Magazine article Geographical

CHINA IN DRAG Travels with a Cross-Dresser

Magazine article Geographical

CHINA IN DRAG Travels with a Cross-Dresser

Article excerpt

CHINA IN DRAG Travels With a Cross-Dresser

by Michael Bristow

Sandstone Press * [pounds sterling]8.99 (paperback)

* 'In the grand sweep of human history,' writes Michael Bristow, 'the teacher is no one in particular'--just a scruffy, ageing man born in Beijing two years after the Chinese Communist Party came to power, and whose life reflects, if only by accident, the ups and downs of his country since. His reminiscences would provide insight into, among other things, the Cultural Revolution, and he'd have an anecdote to fit every situation. So far so good. What Bristow hadn't realised was that the teacher was a cross-dresser; a habit he didn't want mentioned in Bristow's book, as his wife was unaware of it. Hence the compromise by which the teacher's life and stories are at the heart of the text, but the man himself remains nameless throughout.

It's a tantalising detail, and teases away in the background while the larger picture is drawn. The first journey the pair make is to Double River Farm, where the teacher had been sent as a teenager to learn from those who tilled the land, an experience shared by millions of young people across the country.

Nominally, the idea was to make them more communist, though in fact, it was the government's attempt to bring the Red Guards under control. Mostly teenagers themselves, the Guards, responding to Mao's calls for political engagement, had become a disruptive liability; closing schools and factories as they questioned people's commitment to the cause.

But the re-education initiative was a national disaster, akin to sentencing a generation to a term of hard labour: six years of little food, inadequate clothing and makeshift shelter, following which the returnees had to struggle to finish their education. And yet, witnessing the teacher reminiscing with other former exiles, Bristow sees no bitterness: just old friends talking about old times. Nor are there museums, or memorials to the past. An unforgotten period, it's nevertheless uncommemorated.

But then, perhaps this is unsurprising in a populace accustomed to the frequently absurd consequences of political edicts. In 1959, Mao decided that sparrows were eating too much grain, and launched a campaign to get rid of them. All across the country, people banged pots and pans under trees to prevent sparrows roosting. …

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