Pacificvs makes his first visit to the Middle Kingdom

Having abandoned it’s red ambitions long ago, China’s foray into a capitalistic authoritarian gray zone is at least monochromatically consistent with the physical China: a fleshy and penetrating gray, the color of a rotting tombstone.

China is penetrating, and oftentimes beautiful. Even a smog choked skyline can transport the viewer to the wispy trees, craggy monoliths, and misted valleys of an early Ming Dynasty watercolor. But it’s not all romance. When the same hue begins to arrive in your morning cough several days in, however, you begin to suspect less pure forces are at work.

Then you see the nuclear power plant in the middle of town. There it is, right next to the coal plant. Several miles away, you see the exact same combo: nuclear and coal. And apartments. Lots of apartments.

This is Xian. Xian is instructive because it’s neither Shanghai nor Beijing, China’s two showcase cities. Xian is like Yuma, Arizona: sprawling and utilitarian. Two years ago, one can tell, it had no skyline. If you only count finished buildings, it still doesn’t have much of one. But when you consider what’s under construction…I counted no fewer than eight clusters of 15-25 tenement buildings, each 40 stories high and probably twenty units across. As the largest consumer of steel in the world, the metal is in short supply in China, so bamboo is used for scaffolding–to a spectacular effect.

With 8 million residents, Xian would be America’s third largest city. In China, it’s a backwater. Inside the city wall, apparently the best preserved in all of China, one finds plenty of unfortunate architectural survivors of the communist era. The buildings are concrete and uninspired and, of course, gray. Covered in tacky neons, the place looks and feels like a prison converted into a casino, which, in post-communist China, in a way I suppose they are. It looks unnatural and poorly conceived, like you’ve been transported into a SimCity built with lots of cheat codes. Overwhelming pollution, consistent filth, bizarre infrastructure, Frogger roadways, and general dreariness–despite the recent economic gains–Xian doesn’t look like the China you’ve read about so much as it feels like the China you expected. It’s important for American students of China to visit such places.

The Hilton Wangfujing is near the Forbidden City. Here the streets are spotless and the shopping is high-end. Drivers observe traffic lights. This is obviously a new development, probably constructed in time for the Olympics, and is precisely the “China” Beijing wants to showcase to the world: modern and refined. To their great credit, the Chinese achieve this sense of modernity without sacrificing their culture’s greatest asset: their food.

Forget the walls and the temples, it’s the food that is the single greatest achievement of the Chinese Civilization. Hot pot, dim sum, peking duck…every single restaurant will dare you to exclude it from your top-five list. But for that extra touch of adventurism, there it is, in the heart of the shopping and modernity: the exotic food market.

Squid, octopus, snake. Grasshoppers, silkworms, crickets. Lamb penis and lamb testicles. And yes, dog, and cat (oddly enough, they both look like hash browns). But it’s not what you’re thinking. The presentation is clean and fresh, with a flair for design. This is obviously regulated for the foreign tastes watching from the surrounding hotels. The vendors are friendly but scheming: be wary of any “deals” and demand that they repeat your order before you hand over cash.

Speaking of culture, on my way to China I began reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s oldest novels. One gets a taste of the type of heavy metal badassery within when they read the title of the very first chapter:

Feast in the Garden of Peaches;
Brotherhood Sworn;
Slaughter of Rebels;
The Brothers Heroes.

Taken in just prior to visiting the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Soldiers, and the Hall of Overwhelming Glory, ancient Chinese literature helps you understand that you are in a place where the rulers take themselves very, very seriously.

In both Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s Indian characters respond to the English disdain for bidets with revulsion (“They only use paper”!). They should visit China: except for the hotels, sitting toilets don’t exist, and neither does toilet paper, let alone bidets. Paper towels are nowhere to be seen, and although every bathroom, it seems, has an air dryer, none of them work. Not kidding: zero.

At any given retail situation in China, whether for tea or chachkis, you will almost certainly find that the store is crazy overstaffed. At the airport, fifteen people greet you off the plane. Six welcome you to the tea shop. Eight servers wait on your table at restaurants. Even at Starbucksthe employees often outnumber the customers. Many times, one finds themselves walking to a store and being forced to repeat familiar lines: “I don’t know what I’d like…I don’t even know what you sell…I’m just looking”. There is a lot of standing, staring, and cutting in line.

All this leads to a shopping experience that, to a Westerner, is plainly ridiculous. Every step you take is matched by at least two “helpers” who flank you at the sides. They mime you as you browse the shelf, pointing at and naming the objects passing your gaze. “Toy”. “Hairbrush”. “Cat”. Instead of shopping, you’re mostly congratulating people on their English. “Very good”. “That’s correct”. “Right again”!

Visitors to Beijing’s Silk Market are given a taste of what to expect by the two giant banners which greet them: “Protect intellectual property rights, be law-abiding vendors”. China has a thriving black market. Chanel handbags that push $2,000 at the Wangfujing mall fetch $60 at the Silk Market. Men’s swiss Bally leather satchels are knocked from $1,000 to $30. Even Rosetta Stone Mandarin is only $15 (a dangerous sale considering one tends to get things slightly cheaper if they can exhibit some control over Mandarin). Wendy tailors makes excellent suits and in good time. Sunny, her assistant and apparent translator, drives a hard bargain, but it’s hard to be upset at a custom fitted three-piece suit and shirt for under $200.

Not for latinas.

Living in San Francisco’s Mission, a neighborhood with plenty of discount clothes and lots of mannequins, I was surprised to find the little ways in which different standards of beauty manifest around you. Also surprising was how the tourists are overwhelmingly Chinese. From every corner of this vast country, many have never seen white people before, and on many occasions you will be stopped and asked to pose for a photo. But nothing prepared me for the near obsession the Chinese had with James, the 16 month old infant which traveled with us. In a land of few children, James is not only male (much preferred), but also half white/half Asian, or “mix blood” as they put it. Not kidding: mobs of gawkers, at one point numbering in the dozens, would gather around James and stare.

China seems to have uniformed military officers everywhere: guiding traffic, taking tickets at museums, marching through this plaza or that. Even private-security guards and postmen looked like 5-star generals. What’s stranger is that at the places you’d expect some authorities, like at the Forbidden City, you’ll instead find plainclothes guards. It’s very strange watching guys in sweatpants and hoodies on the other side of the rope looking stoic and at the ready. There’s only two possible reasons why the Chinese do this: to take foreigners “off” the defensive, or much more likely, to put the locals “on”. The plainclothes guards are a very visible example that you never know who works for the government.

Spread out before the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square and the body of Chairman Mao, lying in state. It’s true what you’ve read: people don’t know much about the ’89 massacre. Our tour guide, who we’ll call Sharon, inquired about the protest, and informed us that she had never seen the iconic picture of the lone man standing in the face of a line of tanks.

Ignorance about Tiananmen is unsurprising. The Great Firewall is significant enough, and state censorship complete enough, to trip up news junkies and researchers. My iPhone couldn’t access Facebook, and both Google and Safari were significantly disrupted. Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, responds the query “Tiananmen Square Massacre” with an article titled “Tiananmen Square Massacre a Myth”. When I reached for the China Daily the morning following my Beijing arrival, I found a piece titled “China fights climate change with utmost zeal”. Peasants aren’t allowed to freely enter cities, and Chairman Mao looks good for being 118.

The easy conclusion is that China is, well, exceptional. It’s enormously foreign, and one gets the sense that they are breaking cultural taboos often. China’s longevity is among it’s most impressive feats, but you don’t really know what this means until you see it. An at-first surprising observation, is that the Chinese, wherever possible, don’t seem to let their ancient buildings lapse into decay like many have done in the West. Xian’s city wall was rebuilt in the 1980’s. So was the Beijing area of the Great Wall. The Big Goose Pagoda, which tilts in a way so familiar that the locals call it “Leaning Tower of Xian”, is not just being anchored from further slippage by government engineers, but corrected. When you point this out, people remind you that their great grandparents helped rebuild this-wall-or-that following the earthquake or the fire or the invasion or whatever it was a hundred years ago, and their great-grandparents rebuilt it following whatever catastrophe it was a hundred years before that. It makes natural sense that they’d keep it up. Doesn’t this effect the object’s authenticity? “Not at all” say the Chinese. There is a cultural continuity that is understood.

Compare this to Greece, where the architectural family jewels of the West are either mostly destroyed or simply no longer exist. The pagans who built the Parthenon lost their culture and became Christianized following 2,000 years of endless invasion and occupation at the hands of a who’s-who of ancestral Europe’s great powers: Romans, Persians, Ottomans, English, Nazis. In a total way, the ancient Greeks really no longer exist. This is in stark contrast to China, where a region dominated by Han arts and culture, Confucius teaching, and ancestor-worship, is entering it’s 2,233rd year.

In many ways, the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s attempt at dislodging China from it’s past, a prerequisite for building the communist utopia. Many of Beijing’s classically trained artists artisans, and many of the country’s professors and intelligentsia, we’re purged, “re-educated”, and killed. It is for our great benefit that this effort failed.

Finally, something has to be mentioned about the China hysteria that I fear hasn’t even really begun. For all it’s growth, China has much further to grow still, and it’s economy is almost certain to overtake that of the US within a decade or so. These fears, I believe, are exaggerated. China has problems, big ones. Too numerous, in fact, to list in a brief essay about a brief vacation. But driving from the countryside into the cities, one sees the same thing everywhere: a bronze-age civilization surrounding a Dickensian nightmare swallowing modern a metropolis. If you live in the first two, your movements into the third are highly restricted, which is where everyone wants to be because that’s where the money is. People grumble about the one-child policy, and the cities are beginning to develop their own housing bubbles. The environmental problems are worse than you think, and I thought they were terrifying going in.

So with respect to Sinophobia, remember: the Chinese may have invented the compass, paper, printing, and gunpowder, but they also invented bureaucracy.

Waving to the people.