Struggling with Antonioni

My first sight of Beijing was puzzling. It was October 1973, at the end of a very long flight, and the city seemed so dark I could hardly believe we had arrived.

In those days, flights to China were not allowed to cross Soviet airspace—the two countries had fallen out at the beginning of the 1960s—so airlines had to find less direct routes. There was not much demand for the service, since China was preoccupied with its own internal upheavals and had closed its door to the outside world. Those few airlines that offered passage to Beijing did so as an add-on to other, more popular destinations.

From London our flight had stopped a couple of times in Europe to load and offload passengers, before touching down in Karachi, Pakistan. From there, as the morning sun bathed the Himalayas in a golden light, we took off for Beijing. Our trip had taken the best part of twenty-three hours and when we finally arrived, it was at a dark and almost deserted airport. No other flights seemed to be arriving or leaving. It felt like another world, remote and enclosed.

A young British diplomat had come to meet us. Today, the arrival of twelve British students in China would pass without notice, but in 1973, our group represented an important step in normalization of relations between Britain and China. We were the first Western students to come to China since the start of the Cultural Revolution and the first British students to arrive since 1967, when a Chinese mob had attacked and beat British diplomats and set fire to the British legation building. Dealings between the two countries had been chilly ever since, and only in 1972 had full diplomatic relations been established. Our arrival was one sign that things were improving.

It did not mean that we were entirely welcome, as we were to discover. A doctor in a white coat several sizes too large had greeted us at the airport. His mission seemed to be to protect the Chinese nation against foreign pathogens. We were soon to understand that the fear of contagion was not confined to germs: the authorities regarded the risk of contagion of ideas and ideologies as even more of a threat.

After nearly seven years of the Cultural Revolution, foreigners were rare in China and confined to a few categories: diplomats, who lived in special compounds in the east of the city; “experts” who helped with various language tasks in universities and publishing operations; “friendship groups”—mainly Western political sympathizers for whom the government allowed tours to be organized in return for the propaganda value of their enthusiastic reports, and a handful of students.

Isabel Hilton
The author stands with a cotton factory worker in Shanghai, 1974.

After a long bus ride we arrived at the Beijing Yuyan Xueyuan (Beijing Language and Culture University). A massive statue of Chairman Mao loomed over the front of the building: he had his back to the institute and was gazing with apparent concern at the building opposite. Many more students were to come over the coming months, but in September 1973 the foreign student body consisted of five Cambodians, three Japanese, one Kuwaiti, and three Tanzanians. The arrival of our group of twelve effectively doubled the numbers.

The next day a few of us went out to explore the neighborhood. We walked along a quiet tree-lined path and eventually reached a peaceful little square that boasted a general store, a laundry and a small restaurant. Beyond lay fields and a duck pond. This was Wudaokou. Our arrival caused a sensation: to see foreigners strolling about, unaccompanied and on foot was incomprehensible to the local people. As we checked out what the general store was offering, there was a loud crack behind us: a plate glass window had given way under the weight of spectators trying to get a closer look at these strange people.

In the two years I spent in China, I was never able to go out on the street without a crowd gathering to stare. But while our presence invariably attracted attention, it did not lead to friendship: people stared, they tugged at the hands of their children, they commented on everything from our shoes to the size of our noses, confident that no foreigner could possibly understand what they were saying. Conversation, though, was another matter: to be friendly to foreigners was politically dangerous and few were willing to take the risk.

Wudaokou then was a quiet suburb. The traffic outside the institute’s gates consisted of horses and carts, an occasional line of camels, and constant drifts of bicycles. Cars were rare: a green Shanghai, complete with white curtains at the windows, or an occasional Red Flag, would signal the passage of an important bureaucrat. Sometimes trucks would go honking past, their open backs crammed with workers, peasants, students, or soldiers, being driven off to some collective labor or political rally. Mostly though, bicycles ruled the roads: Flying Pigeons, black, square, and heavy, their riders uniformly dressed in blue or green padded coats and trousers.

As we checked out what the general store was offering, there was a loud crack behind us: a plate glass window had given way under the weight of spectators trying to get a closer look at these strange people.

We were taken to buy the necessities of student life: the authorities gave us cotton coupons so that we might buy padded jackets for the cold Beijing winter; we bought a bicycle each, no doubt jumping the queue ahead of many local people; we each bought a tin mug, an enamel wash basin, and a large thermos flask. It felt as though we were preparing for a long camping trip.

We settled into a routine: every morning, at 6:30 a loudspeaker fixed to a tree outside the window coughed into life and delivered a deafening blast of “The East is Red,” followed by martial music and morning exercises. The news and the Internationale followed. Life was basic: our pillows were stuffed with straw that crackled as we turned over in bed; the canteen food was unappealing; there were no clubs or bars, no coffee to be found, no cheese, no Western music or movies. Entertainment was limited to organized trips to the theatre to watch one of a handful of geming yangban xi, model operas. We had soon seen them all. On weekends we would cycle around the city, trying to visit Beijing’s famous temples and historic sites, only to find that most of them were closed and many had been damaged by Red Guards.

Our teachers were diligent, but it was not an easy time for them. The first morning, I took a small tape recorder to class, planning to record the lesson to revise later. The teacher turned pale. He begged me to turn it off and was so distressed that I had to agree. At the time, I couldn’t understand why a language lesson could not be recorded, but then I had not been through what he had.

I had come to China to study the literature that had first inspired me to learn the language. I had a particular interest in the novels and short stories of the 20th century literature and, as an admirer of Lao She, I dreamed of reading his Beijing stories in the city that had been his own inspiration, mastering the mysteries of the Beijing vernacular that he loved. There was never a worse time to be interested in Chinese culture and letters: the great Lao She had died in 1966 after repeated persecution. His work was banned, along with that of most of the great 20th century writers. The literature I would be allowed to study in China included Lu Xun’s essays, which I had already read, Jiang Qing’s model operas, and the poems of Mao Zedong. Intellectually and culturally, it was to be a long two years.

Meanwhile, there were language lessons. Progress was slow, not least because the materials, revised to conform with Cultural Revolution values, were so loaded with propaganda that to Western students at least, they were mind-numbingly boring. We quickly learned that the grammar was less important than political sentiment: anything we wrote that did not acknowledge the thoughts of Chairman Mao as its inspiration would not get a good mark.

We dutifully watched the model operas, struggling to find some hidden depths. After a few months the cultural tedium was such that films from North Korea—the only foreign films permitted on Chinese TV—seemed positively racy and original by contrast to anything we could see in Beijing.

It was a film, finally, that got me into trouble. It was Spring Festival 1974. Radio and the newspapers had been dominated by the long-running campaign against Confucius: our Chinese fellow students were writing long essays exposing the reactionary nature of his philosophy and arguing that Confucianism had been responsible for China’s feudal backwardness. As foreigners, we were spared participation in political campaigns, but suddenly, in early 1974, two new campaigns were launched that seemed more relevant: one was a campaign to denounce Ludwig van Beethoven. The great German composer was dismissed as bourgeois and his work compared unfavorably to the soundly proletarian collective work, the Yellow River Concerto. No amount of politics could make the concerto sound better than Beethoven to my ears, but our opinion was not what counted.

The second campaign did seem to involve us, though rather strangely at first. The second object of criticism that spring was the Italian filmmaker Michaelangelo Antonioni, who had been invited to make a film in China in 1972. It was rumored that the invitation had been issued by Zhou Enlai, who argued that China’s propaganda was backfiring in the West. If China wanted to improve its image, he believed, it would be more effective to invite a celebrated Western filmmaker to come to China to make a film. Antonioni was seen as politically sympathetic and, as a recognized international director, his film would command respect and attention.

There were precedents: in the Cold War, several Western writers and filmmakers took a more sympathetic view of the communist than the capitalist world. The British filmmaker Felix Greene, for instance, a cousin of Hugh Carlton Greene, director general of the BBC in the 1960s, could be counted on to make sympathetic documentaries in Communist regimes and made several films in China. But Greene’s rather plodding films were only of interest to audiences that were already politically sympathetic. The hope was that Antonioni’s greater cinematic talents would win over bigger international audiences to the Chinese point of view.

In some ways, it was a sensible idea. China’s state-produced propaganda certainly seemed strident and hysterical to Western viewers and whenever it was shown outside China, it tended to provoke mirth rather than sympathy. Antonioni was politically left-wing, a man whose working class parents had achieved prosperity while retaining an innate sympathy for the poor. He had a passion for music, art, and cinema and an international reputation for progressive, experimental work that addressed a running theme of alienation. A film from Antonioni on China, a country that had not been visited by a serious Western filmmaker for more than a decade, would certainly be noticed.

But this was an experiment that was never likely to please both sides. Zhou Enlai may have had a sophisticated view of cross-cultural communications, but Jiang Qing did not appear to share it. Antonioni was a Western auteur, an artist for whom the individual artistic vision was paramount. China in 1974 was confined within the narrowest and most doctrinaire of cultural parameters. Antonioni was passionately interested in themes of emotion and alienation; China’s culture in 1974 was one long hymn to the militarization of society and the subordination of the individual to ideology. Antonioni was incapable of producing propaganda narrow enough to fit within the conventions of the time in China. It was never going to work, and it didn’t.

The Italian crew spent five weeks in China in 1972 and the film, entitled in Italian Chung Kuo, Cina, was released in the United States in December that year. It was shown in three parts on Italian television in January and February 1973. The campaign against it in China began only a year later, as the Gang of Four intensified their attacks on Zhou Enlai.

Antonioni and his work were denounced as anti-Chinese and anti-Communist; he was taken to task for depicting China as poor and backward and, in an insult judged unforgivable, of showing washing being dried in the vicinity of the bridge over the Yangtze at Nanjing.

The campaign became a national cause and denouncing Antonioni a daily ritual for our Chinese fellow students. Unusually, the institute’s foreign affairs office called us to a meeting to discuss it, where they elaborated the Italian director’s list of crimes against China. It put us in an awkward position: we did not wish to annoy our hosts, but we could neither agree nor disagree with the criticism because we had not seen the film. We were told that seeing it was out of the question. Millions of citizens were denouncing without seeing it, they said. Why couldn’t we?

We went back to writing essays in praise of Chairman Mao and thought little more about this latest and strangest of China’s political campaigns. (It turned out not to be the most eccentric moment in China’s culture wars: some months later a smaller campaign began against a now virtually forgotten book called Jonathan Livingston Seagull that enjoyed a brief vogue in the seventies. It was virulently denounced for its bourgeois individualism. Why it should have mattered, since it was not published in China, remained a mystery.)

A few weeks later, spring came to Beijing. On a day of glorious sunshine, the sky was the crystalline blue celebrated in Lao She’s forbidden novels and the buds on Beijing’s trees were beginning to open. A fellow student and I decided to celebrate the end of winter with a walk in the peaceful backstreets of nearby Haidian, a district quiet enough to feel like the countryside. I took my camera, as I often did.

In Haidian, I took several photographs, but the one that started the fight was of a group of women who were mixing cement on the street. It was something you might encounter anywhere, on any day, a quotidian scene in Beijing. I thought nothing of the photograph, until, a few steps further on, a man stepped in front of us and blocked our path.

He was wearing a light gray zipped jacket and leather shoes, signs that marked him out as an official. His face was composed in an expression of fierce hatred and he was looking at us.

Ni gan shenma?” he said. “What are you doing?” It didn’t sound friendly.

Hoping that a display of foreign ignorance might defuse what was shaping up to be an unpleasant situation, my companion responded with his friendliest and most innocent smile,

“I’m an exchange student. What are you doing?”

As a tactic, it failed.

The cadre’s next question was more pointed.

“Why did you deliberately come to this backward, run down part of Beijing to take an anti-Chinese photograph?” he snapped.

This is what a British judge would call a leading question, something not allowed in a court of law. The problem here was that the judge had already decided the verdict: we were guilty. All that remained to be decided was the sentence.

Later, when it was all over, I imagined this local cadre, minutes before he saw us, standing in the beautiful spring sunshine worrying about how he could possibly make his mark in the anti-Antonioni campaign. After all, Italian filmmakers don’t come through Haidian very often and, unlike the normal run of political campaigns, there was little to be gained by denouncing anyone local.

Then we turned up, two foreigners with a camera.

It was his lucky day.

From our perspective, it felt rather less than lucky, but I tried to answer his question. Leaving aside the contentious question of whether Haidian could fairly be described as backward and run down, I decided to stake my defense on feminism. Far from being an anti-Chinese picture of backwardness, I explained, the photograph of women mixing cement was a testament to China’s success in getting women to “hold up half the sky.” Women were thought of as weak in the West, I said. China’s women were strong, as my photograph demonstrated. As a spur-of-the-moment defense, I was quite proud of it.

Our interrogator was not impressed. A crowd was beginning to gather, jostling and pushing, eager to get a closer look at the action. We were led up an alley and into a courtyard office, probably that of the street committee, though nobody explained. The news had spread rapidly around the district and more and more people were pressing in to the small room. The overspill filled the courtyard and loud buzz of conversation filled the small space.

The interrogation began anew.

“Why did you deliberately come to this backward and run down part of the city to take an anti-Chinese photograph?” our cadre demanded, this time more aggressively, playing to his appreciative new audience. I offered my defense again. A second man pointed at me accusingly, “Why did you deliberately come to this backward part of Beijing to take an anti-Chinese photograph?” he shouted, as though neither the question nor the response had been aired before. “Hand over your film!”

I wound the film back on the spool, opened the camera and offered him the reel. He looked at it with contempt.

“Don’t think you can escape that easily,” he said, glancing at the crowd for approval.

When the fifth person asked me the same question and demanded the film only to refuse it, I began to relax. However the afternoon was to turn out, it was clear that we were not going to get out of there until everyone had denounced us. Anyone who did not speak up risked being accused afterwards of failing to defend the honor of the nation against these “little Antonioni.” It was going to be tedious and disagreeable, but the ritual aspects of the occasion suggested that we were not in any real danger. We just had to let it happen.

I stopped trying to explain, or to hand over my film. Whatever needed to happen did not depend on anything we could do or say. I sat back, trying to imagine how a theater critic might review this unusual piece of living theater and wondering what the closing scene would be.

My question was answered about two hours later. By then the windows had been covered to stop the curious members of the crowd in the courtyard peering in and the room was in semi-darkness. Inside, we were beginning to run out of denunciations and the indignation level was dropping as the hour of the evening meal approached. The last few participants had barely made it through the script and nobody seemed to have anything new to accuse us of, but they clearly could not let us go without endangering the nation.

Suddenly the throng parted and two policemen made their way into the crowded room. They took charge, to the evident relief of our accusers. They listened to the accusations against us and with grave official expressions and solemnly asked me for my film. I handed it over. They accepted it. The end was in sight.

Later I wondered what they did with it. Was the film developed? Were the photographs printed and filed away in some personal police file as evidence of my anti-China activities, in case my crimes needed to be investigated in the future? Or did they just toss it into the bin, the unwanted detritus of another day’s work?

The police drove us back to the institute. We were not expelled or punished. The authorities seemed a little embarrassed, perhaps relieved that the incident had not got out of control.

For me, there were some tiresome consequences: at that time, every group needed a bad object, a class enemy to enact the political narrative of a proletariat engaged in constant struggle against its class enemies. With my record of anti-Chinese activities now officially established, I became that bad object. Fortunately, most political campaigns were internal affairs, so the consequences were limited: my movements were restricted and I was refused permission to travel within China; whenever I raised a camera, a minder would scan the scene, looking for evidence of malicious intent. Once, in Shanghai, a teacher actually put his hand over the lens. When I protested, he told me that he knew all about my past record of anti-Chinese photography. I would forever be a little Antonioni.

I returned to Britain at the end of my studies. Last year, nearly four decades too late, I visited Lao She’s former home, now a small museum, to pay my respects to the memory of the great man. I found the modest house intensely moving, knowing how he suffered there. I regretted that I would never now return to the study of his work.

As for Antonioni, I gave him little further thought. He made his last film when he was over ninety years old and died in 2007 at the age of ninety-four, coincidentally on the same day as the great Swedish film director, Ingmar Bergman. The other day, thinking about this episode from long ago, my curiosity returned. Forty years after it was completed, I found that Chung Kuo, Cina is there on the Internet for anyone to see.

As I watched it for the first time, the memories of the China I first knew came flooding back: the streets empty of traffic, the blue and gray cotton padded clothes; the young women with long pigtails, faces clear of make up; a semi-rural city scape with no commercial advertising; ordinary citizens marching in columns.

Antonioni’s camera lingers on faces in the monochrome crowds. They look at back with suspicion and anxiety. It is a mute study of alienation. The restrictions under which he was working are evident: the scenes are all familiar from the short list of places that foreigners were permitted to visit at the time: Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the cities of Shanghai and Nanjing. He is shown the familiar clichés: an operation performed with no anesthetic but acupuncture; primary school children rehearsing military routines with wooden spears. His team speaks to nobody—perhaps it was not permitted—but the camera seeks out and observes ordinary people, doing ordinary things. The commentary is non-judgmental but subdued enough for the viewer to feel Antonioni’s unease.

Among the daily scenes his camera celebrates are the notorious laundry episodes. He has been taken, as foreign visitors were at the time, to see the Nanjing Bridge, symbol of China’s self-reliance following the Sino-Soviet split. He dutifully notes its political significance, but his camera is drawn to the life of the river. On the barges beneath the bridge, men and women are washing clothes and setting them on the ends of the boats to dry. This was the scene that was read as a monumental insult to China.

At the end of the sequence there was a brief street scene. I swear I caught a glimpse of a group of women mixing cement.