by Ji-li Jiang
A friend recently sent me a group of pictures via e-mail, titled “What can the Chinese do?” Curious, I opened one immediately.
A man was watching his child playing in a neighborhood street. Even from the back, I could see that he was well dressed: a light blue shirt, and clean white socks in shining shoes. But unfortunately there were no chairs, benches, or tree trunks nearby on which he could sit. What did he do? He turned two empty plastic bottles upside down, and squatted on their flat bottoms.
I looked at another one. A donkey was walking in the rain, pulling a cart as donkeys have pulled carts for thousands of years. However, this cart was enhanced by the cab of a modern blue truck. The driver, probably a farmer, was sitting inside this comfortable blue “truck,” enjoying the modernization.
The sheer ingenuity exhibited in these and the other pictures was impressive. But there was something more, something deeper. As I stared at them, I realized that, to me, those pictures exemplified the spirit of the Chinese people and the essence of Chinese culture. The Chinese can endure enormous hardship and live with very limited resources. Instead of complaining, they use their ingenuity and determination to find ways to improve their circumstances, and to enjoy their lives to the fullest. That, the positive and productive approach toward life, is one of the most fascinating aspects of Chinese culture.
When I was growing up in Shanghai in the 1960s and 1970s, housing was very crowded. It was not unusual for a family of five or six people—perhaps three generations—to share one twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot room. Buildings that once had housed a single family now were shared by several. However, in a little kitchen shared by several families and crowded with several stoves, you would be amazed to see how many hours the inhabitants spent joyfully preparing each meal. They endured the heat and the smoke and the crowding to make sure that each dish had the elements—the color and the aroma and the taste—required of Chinese cuisine. To decorate their tiny rooms, they would spend hundreds of hours of their evenings and weekends, painstakingly sawing, nailing, sanding, and polishing, making furniture they could not afford to buy. The enthusiasm, the love, and the pride invested in their tiny rooms were testimony to their dedication and their unquenchable optimism. Like blades of grass, bursting out of the ground, squeezing between the hard rocks, they not only survived, they prospered.
That is the Chinese spirit: perseverance. That is how the Chinese managed to maintain their rich culture even through extremely difficult times of poverty and suffering.
In Travelers’ Tales China, you will find ample evidence of this. As Mark Stevens notes in “The Walls Come Tumbling Down,” during the SARS epidemic of 2003, Beijing became a forbidden city (the government literally closed the gate and stopped people from coming in and going out), but people adapted and “began to cultivate various internal gardens.” They read books or listened to music instead of panicking or growing restless. In “Where Harmony Sings,” Yinjie Qian tells her story of traveling to Lijiang, a small town 7,000 feet above sea level in Yunnan Province. She asked her taxi driver, a member of a minority without much education, when the rain would stop. The driver replied with a smile, “No one can predict. It’s nature’s blessing whether rain or shine.” From Xuan Ke, a musician who was put in jail for twenty years, to the story of Guon Yen, a young lady working at a bar in Shanghai who knew nearly every pop and rock song from the ’70s and ’80s, the ordinary people described in these stories all demonstrate somehow that incredible balance. In this book, each traveler’s personal experience in China is unique and fascinating, and at the same time illuminates the astonishing character and adaptability of the Chinese people.
In the last fifteen years, China has been changing with blinding speed. When I return to Shanghai after a six-month absence, I often get lost in my old neighborhood because of the new buildings and stores. When the computer was still a novelty in China, my friends were impressed by my little 386 laptop, but in less than two years, they skipped 286, 386, 486, and jumped into Pentium, generations ahead of mine. People who never had telephones at home are suddenly using the most advanced cellular technology. What’s next? Men on Mars? The cure for AIDS? Anything is possible. Nothing that happens in the world’s most populous country, a place with an average annual economic growth rate of 8 percent over the last twenty-five years, should surprise anyone.
However, there is a darker side. These exciting advances come with some very worrisome problems: the rapidly increasing gap between the rich and the poor, rampant government corruption, and a frightening unemployment rate, to name a few. These problems are serious enough that they could not only halt the progress, but also destabilize the nation.
At a recent conference, a teacher asked me to predict what China would be like in twenty-five years. Will China’s growth continue? Will it turn out like Singapore? Or America? Will China become completely capitalist, while keeping only the name of the Chinese Communist Party? Or will it become a democratic country with a socialist system controlled by the Chinese Communist Party?
“I don’t know,” I said. I told him I couldn’t possibly predict the outcome of this reform, because what China is doing is new, without a model to follow. Many predictions made by experts ten years ago were wrong. In the end, China might well turn out not like Singapore, nor America, but something different, something uniquely Chinese. “But,” I said confidently, “I know that the Chinese spirit will endure, and that, no matter what, China will always be China.”
China has “a heavy load, with a long road ahead,” as the old saying goes. But as long as this spirit of perseverance and dedication persists, there is cause for hope. Travelers’ Tales China is a breath of fresh air in the quest to understand a nation that is at the crossroads of all of our futures.
Ms. Ji-li Jiang was born in Shanghai, China, and came to the United States in 1984. She published her first book, Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution, in 1997 and The Magical Monkey King: Mischief in Heaven, her retelling of the classic Chinese fairy tale, in 2002. She travels around the country to talk to students and teachers about China, and runs her company, East West Exchange, to promote cultural exchange between China and Western countries.
ESSENCE OF CHINA
The Walls Come Tumbling Down
Waltz at the End of Earth
Before the Flood
The Tao of Bicycling
STEPHANIE ELIZONDO GRIEST
Into the Heart of the Middle Kingdom
Six Lessons in Communist Travel
FERGUS M. BORDEWICH
The Fourteenth Tower
SOME THINGS TO DO
A Leg Up on Fate
YVONNE MICHIE HORN
The Revenge of the Snake People
Where Harmony Sings
King Kong in Shanghai
JACQUELINE C. YAU
Emperor Qin’s Army
Dubbing Over the City
Stepping Stone to Shangri-La
GOING YOUR OWN WAY
China by Motorcycle
A Jew in Kaifeng
Dancing with the Conqueror
The Rubbing Master
J. D. BROWN
China’s Unknown Gobi
The Wheat Was Ripe and It Was Sunday
Buddha’s Sex Change?
The Big Smoke
“Don’t Be Richard Gere!”
Run for Cover
Dying Is a Frequent Occurrence
In Tiananmen Square
THE LAST WORD
Night in the Forbidden City
Index of Contributors
Six Lessons in Communist Travel
by Sean Presant
A second-class ride turns into a first-class experience.
Communism is a strange bird. Our history seems to be a long war against it, so one would expect that when you get near it, it should make itself known with grenades and hellfire. Maybe a parade. Some tanks.
Turns out, communism is a much more subtle animal, as I was to discover on the first leg of my travels through mainland China. It’s a neverending war, yes, but a quiet one—one that you never see but always feel—a kind of push and pull between want and allowance.
My first encounter with the big “C” was on a northbound overnight train traveling from industrial Guangzhou to the pastoral city of Guilin. Always one to take interest over comfort, and to save a few bucks, I was traveling second class. The Chinese call it “hard sleep” in reference to the row upon row of hard, vinyl-covered boards mounted five high that double as beds. As it happens, my board was in the exact center of a car packed to capacity with mainland Chinese travelers—all of whom were staring at me. My presence, you see, was an accident. The Chinese government goes to exhausting pains to keep foreigners and nationals in separate spaces, but since I had a travel agent book my ticket and he neglected to mention that I was American, I was in the national car. And while I usually prefer to be with the locals, there’s something unnerving about sixty people staring at you like you’re on fire.
So, two hours into the trip, tired of smiling like an idiot at no one in particular, I wandered a few cars down to where I thought I’d glimpsed a lock of blonde hair upon boarding.
Lesson #1: When adherence to order is militant, expect the military.
The great thing about train travel in China is that once you remove yourself from the beehive of activity in the stations, you land in a place that, while often crowded, has a dependable sense of order to it. You know without fail when you’re getting on a long Chinese train that there will be a metal thermos of hot water in every berth, and you know that it will be refilled whenever it gets low. This is to service the dry noodles everyone carries. You pour the boiling water on the noodles and you have not only hot food, but a bit of order in the chaos.
That sense of order has a dark side, though, for beyond the thermos you’ll find something else on every train—People’s Liberation Army guards and railroad officers. Sometimes they wander through your car, sometimes they stand very still in opposite corners, watching you—the guards to make sure you don’t violate rules of government, the railroad officers to make sure you don’t violate rules of the railroad.
It’s one of the few pieces of visible evidence you get that China’s history of governmental oppression isn’t entirely history. And while you can search the guards for signs of humanity, you won’t find much. The penalty for cracking is severe.
I found the blonde, a young architecture student named Frieda, and her female companion, a Hong Kong native named Wei-In, halfway down the train. They had an entire car to themselves, having bought their ticket at the window designated for foreigners.
Of course when I say “by themselves,” I mean “by themselves with a PLA guard and a railroad officer.”
“We were wondering when you would show up,” Frieda shouted as I entered. Apparently they’d seen me get on the train and knew it was only a matter of time before I went looking for conversation.
I took a seat on the bench next to Frieda, who was smiling flirtatiously at the PLA guard in the corner. He was a young guy, probably no more than twenty, and this made him blush.
“Turtle Jell-O?” Wei-In offered.
I looked down at a plastic pudding cup filled with what looked like dark green Jell-O.
“Turtle?” I asked, thinking maybe it was called that because it was green.
“Yes, made from turtle.”
Never one to refuse a new food product, I gave it a try. It tasted like nothing. Not like nothing I’d ever tasted before, but literally like nothing.
I looked out the window. The sun was starting to fade, and the terrain was still industrial, brown, and uninteresting. I started to worry that Guilin was going to be more like a theme park than the old scroll paintings that extolled its beauty.
Lesson #2: Nothing is simple.
“You should move your things in here,” Frieda said.
Since I was fairly sure the rest of the trip in the crowded car would be nothing but me sitting by myself, and since I had been told when the lights go off everyone downs the cots and sleeps, in one big motion like a drill team, I thought there was no harm in moving.
Wei-In said she’d explain to the train representative standing in the corner what we were going to do. She approached, a few words were spoken, and she returned.
“She said she can change your ticket, but not while we are in the tunnel.”
I looked out the window. We were nowhere near a…
Suddenly the world went dark.
I’m not exactly sure what this tunnel went through, but we were in darkness for half an hour. I thought about the saying “dig so deep you hit China” and wondered if there was an equivalent saying in Chinese, something like “dig so deep you hit Reno.”
Regardless, when we emerged back into the dwindling light, the woman changed my ticket, or rather, the plastic chip that had been given to me in exchange for my ticket, which I would receive back at the end of the trip when I gave the plastic chip back, so that I could show my original ticket and be let off the train. (See my previous note on adherence to order.) I moved my bag, bought some Pabst from a rolling cart, and was ready to go.
This is where things got interesting.
Lesson #3: There really are people under there.
As the night crept on, Frieda continued smiling at the PLA guard. She told us she thought he was cute and was going to try to lure him over.
Wei-In warned her that if he flirts with her, the hawkish railroad woman could turn him in for fraternizing sexy-like with a Westerner and he would be kicked out of the military. His family would be shamed.
“Shaming?! People still do that?”
But you can’t stop German passion. It’s like a tank. Frieda batted her eyelashes. She added a little wave. The guard smiled.
We continued with the Pabst and the turtle Jell-O. The sun had since set, so there was nothing visible out the windows. No city lights. No highways with cars. Nothing. It was just the three of us, sitting center-car, the two officials on either side.
It was like Brecht.
About half an hour into the darkness, Frieda gave up her pursuit and we talked about architecture. When I looked up, however, I noticed that the guard had wandered from his post in the corner. Just a few feet closer, and still hugging the wall, but definitely closer.
Frieda took this as a small victory and continued her conquest. She held up her large beer as if to offer some. He shook his head no.
“Houston. We have contact.”
I looked back at the railroad woman. She hadn’t moved and she wasn’t smiling. But she was watching.
Frieda told Wei-In to tell the guard she wanted to talk to him.
Wei-In turned and said something to the guard. He said something back.
“What did he say?”
“He said you have pretty hair.”
Frieda stroked her pretty hair.
“He wanted to know where you’re from. So I told him.”
Frieda turned up der Klunker. Using Wei-In to translate, she found out that the guard was only nineteen, but already had a wife and a child.
With each question the guard moved a little closer, and the scowl on the railroad officer grew more surly.
I decided it was my duty to save this poor fool from shaming, so I set about trying to lure in the railroad officer. She was pretty in a kind of “Good morning, I am a stop sign” sort of way.
I don’t have long blonde hair to flip, so I thought I could grunt in a masculine way that would say “I am utilitarian.” Or I could just smile and lift my glass. Which is what I did.
She looked straight through me. No smile. No reaction.
This dude is in for one bad shaming, I thought.
And then the lights went out.
I don’t remember it if was nine or ten, but it was either exactly nine or exactly ten which, according to the government, was the time when people go to sleep.
Wei-In flipped on a small reading light, which lit up our bunk area and spilled weakly into the aisle.
The guard used this as an excuse to move in closer.
The thought crossed my mind that if Frieda and this boy made love, he would need to wear padding to prevent injury. Perhaps a helmet.
As the night crept on, though, I realized that this kid’s drive wasn’t lust. He didn’t want to leave his wife and he didn’t want to go to bed with Frieda. He just wanted to talk to someone from a land other than the one he spent his every day traversing.
His drive was quite simple. He was nineteen and bored.
Lesson #4: There are two things which cross all cultural barriers—love…and boredom.
As the train continued plodding its way through the darkness, the guard started spilling information about his family life.
Turns out his wife wore the pants in the family. And based on how he described her, I had no doubt we were talking about actual pants.
At this point I wanted to learn some Chinese, so the guard and Wei-In set about teaching me how to say the guard’s favorite phrase, “I can only do what my wife lets me.” I, in turn, taught him the English equivalent, “I am whipped.”
“I am weeped!” he said proudly.
I laughed so hard I shot Pabst through my nose.
And that made him laugh. Which made Wei-In laugh. Which made Frieda laugh. We were like the U.N., if it worked.
Only one person wasn’t laughing.
The ice queen in the corner.
The kid looked at her, and she stared him down. His humor ran off like a squirrel fleeing a car tire. He grew quiet and, without a word of departure, went back to his post in the corner.
He had gone too far.
The ice queen dropped her shoulders and lifted her head, as if to acknowledge she had done her work. No reverie would be had on her watch.
Lesson #5: There is sadness.
The thought that this poor kid might lose his job and his family pretty much ended the party. We put the empty bottles of beer under the window, beside the thermos of hot water. I pulled down a cot and laid down on the hard, sticky vinyl surface.
Wei-In flipped off the small reading light, and there the three of us lay, silently knowing that even in the darkness the ice queen and the kid were standing at their posts. What he was thinking, I don’t know. But I was worried for him.
I awoke in a puddle of drool. I think everyone in hard sleep awakes in a puddle of drool. How can you not? You’re on vinyl. There’s no pillow. It happens.
And this would be unpleasant, save for what was out the window.
Somehow the night had brushed away the rusted oblivion of Guangzhou and left us in an indescribable green paradise. Like the hills of Ireland, or perhaps turtle Jell-O if you put a 100-watt bulb behind it, the land seemed to breathe. Far in the distance sharp peaks rose up like spikes on a dragon’s back, a heavy white mist clinging to them like something remarkably unpolluted.
I looked down and saw Frieda staring out the window, equally awed. Wei-In had a broad smile on her face as well, as if she’d just come home.
I felt great. Excited. Awake. Far away from everything I knew. I had gotten myself halfway around the world and that made me feel somehow proud.
But then I remembered the guards.
I looked out and saw that, as expected, they were still standing in their corners. This was going on ten hours now that they’d been standing. Maybe when we fell asleep they sat down, but based on the way they leaned against the walls, I doubted it.
The landscape eventually gave way to cityscape as we pulled into the city of Guilin.
My mind was immediately abuzz with the day’s plans. The first order of business was to get a hotel, then find a boat to take us up the river the next day—which is the main attraction of the area. Frieda said that they were going to meet up with two other German students, but if I wanted to share a hotel room and a boat with them I would be a welcome addition. I agreed because, well, that’s what’s fun about traveling alone. New friends at every turn. New possibilities. A chance to start over every few days, hop a train and speed into some great unknown.
It was not something I ever thought of as a great privilege. But now, looking at the kid standing in the corner, I was suddenly aware of how much of a privilege it really was. Not everyone can just escape life for a couple weeks a year—money or not. That’s something we take for granted.
We headed sadly off the train. As we passed the guard, I nodded, as if to say “sorry we got you in trouble.”
It was a guilty moment, one I was going to have to blur over when I told people of amazing mainland China.
But as I passed, the guard slapped me on the back and said brazenly…
“I am weeped!”
And he laughed.
And that was amazing. But not as amazing as what followed…
Lesson #6: When you live in a place where the government is always present, like a domineering parent, victories are often so small you can miss them.
The ice queen laughed too.
Sean Presant has crossed the globe writing for the Let’s Go series, making the world safe for adventurous travelers seeking relics of the ancient world and all-you-can-get pizza. When not questioning the air supply in crowded Egyptian pyramids, tripping over confused iguanas in the Galapagos, or biking with chickens through Asia, Sean is a Los Angeles-based director and screenwriter.