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`Staying Alive' in the Ming Tombs

IN 1979 I witnessed a demonstration for freedom in China; in fact I almost participated in it. It was not like the current massive student protests in Beijing. It was much smaller but perhaps just as significant during that period of China's intitial awakening to the Western world. I was member of a group of 34 artists, writers, dancers, musicians, and filmmakers traveling for three weeks in China. On our fourth day in Beijing we toured the Ming Tombs, a group of large, centuries-old monuments.

I entered one of the large buildings with Bill, a Hollywood film producer. In the cavernous darkness of the edifice we could faintly hear the musical strains of the Bee Gee's singing their monster hit ``Staying Alive,'' from the movie ``Saturday Night Fever.'' We were amazed to hear this popular song in a Chinese national monument, but Bill was even more astounded as he was a producer of the film!

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``I don't believe this,'' he exclaimed as we walked toward the sound of music. The only illumination in the huge building came from small windows in the walls, and as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness and haze I saw six or seven Chinese youths swaying to the music coming from a small tape recorder.

One man wore dark glasses, bright red socks, and carelessly dangled a cigarette from his mouth as he swayed back and forth. He was in rhythm with a beat known only to himself; his movements in no way harmonized with the cadence of the Bee Gees. I also noticed a young woman and her partner dancing in a conventional ballroom style, looking suitably bored and awkwardly moving to another mysterious beat. The young woman wore lipstick; earrings dangled against her neck and a multicolored scarf was carefully wrapped around the waist of her Mao jacket. A Chinese-American architect from San Francisco in our group asked them why they were dancing in the Ming Tombs. ``Why not?'' was their answer.

This was during the time in Beijing when posters critical of the government were being affixed to public walls. ``We can dance wherever we want,'' emphatically stated the young man in dark glasses. The blue Mao jacket he wore was not the typical, baggy type; his had been tailored with a fitted waist and glistening white buttons. The scraggle of a few hairs on his face indicated he was trying to grow a beard. A hippy, I thought. This guy wants to be a hippy, and he and his friends are dancing to Western music in a national monument to show their independence.

``Staying Alive'' faded out and a scratchy Chinese version of ``Red River Valley,'' complete with violin and accordion, now began to echo throughout the ancient edifice. I observed that several clusters of Chinese tourists were gawking at us, but the students were indifferent to their countrymen and began to ``dance.'' Then a young women touched my arm and gestured for me to join her. She was about 20 and also wore lipstick and earrings. (In the four days we had been in Beijing we never saw women wearing makeup). She had a bemused look that spread across her striking face.

I gave my camera to Bill and asked him to get a shot of me dancing with this Chinese beauty. But the architect cautioned me. ``You better not do it. We're probably being watched. Remember this is China, not California, and contact with foreigners can be dangerous for them.'' So I smiled at the young woman and regretfully declined participation in her display of independence. Undaunted she moved back to her friends and commenced to sway to the music by herself.

As I walked away from the group, I turned to take a final picture of the youths isolated against a dark wall. Streaks of thin light filtered down through the gray haze, illuminating their bodies awkwardly moving to a beat they didn't completely comprehend. Still, they moved with a rhythm - the rhythm of freedom that they defiantly wanted to express. Hippies, beatniks, and flower children are familiar names attached to people outside America's mainstream but I wondered what term the Chinese would affix to this group of youths? Or would they endure long enough even to gain a name?

Two weeks later in Hong Kong I read some sobering news in an English language paper. A group of Chinese youths, ``cultural dissidents,'' had been jailed in Beijing for ``decadent and disrespectful behavior'' dancing to Western music in the Ming Tombs. I wondered if it was the same group we had encountered. Or were there others? How serious was their ``crime''?

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I sometimes wish I had danced with that beautiful young lady at the Ming Tombs. Perhaps I could have taught her how to pick up the beat of the music. Then again, she probably learned in her own way and time. Hopefully she didn't receive a jail sentence.

Now, 10 years later, students are moving to a different rhythm in Beijing. These brave youths are demanding the same kind of change in their government that the Soviets are experiencing with perestroika. The students demonstrate for democracy, the right to critcize their government, and to choose leaders. And who knows, perhaps a few of the older protesters are also demanding the right to dance in the Ming Tombs!

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