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U3A Writing: Freewheeling

…Human nature needs to express itself. Freedom of spirit equals a peaceful mind and repression of any kind, even when it is meant for a person’s good, equals an uneasy spirit…

Mary Basham, in reflective mood, tells a tale of China to illustrate a basic human need.

To read more of Mary’s thoughtful articles type her name in the search box on this page.

Driving through country lanes recently provided me with one of those rare moments of deep contentment. The sky was entirely cloudless and that intense shade of blue usually associated with travel posters. Hedgerows were hung with scarlet or the glistening deep purple-red of blackberries. (If old wives tales are to be believed we are in for a hard winter!) There was a hint of dust in the air as one or two farmers, a little slow to gather in the harvest during the height of summer, tried to make up for lost time. Birds assembled in swooping, soaring flocks over the stubble, dancing their preliminarily sequence before catching the currents and flying south.

After a hectic, sometimes turbulent year, my mind floated free, calm and at peace with the world.

Such times in my life are few and far between. With a mind like mine, something or other flashes into it within seconds and there I am again, chasing shadows of thought down avenues in pursuit of straight roads where usually there are only cul-de-sacs. And this occasion was no different. One minute I am marvelling at the beauty of a late summer’s day, the next the opera ‘Nixon in China’ creeps into my mind. Can you see the connection? I doubt anyone could – except me.


I first saw the opera in Millennium year when John Adams score took precedence over the story as far as I was concerned. Nixon and his historic visit to China belonged to the days of my youth and had shamefully been pigeon-holed in my memory as associated with giant pandas. Global politics was not a strong point with me back then. This July I saw the opera again and, being more tuned in to the significance of Nixon’s visit and all that Mao’s ideology had meant for China and its people, followed the irony of the narrative more closely.

Mao believed that ‘Progress was born in chaos, and originality comes from destruction,’ levelling the metaphorical playing fields for the Chinese people to a common denominator. His vision was that if you destroyed the old customs, culture and values you could create a new order where everybody was equal. The concept was as ‘fresh slates’ where you could make thoughts ‘free and think, speak and act bravely’.

In theory it all sounds fine but in practice we know now that many people were ‘persuaded’ into his way of thinking by hard, manual toil and total submission. Intellectuals worked alongside peasants developing the ‘People’s Commune’ but although Mao’s intentions may have been good, human nature does not react well to uniformity. In reality ‘making thoughts free’ was not quite as it seemed.

A snapshot of this was brought home to me recently during a conversation with friends.
Both had parents who had originated from China more than half a century ago. Consequently, when the father of one of my friends suggested that he should take his family back for a visit to his old village in a very rural part of China, it had seemed like a good idea.

That first visit had taken place in the 1980s when Mao’s influence, albeit through Premier Deng, was still strong. When the plane touched down at the tiny out of the way air strip, it was the drabness of everybody in their plain, grey-blue outfits, the way everybody did menial tasks and lived without expectation of anything better that was paramount. Colour was very definitely missing. The most impressive and heart rendering thing had been that despite the length of time my friend’s father had been gone, even before the rise of Mao, elderly villagers still remembered him and were overwhelmed with happiness to see him again.

A return visit was made in 1996 and it was like a different place. Gone were the plain grey-blue outfits. The women had managed to acquire flower patterned tops and the men, coloured shirts. Gardens no longer grew only dull, hunger quelling vegetables but were sown with flowers as well, adding another dimension to the air of hope and expectation in the village.

The tenuous link running through all this is the ability to free the mind. It’s more than Mao’s literal approach - that if you give people nothing to think about then the slate is clean. Human nature, as demonstrated by the tale of the two trips, needs to express itself; freedom of spirit equals a peaceful mind and repression of any kind, even when it is meant for a person’s good, equals an uneasy spirit.

Theorists would have a totally different word for what I am trying to explain in my own inept way. For a start they say that they only need to write something down in order to record their views but a writer needs to set it down on paper to understand his or her own train of thought. That may be true, but the outcome is, I believe just sometimes in our lives we have occasions of true euphoria, when our chemical makeup, outside influences and inner feelings give us the gift to rise to a higher plain. Then and only then do we truly free the mind.

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