Prologue: Why China?
March 8, 2011
1 out of every 5 people on this earth lives in China. They have 10 cities bigger than New York; how many can any of us name? They make or ship almost everything we wear, cook with, and communicate with. They hold 1/3 of America’s debt. We’re married to these strangers.
They’ve accomplished the most extraordinary feat of any country since WWII–bigger, even, than the overthrow of the Soviet Union in 1991. They’ve not only learned how to feed a billion people, they’ve created a middle class from scratch. Hundreds of millions of car-driving, cellphone-using, educated people. Women have gone from bound feet to Adidas and high heels in less than a century.
But the Chinese have paid a price. To make room for their high-rises and highways, they’ve meticulously destroyed many of their historical treasures: cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu have virtually no “old city” left. They’ve built a social system in which most children have very little contact with their parents; years-long geographical separation is common. And personal freedom is dramatically limited in areas of information access and political participation. There is no independent judiciary.
Contrasts like these make the country unique and fascinating, and I’m eager to learn as much as I can. I’ll be teaching grad students, training sex ed teachers, and consulting with a provincial government representative. The rest of the time I’ll be traveling and sightseeing. Don’t worry, I’ll make time for plenty of dumplings.
Internet access in semi-rural China will be sporadic; if you want to write me, use Dr_Marty_Klein AT yahoo.com. I hope you’ll subscribe to this blog (use the button on the upper right), so you’ll get an e-mail when new entries are posted.
I’m looking forward to my next adventure, and to sharing it with you.
March 16, Day 1, Beijing: The Largest City I’ve Ever Seen
The flight was as uneventful as a 12-hour flight can be. No one gave birth, launched a revolution, or threw up (well, not in business class; I don’t really know what the hordes back in steerage did).
But no matter how much I travel, it’s still disorienting—and not entirely in a bad way—to get into a plane in California and get out of the same plane in China (or India or anywhere not in America). Forty years ago, Marshall McLuhan contrasted air travel to train travel—you fly over places to get to your destination, whereas a train (or car) takes you through places to get to your destination.
I grew up in New York, so I’m no hick. But although I’ve been to some pretty big cities—New Delhi, Moscow, Istanbul, Chattanooga—nothing feels as big as Beijing. It took almost 90 minutes to drive in from the airport—mile after mile of high-rises, gleaming new glass towers alternating with desultory, decades-old apartment blocks.
Absolutely no one predicted it, but the city is now encircled by six concentric ring roads—each choked with traffic. As we drove in, periodic breaks in the highway revealed perpendicular roads just as wide, kilometer after kilometer of houses, offices, and shops extending as far as the eye could see. It’s like Las Vegas on steroids—expanding uncontrollably in all directions with no limits in sight. I suppose when they hit the Great Wall at the Manchurian border, that will be the city’s final boundary.
You can only sort of breathe the air here—which is why so many locals sport surgical masks. You most definitely can NOT drink the water. There are the universal red-circle DON’T symbols near every tap I’ve seen, including the one in my upscale hotel room. It’s not just my delicate Western innards—even the locals get sick from the tap water.
I tossed my stuff into my room, washed my face, and bounded out the door. I walked east down Nanwei Road toward the Temple of Heaven, a huge old complex of buildings and parkland. Everything along the way was fascinating—toothless old men walking, toothy young men barking into cell phones, slender women of all ages shuffling, strolling, hurrying, preening. I passed a large medical complex whose workers were just getting out for the day, so there was the normal bustle of people queuing for buses, saying goodbye to friends, shopping for dinner, and grabbing a snack.
I drank it all in. I took photos of babies, street food, soldiers (feigning ignorance when they shooed me away), teenage girls (feigning no such thing), people buying cigarettes. Life in Beijing. If you don’t mind the traffic, the air, or the water, so far it’s just fine.
March 17, Day 2, Beijing
There isn’t much that’s old left in Old Beijing.
The city itself is roughly as old as the Bible. Then in the thirteenth century, Kublai Khan ruled the Mongols from Beijing. With a couple of interruptions, it’s been the capital of China ever since.
But you can’t find much of the Mongols, the Mings, or the Qings here. With the notable
exception of well-known monuments like the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Drum Tower, and Temple of Heaven, the city is mostly new or brand-new. That doesn’t make it beautiful or inspiring, just crowded and dull. As in most civilized countries, there was simply too much money to be made by killing the past.
The hutongs are one of the city’s few remaining features that pre-date the Beatles. These alleyways, several centuries old, were once home to families of merchants, professionals, and those enjoying royal favor. Family compounds were built around courtyards, with various generations (and live-in help) distributed in rooms according to status.
When Mao was dismantling the institutions and privileges of traditional China (for everyone but himself, of course), the upper middle class was removed from these homes, which were then broken into tiny units and given over to groups of poor families. Most were eventually razed to build China’s modern Communist capital.
A very few hutongs survive today—alleyways of formerly grand homes now occupied, slum-like, by dozens of people each, complete with sagging strings of laundry, broken-down bicycles, the lonely chicken or duck. Beat-up hotplates with bare wires feed the inhabitants.
I wandered a few alleyways, peeking into grimy windows or around half-open doors precariously attached to rusty hinges. The smells were the familiar smells of poverty—rancid cooking oil, dirty laundry, cigarette smoke. Here and there survived an old architectural feature—a gargoyle on a downspout, stone drums flanking a doorway. A few of the places were being gentrified, soon to be bars or gift shops. Occasionally an octogenarian quietly shuffled by—toothy old men, silent old women.
The most interesting thing about the hutongs was the throng of tourists. Both Western and Asian, they toured the streets crossing and encircling the little neighborhood. Pedicab after pedicab carried them in pairs, fingers and cameras pointing. Each pedicab had a little individual decoration—plastic flowers on one, a tambourine for a warning bell on another. Signs for “hutong cultural tours” were everywhere.
Meanwhile, as the tourists discover them, the land underneath the hutongs becomes increasingly expensive. Like some rare Galapagos species killed off by the attention of too many sympathetic visitors, the hutongs will soon disappear altogether.
Presumably, a gorgeous replica, authentic down to the last detail, will soon be built in a local park. The Chinese, after all, do care about their history.
March 20 Day 5: Tianenmen Square—The Largest in the World
After teaching from 9am-1pm, I went to Tianenman Square, the largest public square in the world. I won’t say it was anti-climactic, because I wasn’t expecting that much. But there wasn’t much there, not even ghosts.
The enormous square is surrounded by a fancy fence, so no matter what direction you approach it from, you have to go through security—casual for foreigners, stricter for locals. While I wouldn’t say the country is crawling with police, it’s pretty telling when you don’t trust your own people to congregate—or stroll—in public. And of course everyone knows that the plaza is thick with undercover agents. I tried to spot them—incongruous shoes, hidden radios or guns—but quickly tired of that game.
It was a chilly, blustery day, the famed sandy wind blowing down from Mongolia. I pulled out the little surgical mask I had dutifully brought for exactly such an occasion, but it felt so unfamiliar and confining that I quickly removed it. As in all such public places, families, couples, and groups of friends walked easily, laughing, talking, and snapping photos. Interestingly, there were virtually no food stalls, just a couple of trucks selling soda, juice, and candy. Not coincidentally, there was no almost no trash to be seen, and absolutely no graffiti.
At the far end of the enormous concrete expanse—dozens of football fields long—was a huge portrait of Mao. It’s replaced each year to make sure the Great Helsman remains eternally fresh-faced. To give his cheeks the golden glow that all insane butchers require, there are actually gold flakes in the paint. It’s a fitting metaphor for Mao’s reign—greedily appropriating resources for himself while deliberately starving the population.
The gigantic portrait hangs on the front of the Forbidden City. The centuries-old complex of royal buildings, historically off-limits to the average person, is now Beijing’s number one tourist site. If I’d had more time, I would have spent a few hours there. But I didn’t, since I had to return back to my hotel to teach. So I started walking south, keeping the late afternoon sun on my right. I passed shops and innumerable noodle joints, people talking on mobile phones, and the occasional teen couple. Unlike 20 or even 10 years ago, many couples hold hands. I remember a Beijing-born patient telling me about 15 years ago that the first time she ever saw adults kiss was when she landed at San Francisco Airport.
I eventually came to a cab stand, dutifully pulled out my hotel room key and gestured into the first cab about needing a ride. The cabbie nodded, but when I held up two fingers—20 yuan (about 3 bucks), he held up five. Forget that. Next cab, my two fingers, the driver’s four. I then walked up to a one-person motorcycle cab—the rear is completely enclosed in aluminum and there are two back wheels, not one. We agreed on two fingers (it had cost 15 yuan to get to Tianenmen), and off we went, alternately speeding, weaving, and lurching through the afternoon traffic. Fancy ladies and rich business people took the fancy cabs. I was content with the aluminum box. With so much competition, the driver was glad for the business.
China—the largest capitalist country in the history of the world. The reverence for Mao is just part of the self-delusion.
March 21 Day 6, PINGYAO
Pingyao is China’s oldest walled city. If that doesn’t make your heart flutter, I don’t know what to say.
It took 90 minutes to get to the Beijing airport, 90 minutes to fly southwest to Taiyjun, and then 2 hours to drive south to Pingyao. Since I started the journey at 7am, there was still time to enjoy an afternoon walking around the 2,700-year-old city.
The city really became prominent after the Mongol invasions. The town was already encircled by a well-known earthen wall many centuries old, but in 1340 they enhanced it with finely crafted brick and paved the top with cobblestones. Both brick and cobblestone remain today, soft brown and steely gray, willing and able to transport a modern Californian back in time.
With my young guide Emma, I walked atop the wall for half of its six-kilometer length. It was a cold, overcast day—a miserable winter day at home, but an atmospheric, enlivening day in Pingyao. A parade of tiled roofs and narrow streets slowly unfolded beneath me to my right as I walked counterclockwise from the city’s north gate to its south gate.
When we climbed back down to street level, we walked north into the center of the walled city, then explored both east and west. This was not woebegone Beijing, with a tiny century-old hovel here, and a half-century old monument there. This was street after street of Qing, Ming, and even older homes, shops, and alleyways. Street food and bicycles gave the city a lived-in feel. Classic curved architecture was the norm for restaurants, temples, theatres. Red banners beseeched the gods for luck this new year, next to tourist junk, intriguing old ceramics, and the odd news photo of Mao from the ‘60s—smiling even as he was destroying a generation of educated, apolitical men and women.
Interestingly, the children do not want their photo taken. Neither do the adults, but one sees that in many non-western countries. Children? Obviously, that’s something they learn. I wonder why.
I wandered down more alleys, visited a few homes—none of which had indoor plumbing—and headed back to my hotel. We have indoor plumbing. Right now, everything else is secondary.
March 24 Day 9: Teaching Chinese 8th-graders
They know where the Mississippi River is. They know the Great Lakes, the Grand Canyon, and of course Kobe Bryant. I was a guest lecturer in their English class last night, and after an hour, I was in love with these 50 8th-graders. They seemed to like me, too.
They started with some pretty smart questions, like what did I think about the Japanese earthquake (I talked about the need for renewable, non-nuclear energy)? They asked about my impressions of China (love the food, but it’s sometimes too spicy; love the people, but all the men smoke). They wanted to know about America: what are our teenagers like? What holidays do we celebrate?
I drew a map of North America on the blackboard. Together we filled it in—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans. How many American kids can do that?
And they were willing to be very personal: how old am I? How do I like travelling around the world? Do I have tattoos?
Get ready for a shock: these kids go to school from 7am-10pm, with a 2½-hour afternoon break. On the weekend, they “only” go to school until 3. No wonder they’re beating American kids in every academic subject. Not only do they get twice as much instruction as our kids, they have absolutely no time to get into trouble. There’s certainly no dating this early, and the kids have very little money or privacy. As we used to say a century ago, idle hands are the Devil’s playground.
That said, these kids are dramatically regimented. They answer questions to the group in unison. They stand when asking a question, and remain standing until told to sit—no matter how long. They learn to memorize, recite, and use reference books. Moral education is part of the curriculum.
Creativity is not what’s valued most here. Individual accomplishment is good primarily because it furthers the group’s goals. The group. The group. The group. It’s what Americans say they miss from their post-modern lives. It’s why we’re the most religious country in the modern world, and why we join organizations more than anyone else.
Well, the group is alive and well in China. Too alive, and too well. Be careful what you ask for.
When they asked about American holidays, I told them about July 4. They knew 1776, and knew we had been British subjects. I told them the backstory: that we wanted to be good Englishmen, but we were excluded from Parliament. We wanted to pay taxes, but wanted a voice in what our taxes would be. When London sent soldiers here to enforce laws we hadn’t helped create, we rebelled. It took many years, but we won our freedom. The lesson: people need to participate in making the laws that govern them, or people get unhappy and the government is shaky.
Just a little history lesson, no big deal.
Their last question was a surprise: Would I sing a song? Um, um, sure. But first, I explained the wonderful invention that connected New York with New Orleans, and Chicago with Europe. And then I sang:
“I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal…”
March 25 Day 10: Sex Ed & China—Ambivalent to the Core
The other night I lectured for two hours to sex education teachers-in-training at Chengdu University, in south-central China. The topic was “Teaching Sexuality Education: How? Why?”
About 100 students, most between 19-24, attended. Naturally, over ¾ were female. A handful of faculty also attended. Like every indoor space in southern China during the winter, the room was cold, and everyone wore a coat.
I talked about the usual stuff: that healthy children are interested in sex from infancy; that adults have an affirmative responsibility to handle this sexuality in a positive way; that sex ed is education for relationships with self and other.
But, I emphasized, the effective sex education teacher needs way more than information and a curriculum; the teacher needs a healthy attitude about sexuality. That’s mostly what I’m here to discuss, I said.
And that was the biggest issue for them. Knowing what a clitoris is is one thing. Being able to say the word is another. If you can’t do that, you’ll never get your students comfortable with saying it.
These student teachers were unable to say the word. And it wasn’t just in the class—they acknowledged they’d never say it in private, either. So of course I had them say it a few times, until they were laughing. And then we talked about why this is important.
“This isn’t the way sex education is taught here,” one said. I remembered my mentor Sol Gordon’s critique of 1980s American sex education as being too fact-based: “a relentless pursuit of fallopian tubes,” he used to complain.
I asked for questions periodically, but the students were too shy to ask many. I told them there’s no room for politeness in sex education, which I think confused some of them. In the end, we accomplished a lot (I’m told), and then there were goodbyes all the way around.
Afterwards the faculty invited me to a little banquet. About 10 of us sat in a freezing restaurant (everyone in a coat!), chowing down on stuff that I didn’t recognize, and mostly didn’t like. The big challenge of such events is to smile while swallowing things that don’t taste, well, completely cooked. I’m not blaming the food, but later on I was glad I’d brought raisins and nuts all the way from California.
The conversation at the meal was disconcerting. These people were supposedly the progressive thinkers in China, both in terms of curriculum and pedagogy. But like so much in this country, the “progressive ideas” had strict limits, and the thinking changed abruptly as soon as we touched those limits. In this case, those limits included pornography, premarital sex, and the internet.
My hosts suggested that censoring the Internet was important to protect young people from sexual imagery. But they weren’t talking about the hard-core stuff that concerns many Americans; they were talking about Playboy. “It’s just naked ladies!” I blurted out in shock. More composed, I asked what was dangerous about that. I was told it gives people bad ideas, leads to crime, and undermines society. Those arguments are sadly familiar to me, but are generally not applied to something so benign.
Besides, my hosts said, the government was just responding to parental concerns. Parents don’t want their teens using computers because of potential exposure to “bad things.” And what about the educational value of computers for teens? No, parents (supposedly) don’t think the risk is worth it. Given that China’s leadership tells its people exactly what they need and what they will have, I found it completely disingenuous to suggest that the government’s Internet censorship was a response to public demand.
With all the wonderful advantages that a democratic system offers, I found China’s justification for Internet censorship depressingly similar to America’s.
Nevertheless, they are developing a national sex education consciousness and program, and they are investing money in training teachers. They are examining the value of various curricula. And while their programs don’t exactly encourage premarital sex, they aren’t obsessed with abstinence. In that respect, they’re one up on us.
March 25, Day 10, Jianwei: Riding the Jianwei Steam Train
You probably know that I prefer to discuss the similarities between the genders rather than the (alleged) differences. But most boys have a thing about trains.
I’m one of those boys.
So I drove the three hours south of Chengdu to the town of Jianwei. It was the capital of a Chinese kingdom a mere 2,000 years ago. Today it’s a small town a few kilometers from a cement factory. Up a small mountain is a coal mine, serviced for decades by a narrow-gauge steam railroad. It’s the only practical form of transport, as there isn’t enough room for a road.
So the train makes about 7 stops en route to the mine, and I rode through every one, and back. I’d bought a ticket in the VIP car—featuring wooden seats instead of metal, with no animals, crates, sacks of produce, or construction materials. Those were, indeed, found in the rest of the train.
Because the locals use the train to market their goods, visit each other, and get to the doctor. In between trains (3 or 4 each day, depending on demand), they walk the rails—which are easier to navigate than the few roads in the area.
The train is one of the last authentic working steam trains left in the world—and it’s slated to close down in less than a year. It’s dirty, loud, and it lurches. At several places the engine has to switch ends to negotiate switchbacks. And what an engine! A roaring fire digests endless amounts of coal, which is carried in the cab and shoveled into the furnace by one of the two-man crew.
The other guy drives the train. And all it took was $25 to bribe them into letting me ride with them for a few stops. Heaven!
So ride we did, around bends, through tunnels, past waving children and people planting rice. I didn’t operate the whistle (or shovel coal, thank you very much), but the fireman did at least a dozen times. It’s one of the sweetest sounds in the world, along with the chugga-chugga of the locomotive.
I decided not to walk up into the coal mine, as I’d have to wait for the return train about four hours, and they don’t let people much past the mine entrance anyway. But I got more than my money’s worth: a steam train. In China. I even got a piece of coal for a souvenir.
March 26 Day 11: Just a few thoughts on China
* Virtually all Chinese men and many Chinese women spit in public. In fact, you can’t go anywhere in public for a single minute without hearing the sound (or seeing the sight) of someone spitting. Apparently, the government is attempting to eliminate this behavior—school indoctrination, for example. But when mom and dad spit constantly, it’s hard not to pick up the habit.
* The food throughout the country so far has been extraordinarily oily. In a single entrée, I’ve been pouring off as much as 4 or 5 tablespoons of it. And this isn’t just street food or low-end cafes; this is fully as true in the several expensive restaurants to which I’ve been taken. No wonder there are fields of canola growing everywhere. They press the seeds to make oil. And just for extra flavor, into every dish they throw pork rind, lard, and every other fat they can find.
* Street vendors here are the most aggressive I’ve ever experienced. If you ignore them or say no, they actually follow and grab you from behind. A woman selling strawberries offered me a free sample (confirmed by my local guide), and when I didn’t want to buy any after eating it, she berated me and practically spit in my face.
* I don’t recall seeing a single cat anywhere in China. Dogs are outlawed in Beijing and Shanghai, but they’re plentiful everywhere else I’ve been. While some look pretty mangy, others are obviously well-groomed.
* Geographically, China is about the size of the U.S.; it has four times the population. That means that when ¼ of Chinese think or feel or do something, it’s the equivalent of the entire U.S. thinking or feeling or doing something. There’s something almost Biblical or medieval about a country’s population being a source of strength (and in China it’s also a source of weakness), but in China they are very aware of this.
* At least 400,000,000 Chinese have no indoor toilets. There are, not surprisingly, public bathrooms everywhere. They are, not surprisingly, um, an aesthetic challenge.
* The Chinese seem to have both strong and mixed feelings about America. They like Americans well enough; I certainly have not encountered any “Yanqui Go Home” sentiments. They admire us primarily for our wealth. They find our family structure troubling, and they imagine that our teenagers are running wild (actually, that’s not so inaccurate). They are concerned about the way we use our military strength, and they feel they need to have a strong military themselves. Like people around the world, they’re in love with our films—even when they disavow the moral and emotional values they reflect.
Just like we do.
March 27 Day 12: China Invents Its Past
Every great nation has a great past: Italy has Rome, Russia has Peter the Great, Germany has the Holy Roman Empire, England has, well, England.
And now China is inventing its past.
The basic outline hasn’t changed in six decades: China was once sort-of great, although it was plagued by feudalism and poverty. Then the Western powers came in the mid-nineteenth century, and began exploiting and humiliating the Chinese. Then Communism liberated the country in 1949, ending the Bad Old Days of both foreign domination and selfish landlordism.
But now China is cooperating with the West, and the land reform of the 1950s is remembered by fewer and fewer living Chinese. So a new past must emerge.
Today I saw a glimpse of that past in the making—an extraordinary one-hour show directed by the guy who directed the opening of the Beijing Olympics. The setting was unforgettable—a huge multi-tiered outdoor theatre at the foot of an enormous glacier. Hundreds of actors danced, sang, drummed, fought, and rode live horses all around us and occasionally up the aisles. The color, the movement, the music—it was simply thrilling.
The theme of the show was the history of the ethnic Naxi, who live in this part of southwest China (just north of Vietnam, Laos, and Burma). After decades of forcing assimilation on its dozens of ethnic groups, China has decided it’s better off supporting their (limited) existence (with notable exceptions such as Tibetans and Uighers).
And so the troupe danced and sang its way through Naxi life: nomads riding small but rugged animals, herding yak. Brave men and beautiful women dealing with a land of stark contrasts. Warriors pledging fraternity to each other, drinking after their victories.
They sang China’s newfound past: “We are sons of men who made their own fortune.” “We make our own food, find our own water.” “We come from many lands, wear many different costumes, and make a world in which all are honored.”
Brought by hundreds of green tour buses, 2,000 Chinese tourists from Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, and elsewhere thrilled to the gorgeous show. Although in reality almost all belong to the Han majority, they saw the land and the people of their metaphorical ancestors: proud, strong, cooperative, happy. They were told that this is their destiny.
Perhaps it is.
March 28 Day 13: China’s Ethnic Villages—A Mixed Bag
I’m wrapping up my trip to China in the southwest, visiting a few ethnic villages. Today I drove up to 7,000 feet, and found myself disconcertingly short of breath. I kept waiting for my body to adjust, but it never did. What a creepy, powerless, decidedly NOT youthful feeling.
The natural setting of these villages is generally gorgeous. The isolation and limited access is what has helped maintain cultural traditions in the first place. So I managed to walk through a forest or two, enjoy a pristine lake, and see a few yak.
The Naxi group have a complicated approach to gender: they are primarily matrilineal, but the woman also do most of the manual labor. The men used to be traders and travellers, earning resources and prestige. But in their absence, the women learned to run village life for themselves, and when trading gradually became much less important to the tribe, the men found themselves without their historic roles. They now spend much of their time playing mah jong or cards. I didn’t hear many complaints or jokes about excessive drinking, nor did I see much evidence of it.
Some people up in the mountains wear the traditional garb—fur hats for men, apron cum blanket cum back-protector for women (in many tribes women carry vegetables, firewood, or babies on their backs). The villages generally feature a paved main street, crossed by a few unpaved, muddy roads. The main street usually features a spare grocery store, a couple of dingy restaurants, and a few crafts shops, with the odd repair shop (bicycles, saddles, whatever) tossed in.
People looked at me and smiled—a White guy in an Asian world. Many of them refused to be photographed, while others—often very old men—gave toothy smiles and gently consented. They laughed when I showed them the portraits I took.
The tourists I saw were entirely Chinese, and they looked like tourists everywhere—gabbing, snapping photos, pointing, and buying crap. It was ethnic craft crap, but much of it was still crap.
And therein lies a question I’ve been asking myself since I started travelling 30 years ago—when ethnic groups and traditional cultures need tourist money to survive, and they change their ways to enhance that interest and income, what exactly is surviving?
This is not a criticism—it’s a question, an ongoing dialogue all serious travelers have. Am I part of preserving ways that would otherwise disappear? Part of what’s making them disappear? Or, paradoxically, both?
I saw a group of costumed old women doing a native dance for tourists. It was a simple line dance, the women moving their arms up and down as they danced in a circle, horah-style. They also moved their hands in delicate ways, ways that must have meant something a few centuries ago. Without any invitation, a few bold tourists moved into the line, copying the simple steps and mimicking the natives’ hand gestures. They had no idea what they were doing. The native women didn’t smile or laugh. They just continued.
Of course I have no idea what the natives felt. But despite the tourists’ laughter and obvious pleasure (while their friends took tons of photos), the whole thing seemed rather sad to me, like the many ponies decked out in colorful yarn and bells for kids’ rides around the village.
I don’t know how to preserve culture, and make it accessible to outsiders, and give native peoples the material comforts of modernity, and not corrupt them. Especially when they don’t see the corruption as a bad trade-off for satellite TV. It’s not my place to say that it’s a bad trade-off, but we’re all losing something in the bargain.
But let’s end by noticing that some version of these cultures still exist around the world. And tourist dollars will, in fact, keep some version of them alive. The ghosts of the thousands of small groups across the globe that have disappeared in the last century may be wishing they were among those still living.
March 29 Day 14: History Happens to Actual People
In Lijiang, my 31-year-old guide told me the story of his grandfather being tortured and killed by villagers during the Cultural Revolution. In Jinawei, my 27-year-old guide told me about being raised by his grandparents when his parents—like much of their generation—went to work in factories a thousand miles away. And most of my guides had no siblings, because of China’s one-child policy.
To these people, “history” is no abstraction of grand warfare and economic forces. It’s their dead grandpa, the niece they never had, their family’s cow that was taken and given to the village.
And as it looks to the future, China continues to wrestle with its past.
If you lived in America during and after its war with Vietnam, you recall the competing versions of why we were there, who we were fighting, the meaning of events after the war ended, and the meaning of troubling domestic events at the same time. Those debates were ferocious for good reasons: we were defining ourselves as a country, articulating our historical mission. Doing this while 55,000 American soldiers were dying gave added poignancy and urgency to the social project.
But there was little disagreement about who we had been before the war: FDR, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington escapted the war quite unscathed. So did institutions like the Supreme Court, the Interstate Highway System, the NBA, and our devotion to chocolate and TV.
Today very few Americans know anyone who was punished for avoiding the draft or enthusiastically embracing the war. In fact, the American system of government proved reassuringly strong during the challenging decade of war, assassinations, and cultural change.
China couldn’t possibly be more different. For thousands of years there was no rule of law, so people never knew when a new ruler would change everything. The luck of nature—the number and gender of one’s children, and the whims of the weather—determined much of one’s life.
In the 1840s, Europe forced its way into China, quickly embarrassing the Chinese into admitting they had become a stultified old-fashioned, low-technology society. A half-century later a civil war began that lasted another half-century. It was interrupted by an astonishingly brutal invasion and occupation by the Japanese. When World War II ended, the horrible civil war resumed.
It ended in 1949 when the Communist Party “liberated” China. The country was then wracked by thirty years of bizarre, literally insane political and economic policies. Careening from one extreme to another, the policies starved tens of millions of Chinese, destroyed the educational system, and turned family members against each other.
Every single Chinese person alive today has memories, or relatives with memories, of this time of famine and violence. Who talks about it? Mostly no one. That’s how the Chinese deal with things in general—by not talking about them. Have they forgotten the desecration of their lands, and the torture of their parents? I’m not quite sure. One leaps to say “no, of course not.” But this is a country suffering from collective amnesia, or collective PTSD.
Every adult alive here has had the experience of the economic and political system changing abruptly, dictated by its leaders’ whims. Today, China is a capitalist command economy. “It is glorious to get rich,” people are told, and there are many opportunities. But the Chinese can be forgiven a bit of private skepticism. Will “Openness & Reform” soon be replaced by something completely different?
In China, both the past and future are under construction. There’s dust everywhere. The only thing that’s certain is that we cannot ignore them.
I’m glad to be home.