In the winter of 1994, while I was living in the northern Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, I decided to flee the sub-zero dry cold that grips the region for half the year by making the two-day train journey via Beijing to the most southerly province of Guangdong. Even at that relatively early period in the post-1978 Reform era, Guangdong felt like a different China – more developed, more urbane and more laid back. Soon after my arrival, the friend who was hosting me told me we were going to have lunch with someone he described simply as ‘a poet’. This was to be my first encounter with a genuine Chinese writer. The man we met a few days later (whom for simplicity I’ll call Zhang) was dressed in a suit and at first spoke more like a government official than a poet, extolling the virtues of the Communist Party. But by the time his wife had started serving the fruit at the end of the meal, the copious and highly alcoholic Chinese white wine had taken its effect. As he plied me with thimble-sized cups of the drink, his hospitality turned almost aggressive. ‘Mao Zedong was a great, great leader,’ he declared, clashing his glass in a toast with mine.
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[*] The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History (Bloomsbury, 396 pp., £25, May, 978 1 4088 5649 9).
[†] It has now been published in an English translation by Chenxin Jiang (NYRB, 188 pp., £14.99, March, 978 1 590 17926 0).