Charles de Gaulle once said of the middle kingdom, in something of an understatement, “China is a big country, inhabited by many Chinese.” It’s a modest thesis on one of the world’s oldest civilisations, for sure, but one that I think comprehends two things: a) brevity is indeed the soul of wit and b) China is a difficult colossus to pin down, inhabited as it is not just by many Chinese but many contradictions and disparities too. 1.3 billion, to be more exact.
Touch down at the airport of any major Chinese metropolis and, after clearing that airport limbo, that passport purgatory of customs and border, you’ll almost immediately be greeted by the absurd image of a red and gold communist flag planted awkwardly nearby the red and gold insignia of a McDonald’s entrance. Inside, tired, hungry travellers exchange their cash for calories, fingering notes that all bear the visage of a blushing Chairman Mao, a face that looks almost sheepish as it gets passed around by grubby “capitalist-roaders”. Then there’s the security, looking distinctly out of place with their red guard-style arm bands, amid the hubbub of busy buying.
All of this reminds me of that scene in Full Metal Jacket where Private Joker gets scolded by the Colonel for sporting a peace symbol on his war helmet. “I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir,” he says. Well, here’s the duality of man on full display, and all before we’ve even set foot outside of the airport.
I’ve lived here for a year and a half now; I still don’t understand the place. Antiquated yet modern, conservative yet progressive, insular yet outward-looking, China is a country of dizzying inconsistency. Yet, despite being practically a continent unto itself, encompassing 1.3 billion inhabitants, several languages, religions, ethnic groups, hundreds of different types of tea and oodles of noodles, China remains consistently and quintessentially China.
It’s said if you want to understand the last thirty years of the country, you go to Shanghai, for the past two millennia, make your way to Beijing, and for the preceding five thousand years, Xi’an’s your place. I’ve seen all three but Xi’an is where I’m based. It’s the oldest of the ancient capitals, cradle of Chinese civilisation, and seat of the Qin dynasty, the one which united the warring kingdoms into what we now think of as China. So, as good a place as any to figure out what stitches the whole thing together.
At the moment of writing, I’m in the back of a Xi’an city cab as it grunts and lurches its way through traffic towards the magnificent city walls. At night, these ancient walls come alive with neon, making them look both antique and contemporary. They’re also, I think, a striking symbol of Xi’an as the more conservative, more guarded, less international city than its eastern cousins.
Unlike Shanghai, Xi’an is host to few foreigners and most Xi’anese don’t speak English. As a result there’s a more intense fascination with laowai (outsiders), which often bubbles up in frustrated attempts to communicate.
Take the cabbie here: undeterred by my shamefully limited Chinese, he persists in making his mind known, if not to me then to the empty chair beside me. I’ve pulled out the notebook, scribbling frantically away, chin tucked into my chest, in a well-meaning but clumsy attempt to look busy. Nevertheless, he’s persevering like a real trooper and presses on with pitched intensity and raised volume, churning out monologues that evaporate into a taut silence of polite nods and smiles.
Outside, waves of pedestrians traverse the bustling streets. The pavements hum with energy and activity: street food, square dancing, vendors selling their various wares. You don’t fully comprehend the meaning of ‘crowd’ until you come here.
The Chinese have their own expression for this: ren shan ren hai, literally “people mountain people sea”. I like the expression because it conjures up an image of Chinese collectivism, as well as being suitably self-contradictory.
China has had a long cultural tradition of collectivism, which is still very much potent and palpable and key to understanding the country. My Chinese friends have a strong sense of filial duty; they’ll often sacrifice their personal aspirations for a dull yet stable career that provides security for the family, they’ll marry to please their parents and move back to their hometowns to take care of the retired folks. And the group spirit doesn’t stop there. In-group obligations ripple over from the family in concentric circles all the way out to fellow countrymen, to nationhood.
Yet, fissures are beginning to show, especially among the youth, the first generation to have been born into a China that has opened up to markets and seen living standards rise dramatically. There’s a sense that Chinese millennials are more aspirational and individualistic than their parents’ generation.
This is now a land of cheap consumer goods and a purring economy; every man and his dog owns a smartphone, a far cry from the famines and fanaticism that beggared the place only a few decades ago. It’s all happened so quickly and the culture is still catching up.
Though the economy’s creaked slightly ajar, China’s politics remains authoritarian, with limited freedoms. In my first week in China, I was sitting in a Shanghai restaurant with some colleagues when our Chinese guide leant in and asked, in hushed tones, “have they told you you’re not to mention the three Ts?”
“You mean Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen?”
She glanced around the room as if a microphone was about to descend from the ceiling followed by the secret police emerging from beneath the table to whisk her quietly away. It’s not quite that bad but it’s pretty bad and it’s reinforced by a nationalism that sees the government as a father figure who “knows best”. President Xi sometimes goes by the nickname, Xi Dada.
The nationalism has been cranked up in recent years under Xi Jinping’s presidency as a counterpoint to what he’s called “a century of humiliation.” You get the impression of a heavy undercurrent of insecurity, a nation that’s been inflicted with a lot of embarrassment, by itself and others, and is currently experiencing growing pains as the emerging superpower who everyone now pays attention to.
And people certainly are paying attention. China is well and truly under the international spotlight, which has been accompanied by an increased sensitivity to criticism from abroad.
A friend of mine who lives in Hangzhou was given a week’s paid holiday last month to make way for the G20 delegation. Apparently, the factories were all closed to de-fog the air, rooftops were re-painted to minimise unflattering aerial shots. Entire districts were shut down and millions of workers put on temporary leave in order to give the guests a wholly manufactured impression of quiet, orderly serenity. It was quite an elaborate exercise in maintaining face.
Then again, keeping collective face is such an integral part of the Chinese national identity. I remember there being a febrile atmosphere in response to the Hague’s recent ruling in favour of the Philippines, and by extension America, over the South China Sea dispute. A lot of it was stoked up by the state-run media. I spoke to people who were absolutely livid, though unfamiliar with the details of the nine-dash line. They just knew that China had been wronged in some way and knew what the appropriate response ought to be.
There were some reports of people smashing up their Apple devices and posting the photos on social media, presumably to stick it to the yanks, devices that had been made in China, bought in China and paid for with Chinese money.
Nationalist fervour often has a strange way of expressing itself, and no less so in China. Maybe it’s the historical fluke that its borders were always highly vulnerable to marauding enemies that has shaped China’s culture into a more collectivist one. I’m not sure but it’s interesting to spot the cracks between crowd-think and crowd-do, the crevices in a people mountain of 1.3 billion.
Just try and imagine a greater-good mentality while watching a rush hour subway stampede as young men are elbowed aside by nimble, battle-worn grannies. These little contradictions are inevitable but also quite heartening in a way, part of what makes China endearing.
Chaotic, messy, perfectly good
Our driver’s stopped talking now; I feel bad but he really should concentrate on the road. He swings a corner, almost ploughing some pedestrians before parting the people sea like a little motorised Moses. The traffic here, like the rest of China, is chaotic and messy yet seems to function perfectly well enough. There are collective rules of the road but people don’t always pay them much heed.
I don’t fully understand it but then I don’t fully understand China. Nevertheless, I’m quite happy to take the back seat and simply revel in the organised chaos. China really is a big country, a great country, inhabited by many Chinese, and, maddeningly, that’s about all I can say with any degree of certainty.
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