To save a culture, take the long view

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To save a culture, take the long view

Rong Yiren from Shanghai was the first capitalist in communist China, practically the only capitalist recognized in the harsh battle of the proletariat. This is where the term “red capitalist” came from. Mei Lanfang was the singer who preserved the Beijing opera through war and revolution. Both are famous, but they have something in common that’s not well known: relationships with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China.

In 1958, Zhou appointed Rong as vice minister of textiles. He called Rong “Rong Lao-ban,” meaning president, and treated him respectfully. However, even Rong could not avoid begin tarnished in the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards, a mass movement of mostly students in China, targeted Rong’s house. They cut off Rong’s right index finger and beat Rong’s wife, Yang Jianqing. His physically disabled fourth daughter also suffered. It looked as if they would murder the whole family. That was when Zhou stepped in. He told the Red Guards, “Rong is a representative of China’s top asset class. Protect him.” The Rong family was hospitalized soon afterwards. After becoming an international man of great wealth, Rong frequently said, “I would not be who I am today if it were not for Premier Zhou.” Rong later went on to become vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and vice president of the nation.

The revolutionary group led by Zhou before China became a communist country was a neighbor of Mei Lanfang in Shanghai. After the Red Guards took over Shanghai in May 1949, Zhou met Mei and said, “You showed the character of the Chinese people during the anti-Japan war. Do not follow the Chinese Nationalist Party, but stay in Shanghai.” In June that year, Mei performed “Farewell My Concubine” at the request of Zhou. Immediately after the performance Mei said with affection, “I have performed ‘Farewell My Concubine’ more than 1,000 times, but it has never felt gratifying before.” When Mei died from a heart attack at the age of 67 on Aug. 8, 1961, Zhou volunteered to be chair of the funeral committee and led the state funeral.

There are many diverse debates on trust and loyalty in the political world. Many argue about whether to place importance on ideals or actual benefits. Let us rise beyond this standard. Consider the insight of Zhou, who protected people with a long-term perspective for his country. If there had been no Rong, an “enemy of the proletariat,” the reform and opening pursued by Den Xiaoping might have been crippled, and if not for Mei, the maestro of Beijing opera, which was once dismissed as an “art of the wealthy,” a unique piece of Chinese culture would have faded. Let us remember that Zhou was the one who saved Deng Xiaoping when he started the engine for reviving China. Conflicts like the Sejong City problem would be resolved easily if viewed with long-term insight like Zhou’s.

The writer is the chief of an investigative reporting team of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Rong Yiren from Shanghai was the first capitalist in communist China, practically the only capitalist recognized in the harsh battle of the proletariat. This is where the term “red capitalist” came from. Mei Lanfang was the singer who preserved the Beijing opera through war and revolution. Both are famous, but they have something in common that’s not well known: relationships with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China.

In 1958, Zhou appointed Rong as vice minister of textiles. He called Rong “Rong Lao-ban,” meaning president, and treated him respectfully. However, even Rong could not avoid begin tarnished in the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards, a mass movement of mostly students in China, targeted Rong’s house. They cut off Rong’s right index finger and beat Rong’s wife, Yang Jianqing. His physically disabled fourth daughter also suffered. It looked as if they would murder the whole family. That was when Zhou stepped in. He told the Red Guards, “Rong is a representative of China’s top asset class. Protect him.” The Rong family was hospitalized soon afterwards. After becoming an international man of great wealth, Rong frequently said, “I would not be who I am today if it were not for Premier Zhou.” Rong later went on to become vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and vice president of the nation.

The revolutionary group led by Zhou before China became a communist country was a neighbor of Mei Lanfang in Shanghai. After the Red Guards took over Shanghai in May 1949, Zhou met Mei and said, “You showed the character of the Chinese people during the anti-Japan war. Do not follow the Chinese Nationalist Party, but stay in Shanghai.” In June that year, Mei performed “Farewell My Concubine” at the request of Zhou. Immediately after the performance Mei said with affection, “I have performed ‘Farewell My Concubine’ more than 1,000 times, but it has never felt gratifying before.” When Mei died from a heart attack at the age of 67 on Aug. 8, 1961, Zhou volunteered to be chair of the funeral committee and led the state funeral.

There are many diverse debates on trust and loyalty in the political world. Many argue about whether to place importance on ideals or actual benefits. Let us rise beyond this standard. Consider the insight of Zhou, who protected people with a long-term perspective for his country. If there had been no Rong, an “enemy of the proletariat,” the reform and opening pursued by Den Xiaoping might have been crippled, and if not for Mei, the maestro of Beijing opera, which was once dismissed as an “art of the wealthy,” a unique piece of Chinese culture would have faded. Let us remember that Zhou was the one who saved Deng Xiaoping when he started the engine for reviving China. Conflicts like the Sejong City problem would be resolved easily if viewed with long-term insight like Zhou’s.

The writer is the chief of an investigative reporting team of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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