The first time I visited Yan’an it was the May 1st holiday for International Labour Day. After arriving late at night we went straight to our hotel, it was still chilly in the evenings but there were a group of Uyghurs out selling lamb skewers so we could fill ourselves up before sleeping. “What made you come to Yan’an?” I asked, probably a bit too optimistically. “The chance to sell lamb skewers.”
The next morning we were getting ready to walk around the city, it was the 1st of May, probably the second most important festival to the Communist Party, just behind National Day. From our hotel room we could suddenly just make out the noise of a procession coming down the road. As it got louder we rushed out, excited to see just how the communists of Yan’an mark International Labour Day, but what we saw was not what we had expected. No red flags, no banners encouraging workers of the world, just a long line of people with boards over themselves, chanting and handing out flyers for a mobile phone company. Walking adverts. In the red capital Yan’an, like the rest of China, May 1st is not a political festival but a business opportunity.
Step back 80 years and Yan’an was a different place. Not the city of today but an old walled town high up in the Yellow Earth Plateau of northern Shaanxi, the place where the Communist Party set up its revolutionary base area at the end of the Long March. Before moving to Yan’an itself, Mao and the other leaders had stayed in Zhidan and then Zichang counties, both had been later renamed 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 remoteness and its perfect terrain for guerrilla warfare that the Red Army finally found a place to call its own after years marching from the southeast of China. In the hills around Yan’an the Red Army honed its guerrilla skills that would eventually lead it towards nationwide victory.
No red flags, no banners encouraging workers of the world, just a long line of people with boards over themselves, chanting and handing out flyers for a mobile phone company.
‘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 revolutionary beacon in a country that had undergone a hundred years of foreign occupation, not to mention centuries of feudal rule. 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 this ‘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 that 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 in a famous article. Bethune’s statue still stands in front of one of the city’s hospitals.
Indeed the whole city is a monument to the ‘sacred ground’ of the revolution. As soon as you step off the train the big red star of the new train station dominates the platform. In the south of the city lies Nanniwan, the site of the first agricultural cooperative. Moving in to the centre of town the Baota Pagoda sits upon the hillside surveying the city below, the one building in the city centre not to have changed since the 1930s. There are countless former sites of revolutionary activity, from the incredibly mundane (Former Site where Mao Anying received Revolutionary Training) to the more famous, such as the Wangjiaping and Zaoyuan bases where Chairman Mao and the other leaders made their homes, held their meetings and trained young cadres. In Wangjiaping the table where American journalist Anna Louise Strong interviewed Mao is preserved. Here is where Mao sat as he calmly analysed that “nuclear weapons are paper tigers.”
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.