Chairman Mao teaches us...

Mediated memories of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, while sitting in an Air China airport gate

By Andrew Leonard
Published November 13, 2010 10:58PM (EST)

With a two-hour delay prolonging the start of a 12-hour airplane flight, I am taking comfort in my battered dictionaries. I have a shelf-full of Chinese dictionaries at home, but I'm taking the same two volumes on this trip that I packed in my camping-style backpack when I spent three months traveling through China in 1985, fresh off a year of intensive language study in Taiwan

This is not necessarily a sensible or defensible decision. One of these dictionaries is so war-torn I long ago replaced its shredding cover with duct tape. Now the duct tape itself is disintegrating! It may well not survive a ten-day trip through four different cities. But it survived the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing to Berlin and I could not imagine leaving home without it. I cherish it not only because it was my first dictionary but because the definitions are so packed with Marxist-Leninist-Maoist jargon that they add up to a kind of hilarious poetry. I just opened a page at random and discovered the definition for faxian -- find, discover -- includes the following sample sentence: "Many important archaeological finds have been made since the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution."

Strangely, there is no mention of the vast number of cultural artifacts that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. My favorite part about this dictionarity is how strongly it reminds us of the social and historical construction of meaning.

During that first trip to China, I amused myself during the downtime by working my way through one of the classic China novels of all time -- "The Water Margin" -- a rambunctious tale of social disorder near the end of a declining dynasty. It was once my goal to read all the four major classic novels in their original Chinese before tackling them in English. I'm not doing so well on that goal, but again, in honor of that impulse, I decided to bring the first volume of "Journey to the West" (a. k. a. "Adventures of the Monkey God") on this trip.

I'll probably manage my way through two or three pages total, at the expense of great labor, and further destruction of a once proud dictionary. But as I curiously cracked open that first volume this morning, I sight-read the first sentence and realized with a shock that I had purchased the set in Beijing on that first trip, 25 years ago.

What was the giveaway?

The opening words of the preface: "Chairman Mao teaches us that traditional Chinese culture...."

Chairman Mao teaches us! Definitely not a sentiment you would find in editions published in Taiwan, or, I bet, in contemporary versions on the mainland today. In an airport lounge full of Chinese travelers looking every bit the contemporary jet set -- complete with smartphones and laptops and leather jackets --- those words seem to not just belong to another century, but to another reality altogether. They are a stark reminder of the vast changes that transformed China over the past three decades.

I think I'm going to need a new dictionary.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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