I usually get excited about fieldtrips. I am more inspired to write when I go out and about; meeting new people and visiting new places. It is quite thrilling and the excitement came rushing back on Sunday when we made a stopover in Yan’an en route to Xi’an, one of the four great ancient capitals of China. Both cities, Yan’an and Xi’an, are in the Shaanxi Province of central China, with the latter being the capital. Two different cities with striking similarities vis-à-vis China’s rich heritage.
I spent only two days in Yan’an but the city spoke to me. The history of revolution. The humility of beginnings. The strength of mentality. The unity in struggle. And, above all, the passion for art. As a writer, nothing inspires me more than a didactic assemblage of words, underlining something bigger than the writer which spurs generations to fight for justice and freedom. Guns are more frightening; faster and louder but art in all forms goes further and more enduring to the test of time. Yan’an is the epitome of weaponizing art to fight aggression and regain freedom. The revolutionary art and literature museum, an incubator of literary and artistic talents, houses thousands of materials depicting the role of art in China’s path to victory against the Japanese.
Yan’an is the birthplace of Chinese art and literature, attracting an estimated 40,000 intellectuals who made their way to the city by 1943. These intellectuals left relative urban comforts to traverse hundreds or thousands of kilometres in wind, sand, rain, and snow, and joined a cause greater than themselves but possessed talent that could make all the difference in the strive for self-actualisation. It was deadly. It was painful. It was bloody. It was monumental. But the power of art and literature was subtle and effective; books were written, poems and songs were composed, dramas were acted, information was spread across China. Morale of the frontliners was boosted and the population rose up to confront Japanese aggression in an epic battle that left countless people dead in one of the bloodiest conflicts ever. In the end, there was victory and a new nation was born. Over 10,000 songs were composed in 14 years to celebrate the victory over Japanese aggressors, with Xian Xinghai leading the way, having composed 600 songs against fascism in the peak of hard times.
Almost all revolutionaries started modestly; tattered clothes and sandals, Socratic hair, malnourished bodies and beds as good as barns. Early members of the CPC were no different. Based in the valleys with iconic arches, the CPC members perfected their strategies in these caves and launched a revolution against aggression in mid 1930s.
At the Yangjialing site, over 20 CPC leaders lived in these caves, especially when there was a stalemate in the war.
Zhou Enlai, who later became premiere, Zhu De, who later became vice president, Mao Zedong, who later became president, Ren Bishi, influential miliary and political leader,Zhang Wentian, former secretary general of CPC, Liu Shaoqi, who later became president, all stayed in the caves at different times and shaped the future of China.Strolling around the caves and seeing the humility of their beginnings was chilling, practically sleeping on the floor but had clarity of thought and vision.
Blonde hair and blue eyes
There was an American journalist who documented the struggles of the revolution in China and met subsequent CPC leaders. Sitting by a stone table in Yangjialing, Anna Louise Strong interviewed Mao Zedong on August 6, 1946, after the war against the Japanese was won, visiting the country for the fifth time. It was at this interview that the famous phrase ‘paper tiger’ was hatched.I sat on one of the stone seats, where Anna initially sat facing the south which Mao offered her as a token of respect. I listened as our tour guide explained a wholesome story about Anna and some kids who Mao called his “neighbours”. The kids were amazed to see a different person at the site. Even though they were behind her, Anna noticed it and asked Mao what they were saying. Mao told her the kids have never seen a blonde hair and blue eyes before. To make the kids have a better view, she asked to swap seats with Mao so she could face them. She didn’t fail to mention how close Mao was to ordinary Chinese people.
Yan’an has more and we visited Liangjiahe village, where young Xi Jinping and 14 other educated youths from Beijing were posted and lived with the local people. We had a night visit to the Baota Mountain as well, marvelling at the octagonal illuminating brick pagoda. We visited the Zaoyuan revolutionary site and even joined an Ansai waist drum dance. Yan’an is historic, clean and beautiful. The two days there were special. Let’s all go to Yan’an.