There is some doubt as to whether Zhou Enlai (it was not Mao) ever said, “Too early to say,” when responding to the question, “What significance did the French Revolution have on the world?” True or not, I think it is not too early to say now. The year 1789 was seen as the end of the divine rule by monarchy and hardcore nepotism. However, countries began to develop in a more paradoxical way through incremental freedom of the individual, innovation and trade coupled with exploitation and war. Today is no different. Western democracies develop through free market neo-liberal economics based on a democratic model that exports both goods and services backed up by war and centralised control.
But the reason I think we are in ‘interesting times’ is that in the past twenty years, the model of communist development has also embraced free market economics; but instead of a social democrat capitalist end game, the benefits of capitalism are being used to achieve a socialist utopia. We may not be at the end of history but you have a situation in China (and Russia too), of a ‘by whatever means necessary’ model of development; yes, let’s use the market model to create wealth, but be clear this is only to finance a socialist revolution.
This creates all kinds of contradictions in the country, which are perfectly summed up in Clare Pollard’s eponymous poem, China;
you have some of the most polluted cities in the world, “I saw skies so full of filth the stars were all put out,/and bags dip and fly across the flat, farmed fields/in their thousands – a plague of doves.” Whilst at the same time huge investment in green technology and growth. People now own their own businesses for private wealth and ownership at hugely different ends of the scale: “Dumplings were sold on every cluttered corner -/their dour, pinched faces sweating in bamboo stacks -/that cost 10Y or so, nothing to us.” Whilst at the same time controlling their freedom of expression and wider human rights: “We bought a watch where Mao’s arm moves when it ticks:/complicit in how time runs evil into kitsch.” Present day China is incomparable to the evils carried out to get the country to where it is today, but as Clare says in the final line: “with all this harm done/can it really come all right in the end?”
“China” comes from Clare’s book of her poetic odyssey in the early 2000s, ‘Look, Clare! Look!’ published by Bloodaxe Books in 2005.
Clare Pollard’s recent collection Changeling was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her latest book, a new version of Ovid’s Heroines, is currently touring as a one-woman show with Jaybird Live Literature. Clare lives in South London with her husband and son, and blogs regularly about life as a poet at www.clarepollard.com
Dumplings were sold on every cluttered corner –
their dour, pinched faces sweating in bamboo stacks –
that cost 10Y or so, nothing to us.
There were bluish pines blurry with snow,
and other trees, like calligraphy,
and trees operatic with caged birds
twitchy and puppetted behind their coloured masks.
There was a zoo, too, stumbled on by accident –
a joke at first, the poor show of those threadbare camels,
but then that poor bear banging bar to skull,
kids pelting it with litter, a cheese-tease on a stick.
And the tiger’s boxed pace – two steps, two steps –
its shrunken mewl.
Strange to see such beauty, such life – muscle and blood –
turned grotesque by our crazed rush to turn the whole world safe,
like the Starbucks, with its regulation cups, that surprised us
beneath the Forbidden City’s gold glazed tiles.
The guy in the park said: Mao was a great man,
but there were things done, of which no one speaks:
pigs that troughed and shat in mosques,
libraries torched, teachers beaten dumb by students,
so many friends betrayed by friends.
We bought a watch where Mao’s arm moves when it ticks:
complicit in how time runs evil into kitsch.
I heard of other evils too:
of thousands killed to keep the secret of squander –
a terracotta army in the earth –
and of how little this mattered.
Of students mown down screaming for fairness.
A traveller’s throat slit for his moneybelt.
I saw skies so full of filth the stars were all put out,
and bags dip and fly across the flat, farmed fields
in their thousands – a plague of doves –
and thought: with all this harm done
can it really come all right in the end?
[China was originally published in Look, Clare! Look! published by Bloodaxe Books in 2005]