China Travel Diary
[These diaries are made up of notes I jotted while travelling in China during the summer of 2001 with my wife Rosie (who was born and raised in China, of Chinese ancestry) and our two small children. Edited portions of these notes appeared in instalments on National Review Online at the time. Here I have included the full pre-edited texts, collected together as a single piece.]
• Beijing: Week of July 1st to July 7th.
Should Beijing get the Olympics? Having written a couple of pieces on this site in strong opposition to Beijing getting the 2008 Summer Olympics, I find myself in something of a moral quandary over here.
I still don't want Beijing to get the Olympics, for the aforementioned reasons. On the other hand, here I am among Beijing friends and relatives, all of whom are treating us with unstinting generosity, all of whom I am dearly fond of, and all of whom desperately want their city to get the Olympics.
Beijingers have a great sense of municipal pride — as well they might have, considering the transformation this city has undergone this past 20 years.
(Yes, you can deplore the destruction of picturesque old neighborhoods if you like, and if you have never depended for your water supply on a standpipe shared by nine other families; but the Beijingers wanted a modern city, with skyscrapers and six-lane expressways, and they made one.)
It seems harsh to want to deprive this kind, witty, hospitable people of a thing that would give them so much satisfaction, especially when one recalls how they supported the students in the 1989 uprising, and bore the brunt of the disgraceful army rampage that followed.
Am I letting my tender feelings get the better of me? No, I still don't want Beijing to get the Games. I am, though, very nervous when the topic comes up in conversation, which it does two or three times a day.
What if someone asks me: "Do you think Beijing should get the Games?" I'm not going to lie, but on the other hand I don't want to start a fight, or to cause distress and dismay to people who have treated me with consideration and kindness far beyond the call of duty.
So far I have not been brought to the test; and since we only have a week in Beijing, I may escape altogether.
In fact, the question whether Beijing should have the Olympics does not seem to have occurred to any of my kith and kin here. All they ask is: "Do you think Beijing will get the Games?" To which I reply, in perfect truthfulness: "Yes, I am sure she will."
Mysteries of the East. What is this thing with rolling up the trouser legs?
When a Chinese man wants to relax and watch the passing charivari for half an hour, he sits on a wall with his back against a pillar, gets himself comfortable, lights a cigarette and then rolls up his trouser legs. Why?
I asked Rosie. She: "I don't know. It's a guy thing. Why don't you ask them?"
For some reason this is not as simple as it ought to be. I don't want to ask family, for fear they might think I am mocking them in some way. A stranger, then; but how to broach the subject?
In a dumpling parlor this afternoon there was a man sitting on the far side of the room from us with his trousers rolled all the way up to mid-thigh, exposing a pair of white, scrawny, hairless and singularly unattractive legs. I was of a mind to go over and ask him about it, but chickened out.
I shall report back on this one.
Busby Berkeley in Beijing Anyone who thinks the Chinese Communist Party has withdrawn to some place out of sight so that the people of China can get on with their lives should have been here this first week of July.
Sunday was the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Party, and you can't get away from the fact. Every night this week there have been TV spectaculars of breathtaking vulgarity extolling the CCP and its achievements. These shows feature meticulously choreographed formation dances, backed with garish light displays and periodically flooded with enough dry-ice stage mist to throw Global Warming into high gear.
Totalitarian self-advertisement has, one gathers, advanced from Leni Riefenstahl to Busby Berkeley. In between the dances are desperately unfunny xiang-sheng (i.e. double-act) comedians, with punch lines pointing up the benevolence and omniscience of the Party. To delight the ear there are fat operatic types, their faces contorted in simulated emotion, belting out songs of unspeakable sentimentality and, when they descend to the realm of actual fact, mendacity. "Eighty years ago my country was born," gushed one fat tenor. Say what? Eighty years? China? But of course it has been a constant propaganda theme of the Party that they are the country.
In fact, a little later, a large contralto woman with terrifying messa di voce and a dress that looked remarkably like the one Scarlett O'Hara improvised from the family drapes came on and sang that old evergreen from the seventies: "Without The Communist Party There Would Be No New China."
This one I actually knew, having learned it for a college choral competition back in '83, so I sang along for a few bars:
Mother taught me a song:
"Without the Communist Party there would be no New China."
Flew up from Mother's heart —
This song —
As she roamed across
Our country's mountains and rivers.
At which point Rosie came in. "For heaven's sake, can you still remember that stuff?" It had been during one of those choir practices that our eyes first met. Yes, Honey, I can still remember.
Nellie learns to simper It's a cliché, but it's true: travelling with small children in China opens up to you a whole new side of the national character.
The Chinese have always been philoprogenitive, of course, but sentimental about children? Surely not. What about those stories of peasant women giving birth with a bucket of water next to the bed, so if the infant is female it can be quickly disposed of? What, for that matter, about foot-binding, a gross form of child abuse?
Well, I don't know; but I do know that Eleanor Muriel (8) and Daniel Oliver (6) are being spoiled rotten by absolutely everyone.
At first they were alarmed when perfect strangers bore down on them in streets and parks, beaming, arms outstretched, cooing in Mandarin. They soon got the point, though, and now express unfeigned delight at each new shower of compliments and gifts.
One old fellow took Ollie's hand, lifted it up with great tenderness, stroked the boy's forearm, and murmured: "Look at the color of his skin! So beautiful!" (Not an utterance you will hear much in the U.S.A. nowadays, I think.)
The question of course is: how shall we ever re-acclimatize them to the humdrum disciplines of home and school after six weeks of being drooled over by every adult they encounter? Nellie, in the space of one week, has learned to simper. Oh, Lord.
Distressed (Chinese) Gentlefolk Aid Association. At the entrance plaza to the Summer Palace we were approached by a man of about sixty, shabbily but cleanly dressed, who asked, in perfectly clear and grammatical English, if we wanted a guide. I thanked him and said we did not. He bowed diffidently and wandered away.
From the style of his English — a style I have often heard in China — I would guess that he learned the language in his youth, probably for some academic purpose. He had the bearing and manners of an intellectual. Supposing him to have been born in 1940, he would have been 9 when the Communists came to power, 17 in the "anti-rightist" purges, 19 to 21 during the terrible Mao famine, 26 when the Great Cultural Revolution broke out.
He was, in short, of that generation whose lives had been comprehensively wrecked by the communists. Probably he had made it as far as college graduation, had a year or two of suitable employment, then been sent down to the countryside to shovel manure for a decade, being "rehabilitated" too late in life to get a decent job.
Later, walking round the lakeside in the shade of the trees (the loveliest long walk in Beijing), I wished I had hired him. He might, of course, have turned out to be a bore, a crank or a con man, but most likely he had some stories to tell.
If you are visiting the Summer Palace and this old boy comes up to you, please hire him. Pay him what he asks, then tip him extravagantly and send me the bill, care of National Review.
Jobs Beijingers won't do. Dinner-table talk with Uncle and Aunt.
Uncle is a native Beijinger; Aunt, Rosie's mother's younger sister, is, like all Rosie's family, from the north-east (which nobody in China ever calls "Manchuria").
Uncle says Beijing has been overrun by immigrants from other provinces looking for work. At first they work very willingly for anyone that will hire them, for any wages they can get. Then, when they wise up and realise how much higher living standards are in the capital compared to what they have known out in the sticks, they become resentful and difficult.
The city couldn't cope without them, though (here it starts to sound like a discussion of U.S. immigration). Each province or region develops its own employment niche. The Zhejiang people are good at petty street commerce, Henan people make the best construction workers, and so on.
"How about us north-easterners?" asks Rosie.
Uncle laughs. "Their specialty is crime."
Sinogynephilia. Tiny things that I love about China: The way a Chinese girl emits a little "Eh!" of surprise when she turns round and realizes she has been standing on line next to a foreigner.
Also, the way she drops her eyes and puts a hand over her mouth when you make her laugh. Also …
This is going to need a whole column to itself, though. In fact, it needs a book … which, now I come to think of it, I have already written. But enough of these personal obsessions.
The Temple of Heaven. If you have time to see only one of the sights in Beijing, see the Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan) complex. Whenever I come here, the beauty and harmony of the place soothe my soul and ease my spirit.
Tian Tan has, in fact, tremendous spiritual gravitas, the way the old European cathedrals do, and is, by Chinese standards, surprisingly unspoiled. Get there early, before the tour buses arrive, and just soak it in.
The Temple complex was part of the great burst of building activity that took place during the reign of the YongLe Emperor in the early 15th century. That was the Ming dynasty, the last truly Chinese dynasty, and the last one to restrict its administrative ambitions to those territories actually inhabited by Chinese people. It was followed by the perfectly uncreative Manchu dynasty, a Siberian tribe who never had an original idea between the lot of them, and who extended the bounds of their realm far beyond metropolitan China, thus establishing the rickety, resentful empire the communists still insist on calling "China" today.
And even here, in the Temple complex, a place that ought to be kept holy and pristine, the communists have left their thuggish mark. To the west of the Good Harvest Temple I came across a large display of flowers in pots. The flowers had been arranged to show, against a red background, a lurid yellow hammer and sickle, and the legend: "1921-2001." These vandals; these brutish, ignorant vandals.
For the phrasebook. Phrases you will hear often in a modern Chinese city. I went to the Bank of China to change some traveller's checks. Uh-oh: "Dian-nao huai-le!" (The computer's down.)—————————
The Four Beards, updated. To the WangFuJing bookstore to buy books for the kids, in yet another doomed attempt to get some Chinese into their silly heads. Children's books? Third floor.
Coming off the escalator on three, we were confronted with a row of giant portrait posters hung from the ceiling. Left to right: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Sun Yat-sen, Mao Tse-tung, Liu Shao-chi, Chou En-lai, Chu Teh, Deng Xiao-ping.
The first time I came to this bookstore, in 1983, there was a similar display, but only showing the first four of these worthies (called "the Four Beards" by the Chinese, whose language does not distinguish between a beard and a mustache). In a jokey mood, and desperate to get rid of my last Chinese currency (perfectly nonconvertible at that time) I actually bought one of each and took them home with me to England, where they later got lost in a move.
Eighteen years later, those four look exactly the same, and the pantheon has grown.
China TV Guide. Daytime TV in China. The 18 cable channels I checked at a random time between 9:30 and 10:00 on a Friday morning were showing the following.
- An MTV-type show with music videos.
- A "product placement" interview program.
- More music videos (Chinese pop is terrible).
- Golf, with English commentary.
- A soap opera set in the military.
- A family soap.
- An old movie about the revolution.
- One of those Busby Berkeley dry-ice spectaculars advertising the CCP.
- Financial news.
- An old black and white movie from the 1950s, cloaks & daggers in pre-revolutionary Shanghai, struggles of the early Party.
- A program about jewels.
- A modern propaganda movie, the Party saves the day down on the farm.
- Health program.
- Propaganda show on behalf of the military.
- Mao movie. (That is, a movie about the revolution, with an actor playing the part of Mao. There are so many of these, it's a whole genre, and a couple of actors seem to have done nothing else for years but play Mao. Some of these movies are quite good, though of course the history is all twisted.)
- Another Mao movie!
- Highbrow "dramedy" about urban professionals. No visible politics.
- Lowbrow sitcom, very slapstick, no politics.
Dragons become hostesses. This evening — Friday, July 6th — we boarded the overnight express to Changchun, up in Manchuria, where Rosie's father and brother live. We ride soft sleeper, which costs as much as the plane but is far more civilized.
The kids grab the top two bunks and have the time of their lives up there throwing pillows and duvets around. Their entire experience of rail travel to date has been the Long Island Railroad commuter train — they have never seen a compartment locomotive.
This is the high point of the trip for them so far: "Are we really going to sleep here? Really?" … except that there is no one in the compartment to coo over them, Mom and Dad being way past the cooing stage. The lie-zhang (woman in charge of this carriage) does her best on her occasional calls to see if we need anything, but she is too young to coo properly.
Chinese trains are far more pleasant than they were 20 years ago. The lie-zhang always used to be a dragon, hired (apparently) for her pinched, suspicious face, sour nature, and more-than-my-job's-worth refusal to contemplate stepping outside the rules by even a millimeter.
On one memorable occasion in 1986, Rosie and I, recently married, were riding soft-sleeper together in a carriage whose lie-zhang had it fixed in her mind that I was, in fact, engaged in violating some Chinese equivalent of the Mann Act. Our wedding certificate failed to convince her, and she actually put a radio-phone call through from the moving train to the Civil Affairs office we had got married in, a hundred miles away.
By pleasant contrast, this new breed of lie-zhang is pretty, dressed in a smart flight-attendant style uniform, smiles, asks politely to see our tickets and passports, and actually seems not to mind us being on her train! No doubt about it, China has improved.
• Changchun, Northeast China: July 7th to 13th.
Ultimate Grandpa. The high point of our first day in the Northeast was a visit to pay our respects to Taiye (pronounced "tie-yeah").
The literal meaning of "Taiye" is "Ultimate Grandpa." Our particular Taiye is Rosie's father's father, progenitor of the whole paternal side of Rosie's family, which now numbers 34.
Taiye was born in the lunar year called yi shi in the old style, most of which fell in our year 1905. By the old Chinese reckoning, according to which you are one year old at birth and two when your first lunar New Year comes around, he is 97, and that is how he was advertised to me. However, Taiye first saw light of day on the third day of the twelfth lunar month, which means most likely in the early days of 1906, so by our numbering he is probably a mere 95 years old.
We found him sitting on his bed — he has had much difficulty walking this last couple of years, though he was riding a bicycle well into his nineties. Still a thickset ox of a man, he is perfectly bald and has a plump red face glowing with qi — the vital force in traditional Chinese physiology (pronounced "chee"). He looked, in fact, exactly like Shouxing Lao, the old man with the bulbous forehead you see in collections of Chinese porcelain figurines, the embodiment of longevity.
Though somewhat deaf, Taiye is clear-headed and reads his newspaper every day. He invited me to quiz him on current affairs. I asked him who the President of the United States is. "Bu-shi! Difficult election!" The British prime minister? "Bu-lai-er!" Russia? "Pu-ting!" Then he asked me if Soong May-ling (Chiang Kai-shek's widow) is still alive. I said I believed she was, and 102 years old the last time I checked. People of these very oldest generations all like to keep careful track of each other.
Taiye has had two wives and ten children survive — five boys and five girls. (Strangely, his given name in Chinese is "Jiwu", which means "lucky five.") His second wife died this last February, in fact, but nobody has told him yet. Husband and wife had been living apart for some years, since his physical attentions became too much for her. In his late eighties he was still insisting on his conjugal rights, an aspect of the marriage in which his wife had by that time lost all interest. On one occasion Taiye broke down the bedroom door she had locked against him. Talk about vital force!
At the dinner table Taiye challenged me to arm wrestle — Chinese style, with the arms straight and unsupported. I am no gym rat, but I keep myself in shape and am decently strong. I felt embarrassed to take up the challenge, but the company, all knowing smiles, insisted. Taiye beat me in less than ten seconds. The Ultimate Grandpa.
Talking politics. Some dinner-table talk on politics. Taiwan? Nobody can see what the difficulty is. "Hong Kong and Macao came back to the Motherland with no trouble. Why should Taiwan be any different?"
The communists? The late Deng Xiaoping is widely credited with the tremendous improvements in living standards this past twenty years, but the present leadership seems to inspire little affection. The general feeling one gets is of a sort of guarded disgust and impatience.
The thing Chinese people want above all else is to be a normal country, like Germany or Australia or Japan. At some level just below the verbal, even quite unintellectual Chinese people understand that this dream cannot be fully attained while the communists hold power.
I would not describe the people I am mixing with here as politically sophisticated, but they know that certain things are just not right … which means there are sound democratic instincts beneath the surface of Chinese life, waiting to be called into action.
Conversation practice. No trouble getting some practice at conversational Chinese here. Just find yourself a city where few foreigners go, seek out a neighborhood where they never see a non-Chinese face from one year's end to the next, sit down on one of the stools in the street outside a little dumpling shop, and wait.
In less than five minutes some bold spirit will take the stool opposite you and enquire: Nin shi na-guo ren? — "What country are you from?" The remainder of the interrogation has a pretty standard format.
Q: Are you here on business?
A: No, just a vacation.
Q: You're very tall. How tall are you?
A: Hundred eighty-eight. [I.e. centimeters.]
Q: How old?
A: Thirty-nine. [Like Jack Benny, I stopped counting at thirty-nine.]
Q: What kind of work do you do in America?
A: I work with computers.
Q: What's your monthly salary?
A: Hard to say in Chinese. Living expenses are totally different.
This last is a perfectly normal, perfectly polite inquiry. Everybody in China knows how much everybody else makes. If you don't know, you ask. My brother-in-law, a high school librarian, makes a thousand yuan a month (i.e. US$125). I know because I asked him. His wife makes the same, helping supervise standards for a construction firm. Their family income is therefore US$3,000 a year, which puts them squarely in the middle class by urban Chinese standards. They have a pleasant airy apartment near the city center, every electronic gadget you could think of (including a cell phone each) and plenty of savings. They pay income tax at four per cent. Nor do they work very hard: my brother-in-law goes in at 8:30, knocks off at 11:30, is expected back at his desk by 2:30, then leaves for the day at 4!
Manchuria under communism. The main drag in Changchun has been re-named. It is now People's Boulevard. When I first came here in the early eighties, it was Stalin Boulevard.
This was a bit of an imposition on the people of Manchuria, who suffered grievously during the brief Soviet occupation that followed Japan's defeat in 1945. The Soviets stripped Manchurian industry of such equipment as it possessed and hauled it all back to Russia, pausing now and then from their efforts to go on a spree of rape and private looting.
Eventually a deal was cut: Stalin withdrew his troops and Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists took control. Stalin never liked Mao, whom he thought heterodox. He preferred Chiang Kai-shek, in spite of the fact that Chiang had been slaughtering communists for twenty years and routinely referred to communism as "poison." An infidel is always less dangerous than a heretic, I guess.
When Chiang departed the Chinese mainland for his exile in Taiwan, the last person to shake his hand was the Soviet ambassador. Even after the communists took Manchuria, Stalin supported the local warlord Gao Gang rather than Mao. (During the early years of communist rule, Mao had a lot of trouble with some of his own generals who did not grasp that the warlord period was over — or, to put it more precisely, that one warlord, Mao, was more cunning and ruthless than the rest of them put together.)
Gao declared Manchuria an autonomous state under Soviet protection and actually issued his own currency at one point. He was an old Party war-horse, had in fact been in charge of the base at Yan-an when Mao arrived there with his battered, exhausted troops at the end of the Long March. "If not for me, Mao would be nothing," Gao boasted. "He came to me a beggar in rags!"
A wiser man would not have said this. Out-maneuvered at a Party meeting in 1954, Gao disappeared. The official version is that he committed suicide: "His last act of anti-Party betrayal," hisses the communist encyclopedia. It goes without saying that in the current flood of movies and TV docudramas about Party "history", inconvenient characters like Gao Gang (not to mention Mao's wife, and Lin Biao, and Wang Shiwei, and Zhao Ziyang and a score of others) have been carefully airbrushed out.
So much for "hydraulic despotism." Walking the streets of a north Chinese city, you come face to face — or rather nose to nose — with one of China's most pressing problems: a lack of water.
The place stinks, and the main reason it stinks is that there is not enough water to keep the drains flushed. In some districts of Changchun water is rationed — you can only use the faucets at certain times of the day.
In other parts of north China things are even worse, one hears. The mighty Yellow River is currently discharging into the ocean … nothing at all.
Earlier this year a vast dust storm from the Gobi desert crossed the Pacific and dumped particulate matter on the U.S.A. Then it crossed the Atlantic and dumped the remainder on Europe!
Nobody seems to know what to do about any of this.
Manchuria reading list. The two indispensible books to read as background before visiting Manchuria are H.E.M. James' Long White Mountain and Peter Fleming's One's Company. James was an officer in the British Army of India. He took a long sabbatical to trek round Manchuria in the mid-1880s. As a companion he took a brother officer, one Lieutenant Younghusband, who twenty years later (by which time he was a colonel) led the famous expedition into Tibet.
Long White Mountain is one of the small masterpieces of Victorian travel writing, full of wry observation and an amused attitude to danger, truculent natives, and gross physical discomfort. James was also a keen naturalist, and kept a log of all the interesting flora and fauna he encountered.
Fleming was of the post-WW1 school of British travel writers, whose outstanding exponent was Robert Byron (The Road to Oxiana). Even more detached than a Victorian, even more insouciant towards local hazards and horrors, Fleming toured Manchuria in 1933, when the Japanese had occupied the region and set it up as the "independent" state of Manchukuo.
Fleming was contemptuous of the Japanese, but only because he thought they were lousy colonialists, who, in their hearts, wished they had stayed at home. (The opposite of the British attitude. There is apparently no Japanese poem equivalent to "Mandalay.") As well as being informative and opinionated, Fleming is also a very funny writer.
Single lady seeks suitable partner. Well, I said I would, so I will. First Aunt — Taiye's eldest daughter — herself has three daughters, one set of twins and a spare (this was in the days before the one-child policy). The elder two are happily married; the youngest one is divorced.
Divorce is not uncommon in China, but still a bit disgraceful. However, no-one in the family blames the girl. When I asked my father-in-law why she had got divorced, he explained in that direct Chinese way: "The guy was a useless jerk. He knew how to spend money, but he didn't know how to earn a living."
The girl has now apparently developed a grudge against all Chinese men. She wants to marry a foreigner. ("What kind of foreigner?" I asked, rather nonplussed by all this directness. "Someone like you," she replied. I wish I didn't blush so easily.) Anyway, the family is lobbying me to find an American husband for her.
In vain I have protested that no American man is likely to marry sight unseen; that to take an animus against all 600 million Chinese persons of the male persuasion on the basis of one bad instance is stretching the principle of induction to breaking point; and that being unable to speak English, the girl is going to face colossal difficulties living abroad. Their faith in my powers to conjure up a husband for this woman is total, and I cannot bear to let them down.
So please, if there are any honest men out there in need of a wife they cannot communicate with, who possesses no marketable skills and is not particularly pretty (though a little cosmetic dentistry and a decent hair stylist would do wonders), but is honest, clean, healthy and good-hearted, please contact me at National Review. Especially if you are someone like Derb.
Banquet fatigue. Everyone's being so nice that I hate to say it, but I must: Chinese hospitality is way over the top.
Arriving Saturday morning, we were given a huge meal at Fourth Uncle's place — where Taiye lives — that evening. Sunday, Father-in-Law threw an even bigger bash for us at a restaurant: three full tables in a private room, 28 of the 34 family members present, with karaoke afterwards. (I sang Edelweiss, Jingle Bells and a Chinese folk song I learned in my chorister days. This extravaganza, by the way — "nuts to soup," as Rosie says, at the poshest restaurant in town — was the family's official jie-feng, the banquet traditionally given to welcome back travellers who have been long away from home. It cost 580 yuan, i.e. around US$2.50 a head.)
Monday, the husband of the second of those three daughters hosted us at another restaurant. Tuesday, First Aunt, at an even more sumptuous place with a Manchu theme. Tonight, the husband of the first daughter, at yet another restaurant …
It's all very flattering, and I am a big fan of Chinese food; but there are starting to be moments when I feel I would kill for a plain cheese sandwich and a slice of apple pie. There is, I note, a Macdonald's (Mai-dang-lao) in the town. Perhaps I could slip out …
• Baihe, Eastern Manchuria; July 14th.
Heaven Pool. I am not much of a sightseer. Put me in front of one of Nature's wonders in company with a rabble of fellow-tourists all shoving and chattering and posing and fiddling with their damn cameras, and the words of the old hymn float into my mind:
Where ev'ry prospect pleases,
And only Man is vile …
Being among tourists reminds me of all those other mass activities — sport spectatoring, political conventioneering, demonstrations, revolutions — that bring out the worst in humanity. No, I am not much of a sightseer.
I have to admit, though, that Heaven Pool got my attention, even to the degree that for a while I forgot the milling, yapping, clicking mob of Chinese and South Korean tourists I saw it with.
Heaven Pool (Tian Chi in Chinese) is an alpine lake, filling the crater of a huge extinct volcano on China's border with North Korea. It is practically the only sight worth seeing in my wife's home province, but in my opinion it is the equal of an average ten others.
We went up there early on a bright morning in mid-July, taking an overnight train from Changchun, the provincial capital, to a pleasant little town named Baihe (pronounced "by-huh"). One of Rosie's numerous uncles had an old friend in Baihe, and this person very kindly gave up his Saturday to chauffeur us to Heaven Pool and back.
The road now goes right up to the rim of the crater (the usually dependable Lonely Planet guide to China is behind the times on this), way above the tree line, and from the parking lot it is a mere two-minute steep climb to one of the high points on the rim. As you near the top, the lake comes into view far below: serene, vast, and completely unspoiled. All around are fantastic rock formations — most sensationally, great sheets and protuberances of yellowish stone with black rocks imbedded in them, like raisins in a bun.
I dearly wanted to go down to the lake shore, but the crater walls are so steep this cannot be done from any accessible point on the rim without special gear. From down below lake level there is a way, but it is closed. The lake overflows at just one point, over a spectacular waterfall, the beginning of the mighty Songhua River. From the base of this waterfall a stepped path has been made to take you up the side of the fall and through the gap into the crater, to the lake shore. However, this path was partly swept away by a rock slide two years ago, and has not been rebuilt.
We satisfied ourselves with strolling — mostly clambering, actually — along the crater rim for different views of the lake below. Eventually we came to a faded, weather-beaten sign that declared itself as marking the border with North Korea.
You need to be careful here: the southeastern half of Heaven Pool and its mountain (which, by the way, is named Chang Bai Shan — "Ever-White Mountain") belongs to North Korea. In 1998 a British hiker attempting to circumambulate the lake was picked up by border guards and spent a month in a North Korean jail — not, I imagine, the part of one's vacation most likely to be recalled with warm nostalgia in years to come.
We saw no border guards, however, so, feeling reckless, we passed beyond the sign and climbed an inviting crag on the North Korean side, chuckling to ourselves that we had succeeded in penetrating into Kim Jong Il's Hermit Kingdom.
Our chauffeur, like all the people in these border regions, knows all about North Korea's problems. "They have trouble holding on to border guards in these remote areas," he said. "First chance they get, they defect to China." North Koreans are now coming into China from their disintegrating homeland in considerable numbers all along the border, in spite of formidable terrain and ferocious penalties if caught, and in spite of an agreement between the two countries this past May declaring that refugees were "breaking international law" and would be subject to repatriation.
Unofficial estimates — there are no official ones, since both China and North Korea deny that the issue exists — put the number of refugees currently in China at 200,000. One difficulty is that the border regions on the Chinese side are already heavily Korean: Koreans are one of the fifty-odd "national minorities" the Chinese government makes so much of, along with Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians and so on. A North Korean refugee reaching one of their villages is likely to find a sympathetic reception, and may actually encounter blood relatives.
You hear about these things all over eastern Manchuria, and even in Changchun the people know all about it. North Korean refugees are a by-word for poverty, destitution and ignorance, dressed as they are in thin rags, gawping as they apparently do at such forgotten wonders as bean-curd and fresh fruit.
Droit de gendarme. The chauffeur, when we asked him what he actually did for a living, told us he was a policeman. What on earth is there for a policeman to do, I asked him, in a sleepy Manchurian town deep-frozen for six months of the year? Not much, he allowed: some petty crime, hu-kou issues. (The hu-kou is a Chinese person's residence permit, specifying where he may live. To move from one place to another involves endless bickering with the authorities over the transfer of your hu-kou.)
However, he proved as adept at exploiting his status as are small-town policemen everywhere else in the world. Taking us around various establishments in the town while we waited for the late-evening train back to Changchun, none of them asked him to pay for the food, drink, ice creams or facilities we consumed. He told us if we cared to stay overnight in Baihe, he could get us a nice hotel room for free.
Heaven Pool is, for my money — the entire return trip from Changchun cost less than US$200 for the four of us, though admittedly we ate mostly for free on droit de gendarme — one of the natural wonders of the world. I was sorry not to be able to get to the lakeside and put a hand into that clear unspoiled water, but glad none of the other tourists could do so, either, to foul it with their disgusting touristy garbage and litter.
The place will shimmer away in my imagination as long as I live, circled by its crater walls up there on that cruel border, its icy waters tranquil and unbroken under a July sun.
However, we heard from someone in the town that a Chinese man from Dalian plans to swim the width of Heaven Pool next month, if negotiations with the North Korean authorities can be completed on time. How I envy him!
Hard sleeper. I am going to take back some of the praise I lavished on Chinese railways last week. That was after riding "soft sleeper" class from Beijing to Changchun.
Alas, "soft sleeper" is only available on the big inter-city routes. For the 15-hour overnight local train from Changchun to Baihe we rode "hard sleeper," in a train indistinguishable from those I recall from the early eighties.
A "hard sleeper" carriage is divided by nine walls, which go about two thirds of the way across the width of the carriage. This makes ten compartments open to a common corridor. Each compartment has six beds, three on each side, designated "upper," "middle," and "lower."
Everything is grimy and beaten-up, and the lie-zhangs (carriage supervisors) are the old sour-faced crew I remember so well. My spoiled American brats, after one look at the carriage's toilet, declared there was no way! they were going to use it — a refusal eventually over-ridden by Ma Nature, of course. There is no air conditioning and no non-smoking section, though in practice most Chinese smokers are considerate if approached. At night the lie-zhang shuts all the windows to keep out bugs.
There are, of course, compensations for all the grime, noise and discomfort. For me, the opportunity to mingle with ordinary travellers and hear about their lives. For the kids, the jungle-gym aspect of getting up to and down from the top bunks — seven feet from the floor — via the metal ladders provided.
And for Rosie? A grimace and a shake of the head: "Some things never change."
A capitalist hero. As well as the local Korean-Chinese of eastern Manchuria, there are many South Korean tourists, and you are as likely to hear Korean as Chinese on the slopes of Chang Bai Shan. ("They think it's their damn mountain," muttered our cop-chauffeur in disgust.) There are some hot springs below the waterfall, and a local Korean has built a fine bath-house where one can enjoy the mineral waters.
Afterwards, back in Baihe, we went to a local Korean restaurant, where the menu included several dog meat dishes. I urged the kids to try it, but they would not, thinking of our treasured terrier mutt Boris back at home. We had venison instead, served by two of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen.
Extrapolating from this in my coarse-minded way, and having noticed that the place contained rather a large number of curtained private rooms, I suggested to Rosie that the place was in fact a whore-house for South Korean business types.
We later found out that this is very far from being the case. The restaurant is owned by a Korean-Chinese who also owns the nearby "Swimming Pool Hotel" — a delightful family place with water slides and so on, and clean spacious rooms. The restaurant is also a family establishment, and I am deeply sorry for my base thoughts.
The owner in fact escorted us round with great courtesy, gave the kids bathing suits so they could play in his pools, and fed us again in the restaurant at a discount (our cop was not with us at this point). The beauty of the girls is, apparently, only incidental.
Good luck to this gentleman — I have forgotten his name — building up his business in this remote place, in a very tough entrepreneurial environment. If capitalism had heroes, he would be one.
Tears of the fairy. Here is a pretty Manchu legend about Heaven Pool.
There was once a fairy, who was very beautiful but unfortunately barren. The thought of her infertility caused her to weep; and eventually she had wept so much she had filled Heaven Pool with her tears.
At this point the King of Heaven took pity on her. His name is Manjushri, a Buddhist deity. (Or at any rate, Lamaist — the Manchus got their religion from Tibet via the Mongols … although, like those other peoples, they fortified that gentle faith with infusions of their own aboriginal shamanism and animism.) He caused the fairy to give birth to a beautiful boy child, whom she named Aixin Guoruo, which means "Golden One" in the local language.
This child became the ancestor of a race, whose people, in gratitude to Manjushri, named themselves "Manchu", and founded a dynasty that eventually conquered all of China.
• Changchun, Northeast China: July 15th to 17th.
Putting up with politics. I feel as though I am the only person in China that is not thrilled by the acceptance of Beijing's bid to host the Summer 2008 Olympic Games. Everyone here is jubilant.
That, given the fierce nationalism of the Chinese, and their aching desire to be a normal country like any other, is understandable. Yet it is sickening to see the play the communists are making with this. There is no doubt they regard it as a stamp of legitimacy on their horrible, cruel and corrupt regime.
Even worse is that few people here seem to notice this aspect of the matter. Arriving back in Changchun yesterday after a trip to the Korean border, as we entered my brother-in-law's apartment the TV was tuned to a gaudy stage spectacular titled "Salute the Red Flag," with more of those emetic songs praising the Party and identifying it with the nation, that I have written of before. With a dozen or more channels to choose from, this was apparently their viewing of choice. There was a strong "welcome the Olympics" theme — the wretched thing must have been in preparation for months.
It is as obvious as anything can possibly be that the most pressing task for the Chinese people at this point in their history is to get rid of the Communist Party and acquire a rational, constitutional form of government. Even just from the point of view of economics, there are zero historical instances of full advance into a modern economy under one-party dictatorial rule. It has never happened, and it is not going to happen here. Yet the Chinese people seem to have their minds fixed on the bread and (Olympic) circuses their rulers arrange for them, and to be not at all inclined to do what ought to be done.
That is to some degree an unfair judgment of course. They will say, if you ask them: "What do you expect? Conditions are not bad, and are still improving. I have a life to live, and I just don't want to live it in a dungeon. Would you?"
Chinese people, from millennial experience, think of politics as being something like the weather — you just have to put up with it and make the best of it. There is nothing you can do. The fate of the 1989 student movement confirms this, in their minds, though one could equally well argue that it proves the opposite.
The Party is not loved, by anyone I have asked about it, but they have delivered some modest progress and prosperity, stand up for the nation against foreign ill-wishers, and pretty much any TV channel is showing some Party-patriotic extravaganza in prime time, or else a two-hour report on the production of hog bristles in Shanxi Province.
I understand, I understand. Still, I wish I had not found my sister-in-law watching that dreadful program.
Support your local wang-ba! You have no doubt been asking yourself how your intrepid correspondent files his copy to NRO from remote parts of China. The answer is wang-ba.
Wang means "net" and ba means "bar" (one of the very few loan-words in Mandarin). A wang-ba is an internet cafe. They are all over the place in China — there must be dozens in Changchun. At any rate, when I enquired for the nearest one in this very ordinary residential neighborhood, it turned out to be just round the corner. You walk in, pay a tiny sum of money — about one U.S. quarter for an hour — and surf the web.
Nothing seems to be blocked, though I confess I have done no systematic checking. Certainly NRO is not blocked. Before leaving New York I was apprehensive that I might not be able to find a wang-ba, having heard that the government was cracking down on them, had in fact closed 8,000 of them so far this year.
I supposed, when I read this, that the crackdown was political — a way of keeping people in the dark about what's going on in the rest of the world. No doubt this is something to do with it; but having now frequented three or four of these places, I feel sure that the main motive is social, not political.
The wang-ba is low life. The computers are stripped-down, beaten-up and grimy. You sit jammed in an unlit back room with a dozen other tube jockeys, practically all young men of the kind your parents (if you were Chinese) would warn you not to associate with. They have long hair, sometimes dyed surprising colors. They are round-shouldered and sunken-chested. They wear T-shirts bearing legends in English that do not quite make sense yet manage none the less to be mildly suggestive (SING PRECOCIOUS GIRLS).
The air is thick with cigarette smoke. Pop music of the maximum-parental-disapproval variety (which in north China means Cantonese pop from Hong Kong) is being played much too loud through poor speakers. The youths — definitely "youths," not "young people" — converse in slang and croon hoarsely along with the music. Slutty-looking girls wearing make-up and short skirts occasionally drift in.
A wang-ba is, in short, the Chinese equivalent of a pool parlor. The whole institution labors under the further disadvantage that its name is almost a sound-pun for wang-ba-dan, a common Chinese curse, roughly equivalent to "s.o.b."
No wonder there are campaigns against the wang-ba. May they never succeed. One of the minor dangers facing China is that it will degenerate into a big Singapore — drilled, hygienic, and boring as all hell.
Let's hear it for low life. Support your local wang-ba!
Journalistic bias. I have always nursed some skepticism towards the idea that travel broadens the mind, having grown up with a man — my father — who was both well-traveled and narrow-minded.
There is no doubt, however, that if you have plenty of friends and relatives in the places you travel to, travel is a great corrective to the idea, rather common among journalists, that the only things that happen are the ones reported in the newspaper headlines.
Alastair Cooke had a story I like about being in New York during WW2 while London was enduring the Blitz. After several days of reading headlines screaming London in Flames! Cooke managed to get a phone call through to his friends in London. "George, George, are you all right?" he yelled down the phone. George: "Well, my rheumatism's been acting up a bit …"
So with China today. Falun Gong? WTO accession? The Hainan plane incident? Sure, you can get a conversation going on these topics (see below) but they do not loom very large in the minds of most people. Of much more pressing concern are getting the kid through her latest round of exams, recent developments in a long-running plan to get a better apartment, and whether Tianjin can shut out Sichuan in the soccer playoffs.
Except at once-in-a-century moments of acute national peril, this is what life is like for most people. For journalists, who make their livings from the headline stuff, it is salutary to be reminded of this simple fact. Yes, I am on vacation.
Fifth Uncle joins the Party. Fifth Uncle has joined the Communist Party. This emerged at a family banquet the other night.
Everyone congratulated him. The whole thing had me baffled, I must admit.
Fifth Uncle is the Uncle Vinnie of the family. In his late forties, he works installing heating boilers in buildings for a state-owned enterprise. He is broad and heavy in a slightly intimidating way, is always well turned-out, with designer glasses and hair en brosse, is exceptionally worldly, something of a fixer in fact, and is a devoted family man, with a wife who never seems to speak. In New York he'd be wearing pinkie rings.
Why did he join the Party? I asked him straight out, but got only boilerplate in reply: "So I can make a better contribution to the modernization and opening of our country …" yada yada.
I made further inquiries among family members. The bottom line is, his company offered it to him as an incentive, the way American companies give you a title (Vice President, Director) when they don't want to pay you more money.
Is there anything in it for him? Well, being a Party member will get you some connections. It's like joining the Freemasons — helps smooth one's path through life. Also like the Masons, it comes with a tariff of time and money — in the case of the latter, five per cent of your income.
Perhaps that is how the Party will end at last: as an arcane, slightly comical secret society for middle-aged men.
Examination culture. Education is, as everyone knows, taken very seriously in China. Two of the grandest and — to judge from externals — best-constructed new buildings in the neighborhood are the middle school my nephew attends and the corresponding high school.
At the latter, college entrance examinations were being held this last week. This has caused great inconvenience for everybody because the mothers of the examinees, in order to minimize noise, have closed down the street in front of the school, erecting barricades at each end.
It's a major road, and everyone has to detour through crowded and ill-paved back streets. No-one dares defy the mothers though. I saw one minibus driver try, edging past one of the barricades when the mothers were distracted elsewhere. They soon spotted him though, and converged on him like antibodies on a bacterium. I thought I was going to witness another Reginald Denny incident.
"Can't the authorities act to keep the road open?" I asked a cousin. He laughed. "They wouldn't dare."
Call me Madam. Someone called me "Comrade" the other day. It was a half-crazy old beggar-woman on the streets of a small town in eastern Manchuria, a very out-of-the-way place, but it jolted me none the less. In two weeks back in China this was the first time I have been called "Comrade" — the universal form of address twenty years ago.
I have the impression that this whole area of the Chinese language is in a state of flux, and that Chinese people are not quite sure how to address each other when they meet as strangers. The loose rule seems to be: anyone in a service job is called fuwuyuan ("serviceperson"); anyone with a claim to having trained extensively for his job is a shifu ("master"); any youngish woman is a xiaojie ("Miss"); anyone else defaults to "Mr" or "Mrs."
I find that I am generally addressed by strangers as "Mr," being a foreigner apparently perceived as requiring no special training.
Similar uncertainties occur all over the modern world, I think. I have noticed that my children's playmates do not know how to address me. Occasionally they call me "John," which I dislike hearing very much from 8-year-olds. None of their parents seem to have taught them that "Mr Derbyshire" is the correct form. Why not?
Propaganda fail. At the banquet where he announced his Party membership, Fifth Uncle passed some disparaging remarks about the Falun Gong sect, against whom the Party is waging all-out war.
This stirred Rosie to protest. She has a dear friend in New York who is an ardent FLG disciple. He has lent her their "Bible" and some video tapes that teach FLG meditation techniques.
A spirited conversation broke out around the table (there were a dozen or so adults present: it was a private room). Only Fifth Uncle and Rosie's father — a Party member since 1956 — took the official line. Most of the others were more or less sympathetic, though no-one seems to be a practitioner. Sample remarks:
— Ten thousand of them assembled in Tiananmen Square that time. Yet when they left, there wasn't a scrap of litter left behind!
— The Party, with all its prestige and propaganda, has 80 million members. FLG, in spite of all the persecution, has 100 million. What does that tell you about the appeal of their beliefs?
— [This one from a person who had read the FLG "Bible" himself]: The main principles they teach are truth, kindness and forbearance. Yet the government says they are "leading people astray." How can they be "leading people astray" by teaching truth, kindness and forbearance?
Where their nationalist passions are not engaged, the Chinese people can see through their goverment's propaganda with no difficulty.
Onomastic fashions. I have an odd, not-much-shared fascination with onomastic fashions.
My own kids' names were chosen in a conventional way, from the histories of my family and my country, and from the Bible. Their elementary-school classmates, however, are mainly Kyles and Dylans, Ashleys and Brittanys, names which (snobbery alert here) seem to me as rootless and ephemeral as if they had been plucked from among the brand names on the shampoo shelves of my local supermarket.
I have not much explored the meanings of current Chinese given names, beyond a vague feeling that they are more whimsical than those of older generations, but there is definitely a fashion here recently for one-syllable given names.
If you are Chinese you have a family name, almost invariably one-syllable (the only exception you are likely to encounter is "Ouyang"), and a given name that may be either one syllable or two. The family name is placed first, so that a person whose name is Liang Weilin has family name "Liang" and given name "Weilin."
If a person has a two-syllable given name like this, you use it to address him informally: "Hey, Weilin!" When a person has a one-syllable given name, however — as it might be, Liang Yu — you hail him by the entire name: "Hey, Liang Yu!"
Well, the fashion for one-syllable given names is now running so strong that people are dropping syllables. My twin cousins, full names Liu Jinfang and Liu Yaofang, have let it be known that they wish to be addressed as "Liu Jin" and "Liu Yao." I am still trying to come up with a sociological explanation for this. All that my Chinese acquaintances can tell me is: "It just sounds cool."
We are one family. The Derbs are suffering from withdrawal symptoms.
Tuesday morning we left the Northeast and flew to Xi'an. Practically the whole of Rosie's extended family — five full car-loads — turned up at the airport to see us off. There were many tears, and I admit I was close to choking up myself. We miss them terribly.
I have mixed feelings about Chinese hospitality. The first Chinese family I was ever the guest of lived in an old-style courtyard house behind a wall in Taipei City, Taiwan. A taxi deposited me at a door in the wall one hot July afternoon. I rang the bell. In due course the door was opened by a small, bent, oldish man wearing faded pajamas and plastic house slippers. Greeting me effusively in Chinese (of which at that point I could not understand a word), he tried to grab my two large suitcases. I assumed he was some sort of family retainer, a butler perhaps, as I knew the family was well off.
Still, butler or not, chivalry forbade me letting this feeble old party totter off with my bags. He might have had a heart attack. So there commenced one of those Chinese courtesy fights: "Let me do it! It's my responsibility!" — "No, no, it's mine! I insist!" … which would probably still be going on today if the young son of the family had not turned up and taken my bags.
I then learned that the pajamaed old "butler" was in fact the patriarch of the family, a learned man of high standing in Taiwan, with a long and distinguished career in public service — the equivalent of a senior federal judge.
This kind of thing is charming at first, but soon becomes irksome. You weary of being fussed over, and smiled at, and paid for. You do not want to engage in yet another banal conversation about food, travel or local customs. You tire of the endless ritual arguments over who's going to pay the bill, and begin to yearn for the frank simplicities of the West. ("Do you want to get this one, or shall I?" — "I'll get it. You get the next one.")
You start to feel the way pre-modern travelers in China felt: that all the elaborate courtesy is a cloak for deceit and insincerity and what economists call "rent-seeking" — that is, they hope to get something out of you. You become boorish, suspicious and contrary, and succumb to that ailment that anyone who has lived in this country for more than a few months knows very well, usually at first hand: China fatigue. Not infrequently, it all ends in violence.
I know all about that. I have been through it all, and out the other side. This last few days with my wife's family in Manchuria were nothing like that. The courtesies were sincere, the warmth genuine.
A cousin who is a busy professional man spent most of a day getting me a visa extension at the local police station. An uncle arranged train tickets for us — an arduous process in China — and persuaded a friend of his in the far east of the province to chauffeur us round for the day on a visit to see the sights of that district.
My brother-in-law took the kids to the local zoo and amusement park, spending (we later computed) about half his month's salary on them. This, after taking his own wife and son off to his father's two-bedroom apartment, in a district of the city where water was rationed, so that we could have free use of theirs, which was in an unrationed part of town.
When my wife mentioned that I like to eat a banana with my breakfast, suddenly all my relatives' apartments filled up with bananas, and I was having bananas thrust on me every time I went calling. I declared a fondness for kidney: every meal thereafter included a dish of kidney, cooked in many different and imaginative ways.
Cars and drivers were commandeered from people's work units whenever we wanted to go anywhere. (None of my Chinese relatives owns a car, though one has a driver's license.)
We were not allowed to pay for anything, other than those items — train and plane tickets, forward hotel bookings, visa fees — that were obviously our responsibility. The cousin who got us our plane tickets to Xi'an also ran some other errands on our behalf, all involving fees and expenses he paid for out of his own pocket. Adding it all up before we left, and converting at a rate I knew he could get, I calculated that we owed him US$561. Not wishing to seem stingy, and figuring that his time and trouble were worth something, I slipped six bills into his shirt pocket and thanked him at an appropriate point during our last evening's banquet.
In an arrived-safely call to Rosie's Dad our first evening in Xi'an, we learned that our cousin had done the same calculation I had done, come to precisely the same result, subtracted it from six hundred, and already given the balance to Dad, to be forwarded to us ASAP. That's my family: proud, honest people.
… Whose lives are not always easy — are, in fact, sometimes very hard. Fourth Uncle, who fed us a sumptuous meal the night of our arrival in Changchun, worked for a unit that recently went bankrupt. His wife worked for the same unit. (Because the "work unit" is still the center of life for most Chinese people, and because they do not socialize much outside the family, most Chinese people marry someone from their own unit. If the unit goes bust, both breadwinners are out of work.)
Fourth Uncle and his wife currently scrape along on unemployment pay, a flat US$28 a month each, together with help from other family members. Life is not secure or prosperous for any of my family here, yet these people pulled out all the stops for us, slew the fatted calf for us, eagerly and joyfully, from simple family feeling and the pleasure of greeting a long-absent sister. Banquets were laid on every night. The kids were spoiled disgracefully. We were spoiled disgracefully.
Monday night, the night before we left, I threw a return banquet for them all, and took the opportunity to make a little speech in my clunky Mandarin, thanking them for their innumerable kindnesses and expressing my heartfelt gratitude for the good fortune to have acquired such a warm, close and generous family.
At the time I married Rosie, fifteen years ago, my father-in-law — who had bitterly opposed the marriage until the last minute — had taken me by the hand and said: Women shi yi jia ren — "We are one family." I reminded the company of that and affirmed that we are, indeed, one family.
The Chinese family has not always had a good press. Young Chinese intellectuals in the early years of the twentieth century felt that the traditional "big family" system, in which three or four generations lived together in a sprawling old-style house — "breeding like oysters," as Orwell said of the Victorian British — was a bar to the nation's progress and an oppression of the human spirit.
This sentiment found literary expression in Ba Jin's late-1920s novel Jia — "Family," still worth reading today in this context (there are at least two English translations). Mao Tse-tung, who did not get on with his own family, did his best to wreck the institution.
Well, I understand all that, too. Yes: the old ideals of filial piety and family solidarity covered up a multitude of sins. I also appreciate Francis Fukuyama's point, that a society whose "radius of trust" does not extend far beyond the blood family is not well equipped to develop consensual politics or rational economics.
I might even admit, at the point of a sword, that the attentions of my family this past few days were occasionally stifling. And even darker things: "anti-foreignism" — to be blunt, loathing and envy of the white race — are never far beneath the surface in China, and from this point of view I may be just a foreign Jew married into a family of Weimar Germans.
Yes, yes, I know all this. But "speak as you find," as we say in Northamptonshire, here is how I feel about my Chinese family: I adore them. I long to see them all again. Should any of them turn up at my door in Long Island, I shall attend to their comfort and convenience with the same indefatigable zeal they have brought to mine. "We are one family," and I am thankful for it.
Taoist devotions. Climbing up Mount Li, which overlooks the ancient city of Xi'an (China's capital from the third century B.C. to the tenth A.D.), we were overtaken by an energetic party of tourists from Taiwan, who seemed fired up about something.
We discovered what it was when we reached the Nü Wa Temple, an ancient Taoist establishment half way up the mountain, dedicated to the goddess Nü Wa, who, presumably without thinking of the consequences of her actions, created the human race.
There were the Taiwanese, kneeling in prayer before the goddess, while one of their number, a young woman, sang a hymn or chant in a beautiful clear voice. The celebrants, who had seemed so full of vim when bounding up the mountainside half an hour before, were still and silent except for the occasional belching noises that are the Taoist equivalent of "Hallelujah!"
I admit that I have never had much respect for Taoism. It has always seemed to me a low-grade religion, a dog's breakfast of magic, crude superstition, and the grossest kinds of medical quackery. Watching those Taiwanese at their devotions — so rapt, so transformed, as that woman gave forth with her lovely chant — made me think again. But of course, we should all think again before passing judgment on another man's religion.
Life lessons from China. Things my kids know that they didn't know before coming to China.
- They are beautiful and fascinating to several hundred million people.
- Ice-cream can be made from red beans.
- Jell-o can be made from grass.
- China is a real big country, and the edges are — in more ways than one — very far from the middle.
- You don't have to sit down to do Number One.
- Their family is not limited to Mom and Dad. It extends further in space and time than they ever imagined.
- There are Tom and Jerry episodes (T & J are great favorites in China) that they will never, never see in the U.S. — the ones that show black people in a comical light.
- Two adults can ride in comfort on an ordinary bicycle.
- It is possible to organize a civilization in which nothing ever gets done without a preliminary half hour of yelling and shoving.
- There are places in the world where you can surf 25 channels of TV without finding anything you can understand.
Antiquities: so many, so few. There are two interesting things you notice about China's antiquities: How many there are, and how few there are.
How many. A good place to get a feel for this is in the "Forest of Steles" in Xi'an. Housed in the sprawling grounds of an old Confucian temple, in a back street near the south gate of the city, the "Forest" is a vast collection of inscribed stone steles and tablets from dynasties all the way back to the Sui. (Early seventh century. There may be even older ones I missed. There is said to be one, from the slightly later Tang dynasty, bearing the cross of Our Lord, inscribed by Nestorian Christians, who were well-established in China during the Tang.)
There are hundreds of these beautiful things, stacked in ranks and files in sheds and pavilions all over the temple complex, not especially well presented and obviously not well cared for.
Such a profusion of old things! Standing in one of these pavilions, with steles to right, left, front and back of you, you understand why Chinese people sometimes feel weighed down by their past. (You might even understand — I don't — why they play elevator music at high volume through loudspeakers all over the temple grounds. The day I was there, it was Mooged selections from Simon and Garfunkel, apparently great favorites with the old Confucian literati.)
And something like the Forest of Steles is merely an outcropping — the tip, in a sense close to the literal, of a huge iceberg; for most of China's antiquities are underground.
The plain around Xi'an, for example, has been continuously inhabited since the Neolithic. Xi'an was the nation's capital for well over a millennium, and numberless armies ebbed and flowed across that plain. I dare say you could dig a hole almost anywhere here and come up with something — a rusted helmet, a spear point, a coin hoard, a tomb.
The Xi'an region now has an excellent system of highways, most built in the last twenty years. What did they turn up when digging for these roads? Were archeologists allowed a quick peek, a few photographs, before the tarmac went down? I doubt it. When the Chinese government has a priority like the road-building program, they would not let a few old tombs slow them down.
How few. And yet, on the large scale, how little there is to show for 3,500 years of civilization! (The cliché "five thousand years" is poetic license. There is no evidence known to me of any real civilization in China before the mid-second millenium B.C. The first person whose name we know, who probably existed, and who was probably Chinese, is Tang the Completer, founder of the Shang Dynasty, floruit around that time.) It is very rare to find yourself in any standing structure in China that is older than the Ming dynasty (14th century). I doubt there are more than a dozen such. Every time you think you have found one, it's a disappointment.
We took a long trip out into the Shaanxi countryside to see the Fa Men Pagoda, a famous center of Buddhist relics (they have four of his finger bones) with a history going back to the Han dynasty (second century A.D.) Yes, the reliquaries are very beautiful, and the pagoda certainly impressive … until you discover that it was completely rebuilt, from the foundations up, less than twenty years ago!
The Big Goose Pagoda in Xi'an still has what must be the original Tang dynasty (seventh century) doorway — deeply worn stone covered with ancient graffiti — but I would not vouch for the rest of the structure. The inside looks like a 1960s-era British railroad station.
It is true that I am a hard man to impress with the antiquity of structures. I come from Northampton, a small town in the English midlands with a twelfth-century church on every street corner, and a couple of Saxon ones in the countryside around. As a child, I played at the foot of the Eleanor Cross, erected in 1292 by Edward the First to commemorate his wife, Eleanor of Castile. I have friends in the north of England who live in a 15th-century manor house.
Does anyone in China — a very much bigger country — live in a 15th-century structure, play around a 13th-century one, or pray in a twelfth-century one? I seriously doubt it. Why is this?
In part, it is just a consequence of the fact that the Chinese did not build much in stone. Everything was wood or brick. That is not a full explanation, though. My friends' manor house is wood and brick; and Japan has wooden temples over a thousand years old.
The main reason is just China's exceptionally violent history. There have been countless civil wars. England and Japan have had their share of civil wars, too, of course; but China's seem to have been conducted with annihilating savagery.
And then, China has suffered many invasions by peoples — Huns, Tibetans, Mongols, Turks — who had no respect for Chinese culture or its productions. (The destructive contributions of the British, French and Japanese should also be mentioned in this context, though in the larger scheme of things, and in spite of being made much of by the communists, those contributions were negligible. Mao's Red Guards destroyed ten thousand times more Chinese antiquities than all the foreign armies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries combined.)
China's ancient structures were, in short, chewed up by the great sausage-machine of Chinese history, along with untold millions of her people.
Yearning for respect. When the news about the success of Beijing's Olympics bid came through, firecrackers were let off in the streets of Changchun.
This woke Ultimate Grandpa, who asked what was going on. They told him. "Ah!" he said, joyful but a bit sleep-fuddled. "That means America recognizes us!"
What leverage we have with these people! How carelessly we use it!
Adrift and rudderless on a sea of lies. There are few things more depressing than watching Chinese TV "news."
This is not news in any real sense of course: it is, as Vladimir Nabokov used to say of Soviet literature, "advertisements for a firm of slave-traders."
There is, for example, the ludicrous cult of Jiang Zemin, China's current president, a featureless functionary with the brain of an assistant sub-postmaster and the charisma of an ashtray.
Every effort is made to show Jiang as being in apostolic succession from Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiao-ping. (Mao's actual chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, has been air-brushed out of the official Party histories, along with other recent but inconvenient Party luminaries like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang.) Jiang's "Thoughts" — they currently center on something named "the Three Represents," which nobody can explain to me because nobody gives a flying foo-yung about them — pop up as little public-service ads, backed by solemn music, in between TV programs.
Writing about Russia in the Brezhnev years, Hedrick Smith noted that when Stalin's voice was broadcast over the loudspeakers in public places, everyone stopped to listen, because they were afraid not to. When Khrushchev broadcast, people did not stop, but they still listened, because he occasionally said something interesting. When Brezhnev broadcast, he was talking to himself — people just paid no attention.
China is now thoroughly Brezhnevized in that sense. Ask a Chinese person for a Mao quote, and they can produce half a dozen without thinking: "Take class struggle as the key," "Political power comes from the barrel of a gun," "Revolution is not a dinner party," and so on. Ask them for a Deng quote and, after a moment's thought, they give you either "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice," or else "To get rich is glorious." (The well-known Dengism "Seek truth from facts" is actually a classical tag from the Han Dynasty.)
Now ask them to quote something from Jiang Zemin. Puzzled frowns, then laughter. Nobody can think of anything.
Worst of all, though, are the lies, the endless lies. George Orwell said, during WW2, that he didn't mind people dropping bombs on him as much as he minded the prospect that the lies of the bomb-droppers might prevail and truth be forgotten. Living in China, one sees exactly what he meant.
Yesterday, for example, was the fiftieth anniversary of, to quote from the TV news programs, "the peaceful liberation of Tibet" — that is, of the moment when Mao's armies invaded and occupied that nation, bringing to her all the horrors of Chinese-style Leninism: slave-labor camps, man-made famines, the annihilation of language, religion and culture, all the terrible long Calvary Tibet endured in the second half of the twentieth century.
There was, of course, no mention of all that on TV, only pictures of happy Tibetans in colorful costumes, celebrating their good fortune at having been "liberated" from the burden of governing themselves.
Now, TV news everywhere is heavily doctored, of course. You would never know from watching U.S. network news that, for example, black Americans and nonblack Americans in the generality dislike each other, and go to great pains to avoid living in each other's neighborhoods. In the U.S., however, there are at least some news and opinion outlets that contradict the official lies.
An American who wants to hear non-official versions of his nation's history and current condition can do so with very little difficulty. A Chinese person who wishes to seek out the truth about, say, the Tiananmen Square incident, or the state of public opinion in Tibet, has a much harder row to hoe, even if he has access to the Internet. To begin with, he must master a foreign language — there is little on these topics in Chinese (though a new breed of young Taiwanese journalists is doing some brilliant work in this area).
Ninety-five years ago, Sun Yat-sen stated his "Three People's Principles" — not so much a program for action as an identification of those areas of Chinese life most in need of modernization and reform. They were: the National Question, the form of government, and the economic system.
The National Question has been subsumed in a lie: the lie that China has the "historic right" to rule over non-Chinese peoples beyond her borders. The matter of how China should be governed has been swallowed by another lie: the lie that only the Communist Party has a right to rule, and that any alternative will lead to chaos.
And the economy? Gordon Chang, an American of Chinese ancestry who has been living, working and doing business in China for twenty years, has a book coming out next month titled The Coming Collapse of China, in which he argues that the Chinese economy, too, is a lie, founded on an irrational banking system, chronic debt repudiation, and massive (though mostly concealed) state intervention and favoritism.
If Chang is right, then all three of the pillars on which Sun Yat-sen sought to establish his new republic are riddled with falsehood.
The one question that people want a writer on China to answer is: Is China stable? No, China is not stable. There is only one kind of stability in this world, the one identified by Samuel Johnson: "the stability of truth." Never was a nation further from the truth about herself, her history, her government, her economy.
Which pillar will crack and split first? The nation — an uprising in Turkestan, perhaps? The government — a Soviet-style implosion of Party authority? Or the economy — a huge depression?
I don't know; but I do know that nothing stable or enduring can be built on lies. For all the bustle and glitz, today's China is, ultimately, a sad, lost, desperate nation, adrift and rudderless on a sea of lies.
• Beibei Town, near Chongqing, Southwest China: July 20th to July 24th.
Genocide tourism. The people we are staying with in Sichuan — an old classmate of Rosie's, with her husband and daughter — are planning a vacation in Tibet. Apparently this is now a popular thing to do in western China.
So here's the deal: you invade a country, murder hundreds of thousands of its people, outlaw its religion, destroy its temples and monasteries by shelling and aerial bombing, melt down its antiquities and ship them home as bullion, drive its educated class into exile, exterminate its wildlife, pollute its lakes and rivers, impose a secret-police terror on its cowed, broken population, initiate a program of frank colonization, bringing in hundreds of thousands of your own people, maintain with much bogus indignation in international forums that this country has "always" been a "part" or your country … and then declare what's left of the place open for tourism. This is the modern world.
Personally, I shall go to Tibet when Tibet is free, with a government her people have chosen themselves from among their own. I urge everyone else who cares about justice and liberty to make the same resolution.
Things that are done much better in China (1). Cell phones.
Everyone in China has a cell phone. Even peasants have them: you see country folk burnt teak-color by the sun, dressed in nothing but a pair of shorts, a pair of grass shoes and a coolie hat, flogging a donkey and cart along some rutted track between villages, yelling into a cell phone.
Having a cell phone costs next to nothing here. A relative explained how it works: "You buy a wee chip and put it in here. That gives you so many calls. After that you have to buy another chip." He uses his all the time — it certainly seemed to be ringing more often than not — including for calls to the next province. Total cost to him? He named a sum of money equivalent to about US$12 a month.
When I told him what our accounts with AT&T Wireless in New York cost us (frequently over $100 a month for the two of us, though we hardly use the damn things), he laughed in frank disbelief. I did not even tell him that the wretched thing comes with a billing schedule you need a math Ph.D. to understand.
All right, I understand that labor is cheap here: but how labor-intensive is it, running a cell-phone company? I suspect that the answer to this puzzle is that entity Fred Reed calls "the feddle gummint" — i.e. that in this as in many other things, Americans simply have no idea how wildly over-regulated they are, and how much it costs them.
Life, what is it but a dream? I am by temperament skeptical and cold-eyed, with a scientific education and the Englishman's love of plain common sense. In other words, I am the last person in the world to whom you should bring a miracle, a wonder, a whimsy, a horoscope, a conspiracy theory, a spoon-bender, a health fad or a ghost story. Yet every time I visit China there is some episode that, in retrospect, I find hard to distinguish from a dream. Like classic Chinese novels or 1950s Hollywood thrillers, my visits here all have a compulsory dream-sequence. Here is the one for this trip.
We all — the Derbs and our hosts, with various of their relatives — went to a place called Jinyun Temple, in the countryside north of Chongqing (of which city, Beibei is a satellite town). The temple is scattered up the side of a largish mountain. It consists of numerous old (Ming Dynasty, i.e. 14th-15th century) prayer-halls and pavilions, all in a dismal state of dilapidation, but still functioning, with monks and nuns in residence.
It was an intolerably hot day, as it almost always is in Sichuan. In mid-afternoon, however, the weather broke. There was a thunderstorm, and we ducked into a cave in the hillside.
Now, taking refuge from rain in a cave sounds like a good idea at first, but in fact caves are rather porous places, and soon we were being dripped on from all points. (The Chinese character for "cave" includes the "water" symbol: 洞.)
To evade the drips, we went deeper into the cave. The passage descended steadily, but steps had been cut so the going was not difficult, and light bulbs were strung along the way.
Soon we came to a drip-free interior space large enough to hold the party, and everyone declared they would go no further.
I was intrigued by the cave, though, and pressed forward alone. The light bulb zone ended a few yards on, but I am one of those good Scouts who carry a flashlight everywhere (and a penknife, and a length of string), so I forged ahead and downwards.
The cave narrowed, and there were parts where I had trouble squeezing through. At last, fifty yards or so ahead of the party, I found I was standing on flowing water. The passage was developing into the bed of a small stream. I splashed forward a few yards.
Suddenly, there in the flashlight beam, was the head of a dragon. I would not actually swear that it was a dragon; it might have been some other species of monster. It certainly had a fearsome countenance, anyway. It was carved of stone, about two feet high, and lay on the stream bed, blocking the passage, leering up at me. It seemed to have just been dropped there, rather carelessly — it was at an angle to the vertical.
To go further I would have to step over it. Looking beyond, I saw that the stream was much better developed beyond the dragon head, ankle-deep at least. This was the end of the line. I took another look at that fierce head, then turned back.
After rejoining the party, I told them about the dragon head. Everyone was polite — these were Chinese people, after all — but I detected some skepticism. Rosie eschewed politeness altogether: "My lao-gong [old man] drank too much beer at lunch …" However, there was a camera in our gear, so I decided to go back and get a photograph of the dragon's head to vindicate myself.
Twenty yards into the passage, however, I saw that things had changed rather dramatically. The rain had broken through the roof and I was looking at a waterfall, its spray filling the narrow way, the rock underfoot running three or four inches deep. I could not get back to the dragon's head. I have no photographic evidence of its existence.
Later in the afternoon, out of the cave but caught in another shower, we sheltered in one of the prayer-halls where a Buddhist service was actually going on. Standing there among the chanting congregation, in the stink of incense, the bonze periodically whacking his gong, a shaven-headed young monk doing those weird hand-gestures at the altar, me all the while thinking about that dragon's head in the cave, I had one of my rare moments of genuine doubt about whether the material world actually exists.
The monk, of course, would have said that it doesn't.
Defects of modern civilization. I think I may have discovered the reason for China's water shortage: the toilets run.
Sit-down pedestal-style toilets are now taking over from the older type — which consisted of a hole you squat over, then throw a bucket of water down. However, they all seem to run. At any rate, the two hotel and three residential toilets we have so far encountered all ran. I fixed one of the residential ones, and totally broke a hotel one while trying to fix it.
Running toilets are, in fact, a minor defect of our present civilization — one of our toilets at home in New York runs from time to time and has to be fiddled with.
When you look inside a toilet cistern, you see a rather crude mechanism which, I venture to speculate, has not changed much since Thomas Crapper invented it, what? two hundred years ago?
Hydraulic engineering was the first truly scientific discipline the human race mastered. Today, five thousand years after the taming of the Nile, two thousand years after Archimedes' wonderful Screw, is this the best we can do? A clunky mechanism that, at the slightest excuse, goes into chronic malfunction?
Where are America's inventors? Where, for that matter, are China's? Can't this mighty civilization, which gave us paper, gunpowder, sericulture and noodles, come up with a non-running toilet?
A Chinese slum. Sichuan, a deep-inland province, is noticeably poorer and more backward than Shaanxi or the Northeast. Even in the big cities, outside the glittering core, you see endless miles of filthy, dilapidated slums and dull-eyed people sitting outside in the street all day long.
We took a trip to look at the place where Rosie lived from ages seven to sixteen. It was in an old two-story apartment building in Beibei, and she was surprised to find it exactly as she left it twenty-three years before — with "exactly" understood to include a large discount for twenty-three years of wear and tear.
The place was, in fact, very nearly a ruin. If it were a county jail anywhere in the U.S., some federal judge would have closed it down as unfit for human habitation. Yet people were living here: in Rosie's old apartment, a decent-seeming gentleman named Mr. Li, with his wife and infant.
Mr. Li spoke good Mandarin (Sichuan has a thick dialect) and had a well-stocked book-case. I would guess him to be a minor government functionary, or an elementary-school teacher, something of that sort. His appalling living conditions are not unusual in urban China, are in fact round about the norm. Any Chinese city can show much worse.
Seven "Kill" Stele. One of the things that, apparently, I shall not be able to see while in Sichuan is the Seven "Kill" Stele. Here is the story.
The Seven "Kill" Stele was erected by Zhang Xianzhong (pronounced "Jang Shee-en Jwoong"), one of the worst mass murderers in Chinese history, which is saying a very great deal.
Zhang flourished in the 1640s, when the Ming dynasty was disintegrating and the Manchus were pouring into China from the north. Originally a general in the Ming army, he took himself off with his troops to Sichuan, where he invested himself with the title "King of the West."
At first Zhang was a routine end-of-dynasty warlord, running a little statelet of his own, distributing land to the peasants, breaking out now and then to go on a razzia down the valley of the Yangtse. Then his mind turned some dark corner, and he began killing people.
First he killed all the educated people — always a strong temptation for the would-be Chinese despot, apparently, when megalomania begins to assert its grip. Zhang ordered all the literati of Sichuan to Chengdu, his capital, for a "special examination." Once they were there, he massacred them.
Next he killed all the Buddhist clergy. Then he broadened his field of operations, and began killing at random. His intention seems to have been to exterminate the entire population of Sichuan, at that time probably around twenty million.
He very nearly succeeded, if the oral tradition can be believed. Hu-Guang tian Sichuan, say local people with a shudder and a shake of the head: that is, there were so few people left alive in Sichuan after Zhang was through, the province had to be re-populated from the "Hu" and "Guang" provinces (Hunan, Hubei, Guangxi, Guangdong).
When he ran out of people to kill, Zhang turned his fury on the inanimate world: he set his troops to pulling down buildings, broaching dykes and burning forests.
When news came that forward scouts of the Manchu armies had been spotted in the north of the province, Zhang gathered all his men together on a plain outside Chengdu. He made a speech to them along the following lines:
"The great battle for the Empire is about to begin. I want you all to fight like true soldiers, with nothing on your minds save the thought of victory. To make sure you are not distracted or weakened by other concerns, I hereby order you to kill your womenfolk and your children."
To give the example, Zhang thereupon turned, drew his sword, and slew his eight wives, who were standing by him. Thus inspired, his troops all butchered their own families, until the ground was soaked with the blood of these innocents.
Zhang then rode out to meet the Manchus. Fortunately the Manchus were terrific archers, and a well-placed arrow ended the career of the "King of the West." (According to my informant, anyway. The 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun, who read the dynastic histories for pleasure, gives a different version of Zhang's end, which might be more reliable.)
At some point in his career of homicide, Zhang felt it necessary to explain himself to the world. He therefore caused a stele to be erected, inscribed with the following three lines of seven Chinese characters each:天生萬物以養人Here is a translation (with, for a Chinese reader, an understood "but" between first and second lines, and a "therefore" between second and third):
Tian sheng wan wu yi yang Ren,
Ren wu yi shan yi bao Tian,
Sha sha sha sha sha sha sha.
Heaven has brought fourth numberless things for the nourishment of Man.
Man does not do one good deed in recompense to Heaven.
Kill kill kill kill kill kill kill.
That was the Seven "Kill" Stele. It was still standing outside Chengdu well into the last century. Five or six years ago I asked a friend visiting the city to try to locate it for me. However, the local authorities told her it had been blown up by a PLA demolition squad sometime in the 1970s.
It is a measure of the moral atmosphere of Chinese communism that this revolting psychopath, on account of his early land-to-the-peasants moves and his patriotic opposition to the Manchus, is rated as a "positive character" in communist history books — even, in one 1979 encyclopedia, a "hero of the common people."
[N.B. Zhang had a Portuguese Jesuit in his entourage, who survived and wrote a book in French about his experiences. The School of Oriental and African Studies in London has a copy. Alas, I cannot read French. If anyone knows of an English translation, I should very much like to get a copy.]
Things that are done much better in China (2). Eyeglasses.
You can get a nice set of prescription eyeglasses in an attractive frame for less than US$20 here. As with cell phones, I don't see how this can be a direct result of the cost of labor. Lens-making is pretty fully computerized. You take measurements, punch them into a console, and out pop the lenses. Frames? Four pieces of plastic-coated wire held together with two screws?
I think myself lucky to get out of my local "vision center" less than three hundred dollars lighter. The damn things aren't even well made: my wife's $250 "designer" frames dump a lens on the carpet two or three times a week. What a racket!
The whole "designer" business is of course absurd. Basically, you pay an extra hundred bucks to have the name of some French poofter attached to your frame by a tiny piece of colored string. Why aren't Americans marching in the streets to protest this nonsense?
Better yet, why doesn't some Chinese entrepreneur start a mail-order spectacle business at Chinese prices? The big U.S. spectacle cartels would be out of business in a week — a major advance for economic justice and consumer rights.
Brief encounter. Riding down an escalator in Chongqing's biggest, newest and very comprehensively-stocked department store, I noticed that I was being stared at by a very pretty Chinese girl on the up escalator. I'm afraid I don't respond well to being stared at, so I returned my customary ill-natured scowl.
To my amazement, she sent back a broad smile — showing excellent teeth — and an exaggerated wink. This was extraordinary because Chinese people hardly ever wink, and there is no verb for this action in their language. It was deliberate and extremely suggestive.
Delighted and surprised, I could not help but laugh out loud. She laughed back, passing level with me now, and the people behind her on the up escalator, somehow figuring out what had happened, all laughed too. We were wafted away to our different floors on waves of mirth.
Nicholson Baker wrote a novel about an escalator ride, but I must say I have always thought of them as perfectly eventless — part of what Virginia Woolf called the "cotton wool" that fills up so much of life. This is the only memorable escalator ride I have ever taken.
Some things you have to come to China for.
Travelling by connections. You have heard about how everything in China is done through "connections." Here is how it goes.
After a weekend with Rosie's old classmate in Beibei, we were booked to go on a tour boat down the Yangtze River, starting from Chongqing (formerly spelt "Chungking").
The question then arose: how to get from Beibei to the dock at Chongqing, an hour and a half by road? Nobody we know owns a car. (Very few middle-class Chinese people own cars.) Well, I said, we'll just have to hire a car and driver for the trip. Our friends laughed. "Don't be silly."
Phone calls were made. We sat around. Phone calls came back. "All fixed!"
We rode to Chongqing in a spanking new air-conditioned minibus with the words Fa Yuan painted on the side. Fa Yuan means "court," as in "court of law." Someone's third brother's bridge partner had a classmate whose second outside cousin's friend works for the court system. He, and his minibus, took the afternoon off to help out. No trouble at the numerous toll plazas: court vehicles don't pay tolls, so we just sped right through.
Registered taxis aside, practically all the vehicles you see on China's now-excellent roads are the official property of some "work unit" — a factory, a hospital, a police station, a college. At any given time, I would estimate that at least half of them are on some private business. We have never had any difficulty getting a car or a minibus commandeered on our behalf, generally with a driver included (practically no middle-class Chinese have driver licenses, either).
• Yangtse River: July 24th to July 27th.
Liberty and the good life. I got chatting to a high-school student from Beijing on the boat. She was one of those determined young people who has her future all carefully mapped out, and who will probably accomplish it all, step by step.
First, get to a good college in Beijing for a bachelor's degree. Then, to the U.S. to do a Master's.
Why not do her Master's in China? "Oh, but I do so want to go to America! It's my dream!" Why? Why is America her dream? "Because it's the most modern country. The most advanced!"
Note, not: "Because it's the freest country, the one with the most soundly-established constitutional system of government, the one with the most long-standing devotion to human liberty." You never hear that. The connection between liberty and progress, between liberty and abundance, between liberty and the good life, is never made.
But why should we be surprised by this? The connection is hardly ever made in America herself nowadays, either.
Through the Three Gorges. Well, I have been through the Three Gorges. Rosie said we should, since it is probably our last chance.
You may know that the Yangtse River narrows at three places where it passes from Sichuan Province into Hubei, with dramatic cliffs on each side and a corresponding increase in the speed and turbulence of the current. This is the famous Three Gorges. (My six-year-old son, perhaps confused by some too-early attempts on my part to get some British dynastic history into his head, refers to them as the "Three Georges.")
Among the present generation of Chinese communist leaders are several — Li Peng is an example — trained as civil engineers in the old U.S.S.R., and therefrom infected with the Stalinist enthusiasm for building dams. (Compare the large bodies of water on a modern map of Russia with those on a pre-Stalin one.) They have decided to dam the Yangtse below the Three Gorges. Once the project is complete, around 2009, the Three Gorges will have been submerged, along with hundreds of towns and villages and several million acres of farmland.
A lot of people think the Three Gorges Dam project is misguided and will bring about environmental disaster. That I cannot judge (though, bearing in mind a certain 1950s British war movie, there is surely no more tempting object for a ballistic missile targeting group than a large dam in a densely-populated area).
I am willing to say that I don't mind very much; although I think, if I were Chinese, I should mind much more. The Gorges are mildly impressive to a foreigner, but for a Chinese person they are much more than that. Almost every mile — and the combined length of the Gorges is over eighty miles — has associated with it, in the mind of an educated Chinese person, some poem or historical incident. I flatter myself that I am better acquainted with Chinese literature and history than the average round-eye, but I was way out of my depth cruising the Gorges.
"Oh, look!" Rosie would say, "That's where so-and-so marched his armies along the cliff path to outflank what's-his-name in the Three Kingdoms [a classic historical novel], remember?" No, sorry, Honey, don't remember that bit. The damn book is 3,000 pages long in English.
"Ah — you see that crag? That's the one Li Bai is looking at in that poem … you know the one …" And everyone starts chanting the poem in unison. Li Bai's collected poems (I translated one for NRO Weekend a month or two back) fill three fat volumes, and at least half of them seem to be about cruising the Yangtse.
With the best will in the world, and the utmost respect for Chinese literature and history, both of which I have, this gets tiresome after a while. If you want to take a trip down the Gorges while there is still time, and to get the most out of it, I recommend a serious reading program beforehand, under the guidance of a Chinese person with a good literary education.
The main reason I don't mind the rising of the waters, though, is the happy thought that all the cheesy tourist traps, tacky theme parks, and chancrous industrial towns that blight the passage through the Gorges will disappear for ever. Good!
I will make just one or two exceptions here: the temple of Zhang Fei, for example. He was a principal character in the great Three Kingdoms drama.
The Three Kingdoms was an actual historical period — late second to late third century A.D. — of which the aforementioned novel is a fourteenth-century romanticization. Zhang Fei was a defender of the kingdom of Shu, which corresponded to present-day Sichuan. Some assassins in the pay of the King of Wu, Shu's enemy, killed Zhang Fei, removed his head, and set off with it for Wu to claim their bounty.
While on the road, they learned that the politics of the kingdoms had shifted, and that Wu was now allied with Shu. Deducing that their trophy was now more likely to bring them trouble than reward, they tossed it in the river.
The local people, who had revered Zhang Fei as their protector, fished it out and gave it a decent burial. Then they built a temple over it. You can still visit the temple, which is quite appealing, in that gaudy Chinese way, though of course much rebuilt. I doubt any of the present structure is over a hundred years old.
Guns and social order. I take a slight, slightly shameful, pleasure in telling my Chinese friends and relatives that I own two handguns.
They shake their heads in wonder, and generally also in disapproval. "Would never be allowed here." Not even for an enthusiast who wanted to join a gun club? " No. Totally forbidden. Unless you're in the police of the army."
And how do they feel about that? Usually: "It's a good thing. America is too violent. How can you have good social order when people own guns?"
I am always much too polite to say: "Well, there you have the reason why you are slaves and we are free." But there you have it. For a little while longer, anyway.
• Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Zhouzhuang: July 28th to August 3rd.
What do foreigners know about China? For all the modernization and "opening," China is still a world within the world. After a few weeks here, you find yourself wondering if there really is anything worth bothering about Beyond the Wall.
It is, for example, still very difficult to get any western newspapers or magazines here. Most airport news-stands do not sell them, nor do bookstores, nor do any but the grandest hotels in the biggest cities. Even then, you get the slightly sanitized Asian versions, with all the punchiest commentary left out for fear of giving offense to those (not all of them in mainland China, by any means) who are so very easily offended.
And Chinese people are still astounded to find that foreigners know anything about their country. I carry with me the excellent and comprehensive Lonely Planet Guide to China, which has detailed descriptions of all the best things to see and do in this country, with good, mostly accurate, historical and linguistic background, put together by non-academics.
This book is very fascinating to my Chinese friends and relatives. "How do they know so much about China?" they marvel. The idea that foreigners know anything worth knowing about China is almost unacceptable to the Chinese.
In my Hong Kong days, I turned up once to meet a Chinese friend carrying in my hand a very good book on Chinese history by one of America's finest Sinologists. My friend — an educated man, and nowadays in fact an extremely rich one — inquired about the book. I showed it to him, and read off the author's very impressive credentials. My friend riffled the pages carelessly, then tossed the book back to me, saying: "Oh, what do foreigners know about China?"
They cannot even imagine the truth — which is, that so far as China's politics and recent history are concerned, any interested foreigner can quickly come to know far more than almost anybody in China, simply because he has a larger number of honest sources available to him.
There are, for example, at least three plausible theories about the death of Marshal Lin Biao in the "nine-one-three" incident of September 13th 1971, but I have never met any Chinese person who is aware of anything but the official version of Lin's death (which is, that he died in a plane crash in Outer Mongolia while trying to flee China with his family). They are astonished to hear that other theories have been put forward.
In fact, the official version of Lin's death is not particularly unlikely. The main reason to doubt it is that it is the official version, put out by the Party propaganda machine, which lies instinctively and reflexively, even when there is no particular reason to.
The Chinese have never had much access to their own history, in spite of having independently invented the historical sciences. (The first-century b.c. historian Sima Qian has been called, very justly, "the Chinese Herodotus.") Down to the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Chinese historians were forbidden, on pain of death, from writing about any event later than the founding of the dynasty 250 years previously.
An English scholar of medieval Chinese history once told me that the first requirement for deep study in that field is that you learn Japanese — the language in which the best and most objective historical studies of China are written.
Shanghai snobbery observed. Shanghai people are terrible snobs about their city. Nothing is as good anywhere as it is in Shanghai: nothing is done as well anywhere as it is done in Shanghai: no food tastes as good as Shanghai food: no girls are as pretty, no men as capable, as those of Shanghai.
We took a day trip to see Suzhou, about two hours by road from Shanghai, in company with some Shanghai friends. We did the sights: very nice. Then it was evening and the question of dinner arose. Back to Shanghai for dinner, or eat in Suzhou?
We were hungry, so we opted for the latter. We picked a restaurant, hired a private room, and settled down to scrutinize the menu.
At once it started. "Look at the prices! This stuff wouldn't cost half as much in Shanghai!" "Not much of a selection, Shanghai restaurants have far more choice …" All this, at the tops of their voices, while two waitresses were standing by to take our orders.
When these ladies had left the room, one of the Shanghai girls said: "Did you see their attitude? No manners at all! No idea how to treat customers! If this were Shanghai, they'd have been fussing over us: 'May I get you this, Sir?' 'May I help you with that, Ma'am?' But look at that one taking my order. She just stood there like this …" [The speaker executed a very exaggerated little mime, hand on hip, gazing at the ceiling in simulated boredom] " …as if we'd come to her stupid restaurant just to bother her. Now if this were Shanghai …"
Many years ago in Liverpool I knew a Shanghai man who had married a Cantonese girl. With some difficulty: when the girl's father found out that his daughter's suitor was from Shanghai, he chased him down Great George Street waving a meat cleaver. Now I understand why.
Derbyshire's Laws breaking down. I have just met another Slovenian. I met the first one on the Yangtse boat, a very charming young lady named Romana.
Two Slovenians in China! From what they have told me, Slovenia is shaping up to be one of those places that stay out of the news — like Denmark or New Zealand — the better to languish smugly in bourgeois tranquillity and prosperity while the world sorts out its nasty little problems somewhere else.
Well, at any rate, Derbyshire's Laws have now definitely broken down.
Derbyshire's Laws were formulated in the early 1980s, when I first went travelling around mainland China. They were as follows:
Derbyshire's First Law: Anyone travelling "soft sleeper" class on a Chinese train is either a foreigner, or an employee of the railroad.
Derbyshire's Second Law: All foreigners in China are either German or American.
Derbyshire's Third Law: All Americans in China are Jewish.
I got into a spot of difficulty once by momentarily forgetting the Third Law. Sometime in 1983 I was washing up at the communal trough of a student hostel in Beijing University. Next to me at the trough was a tall, fair-skinned, sandy-haired, blue-eyed American lad who, after some conversational preliminaries, turned out to be from Wyoming.
Derb: "I think you're the first American I've met in China that isn't Jewish."
He made an embarrassed little laugh. "Matter of fact, I am Jewish …"
Jews in Wyoming! Who knew?
The kindness of strangers. We had arranged to stay in Shanghai at the apartment of Mrs. Ma*, who has a spare room. Mrs. Ma is the mother of Johnny Ma of Sacramento, a dear old friend who was my go-between when I was courting Rosie back in '83. ("Without an axe, how can you make an axe handle? Without a go-between, how can there be a marriage?" — The Book of Songs, 5th century B.C.)
Mrs. Ma, however, was worried that the accommodation might not be sufficient for the four of us, so she had arranged with a neighbor for that neighbor, along with her husband and teenage son, to vacate their apartment for a few days so that we could use it.
This kind of thing leaves me speechless. Of course they would not take no for an answer, and we couldn't pretend to have hotel bookings because of the prior arrangement with Mrs. Ma.
As if this weren't enough, the neighbor — who we had never before met or heard of — laid on a minibus to take us to Suzhou for the day, and stood us a banquet afterwards (making sure, by a ruse, that we could not pay for it).
If prayers are heard, this good woman's name is known up above. May the Lord shower his favors and blessings on her and on those she loves, for ever … And may He pardon their one tiny sin: municipal snobbery.
[* Not her real name. Nobody in these pieces, outside the Derb nuclear family, is referred to by a real name. This is China.]
Keep resentment alive! Talking to a Chinese friend about the Hainan incident of earlier this year, he took a strong line against the U.S., and spoke glowingly of how well the Chinese leadership had handled the matter.
I had to laugh, and pointed out that just a few hours previously, this same friend had been telling me what corrupt, incompetent nitwits China's leaders are.
"Yes," he said firmly, "but in the 'spy plane' incident, they were absolutely right. The whole country was behind them. "
I am sure this is true. Chinese people feel about their leaders the way black Americans feel about theirs. Any folly or incompetence, any crime or cruelty, any corruption or malfeasance, is forgiven when the leaders stand up to the hated Other.
Jesse Jackson takes advantage of female employees and uses his tax-exempt "charities" as personal ATMs? So what — he knows how to jab his finger in Whitey's eye, doesn't he?
Jiang Zemin and his capos are shovelling their nation's wealth into private Swiss bank accounts, torturing middle-aged women who want to practice meditation, stifling intellectual activity and persecuting harmless dissidents? Sure, but look how they stick it to the foreign devils!
I am not exaggerating here: this is an actual frame of mind, and you do not have to scratch a modern Chinese very hard to reveal it.
Behind both instances is the same underlying phenomenon: a burning, aching sense of racial inferiority. In the case of blacks, this arises from their never having created any civilization of their own. With the Chinese the neurosis is, if anything, even more acute. They actually did create a great civilization, and believed it was the only one in the world; but it collapsed in a cloud of dust as soon as the white man touched it — a trauma from which the mainland Chinese have not, even now, really begun to recover.
How could they? The communists work hard to keep that trauma alive, nursing and tending it with all the patient assiduity of hothouse gardeners. They have to — it's all they have going for them.
Shanghai snobbery vindicated. I have to agree with the Shanghai people about one thing: their food is superb.
At our friends' urging — we should have known better — we went to look at Shanghai Old Town, a ghastly tourist trap lined with stores selling things no sane person would ever buy. At one end of it, however, was a food court. Seeing that it was full of local people, we went in.
A very long self-service counter had a stunning array of Chinese dishes. We ate like pigs: everything was wonderful — and cheap!
Hmmm. Just as paranoiacs really do have enemies sometimes, perhaps some cities really are superior to others.
Pre-critical society. Some political scientist — I forget who — has coined the phrase "pre-critical society" for those cultures that have not attained the ability to look objectively at themselves and their history.
Fifty years of Party-line government and "thought control" have left China stuck firmly in the pre-critical stage of intellectual development. This unhappy little fact was brought home to me at the mausoleum of Yue Fei in Hangzhou.
Yue Fei is a national hero. He lived in the early twelfth century, a time of great crisis for the Chinese nation. The Song dynasty (960-1279: it was, by the way, arguably the most progressive and creative of China's 24 imperial dynasties) was under assault by the savage Jin barbarians of the far north. Yue Fei was commander of the Chinese armies fighting against the Jin. He won many brilliant victories against them, and was hugely popular with his troops and with the common people.
At the court of the Song emperor, however, there was a faction that wanted to make peace with the Jin, and cede to them the large area of North China they had conquered. This faction was led by a senior official named Qin Hui.
Yue Fei, of course, wanted to fight on, to regain the lost territories. Qin Hui, however, had the emperor's ear. He arranged a frame-up of Yue Fei, who was recalled to the capital and executed. North China was ceded to the Jin (and the dynasty is thereafter known as the Southern Song, with its capital at Hangzhou).
This incident is regarded as an outrage by all patriotic Chinese, and seems even to have aroused strong feelings at the time. The following emperor had Yue Fei posthumously rehabilitated. The great warrior was re-buried in a grand mausoleum, which is now a popular tourist spot. Statues of Qin Hui, of his wife (who was involved in some way I have forgotten), and two of Yue Fei's subordinates who had co-operated in the frame-up were set in front of the tomb, all in a kneeling position — kneeling humbly before the patriot they had wronged.
It used to be the custom for visitors to the mausolem to spit on the statue of Qin Hui. This has now been forbidden, however, and when I saw it, the statue was spittle-free. (The only surface area of its size anywhere in China of which this could be said.)
Strolling around the pleasant grounds of the mausoleum, I wondered aloud to Rosie — who can be taken here as a sort of lay figure, a representative well-educated thirty-something mainland Chinese — whether any bold historian had tried to make a name for himself by arguing a revisionist view of the Yue Fei incident, showing that Qin Hui was right and Yue Fei really a dangerous plotter.
Rosie was scandalized by this notion. "If anyone wrote such a thing, his statue would be put next to Qin Hui's for people to spit on!"
I persisted, with all the usual arguments about the difficulty of getting to the bottom of historical matters. "President Kennedy was shot less than forty years ago. We have film footage of the event, and independent judicial inquiries have been carried out at vast expense, yet people are still arguing about what happened. Are we quite sure we have all the facts about a palace intrigue of nine hundred years ago?"
Rosie wouldn't hear of it. Yue Fei was a great national hero, she sniffed. Qin Hui was a contemptible traitor, who sold himself and his country for cash. "Everybody knows."
No use to point out (though I did anyway, from sheer force of habit) that until quite recently, "everybody knew" that the sun revolved around the earth, but that careful inquiry had showed this not to be the case. No use: I had hit the Wall.
This failure to develop a properly critical attitude to one's culture and history is a natural consequence of despotic government, with all its grisly apparatus of propaganda and intimidation. At any give time there is only one correct "line" in a despotism. To present any alternative version of things is at least anti-social, and may be seen as treasonous.
Yet Qin Hui must have been a man of great intelligence and ability. He had risen to the highest rank in government via stiff competitive examinations, and no doubt had survived many savage and complex court intrigues. Are we really to suppose that he would have no arguments to bring to his defense?
After all, in any conflict there is a peace faction and a war faction, and the peace faction is sometimes right. King Alfred made peace with the Danes and ceded half of England to them: he is revered as the savior of his nation. And powerful, popular generals sometimes do have designs on the throne — most disastrously, in Chinese history, An Lu-shan, whose rebellion in the middle of the eighth century wrecked the Tang dynasty.
Robert Conquest has noted that most of those people who throw the word "fascist" around with blithe abandon as a term of abuse would probably not fare very well in debate with an intelligent, sophisticated fascist like Benedetto Croce or Joseph Goebbels. Similarly, how many of those who have vented their patriotic ardor by spitting on the statue of Qin Hui could maintain their opinion of the matter if he were brought back to life to explain himself?
Thoughts of this kind are inaccessible to anyone educated in communist China. They cannot think them. Yue Fei was a good man, who championed the common people and stood up to the nation's enemies. Qin Hui was a bad man who sold out his country for cash and engineered the death of her greatest hero.
This view of things may, of course, be true. I am only pointing out that in order to discover whether or not it is true, one necessary pre-requisite is a critical attitude that seems not to exist in communist China.
"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free," said the founder of my religion. He forgot to add that the converse also applies: where liberty is stifled, the truth becomes inaccessible.
Creeping Singaporism (1). I was stuck for an hour in Shanghai's spanking new Pudong airport, polished hallways stretching away to infinity, dainty boutiques with no customers (well, until Rosie turned up), soothing PA announcements read out by Stepford Wives in carefully precise Mandarin, Japanese and English.
I was soon overcome with a desperate desire to find something Chinese in this antiseptic place: a gob of spittle on the floor; a stinking toilet; a thick fug of cigarette smoke; a hilariously inscrutable sign translation (my favorites on this trip: NO STRIDING at a Suzhou park, and YOU ARE WELCOME TO GUILIN, on the road into that city from the airport); the rattle of mah-jong tiles; a yelling match with each party threatening gross sexual violation of the other's mother, grandmother, and female antecedents all the way back to the Age of Philosophers; a toddler with "split pants" crapping in a corner; or a clamorous restaurant with half-drunk patrons playing finger-guessing games at the tops of their voices.
Nothing, nothing: only smooth-skinned, Polo-shirted, Dockered, Rolexed, orthodontized Last Men floating to and fro, murmuring into their cell phones, on their way from one fool business conference to another. The toilets were spotless, the NO SMOKING signs scrupulously observed, the restaurant as genteel as an English West-Country tea-room, the signs translated into grammar so impeccable it would have made Prof. Jespersen swoon.
The feeling settled upon me, as it does rather often nowadays, that I am not going to like the twenty-first century very much. I began to lose the will to live.
Then, peeking into a service area off the main hall, I saw an airport worker taking a break, sitting on some sort of motorized flatbed trolley, smoking a cigarette and with his trouser legs rolled up!
Memo to the management of Pudong Airport: track down that man and give him a huge raise.
All the news that's fit to print. It was at Pudong Airport that I picked up a copy of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post and read of the release of those imprisoned Americans ahead of Colin Powell's trip here for the first kowtow session of the new administration.
But here's the funny thing: I didn't see a word about those prisoner releases in the Chinese media. Not a word. How strange!
• Guilin: August 3rd to August 5th.
In which our hero strikes a blow for racial equality. Guilin is that place with all the weird limestone mountains leaping up out of the paddy fields. You have probably seen photographs. It is a major destination for Chinese tourists seeing their own country. All the guide books warn you against the place — "the rip-off capital of China," says one.
They are not kidding. The first meal we had in Guilin, when time came to scrutinize the check (yes: I scrutinize restaurant checks: I'm cheap: okay?) I saw a twelve-yuan item I couldn't relate to anything. It turned out to be a "seat charge": we had been charged three yuan each (about 40 cents) for the privilege of sitting down! To the best of my knowledge, this is a complete innovation in restaurant management.
The worst rip-off, though, is the 50-mile boat trip down the Li River. This is the most famous scenic ride in China, after the Three Gorges, most of the way lined with those fantastic rock formations, also groves of bamboo, picturesque temples, etc. etc.
Inquiring at the hotel desk for a tour, we learned that there are two price levels: 214 yuan per head for Chinese passengers, 480 for foreigners. We said we would like the Chinese rate, please. Sorry, they said, not possible. Since I am a foreigner, I have to pay the foreign rate, and in fact go on a foreigners-only boat departing from a foreigners-only dock.
China used to be riddled with these foreigners-only scams, but I had supposed that was all in the past. Certainly this was the first one we had encountered on our present trip.
A long Alice-in-Wonderland argument followed.
They: The Chinese boat is not suitable for foreigners.
Me: I have just been down the Yangtse on a Chinese boat, and enjoyed it very much.
They: The foreigners' boat is much better.
Me: I'm not fussy. Anyway, my wife is Chinese. Doesn't that make me honorary Chinese for these purposes?
They: Sorry, it's a rule, a regulation.
Me: What about our kids? They are half Chinese. So which boat do they go on, according to your damn fool regulations? [I was starting to lose it by this point.]
It was useless. The whole thing was set up to squeeze as much money as possible out of foreigners, and all their responses were tilted to that intention. I didn't like this stuff in the early eighties, when it was everywhere — in fact, I once got into an actual, physical, fight about it. I don't like it now. I walked away …
… Knowing perfectly well, of course, that there's always a way to do something in China, if you persevere. You just have to find the right "back door."
Rosie and I went into a strategy huddle, then took a taxi to the dock, several miles outside the town. Our idea was to cut out the middle man: send Rosie into the ticket office at the dock, myself out of sight, to buy tickets at the Chinese price.
Unfortunately the dock office kept peculiar hours, and had closed for the day. By this point, however, we had struck up an acquaintance with our taxi driver, a plain-spoken fellow with pungent views about the Communist Party. It turned out his wife had a friend who worked for a travel office in the city …
He made a couple of calls on his cell phone. We drove back to town and parked round the corner from the travel office. Rosie went in and came out with tickets for us all. Chinese price.
["Did they ask to see your passport?" I wanted to know. No, she said, they had not. Nor did anyone else at any future point. This shows that the criterion is blood, not nationality. To put it more plainly, the whole thing is frank racial discrimination.]
There was a small fuss when we turned up at the dock the next morning. The tour guide wanted to know why I wasn't booked on the foreigners' boat. We stood our ground, though, and wore her down. She had a big party to look after, and was running late. At last she threw up her hands and let us board. I rode down the Li River on a Chinese boat, at a Chinese fare, feeling like Rosa Parks.
Old Hundred Names speaks. A conversation with that cabbie.
Me: They're certainly doing a lot of construction in Guilin.
He: This new mayor's got things rolling. He's all right. The previous one — pei! — that son of a bitch! "Black" [i.e. corrupt] from top to bottom. That airport road you came in on, the one that's all patched up? That was a ten billion yuan contract [US$1.2bn]. The bastard gave it to — who, do you think? His son! Who of course pocketed half the money and skimped on the construction.
Me: How do you get to be mayor of Guilin? I mean, what's the process?
He: What do you think? Diao-xia-lai [i.e. appointed from Beijing].
Me: Oh. I'd read something about local elections. I thought maybe there was a vote.
He: In China? You're dreaming! There's no democracy here, not a bit. None at all. If we had democracy, lao-bai-xing ["old hundred names," i.e. the common people] could take care of all this corruption. Everybody knows what's going on. But there's no democracy in China. No democracy, no law. Lao-bai-xing have no way, no way at all. We just have to put up with it all. Mei ban-fa [there's nothing you can do]. Mei ban-fa, mei ban-fa.
Don't let anyone tell you that dissent in China is limited to a few isolated figures in intellectual circles. It's everywhere. You hear this stuff from friends and relatives, cabbies, even waiters in restaurants. People know what's wrong. People know what democracy means, and why they need it. The propaganda of the communists has done a good deal to baffle and confuse them, but it has not altogether destroyed their common sense.
Sometimes a stalagmite is just a stalagmite. Back in the days of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Madame Mao launched a nationwide campaign against "non-representational music," which she declared to be "un-Chinese."
One should, of course, be very careful when bandying national stereotypes around, but I sort of see what the lady meant. Any time Rosie plays a piece of classical Chinese music for me, she explains: "This part represents the sound of the waterfall … Here the butterflies are chasing each other, see? … This represents a wild goose flying low over the desert …"
You get something similar cruising among those amazing limestone crags. Every one has a name, every one is supposed to resemble something — a woman washing her hair, an elephant, a Buddha, and so on.
My powers in this area are seriously deficient. There is one famous cliff face that can be used as a sort of Rorschach test to gauge the talents of the observer. Up to nine horses can be seen by those sufficiently percipient. "Our beloved Premier Chou En-lai* saw all nine," marveled the tour guide. Well, I saw zero.
The whole business irritates me for some reason. I take Jane Austen's point about other people's pleasures, but, I'm sorry, this just seems infantile to me. My Chinese fellow-tourists, however, were into it — oohing and aahing and congratulating each other with great gusto when they "got" one of the supposed resemblances.
The whole silly business reached a fever pitch at the Assembled Dragons cave, which we took a walk through after the river trip. The cave — half a mile or so long — is chock-full of stalactites and stalagmites, every one of which resembles something. Helpful little signs were set up, in Chinese and Chinglish, to help you get the resemblance. "Old man guarding treasure;" "Cat conceals in banyan tree;" "Imperial concubine bathing;" "Golden cock heralds the dawn" …
Possibly inspired by that last, and much to Rosie's disgust, I started seeing other things in the formations, things it would not be proper to name in a web site intended for family viewing. From there I ascended to an even higher plane of awareness, in which the twists and folds of limestone resembled nothing at all.
Like the hero of Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea, I had attained an unmediated apprehension of reality, a communion with the thing itself, the Kantian ding an sich, and the stalactites and stalagmites were just … stalactites and stalagmites**.
This level of consciousness is, I maintain, inaccessible to the Chinese.
[* A Stalinist mass murderer who went to Hell in 1976.]
[** How do you remember which is which? I was taught to do it by saying to myself that a stalactite needs to hang on tight. An American friend, however, points out that the spelling of the two words diverges at the sixth letter: "c" for "ceiling," "g" for "ground." I bet there are half a dozen other mnemonics for this that I don't know.]
Snake restaurant loses our custom. Our last night in Guilin, we decided to sample the local culinary specialty — snake. (They kill and skin it right in front of you, and give you the blood to drink in white rice liquor, and drop the gall bladder into another glass of liquor to steep and be drunk later.)
We made enquiries, then took a cab to the recommended restaurant. The kids ran in ahead in their boisterous way. Rosie followed. I paid the cab and went in last.
Just as I got into the lobby I heard Rosie cursing rather loud and, I am sorry to say, very eloquently, in Chinese. She was cursing at one of the two receptionists seated at a desk in the lobby.
The cursing went on for a while. A manager type came out, and Rosie cursed at her, too. Then she called the kids and we stormed out, Derb of course totally confused, but head up and indignant — my wife doesn't lose it like that for no reason.
What had happened was that, crossing the lobby after the kids, Rosie had overheard one of the receptionists say to the other: "Za-jiao!" Which, being translated, means "Mongrels!"
This kind of thing is never far below the surface in China. To judge from occasional emails I get, it's not altogether unknown in the U.S.A., either.
• Shenzhen, Hong Kong; August 5th to 7th.
The Party is the nation. I had the opportunity to defend National Review on my penultimate day in the People's Republic.
This was at a dinner-reunion with some of Rosie's college classmates who had moved down to South China in the eighties as the region opened up. The speaker had stayed in the northeast to do a postgraduate law degree, practiced up there as a lawyer for a few years, then moved to Guangzhou and started a real estate business. He is now seriously rich.
"Oh, National Review," he said. "They are against China."
Now, this man is very far from being a friend of the Communist Party. He is, in fact, thoughtful, well-read (he is the only mainland-Chinese I have met who has heard of NR), and extremely intelligent, almost completely apolitical. Yet he has internalized the Big Lie of modern China: that if you speak out against the communists, you are "against China." The Party is the nation, the nation is the Party, and to dislike the communists is unpatriotic.
It was, of course, no use to remind him that the CP is just a political party, and that we are against the Democratic Party, too. Did that mean we were "against America"? No use, he had internalized the Big Lie. Bad news folks: an awful lot of Chinese people have. All together now, you know the tune:
"Without the Communist Party there would be no New China …"
Creeping Singaporization (2). The government of Hong Kong "Special Administrative Region" is closing down the daai-pai-dongs — those impromptu sidewalk hot-food vendors where you could get a bowl of tripe, or fish-balls with noodles, or chicken feet in red sauce, or a hundred other things, and sit on a little stool right there on the sidewalk and eat it, with a bottle of beer to wash it down, for less than a dollar. The Hong Kong government says the daai-pai-dongs are "obstructions" and "unhygienic."
Heaven forbid anything so untidy should obstruct our march into the radiant future, or our view down those spacious boulevards lined with glittering towers that have haunted the totalitarian imagination for a century now.
Hong Kong is OK. I had heard a lot of negative stuff about the economy tanking, shoppers fleeing to Shenzhen for cheaper goods thereby wiping out the retail business, and so on.
Well, the local economy isn't in terrific shape, but people are all right, there are still good jobs to be had, and probably fortunes to be made — though not, nowadays, without a China connection, and by no means as easily as twenty years ago.
People still talk freely, they still have immense pride in their city, they still have that rather coarse, pawky humor I like so much. (Learning Chinese here, I once asked a friend: "When a Chinese person goes to school, what's the first character he learns?" My friend wrote ren, the character for "man." "And what," I asked, feeling playful, "is the last character he learns?" My friend thought a moment or two, then wrote the character si. "This one, I guess." Si means "death.")
When Earth is but a star. I find it difficult to write objectively about Hong Kong. For me, this city, generally advertised as coldly commercial, culture-free and soulless, is a deeply romantic place. It was here that I learned some of life's sterner lessons. It was also here that I had the most fun I ever had, and made my firmest Chinese friend — one of those friendships so intimate and understanding you can resume conversations interrupted by a departure several years previously.
Together now, in a restaurant, we talk easily and happily, no hesitation or reserve between us, and get gently drunk on imported beer, as we used to when we first knew each other too many years ago now.
At that time we both worked for an American firm that was in serious difficulties, to the degree that we were paid as and when there were funds to pay us. On one occasion, we had financed the Saturday night beers by raiding the coin box of the company's Coke machine.
We reminisced and laughed about this and many other things, then said farewell in the style of knights-errant in the old stories, when they separate after some shared adventure: Hou hui you qi — "There will be another time." ** A hundred Chinese poems about friendships and partings tolled in my head.
Driving to the airport in the early morning, I watched the Kowloon street names click past: Nathan Road, Jordan Road, Argyle Street … Every one with a story, every one with a memory, happy or sad, sweet or sour — milestones on the road from the unforgettable blithe follies of youth to the dull getting and spending of middle age.
More and more depressed now at parting from a place I love so deeply, my imagination fled from the past to the infinite future. I saw the slow decline of the city, the gradual slipping-back into opium dreams and stasis, as China's immemorial torpor reasserts itself; then, further forward to the end of all things.
When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that goes on and on:
And even lovers find their peace at last,
And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.
Goodbye, China. Hou hui you qi.
[** There was not. We never met again. Chan Kwong Chi died in October, 2005. "…永結無情游, 相期邈雲漢."]