The first book about Chinese philosophy and culture I read at about the age of fifteen. I must have been a slightly strange 15-year-old to do so, but I do remember carrying The Importance of Living 生活的艺术 by the Chinese writer Lin Yutang onto the train going back to school at the end of the summer holidays. (Enough, it is starting to sound like Harry Potter). Cut to my early 20’s where I ended a year of Asian travel in Japan, escaping the smog of Tokyo, after another year, for Zen meditation in the hills near Kyoto.
Youthful explorations into Zen, in a Japanese country temple.So East Asian culture has been in my system in small amounts for a long time.
After my week in Korea in June, (see previous blog on Korea here) the week’s work done, I wanted to make the most of all that profligate carbon footprint I incurred flying and took myself off to see something of China for a couple of weeks on my way home, something I could not do 44 years ago, due to the Cultural Revolution. And boy, have things moved on!
So many people have now travelled around China, it is no longer the rather mysterious place it once seemed in my romantic, youthful fantasies reading the likes of Lin Yutang, nor the closed mad house of the Cultural Revolution, as it was when I first wanted to visit from Japan.
With its 1.3 billion population and its booming economy China exerts a massive ‘gravitational’ pull on the rest of the world. Like some giant, dark star, out in the heavens, even if you have not seen it, you cannot escape its effect. As the Guardian leader writer put it, recently (11/8/15) when 250 Chinese human right lawyers were disappeared and the Shanghai stock market was tumbling into the red; “When China does well, the world feels nervous. How high will it rise, and how peacefully? When China falters, the world worries”.
Sadly because of its communist dictatorship, cruel disregard for human rights both at home and in Tibet since its 1950 invasion and occupation, it is hard to approach the Chinese state in an open and neutral manner. But despite this I was determined to allow the feel of the people of China to wash over me. After all, most of us in this country don’t always approve of some of the governments that we end up with.
The Gate of Heavenly Peace. It is one of our endearing foibles that we humans would have the picture of a known psychopath with perhaps the death of 70 million on his hands, on a gate with this delightful pacific name!
First stop was a few days on my own exploring Beijing. The booming city is at the heart of the government and the epicentre of this rather paranoid, centralised party, that thinks it is the state. For the new western visitor, it is hard not to clash both with the long traditions of Confucian hierarchy, in themselves not an easy bedfellow to those weaned on the European Enlightenment, and also with the in-your-face power displays of the dictatorship of the party.
My exploration of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square started in good faith in a neutral fashion but the more I wandered the vast expanse of the Emperor’s old domain the less its brilliant artistry and magnificent architecture was my focus and the more its inhuman scale and extravagant bombast forced its way into my consciousness. For that whole afternoon it became more difficult to hold a merely curious historical perspective. I had struggled to find a way out of the forbidden city. You cannot get out at the entrance but must go for a long traipse around the outside. I was even reduced to paying a small amount to get out to avoid being forced to walk a very long way round to exit! I was starting to flag.
Watching the to and fro of young soldiers of the Red Army I was chatted up by two Chinese con artists. Their brother-sister act is to try to get you to come to a coffee shop and sting you for a huge bill. Luckily, easy-going though I am, I was not falling for that one. Negotiating the endless crowd control barriers I eventually found my way past a begging man, with no arms, to the underpass of the ten lane highway that runs around the square. I was trying to gain access to Tiananmen Square, the worlds largest, at 440,000 square metres. Of course the very name is synonymous with a massacre to all but the younger Chinese. It was with a certain frisson of remembrance that I walked the vast and again, out of human scale, flag stones of this ugly, giant square.
If you could not smell a rat when first confronted with communist ideology, one look at its architecture and town planning should warn you off by its soulless, gargantuan brutality.
At one stage in my life I was quite sympathetic to the struggle of the Chinese and even the Chinese Communist Party. (CCP) They needed something sharp, ruthless and effective to throw off the constraints of the Western and Japanese powers busy carving out chunks from the country for their own ends, not to mention the endless chaos throughout the country as the millennium old system of government and culture collapsed. Before the triumph of the present regime they tried hard to bring in modern ways like democracy, but seem forever hamstrung by regressive fascist forces and endless corruption. The CCP’s heroic Long March of 1934/5 is, despite the myth-making, still a major modern creation myth sustaining the country and party, not dissimilar to our own attachment to the Battle of Britain, our own ‘finest hour’.
Now that we are well aware of the barbaric actions as well as their dead-end, materialist philosophy, that is still underpinning and drives the CCP, it is hard to hold onto such naiveté. (“Now we must declare war on Nature!” said Mao. For detailed facts about the catastrophic results of such deadly ideas see Frank Dikőtter’s masterly scholarship in ‘Mao’s Great Famine about the ‘Great Leap Forward’ when such ideas, rammed through by Mao, led China into a man-made, 45 million-death, famine, between 1958-62. This was a preamble to the murderous mayhem of the Cultural Revolution).
In the summer of 1966 Tiananmen Square was filled with over a million hysterical young Red Guards, parading past him on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, no irony intended. These indoctrinated young pawns in Mao’s final, ten-year, megalomaniacal struggle for ultimate power, were tools in his deadly game. Later in 1976 there were near riots here on the death of Premier Chou Enlai while the young pro-democratic students who peacefully camped out there in 1989 were also sacrificed to the will of the party, although the thousands who were killed by their own army were killed in the streets around the square where I was staying, rather than in the famous square itself.
Despite the enormous changes since the bad old days of Mao it is not hard to see why modern, booming China has found itself with some of both the best and the worst of both worlds of Capitalism and Communism. However, despite my carping, it does have to be said, that most Chinese are much more content with their government than we in the west are. And freedoms apart, for good reason. Never in the history of the world have so many, perhaps almost half a billion people, been pulled out of hard, grinding rural poverty, in one generation!
The impressive Urban Planning Exhibition Hall in downtown Shanghai shows the determination of the bright, young cadres, running China, to turn around the atrocious problems of pollution that now plague the country and undermine the people’s health. I have no doubt they will achieve this and, just as London, still today with air quality issues, was once famous for its acrid smog, so too Shanghai and other cities will be turned around in a few decades. However the issue of meaning is more a challenge. As people pull themselves out of grinding poverty and start to look for greater meaning, autonomy, freedom and other subtle needs in their lives, it is highly likely that, at some stage, they will succumb to the classic Maslow hierarchy of needs and graduate from pure materialism to start to push for greater freedoms and meaning in their lives.
The future challenges inherent in graduating from satisfying immediate needs of food and shelter to more subtle ones of values and meaning is already clear in small city states like Singapore and Hong Kong. Here top down, light-touch dictatorial government, has delivered economic prosperity. Like the failed Arab spring, things may be increasingly difficult for the unelected Chinese Communist Party. There are a reported 24 million young Chinese who are addicted to computer gaming. As the system ramps up the ruthlessly competitive nature of such a huge society more life can seem impossible for more and more young Chinese, often only children. If they awake from their slumbers and re-engage with the broader society and are not languishing, either jobless, in an ever extended youth, or at least suppressed by an ever-present authoritarian police system, the previously admired state apparatus may start to look corroded and unfit for purpose. Despite the ever-present state apparatus of suppression and control which the Confucian based Chinese culture has always had to some extent, it will be interesting to see how long bread and circuses, or nationalistic foreign adventures in the South China seas, will suffice.
But enough of all this misery. There is much to appreciate in this vast and impressive country. Things have improved in a way that few could have ever imagined. If I am critical of their system I am no less critical of our own state. But that is for another time.
One of the high points for my short visit to China was a day walking along part of the more deserted section of the Great Wall that stretches from the coast 5,500 miles west into the Gobi desert, a distance equivalent to that between London and New York! This unique and impressive series of sixteen different walls, the result of, on average, the work of one million soldiers and labourers per year. Military marvel or supremely costly folly? So asks Wall expert William Lindsay.
For almost 2400 years emperors poured men and materials into this project. Often the length of the emperor’s reign and life depended on his ability to defend the state from the Xiongnu, the fearsome horse archers, who came, as if from nowhere, out of the north, to terrorise the population. So long is the collection of walls that the sun rises one hour and twenty minutes in the eastern end of the wall before those at the western end would see it.
Starting as sun-dried mud, and centuries later in its high point of development during the Ming dynasty, four hundred years ago, these evolved into billions of large, very shock-resistant, high-tech bricks. They were held in place by a clever combination of lime and sticky rice mortar, making it stronger than modern equivalents. Not surprisingly the Wan Lee Chang Chung or wall, has a long association with death. Millions were mobilised to supply an endless supply of bricks and both erect and man the wall. At 115 men per kilometre to man such a structure, it tells us something both of the extraordinary pressure on the state to defend itself at any cost, as well as the enormous resources of the pre-industrial China to feed and supply such a project.
The seemingly endless wall. Still today one marvels at this unique feat of engineering.
Why would a country invest such vast sums and effort to defend itself, one may ask? As always the figures themselves are of a unique proportion in China. The numbers who died under the waves of Mongol invasions are hard to comprehend. It is estimated that before he died each Mongol warrior killed an average of 210 people. The deaths from Mongol invasion and the militarised hedonism of the likes of Genghis Khan far exceed the numbers who died in the 1st and 2nd world wars combined. In 1211 Genghis Khan invaded China with a force of 110,000 warriors, eventually in an orgy of rape and pillage tens of thousands were destroyed along with palaces and buildings torn down and torched. No wonder succeeding emperors poured such treasure into trying to safeguard the state!
Miserable as all this history is, to walk along the endless rise and fall of the crumbling structure today, surrounded by the seemingly endless green mountainous country several hours drive north-east of Beijing, is to step back momentarily, from the onward rush of China today, and to slip into something of the vast past that, despite the vandalism of the twentieth century, is never far behind the modern tumult.
Terracotta Warrior still with some of the colours on his life-like form
I enjoyed seeing the famous Terracotta Warriors in Xian, although I don’t think the guide could cope with my question about where they could find enough trained archeologists in 1974, after the years of the Cultural Revolution, when so may academics were attacked, sent down to labour in the country or just killed. Such questions are still not allowed in a carefully doctored state history.
Full of romantic memories of Chinese landscape paintings I especially enjoyed a day walking up the great Yellow mountain, Huangshan. Misty mountain vistas inspiring visions of ancient literati, or Chan monks, enjoying the power and fragility of nature.
Before heading to the bright lights of Shanghai I spent the night in the beautiful village of Hongcun, now more of an enclosed living museum. Somehow it works, and something of the old pre-revolutionary village life lingers on in the streets. Here one can transport one’s self back to the China of old for a brief moment. To the beauty as well as the back-breaking work and horrendous inequality of the peasants and the rich landlords.
For all its vapid emptiness and brutal ruthlessness, at least the old CCP was trying for a kind of rough equality, that, as in the UK, this is rapidly being overtaken by the new authoritarian, communist run, capitalism. A new post-modern hybrid previously thought by political economists to be an impossibility.
Pudong New Area at night in all its impressive bling!
In Shanghai’s glitz East Nanjing Road the new, get-rich/got-rich, China is on display. Further down the road on the Bund on the west of the Huangpu river the old banks of the foreign concession years of the roaring, anything-goes, twenties look east to the highrise swagger of the likes of the new 121-storey, Shanghai Tower, of Pudong New Area. This, still the second tallest building in the world, is jostled by all sorts of concrete symbols of the new wealth. It was from here I took the bullet-fast, Maglev train out to Pudong International airport, on my way home.
A new world is forming hour by hour. What will be its future? One feels perhaps as early foreign travellers must have felt on first seeing the world’s first industrial city, Manchester, at the hight of the English Industrial Revolution. Something new and never before tried was a-foot. Its eventual outcome and influence on the world was as yet not fully known. What was to come was unknown, but that it would shake the world and change everything was clear. That is something one feels in China, the land of every fifth person on earth today.
The selfies are out on the Bund, looking over to the Pudong New Area!
For good or ill, nothing will be the same. Let us just hope that the ever resilient people of China manage to create a good life for themselves. Cleaning up their, often wrecked environment, and, one day, managing to gain the kind of political freedoms and autonomy, that for all its faults, our own system is gradually allowing us to approach.
Despite my libertarian rejections of the authoritarian state, I was grateful to have caught a glimpse of the momentous change, as it is happening. For students of society, surely an exciting privilege.
Normal health related issues will soon be back, for those who tire of my travel musings.
Just to keep you going here is a thought from the The Great American Bio-chemist and Nutritional scientist and inventor of the term: Biochemical Individuality.
“Medicine is for real people.
Statistical humans are of little interest.”
— Dr. Roger Williams.
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