Superimposed histories, couplets and communist slogans

While travelling to ancient historical villages of China, the things I enjoy the most are all the details, some carefully hidden or barely noticeable and all the things we no longer see in the Chinese cities.

For some reason, slogans that date back to the Mao era fascinate me. They convey a recent period in Chinese history which is radically different from what we, as foreign travellers and expats, experience in contemporary China. The messages these slogans conveyed are radically different from the current reality of the Middle kingdom.

The Ghost Hand of Mao

On the picture below, taken in one of the ancestral temple in Yuxian village (鱼鲜村) in northeast Guangdong province, the side walls were covered with Mao era slogans claiming “Cherish the motherland, get rid of old traditions, destroy the Four Olds”. This campaign against the Four Olds 破旧四 (old ideas, culture, customs and habits) marked the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命).

Mao Era slogans inside Yuxian village ancestral temple.

Mao Era slogans inside Yuxian village ancestral temple.

Moving to Couplets

Chinese couplets, called duilian 对联  are rhymed sentences, usually calligraphed on paper. The duilian adorned the top and each side of a door. Most travellers will see ‘industrial’ duilian which are mass-produced, printed on red paper. People change them every year for the Spring Festival (春节). There is also a hand-calligraphed, more personalised but more expensive version of the duilian.

On the picture below, taken in the ancient fortified village of Guoyu (郭峪), in south Shanxi (山西) province, we see that there are roughly two main themes on these couplets. First to welcome the spring and happiness for the new year (迎春接福) – top of the door – bringing good fortune (福), peace and harmony (和) into the house (居), and to the family (家) – left hand side on red paper. On the right hand side, we find anther very important theme : go on the path to wealth (走富路) and have flourishing material wealth (财).

A door with double couplets.

A door with double couplets in Guoyu, a fortified village of Shanxi province

When someone passes away, a special white paper – black ink duilian replace the usual ones during the period of mourning. The white colour (associated with death) contrasts with the red (colour of good fortune and happiness) of the regular duilian.

In some instance, specially on ancient, solemn buildings we find permanent duilian craved in stone or wood. On the door below, we find a very special Communist duilian hand-painted with yellow paint (same color as the stars of the Chinese flag) on wood.

Baxin, Honghe, Yunnan

Those who study Mandarin will notice that they were written before Communist China decided to simplify several thousands of Chinese characters. I wanted to share this picture, and the translation (below) of this duilian because it is a rare enough occurence to be mentioned and photographed.

Above the door, we have 勤儉造国 which means ‘Live industriously and frugally to build the country’

On the left 完全彻底為人民, can be translated as ‘Submit your entirely and thoroughly to the people of China’

On the right, the sentence 全新全意為祖国 means something like ‘Submit your entire heart and soul to the homeland’

And finally, in the middle, where we usually find a picture of the door gods, the slogan 读毛主席的书,听毛主席的话,照毛主席的指示  (*faded) exhorts people to ‘Read Mao Zedong’s books, Listen to Mao Zedong’s word, According to Mao Zedong’s instructions … [faded]

Superimposed histories

What I like the most about the Chinese countryside is the super-imposed layers of histories. First, we find the story of the ancient village steeped in imperial China and in its own history.

Then, the contemporary couplets with their themes of good fortune and accumulation of wealth contrasts with the messages of the Mao’s era which were full of frugality, industrious labor and serving the people and the motherland.

Entrance to a 300 year old house in Qinshiyuan

Entrance to a 300 year old house in Qinshiyuan