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.
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.
My first visit to China and Beijing was in 1985, four years before the episode we all remember which played out at Tianamen Square in 1989. As I stood in the center of the square with S. yesterday, I had flashbacks to my experiences over the last twenty-five years. I thought it might be worthwhile, even interesting to recount some of them for you as a prelude to the blogs I intend to post during and after our current trip as tourists to the Middle Kingdom. It’s worth while to note that the literal translation of Tianamen is Gate of Heavenly Peace or sometimes, mandate from Heaven. I guess the gods will never leave us alone, even in China.
1. My first Chinese meal in China was a banquet hosted by the General Motors representative in Beijing (who happened to be Japanese), and it was an important learning experience. In fact, one never to be forgotten. It was in a private room in one of the large, old hotels accompanied by enumerable toasts of Chinese firewater (Mao Tai). As I perused the custom printed menu, I noticed about the fourth dish down an entry entitled “Civet Cat in Brown Gravy”. It didn’t sound right, but I assumed a translation problem and reaffirmed my intention to try everything. I served a healthy portion of the steaming, brown, glutinous mass which, oddly, smelled quite good. I tucked in and transferred a goodly amount to my mouth, but that was as far as it got. I could not get it past my gullet. It exploded into flavors that can only be described as… skunk like….which is exactly what it was. A civet cat is a first cousin to that black and white stripped critter we know as a skunk.
2. Skipping ahead a few years, I was the guest of honor hosted by the Shanghai Science and Technology Commission as we visited the Bao Shan steel plant south of Shanghai. This rolling steel plant was supposed to be a shinning example of China’s manufacturing technology. It wasn’t, at least then, because of a shortage of anthracite coal which was required to fire the huge smelters. We had lunch in “The Worker’s Cafeteria” behind a thin wall of dividers hiding us from the view of “the workers”. Thankfully there was no Chinese firewater on hand, but we had copious amounts of a thin orange drink to wash down the comestibles. As the honored guest, I was offered the first try at a giant steamed fish of dubious pedigree surrounded by a medley of mushy, unidentifiable veggies. I was directed to that area of the fish directly behind the gill and extracted a few morsels with my chopsticks and popped it directly into my mouth. A burst of sewer like flavor convinced me I needed to expel it quickly. I bolted the table, with full mouth, hoping they would think I had an emergency of the nether regions. On the way I spotted a potted palm which I used as a receptacle for the malodorous fish. When would I ever learn.
3. My final gustatory memory involved a banquet wherein I was seated with the Vice-mayor of Beijing (who spoke no English). Making small talk through a translator is never easy, but that never stopped me. I asked the Vice-mayor if there were foods known as “health foods” in China. He politely replied that all foods in China were healthy…which should have ended this line of conversation. I plunged ahead. “No”, I said. “I meant foods that have a particular healthy quality”. After much conversation with his translator, he replied that the soup we were eating was an example of healthy Chinese food, particularly for men. Ignoring the danger signals, I inquired after it’s name. Again, after lengthy dialogue with his translator, he replied that it had no name, at least in English. I pressed on. “How would you describe it then,” I asked. After yet more conversation with the translator, he smiled brightly at me and said, “this we would describe as organ of the ox soup”. Organ of the ox soup, I repeated. Yes, he said in good English, “you know, ox penis soup”. And I thought they were mushrooms.
You may think it odd that these memories have stayed with me so long, but, as we all know, food is important to our understanding of people and culture. I do have other memories of what China was like for me not that long ago, but, as it turns out, it was a very long time ago in China’s rush to modernity. Here they are in no particular order.
1. The Great Wall Sheraton. It was the only faintly western like hotel in Beijing in the mid 80’s. All the expats were here and we all suffered equally the bad facilities, service and food. I suspect they only vacuumed the carpets once a month or so, and they evidently never cleaned the public bathrooms.
2. Cabbage. Chinese cabbage was virtually the only vegetable available during the winter months. It was hauled by carts, pulled by donkeys, bicycles, motos, and carried by hand. It was piled in huge pyramids along side the roads, and it was cooked every way cabbage can be cooked and served. I never met a Chinese cabbage I liked.
3. Badaling. The nearest access from Beijing to The Great Wall. The February morning my delegation was taken there by GM limo was the coldest of my life. I wore every bit of clothing I could find and still I shivered. The seventy kilometers was traveled over mostly dirt roads in about two hours. Due to copious cups of steaming black coffee, my bladder was screaming at about the thirty km mark, but I held on until the Wall loomed ahead. The driver pointed to an opening in the Wall near the steps. I bolted for relief. I hit the wall, no, not the Wall, but the wall of disgusting odors just inside the opening. I gasped, my eyes watered, and I retreated desperate for fresh air in spite of my urinary crisis. I rose to the occasion out of desperation. I dabbed at my eyes with the sleeve of my cashmere overcoat, took a very deep breath, which I held for the duration of my business inside the Wall. I made it…just barely.
4. Negotiations. Negotiating anything with the Chinese is, shall we say, a challenge. I spent two weeks in morning to night negotiations with a Chinese delegation trying to agree to terms for a joint venture company that would provide computer services to all departments of the Beijing Municipality. A great coup for moi and my company if I got it done. There were six or eight or ten of them at any one time, and three of us. The talks were in a cavernous room which evidently had no source of heat other than our own bodies. They wore insulated Mao suits. We wore sweaters and coats. They served large mugs of boiling water with bits of green tea floating therein which I never quite got the hang of drinking without catching small morsels of tea leaves between my teeth. At the end of two weeks they had worn me down. I would have signed anything. I never even knew who was in charge on their side. As events transpired, my deal was undone by events at Tianamen and the closing of China’s great experiment in Open Door policy, but I profited from the experience.
5. Language. No gringo should ever even try to speak any of the Chinese dialects. Even if we use the right words, we’re likely to use the wrong tone and “may I have another cucumber sandwich” will come out “your sister has a big wart on her nose”. Now, the study of English is required for all high school and university students. Then, a citizen of the People’s Republic may have been considered a running dog capitalist for trying to speak English. Hence, only diplomats and desk clerks at some hotels spoke any English in public, and then very poorly. I recall a reception at the American embassy in Beijing, wherein my Chinese handler spoke undecipherable English and I, clearly, spoke no Chinese. We both tried bad French, and it worked after a sort. At least I didn’t insult his sister, I think.
6. Environment. I’m pretty sure the Chinese invented air pollution. If they didn’t, they certainly took it to a new level. In the winter, morning, noon, and night a thick, sulfurous, noxious cloud obscured the view of all but the largest and nearest objects. From time to time, this man made pollution was mixed with huge masses of dust particles wafting down the Mongolian plain and settling on the city for days at a time. Everyone wore those little white surgical masks in a vain attempt to keep their lungs clear from the various pollutants. My strategy was to never go outside, except for brief bursts running to and from the limo, and then to wash away the residue with medicinal G&T’s in the hotel lobby at happy hour. Thank god the Chinese government finally banned the use of bituminous coal bricks for heating in the city. I don’t know how they keep warm, but at least you can breathe.
7. Transportation. There were only three stretch limos in the country at the time, and they were all owned and provided by General Motors trying to curry favor with those who would have to approve their right to do business in China. I used one of those limos in my trips to Beijing, and the not surprising result was that we literally drew a crowd wherever we went. The combination of gringos in a long black Cadillac was too much for the workers to ignore. They waved, they coughed, they spat, they pressed their noses against the windows, and they even applauded when we emerged from the car. There were no other cars in China then. Get it. No cars. Well, really I mean private cars. Government officials had state owned cars, and state owned companies had dilapidated old trucks, probably left over from the Japanese occupation, that hauled stuff around, but you could go for a long drive and not see more than three or four vehicles that you would trust to get in. Bicycles. There was a veritable sea of bicycles. In the morning, I would look out the window of my hotel room at the TGW Sheraton and marvel at the continuous flow of bicycles, carrying people to their work and all manner of goods, most of which were not intended for bicycle portage.
8. Government. I met many Chinese officials during my visits and negotiations in China, but the most memorable was Li Peng. You know, that Li Peng. At the time I met him he was the Vice-premier of China. A really big cheese in the Chinese government. It’s lost in the fog of time, how or why I got an audience with the big man, but I did. We met in a ceremonial room of their Hall of State. I prepared well, and knew that Peng was not only a Moscow trained hydroelectric engineer, but also a student of ancient Chinese history and a particular fan of the Tang Dynasty (618 AD-904 CE). S. and I had developed an interest in Tang art while we lived in London and by way of our collection of Tang figurines and bowls, and I figured, what the hey, if the opportunity came, I was going to lay a little Tang on him. It did and I did. It changed what was a very formal ceremonial meeting, to a brief exchange about an area of common interest. It didn’t alter history, however. Mine or his. I went on to negotiate a joint venture that ultimately failed, in part by the decision of this same Li Peng to not give in to the protests at Tianamen Square a few years later. I suspect that his Russian education in hydrology was far more valuable in that he is widely recognized as the Father of the Three Gorges Dam Project which provides much of the electricity that they consume.
I could go on, but won’t. I’m anxious to get to the New China which S. and I are now visiting as tourists. Over the next few days I will be posting periodically my observations and musings about China today as seen through the eyes of one whose understanding is colored by impressions twenty-five years old. I’ll give you a clue. It’s really different. So different that I suspect it will be hard to adequately describe. I’ll give it a go.