In 1995 I had the opportunity to go on a short tour of Beijing and Xi’an. I looked forward very much to seeing the differences between then and my earlier visit in early 1978.
I had an interesting start to my visit when we took off in a quite small China Airlines 747 airliner from Sydney. As soon as the plane had taken off and seat belt signs were off, heaps of Chinese people on board quit their seats, squatted or sat on the floor and started gambling. It was quite chaotic but the flight staff handled the various groups on the floor with aplomb while the gamblers had the time of their lives.
The real drawback was the smoking which wasn’t then banned. The Chinese on the plane were great smokers as well as gamblers and the cabin was soon thick with cigarette smoke which – as a non-smoker – I found very hard to handle. I was feeling quite under the weather by the time we landed in Beijing and, as with my previous visit, the city still looked grey and cold in the mid-winter weather – quite a contrast from the hot weather I’d left behind in Sydney.
I did wonder how commercialised China had become and soon found the answer in the lobby of the hotel our group was staying in. I’m not a fan of Christmas and all the shlock surrounding it – too commercialised, too money-grabbing, too cynical, too many buying too much and getting in debt, and so many people looking unhappy and desperate in the last-minute rush. So I’d boasted to my husband that I’d be leaving the Christmas “festivities” behind, in a rather gloating manner. Silly me. Our tour walked into the hotel to find a dirty great big Christmas tree and the soft, dirge-like sounds of Christmas carols, quite a difference from the last time I’d been in the city when there was no sign of Western Christmas bling at all!
Being realistic, tourism had grown tremendously since my first visit in early 1978 and the Chinese obviously have to cater for visitors and their tastes. Plus the Chinese need the currency exchange tourism brings, so I’m hardly in a position to criticise from the sidelines!
I really noticed the difference when I went for a walk in Beijing. There were far less bikes – they’d crowded the streets in 1978 – and a heck of a lot more cars. In 1978 most cars were for official business but now the streets were choked with all sorts of vehicles – cars, trucks, bikes, motor bikes – it was chaotic and road rules seemed completely non-existent although people seemed to somehow cope with the bikes and cars creating a sort of mad kaleidoscope of movement.
Gone too was the ubiquitous grey and camouflage green clothing that predominated the last time I was there. Now most people were dressed in bright colours, good quality clothing and lots of swish accessories. Young people particularly looked confident, well dressed and bright. The country had obviously made great strides since I’d first visited and it was good to see.
A lot of people would like China to have stayed in the relatively backward state it was in the 1970s as people were less hurried, less sophisticated and, I guess, a bit naive. But that’s like saying our Western civilisation should have stayed stuck in the 1970s too. Change happens and I really don’t have too much patience for those who say how wonderful life was “back then”.
We did go to see the Summer Palace in Beijing and that really was quite amazing. What really takes me aback when I’m in Beijing is the obscene wealth flaunted by the rulers in olden times compared with the poverty and hardship of the great majority of the population. The Summer Palace is composed of lakes, palaces and gardens and is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Here’s a link to Wikipedia’s coverage of the Summer Palace which gives some idea of the size, beauty and history Summer Palace, Beijing. We also admired the Marble Boat, Summer Palace, Beijing, a quite extraordinary construction which really embodies the excesses of the Chinese ruling class.
The Summer Palace was pretty much destroyed twice by Western powers, as explained in Wikipedia:
“In 1860 the British and French burned the palace down at the end of the Second Opium War (the Old Summer Palace also ransacked at the same time). The punitive action was undertaken in response to the torture and killing of a European peace delegation that included Thomas William Bowlby. The destruction of large parts of the palace complex still evokes strong emotions among some in China……
The Summer Palace was slighted a second time in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion when it was seized by the eight allied powers. The garden were burned and mostly destroyed. Many of the Palace’s artifacts were divided among the eight allied nations. These are still retained by various countries – such as France and United Kingdom – much to the annoyance of the modern Chinese government.”
I have referred to this in detail because we in the West like to pontificate on how China should organise itself and what it should do and how it should behave. This completely fails to take into account the way in which foreign, mainly Western, powers have historically interfered in China and caused immense hardship to the Chinese people. Westerners need to study Chinese history in order to understand what goes on in China today and why lectures from Western governments get up the noses of leading officials and the Chinese people.
A bit of modesty and self-restraint wouldn’t go amiss and this was re-affirmed to me when we were in Xi’an. Thankfully, when we took off from Beijing Airport for Xi’an, the fighter pilots who had flow the aircraft when I first visited in 1978 had now been replaced by modern-trained pilots, so we took off at a normal speed instead of rocketing up into what felt like space when we flew in China in 1978!
We visited a museum in Xi’an which hadn’t been open long when I visited the city with its draw card, the Terra Cotta warriors and horses. It had a reconstructed version of a 5,000-year-old village which had been excavated in Shaanxi Province and our tour guides were very proud to inform us that this had a matriarchal social structure.
We looked at the most beautiful artifacts over the 5,000 year old history portrayed in this museum and it reminded me that China had a flourishing culture and creative outlets when nothing like this existed in early Europe or Britain. American Western culture which US leaders are proud to boast about only started up at a comparatively recent past, in 1776. And saying this does not include the extensive history of Native American/First Nations cultures which was ignored for so long and subjected to many attempts to destroy it completely.
Visiting the Terra Cotta warriors and horses is really a quite humbling experience. Here were ranks upon ranks of warriors, each one crafted individually, and designed to protect the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. They were buried with him in 210-209 BCE, with the aim of protecting him in his after life.
The existence of this army was forgotten until 1974 when a peasant digging a well during a time of drought hit one on the head while excavating. It is a quite extraordinary experience when you walk into the great hall housing these terra cotta figures as each one is crafted individually. In the slight haze of dust in the air, you can almost imagine them moving and coming alive. It’s estimated that more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses were buried in the area, with some still being excavated.
As you drive around Xian you see mounds all over the place which denote the burial places of ruling figures including relatives. We asked our guides why they hadn’t been excavated and they told us that, while they knew which figures were interred where, they were in no hurry to open up tombs until they had the expertise and knowledge to do the excavation work properly and efficiently. This went particularly for the tomb of the Emperor Qin which still hasn’t been opened up. They were adamant that Chinese specialists would be in charge of any excavations and it was clear that there is still a great sensitivity to the actions of foreign countries in the past as well as the plunder of Chinese artifacts which are displayed in Western museums, an affront to the dignity and self-respect of the Chinese people.
I left China on my last visit with a profound respect at what had been achieved since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. People who criticise the country forget the devastated country that existed after the end of World War 2 and the way in which the nation has pulled itself up by its bootstraps. We’re fed a diet of constant criticism in the Western media when a bit of self-examination of what’s happening in Western nations wouldn’t go amiss – particularly the huge and growing gap between the super-rich and the rest of the people.
Do I think everything’s hunky-dory in China? No, of course not. I don’t look at the country through rose-coloured glasses. But I do look with respect at what has been achieved and the great strides forward in the well-being of the people. I watch Western governments like the US and UK bang on about human rights in China but, to me, it’s simply an attempt to interfere in China’s affairs. If Western leaders were so concerned about human rights, they could look in their own backyard, take responsibility for the awful carnage that has erupted in the Middle East after the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, criticise the perfectly dreadful human rights situation in Saudi Arabia (but hey, they’ve got oil) or stand up for Palestinian rights to self-determination.
And with that final little rant under my belt, I’ll wind up my series of posts on my visits to China. I still have very good memories of the goodwill of the people I met, the wonderful sense of raucous humour and the patience with curious tourists who really must drive those in the tourist industry right around the twist on many occasions. So I will finish with a toast of “Ganbei” to the achievements of the Chinese people and memories of skulling the Chinese liqueur mao-tai which, quite rightly, was described by CBS’s anchor, Dan Rather, as “liquid razor blades”. He could also have mentioned the smell of burnt rubber!
I rather think our tour of China in 1978 was a bit of trial and error for the Chinese as conducting tours was a very new venture. All I can say is that we concluded back in Hong Kong, after the tour ended, that we had never worked so hard in our lives – we had breakfast at 8am, out on the road by 9am with two visits to schools/factories/handicrafts factories, back for lunch at midday, a 30 minute rest period, then off again at 1.30 for two more visits. Back for dinner at 5.30pm, and then off to see movies or an orchestra or some other aspect of culture in the evening. This went on for three weeks.
At each place we visited during the day we’d be given a tour of the school or factory or whatever we were visiting, we’d meet the people and children, if we went to schools, we’d sit down and be given a history of what we were visiting, and then we’d enjoy a cup of jasmine tea and a general chat.
The Chinese had a great cultural life which I think we found surprising as the image of this enormous nation had, up until then, always been of a rather drab and dreary culture. China had been so closed to the outside world that really we had no idea of what we’d encounter or the rich cultural life of the country.
But going into a movie was a great experience – we didn’t understand a word but the Chinese audience had the time of their life and often the movies were very gruesome which they watched without turning a hair while we Westerners flinched and shut our eyes. I mean – people getting cut in half by a sword; a concubine disappearing and re-appearing floating in a huge pot with her arms and legs removed; someone else getting beheaded in incredibly realistic battle scenes. All very colourful and also an introduction to the various ways in which people were killed in feudal China!
We were taken one evening to see a Chinese orchestra and, I have to be honest, we were pretty bored. We weren’t used to the instruments or musical sounds of Chinese music but, while we sat there quite quietly, the Chinese audience had a terrific time, applauding noisily and having the time of their lives. Nevertheless, it was a great experience to see Chinese culture at such close quarters and to see the pleasure of people in the audience. We found that film, music and other cultural events were widespread, cheap to go to, and very, very popular with Chinese people.
We visited various handicrafts factories where the work was exquisite. In one pottery factory we saw mass-produced dinnerware which was an interesting process to watch, but we also saw fine, individual pottery production which required great attention to detail and a very steady hand. In one place we saw artists painting scenes within tiny glass snuff bottles. It was quite awesome as the artists had incredibly fine brushes bent at right angles so they could get the brush inside the bottle, then paint the scene from the inside. We found out that people who did this had to retire early as the incredibly close work required ended up damaging people’s eyesight. I’ve included below photos of this painting technique – I do have a painted glass bottle in a lovely lined box but my camera’s in for service so I’ve had to use images form the internet.
We visited one diesel locomotive production factory where we were struck by the pride of workers at what they were creating. They were involved in all aspects of the locomotives’ production and design, and you could feel the satisfaction they got at being part of the whole process. We got to get into the cabin of one of the huge locos (we did this in small groups) and trundle along part of a rail section – quite extraordinary to be so high up in such a huge machine and have such a wide view around the whole area. One of our tour members when I was in the cabin was poking a button and asking what it was for, and the Chinese interpreters had great fun telling her she was the one responsible for the diesel’s hooter going off continually!
Towards the end of the tour we had the opportunity to meet a group of artists and actors which was quite an honour. Except we nearly caused a diplomatic incident! One of the artists started describing an incident with the Gang of Four, a group which had been in control of China but which had been displaced just before our tour. She told us how the Gang of Four didn’t like a painting of a single huge cock. There was silence in our group and then our tour leader leaned forward and said: “Actually, in Australia, we prefer to use the words ‘rooster’ or ‘cockerel'”. However, the artist missed this completely as she was intent on her story and continued telling us about this huge cock stretching up to the sky with its one beady eye peering upwards. We were pretty exhausted and overwrought by this time and had a hard time not laughing. One of the interpreters asked a tour member who was sitting at the back why we were all acting so strange so he drew a picture of male genitals to try to explain we used different terminology, but we all decided afterwards that the sketch was pathetic, and so it took some time to explain what was going on.
In the meantime the artist was still going on about the huge cock and how the Gang of Four didn’t like the look in its one beady eye. Finally the dam broke. We started howling with laughter and on the Chinese side there was a startled silence. Gradually we calmed down after our hysterical outburst and looked at each other appalled – we’d surely created a diplomatic incident and we’d be deported and get into all sorts of strife on our return to Australia. We were actually very over-tired and over-wrought after what had been a gruelling tour which explained our cackling away like demented kookaburras.
Our tour guide had finally realised what the problem was in terminology, walked forward and whispered into the artist’s ear why we’d been laughing our heads off. We sat there frozen – then she turned to the rest of her Chinese colleagues and told them the problem with cock/rooster/cockerel phraseology and, to our amazement, they all burst into great gales of laughter, slapping their knees and rocking back and forth with glee. We were so relieved, everyone heaved a great sigh and calmed down, but it was also a lesson to us that the Chinese have a raucous, earthy sense of humour which was totally unexpected to us.
One thing I had forgotten was the honesty: if we accidentally left stuff behind when we left hotels and moved to new cities or towns, we would – within a couple of days – find the item forwarded to us and waiting in our rooms.
What we came away with after our tour of China was an abiding sense of awe at the ingenuity of the Chinese people, pleasure in their care for their kids, and great respect for their dedication to rebuilding their country. We also ended up with an abiding respect for their ability to knock back the Chinese liqueur, Mao Tai, as I said in an earlier post like drinking rocket fuel which we drank with great caution and they swigged with apparent impunity.
We also experienced great delight at their wonderful sense of humour and ability to joke around and have a damned good time, with no sign of rigidity or stuffiness. Given how nervous we were at the start of our tour, when we left China we did so with an awareness of how lucky we were to have seen the country at its then stage of development, and also how privileged we’d been to encounter the friendliness and kindness of the Chinese people.
In my next post I’ll get to the really important part – Chinese food! And then I’ll wind up with a final blog about my return to China in 1995 when I visited the Hidden Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang at Xian and saw all the changes in China since my first visit in early 1978.