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It was now up to the propaganda machine to explain away the shortage of food, not an easy task. Many explanations were offered, each more bizarre than the last, from natural disaster to the foreign trade embargo (the Soviet Union was singled out as the main culprit). No one dared state the truth: our leaders had been wrong, the quotas were totally unrealistic, the peasants had retaliated by feigning compliance to the unrealistic quotas and doing nothing to achieve them. In Marxist jargon, it was a classic example of "ultra-leftism," when leaders are divorced from reality, confusing it with wishful thinking. It was precisely the kind of thing Mao had vigorously opposed during the Yan'an rectification campaigns in the 1930s.

But this time, Mao was the "ultra-leftist," and the results of his insistence were plain. During the "three difficult years," my wife gave birth to our second child. He was born a healthy 3.6 kg, but I didn't know how we would be able to feed him. Food was everyone's most pressing concern. We were luckier than most of my colleagues, since we had a bit of extra money from my moonlighting as an English translator. With those funds I surreptitiously bought food on the black market. We managed to scrape by for those three long years, mostly thanks to my wife, who spaced out the little food we had to make it last as long as possible. Not every family was as fortunate; many couples split up amid the pressure brought by the shortages.

China's Amazing Half Century
Navigate through the People's Republic of China and discover the 50 places where history was made

China's Wild Ride
The early years of Mao's new republic were exhilarating and disastrous. Deng Xiaoping brought the country back from the brink

Essay: Happy Birthday to Me!
A Beijing writer recalls what he was doing when the People's Republic celebrated some earlier birthdays

50 years of the People's Republic
presented by CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune

Quest for Dignity
The success of the Communist revolution climaxed a century-long drive by the Chinese to reclaim their historical greatness

Meanwhile, we began to hear reports of starvation in China's poorest areas. The stories turned out to be true. But as the Great Leap veered toward disaster, Mao refused to call a stop to the policy and assess the damage. He seemed convinced that his grandiloquent plans had been thwarted by secret enemies within his own party. He was determined to unmask them. Barely a year later, he launched another mass movement, the "Four Clean-ups," aimed at exposing and weeding out party leaders who were "capitalist roaders." This failed to achieve the results he desired, and so Mao in 1966 launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Why did this chaotic 10-year "revolution" occur? Analysts have attributed it to flaws in the political system, to Mao's psychological problems and to the personality cult that surrounded him. There may be truth in each of these explanations, but they don't elucidate why China's best minds succumbed to a theory that was at once politically leftist and philosophically absolutist. Perhaps the root cause lay in the Chinese revolution itself, the tortuous path the country had to take against brutal powers that opposed China's transformation--in short, the heavy price China had to pay for the right to modernize itself.

The Cultural Revolution was probably the most destructive social upheaval modern China has endured. My wife and I were arrested by the newly formed security forces and thrown into prison as suspected spies of this or that foreign power. Our home was broken up. My 16-year-old daughter was sent to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, while my son, barely eight years old, had to be left behind with my mother, who lived on a meager pension. Our home was ransacked three times by Red Guards claiming to be from different factions. There was, however, one thing I was grateful for. The time I spent in prison taught me more about China's true state of affairs than I have learned during the rest of my life.

My wife and I were both released in 1971 after a little more than three years, either for lack of incriminating evidence or, as an insider later explained, because of a change in top party leadership. I never found out. Beijing looked rather bleak. The population seemed to have shrunk. Many people had been moved out of the city amid fears of an air attack from the Soviet Union, which had gone from being China's Big Brother to its Enemy No. 1 in the early 1960s. Students above the age of 15 (including my daughter) had been sent to the countryside for "re-education by the poor and lower-middle peasants." During our absence, we had been moved out of our small courtyard house into an even smaller one with a leaking roof. In 1976, when the huge Tangshan earthquake 100 km away shook Beijing, our ramshackle house collapsed and we had to move again.

After the Cultural Revolution formally ended in 1976, Chinese culture, ironically, had become a disaster area. Under the hysterical suppression of Jiang Qing, who never missed a chance to remind everyone that she was Mao's wife, creative art was banned. The very idea of art as entertainment was taboo. For 10 years, the country could watch only eight plays and two ballets, approved or sponsored by Jiang Qing herself. The few writers who were not sent to the countryside fared badly as well, assigned to produce new "revolutionary" pieces. Their work was put under the closest scrutiny, with censors sniffing for traces of counter-revolutionary sentiment or disguised attacks on the socialist system.

For many Red Guards, this created interesting opportunities. Spotting and exposing hidden enemies was often profitable: the greater the exposé, the greater the reward. The payoffs usually took the form of political promotions (no one wished to appear so vulgar as to ask for money), and they generally came with perks. The result: China created a generation of greedy hypocrites, who built their careers on deceit. Accused of trying to wreck China's socialist foundations, artists, writers, actors, art directors, set designers and even ushers and stagehands were sent to the countryside to do manual labor. The situation persisted until Mao's death in 1976.

When news of Mao's demise broke, everyone seemed to plunge into an abyss of despair. By that time, I had left the theater company and was employed as a journalist in the Foreign Languages Press. I tried my best to look somber and stunned, but could not bring myself to go berserk and join in the wailing that was commonplace. To me, Mao was a great man, a political giant who had left an indelible imprint on the history of New China. With his larger-than-life concepts, he achieved a lot, perhaps more than anyone else of his generation. But he was not a god. He had his weaknesses and obsessions, and the harm he wrought was also immense.

Many of us participated at the memorial meeting for Mao in Tiananmen Square. As we were led to our appointed places, I found myself standing more or less at the exact spot I had occupied during the founding of the People's Republic, 27 years earlier. I remember thinking (just to myself, for I had learned in the intervening years to be discreet) that once more I would be witness to the beginning of a new era. Then I looked at the platform stage and my heart sank. The new leaders were there, with Jiang Qing in prominence. Deng was nowhere to be seen. He had been recalled from exile by Mao three years earlier and placed in charge of the government and the army. He had spent that time trying to undo the damage caused by the Red Guards and put China's house in order. But with Mao's death Deng had been sacked again, banished once more into oblivion. Whether Mao had a change of heart or whether it was the result of a conspiracy concocted by Jiang Qing, we shall probably never find out.

Soon, however, Jiang Qing and the rest of the "Gang of Four" were gone. Deng re-emerged, as ebullient as ever, as China's No. 1. With Deng in charge, things began to get better. He must have thought long and hard during his 10 years of disgrace, arriving at certain conclusions. He did not seem in a frenzied hurry to have his policies implemented. He began by restoring honor and prestige to expertise in areas of science and technology. He made it plain that China should never again wage mass political movements. He rehabilitated the large number of capable officials who had been wrongly accused of treason during the Cultural Revolution. He put them back into positions of responsibility.

Deng shook things up. His reforms even included stopping the central leadership's tendency to work every day far into the night or until dawn. He chose not to reside in Zhongnanhai, but in an old-fashioned house in the alleyways of Beijing. He even found time to play bridge, his favorite pastime. He replaced China's long, wordy, tongue-twisting slogans with simpler, pithier ones: "Liberate your minds, unite and look forward." He placed the practical goals of "reform" and building an "open door" to the outside world as his top priorities.

Artists were among the first to benefit. In 1980, the All China Theater Association was invited by the British Council to visit the U.K. I jumped at the chance to join the delegation. I had majored in English literature, and I had published many translated works of drama. Yet until then, I had never been abroad. In fact, I had long given up the idea of traveling overseas: my father had once taught English literature at Taiwan University, and I was sure that experience would disqualify me. With Deng back at the helm, however, the trip was approved, and I found myself watching West End productions, visiting Stratford-Upon-Avon, listening to speeches in Hyde Park, climbing the narrow stairs of Ann Hathaway's cottage--all as if in a dream.

There were other opportunities. In 1980, we were invited to the United States. I was introduced to the renowned playwright Arthur Miller, who would become a life-long friend. We decided then to produce one of Arthur's plays in Beijing, in Chinese. We agreed on Death of a Salesman. I would be the translator, and Arthur said he would come to Beijing to direct it. I played the part of Willy Loman, fulfilling a lifetime dream. I had first read the script in 1948, when I was still at Qinghua. At that time, China was familiar only with naturalistic types of Western plays, and I could not envisage Arthur's free use of time and place.

In 1983, when we performed the play in Beijing, audiences had no problem with the structure or the content. The techniques, I realized, weren't so removed from the traditional approach of Chinese theater. The warm reception exceeded anything Arthur could have imagined, as I could sense his nervousness on opening night. After the final scene, when the stage went dark, there was absolute silence for a few seconds--enough time for one of the actresses offstage to begin sniffling. Then it came, applause that sounded like a tidal wave, and then endless curtain calls. As I took my bows, I recalled the moment when I had first read the script to my theater colleagues. More than one had opposed the idea of doing the final scene, a requiem for Willy. "This might work in the U.S., but the Beijing audience is too spoiled," went the argument. "After Willy dies, there is no more suspense, and the audience would start leaving to catch a bus home. How are you going to stop the stampede?" I am happy to say there was no "stampede" in any of the more than 100 performances.

In the next few years I was involved in some cinema and television joint ventures, and I hit the university lecture circuit. In 1986 I became vice-minister of culture. I tried to enhance exchanges in more than just bureaucratic ways, producing and directing three Chinese plays in the U.S. and five British and American works in China.

The major dissonant note of the Deng era took place at Tiananmen Square in 1989. It was a tragic situation, but I think in a way it was unavoidable. This was a clash between two powerful sets of values. On the one hand, there was the Hebraic, Hellenistic, Roman and West European tradition, embraced by much of Western-dominated civilization; on the other, there was the Confucian, Oriental, self-cultivating philosophies, rooted in the Golden Mean. When two powerful civilizations confront each other, a clash is inevitable. Modern Chinese history is full of such incidents, some more violent than others.

Looking at the developments of the past 50 years, one can understand why China did not fall into chaos and lawlessness after Tiananmen. Once more, Deng was the man of the hour. As soon as the disturbances subsided, he spoke up, stressing that the basic policies of "reform" and "opening up" must be maintained at all cost. Any attempts to get even with rival factions must be curbed. He followed through with a call on all Chinese to show patriotism and secure social stability. For a time, the more radical elements scoffed at these as run-of-the-mill generalities, but Deng was smarter than that. He understood the psyche of the man on the street. The latent patriotism of China's people could be harnessed during times of political crisis. Most people, especially the more articulate ones, have always rallied around a political force that defies foreign manipulation of events in China, real or imagined.

After years of political upheaval and unrest, Deng's promise not to revive mass movements was reassuring. As time went by, memories of Tiananmen faded into the background, and became less and less of an issue. Of course, there are still a number of stalwarts who have not given up the cause, who insist that justice be done. But they are losing ground, losing popular support. Some have had second thoughts about their original decisions, and a trickle have started on the road back home from physical and mental exile. The trickle is likely to grow.

In the meantime, Deng, true to his word, persisted with his blueprint of reform. In 1992, in his late 80s, he took to the road, exhorting his followers to press ahead with liberalization, regardless of theoretical taboos. In public, Deng always denied that he had a master plan, describing his reforms as "wading across a river ... feeling every step of the way for obstacles." The fact is, he left the most significant reform until last: rejecting state planning and adopting market economics as the guiding principle.

Now that Deng is gone, we should treasure his heritage. That he was disgraced and rehabilitated three times has made him a legend in the annals of contemporary history. More important, he had the moral courage needed to overturn sacred ideological precepts that were holding China back.

Deng once said that China should persist in these new policies for at least 100 years. Toward the end of his life, Yan Fu, my father's poet-friend, bewailed the futility of seeking truth from Western books. Adam Smith had advocated the market economy in the 18th century, but China's ruling class and its scholars ignored the option. It took someone of Deng's stature and determination to cut through the knot, to offer easy-to-fathom formulas: "A market economy is not limited to capitalism alone, just as a planned economy is not limited to socialism." Such wisdom is comparable to that of Prometheus, the Greek god of mythology who gave man fire. Deng's spark has set China going and we should treat it with equal respect and gratitude. Our "youthful scholars" need not wait until they are "hoary-headed" to see their dreams come true. This half-century began with Mao, but in the end, it was Deng's.

Ying Ruocheng, a former vice minister of culture, starred in the film The Last Emperor and in the Chinese-language production of the play Death of a Salesman

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