China’s president Xi Jinping has just left the U.S. after his first state visit, though you’d hardly know it to read the papers; his stay was overshadowed by a certain pontiff. Americans, if they know Xi at all, have likely seen a certain image of him from earlier this month in Beijing: he’s standing in a sleek open-roofed black car, riding past a huge crowd of people waving tiny Chinese flags. He looks almost sheepish, or bored, or, more likely, hot. The weather that day pushed ninety degrees, and Xi is wearing a high-collared black jacket that toes the line between a traditional Chinese tangzhuang and a Western-style suit.
The occasion was a massive military parade (perhaps better translated as a showing of the troops) in Beijing, in early September, which marked the seventieth anniversary of the Chinese defeat of invading Japanese forces, known in the West as the end of the WWII and here as the “Anti-Japanese War.” There were two main articles about the parade in the English-language China Daily at the time, one about the “beautiful lady” troops (with a special photo spread of smiling young women in uniform) and one a feature on a pair of older generals who had lost more than ten kilograms each in their effort to get into fighting shape for the parade.
The Chinese coverage was more along these lines: “On the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the victory, we commemorate the heroic and indomitable Chinese people, fighting bloody battles and making tremendous sacrifices, defeating ferocious Japanese invaders and safeguarding China’s independence and national pride.” (That’s from the People’s Daily.)
On a day that was as overheated as the rhetoric, my friends’ reactions on weixin, a Chinese social network, ranged from patriotic (look at how many tanks we have!) to humorous to deeply sardonic. One of the memes going around was a photograph of a little granny standing in front of her TV, shading President Xi from the beating sun with an umbrella. It was adorable. Then, very quickly, it was censored. Why?
The little old granny (lao taitai) is a ubiquitous figure in modern Chinese culture. Just before the military parade, I was staying with my boyfriend in the heart of a traditional hutong where people still sit out on the alleys to chat at all hours, play cards, drink beer, and coo over each other’s children, and there the lao taitai were out in force. Nearly everyone over the age of sixty was wearing a blue T-shirt with a red armband that read NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH. They were the eyes and ears, the moral leaders, of the neighborhood, there to—as a sign that had been pasted to a wall near the entrance of the hutong said—COMBAT TERRORISM. And it wasn’t just lao taitai; older men, fruit sellers, the lady who sells drinks of out an old freezer—they all wore the T-shirts as they went about their daily lives. The alleys were a blue haze, which at first was vaguely amusing. The granny safety patrol.
Then one day I saw a few blue-shirts, as I had begun to call them in my head, walking around in small groups with a clipboard, knocking on doors. They were obviously taking their job very seriously, whatever it was. I began to wonder when they would knock on my door, and whether I would have answers to whatever it was they were going to ask. In China, there are always questions for which you do not have the right answers.
There’s an expression in Chinese, pa mafan, which means to fear trouble. As those blue-shirts crawled all over the neighborhood, doing who knows what and looking for something only they knew, I began to understand the expression in a new way. Trouble often arrives unannounced, in unexpected ways, and it’s impossible to prepare for. One develops a defensive posture. For me, that meant leaving my place early in the morning and staying out all day—but for those who don’t have the deus ex machina of an American passport, it’s a decision not to speak one’s mind, not to express dissent, or worse, not to risk thinking critically for oneself. This creates a kind of culture in which Orwellian doublethink still prevails: a country filled with blue-shirts, in the form of surveillance cameras, the “city managers” charged with keeping the peace but better known for disturbing it, the systems of censorship, the highly developed Internet controls. These are the real blue-shirts, and Xi Jinping has steadily increased their importance and influence. They operate in the background, all the time, without the need of any uniform.
And as for the blue-shirts themselves? One night walking back, my boyfriend and I stopped to buy some fruit from a young vendor whose blue shirt was already stained and ripping at the seams. My boyfriend asked him what the shirt was for, and he shrugged and said, “I don’t know. My boss gave it to me and told me to wear it.”
Totally innocuous. Innocuous, like the granny with the umbrella shielding President Xi. But of course, after the so-called Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong last year, the umbrella has become a symbol of freedom and democracy. It has the power of the metaphorical, a threatening, slippery force that makes the Chinese government extremely nervous, and with good reason. Still, you might say, it’s just some lao taitai holding that umbrella, someone who likely had no idea of the possible implications—harmless! Indeed. But there is the dangerous ambiguity of metaphor. And after all, as the grannies go, so goes the country.
Eleanor Goodman’s book of translations, Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni, was the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and was shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize. Nine Dragon Island, a book of her poetry, will be published this year.