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In Shanghai recently, alone in the street for a few minutes while my wife was in shop, I was propositioned. Hotels used by ordinary Chinese swarm with prostitutes, not to speak of clubs and bars. I mention the incident because, to a veteran of the Cultural Revolution whose first image of China was one of virulent chauvinism and a pathological Puritanism, the idea of a pretty young woman approaching you in the street with a smile was still a little surreal.
Not far from the Bund, the old colonial quarter facing the river, three girls were at work under an arcade, and such is the force of custom that for a second the sight of them in a Chinese street made you feel priggish. Then you remembered how happy you were, not to see women selling themselves in public, but at the idea of a semi-normalised China which catered for human fallibility.
At least they looked friendly, these young whores, chattering and laughing and smoking away. Forty years earlier the sight of a long-nosed imperialist brazenly walking their streets risked putting women their age in a state of ideological frenzy. They would follow me with disgusted eyes, maybe spit some venomous slogan as I passed. Now, instead of being bawled out as an imperialist or revisionist swine sometimes the Red Guards mistook you for a Russian , at in the afternoon I was cheerfully accosted.
Minutes later a police car appeared, and the girls scampered off. Who were the women who stared at me with hostile faces forty years ago, and who were the hookers grinning and cajoling me now? Socially speaking they were probably the same people, from similar rural backgrounds. In Cultural Revolutionary days the traffic between town and village was two-way.
Seeing little purpose in that, most of them escaped back to the towns as soon as the political situation allowed. The only lasting benefit appears to have been to literature, where the tribulations of rusticated intellectuals and more occasionally claims of increased wisdom through contact with the peasantry are a frequent theme. It was hate: hate, and the nihilism of violence.