From Bach to Mao: Orville Schell’s Cultural Revolution

“You say you want a revolution,” The Beatles sang in 1968, near the height of the cultural revolution in the U.S., when sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and rebellion mingled and gave birth to a sense of unreality rarely equalled in the twentieth-century. The kicker in The Beatles’ song comes near the end: “But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.” The lads from working class Liverpool weren’t talking to or for the Red Guards, Mao’s shock troops who traveled the length and breath of the Peoples’ Republic of China, turning things upside down, sowing the seeds of chaos and punishing in any way they saw fit, those deemed to be “capitalist roaders.” The Beatles had their eyes on self-styled insurrectionaries close to home, including Black Panthers, SDSers, members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and other cadre organizations who quoted chapter and verse from the Little Red Book, displayed posters of Mao on communes and in collectives and thought of themselves as the vanguard of the future. Borrowing from another nation’s insurrections and upheavals can be inspiring. It can also be perilous.

China hand Orville Schell brings to life the Chinese cultural revolution in his new 601-page novel, My Old Home: a Novel of Exile (Pantheon; $29.95) which, he insists, doesn’t have “a snowball’s chance in hell” of publication in China, where the Communist Party runs a capitalist economy and tries citizens what to think, see, read and feel in the age of Instagram, McDonald’s and Starbucks.

This year, 2011, marks the 55th anniversary of the start of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which lasted for a decade, but that seemed to go on longer than ten-years. It didn’t end until the Chairman died at the age of 82 and the Gang of Four, including Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, aka Madame Mao—the ringleaders of the cultural revolution—were charged with treason and sentenced to prison. Jiang apparently hung herself in her cell, not a proper death for a genuine revolutionary. She had also been a movie star and perhaps cast herself in the role of a heroine in a pseudo Hollywood melodrama.

Schell’s novel— which begins soon after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and that runs to the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989—may not be as subversive as the author thinks it is. Indeed, publication in Chinese in Shanghai and Beijing is not inconceivable. After all, Schell expresses admiration for the Chairman, who makes a brief and not unflattering appearance in the novel. Granted, that’s after several hundred pages punctuated with condemnation of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party. But Schell takes a long view of history and aims to put Mao in perspective. That’s what his protagonist, “Little Li,” does and Schell seems to echo Li’s views. In Tiananmen Square, Li thinks of “the larger-than-life role Mao had played on China’s historical stage.” He adds that Mao, like Napoleon, Stalin and Hitler, were “tyrants, but one nonetheless grew accustomed to them as national icons…For better or worse, Mao had become an ineradicable feature of the modern Chinese landscape.”

Schell and Li are both dyed-in-the wool Maoists in the sense that they have an unerring eye for the kinds of contradictions that the Chairman emphasizes in his pivotal essay, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.” Li has read the essay and digested it. Indeed, he borrows from Mao who distinguishes, he explains, between “contradictions among the people,” which can be “resolved through negotiation and compromise,” and “antagonistic contradictions” which can only be resolved through “confrontation, struggle and violence.”  In the pages of his novel, Schell keeps coming back to Mao. Indeed, he quotes some of the best known passages in The Little Red Book, such as “a single spark can light a prairie fire,” which the Weather Underground borrowed for its Maoist manifesto, Prairie Fire, subtitled “Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism.”

I had a brief phase as a Maoist, but the Beatles helped wake me from my reverie. I knew instinctively that they were right when they sang “if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.” Still it took me to divest. I remember visiting two self-styled revolutionaries in the Bronx in the early 1970s, where I saw a poster of Mao on the wall and thought they were lost souls. And while the same folks bemoaned Nixon’s meeting with Mao, I thought, “right on,” if you’ll excuse the expression.

In My Old Home some of the dramatic conflicts, including those between Li and his musician father, are worked out amicably, but on the whole the novel is fueled by the clash of opposites, not compromises.  Xi Jinping and fellow members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party might view Schell’s novel as a Maoist work of literature that mixes art and propaganda and tells a riveting narrative about China in the second half of the twentieth-century. My Old Home traces the epic journey of Li, whose life is meant to be emblematic of the whole society and a celebration of its diversity, resilience and flexibility. If the Chinese have from time to time integrated western pop music, fashion and fast food into their own culture they ought to be able to make room for Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S. China Relations at the Asia Society in New York and the former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, once home to lefty groups such as “The Red Family.”

After steeping himself in Chinese literature, including novels like The Dream of the Red Chamber and stories like Lu Xun’s brilliant “A Madman’s Diary”—and writing and publishing eight books about China, including The Mandate of HeavenDiscos and Democracy and “To Get Rich is Glorious”—it would take a cultural revolution of sorts for Schell to disentangle himself from Mao’s world. Like the Chairman, Schell embraces certain rigidities, though he also aims to be flexible and to allow for paradoxes, ironies and contradictions.

“I adore music,” he recently noted. “I would suggest that music, particularly religious music and the music of Bach, is as far as you can get from what the Chinese Communist Party, Marxism, Leninism and that whole world represents.” One of the epigrams for My Old Home comes from cellist, composer and conductor, Pablo Casals, who noted, “Music will save the world.” Thank you, Pablo. Perhaps no one thing will save the world, though I have heard it said that “Trees will save the world,” “Bicycles will save the world,” and “Hemp will save the world.” Add music to the long list.

Bach provides the soundtrack for the novel and gives it much of its energy. “Mao Zedong and Johann Sebastian Bach, what a collision of different sensibilities,” Schell writes in the novel. “Mao believed the world needed to be remade by outward politics and violent revolution, whereas Bach believed in the curative powers of music to help people accept life’s travails and the inevitability of death.” But isn’t there a place in the world for both Bach and revolution? And wasn’t Bach himself a innovative if not an outright revolutionary performer and composer who pushed dissonant chords to the very edge of sound?

Parts of the last sections of My Old Home take place in San Francisco where Li is a kind of latter day Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield whose adventures take him into run-down hotels, menial jobs and the arms of beautiful California women. These sections are entertaining in a journalistic kind of way. Still, the heart of the book follows Li during the cultural revolution to which he is repelled and attracted in about equal measure. His journey takes him from the city to the countryside and from the company of urban intellectuals to nomads who exist on the fringes of Chinese society.

Even in the most horrific days of the cultural revolution, when, as one character observes, “we’ve been taught to despise ourselves by being despised,” Li and his friends laugh and love and nurture one another. Always, always there’s the enduring presence of the Chairman. “If Mao’s famous portrait ever came down,” Li tells himself, “he’d feel dispossessed.” At 601-pages, My Old Home isn’t a novel to be read in one sitting. Nor are its key passages meant to be chanted in the manner of Mao’s saying. I suggest it be read and savored a bit at a time, and that Schell’s ideas send readers back to a time when The Beatles supplied the soundtrack for a generation that sometimes listened to Timothy Leary who urged followers to “Tune in, turn on and drop out,” a recipe for an American cultural revolution.


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.