Xi Jinping and John Cena are Rotten Pieces of Pork Offal

China's newest trade export: the art of humiliating self-criticism

The Poplar

She is a long sword shining with a greenish light.

Standing forth in the midst of solitude on the plain,

she yearns towards the blue sky.

Perhaps

some storm will tear her from the earth.

But even if she were going to die

she would not bend her back

for anyone.

--- Liu Shahe, 1957

“I’m in the middle of Fast and Furious 9 promotions. I’m doing a lot of interviews. I made a mistake in one of my interviews. I love and respect China and the Chinese people. I’m very very sorry about my mistake. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I sincerely apologize. You must understand that. I really love and respect China and the Chinese people. I’m sorry. Bye.” 

--- John Cena, 2021

In 1957, Ke Jing, a 35-year-old editor at a Chengdu publishing house, visited the home of the writer Li Jieren, then in his mid-sixties. Ke and two of his colleagues wanted to know if Li would be interested in writing the introduction to a comprehensive Sichuanese cookbook, the first of its kind to be published after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

An enthralling afternoon ensued. In an article published decades later in the Sichuan Culinary Journal, Ke recalled Li -- a novelist, gourmet, former restaurant owner, and chef -- regaling his guests with stories about Sichuan food. A sampling of topics included the inimitability of mala seasoning, a lecture on Chengdu’s unique twist on banquet dining, and a spirited defense of Sichuan cuisine’s superiority to Cantonese cuisine.

The editors were delighted. They invited Li to write a 30,000-word essay. He agreed.

As I read Ke’s article for the first time, I could feel my heart rate accelerate. I’d been chasing after Li for years, convinced he was the perfect loom with which I could weave together all my accumulating threads on the culture and history of Sichuan food. I’d already located newspaper articles Li had written about various aspects of Sichuan cuisine, pored over memorials of Li’s gourmet accomplishments set down by other writers, and sought out the myriad references to his favorite meals scattered through his novels. But a single treatise summing up all of Li’s hard won knowledge and analysis? Until now, I’d never heard so much as a whisper that such a thing existed!

There was a good a reason for that. The very next paragraph in Ke’s story dashed my hopes as quickly as they’d been raised. Less than a month after the meeting, Li made the politically disastrous error of defending a young Sichuanese poet who was under political attack as part of the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” instigated by Chairman Mao in 1957. Although Li was never imprisoned, according to Ke his physical and mental health suffered from several years of forced self-criticism and literary vituperation. Ke wrote that Li lost the will to attempt anything more than completing revisions to his great River Trilogy project. The cookbook introduction was never written. Nor was the cookbook itself ever published.

The desperate privations caused by the ensuing Great Leap Forward -- which hit Sichuan especially hard -- further savaged Li’s health. It all contributed, wrote Ke, to Li succumbing to the ill effects of a meal of soy-marinated pork offal that had gone bad. He died in 1962, at the age of 70.

“A gourmet falling sick and dying because he ate some rotten offal,” wrote Ke, “truly this was a great jest of heaven.” 

For the intellectual who wanted to forget his plight and escape from a seemingly hopeless situation, little remained but dreams, alcohol, and the pleasures of the flesh; and if the search for artificial prolongation of life that was pursued at this time seems surprising, we must remember that many a man went in daily fear of having his head cut off.

-- Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy

Long-distance bike rides, immersion in science fiction, fascination with ancient Chinese history, the embrace of multiple forms of intoxication, years spent abroad, multiple hours devoted, every night, to the deciphering of Chinese texts -- all my myriad passions speak to one overwhelming psychological propelling force: the desire for escape. It doesn’t matter whether I am toiling my way up some steep grade in the Berkeley hills, or looking up yet another obscure character, or following a footnote into the arcane recesses of Neolithic salt production, or gulping down one more margarita, or even just spending all day in my kitchen, prepping a banquet, chopping garlic and ginger. It’s all fundamentally the same. I indulge myself in distraction to avoid dealing with the exigencies of the now. I am a master of escape.

What exactly is it that I flee? It might be the drudgery of earning the dollars that the market offers me for specific tasks, or the emotional work necessary for a healthily sustained relationship, or the decay of my body, or the pain of engaging with the demoralizing politics of the world. There’s always something.

I have rationalized my Sichuan project as a way to excavate connections between disparate cultures and eras and economies, but I cannot deny that there’s something else going on here, that there is a disconcerting similarity between the impulse that sends me chasing down a Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove rabbit hole and the urge to binge-watch four seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in a week. The former was my response to Trump’s election in 2016; the latter to the uncertainty of Election Night 2020. I wanted out. I’ve always wanted out. And I have devised some very sophisticated ways of getting out.

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove flourished in the third century AD. They were famous for cavorting in the woods with lute and wine-cup. When I discovered that their frivolity included indulging in toxic psychoactive drugs I sensed a bond stretching across the centuries that cried out for investigation. When I found out that the great Chinese writer and critic, Lu Xun, had given a lecture in the late 1920s discussing the drug and alcohol consumption habits of the Seven Sages, I wasted no time tracking it down.

As news helicopters buzzed over Berkeley tracking Antifa activists engaged in running street battles with right-wing provocateurs and my daughter rushed off to protest the travel ban at the San Francisco airport, I was translating The Style and Prose of the Wei-Jin Epoch and Their Connection with Wine and Drugs. I may even have gotten high while doing so.

Which is, if I do say so myself, an elite display of my ability to escape.

Of course, it was all to no avail. As Lu Xun and many others have pointed out, the Sages’ embrace of hedonistic bacchanalia was at least in part a front; a defensive maneuver designed to avoid potentially fatal involvement with court politics. The times were chaotic, usurpers were overthrowing the existing dynasty, Confucian pieties seemed to have little relevance in the long and violent interregnum between the Han and Tang empires. Acting like a drunken fool was a great way to keep your head down. Or at least so they hoped. Despite their best efforts, several of the Sages, including the famous poet and master of the lute, Xi Kang, ended up falling fatally afoul of the authorities.

Lu Xun’s lecture, delivered in August 1927, turned out to be a similar, albeit more successful, exercise in caution. Just a few months previously, in April, Chiang Kai-shek had betrayed his United Front allies and massacred hundreds of Communists and left-wing activists. Posters appeared in one city attacking Lu Xun as a “subversive influence.” Fearing for his own life, he dared not directly criticize the KMT.  Instead, observes Gloria Davis in Lu Xun's Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence, “he turned the lectures into an allegorical criticism of the Nationalist purge of Communists.”

The death of Xi Kang at the hands of the usurper Sima Yi, wrote the historian James Pusey, was an indirect allusion to Chiang Kaishek’s treachery. Lu Xun was “satirizing the present through the past.”

There is no true escape. In 2017, I sought shelter in third century hedonism and ended up face to face with the Shanghai massacre. In 2021, I did my best to lose myself in Li Jieren’s fiction, but my curiosity about his life funneled me directly to his entanglement in Maoist repression. Struggle as I might to focus on the delights of Sichuan pepper jewelry, again and again I end up stuck in the same box canyon.

How can I report or write about any aspect of China without dealing with the totality of China today? Without grappling with the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the extinguishing of free expression in Hong Kong, the threat of war against Taiwan?

That rotten piece of offal? A cosmic jest indeed: A message sent across the decades demanding I wake up and face the music.

+++

On March 25, a PRC diplomat resurrected classic Maoist-era invective by calling Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau a “running dog” for the United States. On April 19, a sortie of 25 Chinese warplanes intentionally violated Taiwanese airspace. On April 26th the People’s Daily published an editorial attacking the Hong Kong University Student Union “as a group of thugs hiding on campus.” Most ludicrous of all, just this morning, the actor John Cena posted a video of himself apologizing, in Chinese, for the ghastly error of calling Taiwan “a country” while promoting the upcoming Fast & Furious 9. Abandon all hope, ye who acknowledge Taiwan’s independent democracy when your paycheck is tied to Chinese box office revenues. The spectacle of American actors forced to perform public acts of groveling self-criticism to appease the hurt feelings of Chinese movie ticket buyers would be funny if it wasn’t so damn sad.

But perhaps the oddest recent news item on this particular gamut was an article in Radio Free Asia in early April reporting that the Communist Party was allowing visitors to pay their respects at the grave of Jiang Qing, a leader of the Cultural Revolution who was Chairman Mao’s fourth wife, while preventing visits to the grave of Zhao Ziyang, the former premier who spearheaded economic reform but was purged from the Party for supporting the student-led demonstrations on Tiananmen Square.

The sole sourcing for this report is less than convincing: A screen shot of a WeChat message posted in a tweet from a former CCP member who was kicked out of the party in 2020 and now lives in the United States. It also boggles the mind that China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, would condone such a symbolically resonant move. Xi’s father was purged in the Cultural Revolution, and his own  mother was forced to denounce him as part of a group humiliation of the “delinquent” youth. What could possibly be gained by rehabilitating her memory?

But the truth, in this case, may not be relevant. What is undeniable is that the deeper we get into the Xi regime, the more the rhetoric and actions of the current leadership have aligned with and reproduced the worst manifestations of the Maoist era. The arrogant “wolf warriors” who dominate contemporary Chinese discourse are nothing more than Jiang Qing in slightly different packaging. The crippling of protest in Hong Kong shares obvious DNA with the Anti-Rightist Movement. John Cena’s abasement could be a out-take from “Chairman Mao is a Rotten Egg” — one of the most powerful short stories in The Execution of Mayor Yin, Chen Ruoxi’s revelatory snapshots of Cultural Revolution thought control. People do fucked up things when the censors have absolute power.

It all sucks, and I hate thinking about it, and I’d rather not write about it. I want to have fun. I’d rather go for a bike ride. Maybe it’s time for a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend rewatch. On my darker days I even regret my decision six years ago to resuscitate my interest in the Chinese language and Chinese history. Because the déjà vu overwhelms. The last time my Mandarin was as good as it is now, I was about to fly to China to cover the Tiananmen protests. My ticket was dated June 6th. The tanks rolled in on June 4th.  

For the next three decades I distracted myself with other pursuits.

The sharp about-face between 1956’s “Hundred Flowers Movement,” in which Chairman Mao invited the general public to be candid with their criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership -- “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend” -- and 1957’s “Anti-Rightist Campaign,” in which the millions of people who dared take Mao at his word ended up facing extreme political persecution, the crippling of their careers, and years of hard labor and/or imprisonment, was a defining moment for the long term relationship between the CCP and Chinese intellectuals. The closer you look, the harder it is to see the switcheroo as anything other than a massive betrayal. Mao, the great “liberator” of China, invited feedback on his job performance and then proved unable to take the heat. Even worse, the crackdown freed him to make even bigger mistakes. It is one of the great unanswerable questions of modern Chinese history: Could there have been another path forward if the CCP had integrated the criticism of the Hundred Flowers Movement and pursued reform? Could the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution have been avoided?

Like so many of those who were caught up in the backlash to the Hundred Flowers Movement, Liu Shahe, the poet Li Jieren defended, believed he was doing his patriotic duty “to help critique and improve life under socialism.” The full story is told in Dayton Lekner’s fascinating “The Two Rivers of Sichuan: Learning Literary Lessons in Chengdu, 1957,” published just last year.  

Liu Shahe’s father was reportedly a landlord executed during the Communist takeover of Sichuan. But by all accounts Liu, a rising literary star in the 1950s, was a dedicated supporter of Mao. He was a member of the Communist Youth League who considered himself a “passionate lover of the CCP.”  He wrote the poems that got him into trouble on a train-ride home from Beijing, where he had been attending a meeting of the China Writers’ Association. The poems were featured in the inaugural issue of Stars, a journal published in Chengdu that Lekner says was the “first dedicated poetry journal with state backing to be put out in the new China.” A quote from Mao, written in his own calligraphy, was featured on the masthead: “A single spark can start a blaze.”

“All the editors,” writes Lekner, “liked the idea of using Mao’s own hand and thus blessing the journal ‘by the divine light of Chairman Mao’ and driving away any ‘evil spirits.’”

The issue was published on January 1, 1957. The backlash arrived almost immediately, well before the “official” beginning of the Anti-Rightist Movement in July. One member of Sichuan’s literary establishment attacked the poem The Poplar, (quoted at the beginning of this newsletter post) as an example of a “squeaking lament for the old society, packed with feelings of decline, by an extremely small number of those not willing to accept the socialist society.” By March, Mao himself had condemned Liu’s poetry as “poisonous weeds.”

Liu was forced to step down from his editorial position and retire from public life. He initially avoided severe punishment by making a confession in which he fingered his co-editor as “leader of a Sichuanese plot to attack the CCP and socialism.” But he was eventually expelled from the Communist Youth League and forced into hard labor in the countryside.  He was not rehabilitated until 1979, three years after Mao’s death. A collection of his poems won a National Poetry Prize in 1982. He died in 2019.

As for Li Jieren? The following passage is from Kenny Kwok-kwan Ng’s The Lost Geopoetic Horizon of Li Jieren: The Crisis of Writing Chengdu in Revolutionary China.

On 1 June 1957, in an interview by the Chengdu Daily held at his residence, Li Jieren paid tribute to the prose poems by Liu Shahe, a young poet who had just been castigated as a ‘rightist’ for his supposed contempt of Communist authority. Li praised Liu Shahe’s “Pieces on Plants” as exemplifying the Chinese tradition of ”singing of objects” (yongwu) in lyrical poetry, and cautioned against any unreasonable indictments of the young talent for his lack of social experience. He was bold enough to say that the political campaigns against a minor literary piece by a young writer verged on “making too much fuss over a trifle” (xiaoti dazuo). Li implied that one should grant autonomy to creative expression and do away with crude allegorization to dictate literary activity He may have wanted to critique obliquely the cultural bureaucrats who had kicked up a political storm by imbuing the poetic utterance with ideological connotations.

Li may have felt secure in his age and stature; he enjoyed, after all, the mostly symbolic title of “vice-mayor of Chengdu.” But by August, with the Anti-Rightist Campaign in full swing, he was forced to make his own speech of self-criticism. He called himself, writes Ng, “an intellectual from the ‘old society,’ bearing the mentalities of capitalist and bourgeois ideology, Confucian thought, and eighteenth-century European liberalism.”

He admitted his detachment from the rapidly changing ‘new society,’ which stemmed from nothing but the ‘inferiority complex’ of an old-style intellectual and the unconventionality and indifference of a pompous ‘scholar’ (mingshi), who stood aloof from the ‘progressive society’. Li attributed his acrimonious relationships with the cultural cadres and dissatisfaction with the party’s authoritarian literary policy to the ‘backwardness’ of his feelings and thought. He wished to throw away this knapsack of old mentalities but confessed that it still weighted him down. Li would continue to vilify his former liberal views and bourgeois background in the press until the spring of 1958.

As self-criticisms go, Li Jieren managed to express himself with considerably more eloquence than can be said of John Cena’s pathetic babbling. But Li had always been someone who took the currents of history seriously. He witnessed the end of the Qing Dynasty, lived through the anarchic warlord era, and experienced the Communist liberation. He strove with all his literary might to capture the tensions and contradictions of China’s arduous transition to modernity in his River Trilogy. He was a serious man.

John Cena, in contrast, was merely under orders from his Hollywood masters to atone for the sin of imperiling Fast & Furious 9’s Chinese box office take.

It’s hard to think of something more representative of escapist pop culture in its most evolved 21st century form than the Fast and Furious franchise. Despite the attempts of some critics to portray it as some kind of multi-cultural utopia, its true grist is as immaterial as cotton candy.

And yet .... there goes John Cena, managing in just a few seconds to connect the question of Taiwanese autonomy to Hollywood greed and mainland Chinese authoritarianism. It’s a master class in excavating connections, a dissertation in globalization’s discontents. Behold this moment of peak capitalist irony: the Communist Party of China is controlling how the U.S. entertainment industry is allowed to describe the world via profit-and-loss accounting. Is this what we call “soft power?” Or is it just power? 

There is no escape. It’s all connected. It’s all one story. John Cena choked on some rotten pork offal this morning. Xi Jinping has summoned the spirit of Jiang Qing back from the netherworld. Chairman Mao is personally responsible for preventing me from reading Li Jieren’s masterpiece on Sichuan cuisine. And everyone, everywhere, seems terrified at the prospect of letting a hundred schools of thought contend.

I’ve been mad ever since I learned about Li Jieren’s entanglement with the cultural commissars at the end of his life. I’ve been studying modern China, on and off, since 1980, but this time, it somehow felt personal.

OK, maybe that’s kind of nuts. But I can’t ignore it. Maybe this is how I finally figure out how to transmute my infatuation with escape into something more powerful, something more artful, something more meaningful. I must not regret the choice to reengage with China. I’ve got to follow this story.