The Gonzo Chronicles, Part VIII: “Automatic Weapons Fire Is the Overture.”

Welcome back.

Let’s look at two episodes from Duke’s time in China, each of which engage with the politics of cultural expression in the context of China’s emergence from the Cultural Revolution. The first arc deals with Chinese opera; the second with the unexpected appearance of an American pop song at a Beijing function.


In my last post, I framed Honey’s “unreadability” as a reflection of a survival tactic that grew out of the intense historical trauma experienced by the Chinese people, specifically grinding poverty compounded by disastrous socio-political experiments like the Great Leap Forward, a plan to modernize China’s economy that led to widespread famine, and the Cultural Revolution, a brutal campaign to purge China of ideas and cultural forms that challenged Maoist ideology by being too closely tied to bourgeois/Western concepts or Imperial China’s historical traditions. Between the two efforts, millions of people died. Addressing how the Chinese people live with this shared trauma, the novelist Wienke Wang wrote that it was “the Chinese way to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.”

While the Cultural Revolution is probably best remembered through images of Red Guards brandishing copies of Mao’s “Little Red Book” or brutal stories of people being tortured and murdered for their ideas (…see Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem for a compelling literary account of this particular madness…) the movement also sought to purge artistic and literary expression that ran counter to the party line. Chinese opera, an art form dating back to the 4th-century Zhao Dynasty, was a particular target of the Cultural Revolution. Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and a member of the hardline Gang of Four, was a principal architect of the use of cultural production to advance Maoist thought. She saw the operas as an effective way to erase regressive ideas and replace them with a revolutionary consciousness: 

“Our operatic stage has been occupied by emperors, princes, generals, ministers, scholars, and beauties … The grain we eat is grown by the peasants, the clothes we wear and the houses we live in are all made by the workers, and the PLA stands guard at the front of national defense for us and yet we do not portray them on stage.”

In February 1976, Duke attended a performance titled “Song of the Tiger” at the Peking Opera House. While the title is fictional, “Song of the Tiger” is meant to be one of the so-called “Eight Model Operas” that were the only instances of the genre performed during the Cultural Revolution. As the historian Joseph He notes, the “Eight Model Operas” revealed “how performing arts could be used as a means of political power struggle beyond their basic social functions as entertainment and education.” The Model Operas generally followed two basic storylines: highlighting the victories of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army or focusing on the victories of the peasant and working classes against landlords and bosses. 

He calls the operas an effective ideological weapon:

 “People who experienced the Cultural Revolution in China like myself can still remember how these model operas directly affected their ideology, sense of traditional values and social and political life.” 

While the operas were politically effective, they weren’t particularly entertaining: He calls them “dogmatic, rigid, dull and stereotyped.” “Song of the Tiger” combines the two major themes that He outlines; it’s also plagued by that dogmatism and dullness, something Duke is quick to pick up on. Ming, Duke’s host for the evening, summarizes the plot as the story of “a despot landlord who captures a wounded PLA platoon leader by tricking his trusted comrades.” Duke, to Ming’s shock, underlines the predictability of Model Opera plots by correctly guessing that “in the end, they destroy the despot landlord and cheers ring across the skies in praise of Chairman Mao.”

Unsurprisingly, Duke falls asleep during the performance, and confesses to Ming that the opera was “breathtakingly boring.” Ming notes that “Song of the Tiger” was “written by one of our hottest new committees,” (a nod to the impersonal nature of Maoist cultural production) but acknowledges the “common complaint” that the operas are “too ideological.” In fact, in an attempt to make the operas more artistically satisfying – and a sign that China was moving away from the strictures of the Cultural Revolution – Ming has been “appointed Director of the newly-formed People’s Council of Art for Art’s Sake” (…in Mao’s China, even attempts to personalize artistic expression needs to be overseen by a committee). Duke is shocked: as he understands it, Mao “loathed form over content.” Duke assumes the Great Helmsman would “have [Ming’s] head” if he prioritized aesthetics over ideology.

The exchange that follows illuminates a gap between American perceptions of Mao’s place in the Chinese political imagination and the realities of power in the People’s Republic. Ming tries to undo Duke’s assumptions about Mao’s position. Duke, reflecting common Western understandings, believes the Chinese have deified Mao: any plan to contest his vision would be tantamount to treason. While Mao was, of course, the subject of one of history’s most impressive cults of personality, like any Chinese leader, he had to navigate treacherous political waters. The Cultural Revolution was, after all, intended to shore up the Chairman’s position after he had been forced into political retreat following the failures of the Great Leap Forward. As Ming and Duke come to agree, a cult of personality is a fragile commodity in revolutionary times: like America’s own voice of rebellion, Bob Dylan, “the Chairman’s only as good as his last Cultural Revolution.” 

A revolution might not be a dinner party, but it might be held in the opera house. Doonesbury, 24 February 1976.

But there was, of course, much more than aesthetics at stake in Mao’s conception of revolution. Anyone with even the most passing familiarity with Maoist thought will recall his saying: “A revolution is not a dinner party.” Beyond spoofing the monotony of socialist art and Mao’s cult of personality, Duke’s night at the opera foregrounds the violence that defined the Cultural Revolution. The performance begins with machine gun fire, shocking Duke: Ming calmly informs him that “as it often is in life itself,” automatic weapons fire “is only the overture.” Later, Ming describes a scene in which “little children come out to play … filled with the joy and innocence of youth.” While Duke notes that the passage is “charming,” he also reveals a darkness underpinning the moment: “…the army uniforms they’re wearing,” he notes, “offer a nice counterpoint.” 

“Little Red Soldier” (Hong Xiao Bing) by Huang Jinzeng. The text reads “Position of Serious Criticism”

Duke’s observation about the militarization of children points to the Cultural Revolution’s darkest legacy: the experiences of children who witnessed terrible suffering and were called upon to commit horrific acts in the name of Mao Zedong Thought. A child during the Cultural Revolution, the writer Gao Zhiling was pulled out of school to dig trenches in preparation for a rumored Soviet attack, and recalls how, “when not doing hard labor, schoolchildren studied nothing but propaganda and spent their time screaming insults at teachers.” Beyond enduring forced labor and a perverted education, children in the Cultural Revolution often witnessed, or took part in, shocking acts of violence. Zhang Hongbin, now in his sixties, is haunted by the fact that he denounced his mother after she made disparaging comments about Mao. Zhang “called for her to be shot as a counter-revolutionary, [and] last saw her as she knelt on stage in the hours before her death.”

Duke’s night at the opera is one of those arcs that works on a number of levels: on the surface, it’s a straightforward satire of the aesthetic sterility of socialist art forms. Dig a little deeper, and there are critical insights into the instability and horrors that defined the moment. A strip from a couple of months later, also about performing arts in the context of the Cultural Revolution, shows how what appears to be a throwaway gag could also hint at something bigger.


On 17 April 1976, Duke and Honey were at dinner. Honey asks Duke if he’s enjoying the entertainment – “a Chinese military band playing ‘Home on the Range.’” Given that his hosts “like to play the music of visiting foreign dignitaries – to make them feel right at home,” Duke does his best to express polite appreciation, but the combo’s next selection, John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High,” has him literally looking for the exit.

“And they say that he got crazy once and he tried to touch the sun.” Doonesbury, 17 April 1976.

I’ve read this particular strip for years thinking it was simply another instance of one of Doonesbury’s running gags: Duke’s extreme loathing for Denver and his music. Like Duke (…and Hunter Thompson), Denver lived in Colorado: his proximity to Duke’s estate is “murdering [Duke’s] social life,” as none of his friends will come by when Denver is “singing his guts out down by [Duke’s] creek.” Their rivalry is a variation on the “Odd Couple” trope: John Denver represents a sunny, optimistic, heartfelt appreciation for America’s natural beauty; Duke is a sleazeball.

Turns out there’s more to the joke. John Denver’s music has particular meaning in China and across much of Asia, and even played a role in the normalization of diplomatic relationships between the People’s Republic and the U.S. 

The writer Jason Jeong describes how Denver’s soft-rock/pop-country stylings took on enduring significance for many Asian and Asian-American people in the 1970s . Often heard over U.S. Armed Forces Radio in countries that had an American military presence, Denver’s music offered a sense of stability and belonging to people living in difficult times:

“Introduced to Asia during a period of U.S. military influence, domestic political upheaval, and increased outbound migration, Denver’s song about reminiscence and homecoming found an audience grappling with deep cultural and demographic change.”

While Jeong writes about Denver’s relevance to Asian and Asian-American communities in a broader sense, the music also had (and has) significance in a specifically Chinese context: according to one study, another of Denver’s hits, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” was a group of Chinese students’ favorite American song.

Denver’s popularity in China is a product of the end of the Cultural Revolution, but reveals some of the leftover dynamics of Maoism. The years after the Cultural Revolution, the journalist Simon Adler notes, saw an opening up of the music available to Chinese listeners, though the options were limited to “pretty harmless” material.” Like with the “hot committee” that wrote “Song of the Tiger,” the American music that could be played in China required official sanction:

“… there was an actual committee that would hand pick which songs and what they were letting in, like John Denver, the Carpenters…” 

Politically, Denver and his music were part of China’s emergence from Maoism, occupying a central role in the re-establishment of U.S-China relations. Denver performed for Deng Xiaoping in 1979 during the first state visit by a leader of the People’s Republic of China to the United States. According to Jeong, this was the moment when “Chinese leaders embraced Denver, who was seen as someone Asian audiences could resonate with.” (Denver’s music took on a decidedly different political valence a decade later when his songs were played over PA systems during the Tienanmen Square uprising…)

If Jeong’s account of the origins of Chinese “Denvermania” is accurate – and I’m quite sure it is – it leaves me with a problem: how do we explain a reference to John Denver in a Chinese context several years before the concert that introduced Chinese officialdom to songs like “Rocky Mountain High?” 

My answer to that question is based entirely on conjecture. It could be that Trudeau simply saw an opportunity to fit in one of Doonesbury’s running gags. But I think it came out of personal experience.

Something I haven’t mentioned is how Duke’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador to China grew out of Garry Trudeau’s experiences as a member of the press corps covering Gerald Ford’s 1975 trip to China. I have no evidence for this, but I’m guessing that the reference to “Rocky Mountain High” may well be recreating an episode from that trip. If you know better, please drop me a line.

Speaking of Trudeau’s China junket, next time out we’re going to take a break from Duke’s diplomatic career to look at a great piece of Doonesbury history that just came my way: Trudeau’s reminiscences of the 1975 Ford trip, in the form of a long essay and several rare single-panel cartoons. 


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