Firecrackers, 'Carmen,' and the rehabilitation of golf

A solitary unexploded firecracker, guaranteed to rocket skyward and burst into dazzling peach and pear blossoms, sits atop my filing cabinet.

I bought it for the Lunar New Year, but my wife does not like explosions and I never managed to find a kindred spirit during the two-week festivities that have just ended.

Feb. 8 was Yuan Xiao, the lantern festival, which traditionally closes the New Year season. In the evening, people light lanterns and eat yuan xiao, sweet boiled dumplings made of sticky rice and stuffed with bean paste, crushed walnuts, and other sweetmeats.

The most spectacular lantern festival is held at Harbin in the far north, where beautiful sculptures are carved out of blocks of ice and then lit up with candles or electric lights.

Here in Peking, the winter has been sunny, and the skating rinks will be closing any day. It has been a good season, with new rinks opening up all over the city and a morning spin costing just 15 fen, less than 10 cents.

But as schools and universities start up classes and offices begin returning more or less to normal, many bureaucrats are apprehensive. The leadership has promised a thorough shakeup of the central ministries, asking the elderly to retire and weeding out the incompetent, the redundant, and the corrupt.

Officials grown used to comfortable lives in Peking are quaking at the thought that they may be transferred to some small country town as ministries are merged, abolished, or changed into state corporations.

There has been repeated talk about administrative reform, but this time the leadership--from party Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping to Chairman Hu Yaobang to Premier Zhao Ziyang--appears to mean business.

Party Vice-Chairman Li Xiannian, a close associate of Mr. Deng, gave a New Year speech in which he promised to simplify administrative organization and promote promising cadres. He also said he will deal severely with corruption, particularly ''cases involving leading cadres.''

''We didn't have a very happy New Year,'' said one middle-ranking official. ''We won't be at ease until we know what is going to happen to whom.''

But if officials are quaking, music lovers recently won a small victory in the constant battle here between the guardians of socialist morality and those who seek to increase, even slightly, the freedom of artistic choice.

Bizet's ''Carmen'' has not been seen in Peking since the 1950s. Last year the Central Opera Institute arranged to put on the opera as an example of Sino-French cultural exchange.

They obtained the services of director Rene Terrasson and conductor Jean Perisson. But after a few performances early in January, the Ministry of Culture banned the opera. It decided the portrayal of workers and soldiers was too degrading.

The ban was not publicly announced, but almost the entire Peking literary and artistic establishment was aghast. Journalists, writers, artists, musicians, and music lovers swung into action, bombarding anyone influential they knew. ''The French are so proud of Bizet, you will mortally offend them if you go ahead with the ban,'' one argument ran, according to reliable sources. ''You will become the laughingstock of the world,'' charged another.

Finally the matter reached the Secretariat of the Communist Party, which runs the day-to-day affairs of the party, and, in effect, the nation. The ban was revoked, the opera continued, and it will probably not be long before the ''Habanera'' and the ''Toreador'' songs make the local hit parade.

Golf, once banned by the People's Republic as a decadent bourgeois sport, seems about to be rehabilitated after more than three decades. When knickerbockered Europeans had their extraterritorial enclaves in Shanghai, Tientsin, and other port cities, country clubs with their immaculate lawns seemed the very symbol of the imperialist, colonialist presence.

But now that China is open to the outside world and hastening to modernize itself, golf courses are about to make their appearance in Canton (where Arnold Palmer is designing a course) and in Peking.

An article in the Jan. 14 issue of the People's Daily said that golf course grass from Japan had been successfully grown in Peking. The writer told of visiting a club on the outskirts of Tokyo where ''railway workers, middle-aged drivers, and even young students'' hit balls down the fairway.

His Japanese friends assured him, he said, that golf had been invented neither by highborn courtiers nor by some illustrious personage. Several thousand years ago, a simple Scottish shepherd using his crook accidentally hit a round stone into a rabbit hole. This, the Japanese said, was the real origin of golf.

This welcome proletarian pedigree will allow China to send a team, if qualified players can be found so soon, to the Asian games this year, where for the first time golf will be a competitive sport. (Would Taiwan be willing to supply an extra team?)

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