Generation gap

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Brian Hennessy. An Australian in China. June, 2018

There’s an old factory in Chengdu which has been converted into a museum and arts centre. From the outside it looks like a tired remnant of the Cultural Revolution days with its dull concrete walls, old machinery, and black and white weathered murals exhorting workers to: Continue the Class Struggle; and to Remember that Unity is Strength.


An authentic Cultural Revolution mural in an old factory in Chengdu, 2018. Translation: “The working class has strong bones. We go, go, go, following Chairman Mao.”


Generation gap


The building is an obsolete anachronism. A reminder of a painful period in China’s history. Not the kind of place to showcase foreign la-la land culture. 

Hence my surprise when I encountered something very, very strange. High school students clothed in weird colourful costumes wandering along narrow thoroughfares and gathering in open spaces performing ‘Cosplay’ – i.e., role-playing popular characters from a modern Japanese TV series.

Not what you might expect.  

Think of the past for a moment. How many traumatic struggle sessions occurred in places like this all those years ago? How many individuals from the wrong social class or with a family history of association with the defeated Guomindang Nationalists were bullied here – or worse? How many were victimised because of a suspected association with foreign culture? 

And what of that era’s students? The fanatical red-guards who terrorised everybody and who later split into factions and demonstrated their doctrinal purity via fratricidal violence?

Buildings like this one saw it all.

Today however, Chengdu’s youngsters are free to indulge their harmless fantasies here with government approval. That’s progress.

Not everyone agrees with this observation however.

In one open space, I met an elderly man who objected to the display. He saw it as a betrayal of traditional Chinese culture, and regarded it as an insult to the sufferings of previous generations. 

But as time moves on and China moves forward, this gentleman’s life is left further behind – cocooned in his filtered memories of a struggle for the unreachable ideal of New Socialist Man. A deadly political fantasy foisted on him by a doctrinaire political class that cared little for his welfare. Millions of his generation died.

But this disastrous period has been airbrushed out of history. Nobody speaks of The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and the failed policies which very nearly destroyed an ancient culture.

Today’s youngsters know nothing about it because their textbooks don’t mention it.    

I suspect that the real reason for this elderly gentleman’s criticism is that he thinks that they have had it too easy.

They haven’t suffered enough.

Sad, So sad.



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