Wednesday, December 4, 2019


China Transformed by Elimination of ‘Four Olds’

By Tillman Durdin—Special to The New York Times

May 19, 1971

HONG KONG, May 18—One of the early objectives of the Cultural Revolution in China, which began in 1966 and goes on today, was to wipe out the “four olds”—old things, old ideas, old customs and old habits.

The “four olds” had already suffered setbacks in the years of Communist rule preceding the Cultural Revolution, but the Maoist leadership tried to use the new revolutionary upsurge launched in 1966 to eliminate them completely.

In the turbulent years from 1966 to 1968, what remained of old religious practices, old superstitions, old festivals, old social practices such as traditional weddings and funerals, and old ways of dress were violently attacked and suppressed.

Visual evidences of old things were destroyed, and there was an orgy of burning of old books and smashing of old art objects.

Young Red Guards invaded homes and shattered family altars that denoted continued Confucian reverence for generations of forbears. The few temples, mosques and churches still used for religious purposes were closed and put to secular use. Even those that had been left open for sightseeing purposes, such as the great Buddhist, Lama and Taoist temples of Peking, were barred and their statues, altars and other furnishings were removed.

Forbidden City Is Closed

The Forbidden City—the walled enclosure in Peking of palaces, ceremonial halls, pavilions and residential quarters from which Chinese imperial rule was exercised until 1911—was shut.

The evidence, mainly visual, during three weeks of travel by this correspondent in the east coast areas of China, indicates that the drive against the “four olds” has had sweeping effect. In not a single home seen by the writer was there any family altar, any tablets to ancestors or any representation of the old gods formerly worshipped by the Chinese masses. In as Westernized a city as Hong Kong, still under British rule, such things are still commonplace in Chinese homes.

No religious practices were discoverable during the trip in China, and guides said there were none. Religious edifices have been turned to use as schools, warehouses or recreational centers.

The Forbidden City, with its evidences of great traditional art and architecture, remains closed to the general public, and the showplace temples and mosques of Peking and elsewhere are still barred except for a few that are reportedly kept open to be shown to visiting Buddhist and Moslem delegations.

Some Art Objects on Sale

Collections of traditional Chinese art objects of second‐class quality—porcelains, jades, paintings, lacquerware and jewelry—are for sale in special shops in Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai and Canton, but only for foreign visitors. The Chinese never get a sight of these examples of a great artistic past.

Before the Cultural Revolution it was not uncommon to see women wearing traditional sheath dresses and using cosmetics. Now the old styles in women's garments are gone, and today women wear the same frumpy blue or gray trousers and jackets as men. The writer saw no use of lipstick or rouge. Dressed like men, women work alongside them in manual as well as office jobs at the same pay.

The traditional big Chinese family apparently is gone, too. Cramped living quarters and social conditions today dictate a small family composed of husband, wife and one to three children.

The only old festival observed now is at the time of the old Chinese New Year, based on the lunar cycle, and it is not called a New Year festival any longer but a spring festival. Celebrations are not the colorful traditional kind. There are holidays, but the activities then are of a political nature—political dramatic performances or politically oriented mass meetings and sports events.

No old literature, either Chinese or Western, is on sale. Instead, the bookshops are stacked with the works of Mao Tse‐tung, and the few periodicals on politics, literature, medicine and other matters that are being produced these days.

In a library inspected at Tsinghua University in Peking, the section devoted to old Chinese literature was still intact, but a look into the classic novel “Water Margin” showed that it was last taken out for reading in January, 1967.

No traditional operas, no traditional music and no traditional plays are performed these days. There are only the 10 new standard dramatic works developed during the Cultural Revolution and performed everywhere now in full or in excerpts.

Even the manners and attitudes of the people seem changed. Weddings and funerals are plain and simple without public display of any sort.

People Seem Less Polite

People seem more direct and less polite. They appear to be more motivated than before by considerations of time and of cause and effect, as in Western societies.

The exotic, the traditionally pictured and the traditionally colorful things are gone from Chinese life, at least in the areas that were visited. In the Chinese People's Republic there is no “mysterious East” any more, just workaday people following workaday routines that seem essentially familiar and ordinary to the Westerner, even though they operate within a Marxist totalitarian framework.

Old folk sayings are occasionally heard, but these have largely been replaced by the maxims of Chairman Mao. The first of January is celebrated as the real New Year's Day, and the other fixed holidays, besides the spring festival, are May Day and the October 1 National Day.

A new generation has appeared, and though much of the old China is too indelible to erase as yet, a new China with ways quite different from the old is in existence.

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