[I spent three weeks, September 9th to 29th, in China with my wife Rosie (who was born and raised in China, of Chinese ancestry). This month's diary consists of random observations I made during the trip.
This was my first visit to mainland China since 2001, eighteen years ago. By coincidence, that 2001 visit was my first since 1983, also a span of eighteen years.
Although I intended to enjoy myself in the proper vacation spirit, and did so, this jaunt was really for Rosie. She wanted to visit her relatives over there, and her old classmates from school and college. They are scattered across China, so we boxed the compass on this trip: north (Peking, Siping), east (Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shaoxing), west (Chongqing), and south (Zhuhai).
Where I have used a Chinese word, I have given it a link to Google Translate so you can hear the pronunciation. Ignore Google's English translations, which are often wrong. I've used Chinese place-names except where there is a well-established (according to me) English name for a Chinese place: Peking, Canton.]
• Monday, September 9th: Leaving New York.
Rating Air China. We fly Air China from New York to Peking, a single 13½-hour flight.
There is no way an economy-class flight that long can be enjoyable, but Air China don't do anything to make it worse. The food is average airline food. The cabin staff are friendly and efficient. Also young and skinny; and in the case of the males, noticably tall — in the top decile for Chinese men, I think.
I brought a nice fat book to read: Robert Merry's account of the Polk presidency. Got sixty pages in but dozed off.
• Tuesday, September 10th: Arrive in Peking.
One less minor travel chore. At half past six in the Peking evening, actually. On Eastern Daylight Time, New York is twelve hours behind Peking, so no need to adjust watch. Cool … except that we are looking at maximum jet lag.
Laoyi and Yifu. Rosie's aunt and uncle are our hosts in Peking, as in 2001. Uncle has checked us into a good upmarket hotel less than two miles south of Tiananmen Square. He and aunt live in a small apartment a few blocks away.
Neither of them speaks any English, so my Chinese is going to get a stress test. The first thing is forms of address, which I'd forgotten and had to be reminded about.
Eskimos have twenty words for snow; the Chinese have eight each for "uncle" (father's older brother, father's younger brother, father's older sister's husband, father's younger sister's husband, mother's older brother, mother's younger brother, mother's older sister's husband, mother's younger sister's husband) and "aunt" (you get the idea). That's just the formal nouns; there are some colloquial variants you have to be told.
• Wednesday, September 11th: Peking, then Peking to Siping.
Impressions of Peking. Peking's a big modern city, spacious and clean. I've read all the scare stories about air pollution, but there's nothing I can notice and the sky is clear blue.
If you walk north half an hour from our hotel you hit Chang-an Avenue, the main east-west drag through central Peking. If you then hang a right and walk east a few hundred yards you're opposite the entrance to Zhongnanhai, the big park-compound where China's senior leaders live. Keep walking east and the avenue goes right across the front of Tiananmen, the "Gate of Heavenly Peace," with Tiananmen Square at your right.
We decide to take this walk. When we get to Chang-an and hang the right onto the avenue, however, we come to a security checkpoint. October 1st is National Day, and it's a big one this year: the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic. There are to be huge parades and displays, and this whole central area is being secured in preparation.
The checkpoint guard wants to see our passports. We didn't bring them; but Rosie turns on the charm and he lets us through. We walk east along Chang-an and take pictures outside the Zhongnanhai entrance gate. At this point we decide we're tired of walking. We have to catch a train mid-afternoon, too. So we pass on Tiananmen and head back to the hotel.
Walking up and then back down Nanxinhua Street on this outing I'm pleased to see that a lot of the old hutongs — narrow alleys characteristic of the old city — have been landmarked and preserved.
The Installed Base problem. Mid-afternoon we go to the railroad station for a six-hour ride up to Siping in northeast China. It's 470 miles as the crow flies, so six hours is not bad. This is in fact a gaotie, a high-speed train, that can reach, depending on the line, over 200 mph … but there are a lot of stops.
The gaotie is a nice ride. To get on it, though, you have to go through Transportation Security Theater, like at an American airport but less of a trial: you don't have to take shoes or belt off and the security people, while brisk and unsmiling, at least don't snarl or shout.
The railroad station itself is agreeable, too — clean and efficient. Likewise the Peking subways, which put New York's to shame. Why can't America have stuff this nice?
Peking's not having a big resentful and antisocial underclass helps a lot, of course. The fundamental problem, however, is the Installed Base. New York city's subway system is 115 years old. It's dirty, unreliable, and badly maintained, but everybody's used to it. New Yorkers put up with it from habit.
There's a unionized workforce and an entrenched management/patronage bureaucracy — a lot of iron rice-bowls that can't be broken. The Installed Base.
For thin consolation, we can reflect that a hundred years from now all these spiffy gleaming Chinese transit systems will be Installed Base. They will be as crappy, ill-maintained, and ill-managed as today's New York subway or La Guardia airport. Probably a lot worse, in fact, given what we know about Chinese quality control.
Everything looks great when it's new, duh.
• Thursday, September 12th: Siping.
Celebrity! Siping is a town in northeast China. I lived and worked there for the academic year 1982-3, lecturing in English at what was then Siping Normal (i.e. teacher-training) College. Rosie was one of my students. Another one — a classmate of Rosie's, now a lecturer himself — has invited us up there to look at the place 36 years on from when we knew it.
This ex-student's name is Geoffrey, as in Chaucer. Having no confidence in my ability to hold dozens of Chinese names in my head, when teaching at Siping I awarded all my students English names, from English literature.
Geoffrey and another lecturer, Zhang Caoyang, meet us at the station and drive us to the college, where we are to be put up for the night at college expense. Prof. Zhang has a camera — a real one, not just a smartphone camera — and is diligently recording the whole thing. We soon grasp that I am in fact something of a celebrity, almost a historical figure hereabouts.
Siping Normal College, which had around a thousand students back in 1983, is now Jilin Normal University with 30,000. I was its first-ever foreign lecturer. When I arrived in 1982 I was in fact the only foreigner for seventy miles around, and a major attraction to the citizens of Siping, who would stop and stare as I walked past.
If I myself stopped walking and just stood still a while, a big crowd would gather to look at me. A couple of times they blocked traffic and police were running round blowing whistles to clear the road. (Another foreign teacher joined the staff in Spring of 1983.)
I left the college in 1983 under somewhat of a cloud, after considerable drama. Apparently nobody minds this 36 years on. If anything, it seems only to enhance my celebrity appeal.
Now the president of the university and two of his deputies honor us with a meeting and present us with gifts. I make a short speech in my awful Chinese. They treat us to an excellent Chinese lunch.
Geoffrey told us beforehand that much of the university's rapid expansion has been accomplished just the past few years by this president, whose name is Yang Jinghai. Over lunch we ask President Yang how he raised the necessary funds. "By working my contacts nonstop," he replied with disarming frankness. So I guess being a college president is much the same anywhere.
[Added later. Talking with Geoffrey and his colleagues, I came away much impressed with President Yang. He is handsome and dapper, quietly courteous, well into his fifties but looks twenty years younger. Everyone spoke well of him. "He gets things done and he treats people fairly," we were told — the defining characteristics of a good boss, in China or any other country, in the 21st or any other century, in college administration or any other kind of management.]
After lunch we take a tour of the university, trying without much success to locate what we are seeing in our mental memory-maps of the place 36 years ago. My old office is still there at least, now occupied by a Japanese lady instructor. So is the room they fixed up for me in a student dorm building, now used for storage.
The years, the memories, the drama … It's all a bit much. When Geoffrey suggests leaving the college to go check out the town, I eagerly agree.
A town transformed. They took a few weeks to fix up that room in the student dorm for me back in 1982. Until it was ready, I lived in the town's one hotel, on Hospitality Street next to the police station. Hotel to college was two miles; they brought me back and forth by car.
(The police station was not without interest. Posted outside on a notice-board were brief reports of recent executions. A 19th-century British jurist, asked to name the typical British crime, replied: "Kicking your wife to death." Based on those reports posted at Siping police station, the typical Chinese crime in 1982 was coming home drunk and hacking your wife to death with a kitchen cleaver for not having produced a male child.)
I occupied my non-working hours just walking around the town, getting a feel for the place and practicing my Chinese on the hapless townsfolk. I soon knew Siping well enough to work up a decent map. I have printed off a copy of the map and brought it with me, to compare the town I knew in 1982-3 with the one I find in 2019.
As with the college, the transformation is dramatic. Old Siping, east of the railroad tracks, was a chancrous slum of one-story workers' hovels back then; now that's all gone, replaced by decent-looking high-rise apartment blocks. The railroad station is state-of-the-art, totally unrecognizable.
The town itself has spread over what back then were open fields. The hotel is still in place, but the police station next to it has been moved elsewhere.
South Lake Park is also still there, much improved, with carefully-tended flower-beds, neat lawns, and plenty of seating. This Thursday afternoon it's full of old people. So is what used to be Children's Park, across from the hotel — it's now named something else.
The oldsters are having fun: one group ballroom dancing, another chorus singing, games of cards and Chinese chess going on, each surrounded by spectators. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Chinese people really know how to retire.
The dirty, poor, squalid Siping of 36 years ago has gone, and it's hard to feel nostalgia for it. I could never love the Chinese Communist Party — too many cruelties, too many lies — but at least they have let this happen.
The townsfolk do not stop and stare as I go by. I do not cause any traffic jams. A foreigner is no longer a curiosity. Siping has been globalized.
Demography bites. That what I remember as Children's Park is now full of geezers is a reminder that China is now well and truly through the Demographic Transition to low mortality and low fertility, as described by demographer Paul Morland in his book The Human Tide, which I was reading before we left. From Chapter 8:
China is ageing quickly, as would be expected from its falling fertility rates and lengthening life expectancy. The median Chinese citizen remained in his/her twenties throughout the first forty years or so of the People's Republic, but in the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century the median age has risen by seven years. This is nearly three times the speed of ageing experienced in the UK and the US, and the trend will continue … Those aged over sixty as a share of the population will pass the share in the United States in around 2030.
The U.N. gives China's total fertility rate (TFR) as 1.5, but Morland thinks 1.2 is likelier. China, like most other developed countries, is heading over the demographic cliff.
The world's top ten TFRs: Niger (6.35), Angola (6.09), Burundi (5.93), Chad (5.90), Mali (5.90), Somalia (5.70), Uganda (5.62), Zambia (5.58), Malawi (5.43), South Sudan (5.34).
I've said it before and I'll say it again: It's not economics that's the dismal science, it's demography.
Low-speed rail travel. Back to Peking on the night sleeper. This is not a gaotie but a locomotive of the older type. The toilet bowl of our carriage seems not to have been cleaned since Liberation. Not everything in China has been modernized.
The male of our companion couple (sleeper compartments have four beds) is a heroic snorer.
• Friday, September 13th: Peking.
Doing the sights. Friday we spend sightseeing with Uncle and Aunt. Uncle wanted to check out the preparations in Tiananmen Square for the coming guoqing, the celebration of National Day. We can't get close though, and can't see much. It doesn't help that this is a public holiday, the Mid-Autumn Festival, the streets more crowded than usual.
We head off to the nearby National Centre for the Performing Arts, a sort of Chinese Lincoln Center but with the British spelling. Curious architecture; impressive programs featuring international stars of music, opera, dance; not crowded.
I have never used a QR code. My only engagement with these beasties came when, a few months ago, Coinbase started asking for one when I tried to log in to my Bitcoin account. Clueless, I called in my tech-savvy son, who did something that fixed it.
In China QR codes are everywhere, and have pretty much taken over from cash. You pay the taxi with a QR code. (Scanned from your smartphone, of course. You don't have a smartphone? Say WHAT?) You buy a cup of coffee with a QR code. To raise the entry barrier to some secure compound, you lean out of your car window and show your QR code to a security camera.
The joke we heard was that beggars in China don't bother asking for cash. They just get a T-shirt printed up with a QR code on it and let you scan. I'm not sure it's a joke.
From a libertarian point of view, this is a horrible development. Cash may be grubby and primitive, but it's anonymous. When every exchange is by QR code, your every tiny transaction ends up recorded for ever on a humongous database somewhere. With modern data-mining techniques, your entire life is open for inspection by the owners of the databases … which in China of course means the ChiCom secret police.
Shall we of the West trade in our ancient liberties for mere consumer convenience? My guess is, we shall, but I hate the thought.
Transport ageism. We've been noticing that when we take a bus, it seems to be full of geezers; but the subways are all young people. Uncle explains.
We retirees travel for free on the buses, but we have to pay for subway tickets. So of course we take the bus. The kids take the subway.
In the States there'd be an -ism there somewhere, with protest marches, support groups, and tear-jerky victim stories. In Peking no-one seems much bothered.
• Saturday, September 14th: Peking.
Breakfast treats. One of my subversive pleasures in China is spotting really bad Chinglish in translated signs and notices.
At breakfast this morning I netted my first butterfly this trip. The hotel's breakfast buffet includes a table with various kinds of rolls and buns, each with a helpful label in Chinese and Chinglish identifying the ingredients. One bears the Chinese name with, under it, the helpful legend Intestinal bag. Fair makes your mouth water, doesn't it?
(I'm not sure this counts as true Chinglish: The Chinese changzai bao really does mean "intestinal bag.")
The Summer Palace. More sightseeing with uncle and aunt, today to the ruins of the Old Summer Palace, in a big park northeast of the main city. This was a preserve of the imperial family, looted and burned by British and French troops during the Second Opium War (1860).
Rosie and I engage in our customary banter at the ruins.
She: "See what you barbarians did to our beautiful palace!"
Me: "As Lord Elgin said: 'To punish the court while sparing the common people.' A Chinese general would have burned Peking and massacred the population."
I then started reciting "The Private of the Buffs," but Rosie just rolls eyes and walks away. No harm, no foul: after 33 years of marriage you've sorted out all this stuff long since.
• Sunday, September 15th: Peking.
The park is officially closed to the public as part of the lockdown leading up to National Day, but Uncle has found a work-around somehow, as you generally can in China (and as several hundred other people apparently also have).
Climbing up to the base of the stupa and reading the historical plaque there, I learn that the thing was badly damaged by the dreadful 1976 Tangshan earthquake. I didn't know that. Ten percent of Peking's buildings were damaged, says Wikipedia, and fifty people died. Given that Peking is ninety miles from Tangshan — which was utterly wiped out with hundreds of thousands dead — that was some heck of an earthquake.
(It was also, ahem, a key plot point in Fire from the Sun, Chapter 19.)
Bilingual China. Even outside historical sites and breakfast buffets, Peking is a bilingual city. Every PA system, in the subway for example, addresses you first in Chinese, then in English. Most public signs are in both languages. I don't know whether phone services ask you to press two for Chinese, never having had occasion to call one that might, but I wouldn't be surprised.
You'd think that hearing all that English would acquaint Peking people with the language, but it's rare to meet anyone with decent English — much rarer than in Moscow, where there is generally a fluent English-speaker within earshot.
Perhaps our languages are just too different. Linguists point out that when Europeans first needed words for particularly Chinese things, they tended to reach to other languages, not to Chinese, as if the sounds of the one language just don't "stick" in the mind for speakers of the other.
So the "paddy" in "paddy field" is from Malay; "rickshaw" from Japanese (which is phonetically quite different from Chinese); "Mandarin," the very name of the language, is from Hindi. So is "coolie," though it sounds like Chinese kuli, "hard labor."
It seems at any rate that on the cosmopolitan/communitarian issue the Chinese are aiming for a point of balance more sensible than ours: to globalize somewhat by accommodating foreigners and their main language, while maintaining secure borders, traditional folk arts, and ethnic stability in their own homeland.
A night at the Peking opera. Traditional folk arts, yes. Our hotel puts on a Peking opera show at weekends. To close out the Peking segment of our trip, I thought we should go see the Sunday performance as a tribute to the city's very own art form.
Not everybody is so charitable. Travel writer Jan Morris, at the end of one of her pieces about China, exulted that she had gotten through the entire assigment without having to sit through any Chinese opera. I actually like the stuff in moderate doses, and wish I knew more about it.
The first was mainly acrobatic, not very musical; the second would not have disgraced Puccini for musical-dramatic effect, if he had been Chinese. (Perhaps he was, in a previous life. He actually used some themes from Chinese folk music in Turandot.)
I think we have paid full and proper respect to the nation's capital. Tomorrow to Suzhou.
• Monday, September 16th: Peking to Suzhou.
Where are the roads? Suzhou is a big city (pop. five million) 600 miles south of Peking on the eastern bulge of China, fifty miles west of Shanghai. We go there from Peking by gaotie, five hours and change.
The interest of the place for us is that Rosie's nephew Chiqian lives there. He is the only child of Rosie's only sibling — her brother, who died of liver disease in 2007. Since Rosie's parents are also dead, Chiqian is her closest living relative not older than she. A smart lad, aged thirty, still single, Chiqian trained as an architect and now works doing interior design for construction companies.
Idly gazing out of the train window, I am struck by how few roads there are in the countryside we pass though. This is the flat agricultural land of east China, populated and farmed up at the Malthusian limit for millennia. China has been busy with massive road-building projects for thirty years. Yet as we zip through the terrain at 180 mph, whole minutes pass between us crossing one road and the next. To an American eye, it's odd.
Staying at Chiang Kai-shek's villa. We are starting to get the notion that some nationwide directive went out that the Derbs should be spoiled rotten by everyone on this visit. Uncle and Aunt wouldn't let us pay for anything — we almost got into fist-fights over it.
Chiqian certainly got the directive. He has arranged for — and paid for — us to stay two nights at a special and very pricey hotel, the Garden. What's special about it is, it was once a private estate belonging to Chiang Kai-shek. (Chiang was born about a hundred miles away in the next province.)
As well as the Chiangs, many later notables have stayed at the Garden, most notably Mao Tse-tung's hand-picked successor (until he tried to stage a coup) Lin Biao, who loved the place. They actually keep Lin's car in a garage here: a great behemoth of a thing, Red Flag marque, license plate E 11097, badly in need of some detailing.
Garden Hotel is a lovely place. In the lobby where we check in there is a little stage with, sitting on a stool and dressed in traditional costume, a very pretty young girl playing Chinese music on a pipa (Chinese lute). Oh, China.
• Tuesday, September 17th: Suzhou.
Sightsmelling in Suzhou. Suzhou is famously beautiful. It is yoked with neighbor city Hangzhou in a famous old couplet: "Above there is the Hall of Heaven, below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou." (It rhymes in Chinese.)
"Flock"? I wonder aloud whether there should be a collective noun for laowais, like "school" for fish or "gaggle" for geese.
Rosie, who has just recently placed second in a marital tiff of the minor sort, suggests "a stink of laowais."
I let it go, satisfying myself with a recollection of one of my favorite China stories, one I have told before.
A dog's life in China. China's dogs make an interesting study.
There are apparently no leash laws here. Dogs just wander about freely. Given the conditions of Chinese traffic (the old Turkish quip comes to mind: "In other countries people die by accident: in Turkey we live by accident") you'd expect Chinese roads to be lined with canine corpses.
Yet in fact you never see a dead dog. The dogs you do see are sauntering around confidently among the cars and motor-scooters. Twice I have seen dogs ambling across the road on pedestrian crossings, the traffic pausing or swerving to let them go.
My best guess here is that when motor traffic came up in a serious way some swift Natural Selection kicked in. Less traffic-capable dog lineages were swept out of the gene pool. I am, though, open to other explanations.
• Wednesday, September 18th: Suzhou.
As I describe, Maple Bridge is an actual place in Suzhou. I visited it in 2001 but omitted to get a photograph taken. Hoping to rectify this, I now head for the place; but it's having some restoration work done and is out of bounds to visitors. Apparently the poetry gods don't want me photographed at Maple Bridge.
The "temple on Cold Mountain" from which Zhang heard the midnight bell is open for business, though.
And business is definitely what they are open for. There are 1.4 billion Chinese, and every blessed one of them learned that poem in school. For the temple, it's a gold mine. They have it carved on a big stone slab in one of the temple courtyards.
Having failed to get a photograph taken at the bridge, I thought the next best thing would be to have one taken with the poem, so to that courtyard we went.
There were a couple of hundred people there with the same idea. I got my picture at last, but it was a long wait.
Now come on: How can you not like a country where a great throng of citizens jostle to have their picture taken with a poem?
Politics, East and West. Over the obligatory already-paid-for banquet — we are really being spoiled here — I try to draw out Chiqian on matters social and political.
It's not my first attempt this trip. In Peking, also at a banquet, I'd tackled Rosie's cousin (i.e. Uncle and Aunt's son, thirty-something, senior manager in a government IT enterprise) on these topics. He hadn't been forthcoming, but I put that down to his being a Party member.
Chiqian's not a Party member, so I thought he might be franker, but he's just honestly not much interested.
The Social Credit system? "It's no trouble if you don't do dumb things like drive drunk."
The Great Firewall of China? "There's an app you can get, fan qiang ['climb over the wall'] — everybody knows. I can watch YouTube, get Google, no problem."
Like everybody else we've met here, Chiqian is pretty content with things as they are. True, he's not a Falun Gong member having his organs harvested, or a Nobel Peace Prize winner serving an eleven-year jail sentence, or a Tibetan or a Uighur doing his religious devotions under stern surveillance by secret-police goons. Most Chinese people aren't any of those things either, though. Most shrug and get along as best they can.
I have no illusions about the ChiComs. I know their methods and their history. I'm a good old Anglo-Saxon constitutionalist. I want to live in a country under rational government, where big national issues are debated openly before decisions are made and basic personal liberties are respected.
China is not a country like that. It's run by a gangster clique who, like the Mafia, tell the inhabitants of their territory: "Behave yourselves, show us proper respect, don't make trouble, and we'll take care of you. Life will be good. But if you try to oppose us, we know where you live."
For all that, in this quiet relief from the shrieking lunacy of current politics in the West, there are times I find myself wondering …
• Thursday, September 19th: Suzhou to Hangzhou.
Railroad station nightmares. Off this morning on the train to Hangzhou. The personal factor here is that one of Rosie's college classmates, and so one of my students, now has a high position in the administration of a big STEM university there. She invited us to come and visit for a couple of days, staying at the college hotel, all expenses comped.
Our Hangzhou visit doesn't start well. Hangzhou railroad station is about the size of Dallas, and not well signposted. We got totally lost on arrival, and it's half an hour before we find our hostess, who has waited patiently for us with a college car and driver.
(Hangzhou isn't exceptional here. At this point I'm having nightmares about Chinese railroad stations. I could swear we have clocked up more miles wandering around the damn places looking for the ticket office, information booth, restrooms, or exit than we have actually riding the trains.)
Language learning and mimicry. Our hostess's duties include supervision of the university's many foreign students. When we get there at last around 11 am she excuses herself: "I have to go expel a student." Off she goes, leaving us to settle in to our room at the college hotel.
Later, over lunch with her, I ask her about the student she expelled. He was one of the internationals, from Morocco. His offense? "Marijuana. He was found in possession." How did he get his hands on mary jane in China? "Brought it in with him."
She tells us stories about the international students. A high proportion are from Russia and Central Asia, all part of Xi Jinping's "Belt and Road" scheme to lock the whole world into Chinese mercantilism.
There is also a number of West Africans, who, she said, get good at Chinese more quickly than the average foreigner. She tells the following story.
Some Chinese students were walking to class when they saw a black student ahead of them. He was from Cameroon, it later turned out — very black. One of the Chinese students remarked on this: "See how black his skin is!"
The Cameroon student stopped, turned, and addressed them in very colloquial Mandarin: Ni tama shuo shei? — "Who the f*** are you talking about?"
Other people have noticed the same thing about West Africans. I remarked on it myself when reviewing Tété-Michel Kpomassie's book about Greenland.
Here's some video of a case quite famous in Japan. The link was sent to me by a reader. I passed it on to my go-to guy for things Japanese, a white American who lives over there and speaks Japanese. He:
I lived in Africa. I knew multilingual Africans. While all of them seemed fluent, none could engage in the sort of conversations you and I have had together in any language. They could not read Robert Louis Stevenson. When your entire thought universe has a vocab of a couple thousand words, I think its easier to move into new languages … Japanese people judging a foreigner's Japanese? Well. No one is ever going to criticize a foreigner's Japanese.
A different friend, not a Japanese speaker but a race realist:
What West Africans tend to be good at is mimicry. A lot of black comedians work that. Mimicry will quickly get you some way into a language, but no further. Your pal in Japan is right: you won't be reading novels.
That sounds right to me. The early stages of language learning are mostly mimicry. Our hostess in Hangzhou speaks excellent English; but before we got here I spent ten days among people who spoke only Chinese (not counting the Mrs, of course). Rosie tells me my Chinese has improved considerably these ten days.
A mutual acquaintance. Our hostess is a very busy lady. This afternoon, when she is showing us her office, two male international students come in with documents she has to sign — something to do with immigration. The students look Central Asian.
While the documents are being read, I ask the students in English where they are from.
He: "We are from Turkmenistan."
Me: "Ah — Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov!"
The two students look at each other, giggle nervously, then turn away.
What is socialism? When I first got interested in politics fifty-something years ago, I quickly learned the meaning of socialism. It was printed right there on every Labour Party membership card: "Public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange."
The ChiComs beg to differ. They have a big public campaign going on, with posters and displays all over, promoting the Twelve Principles of Socialism.
What are the Twelve Principles of Socialism? From one of the posters:
Rule of Law
Socialism, in other words, is everything nice. Plainly the definition I learned in 1963 was too … definitive for the ChiComs.
My favorite ChiCom leader was Hua Guofeng, Mao's immediate successor as Chairman. Hua's chairmanship wasn't very successful. It only lasted five years; then he was outmaneuvered by Deng Xiaoping and pushed back into the lower echelons of the Inner Party.
Hua did, though, stay in office long enough to promote one of those number-tagged mini-ideologies the Chinese love. It was called The Two Whatevers:
We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.
Current ChiCom ideology is, it seems to me, in direct line of descent from Hua's Two Whatevers. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is nothing to do with public ownership of the, etc. It can happily embrace, for example, a billionaire property developer with good Party connections pushing peasants off their land with minimal compensation, or none, so the developer can build high-rise apartment blocks.
Socialism is just whatever the Party says it is. Civility! Integrity! Friendship!
That is the true state ideology of China today: Whateverism.
China's leaders have become acutely aware that Westerners regard some of their long-established social customs — spitting in the street, promiscuous smoking, fighting scrimmages to get on trains — as uncouth. They want their citizens to clean up their acts, as a matter of national pride.
It's working, at any rate in the big cities. I was astonished to see, in the Peking subway, people standing in neat lines waiting for the trains. (How do they know where to stand? The track is sealed off from the platform by a transparent partition, with doors that open automatically right opposite the train's doors when the train stops.)
I saw a cute example of wenming promotion in a public convenience at one of the Peking parks. Set in the wall above the urinal was a card with the message:
Qianjin — xiao bu
Wenming — da bu
"Advance — a small step; civility — a big step." It's a rough equivalent of the sign sometimes seen on American urinals: "We aim to please. You aim too, please."
• Friday, September 20th: Hangzhou.
Does he drink white liquor? I am under the weather this morning — listless, sleepy. Too many changes of air, too many banquets.
No, this is not a hangover. Sure, we had a banquet last night with white liquor, but I didn't get drunk. I've had hangovers, including white liquor hangovers; I know from hangovers; this isn't one. I'm just under the weather.
This is a shame, as we had intended to spend today circumambulating West Lake, the most famous beauty spot in Hangzhou.
The circumambulation is about six miles. I just barely make it.
In the subway going back to our hotel I sit opposite a young male Chinese albino — the first I can recollect ever seeing.
• Saturday, September 21st: Hangzhou to Shaoxing.
The old Malthusian China. Some years ago, when private automobile ownership was just taking off in China, Rosie was on a solo visit there. She noticed that none of the first-time car owners bothered to use the seat belt. Why not? She asked a relative.
He replied with a shrug: Si yi ge, shao yi ge — "One dead, one fewer," with the implied sense: "One more person dead, one fewer clogging up the place." Hard to imagine a sentiment more candidly Malthusian.
With the ongoing demographic collapse and the relentless promotion of wenming, I doubt people say that much any more. That kind of thinking characterized the old, poor China, where whatever you wanted — to get on a train, to get a permit at some bureaucrat's office, to receive your monthly cabbage ration — there was a great milling elbow-jabbing scrum of other people wanting the same thing.
That older China isn't quite dead, though. Back at Hangzhou railroad station this morning carrying pre-bought tickets to Shaoxing, we get stuck behind a vast seething crowd at the entrance to the security area. We have no idea why there's such a mob at this place at this time, but it holds us up so long we can see we'll miss our train. We go back to the ticket office and exchange our tickets for later ones.
Down the blue-red gradient. Our contact in Shaoxing is another 1983 graduate of Siping Normal College, name of Yibing. He teaches at a big private university here. (The 19th Party Congress in 2017 passed resolutions encouraging private entrepreneurs to set up institutions of higher education. Entrepreneurs have responded enthusiastically. There's money in higher ed., and of course prestige — a grand building with your name on it.)
Shaoxing is a smaller, less touristy place than Hangzhou or Suzhou, so we have come a few steps down the cosmopolitan-communitarian (metropolitan-provincial, blue-red) gradient here. There are more guys smoking (hardly any women); there's noticably more spitting and less orderly queueing; and perhaps private automobile ownership is less settled-in here than in the big cities; at any rate, we see our first Chinese fender-bender here this morning.
As in Hangzhou, we are put up at the university's own hotel, staffed largely by students taking courses in hotel management.
I notice that our room number begins with the digits 85, yet it's on the fifth floor. Our room number in the Peking hotel began with 83, but it was on the third floor. So … what's with those superfluous eights?
I ask Rosie. She: "Eight is lucky."
More Chinglish. There is a large sign posted on the inside of our hotel's elevator door, listing various things prohibited to elevator riders. One of them is translated into English as No slapping. The Mrs and I giggle at this all the way up to our floor.
Wine on a stick. Yibing takes us sightseeing.
Shaoxing's main claim to fame is its rice wine, which you can buy in any American Chinatown (although, according to Yibing, only in inferior versions). This is a wine, not a liquor, comparable in proof to the supermarket Merlot we drink at home.
Marketing-wise, the Chinese don't miss a trick. Visiting one of the wine outlets I was offered, and accepted, a Shaoxing wine popsicle. It was delicious.
The Chinese Orwell. For me, the big draw in Shaoxing is the Lu Xun museum.
Lu was a writer — essays and short stories — of the 1920s and 1930s. He has been called "the Chinese Orwell" for his cold-eyed critiques of China's sociopolitical customs, mixed with a deep patriotism and some naïve leftism.
The communists have canonized Lu, although they would certainly have shot him if he had survived into their dictatorship. (He died in 1936 from TB.) Independent thinkers were not tolerated in Mao Tse-tungs's cheap Chinese knock-off of Stalinist totalitarianism any more than they were in the original.
The museum — it was actually Lu's childhood home: he was a native of Shaoxing — is very atmospheric. I mooch around happily and buy Lu Xun tchotchkes: bookmarks with Lu Xun quotes (e.g. "If you don't explode in the dark, you will die in the dark"), a Lu Xun keychain fob, a chinese fan with another quote ("The highest felicity in human life is to find one person who understands you").
They even have a room where you can play a Lu Xun board game, printed up on paper and trapped under transparent plastic table covers. I want to buy one but they're not for sale. My next idea was to have Rosie distract the person supervising the room so I could slip one game out from under its plastic sheet, but Rosie wouldn't go along.
Expelled from the palace! In ancient times, before the Chinese empire got going in earnest and Chinese people lived in many small states, Shaoxing was the capital of a state named Yue.
The early-5th-century b.c. King of Yue, Goujian, is one of the great figures of his period. His career is well-known to all educated Chinese — and probably, since recent successful movies and TV series, to the general.
We prowl around the part-reconstructed remains of Goujian's palace, which is blessedly free of any other sightseers. Then the custodian of the site spots us and starts yelling. Apparently we are late; the place is closed, and we shouldn't be there. He shoos us out, angrily locking doors behind us.
The thing I notice here is the custodian's dialect. I couldn't understand a word. Could Rosie? "I got the main idea," she allowed. Well, yes, so did I; but did she understand what he was saying? I don't press enquiries.
• Sunday, September 22nd: Shaoxing.
Self-reflections. Modernity has not deprived the Chinese of their ready wit.
At one of the scenic spots, Yibing wants to take a picture of the Derbs. We pose obligingly and he fiddles with his smartphone … and fiddles … and fiddles. He has got the thing into selfie mode and doesn't know how to get it back to regular camera.
Rosie steps forward to help. "For goodness' sake, do you really not know how to get out of selfie mode? I can't believe it. You take selfies, don't you?"
Yibing, who is comfortably middle-class but perhaps not as successful as he had once hoped to be, replies with: Wo bu zi pai, wo zi bei — "I don't do selfies, I do self-pity" … but it sounds funnier in Chinese.
• Monday, September 23rd: Shaoxing to Hangzhou, then the overnight train to Chongqing.
Another Yellowtopia. Of the roughly 300 people waiting at Shaoxing railroad station for the 14:48 train to Hangzhou on Monday afternoon, 95 percent are attending to their smartphones. One is writing in a notebook. A few others are dozing or sitting looking at nothing. Not one is reading anything printed on paper — a book, a magazine, a newspaper.
Every one but me is Chinese. (Well, East Asian. Possibly there is a Korean or Japanese in there somewhere.) Outside the colleges and some specialized zones in the biggest cities, mainland China, like Taiwan, is a Yellowtopia.
• Tuesday, September 24th: Chongqing.
Joyful reunion. Chongqing, our next stop, is a thousand miles away to the west in Sichuan Province. We take the overnight sleeper from Hangzhou. It's a sixteen-hour ride (not a gaotie), leaving at 9 pm yesterday, reaching Chongqing at 1 pm today.
Sichuan is the fortress province, surrounded by mountains. In spells of imperial disintegration a warlord who could take Sichuan, like the horrible Zhang Xianzhong, was well situated.
The train ride makes the fortress feature perfectly plain. An extraordinary amount of time is spent going through tunnels. When you can see the landscape, it's mountains covered with forest, dotted with small villages.
Rosie, who was an army brat, spent much of her childhood and adolescence in Beibei, a satellite town of Chongqing. She left the place after graduating middle school in 1978, and returned with her family to their original home in China's northeast. She has kept in touch with her Beibei classmates, though, and there's a joyful reunion this evening — actually a banquet of course.
This is a real hen party, a big round table full of fiftysomething women who knew each other in their teens, all talking at the tops of their voices in Chinese. Only Rosie knows English. I sit smiling benignly, only contributing an occasional short remark. This evening is for Rosie.
Middle-class Chinese life. Our hosts here are one of those classmates, name of Xiaoyan, and her husband Shiyu. They will put us up for three nights in their Beibei apartment, which has a spare bedroom.
Xiaoyan and Shiyu live well. Both are retired: in China most women retire at 55, most men at 60. Xiaoyan was a nurse, Shiyu a math teacher. The apartment, in a newish high-rise, is paid for, and there is no property tax. Their pensions give them about RMB10,000 a month ($1,400). They are active — swimming, yoga, hiking — and take vacations abroad, most recently to Thailand. They have a daughter, gainfully employed, who lives not far away.
They are pretty contented and not interested in politics. Rosie tells me, however, that one of the ladies at the banquet referred to Beibei's central administration building as fubai lou, "Corruption Towers," to nodded agreement from the others.
• Wednesday, September 25th: Chongqing.
This takes us through a village named Taohuashan (Peach Blossom Mountain) which, from the look of it and its inhabitants, will soon be a ghost village, like those you see on YouTube clips of the Japanese countryside.
Then, some local places of interest.
Lao She was so badly persecuted by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, he committed suicide. In all the hundreds of words, in both Chinese and English, accompanying the exhibits in Beibei's Lao She museum, there is no mention of this fact.
• Thursday, September 26th: Chongqing.
The click of the tiles. Taking an evening walk along any residential street in Hong Kong forty years ago, from every window around and above you came the click and chatter of mah-jong tiles. It was the musical accompaniment to life in Hong Kong.
I never heard that in mainland China in 1982-3. I'm not sure if there was a formal prohibition; but to judge by my ears, nobody was playing mah-jong.
Now it's back. I see and hear people playing mah-jong all over. Beibei actually has a mah-jong parlor, all the tables occupied as we walked past.
People play for money, too, although only for small bills in the cases I have seen. I can't imagine this is something the authorities approve. Hong Kong newspapers back in the day ran regular stories — like one a week — about some working stiff who'd got his weekly pay, headed for the mah-jong parlor instead of going home to his family, lost all his money at the tables, and thrown himself from an upper window. Si yi ge, shao yi ge.
Among his numerous philanthropies, Ken Behring helped establish a rather good Natural History Museum in Beibei, a couple of minutes' walk from the apartment we are staying at. There's a whole section of the museum dedicated to him.
This and some other local philanthropy got Behring awarded an honorary citizenship of Chongqing in 2015, and I wouldn't begrudge it him at all. Thanks, guy.
• Friday, September 27th: Chongqing to Zhuhai.
Last stop. Friday morning we fly from Chongqing to our last stop this trip, the fine new city of Zhuhai on China's south coast next door to Hong Kong.
"Next door" isn't quite right. Zhuhai and Hong Kong sit on opposite sides of the mouth of the Pearl River, which is about twenty miles wide here. Zhuhai's at the western side of the mouth, Hong Kong the eastern. Just south of Zhuhai on the same side is the former Portuguese colony of Macau.
The whole area was much in the news last year when the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge/Tunnel was opened, a 34-mile-long structure spanning the entire river mouth.
I'm naturally curious to see this creation, which has had so much publicity. The real fun of this part of our trip, though, is meeting up with some old friends.
I never held that against him, and in fact liked the guy. David is smart and witty, and speaks excellent English. We had some minor differences at the time; but now, 36 years later, they don't seem at all important, and we meet as old friends. He now lives and works in Zhuhai.
David still has the soul of a kultprop, though, and is keen for us to know how great life in China is now.
Also greeting us is Bruce Li. No, this is not the movie actor who died in 1973, although the Chinese names are homophonous. This is a classmate of David's — they both graduated from Siping College in 1981 — who was teaching high school in a nearby town when I was at the college, and used to drop by at my office to practice his English.
Bruce went to England in the mid-1980s, married an English girl — I drove them to their wedding — and acquired U.K. citizenship. He and his wife moved to Hong Kong, where she is head librarian at the Chinese University there. Bruce has come to Zhuhai to greet us.
This is where the fun comes in. Bruce is a dissident who hates the ChiComs. He supports the Hong Kong protestors. So with David playing kultprop in one ear while Bruce snaps back cynicisms in the other, I'm getting an interesting dialectic.
It's all very good-natured, I should say. When you've known guys for 36 years, you're not expecting any surprises. Nobody thinks anyone's mind is going to be changed; nobody's being dishonest; David's booster talk and Bruce's cynicism are both genuine. The three of us all like each other at a personal level, so the hell with politics.
Heroic materialism. We take a boat trip around the river mouth to check out the bridge. Bruce has malicious fun pointing out, what is plain to see, that there is hardly any traffic on it. Private motorists need special plates to drive on the bridge, and the plates are expensive. The best way for ordinary folk to traverse it, Bruce says, is by bus; a ticket costs RMB65 (less than ten dollars).
In the other ear of course David is extolling the beauty of the thing, and the difficulties overcome in constructing it.
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, yes, the bridge is a totalitarian extravaganza, a ChiCom vanity project. On the other hand, it's a pretty neat piece of engineering, of a kind that we in the USA seem to have given up on, and potentially useful if they'd let people use the darn thing.
I'm not the world's biggest fan of heroic materialism, but I don't much care for stagnation either.
Render unto the Party … David is a Party member, although not (he says) an active one. I ask him what the annual dues are. Answer: RMB600, or about ninety dollars.
Does he have a Party card? No, he says. A Party number? Again no. It all sounds rather easygoing.
It seems to me a shame to have done away with Party numbers. Back in Comintern days, having a low Party number was a status symbol. It meant you'd joined the Party early on.
There's just no romance to communism any more.
Thanks, China …. There'll be some more sightseeing around Zhuhai tomorrow; then on Sunday, back to the States via Canton and Taipei.
This evening we have our last banquet. The four of us — the Derbs, David, and Bruce — are joined by some other old Siping classmates. A surprising number have settled here in the far south. Hard to blame them; the climate is lovely.
The food is excellent; many toasts are drunk; many reminiscences exchanged. It's all wonderfully gemütlich, the best banquet of the trip.
I have my differences with China. I'd dearly like to see the place under rational, constitutional government, though I don't suppose I shall in what's left of my lifetime.
China has, however, given me some of my most enduring friendships, a loyal and loving wife, and some useful life lessons. Thanks, China, and thanks to those who hosted us and made this vacation so enjoyable.