I learned 25 years ago and have relearned on this trip that perfect enlightenment with respect to Asia comes only in the understanding that you will never really understand. Actually, Churchill said it first and said it best in referring to Russia. It is “…a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. I’m now convinced, again, that his insight applies perfectly to China as well. I probably should have waited for a little soak time after the trip before opining as I’m now getting ready to do. Maybe my views would have mellowed a bit, but events have overcome me, and I can wait no longer. The trigger event was a trip out of Xian to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. Well, it actually wasn’t the drive, it was the length of the drive. No, it wasn’t really the length of the drive, it was the unfortunate fact that the periods of time between urinary episodes my body will tolerate does not synch well with the traffic induced long driving times in China. That’s a long way of saying that we had to stop along the way to find what the Chinese call “a washroom”. Henry, our guide, suggested, in something of a panic, that the only suitable place was a nearby orthopaedic hospital. That sounded fine to me. Anything, including an open air slit trench, would have been fine with me. After wandering through narrow hallways of the hospital which was populated by a maze of small rooms overflowing with evidently injured or sick people, we found ourselves in an outdoor courtyard and spied a small WC sign in the corner. I anxiously entered expecting what I had seen before; either a spanking clean facility or one that was once clean, but fell short of a class A standard through heavy use. This particular one was in a different class all together. It was horribly, horribly unimaginably filthy. I was greeted with a series of slit hole in the concrete style facilities, all in heavy use emitting unbearable aromas. Unhygienic doesn’t begin to describe the situation. Imagine the worst you’ve ever seen and multiply by ten or even one hundred. Having no choice, I awaited my turn while holding my breath, did my business, and fled post haste. The point of this ugly story is not that there are unclean restrooms in China, but that they have, and obviously tolerate filthy, unhygienic lavatories, germ and crud infested facilities IN HOSPITALS. I wanted to ask Harry or someone about this horrible contradiction, but I couldn’t quite find the words or the courage to confront a citizen of China about this insanity. Over the next couple of days I put this episode in the context of other inexplicable contradictions that I had observed: 1. China has nine years of publicly funded education. Grades 1-9. No kindergarten, no high school. Yes, you can pay for private school, but the state cops out on kids at age fourteen. Ok, I got it that even that is an improvement on where they were previously. But China is fourthin total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per annum, while they are 169th in public education expenditures as a % of GDP (1.9%). Not exactly an investment in the future. 2. China has committed eight billion dollars to tree planting. They have a national tree planting day wherein it is almost a punishable crime for a citizen or a company to not participate in this annual frenzy of tree planting. They plant them everywhere, and then dig some up and plant them somewhere else. I have a couple of theories about why they are doing this: 1) they are trying to make up for decades of deforrestation that they engaged in when they needed all the lumber 2) They are trying to dress up the otherwise pretty grim and dirty surroundings, (kind of like putting lipstick on a pig), or 3) they are trying to use the trees as a foil against the relentless pollution that they continue to spew into the atmosphere. They all have the ring of truth to me. 169th in public education, but first in tree planting. Go figure. 3. The whipsawing of public policy. They’ve gone from dynasties ruled by emperors without conscience to the absolute corruption of Chiang Kai Shek, to the insanity of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, to the further insanity of The Cultural Revolution, to Deng’s Open Door Policy, to the immorality of Tianamen Square, to limited private ownership with state control, to capitalism run amok with state control. And now Socialism with a Chinese Character. What next, the Three Stooges? 4. The one child policy with exceptions for farmers, those who live in Autonomous Regions (Tibet) or Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong), those who live in non-urban regions of the western lands, those who themselves are the product of one child families, or anyone who can figure out a way to get to Hong Kong or anywhere overseas to have a second, or third or nth kid. Oddly, the policy has worked, after a fashion, as it is expected that birth rates will have fallen to below replacement population levels by 2015, but no one knows, or maybe doesn’t care, about the social or other human costs of the policy. This desirable outcome is aided by the fact that China ranks 108th in life expectancy. 5. China is widely lauded as an economic miracle ranking after only the U.S., Japan, and Germany in total GDP; however they weigh in at 102nd in GDP per capita just after Albania and barely beating out that other economic powerhouse, El Salvador. 6. After having visited one of the urban hospitals, I can understand why they rank 103rd in infant mortality, but equally alarming is a growing disparity in gender of live births. There are now about ten percent more male live births than female. It’s an open secret that no one wants to talk about. 7. It’s said that they have more buildings of thirty floors or higher in Shanghai than in all of the United States, but their schools keep falling down due to poor construction. 8. Hong Kong is a part of China, but a Chinese citizen Has to get a visa (or special permission of some sort) to go there. In fact, a Chinese citizen cannot decide tomorrow that he wants to seek his fortune in Guangshou rather than down on the farm and move there. He must first seek government permission which is only given in “special” circumstances. 9. Mainland Chinese are now the most numerous visitors to Hong Kong and are buying million dollar apartments like hot cakes while the per capita income of their fellow citizens in 2009 was $3180. It makes one wonder who’s buying all the new apartments that are being built EVERYWHERE and cost an average of five hundred dollars a square foot. 10. The government talks a lot about their policy allowing the free practice of religion, but still requires that one be an atheist to be a member of the Communist Party and a participant in the political process, such as it is. 11. China is proud of their rapid progress into the mainstream of modern life, but still sells packages of marinated chicken feet at their international airports and grilled pig’s penises on a stick at snack stands two blocks down the street from the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing. Ok. I understand that there are lot of contradictions in every society. How else does one explain Sara Palin or the Tea Party in the US, but gimme a break. Filth in hospitals, trees over public education, sky scrapers in Shanghai, but schools that fall down in the country side. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest Gary’s Corollary to the Law of Rational Thought. If you can’t keep your toilets clean (at least in hospitals), you’re not gonna make it in the big time. Just wait and see.
S. and I are now comfortably ensconced in the Jade Suite of the MV Yangzi Explorer with the intention of cruising the four hundred miles or so between Yichang (population circa four million) and Chongqing (population seven million). Yichang I’m sure you’ve never heard of, but Chongqing you may know as Chunking which it used to be before the Chicoms started tinkering with the names of their towns. I also remember Chunking as the only Chinese food ever to cross our family table. It was the name brand of the boxed chow mein that my mom got at the local grocery.
Let’s deal with the name thing first. When the first missionaries arrived in the area about five hundred years ago and asked, “what’s the name of the river”, the locals thought they were asking about a small tributary of the river that they knew as Chang Jiang, which translates literally as long river. The small tributary was indeed named Yangtze or Yangzi, whichever you prefer. The emissaries of the lord were certain that they had it right and stubbornly refused to call the river anything other than Yangtze/Yangzi. Actually, the locals have different names for the river according to where they be and what the river is doing around them. I don’t know the Chinese, but all of the names have something like “long, roaring, or peaceful” in them.
Of course, it’s not the name that’s important. It’s the reality. The Yangzi is 3915 miles in length arising in the mountains of Tibet and finally emptying into the East China Sea at Shanghai. If you’re a stickler for detail, it’s third in length to the Amazon and the Nile, but as my Chinese sources are quick to suggest, it is first in importance. Hmmm. Not exactly sure how you measure that, but I’ll go along with it anyway. One thing for sure is that it touches a lot of peeps. In fact, the Yangzi River basin is home to about ten percent of the world’s population and about forty percent of China’s citizens call it home. Some five hundred million in all.
It’s also home to some of the worlds most populous and important cities both now and in history. Many you will have not have heard of them and, in fact, some can’t be found on most western maps. Some will seem vaguely familiar. Today, we sailed by what our guide referred to as a country village. It’s population is five hundred thousand and probably more by now. Let me tick off a few others. Let’s start with Shanghai with a population of about nineteen billion, most of whom were at Expo 2010 last Friday when we were there. The ones that weren’t at the Expo were at Wu Gardens eating BBQ’d Sparrows, bad smelling fish, and mystery meat balls on a stick. Then there’s Nanjing, which you would probably know as Nanking, as in The Rape of Nanking. It’s reported population is five million five hundred thousand, but you never know. What I do know is that Nanjing is where Chang Kai Shek (CKS) threw in the towel to the Japanese under the misbegotten theory that the Japanese would respect their surrender. Fat chance. The Japanese brutally dispatched about four hundred thousand men, women, children, and even babies to send a strong message to the rest of China. Interestingly, after we dropped Fat Boy 1 and 2 on Japan in 1945, CKS designated Nanjing as the capital of China.
Then there is Wuhan, of which I know nothing except that about eight million peeps call it home, Badong, a village of a half million. Yungyang, two million. Wanzhou, three million, and Fengdu, where we were today. This is an interesting place on several levels. First, it is an example of villages alongside the Yangzi that were subsumed by the rising waters of the post-Three Gorges Dam era. The population, then as now is either one or seven hundred thousand depending on which boundaries you subscribe to. It seems that the definitions of village, town, city, urban area, metropolitan area, and municipality are somewhat fuzzy here, but that’s not important to my point. My point is that at least one hundred thousand citizens woke up one morning and were told by their government that they had to move to higher ground, or another town, or even another province, and they did. Can you imagine that in the good old US of A? We’d be fighting Supreme Court cases about it for the next twenty years. We visited the “new” Fengdu as well as a “relocation village about ten km down the road. We visited a Chinese family in their “relocation house” and they did a good job supporting the governments somewhat absurd position that this was good for everyone and there are only happy campers all around. More on Chinese housing later.
Also in our stretch of the river is Fuling, population five hundred thousand, that I can’t even find on the Chinese map that I bought today from a street vendor. Then there is the grandaddy of all Yangzi river towns, Chongqing. It’s population is either seven million or thirty-two million (see comment on definitions above). It literally goes on for ever. One high rise apartment after another, one smoke stack after another and another on into the horizon. Everyone who oughta know says it’s the largest city in China, which makes it the largest city in the world, and, based on what I saw, I’m not going to argue with them. Chongqing, however, only rates two pages in my new Eyewitness guide and about the same in Fodors. That ought to dispel any idea that we know anything about China.
I’m convinced this is where pollution comes to retire. It’s on you like a wet blanket all the time. I asked if there were any sunny days, and got blank looks in response. But they do have a museum for General Joe Stillwell here. Roosevelt sent Stillwell to China in 1942 to serve as Commander of the US forces in China and as CKS’s Chief of Staff. Once again, America won the battle but lost the war (figuratively, I mean). Stillwell, the forces of CKS, and his temporary ally Mao Zedong ultimately defeated the Japanese, but we, smart guys that we are, backed the wrong guy when we continued to support CKS in his struggle against Mao. It is said by the clever academes who study this kind of stuff, that we literally drove Mao into the arms of the Russians. Yikes. Looks like we ought to learn.
S.and I have covered only about ten percent of the river on our cruise, but we’ve been exposed briefly to much more of Chinese culture history and challenges. I haven’t talked much about the Three Gorges Dam project herein as I plan on a short separate piece on it. Suffice it to say that the scale of the project, like so many other things here in China is hard to comprehend.
I know enough now to know that I will never understand the importance of the Yangzi (or Yangtze, or Chang Jiang, or Long River) to China, but I do have some enhanced appreciation what happens when the immutable forces of nature come in conflict with the desires of man.
The words in the title of this blog are inscribed on the facade of the National Archives in Washington, DC, but actually they are a corruption of the Bard’s words in The Tempest Act II, Scene I wherein he wrote “ whereof what’s past is just prologue of what’s to come, that is, the future”. If China’s past is just prologue of it’s future, we’re in trouble; but I don’t think so.
What I’m going to say is not likely to square with any history you’ve read about China, if you’ve ever read any. China’s history, it’s prologue, if you will, is really pretty simple. It, like Caesar said of Gaul, can be divided into three parts. First, there is the dynastic part. Think Ming, only because that’s the dynasty most of us have heard of. Second, there is the period before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I’ll call that the pre-Olympic era, and third, whatever comes next. See, I told you it was simple. Let me give you a few more details.
Actually, the dynastic period is a little longer, well, actually a lot longer, but not necessarily more complex than the others. It stretched from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 CE). By my calculation that’s 2117 years and all they did was add a “g” on the end of the dynasty name. Of the various dynasties in this era, the Han Dynasty was longer than most (206 BC – 220 CE), but all I can figure out they did was to populate the area. Ethnic Hans make up the majority of the population of China today, and seem to have pretty well dominated the other fifty-five ethnic groups which comprise Chinese indigenous society, Hans are also 100% of the Chinese NBA players. The Tangs (618-907 CE) are the most interesting of the lot. Not only did they allow foreigners in to study with them, they sent emissaries to the known world to see what the rest of the world knew that they didn’t. As a result, they invented a powdered orange drink that was popular in the US for awhile, wrote poetry, molded gold do-dads, and sculpted ceramic statues of the emperor’s favorite ladies that they took to their graves and that have intrigued the ages. The Qing’s are quite well known because of Hollywood. You know, The Last Emperor. A good flick, but a little shallow if you ask me. I mean you could have made a good story about a three year old emperor with concubines, but I won’t go there.
Oh yeah, there’s the Great Wall thing. Well, actually it’s not the The Great Wall, it’s The Great Walls. They were built in fits and starts in bits and pieces for various reasons by various emperors over most of the two thousand year dynastic period. And as far as I can tell, it didn’t do a darned bit of good except to extract beaucoup RMB’s (Chinese currency) from tourists over the years. It certainly didn’t keep the Mongols out which was the purpose in chief. S. and I drove seventy nine kilometers through thick and thin traffic, navigated countless potholes in village streets, visited curious and hidden WC’s, dodged hordes of sleeve grabbing curio vendors, climbed ill-paved cobble stone paths, huffed up steep steps to reach the gondola, enjoyed a scenic seven minute ride, struggled up more stone steps to reach the wall itself, pushed and shoved for position with aggressive Chinese tour groups from the hinterlands, and finally there we were. I could almost see Genghis Khan himself bearing down on us with his hordes in tow. Thank god we were safe. But in my imagination, as in reality, all walls are meant to go around, and that’s what old Genghis did. We called it Student Body Right in Friday Night Lights, but I think they called it a flanking movement en mass. So much for two thousand year effort by a million or so peons. That’s why they eat a lot of mongolian BBQ in Beijing today.
The pre-Olympic era (1911-2008) is a little more complicated because so many people remember events differently, and evidently the Chinese government or someone has completely forgotten about the period between 1906 and 1949. To read up on this sub-era you have to look to foreign writers or books stuck way back in the upper corner shelf of the foreign language book store. Here’s the short and sweet of it. PuYi, the three year old emperor was pretty much screwed over by everyone, including his mum, The Dowager Empress. He skedaddled and popped up now and again when he became useful to the Japanese or someone wanted to throw him in jail to make a point.
Enter Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925) otherwise known as the founder of the Republic of China….not the People’s Republic of China. More on that later. He got rid of that bothersome kid emperor PuYi and other Qing hangers on, set up the Chinese Nationalist Party (later the Kuomintang), and pretty much had things going his way until the commies popped up in 1919. For some reason, they didn’t like each other very much and fought constantly until the Japanese started bombing the place in 1937. What’ s the old saying, “nothing makes good friends like a common enemy”. Old Sun was a clever fellow much taken with America and tried in some ways to emulate what he saw and read of us. Looking ahead to tougher times, he knew military power would be crucial and had the prescience to find and cultivate, and promote Chiang kai-sheck who was to be his successor. Unfortunately he did not expect to run in to some one like Mao Zedong (1883-1976) who was there at the beginning of the Chinese Communist Party in 1919 and really never went away until his death in 1976, and even then, left his mamma san behind to stir up trouble for a while longer. During this period, the pre-Olympic era, a lot of other stuff happened that I won’t go into except to observe that if The Great Leap Forward, eleven Five Year Plans, a Little Red Book and a Cultural Revolution won’t get it done for you, you don’t have much of a chance.
That’s where the Olympics comes in. In 2001, the IOC, in an uncharacteristic fit of common sense, awarded the games to Beijing, and China plunged headlong into a seven year fit of construction and reform, at the end of which, Beijing, and to some extent all of China, had reinvented itself and presented itself successfully on the world stage. Superhighways were planned and constructed, stadiums and sports venues were built out of nothing, laws were changed, five star hotels sprouted like sunflowers, and the government plugged all the spitting holes and warned their citizens that anyone caught hawking up phlegm in public would be in for a rough go. A real estate boom was ignited, foreign investment accelerated, national pride emerged, and even the government started to hold back on most of the public human rights abuses which heretofore had been common as dirt. At least they didn’t have any mass executions for awhile. This new spirit of China took root first in Beijing, but soon spread to Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chongqing as well as smaller, less well known cities in the hinterlands. For the first time, one could reasonably get something to eat in a restaurant other than greasy noodles or duck fat in a pancake. Louis Vitton, Channel, Ferragamo, Micky D, Dunking Donuts, Seven Eleven and a host of other cultural institutions sprung up on every corner. Cash was everywhere. This was the pre-Olympic era. Forget the Cultural Revolution. Forget the Mongolian hordes. No need for a Great Wall (except for the tourist trade). This was better than any dynasty ever invented. And it was transparent. No Forbidden Cities, no court jesters or eunuchs, English language newspapers every day.
We’re now into the third year of the post Olympic era (2008-????) and really no one knows what to expect. Experience tells us that trees cannot grow to the sky. The music has to stop somewhere. When will the world, and the citizens of China figure out that while they’ve done a good job tarting the old girl up, we’re still not sure she’s ready for the dance. The political types are now trying to come up with a twelfth Five Year Plan that makes sense in the context of the times. The streets of the big cities are clogged with cars, but only five percent of the population has one. They have a surfeit of luxury hotels and a paucity of indoor plumbing. They have great universities, but still prefer knock off Channel handbags and Rolex watches. Everyone has a cellphone, but they still have to be careful of what they say about the government.
Yeah, they have a lot of challenges, but so do we all. It won’t all be perfect in the post-Olympic Middle Kingdom, but I’ll bet they get it right more than they get it wrong. All of this raises questions, don’t you see, about the coexistence of free market materialism with centralized state planning……you might call it communism.
They call it (with a straight face) Socialism with a Chinese Character, I call it amazing.
In 1850 it took three to six months to sail from the US to China. In 1937 the Pan Am Clipper Transpacific service could get you to China in five to seven days. On October the 9th, 2010 we made it from Dallas to Beijing (Peking) door to door in twenty hours. At that trajectory, how long will it take in another generation or two? Hell, I’m still trying to figure out how the international date line thing works, and I have to refer to my iPhone to calculate if it’s 11:00 am in New York, what time is it in Shanghai.
Suffice it to say, good old AA got us there in fine fettle even though for the fourth consecutive international flight, we had ground delays caused by mechanical problems. Maybe sailing was better. We were surprised in Chicago by a lovely AA representative who met us at the gate. If you know O’Hare, you know that it’s a long slog from one end to the other, and she got us to the International Flagship Lounge by electric cart in short order. Free food (very mediocre), free booze (always good), and fellow Ranger fans to watch them lose game three.
We cacooned ourselves into the Boeing 777 seats and hunkered for the next fourteen hours. Uneventful and uncomfortable. We got off to a bad start with a rude drunk sitting behind us trying to quaff a bottle of duty free brandy and talking too loudly to anyone who would listen. The head stewardess (yes, I know you’re not supposed to call them that) put the quash on him shortly by taking his bottle away, chastising him appropriately, and cutting him off for the rest of the flight. There is justice in the world after all.
We arrived bleary eyed at the new Beijing International Airport, built especially for the 2008 Olympics, at about 1:00 am Monday. I’m still trying to figure out where Sunday went. We were met at the gate by a young Chinese lady, let’s call her Suzy, who talked to us non-stop until she handed us off to our appointed handler on land side. She actually had Bill, our handler, sign a chit to prove that we had, indeed, been handed over. Suzy was very nice, and a delightful example of the New China. Enthusiastic, energetic, full of promise, but we could only understand every third word she spoke. We nodded thoughtfully and replied with the only two words of Mandarin that I know, xie, xie. I think it means thank you, but it could mean “have you seen my my mother-in-law”.
Bill, our handler and guide, was to be with us for the next three days, and we couldn’t have asked for better. We were whisked to our hotel (the only whisking we would do in Beijing’s monumental traffic lash-ups for the duration of our stay) and arrived about 1:45 am. It was a smooth check-in to our suite at the Peninsula, and we competed to see who could unpack and hit the slats first. Of course, I did. I popped a greenie (sleeping pill that is) only to realize that it was just now barely north of noon time in Dallas. I stared at the ceiling until it was time to get up and prepare for a day of touring the capital city of the Middle Kingdom. Such is life in the fast lane of international tourism.
Actually I was looking forward to breakfast. In fact, I looked forward to it from about 2:30 to 5:30 when the restaurant finally opened. John Lee, a friend and recent traveler to China, had heightened my expectations by proclaiming the breakfast buffet at the Peninsula to be among, if not the best, of all he had personally grazed at. High praise I thought. It had a range of breakfast delicacies from throughout Asia. Korean congee with all the fixings, smoked fish and rice from Japan, dim sum and noodles from China, a huge array of mysterious fruits, salamis and cheese for the Euros, and even local granola and yogurt for those of a healthy bent. Then there was the runny scrambled eggs, rubbery pancakes, faux sausage, and really bad, cardboard like bacon. Guess what every American in the room had to eat. Yeah, you got it. I mused out loud to S., “who would travel half round the world only to eat a bad version of what they ate every day in Des Moines or Dallas”. Yes, you are right. S. had the scrambled eggs and bacon. Actually, it looked pretty good.
So, we’re off. The Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, The Great Wall, Tianamen Square, the Temple of Heaven. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the details. Heck, you can look it up on Wikipedia as well as I can. I will, however, tell you what I think about what I see.