China in Drag

By Michael Bristow. Published by Sandstone Press

Youth rebellion during the 1960s came in many guises. In the United States, beatniks rode freight trains and occupied university campuses; in the UK, mods and rockers battled it out on the south coast’s promenades; and in France, young Parisians were in full revolt.

In communist China there was also youth agitation, with the young being brainwashed and allowed to run amok on their elders, purging anyone deemed off-message or considered part of the old capitalist bourgeoisie.

Universities were closed and students were sent to the countryside to study the proletariat revolution and to toil on communual farms, aka gulags. Reading was limited to Mao Zedong Thought and the works of Karl Marx.

It was against this chaos that the central character of China in Drag, named only as The Teacher, spent his formative years, one of the millions of the ‘lost generation’ of Chinese. Now in their autumn years, they are still trying to work out (like the rest of the world) what makes one of the most mysterious countries on earth tick.

Written by the BBC’s World Service Asia Editor Michael Bristow – who cut his reporting teeth on the Shoreham Herald in the early nineties – this remarkable book was written after eight years living in China from 2005.

Towards the end of his tenure he decided to write about the country through the eyes of his Chinese language teacher, a typical Chinese man growing up during the madness of Mao’s fatal Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.

Meeting Bristow for dinner during one research trip, The Teacher revealed his other side, turning up neatly clad in women’s clothes.

“Do you mind?” he asked Bristow.

The shock moment resulted in a book about a unique Bromance.

Their double act is a guiding star that navigates through the enigma of modern China: through the politics, family rituals and tradition; the modern-day bling and rampant materialism; and the caprice of an authoritarian communist government allowing its subjects to embrace all of it. Bristow weaves in many of his reporting missions, detailing the realities of life under State control.

There are many books on China but China in Drag stands out because of the Teacher’s bravery in being himself in a country where standing out can, without warning, bring all the menace of the government’s big stick.

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