X-Ray Column: Nothing's same now, Comrade

Updated: 2010-06-04 09:45

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

X-Ray Column: Nothing's same now, Comrade

Pity the poor word 'tongzhi', once the great equalizer it now has the connotation of official pomposity or a wink-wink reference to gay-friendly community

Early this week, it was reported that the Beijing Public Transport Group was introducing some changes to its rules on how its service people should address passengers.

Except for rare cases, such as senior citizens, the term "Comrade" would no longer be used. Instead men and women would be addressed as "Sir" and "Ma'am", and children would receive the less formal, gender-neutral salutation "Little Friends".

Yet another nail in the coffin of conformism and defunct idealism.

X-Ray Column: Nothing's same now, Comrade

The evolution of "comrade" reflects the mass psychology and the psychological mannerisms of the past century. Deriving from a Latin word for roommates it was adopted by the European military as a way of addressing people who shared the same barracks. The political use of the word "comrade" originated during the French Revolution and was adopted by the socialist movement of the mid-19th century.

This usage was adopted in turn by Sun Yatsen and the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) which frequently used "comrade" as a means of address for its members. The Communists followed suit, actively promoting its use as a utilitarian title for anyone.

"Comrade" (tongzhi) means someone who has the same aspirations and goals. So, for the early revolutionaries, it was a word that implicitly invoked a shared cause. I can only imagine how the word was used and received when it was still fresh. Say, I was a Shanghai-based underground worker for the Communist Party. If I opened my door at midnight to someone whispering "Comrade", he would be entrusting his life with me and vice versa. It was not a word to be taken lightly.

The widespread adoption of "comrade" as a form of address took off in the early 1950s, as Communism was the mandated ideology and theoretically every citizen was a "comrade".

Unlike the underground use of the word "comrade", which must have involved a great deal of risks, the early phase of nationwide usage must have given rise to a delirious sense of euphoria. The term seemed to encapsulate the promise of equality. Gone was the Confucius tradition of strict hierarchy. No more superiors and subordinates. Everyone was equal. Chairman Mao would call you "Comrade", and you could call him "Comrade"... OK, maybe not. Actually, you still had to call him "Chairman Mao", even using his name "Mao Zedong" sounded like blasphemy.

In 1959, Chairman Mao made the pronouncement that the public address among all the Chinese people should be "comrade", and in 1965, the Central Committee of the Communist Party ordered every member to address each other as "comrade".

This was reiterated in 1978, as an encouragement not to use official titles such as "Minister", "Bureau Chief" or one of the endlessly varying "Directors".

In my own early memories of the 1970s, the use of "comrade" was a fact of life and it did not really convey anything, certainly no respect or sense of bonding. Unless you were denounced as a class enemy, which would turn you into a pariah, you were by default a comrade.

It would sound strange for someone close to you to call you "comrade". It was too formal and rigid. My parents would call me by my first name and my teachers by my full name. If they said "Comrade Zhou Liming", it meant I was in trouble.

Contrary to the bonding it was supposed to evoke, "comrade" in my experience had the instant effect of distancing. If someone called me "Comrade", it meant one of several things: He did not know me personally; he was not likely to develop a personal friendship with me; he was more likely somebody in a position to scold me.

Actually, we had a way of getting around it - at least in the Shanghai vicinity - we called strangers "Masters" (shifu), as in masters and apprentices, not masters and servants.

Over the last two decades, "comrade" has been increasingly consigned to official occasions, thus taking on an air of pomposity. Moreover, it is exclusively used as a one-size-fits-all title rather than a form of direct address. An obituary may say that Comrade so-and-so passed away, but I doubt anyone dared to call him "Comrade" in person.

In the nation's capital, "comrade" has enjoyed a longer shelf life than most places. But people have a way of using it yet avoiding pretentiousness. On a bus, the conductor may say "Can this comrade give up your seat to this passenger with a baby?" Mind you, it is different from directly addressing someone as "Comrade".

Then there is the new meaning first used in Hong Kong and Taiwan and now widely accepted among the young in the rest of the country. "Comrade" has been the adopted name for gays and lesbians, first as a euphemism and now the most generic term (but rarely in addressing). This poses a big headache to the Net nannies who have their hearts set on eradicating every trace of homosexuality from the Web. (They equate homosexuality with pornography.) If every webpage with "tongzhi" is blocked, that essentially wipes out the history of the Communist Party.

But I digress.

"Comrade" was once cool. But anything so ubiquitous will eventually lose its appeal. Besides, "comrade" at its apex overreached its original meaning. How can one have one billion-plus comrades? Even China's most popular microblogger, actress Yao Chen, has only 1.6 million fans, the closest parallel I can find to comrades.

Leave "comrade" to the history museum. Like all fresh produce it has a sell-by date.