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The International Writers Magazine: China: At the time of the Olympic Games

Olympic China and its Forgotten Author
Peter Linsley

I arrive at Beijing's Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery just after ten o'clock on Sunday. The gate guards look at me strangely. "Can you tell me where this foreigner is buried?" I hand them the name and they run their eyes over it, examine my face again. What could an American be interested in seeing here? But I look innocent enough, with my book bag and glasses. I show them my passport.
 "I'm just very interested, I say. I only want to have a look."

They talk amongst themselves. A minute later one of them walks into the office and brings out a map. Here he says, and points. He draws a little circle, a tiny dot amidst ten hectares of green.
 "Thank you," I say.
As I walk down the tree lined pathways I soon discover Babaoshan to be something of an oasis amidst the Beijing hustle, a rare thing in the past few weeks. China's capital has passed through tremendous change; with each day it seems another wave of foreigners floods into the city, overwhelming numbers of domestic tourists coming in from across the county, from Shanghai, Xi'an, Chengdu, and Hong Kong.
Never before have I experienced such a Beijing, one at the center of the world's attention, a Beijing that is certainly aware of the significance of these Games: China's very own coming of age party it seems. By the time I arrived in June, city workers completed the construction of three new subway lines, the world's largest airport terminal and dozens of Olympic administrative buildings, hotels, and sporting venues including the 500 million dollar National Stadium, better known as the Bird's Nest. Familiar Tiananmen is lavished with flower displays and multicolored lights, posing athletes trimmed from hedge bushes. Street vendors hawk fake Beijing 2008 t-shirts and fuwa key chains, the cuddly and cute Olympic mascots. Most guide books now include whole sections just on the Olympic sites; it is truly a new city, and will remain so even after the Games have come and gone. In total this transformation has cost the Chinese government in upwards of 50 billion dollars.
I wonder what Agnes Smedley would have to say about this new China, the country to which she dedicated the last twenty years of her life. What would she make of this Olympic fervor? As I walk I still have doubts about actually being able to find the grave of this American exile, this political radical and feminist, author and possible spy (many argue she certainly was); her life was one of passion and depth, the haunting shadow of which is described in her autobiographical novel and most famous work, Daughter of Earth.
In her later years Smedley requested her ashes be buried with China's revolutionary dead, "as my heart and spirit have found no rest in any land on earth except China." As her writing suggests the country had an almost romantic attraction for her; at one time, you could say, they had similar hopes and dreams. Maybe the evidence lies in their pasts, both marked by the extremes of poverty and hardship, histories that spawned idyllic, but perhaps dangerous visions of society's potential.
During her youth Smedley experienced what she describes in Daughter of Earth as the, "dreariness of reality." She grew up the daughter of a laborer in a Colorado mining town during the early twentieth century, all the while working to support her family. She never finished school. It was these formative experiences that gave rise to her ongoing sense of idealism and social activism. Smedley began voicing her political views in her college newspaper and upon graduating moved to New York where she participated in the movement for India's independence from Britain. From there she went abroad, first to Germany, and then Shanghai in 1929 as a journalist to cover the Chinese Revolution. In 1937 she began traveling with the Eighth Route Army in the fight preceding the Communist takeover, often caring for the wounded. It was an experience oddly reminiscent of Hemingway's during the Spanish Civil War, and just as pertinent to her resulting writings.
China was ripe ground for the actualization of Smedley's political ideals, and the country accepted this exile as its own daughter, burying her, as she requested, and a handful of other foreigners alongside Communist cadres and upper level officials in this peaceful patch of green in southwest Beijing. As I walk down the path towards her grave I find it difficult to grasp the depth of experience that lies here. For me it is not what is said about the history, but perhaps, what is not said. Just as China has glazed over the darker events of the Communist takeover and Cultural Revolution, so has the experience of those buried here been mellowed in subsequent writings, the dangerousness of their ideologies forgotten. Now in the midst of the Olympics, a more subdued, though excited China looks to the future and to change with eyes more open than ever before, or so it seems. Maybe Smedley is turning in her grave, the idyllic vision of an entirely Communist China forgotten. But what is to be written on her tomb stone? I remember a passage from Daughter of Earth; it is Smedley, in all her passion and pain, though it speaks to China's experience in the twentieth century:
"What I have written is not a work of beauty, created so that someone may spend an hour pleasantly; not a sympathy to lift up the spirit, to release it from the dreariness of reality. It is the story of a life, written in desperation and unhappiness."
As I come upon her grave I imagine this might be part of the eulogy Smedley would have wished read, finally at rest, at her home away from home, a resolute but inspiring reflection. Instead there is a much simpler message carved into the marble:
"Agnes Smedley, Revolutionary writer and friend of the Chinese People."
Upon leaving Babaoshan I walk back into a Beijing that has already forgotten Smedley. On the way home I take the subway two stops further to Tiananmen. A few weeks before some friends and I stayed up all night to watch the flag raising at the north end of the square, a spectacular site in the first rays of morning, but more intriguing still in reflection when one considers what the flag represents; the red stain of bloodshed in the days of revolution. Everyone clapped. As we watched an elderly woman tugged softly on my sweatshirt, pulled a handful of key chains from her pocket. "Fuwa? Fuwa?"

© Peter Linsley November 2008
plinsley at
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