CHINA: Che Guevara and "history" after-the-fact

Bill Ratliff comments on China as Chena: Istvan Simon remarks on having seen a poster of Che Guevara in a restaurant in Nanning, China, which his Chinese friends shrugged off. Ronald suggests they did so so as not to offend Istvan. Perhaps. But it may be much simpler or more complicated than that. First the simple possibility. This poster may have been part of the shallow world-wide commercialization and/or ignorant admiration of Guevara that is ballooning these days. You know, the handsome guy we all know from the famous photo who tried so hard to do good for the poor and was killed in for his efforts. The commercialization and the manipulation of Guevara are rampant in Cuba, but they exist in many other countries as well from the United States to China.

Serious issues of one generation are often trivialized, manipulated and ignorantly but enthusiastically admired or rejected by later generations. For example, when I was in Kunming in southern China last fall I ran into a Cultural Revolution Coffee Shop, the name deriving from that Maoist ordeal between 1966-76 that left hundreds of thousands dead, tens of millions brutalized, and much of Chinese culture smashed to dust. But the Starbucks atmosphere of the place made it hard to belive this was a serious celebration of the Cultural Revolution as a political model. Rather it seemed a kinky commercialization of an event that most of the young patrons never had to live through; the coffee shop was very  probably owned by a former Red Guard now turned businessman. The commercialization and trivialization of Che is often the same.

But the poster Istvan saw may have signaled something far more important than that and he may want to follow up with his friends to find out. His friends may not have fully or even partially understood the postere themselves, or they may have understood it very well and just wanted to avoid the subject, perhaps as Ronald suggests to be polite. Why? What was Che to China in the past and why has he come back today as a phenomenon of who-can-say-for-sure what consequence, because indeed he has? While at present it is still mainly a thing of the radicalized intellectual elite, but the question is whether as time passes it will spread.

History. Che read Mao from the mid-1950s and was a Maoist in the sense that he (like Castro in many respects, and of course Mao) believed that objective realities didn't matter in the sense that they could be overcome by revolutionary commitment and fervor. (See the excellent Chinese film (with English subtitles) by Zhang Yimou entitled To Live to get a sense of what this Maoist perspective did to ordinary people in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.) That is, Che like Mao was at core profoundly anti-Marxist, probably less Marxist than anyone who will ever read these words, with little but contempt for serious economics and human nature. Not surprisingly, Guevara was very popular in Mao's China, for a while. Most of his major writings were translated into many languages by the Foreign Languages Press and circulated world-wide. But even as the Sino-Soviet dispute deepened and Castro's relations with China worsened, Guevara was killed in Bolivia trying to launch what the Chinese decided was an "ultra-leftist" or "petty-bourgeois leftist" revolutionary war. China turned sour on Guevara and he was not revived until the mid-1990s when Mao was long dead and his body was planted magnificently in the middle of Tiananmen Square and Che Guevara's bones were exhumed in Bolivia and taken to Cuba to be buried in the central island city of Santa Clara. Then some Chinese journalists and intellectuals began to be inspired by Guevara's dramatic life and example, or at the very least to see him as a vehicle for arguing political positions in contemporary China. Historically the Chinese have relied heavily on the use of history and literary or historical allusion both to openly teach and to more covertly discuss often important issues of interest.

Today. While in the past the allusions almost always were to Chinese history and legend, now the life of the bearded Argentine, Che, is also a link between past and present, a way to protest the passing of egalitarianism and the inequalities that have resulted from recent reforms. The most colorful, dramatic and serious use of Guevara began in April 2000 when a cooperative of prominent, often foreign-educated, all Mao-oriented intellectuals in Beijing produced a play called Che Guevara. [This phenomenon has been most seriously analyzed by my colleague Cheng Yinghong in his article "Che Guevara: Dramatizing China's Divided Intelligentsia at the Turn of the Century," published in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (Fall 2003), from which much of this paragraph is derived.] At first the play, a highly charged and dramatized political sermon, drew at best a couple of hundred people, mostly students. But before long it sometimes drew thousands, still mostly students and intellectuals, and in locations far from Beijing. It became a subject of discussion, with both pro and con, in intellectual circles around China. Basically the play had two sets of events: flash-backs to Cuba and Guevara and flash-forwards to China today with an eye to tomorrow. The subjects were: increasing antagonisms between rich and poor, justification for revolution, anti-Americanism, anti-globalization and anti-cynicism, the latter arguing that any sense of hopelessness among the downtrodden is a result of a deliberate campaign of deception and debilitation launched by Chinese reformers and American imperialists to keep the masses downtrodden. There were negative and positive characters, the former particularly an American imperialist but also Chinese "liberal" reformers. The main positive character was Che, who never appeared on stage, but whose back-stage voice preached revolution and answered questions thrown to him by actors on stage.

Che's solemn voice says:

        Don't ask if the bonfire should be set
        Ask if darkness still pervades
        Don't ask if the gun should be loaded
        Ask if oppression and exploitation still dominate
        Don't ask if the just cause has a future
        Ask if injustice is still rampant

Then the voice calls for a new "Granma" [the ship Castro and Guevara took from Mexico to begin the Cuban Revolution] voyage to every place where injustice exists and "swords and arms" are needed. The call is echoed by a chorus.

In the longer term, the Guevarist/Maoist message was and is intended to pull together disenchanted intellectuals and the frustrated masses who have not benefited at all or much from reforms in an increasingly cut-throat society where success depends on individual initiative rather than group or community or national joint effort. The production, and the attitudes that have flowed from it, have been criticized by many Chinese reformers, but the play was not prohibited, at least according to my latest information. Why? Cheng speculates it is because the one thing the play does not condemn is the authoritarian state, which they and the current government both accept as necessary, as did Guevara.

Thus for some frustrated Chinese intellectuals Guevara has become a symbol of rebellion against whatever they don't like. In Hong Kong one of the most prominent and successful Democratic Party candidates in the recent election had long hair and always wore a Che T-shirt. For him, Che undoubtedly meant rebelling against the established authority he faced, the Beijing-backed Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung. On the mainland, Che stands much more for what he actually believed, namely a  rebellion against market and global-oriented polices as represented by American imperialism and the Deng, Jiang and now Hu governments' market-oriented reformers. (After all, during the Cultural Revolution, hadn't the Great Helmsman himself condemned Deng and Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehui as "capitalist roaders" as he threw them into prison?)

Does this Guevara movement matter? Today, objectively speaking, not much. But perhaps it or something like it will matter in time. China has developed spectacularly in many ways, but critical problems remain that could lead to instability or worse. If unrest spreads, dissident Maoist intellectuals offering the alternative of a return to a Maoist-style egalitarianism could find support, first among some intellectuals, in the countryside and among laid-off workers, then perhaps elsewhere. Protests, including a rather large and violent one recently in Henan province, have already become fairly common from Sichuan to Heilongjiang. If this continues, Che's spirit may be out there in the vanguard, and another cycle of failure and tragedy will be under way.   

Hank Levin writes: I found Bill Ratliff’s comments to ring true from my experiences in China.  Although the Chinese have a long memory for their larger history, they seem to have a short memory for their recent history.  On my trip in August and September I tried to engage intellectuals in discussing the Cultural Revolution.  They just scoffed at it and said that it was just a transitional time when a lot of craziness prevailed.  But, more than craziness prevailed as we all know.  Tiananmen Square is also a subject that many view as idiosyncratic and ephemeral.  It is as if they simply want these major episodes in recent history to be forgotten and the lessons ignored.  In my recent trips to China I have found that the spokespeople are very “present” and “future” oriented, and there is a reluctance to address the recent past, but great reverence for the ancient past. RH: This a is a common phenomenon. People are willing to talk about the distant past but hesitate to speak frankly with a stranger, a foreigner.  This is especially true in countries where freedom of speech is limited.

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Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: December 5, 2004