‘Beside the Yellow River, on the bank of the waters of the Yan, is the yellow earth plateau. Before the yaodong caves the millstone grinds, it seems a return to yesterday’.
‘I’m going to Yan’an, to see the soft passing of time, to see thousands of hills, everywhere red’.
From the popular red song ‘I’m Going to Yan’an’
The First of May. International Labour Day. We’re on our first visit to Yan’an, the former ‘red capital’ of pre-liberation China. From our hotel room in the centre of the city we start to hear the unmistakable sound of a march, faint but ascending quickly. “Good, I didn’t think they’d still do things like that to mark the festival,” said my pal. But as we stood at the window surveying the road below, the procession came into view. Not the red banners of Mayday, the calls for workers solidarity, but the billboards and flyers of a mobile phone company. In China, and even in the red capital, Mayday is not a political festival, it is a capitalist opportunity. With days of work and even the chance to travel, people mill around and take advantage of the discounts on offer, paying little heed to the ‘sacred’ ground of the Chinese revolution which they walk along.
Step back 80 years and Yan’an was a different place. Not the city of today but an old walled town, the place where the Communist Party set up base at the end of the Long March. Before moving to Yan’an, Mao and the other leaders set up base in Zhidan and then Zichang counties, both named after martyrs of the revolutionary cause. It was in part because of these early communist organisers, in part because of the proximity to the Soviet Union and in part because of the perfect terrain for guerrilla warfare that the Red Army finally found a place to call its own after years marching from the south-east of China. In the hills around Yan’an the Red Army honed its guerrilla skills that would eventually lead it towards the possibility of nationwide victory.
In Zichang county, at Wayaobao, the Communist Party held a crucial conference, which decided the course of the revolution from that point. Firstly they decided that the Japanese imperialist invaders, not the Nationalist army – who they had been fighting for a decade, were the main enemy to the Chinese people. Because of this, the Chinese revolution could not follow the Russian model, relying on the solely the working class, but had to forge a United Front between the proletariat, the peasantry and even the national and petit bourgeoisie. This laid the basis for the eventual ‘New Democratic’ revolution when the Communists had taken almost the whole of China in 1949. It is these four classes that represent each of the yellow stars on the Chinese flag, with the large star as the Communist Party itself.
‘Without the Communist Party there would be no New China’, goes the popular red song, and ‘without Yan’an there would be no Communist Party’, goes the local saying. Before the times of mobile phone march campaigns, Yan’an was a beacon in a country that had undergone a hundred years of foreign occupation, not to mention centuries of corrupt feudal empire. And thousands upon thousands of youth from across China escaped from their schools and their families to head to Yan’an, to take their part in the national rejuvenation. Yan’an pioneered the Communist Party’s agricultural policies on land reform, collectivisation and mutual-aid. In Yan’an a new education movement was unleashed, aiming to provide schooling to rural children and people, a system which combined both education and work and saw education as a lifelong experience, not a routine set of hurdles to navigate as a youth. Health care was also made available to rural people, and a Canadian communist doctor, Norman Bethune, became one of the first international martyrs of the revolution, with Mao memorialising his ‘absolute selflessness’ as a lesson in internationalism to the whole Chinese people. His statue still stands in front of one of the city’s hospitals.
Walking through Yan’an today, the legacy of revolution rises slowly up in between the edifice of skyscrapers, which almost rival the nearby hills in their height. Set in a valley, Yan’an is different from other cities, its narrow roads being joined along the way by tributary paths that wind their way up the steep sides, past yaodong cave houses that overlook the city. Walking up one path we were surprised at the number of posters slapped onto the side of the walls advertising cures for sexually-transmitted diseases. But walking down the other side we passed shops and tables of sex toys, condoms and DVDs. In China today, everything is available, at a price. The centre of Yan’an is dominated by the Precious Pagoda, on top of a hill and one of the only parts of the city that remains similar to its portrayal from the 1930s. Although the Yellow River winds its way southwards a hundred kilometres east of the city, the Yan River is dry for a lot of the year. The smell of local food permeates the air – yang zashui, goat innards in spicy soup, yangyu chacha, steamed potato and flour mixed with pickled vegetables, and of course all sorts of noodles. Migrant Uyghur Muslims sell barbecued mutton and naan breads just off the main thoroughfare.
At the north of the city, past Mao’s old residence Zaoyuan, the countryside starts. The land on the Yellow Earth Plateau, which Yan’an is the centre of, is dry and lacking in vegetation, consisting of very soft soil which can be hollowed out easily. Yaodong cave houses, warm in the winter and cool in the summer, are still the main type of building when you leave the city or the county towns. On my first trip into the countryside we didn’t walk far until we reached an elevated field being farmed by a group of men. “Come and get some water,” they shouted to us, before explaining about their work. “Here our village still farms the land collectively.” Although farmland all over China was officially decollectivised slowly but surely from the late 1970s, for this village the 1980s had never arrived. “If we decollectivised what could we do? We wouldn’t have these animals, or these tools, because none of us would have had enough money to own them individually.”
Yan’an is not a communist paradise, but in the countryside the socialist economy is still evident in some parts. More than that, the socialist culture is alive and well. People sing ‘red songs’, with lyrics harking back to a time of equality and mutual development, songs which combine well with traditional northern Shaanxi folk songs. Whether the music is about reminiscing more equal times or as a veiled criticism of the current problems of development is open to question. But here older men still wear a white cloth wrapped around their head, and their skin is dark from decades out in the sun. Pictures of Chairman Mao are everywhere, in houses, restaurants and cars, available for sale at the roadside. Taking a break from the planting of wheat, in between fields of vegetables, I asked the old man a question. “What do I think of Mao Zedong? Well, Old Mao, without him we would still be eating millet.”
courtesty of Outlaws of the Marsh