Red Guard, Yellow Submarine by Anna Chen (BBC Radio 4)
Reviewed by Andrew Johnson
23rd November 2005
Every so often, the 15-minute drama slot at the end of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour will turn up a small gem. This autobiographical play, part of a strand where writers explore their roots, is one of them. We have a rare dramatic presentation of leftist life combined with a meditation on belonging versus rebellion, set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, linked by droll narration from the writer.
We open with a portrait of the young Anna as someone who, due to her background – half-Chinese and half-English, with communist politics inherited from her parents – was never going to be one of life’s conformists, even if her temperament had inclined her in that direction. Normal signs of teenage stroppiness, like an individual fashion sense, therefore acquire a sharper edge. After all, didn’t Chairman Mao say that rebellion was justified?
At the age of sixteen, Anna’s certainties are thrown into confusion when she goes on a family trip to Beijing, then at the fag end of the Cultural Revolution. In the environment of Maoist China, a seemingly trivial row over wearing makeup can take on a political significance that would have been wholly unpredictable back home in London. Though to the outside observer Mao’s China often seems like an alternate universe with completely different rules, here we have it in concrete form – what would be justified rebellion in Hackney is bourgeois individualism in Beijing.
Then there is a scene of epiphany. While out sightseeing with her mother, Anna’s world tilts just a little more on its axis. To the Chinese crowd, the white woman in western clothes is the exotic one, the object of curiosity. Anna, face scrubbed and attired in a Mao suit, for the first time she can remember, does not stand out. As her mother becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the crowd’s attention, Anna feels the temptation to just stay quiet and blend in – then she speaks, and the spell is broken.
Belonging and rebelling
The Red Guard and the Yellow Submarine are not as strange a juxtaposition as they might first appear. It isn’t just that Mao and Che were pop culture icons in a way that must seem bizarre to young people now, but the linkage between music, fashion, art and politics was much more explicit in those days. A member of the nation that produced the deeply conservative figures of Bono and “Sir” Bob Geldof may not be in the best position to discuss the connection between music and politics, but it is probably more fruitful to go beyond open political stances to broader ideas of belonging and conformity.
Chuck Klosterman wrote well about this in his wonderful book Fargo Rock City, the story of growing up a heavy metal kid in rural North Dakota. Bands like REM, writes Klosterman, appeal to sensitive kids who want to be told that they are no different from the rest and one day they’ll be appreciated. Heavy metal, and I can bear him out on this, tells misfit kids that they are different – different and better. You might not be popular in your school, but you are part of the millions-strong Kiss Army. You don’t take your cues from some snot-nosed teenager, but from Ozzy and Alice and Lemmy and Gene. Why would you want to blend in? It is no coincidence that on Channel 4’s Rock School series, it was the little bullied kid who instantly understood what Gene Simmons was about and threw himself into it.
This is not to say that communism and heavy metal are the same thing, just that those who are dissatisfied with their lot find different ways to express their dissatisfaction. Beyond that, it’s a question of choice. Sometimes their choices are flat out wrong – retreating into misanthropy, nihilism or listening to the Smiths. It is better to look to a bigger vision than your navel – and those who became communists deserve credit for at least choosing an option that sought to transform the world for the better. That puts us one up on those who never had any ambition to change the world – apostates from that vision, like Rumsfeld’s running dog Chris Hitchens, are deserving only of contempt.
Of course, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution can’t be excused on the grounds of noble ambitions. Lots of well-intentioned people identified with Stalin, Mao or Hoxha, only to abandon their politics when their idols turned out to have feet of clay. (Hitchens, who was never a Stalinist, doesn’t have that alibi.) In the end, we come back to speaking up and standing out, what the Maoists denounced as “bourgeois individualism”. Considered judgement, conscience and honesty should be the hallmarks of the socialist. The systematic dishonesty demanded by Stalinism of its supporters was one of the clues as to how removed from socialism it really was. In the end, we have to take the decision to speak up.
A audio file of Red Guard can be downloaded