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Date Posted: 10:34 30/09/2003

Zhou Enlai's Ashtray

Running Dog visits Nanjing but fails to steal any revolutionary artefacts

FROGMARCHED through an old but well-preserved wooden building where, in 1945, representatives of the Chinese Red Army met with the Guomindang nationalists in a bid to settle the civil war, observers are shown the bed on which Chairman Mao's trusted lieutenant, Zhou Enlai, slept, as well as the desk at which he presumably made his notes and the ashtray where he may well have stubbed out his cheroots. Clearly, there is no way of deciding whether or not the ashtray is genuine, and if indeed the nondescript pot was installed at a later date, the decorators may not even have been especially concerned with its authenticity. After all, who - apart from Running Dog, still craving nicotine - would give it any particular regard? The attention to detail, however pointless, is remarkable, and as we slouch through the main building, we notice Zhou Enlai's briefcase, a collection of identity cards, and a large 1940s saloon car that apparently also belonged to him.

If evidence from the city of Nanjing is anything to go by, history can be viewed either as political propaganda, or as postcards, and neither can be considered especially accurate. Joining a small tour group on a whistlestop journey throughout the city, Running Dog was shown the paraphernalia of the Ming courts, intricate carvings and clay sculpture from the Six Kingdoms, the august statues of Confucius and half a dozen martyrs of the Japanese invasion, and an imposing, unsettlingly well-kempt shrine to 'the hero of the Republican Revolution', Sun Yatsen. We were also taken to see the picturesque white stone bridges, and the antique charms of countless double-gabled houses, most of which had been fastidiously 'renovated' ?sometimes built from scratch, as if in homage not to how things were, but how they ought to have been ?in the 1980s.

Nanjing, the former imperial capital, has suffered more from the trials of history than most. At the museum dedicated to the memory of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which blazed through central China in the period after the First Opium War and eventually set up its capital in Nanjing in 1853, the official line regarding their struggle is emblazoned on placards and busts and doorways. While they managed to awaken the latent revolutionary desire of the Chinese peasantry, the Taipings were insufficiently apprised of the nature of the class struggle, and for that reason failed.

That is certainly one way of looking at it. The central government still fears spiritual awakenings, and the chaos caused by these impoverished, largely illiterate zealots over a century ago might be one of the reasons why the current government has stamped down so hard on the pseudo-Buddhist cult known as the Falungong.

And yet, the old line about these proto-revolutionaries, insisted upon by Chairman Mao, remains intact, and it is surprising - notwithstanding a variety of ideological add-ons invented to justify the comprehensive volte-face of the last twenty years - how much the old dogmas are repeated. Continuity is crucial to legitimacy, and the Communist Party, brought into power on the promise of sweeping away divisions and ending national humiliation, must now try to square those commitments with the vast and diametric changes that have taken place over the last two decades thr

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