Growing Up Pakistani in Peking, 1966-68 (Part 2)

Posted on January 14, 2011
Filed Under >Adil Najam, >Imran H. Khan, Foreign Relations, Travel
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Imran H. Khan

(Editors Note: This is the second of a two part post on the author’s reminiscences of growing up in pre-Cultural Revolution China. In the first part Imran H. Khan looked at the cultural and social aspects of the China that was and how they looked to a young Pakistani boy. In this, the second part, he looks at the political dimensions).

At times the course of human affairs takes on an intensity and complexity of such proportions that it takes decades to understand it. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was one such event, and I was lucky to see it from the front seat without being scarred by it.

It was a clash of mega proportions that erupted in an instance. The sleeping Chinese Dragon was waking up after being colonized but was not sure about its new values. The old guard saw in its weakness as an opportunity to assert itself, but the new power elite was not going to let it take China back to the old ways which had failed to protect it from being exploited by the foreign powers.

“Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavor to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: It must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art, and all other parts of the superstructure that do not correspond to the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.”

I was enrolled in a missionary school of Convent of Jesus and Mary, which was the only English medium available for the foreign children. I had enjoyed learning about world geography and history. One fine day when I turned into the road where the school was located I was surprised to see a large number of young Red Guards occupying the school and was turned away. I later learned that the nuns and priests were charged with spying and the school had been permanently closed. This was a huge setback for all the children who were enrolled there.

This was my real introduction to the Cultural Revolution.

The art teacher who used to come to our house to teach Chinese art to my mother also vanished and we learned later that he was considered a revisionist. Anyone charged as being a revisionist was publicly disgraced by being paraded on a truck around the city with a placard of his counter revolutionary acts hanging around his head.

These were very bewildering times as eleven million Red Guards paraded around the city. The speakers located on most central public roads blared national songs and propaganda. The result of listening to those songs is that I still know two of the songs even though I made no attempt to learning them. One of the songs is “The East is Red” that can also be seen below.

With no school and parents busy in their diplomatic activities, I found my self in nearly complete freedom. With a brand new Chinese bicycle in possession, I set out to see Peking from one end to the other.

My favorite destinations used to be museums, parks, sports events, movies and theatrical shows. My friends had a competition to find interesting places that were off the main areas and trade these secrets with each other. I watched each and every table tennis, gymnastics, volleyball and badminton games played in multi-day competitions.

The Military museum had artifacts dating back to the communist party struggle against the Nationalists who were much better armed with planes and tanks. What struck me were the grass samples that the communist leaders and others ate during their Long March. It drove home the point that when the people are motivated, it is the spirit that can overcome the deficiency in weapons.

The Peking Zoo had some of the most exotic animals. Some of them like the Giant Pandas, certain types of storks and oxens were indigenous to China. While it was not a large zoo, it allowed spectators to get much closer to the animals than any other zoo that I have been to.

The public bus system of Peking was very extensive and if you had a pass you could go from one end of Peking to another without even changing the bus. No school meant having the opportunity to do just that all day long.

Deification of Mao

In China, in those days, Chairman Mao was the closest thing to God.

The communist party did a great job in using the medium of art to project their values and visions of the future. The walls around the city had huge billboards with art work that showed how they wanted to see their country in the years to come. It seemed that the country was bursting with energy like a stem cell, and the communist party was trying to guide that energy to a bigger and brighter future that was egalitarian.

They created many musical and theatrical productions to convey this message. I had the opportunity to experience the fervor that they created amongst the viewers. This was also true of many movies that showed the successful struggles of masses against the oppressors, whether they were foreign or local.

Return to Pakistan

My parents decided that I had enough fun and it was time to get back into the education system. The Principal of Cadet College of Hasan Abdal had mercy on me and admitted me even though I did not do well in Urdu.

I flew out of Shanghai on a PIA Being 707 and happened to be the only passenger on it. On the way it stopped in Canton at 1 am in the morning. There were passengers from a couple of Ilushin turbo props from North Vietnam and Laos already at the airport.

The Chinese had organized a short cultural program for the passengers of these airlines. So they all waited for the single passenger from this huge plane to come down and witness the show. As the show ended, this single passenger – a Pakistani child – walked away into his standing Boeing.

Thus came to an end my journey through tumultuous China in a cultural crescendo that faded into the night as the Boeing climbed out of the clouds headed for Dacca, being fussed over by seven air hostesses and staff.

Pakistan China Friendship

The work done by members of the Pakistan Embassy in those defining times laid the foundation of Pakistan China friendship. The result of those efforts is that there are now approximately 10,000 Chinese workers engaged in 120 projects in Pakistan, which includes heavy engineering, power generation, mining, and telecommunications. One of the high visibility project is the jointly developed JF-17 amongst many other defense related joint projects.

Postscript: On Stamps

The New York Times recently reported that, “Once banned by Mao Zedong as a bourgeois activity, stamp collecting has become increasingly popular in China in recent years. While early collectors were from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the international Chinese diaspora, some important Mainland Chinese collectors are today ‘repatriating’ stamps, in the same way that others are bringing back Chinese artworks. You can view some of my Chinese stamp collection by clicking on the image below.

Imran H. Khan blogs at ‘Planet Earth’, where this was first posted.

19 responses to “Growing Up Pakistani in Peking, 1966-68 (Part 2)”

  1. Imran Khan says:

    This is in response to some comments on the post.
    I have not been back to China since then and therefore do not have the ability to make a judgment as to how Chinese now feel about the Cultural Revolution and Mao.
    Cultural Revolution at its essence was about ensuring that the values being espoused by Mao were shared by the intelligentsia and others. They used all forms of media available at that time ranging from arts, theater, films, posters and even stamps to get the message across. They paid a huge price for this revolution but at the end of the day, bulk of the society was on the same page, and from the looks of it has paid handsome dividends.
    Pakistan today is also in some ways trying to define the core values that are not currently shared across the social spectrum. Jinnah died too soon after the creation of Pakistan to spread his vision of Unity, Faith and Discipline.Pakistanis have not had a leader since who could articulate and get the masses behind these founding values or enhance them. Pakistanis today are very lucky to have the freedoms to travel, live in a place of their liking and have a profession of their choice. None of these freedoms was available to the Chinese then. Chinese, South Korean and Irani societies have the ability to organize massive protests that are not damaging and by and large peaceful to bring about social change. I think Pakistanis should learn from their experiences to bring about changes that are now over due.

  2. Waqar Ahmed Malik says:

    Please watch a new documentary on Katas Raj on aired on Express News Pakistan =related =related

  3. ShahidnUSA says:

    I notice that some Pakistanis are perturbed and angry that some other Pakistanis have opened their businesses and bought properties in other countries.
    The reason obviously economic and I am not getting into the argument of whether that money was acquired through unlawful ways and should have been invested in their own country, but if changing the perspective that perhaps they see that the country is not suitable for them to prosper and the rhetoric is not meeting the reality.

    They see that some still reluctantly seeking the change and understanding that the democracy and tolerance “cuts both ways”,
    while the others circling around the past and fear to learn any lessons.

    This ” fear” of the change has to be removed wisely, nonviolently and while still be remain as good Muslims.

    Thanks for smiling but God knows your heart.

  4. Avery illuminating post as the first part. Thanks ATP.

  5. Amina says:

    Another good one. I enjoyed reading the personal account and that is so much more interesting that just reading journalistic or history accounts. I think ATP should do a series of people’s rememberances of living in different parts of the world. I think that would be great reading.

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