On Listening to Enemy Radio

By Ah Cheng [1]

Translated by Yurou Zhong

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2017)

Ah Cheng as an educated youth in Yunnan, circa 1970.

June 4, 1989 marked the end of the 1980s, concluding the decade one year early. The year 1976 had ended the 1970s, bringing that decade to a close four years early. However, adding the last four years of the 1970s to the next nine-year decade, it could be said the 1980s lasted for thirteen years. As for the decade of the 1970s, it really started from the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. From 1966 to 1976, that was ten whole years. To use “decade”[2] to measure time is neither accurate nor appropriate. Life is not like pork and cannot be measured one slice at a time. For me, the 1970s was long. Every day stretched out like a year.

One day, when I was laboring away in the mountains, I realized that all the history books I had read since I was little concerned big events and the people involved in them. But there were only a handful of big events in those people’s lives. How did they live out the rest of their eventless and mundane lives? Did they also experience the same feeling I did of their days stretching on and on without end? The 1970s was the best time for me, with my endless energy and quick reactions, so quick that I could hardly keep up with myself. I had to constantly tell myself: Slow down and slow down a bit more; you have nothing but time.

There was simply too much time. Physical labor in the fields did not require much thought, especially when we had individual assignments, each responsible for a section of the fields. You were pretty much by yourself in the mountains. Clouds floated by ceaselessly above, myriad plants and animals flourished below. Here came the wind, there went the rain. When you had the runs, you could just pull down your pants and excrete wherever and whenever. When it was time to go home, you’d peel off the wind-dried excrement from your calves and let it become a dubious dinner for ants. You’d bathe yourself in the river, give your farming tools a good rinse, and then head down the mountains for home.

What was going through my mind at that time? Many things, too many things, impossible to sort through. I would start with one thought, and it would mutate boundlessly into something grotesque. That something grotesque would turn into something hilarious, making me laugh out loud. To think was to be happy.

I heard about the 1971 Lin Biao Incident almost on the same day the incident happened, on a foreign radio station. This was the most important incident of the 1970s. Instantly, the Myth of Mao Zedong collapsed. The hypnosis ran from August 18, 1966, when Mao waved from high atop Tian’anmen—no, from the moment when Liu Shaoqi coined the term “Mao Zedong Thought”—to the 1971 Incident, when it ended for good. Everyone sat up from their beds and looked at one another, in shock and overjoyed. Though our bamboo and grass huts were naturally ventilated, we still all wanted to step out and breathe the fresh air.

A red dot flickered in the field. Walking toward it, one could see it was the village secretary squatting with a lit cigarette. We knew that he was also an avid listener of enemy radio or, as the Hong Kong people called it, a feverish fan of enemy radio. No one exposed his secret; they only teased him: Why are you out of bed? Aren’t we supposed to rise early tomorrow to work in the mountains? Don’t think too much. One has to let things go. Get some sleep. The secretary paid no attention to any of us and kept smoking.

One month later, a provincial work team arrived in our county and summoned all cadres above the brigade level. Our team leader came back all smug and excited, boasting: I knew long ago what the fuck happened. Why the hell make things so tense? Simply have the militia round up those people at the foot of the mountain and shoot their sorry asses. The Party Central Committee has said it: that dick Lin Biao has flown the coop.

One could not utter a sentence in Yunnan without profanities, but they weren’t meant to be taken too literally; they were nothing more than auxiliary words.

We then played our part in feigning surprise: Really? Vice Chairman Lin? The team leader retorted: There is no Vice Chairman, just Lin Biao. We continued: Really? Where did he escape to? Our team leader: He had his own plane. You bunch of scoundrels, who amongst you doesn’t follow the enemy station? Don’t play innocent. We had to ask: Did you play innocent at the county meeting? Our team leader: Hmm, well, we were among comrades.

This role-play of mutual deception was one of our favorite forms of entertainment. But when Lin Liguo’s Brief Notes on Project 571[3] was released, we immediately had new respect for the Lin family, father and son. Especially on the point of the May Seventh Cadre Schools and the whole educated youth movement as disguised “reform-through-labor”—we all nodded in unison. Mao’s image, as sketched succinctly and accurately in Brief Notes, fell in line with our imagination of a dictator. To divide and rule China by the Yangtze River was an old trick, but a good one. Confrontation across the river meant that the south might choose a different institutional system from the north. Under a different system, our days might be easier. Educated youth from Sichuan and Kunming liked the idea, whereas those from Shanghai genuinely worried that their hometown might see too much action: Alas, it will be the end of us! What will become of our home?[4] We talked as though all this would all happen soon, when in fact the whole affair had already concluded.

Brief Notes on Project 571 is a historical document. In tone, it conforms to the language used by college students of the early Cultural Revolution. The only difference is that by that time Lin Liguo was already Deputy Director of the Office of Air Force Command. The language he opted to use has exerted lasting influence to this day. One essay by Mr. Liu Yazhou I happened to read used the same language. When we consider it soberly, Brief Notes was the first reform document in the new China, the first to note the pivotal role of modernization. To wit: to modernize, you have to first solve the problem of authoritarian rule, especially the problem of dictatorship. In the past century, China failed to complete industrialization—the first stage of modernization. China didn’t think that industrial revolution was a challenge to authoritarianism—witness the Soviet Union, which had seemingly completed industrialization and even won the Second World War, and especially witness the fact that an industrialized Germany did not stop the rise of Hitler. Therefore, it seemed reasonable that Zhou Enlai would propose the Four Modernizations at the height of authoritarianism, during the Ninth National Congress in 1969. Things quickly went wrong.

What we mean by modernization nowadays—the critique of authoritarianism in the post-industrial age—is in fact the second form of modernization, or post-modernization, which seeks to solve the problems of other forms of power in society when there is no longer political authoritarianism. What were formerly secondary powers—commercial, media, discursive, among others—become primary. The modernization encountered by Chinese students abroad in the 1980s belonged to this second kind. The reading lists assigned by their professors all pertained to this second modernization. When these students returned to China in the 1990s, they forgot that the first modernization in China had yet to be completed. The Party and its authority were still there and had even regressed to its initial stage. Newly returned students, with their freshly sharpened foreign knives could only make a mess when “butchering the ox,”[5] and they ended up confusing the two modernizations. I’ve heard more than one returned student say: You have no idea how knowledge has changed overseas! For a domestic audience, this kind of talk would mean yet more pressure. For the past century, Chinese have been living under the pressure of hope. I remember how Fredric Jameson, when visiting Beijing University in the early 1980s, critiqued the media, especially TV and its power to control. Sure, that might be true for the U.S. But for 1980s China, how many TV sets were there in the whole country? Even if there were some, TV was no more than a mouthpiece of political power.

The 1980s was a time of influx of things from outside, but it did in fact conflate the two modernizations with a myriad of popular catchphrases. However, political power remained sober enough to target bourgeois liberalism. Hu Yaobang was removed and the aborted reform led to June 4. Sorry to have digressed and rambled on about the 1980s. Let’s return to the 1970s.

Even the April 5, 1976 Tian’anmen Incident we heard about from the enemy station. The next day on the mountain, we were all talking about the event, which had taken place thousands of miles away. Locals asked about the size of Tian’anmen Square. By that time, most Beijing-educated youth had gone back home, and I was the only one left who had seen the square. I gestured to several peaks in the distance and said that in size it stretched from that peak to that peak. Everyone gasped: “Mei!” (literally, “younger sister”). “Mei” in the Yunnan dialect—an interjection expressing surprise—was equivalent to “Wow,” as the Hong Kong and Taiwanese people would say. Yunnan locals used “meimei” or “meimeisai,” which was the same as “wasai.” But I preferred “younger sister.”

I don’t know whether it was popular among all educated youths in China to listen to foreign radio stations—so-called enemy stations—in the 1970s, but in Yunnan, they all did. Yunnan was a special place. It was so remote that signals from the China National Radio were hardly audible and it took days for newspapers to be delivered to the mountains. Once they arrived, they’d be stored in the party secretary’s house. We’d ask him to shred a piece of newspaper when we needed to roll our cigarettes. For enemy radio fans, the national radio station and newspapers were no more than references. Listening to enemy radio was not solely for the purpose of staying politically informed, but, more important, for entertainment. I remember a particular Australian radio station broadcast a Taiwanese radio series called The Story of a Small Town. The shortwave signals were unstable, so we’d gather several radio sets to occupy the entire range within which the signal shifted, so that at least one of them would always capture the full volume. All those young men and women gathered in one shed. Oh, the tears. As Teresa Teng started singing, the voice was to die for. The next day on the mountain, we’d spend a long time discussing the plot of the previous day’s show. Those who hadn’t heard the previous episode took the opportunity to catch up, experiencing in the process a sense of inferiority; those who had heard it did the talking, raging on with passion.

There were also religious stations from Hong Kong. “God says…,” “God tells us…,” “Ezekiel Chapter 20… So I made them go out of the land of Egypt and took them into the wilderness. And I gave them my rules…” My memory was so impeccable then that I could memorize the verses with one listening. I would also not forget how an educated youth from Shanghai who appeared to be dozing suddenly had tears streaming out of his eyes.

One Taiwanese radio station featured male broadcasters who had flat voices, while the female anchors with their “fellow countrymen from the Mainland” sounded somewhat coquettish. According to one male educated youth: Nice voice, but I wouldn’t sleep with her.

A Soviet radio station had one anchor with a strange voice. It sounded like someone who had defected from the Mainland, but it was hard to tell what province he was from. He’d say, “This is the Moscow Radio Station, ah (a very brief ‘ah’), the Moscow Radio Station…”, as though he had just glimpsed something else.

VOA, BBC, and many other stations sounded to our ears mostly like foreign gibberish. Every educated youth had the Chinese-language stations marked on their radio dial, while I had one mark reserved for BBC, not to listen to English, but for its frequent broadcasts of live concerts. I could hear all the noises from the audience, the orchestra tuning up, coughs, and applause—perhaps the conductor had just walked onto the stage. Then everything quieted down; coughs, silence, and the music starting up, and, shortly, more coughs. The sound quality was fairly decent, creating an air of being there. For this channel alone, in the mid-1970s I made a detour to Shanghai on my way back to Beijing to purchase a pricy, full-bandwidth, vacuum-tube radio set. The brand was Panda. The radio needed four D batteries and cost me 160 yuan (at that time a Tianjin watch cost 120). It wasn’t huge, but it couldn’t fit in my backpack. I remember the loudspeaker—oval in shape and fairly wide in diameter—could deliver the sound of the timpani, not to mention the voice of Teresa Teng. Therefore, for a long time, this set played the role of public radio before 11 pm; and between 11 pm and 1 am, I took it back to enjoy my live concerts. Listening to enemy radio provided more food for thought, which in turn changed my views on the world, which made my already long days even longer.

It might have been either 1975 or 1976, I can’t remember clearly, when most of the educated youths from Beijing returned north. I was still in Yunnan and made a big decision. I resolved to set up my own sound system, though I wouldn’t really know the concept of a sound system until the 1980s. It involved source components, pre-amplifiers, power amplifiers, and the speaker, all linked together. It was a turbo version of my Panda shortwave. My Beijing friend Huang Qixu, a photo of whom making a radio had appeared in the local newspaper while he was still in primary school, lent me an able hand. Putting together the system was easy; the hard part was having to hunt all over Beijing for the components. I don’t remember if I traveled north in 1976 to pick up the set, or if someone brought it down for me? Either way, it took three days by train from Beijing to Kunming, another three by bus from Kunming to our mountains. Finally, this mono system with one big speaker (ten-inch?) was set up in my shed.

I made a special request of Huang Qixu to leave me a plug for the electronic gramophone, for I had several Soviet and Czech vinyl records, and I wanted to have a good listen. Of course, my real preoccupation was the BBC live concerts. I used the best wood for the speaker and made a shelf for the whole system. All in all, I had permanent set up.

The debut of my system was rather unfortunate. Afterward, my teammates from our brigade, as well as friends from other mountain brigades, were all polite, “Come on, drink up. A bull high on the mountain, his tail trailing behind his ass, four hooves and eight claws, and a dick as hard as brass. You lose. Drink up.”

The bad sound resulted from insufficient voltage. Years ago, when cables reached our mountain, the voltage was so low that we could stare right into the filaments. Though I trusted that the problem of electricity would be resolved, I had to, for that period of time, resort to my old Panda shortwave. Later on, one person from the county wanted to buy my shortwave, which I didn’t agree to. It was a good thing that he didn’t make the purchase, for as early as the late 1970s, four-speaker radios were smuggled in, blasting and deafening. The 1980s entered my 1970s in advance.

To find ways to make it through the long days, I started learning about trees and the art of finding the best wood. Another person and I would hold the two ends of a long saw, cut through the tree trunks, and then turn them into planks. I started making furniture so that I could live my life in Yunnan well and truly.

By 1976, people started to pass away: Zhou Enlai, then the Tangshan Earthquake, and Mao Zedong. The Gang of Four was arrested and things went south. When Mao passed, I was in Beijing, felt nothing (in the minds of educated youths in Yunnan, who listened to enemy radio, he had died in 1971), went shopping, and was ready to return to my long Yunnan days. When I reached Kunming, news of the arrest of the Gang of Four arrived and stirred things up all the way to Jinghong. I thought of nothing much. Upon returning to the brigade, the other educated youths joked: Ha, you dodged a bullet. But no one could escape the county memorial service. Everyone had to attend. The only way out was to make oneself faint. When I fainted, I was carried outside to the shade of a tree, where I felt at ease, only to be followed by a good half of the service attendees, who had also fainted. Pity those cadres who didn’t dare faint and had to stand through the whole service.

There was alcohol that night. Educated youths from Kunming, Shanghai, and Sichuan—with their guitars—all went to the small reservoir in the mountain. We drank naked, played music, plunged into the water, and let little fish nibble on our dicks. The women giggled and laughed, food forever in their mouths. Everything I had brought back from Beijing was consumed right away. The bright moon hung in the sky, and the constellations sparkled luminously. May we live forever and be forever young.

At that moment, clarity filled my heart.

[1] Ah Cheng (阿城) was born Zhong Acheng (鍾阿城) on April 5, 1949, in Beijing. His works include his trilogy of novellas: The King of Chess (棋王), The King of Trees (树王), and The King of Children (孩子王), as well as The Venetian Diary (威尼斯日记) and Common Senses (常识与通识). He lives in Beijing. “On Listening to Enemy Radio” (听敌台) was published in The Seventies (七十年代), edited by Bei Dao 北岛and Li Tuo 李陀 (Hong Kong: Sanlian, 2009), 136-42.

[2] “Decade” appears in English in the original.

[3] Lin Liguo is Lin Biao’s son. The number 571 in Chinese is the homonym of a phrase meaning “military uprising” and was used as a code name for Lin Biao’s attempted coup d’etat.

[4] Ah Cheng writes this in Shanghai dialect and included a parenthetical translation in Mandarin.

[5] A reference to Zhuangzi’s story of Cook Ding who wielded a knife with skill when butchering an ox.