Chinese Moments – Six Vignettes from 1999

Thor May
Brisbane, 2013



This is an historical document now, heaven help me. It was written in 1999, an aeon ago in the news cycle. When you are ten years old, five years is half a lifetime. When you are 67 as I am, 13 years is the blink of an eyelid. Yet each blink like this gives perspective, and denies that what we see now is an unchanging truth. The vignettes below include much about China that a visitor today will recognise, sort of, like we recognise the retro-feel of a postcard from our childhood yet know somehow that it is the same transformed place we visited just last Sunday.






1. The Provincial Airport

Imagine a very large, bleak cafeteria from a crumbling rust-belt factory, say an outdated auto plant. Now take out all the tables and fasten rows of plastic chairs onto the scratched linoleum tiled floor. Some blocks of chairs are bright red, some bright blue, some yellow etc. These blocks of chairs are "departure lounges", and next to each block is a slotted frame on a steel pole to slip in blue & white destination cards (in Chinese of course).. Around the edge of the room you can stick a few drink machines. In one corner of the room are some glass doors through which can be glimpsed a sullen smog-grey sky above a cold grey tarmac. In corners outside the building where sunlight hasn't fallen for a week, traces of old snow have turned to black slush and thin glazings of dirty ice. But that's not the problem. The fresh snow that is keeping us bottled up here is on the Yunnan plateau, a thousand kilometres away - where I had naively planned to go.

Clusters of people huddle in their colour-coded plastic rows. The clusters ebb & flow, as from time to time an aircraft shuttle bus comes to the glass doors, and one bunch of passive figures suddenly becomes a frenzied mob rushing for the exit. These evacuations each go with a pre-recorded announcement in some electrical non-language from a voice that might have once been female. The recording machine must work with a tape loop because the announcements play over and over, like a demented automaton ... As early morning wears into jaded late morning, only the sad little cluster of hopefuls for flight 401 remain. I emigrate to green plastic chair territory as far away as possible from those curious, unblinking stares and settle down to write literary masterpieces on scrap paper. Four off-duty policemen for their own perverse reasons also decide to move into unpopulated greenland. They have a long conversation in Wuhan-hua, which as anyone from this town knows, is a stand-up, screaming verbal fist fight.. By 11am someone has hit upon a plan to keep the natives docile. A cardboard carton arrives at the departure desk by the glass doors, a queue materializes like magic, and each lucky passenger grasps one of those packets-cum-plastic bowls of dried noodles that you are supposed to fill up with hot water to get an instant banquet ... I pass.


2. Travelling Styles

Nobody camps out in China. It is not in the Party rule book. Anyone who tried would hire armed guards, then spend the night rigid with fear, knowing the guards would go to sleep. This is not entirely hysteria. There are a lot of desperate people in China (like, tens of millions), as well as a thriving slave trade in women & children (especially). If ever the place becomes a real democracy, there will be a heavy price in loss of personal safety.

The directors of State Owned Enterprises have been known to attend business meetings wearing undershirts and running shoes, but every self-respecting Chinese man goes touristing wearing his best suit and a tie. I've seen them on open-windowed mountain buses with clouds of road dust smothering everything, stoically sweating it out. The women clamber up death defying paths (no handrails) to old Daoist eeries on rocky peaks -- wearing tight skirts and high heels. A few months ago I found myself with a tour group consisting of the whole 60 staff of Wuhan University Publishing House, all decked out like this. They were most hospitable, and posed for each other against every available "sight" in Hubei's Quingjiang Gorge minorities area. Highlight was the fake marriage (on stage) of a tipsy publishing executive and a blushing (and astute) minority girl. We gave gifts of eggs (there's symbolism..), all sold at exotic prices of course.

It would be easy to call this sort of "travel" unreal, but to the folk here (and they own the place, after all), there is nothing quite so unreal as the Beautiful Person foreigner, a.k.a. the "independent" traveller, clutching their Lonely Planet Guide, playing heroic adventurer in exotic lands, and bargaining loudly to save twenty cents on a taxi ride. I clutch an LP Guide too, and look for the cheapest hotel, but I don't kid myself that this is heroic.

The adventurer/traveller’s unbeaten track is very beaten indeed for the people who live there. The exotica in such places is the guy with the backpack (who might or might not see himself as a hero). Yup, I've been travelling for a long time too, and know perfectly well that a good proportion of backpackers -- maybe the majority -- are very well heeled. They are insured up to the eyeballs, and always have a ticket home. I know all about the ethic of interacting with the locals rather than the tour director of an air-con bus with tinted windows. I know that ideal, and it has a lot to do with why guided tours aren't my choice either. But I've been around long enough to also know that a very high proportion of travellers really care little more for the locals than your floral shirted, cigar smoking, pot-bellied tourist. Only the rhetoric is different. And working as an expatriate I've learned that most of those sanctified third world persons, rich or poor, whom the traveller sees (but scarcely meets, if the real truth be known) in fact do understand crass tourists -- they'd be the same given half a chance -- but often as not resent being co-opted as objects of sympathy by the "sympathetic" traveller; they are sort of replacements for the cat & dog back home, and know it.


3. Experiments In The Festive Mood

Just spent another weekend in a regional city (ShaShi/Jinzhou), which was the site of the ancient Chu kingdom. The local museum has a large man, 1600 hundred years old, in perfect condition, now preserved in a glass bath of formaldehyde or something, with his guts in a bottle beside him. Charming. Talk about the final indignity. Apparently his massive coffin was perfectly sealed up in moist blue clay...

A friend took me to ShaShi on the excuse of an "international" dragon boat festival -- the first time I've seen a large crowd of Chinese actually allowed to gather together for anything. Inspected the backs of lots of black haired heads, and squelched through a mess of mud that might have been grass once. Never did get to watch finale of the boat race. The preliminaries took forever in slow motion. Beating their way up the river the armada had more than a passing resemblance to film set imitations of Cleopatra's barge. A military helicopter buzzed the crowd overhead, and every ten paces along the fence stood an uneasy young PLA conscript in jungle greens. This festival is historically celebrated all over central China in honour of a poet who, 2000 years ago, threw himself into the river and drowned. He was protesting about corruption. Odd that. This year's sacrifice to the poet's memory has been in nearby Hunan, where somebody forgot to close the sluice gates on a dam -- eighteen people and their flimsy dragon craft were sucked down to destruction.

Other things happened. Two days punctuated with the usual obligatory banquets. At the send off, the life of the party was a jovial, avuncular fellow who threw me a cigarette by way of saying hello (no, I don't smoke). Later, much later on the bus home, I learned that he was governor of the local prison; (heck, and I gave him my business card). He had been invited, apparently, because my hosts had a near relative in prison. The prisoner, a man of about 50, in for some relatively minor matter, had had the shit beaten out of him by other prisoners for six months. Newcomers into that particular hell are required to serve the veteran lags hand and foot, or take the consequences. So the object of our dinner was to subtly persuade the governor to call his dogs off their unfortunate relative. It wasn't until I mentioned this story to another Chinese friend that he reminded me about a piquant coincidence; our dinner had also been the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident..


4. The Favour


Yichang for me was a surprisingly pleasant little city at the foot of a mountain range, with orchards and tea shrubs on the rolling hills about it. It is now home base for the world's largest dam project, which will throttle the famed Three Gorges on the Yangtze River forever. Naturally I was invited to inspect this engineering wonder, and from a privileged perspective too. An official black limousine and driver was at my disposal for two days. Why the privilege? One of the charming 'leaders' (as the local aristocracy are called) had a daughter he wanted me to talk to about her English. The only catch: the car came from a regional traffic department. In Yichang citizens' eyes, that was consorting with the enemy. Traffic departments in nearby cities have been gouging motorists for their own local "registration fees". One guy who tried to protest last week was beaten up, went home and drank fatal poison. The police had beaten a well-known local to death the week before. The natives were restless. Eight thousand people rioted, the army was called out .... In Wuhan, 350km away, nobody knows anything about this...


5. The Funeral


For the first time I saw a Chinese funeral this morning. Out running by the lake, a hazy morning, about 8am. Backing the road that runs along the lake margin are a string of restaurants, lots of gilt paint, red dragons, girls in slippery dresses slit to the thigh to ogle in the fat officials in their black limousines with curtained windows ... but this morning I heard brass players, like a slow number from StLouis blues, then saw a moving wall of man-high wreaths. They were coming out of a narrow alley, and behind the wreaths were fifty or so mourners, dressed in black with white crosses on their tunic arms. One had a red spot on his black headband, meaning he was a grandson. Behind them were a small group of immediate relatives, walking backwards, including two supporting the bereaved widow (the only person showing visible grief), and another pair holding a life-sized photograph of the departed patriarch (he looked like Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 in his prime). The framed photo was also looking back on the world now farewelled. Huang Quan Lu 黃泉路, the road to the underworld, was not a happy prospect (see Then came the casket, dark polished wood with a perspex top, the dear departed in a bed of flowers. And last of all marched perhaps ten or fifteen young men in white tunics, with white sashes about their brows, tied at the back and streaming down to their shoulders. Just out of the alley the parade paused for five minutes, the music swelled, and the young men in white tunics sat in a circle on the roadside, calling a lament. A small crowd of early morning onlookers began to line the road. As I ran again, a hundred meters further on the first of the wreath bearers had reached the back of a large blue dump truck, where the floral tributes were unceremoniously heaved into the back.


6. Why am I in China?


The tourist's China is an exotic backdrop for middle aged Europeans trying to save their marriages, make-believe twenty somethings trying out heroic themes as a sexual display, and herds of Chinese photographing each other on their annual work unit's outing. This theme park requires old men with conical hats, cages of snakes in the market and multiplying pretend temples with swoopy roofs, all mass produced at some government run factory. Oh yeah, and The Great Wall. In fact they build a new ancient wall for all the designated new ancient sites. Gotta keep the camcorders rolling. There's nothing wrong with this stuff. It comes with the cultures of the industrial age. Europeans and Americans have been at it for generations. Hollywood puts it onto celluloid. It is not why I am in China.

Flip back to 1974: I was studying Chinese culture & history in a New Zealand university. Good lecturers, good course. I read a lot, found out everything I could. They gave me an A for it. Yet in the shadow of those years, tens of millions (up to 80 million**; no one is sure) of ordinary people had died unnatural deaths in the brave new post-1949 Communist paradise, while perversely the statistical life expectancy of the total population had shown huge improvement (as it did worldwide with the introduction of basic modern sanitation and medical care). There had been a total breakdown of leadership sanity called “The Great Leap Forward” 大跃进 (1958-1961), when by an often repeated statistic 30 million people** starved to death in China in a man-made political holocaust. Untold millions of children were left mentally and physically deformed. Bombs and bullets, they are a humane way to die. Starvation, words fail. This may have been a tragedy dwarfing World War II. We didn't hear a word about it. Nobody did. My nice lecturers were mum. And to this day most people in your world know nothing about it (do you??). Yet every night on the news, for the whole of my natural life, a kind of soap opera about the Israeli conflict has been playing. Israel has half the population of the city I'm living in. But it gives permanent employment to an army of news-inventors and politicians. [** Note that there are major problems with Chinese statistics of any era. For the early years of Communist rule, the combinations of ignorance, incompetence, fear, ideology and outright failure in all areas of administration mean that both pro- and anti- proponents can quote whatever figures they like without serious fear of contradiction. In the end, outsiders will find it all too hard, while others will make their own guesses, especially those with a more detailed knowledge of China's lurid history of massacres over the centuries. The Great Leap Forward death statistics have been challenged in some detail by the quasi-anonymous "Allen" on the Hidden Harmonies China Blog, February 8, 2013. On the other hand, Mao Yushi, a principal economic architect behind China's explosive growth since 1978, has stated bluntly of the earlier period, "..Every day they killed 5,000 .." ].

The people I talk to every day in Wuhan are not faceless numbers. Some of them are my friends. They want pretty much the same sort of things anyone in Canada or Europe or Australia wants. They are sensitive to beauty. Every one of them can feel pain. Every one of them has been scored, branded, wounded and deformed in some way deep in their souls by that mass insanity of thirty years ago. It is a hidden wound of the psyche, openly expressed only in a national obsession with food, cooking, restaurants where food is always conspicuously wasted. And to me it is one of the most fascinating puzzles I know about. What is it that will lead millions of people to commit mass cultural suicide? And what is the aftermath? What does it tell me about the bubble of illusion that Australian (or American) cultures float in?

A population as traumatised as the Chinese has its own delusions of course. That often includes a strong, though politely unspoken suspicion of foreigners. My intentions may seem undecodable, so of course my persona is re-created for them within the psychological scaffolding of a Chinese world-view. Obviously, to some, I must be some kind of spy. Me "a spy" in China? Spy on what? Every visible artefact from tooth fillings to trolley buses has been stolen or copied from somewhere else.

The Chinese dragon is a tatty and slapdash beast, ill-coordinated, with parts that are often unaware of what the next limb is doing. When a fire is under its tail it will sometimes get everything working together for a brief moment, and give a mighty roar, then enthusiasm fades, lethargy overcomes it, and it sinks with a long sigh.

The Chinese language is full of obscure aphorisms, and a couple I know pretty well sum things up. They translate "head of tiger, tail of snake" (虎头蛇尾 hŭ tóu shé wĕi). That is, all front but fade with a whimper, and "horse horse, tiger tiger" (马马虎虎 mǎmǎhǔhǔ) which seems to mean "slack", or "near enough is good enough". It is exactly “head of tiger, tail of snake”, vainglory, which makes the whole massive cheating enterprise of Chinese politics necessary at all. Now there's an international story.. If only the State would get out from under the people's feet. All states, all large organizations worldwide, are partly criminal organizations because by a law of averages some of their members will be unscrupulous. In China things are just a bit more extreme and entrenched that elsewhere.

China is a downmarket rubbish heap for the detritus of the industrial age. By any honest vision, it is not quaint and photogenic. It is desperately ordinary. And yet, and yet, from this mountain of human rubble and stained concrete, the hands of children are reaching out to the sky, small blossoms of beauty flower in strange corners, while here and there honest people struggle to steer the leviathan monster we call China towards some goal of human fulfillment.

Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).


All opinions expressed here are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

Chinese Moments – Six Vignettes from 1999 ©Thor May 2013; all rights reserved