Wang Ping had been a child during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and wrote a poem — “Flash of Selfish Consciousness” — about her experiences as an “excellent Red Guard of Chairman Mao.”
At a live reading, Wang dedicated her poem, "Flash of Selfish Consciousness" to the memory of the cultural revolution. “I grew up there,” she said, “and for 10 years I had to write self criticism every day… since I came here I never had to do it and sometimes I get kind of nostalgic.”
Wang Ping’s poem — complete with ironically understated Red Guard vignettes and whimsical snatches of rhetoric from Mao’s teachings — sparked recollections of our own cultural revolution here in America.
In the late 1960s, amidst the effusion of hippie and countercultures, American artists joined their political activist compatriots to celebrate the teachings of Chairman Mao. We adopted the red star as an icon, studied from Mao’s little red book, discussed his writings on politics and art and called ourselves cultural workers. We considered ourselves to be revolutionary artists, practicing in theater, music, poetry, journalism.
Commedia’s grotesque, lascivious postures made a perfect counterpoint to the obscene scenarios of our mid-century Machiavellian nation-state — anarchist thespian bandits vs. Amerika at war.
Our theater troupe formed liaisons with the Students for a Democratic Society, a powerful student movement dedicated to bombing Amerika with social justice and halting the Vietnam War. Everywhere we took our commedia performances, campuses exploded. We didn’t cause the revolution… we were the revolution!
Student organizers greeted us with multitudes of protestors; we greeted them with our theater of insurrection. The cops weren’t ready for any of it. They responded to our power with violence.
The troupe had become a threat — the power of art. We thrived on our role as provocateurs. On campus, student power broadcast us over the radio, scattered our leaflets, packed university auditoriums. When it was over, they snuck us out of town in our unmarked vans. As with our dreams of Mao’s China, our mission had been victorious, romantic, and impossible to maintain.
We believed that China’s young red guardians proved that a revolution could continue to evolve. In Mao’s brave new world, the young became the leaders while the leaders were sent to breathe the fresh air of the countryside and work with their hands.
Far from Mao’s China, we eerily mirrored the environment that surrounded Wang Ping the child. We adopted Mao’s rhetoric, practicing unity, struggle, unity.
“To rebel is to do the right thing,” Ping recited in her poem. In our troupe, we echoed her memorized lines. “Revolution is not an invitation to a party but a thunderstorm.”
Knowing but not knowing, the urgency of the war and the need for change drove the troupe into its own great leap forward. Armed with American ingenuity, inspired by Mao, our unholy cadre of actors massaged the Cultural Revolution into our radical theater collective.
Yes, the troupe needed to change, to adapt to shifting circumstances and the struggles within the antiwar movement, we moved to address our self-perceived stagnation. We chose — as had the young cadres of China’s cultural revolution — to turn our own leadership, with its vision, skill, and experience, out into the countryside.
Pressured, outnumbered, insulted and arrogant, our leaders retreated. Criticism, self-criticism took over for consensus. The troupe mounted many more pieces of insurrectionary theater but, in keeping with its adoption of social realism, its style became broader and lost depth. I dropped out of the collective, caught in an abysmal confusion between personal and political conflict.
Now — long after the contradictions of the Chinese Cultural Revolution emerged — I can’t help thinking that we — unlike Wang Ping, who resisted the forces around her with the canny innocence of childhood — had embraced "a flash of selfish consciousness" in a movement we knew too little about.
"No history, no self," my student's sweatshirt reads. "Know history, know self."
More about Wang Ping