorest districts in the desperately impoverished northwest China province of Gansu. The average annual income there was less than US$25 per person. The land - mostly barren loess plateaus - is poor and irrigation difficult. Many of the villagers had no concept of what the word bao (full) meant, as they went hungry most of the time.

Entering one village, I saw quite a few retarded people sitting on the ridges of poorly grown wheat fields; there were also many illiterates, especially among women. I happened to visit a family of three living in a small straw hut with a kitchen inside. The husband told me that he considered himself lucky, as he had bought himself a wife with US$50 and she had given him a son. His six brothers - like many middle-aged bachelors in the countryside - were too poor to set up families for themselves. The wife herself was happy: she had come from an even poorer village.

Without this visit, poverty would have remained an abstract and dead word to me, seen only in films and books. At that point I realized how women bear the brunt of such poverty because of their low social status. Some of them didn't have a proper name: they were known as so-and-so's mother, or wife. Their job was to give birth to children, especially sons, and to take care of the family. On top of all that, they had to work in the fields. I was stunned and flabbergasted when I saw my sisters living in such conditions. Tears welled up in my eyes.

Yet I was not disillusioned or disappointed with the people or the work done by local village committees. On the contrary, I felt proud of them for fighting so hard under such conditions. That's when I made up my mind to work with these people to help bring about change. The decision launched me on a whirlwind, decade-long voyage that has shown me both the depth of the problems facing poor Chinese women and their amazing strength in overcoming the challenges.

As an adviser to the monthly magazine Rural Women Knowing All, I often travel to poverty-stricken areas to lobby local government officials to enact women-friendly policies: to encourage literacy programs, for instance, or to establish micro-credit institutions so that women can start their own businesses. The magazine has started a practical skills training center for rural women to help improve their access to vocational training. Experts teach agricultural techniques, economics and law. At the same time, the magazine sends doctors to rural areas to lecture on sexuality, reproductive health and sanitation, and to perform basic medical checkups on women.

It is not only in the countryside that poor Chinese women face difficulties. The Migrant Women's Club was founded in 1996 to help rural women and girls who have come to Beijing to find work. To help them improve their status, the club provides basic education courses in Chinese, English, math, and computer literacy. Twice a week club members attend lectures on topics such as law, sex, gender, marriage, urban social values and issues facing migrant women. The Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing, meanwhile, offers help over the telephone to women who have problems related to marriage, family or divorce. The center has helped train many counselors for hotlines in other provinces and has hosted quite a few bilateral and international conferences.

The social tensions created by China's economic transition have also caused an increase in violence against women. A group of female lawyers and college professors has come together to set up a center offering legal services to women who have been physically or sexually abused. The center also invites top law professors to talk about the Chinese legal system and how to improve it, as well as about women's law and how to add more teeth to it.

The vast range of these tasks suggests the challenge China faces in improving conditions for its female population. (And this does not even address the issue of female infanticide, which poses a direct threat to the future of Chinese women.) But in my work I have been inspired by women working at the grassroots-level planting trees and sinking wells, and trying to get into local party committees so they can influence the decision-making process. The passion on display in Huairou in 1995 has lasted far longer than the conference - as will, I hope, the impact of such activism.


Wang Shuo, a former sailor turned best-selling fiction writer, has been described as a spokesperson for China's 'beat' generation. This personal account is an observation of the changes that have taken place in China over the past 50 years. He is the author of I Am Your Father and Playing for Thrills.

When the tenth anniversary of the People's Republic of China was celebrated in 1959, I was a year old, and I don't remember a thing. I do know that a lot of kids born that year were given names like Guoqing (National Day) or Shiqing (Tenth Anniversary). Much later I saw Chinese films made in 1959. They weren't like the movies that came afterward, which showed only peace and prosperity. And so they were criticized during the (1966-76) Cultural Revolution for depicting "bourgeois humanism." That meant actresses falling in love on screen with actors and, worse, having affection for their fathers. It was all frowned upon as "love without reason," since people could love only Chairman Mao.

When National Day came around in 1971, I was selected to join other children in displaying big Chinese-character placards as part of that year's parade. As the floats passed by the rostrum at Tiananmen, we were each to open a page of our big coloring book and hold it above our heads. Together we would form huge slogans in the sky: "Long Live the People's Republic of China!" and "Proletariat of the World Unite!" For our daily rehearsals, we would get out of classes, gather at our school and then walk more than 12 kilometers to Tiananmen Square. Many of the smaller children suffered from heatstroke or pissed in their pants. To the side of the Square, row after row of manholes along the pavement were covered with tents to become temporary toilets. Sometimes while I was doing my business, girls clutching their trousers would rush in to occupy the latrines behind me. I would flee in panic through another exit. Some of the boys felt similarly embarrassed but couldn't stand up, as they were in the midst of squatting over their business.

Finally, we mastered our rehearsals and were ready for the parade. It was canceled, however, because Lin Biao, Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, had just fled the country for the Soviet Union and died when his plane crashed in Mongolia. Chairman Mao was greatly hurt by the incident, and his health got worse by the day. The celebrations that year were moved to various parks. I went to Beijing's Summer Palace to attend one. I was way in the back and, while string instruments were being played on the stage, I got a little lost. I tripped and fell. I still have a scar on the back of my right hand from that day.

In subsequent years, we were issued tickets for National Day celebrations in the parks. Stages would be set up for acrobatics, Peking Opera singers, even a women's military song-and-dance troupe. I was a hooligan in those days. I would join other boys and roam through the parks to meet girls. On these so-called "Red Letter" days, girls from respectable families could be found everywhere, alone or in groups. We went up to them and teased them with frivolous words to win their smiles. I had many beautiful, spiritual, unbearable-to-recall love experiences in those parks.

The People's Republic's thirtieth anniversary was in 1919. By then I was a sailor on a small naval ship off the port of Qingdao in Shandong province. My family was allotted just one ticket for the National Day celebration at the Great Hall of the People, and I was the lucky one to get it. This was the onset of the era of reform and opening to the outside world. The atmosphere was one of optimism. The program for the evening gala was interesting. In addition to song-and-dance performances and Peking Opera, foreign films were screened. And there was a grand ball in the banquet hall, where fashionably dressed young men and women waltzed to music adapted from Chinese folk tunes. I was dressed in my military uniform, and I did not know how to dance then. I can't express how depressed I felt. The manners and morals of the times had changed. My uniform, which had once seemed fashionable and made me proud, suddenly felt antiquated compared with the dancers' high-heeled shoes, bell-bottoms, nylon shirts, permed hair and quartz watches. Some of them were even speaking English! When I left the naval unit, I did not continue my application to enter the Communist Party. I told my superior that I had access to some television sets made in Japan and that I hoped to resell them at a profit. I went to Guangdong to deal in smuggled electrical appliances.

China resumed the military reviews at Tiananmen Square for its thirty-fifth anniversary in 1984. I watched that one at home on TV. I saw Deng Xiaoping, dressed in infantry uniform without rank, sticking through the sun roof of a Red Flag limousine. With his face radiant, he raised his right hand toward the ranks of the military as his car moved slowly along Changan Boulevard. His voice boomed through the microphone: "How are you, comrades? You comrades have been working hard!" The soldiers replied in one voice: "How are you, chief? You have been working hard too!" When he returned to the Tiananmen rostrum, Deng was shown in a close-up with Hu Yaobang, then General-Secretary of the party. Hu gave Deng a thumbs-up, as if to say, "Terrific!" In another, widely publicized incident, students passing by Tiananmen Square suddenly held out a banner saying: "Xiaoping nin hao" (How are you, Xiaoping?). This brief, cordial greeting moved us for years.

During China's fortieth anniversary, in 1989, I was playing mahjong. It had been an unusual year. During that period, I felt pain whenever I pissed. The color of my urine was no longer clear. I feared that I had contracted a venereal disease. When I went to the hospital for a checkup, it turned out I was suffering from prostate inflammation. The doctor said it was due to too much bicycle riding and that I would be all right after some rest. Since then my health has been getting worse year after year.

How time flies! This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. I hear that the Communist Party wants to have a jolly time by resuming the military review and the parade. Why not? The world's largest square should not stand idle. People would say we don't know how to properly celebrate a festival. Beijing has been tearing down buildings that violate construction regulations. Two bars that I once frequented have been demolished. Several small shops in my neighborhood have also been pulled down. Workers are replacing bricks on the pavement and fixing up the greenery around the city. The festive air began early. I hope they use National Day to really make Beijing cleaner, as there is always rubbish that doesn't get cleared away. I hope, too, that they can complete some of the buildings and roads that never seem to get finished on time so that when I am watching TV I can see whether the city has met the high standards of this rare occasion.

When I was young, 50 seemed like a very big number. I once believed I'd never live a long life and that my future would be different. But now I am right in the middle of my own future, and I have not found any real change in myself. My dream is as far away as it was during my childhood. The only difference is that I have already lost my will to realize it.

As I've grown older I've become accustomed to this country. Perhaps "country" is not the proper word; maybe "regime" is more appropriate. China is a country with thousands of years of history, and it has been ruled by this regime for the past 50. By and large I accept this statement: our country will be as chaotic and weak as Russia if the regime falls from power, and in the end it will be the common people who get the worst of it. "None of us wants our country to be in a state of chaos, right?" I really do not know what to say whenever I hear this question.

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