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The Book of the Week is “Shanghai Acrobat, The True Story of Courage and Perseverance from Revolutionary China” by Jingjing Xue, translated by Bo Ai, published in 2021.
Born in 1947 in Zhejiang Province in China, the author was sent to live at an orphanage when he was two years old. He never did find out exactly why, as his biological parents were alive. Anyway, the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe recruited him when he was nine years old. Other members of the group were as old as fourteen. He happened to possess the right temperament to endure its rigorous training (that included corporal punishment) and get good at balancing on his hands in various precarious positions.
There were daily academic lessons, too, and a lot of political ideology thrown in. The instructors constantly emphasized the teachings of Mao Tse Tung, and bragged about what a prosperous, wonderful country they lived in. Mao took the calculated risk of allowing performers and athletes to travel outside China where they might learn about other peoples’ lifestyles and defect– so that he could show off his own people’s greatness.
By the late 1950’s, the author was traveling and performing with the Troupe. In 1960, they went to cities controlled by the Soviets, and ironically, to African countries (such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Guinea and Morocco) whose native peoples were starting to throw off their colonialist yokes.
In the early 1960s, owing a ginormous monetary debt to the Soviets and not wanting to pay it, China decided the Soviets were wrong to stomp on the memory of the great leader Stalin (who had died in 1953 and whose crimes were revealed a few years later); Mao theatrically broke off diplomatic relations with the Soviets.
In 1967, Mao capriciously imposed his new twisted logic (a different set of ideas from that of his previous campaign)– the belief that the lowest economic class (the workers, the peasant-tenants) needed to fight the higher economic classes (the bosses and landlords)– because capitalistic activities were anathema. There were a few occasions in which the author was yelled at for saying the wrong things to some non-Chinese people, even though he thought his comments would jive with Mao’s teachings.
As part of the new campaign (called the Cultural Revolution, begun in 1965) to rid China of the dissidents of the moment– performing acrobatics was out of fashion. The radicals loyal to Mao policed the Troupe, finally disbanded it, and psychologically and physically tortured the director in public self-criticism meetings. The author’s acrobatic career was (temporarily, though he didn’t know it at the time) over. He was sent to the countryside for “reeducation.”
With 20/20 hindsight, the author wrote, “To those of us who had been through the Cultural Revolution, the Watergate political scandal was nothing. We couldn’t understand how the American people could force Nixon to resign for ‘peanuts.’ ” It is unclear what kind of propaganda the author and his contemporaries were fed to come to that conclusion.
For, they might have known nothing of Nixon’s real war crimes. But even if Nixon had been innocent of war crimes, he and his underlings still committed election crimes, and worst of all, violated his numerous enemies’ civil rights– evil actions that were considered against the law in the United States. The last fifty years have seen a bit more moderation in China’s political leadership. And radicalism in the United States.
Human nature is such that there has been some convergence (!) between China’s and the United States’ ideologies in:
- surveillance of citizens
- incarceration of citizens
- education, and
- other areas of life.
It’s all in the propaganda fed to the people.
Read the book to learn much more about the author’s life and times, and his fate.