'Forbidden Fruit' chronicles memories of a traumatic 1980s Beijing

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Forbidden Fruit is Gail Pellett's raw and highly personal memoir of the year, mid-1980 to mid-1981, when she lived in Beijing. It examines a place in time -- China, just emerging from its traumatic, decade-long Cultural Revolution -- that has largely disappeared. Still, the legacy of this shattering event continues to reverberate globally, affirmed by this year's many reflections on the Cultural Revolution, 50 years after it began.

Forbidden Fruit explores a small part of this event's immediate aftermath from the eyewitness perspective of a western woman's intellectual, cultural and erotic encounter with a profoundly different world.

Pellett was 37 in 1980, a Canadian radio documentarian who had moved to the United States at 21 and was shaped by the New Left and feminist politics of the 1960s and 1970s there. She had been contracted as a "foreign expert" broadcast journalist with Radio Beijing (China's equivalent to Voice of America), part of an opening to Westerners and others linked to the nascent economic reforms of the country's new top leader, Deng Xiaoping.

In barely three decades, these reforms would transform China from a giant, peasant-dominated backwater into the Communist Party-led capitalist colossus that it is today.

But, when Pellett arrived to Beijing, wide-eyed and eager to contribute to the new opening, the Cultural Revolution was barely four years in the past. A national political convulsion initiated by Mao and enforced with the help of student mobs, it aimed to level class distinctions (targeting particularly intellectuals) and beat back any perceived bourgeois or other 'rightist' tendencies.

Some 1.5 million people died and 100 million were persecuted before the furor dissipated in 1976 (also the year Mao died). In 1980, Deng's counter reforms were still new and fragile, with workers at all levels either opposed to, or terrified of being re-victimized by, the ever-shifting ideological winds.

Pellett found a citizenry impoverished by the economic chaos of the previous two decades, grappling with an industrializing frenzy, an acute housing shortage, few basic consumer goods and rapidly climbing pollution indices (a huge coal mound fed a decrepit boiler beside her Radio Beijing dormitory). Censorship was routine and surveillance omnipresent (by high and low party cadres, colleagues, acquaintances and plainclothes police).

Fraternizing with foreigners, including invited expert "comrades" like Pellett, was suspect. Even her status as a single woman was questioned by the puritanical culture, soon scandalized by her affairs with Chinese men. Professional hopes were likewise dashed: Radio Beijing was uninterested in an original or querying journalism, its English department confined to translating party line features. Pellett was a "polisher" of these texts. Efforts to befriend colleagues or other Chinese were mostly rebuffed.

With almost no Mandarin, Pellett diligently tried to scale the walls of resistance, armed only with a dynamic personality, determination, curiosity and a largely theoretical introduction to China's revolution. Her experience would be fundamentally challenged.

Western leftists of that era, though supporting China's opposition to exploitative class divisions, were relatively affluent and shaped by the American civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, resistance to Latin America's dictators, second-wave feminism and a broad cultural youth rebellion. Opposing their governments' Cold War and military adventurism, they also helped spawn the environmental movement (cleaning up air and rivers befouled by industry) and were committed to the New Left premise that personal practice was also political and ripe for change, including in the realms of sexual mores and individual expression.

This was a world away from Chinese peasants' or leaders' concerns or the country's centrally launched upheavals, including the brutal excesses of the famine-inducing Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s/early 1960s and the 1966-76 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (notwithstanding rhetorical borrowings from the latter).

Nor, despite Deng's new openings, were western leftists disposed to embrace his push for ruthless, capitalist-style industrial expansion.

By accepting Radio Beijing's assignment, Pellett had invited this profound political and cultural clash. Serendipitously, her personal story had also brought her to this juncture: born in the hardscrabble Canadian prairies and raised by a single mother in the west coast cities of Vancouver and Victoria, she ventured to 1960s San Francisco, finding there and in several other American cities enticing intellectual, political and sexual challenges, and her future profession as a radio and television documentarian.

Forbidden Fruit is about the coincidence of this messy and transformative encounter of personal and historical worlds. Pellett's year-long pilgrim's progress is wryly delineated in the chapter headings.

"We Have Friends All Over the World" appropriates a slogan hung in the Beijing Hotel to comment on a friendliness restricted, like that of the Friendship Store, to amenities available only to foreigners (and high-ranking party cadres). "You Are My Chairman" references a romantic line delivered by Pellett's first, doomed Chinese fling, while "Little Miss Cultural Imperialist" is her self-designation after several rejected efforts to promote core journalistic standards at Radio Beijing or, in a lecture series, share her enthusiasm for American blues. The final chapter, "At Last", signals both a goal reached and the end.

The memoir's deepest reward is its excavation of China's revolutionary process to that moment in the context of the assumptions, illusions and merits of Pellett's own political formation. This is complemented by rich descriptions of the China she finds on trips outside Beijing and her persistent efforts at personal connection.

Vivid passages on the shortages of housing, food, hot water and other basics, even among "intellectual workers" like Pellett's office comrades, also provide a stunning counterpoint to today's super-consuming elite Chinese, like the "fuerdai" or "rich second generation" Vancouver immigrants recently profiled in the New Yorker. These children of mega-wealthy captains of industry would horrify both Mao and Deng; they were unimaginable in 1980.

Forbidden Fruit needs a tighter edit and its prologue is an unnecessary distraction to the narrative's start. And, while Pellett carefully contextualizes contemporary Chinese politics, she omits doing the same with several parallel U.S. references. An index would also be helpful, though this is mitigated by excellent back cover maps of Beijing and China in 1980 and China today, an eclectic bibliography, and by several of the photographs by, and occasionally of, Pellett made during the year.

Her title and cover illustration derive from Mao's admonition that, in the same way that one can only know the taste of a pear by trying it, the only route to genuine knowledge is direct experience. She concludes that the knowledge she sought in her journey to China, including genuine relationships with Chinese individuals, was, at that historical moment, a forbidden fruit for outsiders.

Nevertheless, by her self-critical openness and by paying tribute both to the suffering of so many Chinese throughout their country's roiling political traumas and to the curiosity, generosity and sceptical humour they displayed when the opportunity arose, she tasted something of that extraordinary place in time and its inhabitants, generously sharing her bites of that pear.

Pellett also references Mao's 1956 dictum to "Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend." Suppressed when he didn't like what he was hearing, his dictum (unlike his intended revolution) endures as a now universal metaphor for free expression. It is also an aspiration for all who contemplate the evolution and betrayal of 20th century communism, and, amid another virulent crackdown on dissidents, the still world-shaking process that is 21st century China.

Ellen Tolmie writes on social and media issues and lives in Toronto.

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