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Wild Swans

The famous teahouses in Chengdu also came under attack as ‘decadent.’ I did not understand why, but did not ask. In the summer of 1966 I learned to suppress my sense of reason. Most Chinese had been doing that for a long time.

A Sichuan teahouse is a unique place. It usually sits in the embrace of a bamboo grove or under the canopy of a large tree. Around the low, square wooden tables are bamboo armchairs which give out a faint aroma even after years of use. To prepare the tea a pinch of tea leaves is dropped into a cup and boiling water is poured on top. Then a lid is sunk loosely onto the cup, allowing the steam to seep through the gap, bringing out the fragrance of the jasmine or other blossoms. Sichuan has many kinds of tea. Jasmine alone has five grades.

Teahouses are as important to the Sichuanese as pubs are to the British. Older men, in particular, spend a lot of time there, puffing their long-stemmed pipes over a cup of tea and a plateful of nuts and melon seeds. The waiter shuttles between the seats with a kettle of hot water which he pours from a couple of feet away with pinpoint accuracy. A skilful waiter makes the water level higher than the edge of the cup without it spilling over. As a child I was always mesmerized watching the water fall from the spout. I was rarely taken to a teahouse, though. It had an air of indulgence of which my parents disapproved.

Like European cafés, a Sichuan teahouse provides newspapers on bamboo frames. Some customers go there to read, but it is primarily a place to meet and chat, exchanging news and gossip. There is often entertainment – storytelling punctuated with wooden clappers.

Perhaps because they had an aura of leisure, and if people were sitting in one they were not out making revolution, teahouses had to be closed. I went with a couple of dozen pupils between thirteen and sixteen years old, most of whom were Red Guards, to a small one on the bank of the Silk River. Chairs and tables were spread outside under a Chinese scholar tree. The summer evening breeze from the river fanned out a heavy scent from the clusters of white blossoms. The customers, mostly men, raised their heads from their chessboards as we approached along the uneven cobblestones that paved the bank. We stopped under the tree. A few voices from our group started to shout: ‘Pack up! Pack up! Don’t linger in this bourgeois place!’ A boy from my form snatched a corner of the paper chessboard on the nearest table and jerked it away. The wooden pieces scattered on the ground.

The men who had been playing were quite young. One of them lunged forward, his fists clenched, but his friend quickly pulled the corner of his jacket. Silently they began to pick up the chess pieces. The boy who had jerked away their board shouted: ‘No more chess playing! Don’t you know it is a bourgeois habit?’ He stooped to sweep up a handful of pieces and threw them toward the river.

I had been brought up to be courteous and respectful to anyone older than me, but now to be revolutionary meant being aggressive and militant. Gentleness was considered ‘bourgeois.’ I was repeatedly criticized for it, and it was one reason given for not allowing me into the Red Guards. Over the years of the Cultural Revolution, I was to witness people being attacked for saying ‘thank you’ too often, which was branded as ‘bourgeois hypocrisy’; courtesy was on the brink of extinction.

But now, outside the teahouse, I could see that most of us, including the Red Guards, were uneasy about the new style of speaking and lording it over others. Not many of us opened our mouths. Quietly, a few started to paste rectangular slogans onto the walls of the teahouse and the trunk of the scholar tree.

The customers silently began to walk away along the bank. Watching their disappearing figures, a feeling of loss overwhelmed me. A couple of months before, these adults probably would have told us to get lost. But now they knew that Mao’s backing had given the Red Guards power. Thinking back, I can see the thrill some children must have felt at demonstrating their power over adults. A popular Red Guard slogan went: ‘We can soar to heaven, and pierce the earth, because our Great Leader Chairman Mao is our supreme commander!’ As this declaration reveals, the Red Guards were not enjoying genuine freedom of self-expression. From the start they were nothing but the tool of a tyrant.

Standing on the riverbank in August 1966, though, I was just confused. I went into the teahouse with my fellow pupils. Some asked the manager to close down. Others started pasting slogans on the walls. Many customers were getting up to go, but in a far corner one old man was still sitting at his table, calmly sipping his tea. I stood beside him, feeling embarrassed that I was supposed to assume the voice of authority. He looked at me, and resumed his noisy sipping. He had a deeply lined face that was almost stereotypical ‘working class’ as shown in propaganda pictures. His hands reminded me of one of my textbook stories which described the hands of an old peasant: they could bundle thorny firewood without feeling any pain.

Perhaps this old man was very sure of his unquestionable background, or his advanced age, which had hitherto been the object of respect, or perhaps he simply did not think I was very impressive. Anyway, he remained in his seat taking no notice of me. I summoned up my courage and pleaded in a low voice, ‘Please, could you leave?’ Without looking at me, he said, ‘Where to?’ ‘Home, of course,’ I replied. He turned to face me. There was emotion in his voice, though he spoke quietly. ‘Home? What home? I share a tiny room with my two grandsons. I have a corner surrounded by a bamboo curtain. Just for the bed. That’s all. When the kids are home I come here for some peace and quiet. Why do you have to take this away from me?’

His words filled me with shock and shame. This was the first time I had heard a firsthand account of such miserable living conditions. I turned and walked away.

This teahouse, like all the others in Sichuan, was shut for fifteen years – until 1981, when Deng Xiaoping’s reforms decreed it could be reopened. In 1985 I went back there with a British friend. We sat under the scholar tree. An old waitress came to fill our cups with a kettle from two feet away. Around us, people were playing chess. It was one of the happiest moments of that trip back.