False Collar


The orchestra was in tune, their scores at the ready before them. The choir filed onto their risers, while the stage manager stood at the center to ensure that everything was in order, then signaled for the curtain to rise and lights to come on overhead and in front of us. Now it was too late to change anything.

The conductor strode to his position and took his bow. Standing on his little podium, he solemnly surveyed his forces, then raised an arm and we were off! The overture commenced: the trumpets were half a beat behind, the cellos flat. With slightly wrinkled brow and energetic gestures, he expressed dissatisfaction then pleasure when the kettledrum (substituting for a flower pot drum) entered on time, and the tuba executed a splendid, resonant phrase. The conductor flung  himself into his work, moving  as he believed maestros should, his body bent forward, wrists high, his attention focused on the string section. Then his hands came together and apart dramatically, like a chef pulling noodles, the breadth of his gestures leading the musicians along. In the stillness of a woodwind passage, the choir and strings swept in. With that, the conductor abandoned the orchestra and turned his agitated face on the singers, communing with them, projecting all the energy he could muster, trying to elicit a more spirited performance. His mouth held the right emotions, opening and shutting correctly, but anyone could see he wasn’t making a sound, like an impostor trying to look the part. He wanted the high voices to make a brighter sound, a little brighter. His left hand swept up, and up again, but it was no good, one couldn’t just make a wish and expect these fellows to be sudden masters of high C. Besides, where would they find the energy? You had nothing to feed them, when your own last meal had been only potatoes and cabbage.

The first song drew to a close, the audience applauded, and the conductor turned, bowing to them. As he straightened up, his false collar came undone, half of it reaching up to paw at his cheek, the other remaining hidden inside his jacket. This triggered some disorder in the next song; his stern demeanor and that fake, twisted collar presented a stark contrast. As his arms moved vigorously, a patch of white bobbed before his face. During a particularly intoxicating, lyrical passage, a soprano lost control and let out a giggle. That was the breach in the dam—laughter being the most contagious thing on stage—and we couldn’t stop it exploding across the company. His sternness and fury only exacerbated our frenzy, the choir infecting the musicians, until finally everyone present was in hysterics. Hastily the curtain came down.

This was one of our more disastrous performances during my time in the Great Northern Waste. It was an important one too, meant to welcome a senior official. These days, we’d say the concert was a bust, but back then it counted as a political issue. The next day, everyone who’d laughed on stage sat and wept as they self-criticized. Nobody blamed the false collar; we found fault only with ourselves. As for the conductor, Shanghai Zheng, he swore that at all future performances he’d go on stage with a bare neck. He’d rather reveal his somewhat grubby but sturdy neck than wrap it in an inauthentic garment, and  risk making a mockery of politics should this scrap of white cloth go awry.

It was only after moving to the Great Northern Waste that I encountered false collars. They first became fashionable among the Educated Youths of Shanghai—round ones, pointy ones, patterned ones. Girls put on a different one every day, a pageant as extravagant as that of any princess. Yet observing these people with their false collars, I could think only of what was missing underneath. To begin with, I’d thought the collars meant principally that you lacked a complete shirt. Later, I discovered they did serve a purpose—as a barrier between cotton undershirt and wool overshirt. Our cotton shirts had no collar, and adding a false one prevented the woolen shirt from chafing against the neck.

False collars grew more popular, and lots of people began sporting them. The wearers generally fell into two groups: those who wore them for their appearance, usually only on important occasions; and those who valued their negligible practical function.

As I owned a white shirt, I never needed to wear a false collar during performances, nor was I worried about woolen garments scratching my neck. At the time, my entire body was covered in flea bites, and there was no way I could pass myself off as a civilized human being in any case.

More than a decade later, this item of clothing came vividly to mind. I was reluctantly listening to the editor of a publishing house make a hypocritical speech. His lies, so vigorously and expansively delivered, recalled the debacle of that false collar. If I’d been wearing one, I wouldn’t have needed to say a word, merely open my jacket casually and reveal the false collar to the speaker, show it off from all angles. Look at this, it’s false, a false collar. This would have been the most splendid performance of any false collar, because only at that moment would it have become real.

But that wasn’t possible. The times have changed, and I’m a civilized human being now. I’ve gotten used to being a phony.


Old Yoo played the round horn, also known as the French horn, in the propaganda orchestra. When he followed the five-line score, his grasp of rhythm was exceptionally accurate. Old Yoo usually didn't practice very much. One time the political commissar overheard him as he was rehearsing and called the little tune he was playing “the stinking fart of the bourgeoisie.” This saddened Old Yoo. He put down his horn and asked Old Qian to teach him the erhu. He learnt to read simple notation, and to play “Waters of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.” The commissar listened to his rendition and commented that Old Yoo had improved.

The full name of our brigade was “Thoughts of Chairman Mao Propaganda Orchestra.” Apart from our own little concerts, we staged mostly revolutionary operas. Being short-staffed, each of our performers often took on three or four roles each. In Legend of the Red Lantern, I played a liaison officer, a spy, and one of the Japanese devils at the execution ground. In addition, I handled the curtain and special effects.

Old Yoo kept to the orchestra, playing both the round horn and erhu, and was also the electrician in charge of the loading platform. He most enjoyed the horn solo in the “Assault on Tiger Hill.” He even received a round of applause at one performance, and for ages afterward sat clutching his instrument in a daze.

He compared the tone of the round horn to “white clouds above a palace.” What did he think of the oboe? “A girl by the water.” And the clarinet? “A young boy growing his first beard.” So what about the erhu? He thought about it and whispered, “The groaning of the political commissar and his wife.”

Old Yoo had gotten a girlfriend at the age of twenty-six, a Shanghai Educated Youth from the brickworks called Blossom. She was a scrawny thing who spoke in her city's dialect, bringing to mind old-time Shanghai actresses like Zhou Xuan and Ruan Lingyu. Once Old Yoo met Blossom, every night he'd walk six miles to meet her at the brick factory. Each evening before he set out, he'd say, I'm going to do it with her tonight. And when he got back later on, we'd ask, did you do it? And he'd say no, there was always someone working late around the kiln. We'd ask if he was tired from the twelve-mile round trip, and he'd say: of course. I'm exhausted, brain and body both. Luckily I can catch a ride back—in the back of the brick van, that is!

That night, he came back badly injured. The van had overturned into a ditch, and he'd been battered by falling bricks. He ended up in the hospital with a broken leg. When we visited, he was miserable. Blossom had just left—she'd come to break up with him. In the end, she'd used Mandarin to tell him she was leaving. Old Yoo asked me why she'd switched to Mandarin to inflict these cruel words. I couldn't find a reason. Perhaps she felt it was more solemn, more proper. Old You spat out “bitch,” then mysteriously informed me that it was just as well, she had women's issues.

After Old Yoo was discharged, he had a bit of a limp, though you wouldn't notice unless you were looking for it. He kept up a front of nonchalance, but withdrew into himself, not bathing or washing his clothes for months at a time, then finally taking to drink. When drunk, he’d blow awkwardly into his mouthpiece, chapping his lips, and even so he continued until a layer of calloused skin formed.

One time we performed for the armed forces. The People's Liberation Army was always particularly welcoming. After we set up the stage, they offered us all a drink; afraid of fumbling during the performance, everyone declined—apart from Old Yoo. As he drank, he toasted, “Wine brings soldiers and the people together, like family.” We thought he was knocking back too many and advised him to slow down. He said he was fine.

The performance started, and everyone busied themselves with their own parts. Old Yoo really did seem fine, switching frantically between horn and erhu. When we reached “Assault on Tiger Hill,” he clutched the instrument to his chest, pressed down on the keys, and entered on the right beat. But halfway through the passage, Old Yoo suddenly stopped and let out an enormous belch, loud and resonant. We were shocked for a moment, but couldn't help laughing. With the orchestra in hysterics, the music grew chaotic. The actor playing Yang Zirong, waiting in the wings, missed his cues for both his entrance and his aria. The show descended into chaos, and finally we were forced to bring the curtain down and start over.

Right after the performance, the political commissar held a meeting that lasted through the night. He said Old Yoo had let out an “anti-revolutionary belch.” After this, Old Yoo gave up the round horn. We replaced all the horn passages with the cello, and he stuck to the erhu and operating the electricity.

I thought of Old Yoo again yesterday. I asked my wife if she remembered him and she said she did, but he was called Old Yew, not Old Yoo. Still I can't bring myself to change it. I can't explain why, but I feel like if I were to use his correct name, I wouldn't recognize him anymore.

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乐队的弦调好了, 谱子打开了。 合唱队员站上台子, 舞台监督在台中间看了一下, 证实一切就绪, 指挥幕布拉开, 顶灯和面灯的光照进舞台, 这一刻, 什么也来不及改变了。

指挥阔步上台, 行礼, 站上他单独的台子, 庄严地环视一周, 把手抬起来, 挥动!前奏响了:小号慢了半拍, 大提琴弦不准, 指挥用微皱的眉头, 和昂扬的手势表达了喜悦和不满。 定音鼓(花盆鼓代替的)适时地加入, 长号拉出嘹亮与华美的乐句。 指挥虚假地投入进来, 像他所理解的大师那样, 俯下身体, 抬起腕子, 强调着弦乐。 而后像个抻面的师傅努力开阖着, 把辽阔的动作展示给乐手。 在管乐的沉寂中, 合唱队跟随弦乐进来, 这时指挥放弃了乐队, 扬起激荡的脸, 与合唱队做着交流。 他尽量表现出昂奋, 提高合唱队的兴致。 他的嘴在做着表情, 准确地开合着, 但明眼人知道, 他只张嘴不出声( 像个献媚的假唱歌手 )他希望高音部再响, 再响一点。 他把左手扬起, 再扬, 不行。 你不能指望这些家伙们个个是高音c 之王。 再说你没有什么东西来喂他, 你自己也刚吃完土豆白菜。

第一支歌结束了, 观众在鼓掌。 指挥返身敬礼。 他的那个假领子就歪了, 有一半跑出来攀上了脸颊, 还有一半仍藏在外衣内。 这使下一首歌唱得有些零乱。 他的庄重严肃和那个原本虚假而今又扭曲了的白领子形成了鲜明的对照。 在他手臂的挥动下,那块白在脸庞上跳跃着。 一个女高音在一节沉醉的抒情乐段中, 再也忍不住,笑出了声。 这笑像一个突破口 ( 在台上, 传染最快的就是笑)。终于可怕的笑台暴发了。他的严肃和愤怒使众人的笑进入了高潮, 合唱队传染给乐队,终于到全体大笑。大幕急落。

这是一次我在北大荒的演出遭遇, 重要的演出, 招待首长的演出。 按现在的话是演砸了, 当时算政冶问题。 第二天开会, 前一天在台上笑的人都哭着做了检查。 没有人去指责那个假领子, 都是针对自己做着检讨。 只是乐队指挥上海郑, 在以后的指挥生涯中大多是光着脖子上台的, 他坚决抛弃了虚假的形式, 他宁可把结实稍有点不清洁的脖子展示出来, 也不愿再用一块白饰布去与政冶开玩笑。

假领子, 我是在北大荒时才见到的。 它先在上海知青中流行, 圆领子, 尖领子,花边领子, 女孩子一天换一个, 能换出公主的排场来。 不过我看到她们的假领子, 总会想到领子以下的空缺。 最初我以为它除了能告诉别人, 你缺少一件完整的衬衫外, 再无其它作用。 后来才发现它是有作用的----能填补棉毛衫与毛衣间的搭配空缺( 棉毛衫没有领子,挂上假领子后, 能避免毛衣直接扎脖子)。

假领子推而广之, 很多人开始挂起来。 挂的人也分两种, 一种人只重形式, 他们逢重要的场合才挂; 一种人是为了那个小小的实际作用。 我没挂过, 我有一件白衬衫, 可以应付演出。 我也不太怕毛衣打磨脖子。 那时我身上常年有虱子的踪迹, 我实在没有可能再把自己打扮得像个文明人。

但不知为什么, 我现在却极想得到这样一件东西( 事隔了十几年 )。 当昨天我被迫听一位刊物领导在慷慨激昂说假话时, 我突然想起了那个假领子。 如果,那时我戴的是个假领子, 我就可以一句话也不说, 漫不经心地, 假装无意地把外衣的前襟解开, 把那个假领子亮给他看, 前后左右地亮给他看。 看呵, 假领子, 假的领子。 那将是假领子的一次最伟大的表演。 只有这时假领子才是真实的。

没能这样, 一个时期来, 我习惯做一个文明的假人了。


  老由是宣传队吹圆号的。他管圆号叫“法国号”。老由看五线谱时,节奏掌握得很准。老由平时不大练功,有一次练功时,被政委听见了,说他吹的调调,是放 “资产阶级的臭屁”。老由听了这话很伤心。就把圆号收起来 ,去向老谦学拉二胡。学看简谱,拉“江河水”。场政委再听到后,说老由有进步。




  老由二十六岁时交了个女朋友,是砖场的上海知青阿花。阿花很瘦,说一口的上海话,让人想起周旋阮玲玉什么的。老由结识阿花后,每晚赶二十里地去砖场看 阿花。走之前总要说一句:我今晚就把她办了。夜里回来,问他办了吗?说没有,砖窑总有人值班。问他每晚四十里地累不累。说:怎么不累,快心力交瘁了,好在 有专(砖)车接送。

  老由那晚回来,带了一身的伤。砖车翻在沟里,很多砖分别砸在老由身上,一条腿也压断了,住进了医院。我们去看他,老由正伤心。他说阿花刚走,说阿花跟 他吹了,阿花最后居然要用普通话来跟他吹。老由问我她为什么用普通话来说这些绝情的话。我说不出原回,觉得大概为了庄严和郑重吧。老由骂了句娘,然后神秘 地告诉我:有什么好,她有痛经病。



  演出开始了,大家都很忙。老由也忙,放下圆号,抄起二胡,看看觉得真的没事。到“打虎上山”前,老由把圆号抱在怀里,动了动键子。该进来时就进来了, 吹到中间间老由忽然断了一下,打了一个很响的酒嗝。酒嗝响而脆。大家先是一惊,接着,忍不住笑了起来,乐队的人一笑,音乐就乱了。在幕边准备出场的杨子 荣,找不到过门,嘴张不开,该唱时没唱,该出时没出。演出大乱,只得关了幕重来。




Translator Notes

Zou Jingzhi is one of China’s most acclaimed poets and playwrights, whose work includes high-profile collaborations with Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai as well as the founding of his own theater company. While he may appear part of the establishment, the forty-year shadow of the Cultural Revolution hangs over his past like so many of his generation.

When I visited Mr. Zou in his Beijing villa, he spoke dispassionately of the past, even while showing me photographs of the hardship he and his wife had suffered when, as “Educated Youths,” they were sent into years of forced labors in the Great Northern Waste.

Yet his story was only part of a much larger one that the country as a whole has yet to explain or exorcise. Even today, there are many aspects of the Cultural Revolution that are difficult to understand, and the changes that it wrought on China are still being accounted for.

While much of Mr. Zou’s writing deals with antiquity—for example, his adaptation of the classical Chinese epic, “The Orphan of Zhao”—he has not, until now, closely examined his own past. Ninth Building, from which these two stories are taken, works through what he witnessed and suffered as a child and young man, all the while retaining his customary spare, elegant prose and detached vision.

Apart from history itself, this book explores memory and growth. How much can Mr. Zou accurately remember at this remove in time? What details have stayed with him, and how much has he changed as a result of these experiences? A discursive meander through these years evokes far more telling details than a chronological narrative could.

Chinese writing that deals with the Cultural Revolution is known as “scar literature” and is usually, as the name implies, laden with blame and anger. Mr. Zou’s book, I would argue, does not belong to this genre. His account is personal, and while the larger political context hovers in the background, he shares with us only what he saw and did, and in so doing demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit: how a person can, in a time of great turmoil, carve out a life for himself that successfully navigates the terrible contours of this time, and finds worth and beauty in the most surprising places. In translation, the challenge was to find a way to convey the immense humanity of his account, never self-pitying or angry, but dispassionately, ruthlessly communicative of its own tragedy.

Jeremy Tiang


In the Classroom

Jeremy Tiang