Closing the Gap

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For most of its history, Nanjing had to survive without a bridge link across the Yangtze. It is a difficult river to span, since the water levels rise and fall dramatically and the current is swift. When the communists took power, they viewed the lack of a crossing as not only a local inconvenience but an impediment to China's expanding railway network. In 1958, Chairman Mao decided a bridge must be built. The Russians were called in and drew up plans. But in 1960, with the Sino-Soviet split, Russian advisers and engineers abruptly rolled up their blueprints and went home. The chances that Nanjing would actually build the bridge seemed remote. Yet because the Russians had said it could not be done, the Chinese set out to do it. It took eight years, but in 1968 the bridge was opened, a symbol of China's renewed self-reliance and of the superiority of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. In 1974, the bridge took on new significance, linked to a campaign to criticize the unlikely trio of Confucius, Beethoven and the Italian filmmaker Antonioni. In the early '70s, Zhou Enlai had invited Antonioni to China to make a documentary, an initiative that had enraged Jiang Qing, Mao's wife and China's cultural dictator. Zhou argued that China's own documentaries were too strident for Western tastes and that if a sympathetic outsider were to make a film, it would carry added artistic and political credibility. Antonioni was admitted to the PRC and shown its wonders--the people's communes, the industrial sites and, of course, the Nanjing Bridge. When the film was finished Jiang Qing launched her campaign, requiring participation in every factory, commune, school and street committee. Most prominent among the list of offenses: in the shot Antonioni had used of the bridge, there could also be seen a washing line, complete with washing! Few had actually seen the washing since the film itself was shown only to the party's inner ranks. But the nation was mobilized. Real tears seemed to glisten in the eyes of Chinese denouncing Antonioni's anti-Chinese act. The bridge survived Antonioni's insult--and the washing line. Its proletarian statues--among the few examples of socialist sculpture still extant--have a certain period charm. But the bridge is not mentioned much these days, and revolutionary heroism is out of style. China and Russia are friends again, and the bridge is off the tourist list. Nowadays, it's just a bridge. Isabel Hilton, a longtime commentator on Chinese affairs, is the author of The Search for the Panchen Lama