"I can make the Queen laugh or frown!" a Chinese student boasted during an Asian students' drinks party at my flat. Then she used a ?10 note to show how she could change the Queen's expression from a big laugh into a frown simply by making two folds in the note.
"Have you tried this on Chinese money with Mao's face? How would his face look?" asked a Western guest. "Oh, let's try it! Mao's face must be very funny."
Some of the students became very excited.
I, too, was curious to see what Mao Zedong's (
Sometimes, I have wondered if this is because no one was allowed to take photos in Mao's moody period. Or perhaps it is because no one has had the chance to steal photos showing his angry or sad expressions from the Communist party's office in Beijing, entry to which involves getting at least three red stamps and filling in forms.
So I raised my hand to tell the students that I had a Chinese note with Mao's face on it. I was stopped by the middle-aged woman next to me.
"Don't be silly, Xinran," she said. "Do not let them deface Mao, it is not good for you."
"It's just a joke," I said. "A game with young people. No one would think we were doing it for a political reason. And this is London, not China, and we are free to have our own views."
I went to get the note.
She stopped me before I could hand the note to the students.
"Do you want to go back to China again?" she asked.
"Of course," I said. "You know I go there more than twice a year."
"Do you want to be hated by the Chinese?" she said.
"You think the Chinese would hate me for playing a game with Mao's face? Do you believe they still regard Mao as God?" I said.
I was surprised by her attitude; she is, after all, a career woman living in the west, has been abroad since 1992 and has family with a Dutch man.
"You have been moulded by the Western media, which has hardly any positive press about China and the Chinese. You often go back to China, so tell me why Mao's picture still hangs on the walls of so many people's houses, shops and offices," she said. "You think it is because the Chinese government orders them to display them, or because those people have never heard Western views? Or do you think they don't know that Mao did terrible things to his people and how much he damaged his country?"
"Be honest to our history, Xinran. I know your family has lost people under Mao's cruel policies, I know your parents were sent to prison for years and you suffered in the Cultural Revolution as an orphan," she said.
"I am sorry to remind you of your unhappy memories. But don't look down on what Mao did for Chinese national pride, and for those poor parents in the early 1950s. I feel it is unfair to Mao," she said.
I stopped her.
"What about the millions of Chinese who died under his rule, because of his policies, in the 50s and 60s?" I said.
"If Westerners still believe their God is just after he flooded the world for his own purpose, or [US President] George W. Bush could invade Iraq with growing numbers of deaths for his campaign for moral good, why shouldn't Chinese believe in Mao, who did lots of positive things for the Chinese but also lost lives for his own mission for good?" she said, her voice growing angry.