In the February 2, 2016, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Browne published a very interesting article on current political trends in China entitled “Self-Criticism Makes a Comeback in Xi Jinping’s China.” Contrition, practiced in Mao’s time, has returned as a humiliation ritual, broadcast on national television—even including foreigners accused of various crimes against the state. These shows are known as jiantao (political theater), a joint production of China Central Television and the security police.
Since his ascension to the presidency of China, Xi has mounted a national campaign against corruption (especially among his political opponents) and dissent against the Communist Party. Browne writes about Xi’s campaign, that, “it goes hand-in-hand with his efforts to purify modern Chinese society by infusing it with old-fashioned socialist values (rejecting Western values) and Confucian ethics.”
Other relics of Mao’s socialist era have made a comeback, among them the iconic Lei Feng, “a selfless soldier who darned socks and carried manure” until his death.
It so happens that I was a Chinese language student at Hong Kong University from March 1, 1963, through January 16, 1964. My arrival in Hong Kong was six months after Lei Feng died (August 15, 1962), after supposedly being hit by a falling wooden pole.
My focus was on contemporary Chinese politics. My principal texts were People’s Daily and Red Flag (the Chinese Communist Party theoretical magazine, which was renamed Seeking Truth, to focus on current developments, in 1988).
In July I decided to translate several poems to get a first hand impression of Chinese realist literature. The following is my translation a poem in the spirit of Lei Feng, which appeared in People’s Daily on July 16, 1963. (I verified the translation with several of my teachers. I left Chinese punctuation intact.) I have no knowledge of the poet’s whereabouts or if he is still alive.
Ode to a Manure Basket: Dedicated to the Commune Leader
Oh manure basket,
Is it worthwhile reflecting on your virtues?
Your manure basket on the contrary,
Its bottom has often been changed,
And its sides repaired so frequently?
That everyone cannot but know
That the handle has been worn slick?
When you were an ordinary commune member,
It always followed you,
Every day winding through the big streets and small alleys,
Every hour reaching the village and riverside.
When you became a commune leader,
Whether busy in the wind or rain,
The manure basket, however, never left your hands,
Accompanying you to meetings, joining you in the harvest.
You need not waste talk,
Urging the accumulation of manure like the collection of grain;
The manure basket is your link with the masses,
Erecting a bridge of corresponding will!
Times have changed in the past 53 years. Confucius had made a full recovery. Is the manure basket just over the horizon?
(WSJ article is gated)