The Unknown Cultural Revolution: showing how social conditions and cultural values can be changed to transform people’s lives and redirect society

Dongping Han, “The Unknown Cultural Revolution” (Guns and Butter, 13 January 2010)

Dongping Han is a history professor at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and the author of “The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village” which challenges the Western narrative of the Cultural Revolution in China as a destructive period of economic regression and of violence and persecution of Chinese intellectual elites. This Guns and Butter recording on SoundCloud is an edited version of Han’s presentation made at the University of California in 2009 in which he talks about his childhood during the Cultural Revolution in a rural part of Shandong province. His premise is that an individual’s psychology is shaped in large part by the social conditions in which that individual grows up and by the values that are emphasised in those conditions. The topics he covers in this presentation include the development of the education system during that period and how it transformed peasant communities in Shandong province; the general transformation of Chinese society, culture and values under Communist rule; the tensions and riots between Uyghur and Han Chinese communities in Xinjiang; and the famine during the Great Leap Forward in China in the 1950s.

It’s quite a rambling talk and I must confess I did get lost along the way during the first half hour of the talk as Han ranges across a variety of topics relating to Chinese social development during the Cultural Revolution and the far-reaching results it had on the country’s economic, political and social directions in the half-century that followed. The very first topic on the importance and value of work, especially work done voluntarily by individuals as part of a team, is very interesting and highlights the difference between Western societies which basically view individuals as selfish and incapable of improvement (a view encouraged by traditional Christianity which regards humans as being born in sin) and who must be forced to work or threatened with punishment, and societies such as Communist Chinese society which regard humans as capable of change and self-sacrifice. I did try to follow and concentrate as much as I could on the part of his presentation where he discusses Xinjiang and relations between the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Han Chinese and Uyghurs were equals and treated one another fraternally; under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership in the 1980s – 90s, when state enterprises were privatised, relations between the Han Chinese and Uyghurs deteriorated and ethnic tensions arose as Han Chinese employers of firms based in Xinjiang favoured people from their own regions or ethnic groups over local people in Xinjiang. Again, this part of Han’s presentation implies that changing social conditions during the second half of the 20th century as a result of the changes in political leadership in China can have grave consequences for the strength of the social fabric in communities of great ethnic and religious diversity.

The talk becomes more structured once people are invited to ask questions and one person wants to know what kinds of new values were created in villages and rural communities during the Cultural Revolution and how this creation took place. Han emphasises through anecdotes how people were taught and encouraged to care for others and to look out for them, especially if they were all part of work teams. Looking out for others is often motivation enough for people to undertake work of their own volition without needing personal material rewards. Urban-based intellectuals were encouraged to work with rural-based peasants and farmers.

Han discusses why and how Mao Zedong was so popular among ordinary people, especially rural people: the policies he instigated were aimed at improving their lives, and many of these policies had either immediate results or powerful long-term results. One consequence is that very few people criticised Mao: criticism was discouraged because, as Han sees it, the people discouraged such criticism, not the government. Some of Mao’s policies often struck his followers as odd or even dangerous: on attaining power in October 1949, Mao insisted on continuing to employ public servants who had served under the Nationalist government – the reason being that if he were to get rid of them, these people would turn their energies against the Communists (and be co-opted by hostile anti-Communist forces within and outside China).

Han concludes his talk by comparing and contrasting contemporary Chinese society with US society, especially the contrasts he found when he first started studying and working in the US. He points out that while some Chinese citizens have become billionaires, their wealth has not come at the cost of their fellow citizens’ welfare whereas in Western societies many individuals have become extremely (and insanely) wealthy as a result of wealth transfers created by (among other things) privatisation of public institutions and services. The Chinese government has retained state ownership of critical industries and prioritised employment over inflation or monetary policies to steer the economy.

The presentation is edited in a way that makes Han’s audience appear uncritically accepting of everything or nearly everything he says. People could have challenged him on how China under Mao dealt with those who opposed Communism or criticised Mao’s policies and how such dealings were or can be justified on the basis of the new values being sown among the working class in cities and rural areas alike. Listeners wanting more can try finding the whole presentation online or read Han’s aforementioned book.

The Red Dagger: a fiery poem essay narration and diatribe against corruption and oppression

Alan Cox, Heathcote Williams, “The Red Dagger” (2013?)

Presented in six parts on Youtube, British actor / poet Heathcote Williams’ poem essay “The Red Dagger”, a diatribe against the City of London and the part it has played in oppressing humanity across the world since the 1300s at least, is given vivid and impassioned audiovisual life by fellow UK actor Alan Cox who narrates the poem and supplies the montage of art, photographs, film stills and snippets of film and video to accompany his recitation. The red dagger of the title refers to the red sword that appears on the emblem of the City of London and, according to Williams and Cox, represents the dagger used in the murder of Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in England, in 1381 by officers loyal to King Richard II. (According to other sources I have read, the red sword on the emblem is a representation of St Paul, the patron saint of London.) Through the details of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, in which Tyler and rebel monk John Ball led a movement insisting on social equality, abolishing the political hierarchy supporting the monarchy and ending the feudal system (under which peasants were the de facto property of landlords, bound to their masters’ lands), the poet Williams calls attention to the corruption of the political and economic elites that surrounded King Richard II (reigned 1377 – 1399) and finds parallels with the present City of London, its corruption and its control of the global financial industry, and how the activities of the financial elites impoverish and enslave entire nations.

Parts 1 and 2 of Cox’s fiery narration cover the 1381 uprising of English peasants against the King and his lords, and in itself the uprising as portrayed is very stirring. Whether or not the uprising has lessons for us in the 21st century might be debatable: for one thing, the levels of technology in mediaeval England were low, scientific and other general knowledge was limited, and the manipulation and exploitation that English elites exerted over the peasantry correspondingly were limited to mainly physical means, with some limited brainwashing of people’s minds courtesy of the Christian Church, a significant landowner and itself a major landlord oppressor of peasants. The most significant parts of Cox’s narration are Parts 3 and 4 in which he goes into detail about the extent of the activities and networking of the elites in the City of London and its secretive institutions, the extent to which the City of London controls the British government, its past participation in the British colonial / imperial project and the Atlantic slave trade, and its current participation in trafficking arms to nations with sordid human rights records and the global drug trade. Individuals and businesses in the UK financial services industry take advantage of opportunities to evade paying taxes owed to the government by sending money into offshore trust accounts or transfer pricing arrangements in tax havens. Something of the lavish, decadent culture of the City of London elites, dependent on rich banqueting and the associated networking, fuelled by addictions to drugs, casual sex and use of prostitutes, and possible links to sex trafficking and other sordid underground activities, is revealed in the narration and montage.

Cox’s film and Williams’ poem cover much ground and detail of how the City of London operates and has operated over the centuries, and viewers might well need to see the film at least twice to absorb most details. Being based entirely around Williams’ poem, the film does not give information sources so viewers will need to do their own research to confirm the information about the City of London. (A good start is Nicolas Shaxson’s book “Treasure Islands” which investigates the global scourge that is taxation evasion.) While the poem and film might play hard and fast with some details in parts, and Tyler’s actual rebellion might not have been as utopian, idealistic and socialist as the poem implies, the poetry genre proves to be an ideal format by which Williams (1941 – 2017) brings important political, economic, social and historical information to the general public’s attention.

The film along with transcripts of each part and footnotes giving information sources can be viewed at this link.

A celebration of a major art and social utopian movement in “Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus”

Niels Bolbringer and Thomas Tielsch, “Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus” (2018)

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the artistic / aesthetic movement by Walter Gropius in Weimar-era Germany, this documentary explores both the history and the impact of the movement on art, music and dance, interior design, architecture and urban planning over the decades. The Bauhaus movement was born in a school with the aim of creating a new type of society, one that stressed the full development of the human individual’s physical, mental and artistic capacities in a socially conscious collective environment. Through such development, the ills of early 20th-century Western society that had led to global war, poverty and inequality could be eliminated and a new, better society could result. Artists and intellectuals from across Europe came to study or to teach at the school. The school barely survived the Great Depression and the collapse of Weimar Germany before being shut down by the Nazi Germany, its teachers and students forced to flee overseas.

The early history of the Bauhaus school and movement zips by somewhat confusingly, flitting from dance to painting and to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s works and vision – Le Corbusier was not really part of the Bauhaus movement so why the film devotes so much attention to him is puzzling – and viewers can easily get lost in the slew of images and information that whiz by. It’s only once the film starts exploring the Bauhaus impact on architecture, furniture and interior design, and urban planning in Germany and the poor neighbourhoods, known as barrios, of Medellin in Colombia that it becomes focused and its aim of revitalising Bauhaus as an inclusive social utopian movement becomes apparent.

The best part of the documentary is when it shifts to those barrios and the architects bringing Bauhaus principles to the people there analyse the needs of the people living in the slums and adapt the Bauhaus vision to fulfilling those needs. In bringing a communal gym to one slum neighbourhood – which also does multiple duty as a meeting place, child care centre and more besides – the architects encourage a sense of community among the slum dwellers who in turn come to identify more and more with their neighbourhoods and are prepared to support and defend them. The architects look at the issue of transport within overcrowded barrios climbing up the sides of hills and mountains, and come up with the brainwave of building escalators and a cable car system that take commuters up and down hills with minimal disruption to communities and an efficient use of the available land. The added bonus of the cable car system is that it is fun to ride and affords riders incredible views of Medellin and the surrounding mountains.

The Bauhaus approach is contrasted with other rational approaches to urban planning in Paris (here is where Le Corbusier has been influential) which have resulted in a very divided city where the more pleasant (and tourist-oriented) areas are in the middle, industry is banished to one side and housing estates into which immigrants from all corners of the globe have been tossed together with no thought as to how they’ll all get along spread endlessly outside the city with inadequate and inefficient public transport links to the industrial areas where they have to work. Many of the social problems that bedevil France – the annual youth riots in summer, the isolation and alienation of migrant youngsters that encourage their radicalisation by terror organisations – surely have their origins in this form of urban planning. The Bauhaus vision on the other hand is to work with the people and their needs, and the limitations of the physical and social environment in which the people live, and create and develop solutions particular to that context; as a result, no two communities where Bauhaus principles have informed their planning will be the same.

Unfortunately the film says nothing about how and why the Bauhaus movement declined in influence in the later half of the 20th century; surely that decline coincided with significant political, economic and social trends during that period. The movement’s utopian ideals would surely have clashed with the aims of neoliberal capitalism across most parts of the world. The film’s failure to locate the Bauhaus movement, its aims and aesthetic ideals within the political, social and economic ideologies prevailing across the world most certainly accounts for why the documentary seems vague on the Bauhaus movement’s later history.

Oolong or Wulong? a talk on Oolong tea at The Tea Centre, Sydney

“Tea and Conversation with David Lyons: Oolong Tea” at The Tea Centre, Sydney, 27 April 2013

Once again I found myself sitting in the mezzanine level of The Tea Centre in King Street opposite the MLC Centre for another talk on tea. The Tea Centre offers a series of five talks on the history and production of tea and the different types of tea made. Previous talks I have already attended turned on green tea and black tea. Compared with these talks, the session on oolong tea is not so detailed. The regional sales manager, David Lyons, handles all these talks: he loves telling stories and his homely Mancunian accent and self-deprecating manner put everyone at ease which is just as well as there were thirteen of us appreciative tea-drinkers squinched up on a floor level designed to take only two-thirds of that number!

We’re treated to a little history on oolong tea and how it replaced green tea as everyone’s staple beverage during the Ming Dynasty period (1368 – 1644) in China. Sobering to think that strict government controls on the making of tea, in particular the production of compressed tea in cakes and bricks, and the confiscation of traditional tea-making equipment by the authorities from tea makers should have driven the producers and suppliers to figure out ways of overcoming the strictures. Oolong tea production led to a new style of drinking these teas and new styles of tea-pots and cups to drink them from. Growers looked for new land to cultivate these teas and since most tea-growing at the time was done in Fujian, the business spread to Taiwan which is physically close to Fujian. Perhaps this is how the Chinese came to colonise and dominate Taiwan, and to drive the original Taiwanese population into the hills and mountain areas.

There was some but not very much explanation of the manufacturing process that turns picked leaves into oxidised rolled roasted leaves. Most of this information was contained in leaflets that we received to read at our leisure.

Throughout the talk David gave us samples of dried tea leaves to look at and sniff, and cups of different kinds of Oolong tea including Shui Hsien and Mellow Cream Oolong teas to taste. Each different type of Oolong tea came with its own delightful fairy tale as to how it got its name – the tea known as Da Hong Pao is so-called because a grateful Emperor rewarded a humble farmer for curing the Emperor’s Mother with tea made from four bushes, with a velvet red robe to cover the bushes during the cold winter season – and it’s not difficult to see that some of these stories contain little homilies about self-sacrifice, bravery and how the humble can stand shoulder to shoulder with the high and mighty.

As for popular media claims that Oolong tea is an aid to slimming, the true story is that Oolong teas contain enzymes that help with digestion – which is why Oolong teas go well with eating yum cha dishes heavy in lard and fat – and contain vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants known as polyphenols which have been credited with reducing some forms of cancer and lowering heart disease risk. Oolong teas, like everything else we eat and drink, are only effective as part of a nutritious diet that includes plenty of vegetables and fruit.

As usual with these Tea Centre talks, the 2-hour time passed all too quickly and before we knew it, we were out on the streets again.

TGFOP or not TGFOP: a talk on black tea at The Tea Centre

“Tea and Conversation with David Lyons: Black Tea” at The Tea Centre, Sydney, 10 November 2012

After that talk on green tea back in September, I was keen to hear the history of Australia’s traditional favourite substitute for mother’s milk and before you can say “TGFOP or not TFGOP?”, here I was back at The Tea Centre to hear its ACT / NSW Regional Manager and tea historian / scholar David Lyons expound on this Essential of Life itself. Lyons is a most convivial host with a homely Manchester accent who offered me and several other attendees seven different kinds of black tea, some quite earthy and strong and all with a brilliant red-crimson colour which for some teas was almost deep blood-red, throughout his talk that ranged from an explanation of how black tea is made to how it differs from other kinds of tea, to the language used in grading black teas, the history of tea-growing and production, and which countries are currently prominent in growing tea bushes for the production of black teas.

The talk began with a quick explanation of what kind of plant the tea plant is and which parts of the tea leaf are used in making teas. This quickly segued into a description of how tea leaves are picked, transported to the factory where they are laid out on trays or mats, allowed to lose moisture through evaporation (originally out in the open under sunshine but now done in rooms controlled for temperature and humidity) for up to 18 hours and then rolled by machines so that the cell walls of the leaves are damaged, allowing enzymes to escape. The leaves begin to oxidise, changing colour as they do so. The leaves are spread out to allow the oxidisation process to work evenly. Once the leaves have reached a desired level of oxidisation, they are heated in different ways to halt the oxidisation: baking in ovens, wok-baking over charcoal and blowing hot air over the leaves as they move on a conveyor belt are three ways of stopping the oxidisation. When this is done, the leaves are sieved, sorted and graded according to size, then they are packed and shipped.

This explanation took up half of David’s time; the rest of the session was given over to the history of black tea production and how black teas came to be preferred over green teas by the Chinese and the Europeans after them. Interestingly, the invention of blue-on-white porcelain in China was a significant influence on the preference for black tea, since black tea looks better in a white cup than green and white teas do. David then switched over to explaining how the British began growing tea in Assam in northeast India, how they took tea growing to Sri Lanka (and thereby changed that island’s social history and politics irrevocably by importing Tamil-speaking workers to work in the plantations there) and later to other parts of their empire: Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and what later became Zimbabwe. The talk concluded with a description of tea production in Australia and some brief and perfunctory explanation on the future of tea growing and which countries were likely to take off as major tea growers and exporters.

So much more could have been said about black teas, at the risk of going into the minutiae of the rituals of drinking black teas and how they differ across the world. How and why, for example, did the British start adding milk and sugar to black tea? Why do Russians drink their black tea with spoonfuls of jam and a sliver of lemon, and drink the beverage from glasses instead of cups? Where did Indians get the idea of drinking their tea with sickly concentrated tinned milk and a cinnamon stick? If Americans had the Boston Tea Party in the 1770s, how did they lose the art of having Tea Parties for such a long time until recently and instead fall for slurping 7 – 8 cups of watery coffee a day? Another thing that was missing was the ideal conditions for growing tea: I gather that ideally tea should be grown in areas with a semi-tropical to tropical climate, plenty of humidity and a reliable water supply, and soils rich in minerals. Minimal frost would be tolerated and long dry spells would inhibit plant growth and leaf development.

The mention of the effect on Sri Lanka’s ethnic mix that the British decision to locate tea growing in that country made me think of how everyday things we take for granted, such as tea, coffee, the metals that go into consumer electronics gadgets, the cotton that goes into our clothes and the foods we eat that might be imported from overseas when we could be growing them here, might have an impact on global politics, economics and human social and cultural development through their production. Once upon a time, economists would have said that the decisions we make as consumers determine what is produced in which countries; but in a world where consumer decisions are now heavily influenced by advertising and selective media through which information important to us is withheld, either deliberately or not, the power of corporations, governments and their agencies, and the ideologies that inform their agendas, may be paramount in determining what we choose to consume or reject. Through our “choices” and the direct and indirect effects they have on economies locally and overseas and on environmental systems, these institutions uphold values, belief systems and structures that affect the future survival of humanity across the globe.

Incidentally the “TGFOP or not TGFOP?” question (erm, apologies to a Mr Shakespeare) was inspired by the grading terms used to sort and pack black tea leaves: TGFOP is short for Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. The terms start with filler, dust and fannings which are fine to small particles of tea used in tea bags (so the story about tea dust on floors vacuumed up and packaged into tea-bags is true!) and go through OP (Orange Pekoe – large cut leaves with a few tips) all the way through FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe) to SFTGFOP (Superior Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe – large cut leaves with the biggest number of tips).


Better than green eggs and ham (with apologies to Dr Seuss): a talk on green tea at the Tea Centre, Sydney

“Tea and Conversation with David Lyons: Green Tea” at The Tea Centre, Sydney, 22 September 2012

I drink enough of the stuff so it’s only fair I should know something of the history of tea and how it is made. Found that The Tea Centre tea shop in Sydney has been holding a series of Saturday 2-hour morning talks on tea history, tea production and the different kinds of tea so I went to a 10:00 am session on Saturday, 22 September 2012. The talk was given by David Lyons who is the ACT / NSW Regional Manager for the company and a student of tea.

Five of us piled into a section above the shop proper so the atmosphere was cosy and intimate enough though noise from below did drift up. David gave us a run-down of his history as a chef and how he came to be involved in the tea-selling business and then he was onto his talk proper. First he explained what species of tea plants are called scientifically and which species and sub-species are cultivated and where they grew originally. He showed us what a tea plant looks like and what the first and second leaves are and what tea plant tips are (tea production jargon often refers to the first and second tips of tea leaves and to the first and second leaves of a tea plant) and why they are important in tea harvesting and production.

From then on he segued into the differences among white tea, green tea and black tea and how the leaves are prepared to produce the different types. As the talk focussed specifically on green tea, he concentrated on how green tea is prepared: Japanese-styled green teas are steamed very quickly after picking, then abruptly cooled to allow only minimal oxidation to keep the fresh green colour of the leaf; Chinese-styled green teas are warmed gently usually by wok-baking, oven-baking or steaming. The Japanese method gives the tea an intense colour and a very different and just as intense taste. After heating, the tea leaves may be rubbed or rolled into little balls.

Chinese-styled green teas were traditionally produced in the Hangzhou region and the revival of green tea production in China is taking place in Hangzhou and surrounding areas. A famous tea from the area is Dragon Well tea and David gave us samples of this tea to taste.

A history of green tea drinking in China and Japan and how it died out in China while surviving in Japan followed. Interestingly, Europeans were introduced to green tea drinking before black tea drinking and again David emphasised how black tea drinking came to usurp green tea drinking through a particular mix of historical circumstances. In Britain during the 1700s, tea became so popular that most tea imported into the country was smuggled rather than legally imported and people outside the wealthy classes attempted to make their own versions of the drink to emulate their superiors. Leaves from local bushes were brewed and coloured with various colouring agents, some of which were copper-based and quite poisonous. Public concerns about people being poisoned by copper-contaminated teas eventually led to British society switching away from drinking green teas to black teas.

It was rather unfortunate that green teas came to have such a bad reputation for there is now a growing body of scientific research and evidence that drinking green tea may have health benefits including the lowering of total cholesterol and the raising of HDL cholesterol (the so-called “good cholesterol”), protection against certain cancers, reducing the inflammation associated with Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease, regulating glucose in the body, preventing gum disease and stimulating bone growth and slowing down the onset of osteoporosis.

There were plenty of opportunities to sample various teas and examine the dried leaves from which they were made. David was a very entertaining and genial speaker with his northern English accent and stories about his youth and one of his co-workers, a sales manager based in Queensland whose own youth was spent in wild adventures across the world. The most interesting story David had to tell about himself was the time when he was working in a pub and a group of teenaged boys came up to him to ask if they could use a room for band practice. The lads seemed earnest and sincere enough so the pub manager allowed the youngsters to use the room on a regular basis. The clanger came when we asked what the band was called; David said they were Joy Division. “You’re from MANCHESTER!” I exclaimed and David nodded.

The talk was only meant to last 2 hours but so engaging was our host and so informative was the talk that it went well over time and it was way past 12:30 pm when we had to go and that was because a couple of us had other engagements.