International Writers Magazine: China
years in China
is now my home. The innocently romantic images of Cathay I once
contemplated in far away England - the length of the Great Wall,
the mystery of Forbidden City, the beauty of Summer Palace; the
wealth of Hong Kongs sea front; Zhuhais promise of mythical
Macau beyond; the punchy impact of Shanghais adventurous architecture
- now seem tourist shells behind a more complex reality.
My China is an everyday
place of ordinary people pursuing extraordinary lives. The Chinese face,
once full of mystery, is now everyday: those high cheek bones, jet-black
hair and beautifully drawn eyes do not distract. I have penetrated their
character and found ordinary people beneath, just as I did the Yorkshire
people in 1964. And you cannot get more inscrutable than a Yorkshireman!
I no longer romanticise the imagined differences between Confucian mentality
and Western individualism; rather, these homogeneous stereotypes have
shattered - more promisingly - into a thousand shards of humanity in
all shapes and forms, each pursuing its own dream. Human character has
revealed itself as one and the same with some little local differences.
As Shylock says, if you prick us will we not bleed? If you tickle us
do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?
I has been told the Chinese are a cruel, inscrutable race if
such a thing exists outside the human one; that they are impossible
to understand, rapacious and, while at the same time, mendacious and
superficial; that you cannot believe a word they say; that to understand
I must read Confucius; study the extant mental remains of Maos
hidden legacy and its invisible scars; that, according to Jung Chang
and the novelist Ha Jin(both living abroad), the Chinese have endured
unspeakable physical hardships and suffered virtual brain death in the
20th century; that since Dengs Capitalism with a Socialist face
turned its back on classical communism, the Chinese have lost all sense
of what to believe and turned to materialism. The context is the same
the world over suffering and disappointed Utopian hope mixed
with a little progress.
Nowhere sums up better this present predicament of Chinese socialism
than queuing in my local China Bank. There are orderly lines behind
tape barriers but only two tellers and I have to wait over half an hour.
I raise my eyes and see signs on the wall: if you have an account of
more than 50,000 Yuan you may enter the office next door reserved for
foreign exchanges and get quicker service. Wealth (and Market Capitalism)
now trumps socialist equality. It is rather sickening that 55 years
of communism should have led to this: an orderly queue for indifferent
service: the improvement is in this, that previously it was a disorderly
queue for indifferent service.
Outside, the ATM is a different matter. A young man has walked nonchalently
up to the front of the queue. Nothing annoys an Englishman more than
disruption to the rules of queuing. I step forward and growl, gesticulating
with my fist and thumb. He gets the message and slinks off with no more
feeling than a man who finds his milk has not been delivered on time.
I continue to swear at him in English, as if I have the right - poor
deluded child that I am.
Being a serious man, I have occasional in-depth conversations with my
wife about politics, which run something like this: she says, "This
American President, is he an illiterate little shit, or what?"
In the past, the Chinese never talked politics: they were told what
to say. In 2006 they are only as cynical and sceptical as their Western
counterparts. They shrug and say, "Whats the point, theyre
all corrupt, anyway." The difference is that whereas we all believe
that somewhere there are good politicians, they dont. A good politician
is, by definition, apolitical a man who gets beaten up because
he complains that the Party has stolen land to build a chemical factory
that contaminates the village.
urban population in miserable homes watch as their land is swallowed
up to build the latest high rise flats, wondering how much was paid
in the bribes to the men who are going to evict them from their
homes to build an Olympic stadium, a condominium, or a business
complex. There is little money in politics outside the proceeds
of corruption and this is what makes it such an idealists
paradox. The bureaucrat who complains that he is poor has not yet
got high enough to attract graft. We do not know whether to admire
him for his probity or pity him his poverty; for he is totally ineffective
till he is worth a bribe.
I watch at the
traffic lights as a poor policeman attempts to enforce a new law which
says that citizens shall not walk the road when the traffic lights are
at red presumably the result of the thinking of the same tidy-minded
individual(no doubt with a relation in Germany) who thought up the idea
of banning all motorbikes in Guangdong because they were bad for pollution.
Let them all buy cars, he said hopefully, like Marie Antoinettes
famous (alleged) 'let them eat cake' during the worst days of starvation
in the French Revolution.
The policemen stops her in the middle of the crossroad and tells her
to pay a fine of 20 Yuan (1.50 pounds). Then, to reinforce his authority,
he tells her he is confiscating her bike as security until she pays
this princely sum.
She looks at him and says, "Keep the bloody bike then, what do
I care?" (I translate roughly). Then she walks off leaving him,
as it were, holding her baby. Clearly there is little point in playing
the fiddle of authority when the Roman civis is burning. China is getting
richer; Dongguan is getting very much richer. But, the point is, that
many people remain poor and get relatively poorer. To the realist
or cynic - this means that a fine is worth more than twice as much as
a bike and bikes are two a penny to those who know where to steal them.
Clearly, Mao is dead and something has changed. But nothing is new.
The Chinese have middle class morality now but they always did.
Before it was called Confucianism, ubiquitously normality. Chinese people
may be just as aghast at long hair as my mother during the Beatles Revolution
of the sixties; as shocked as my father when he turned off 'Top of the
Pops' in disgust when an Englishman thinks he is being moral,
he is only uncomfortable(GBS); and more Victorian than Victorian sexual
propriety about pre-marital "goings on". Depending on whether
or not, you are in Gin lane you will find, too, equal turns of both
disgust and levity at the thought of imbibing large amounts of alcohol:
for some a sin; for others enjoyable social competition.
I judged a speech competition at the university in the company of the
professor. His Party chauffeur drives us back to Dongguan and I ask
him: "what shall I say if the students ask me about Tiananmen?"
He half turns and smiles. "Westerners do not understand China:
twenty years ago we were not even allowed to talk to you." He says
this as if it clinches the argument, rather than begs more questions.
Then he begins talking about his Christmas light factory and the orders
that flood in every year from Scandinavia. This pragmatic, pseudo ideologue
divides his time between business and academia and cannot be gainsaid.
The more I learn, the less I find differences are different. The poet
Plutarch wrote, Nothing is new under the sun.
But then, he probably wasnt the first.
© Sam Merry
Dr Merry is studying for his Masters in Creative Writing at the University
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