August 16, 2018
The World Congress of Philosophy is continuing; but today, Thursday, it is mostly student presentations in Chinese. I take time off and get on the subway to do some sightseeing. Since it is a warm, sunny day I decide to visit Beihai Lake, a place I have not seen before. An artificial lake whose surroundings were once reserved for royalty, the lake is studded with the most exquisite mansions and temples along its shores, testimony to an astonishing aesthetic refinement. The beauty can make you shiver.
Today thousands of ordinary Chinese people stroll along the edge of the lake, boat across it, enjoy the sights, and eat ice cream. In one place a group of professional dancers are rehearsing. In another someone has brought along a boombox and couples are spontaneously beginning to dance. Everybody is peaceful, relaxed. I feel completely comfortable in this crowd.
In the distance we can see the hazy skyline of a new, modern Beijing. Out there are incredibly congested motorways, indistinct high-rises lined up mile after mile, air that can be heavy to breathe, though not perhaps today.
In the afternoon I visit the Confucius Temple and the adjoining Imperial Academy. The first time I had been there, in the Spring of 2010, the two places had been almost deserted. I sat for a long time undisturbed in the courtyard meditating on the ancient trees around me. This time, there were visitors galore, all kinds of school classes being led through by their teachers. What had changed? Was it the summer season bringing more visitors? Or had Confucius in the meantime grown in stature and recognition?
I had with me this time Frank Dikötter’s book on the Cultural Revolution. Visiting the lake, the Confucius Temple and traveling through modern Beijing made the events of half a century ago even more eerie. Were these the same people who had lived through those days of violence? I imagined that some of the older folks strolling along the lake might once have been Red Guards embroiled in the most atrocious happenings. It’s a puzzle I carry with me from my own childhood in Germany. An incomprehensible violence seems to be lurking somewhere deep in the human heart but you can’t hear it knocking on clear, sunny days like this one.
This is what I read in Dikötter’s book, as I sat once again under the old trees of the Confucius Temple: “Lao She, one of the most celebrated writers and author of the Rickshaw Boy, had served as a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in the 1920s. Like many others, he was keen to serve the new regime after 1949, but his background got him into trouble. A few days after the mass rally [August 18, 1966 when Mao had hailed a million Red Guards in Tiananmen Square], he and twenty others were taken by lorry to the Temple of Confucius, a serene compound where hundreds of stone tablets, in the shade of ancient cypress trees, recorded the names of generations of scholars who had successfully passed the imperial examinations. Dozens of school girls from the Eight Middle School stood in two lines, forming a live chain. As the victims were pushed through the human corridor, they were pummeled by the Red Guards, screaming ‘Beat the Black Gang!’ Placards were hung around the necks, stating their names and alleged crimes, as an official photographer recorded the event. The beatings continued for several hours. A day later, Lao She’s body was found in the shallow end of a lake near his childhood residence.”
And just as I come to the end of this passage, another school group gets ready to pose for a photographer in front of the statue of the philosopher. What do they know of the events of fifty years ago? Their innocent laughter follows me for the rest of the day.