"People are not chives; their heads do not grow back when they are cut off." Mao Tse-tung
It took a trip to china, and direct exposure to the villainies of the Gang of Four, for Arthur Miller to grasp how little humor Chairman Mao's dictum held for the Chinese people.
Miller has spent much of his career concerning himself with victims of authority. There was Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman." There were the Puritan women accused of witchcraft in "The Crucible." There are the artists of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, whose freedom for self-expression he has championed through his involvement with international human rights organizations.
When Miller and his wife, photographer Inge Morath, went to China last year it was she, not he, who contemplated a book. "I didn't go there to write anything on China. I knew China was a tremendous subject. I knew enough to think I didn't know enough to write. But when we got there and started meeting the people, I started taking notes -- because I realized that the accounts by survivors of that decade of the Cultural Revolution were crucial things about China that I had never read anywhere before. Most of them had not talked to foreigners," Miller recalled in an interview Friday.
There was, for instance, the meeting in Peking early in the five-week trip last year with film actor-director Jin Shan and actress Zheng Zenyao. The Millers had gotten their names from sources in the United States.
Jin Shan had been "since the '30s probably the greatest film star in all of China.He was their Clark Gable." Jin and many others, including his wife, became direct victims of Jiang Qing, one of the treacherous Four and even better known as Chairman Mao's wife.It was widely known that she banned Beethoven's music during the Cultural Revolution because her arch-rival Chou En-lai expressed his admiration for it. She would never forgive Chou for opposing her marriage to Mao.
But her murderous brutality was less widely known; she seemed to adopt Mao's dictum about cutting of heads as a mandate. Asked why he was arrested, Jin replied, "I knew her in Shanghai. And also because she wished never to contend with people who had talent . . . They killed my wife, Sun Weishi, in the same camp where I was . . . " They killed her three years before Jin was let out and never told him. Then Jin mentioned that scenarist Xian Bao Mo was beaten to death after openly opposing Madame Mao, and that director Zheng Chunli was killed while being tortured.
"You're unprepared when you meet these survivors of one of the most awful periods any country has ever been through," recalls Miller. "In all this era of concentration camps and the archipelagoes and secret police, the mind tends to shut out what it really is like for these people because it doesn't want to live with it. I know that's certainly happened to me. There are two types of people -- individuals and victims. And victims are no longer real people in the mind. At least until you encounter them like we did. Then they can no longer be abstracted out, because they are vivid individuals. You can never predict exactly how persecution and repression is going to affect a particular individual. And when you see it, it's always more painful than you imagined."
So Miller set out to report the trip and write the extensive text of "Chinese Encounters" while Morath made the photographs. It is not a book "about the Cultural Revolution and its consequences, which, like the Thirty Years War in Europe, will be sifted by generations of scholars," writes Miller, "it is a witness by two people" to its aftermath.
To one of the survivors in the book, Miller quotes himself as blurting out in amazment at what he is hearing, "It's fascism." "Yes," replies his subject, "it is fascism, but it's fascism combined with feudalism. And that's much worse."
Explains Miller, "They refer to feudalism as one of their main burdens over the centuries. It goes back thousands of years and it's one of the main distinctions between our contry and theirs. It refers to the tendency of those who are above to deal autocratically with those who are below."
During his visit, Miller found that China was a relatively open society, certainly in comparison with the endemic paranoia of the Soviet Union, about which Miller and Morath have also collaborated on a book. "We could talk to anyone we asked to and ask them anything. But what worried me is that there is no organized justice system to protect the Chinese from slipping down that road again. The protections we have here must regularly be reinvigorated to keep us from slipping too far, but the Chinese have nothing to reinvigorate."
Most of the 63-year-old Miller's writing over the years has dealt in one way or another with the problem of justice. And now he had completed a musical. The name is "Up From Paradise," and it's being cast right now. "It's about the Biblical origins of how people respond to authority," says Miller. Stanley Silverman did the music and Miller the lyrics. "Wait 'til you here Miller's lyrics," interjected Morath. "I think they're delightful."