REFLECTIONS ON CHINA by RJ Furth
I must start with a disclaimer: I only saw a tiny part of China, the most traveled, the most Westernized. I was only there for two weeks, so I can’t claim to know China or its people. I can, however, make observations based on many years of travel. What is obvious is that China is a nation in transition. Forty years ago it was suffering through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, historical events that took the lives of millions and disrupted the lives of hundreds of millions. The shift from command socialist economy to market driven capitalist economy has also been a disruptive factor to Chinese society. The places that I visited – Beijing, Xian, Pingyao, Tianjin – are at the heart of that economic and social shift. Therefore, my observations regard a rapidly changing part of the largest nation in the world.
The Chinese I met were among the friendliest people I’ve encountered in my travels. Most were quick to smile and patient with my struggles to speak Mandarin. (I learned a few words and phrases and spoke poorly.) Nearly everybody was willing to be photographed, especially those with children, but also old people. Haggling at markets was brisk yet good-natured, unlike some I encountered in Morocco last year. If I purchased something, fine; if I didn’t purchase anything, that too was fine. My past experience with Chinese in Southeast Asia – Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore – had revealed aggressive, ambitious people. Perhaps those who left China over the centuries for economic opportunity were ambitious by nature or had become more aggressive as they worked to prosper in foreign lands. I left China with far kinder thoughts toward the Chinese people.
As I’ve written in earlier essays, my chief impression of China is of progress gone amok. I know that the Chinese government has a strong hand in economic development, yet there seems to be little thought to controlling or guiding this development. Beautiful historic neighborhoods are being demolished to be replaced by uninspired high rises. Cars are clogging roads, skies are often gray with industrial haze, tourist sites are overrun by so many tourists that they’ve lost much of their charm, the magic that attracted visitors in the first place. Although I expected to see thousands of European travelers, 98% of the tourists we encountered were Chinese. These tourist mostly traveled in large groups led by a guide holding a flag high above the throngs so that the tour group – each wearing the same colored hat (blue, red, white, mock Burberry) – could be gathered more easily. I am told that the same flocks of Chinese tourists can be spotted all over the country, from the tropical south to the bleak far West, and I have seen similar groups in Europe.
One change for the better is that I saw far less smoking and spitting than I’d expected. My son Alan said that spitting is very common in the south where he traveled last year. I was thankful to see a moderate amount, though it always unsettled my stomach to see somebody at breakfast clear his throat with a hearty rasp, then spit it into his napkin and place it, folded, next to his plate. A lot of Chinese smoke (30% of cigarette sales worldwide are in China), yet restaurants weren’t as smoky as when we lived in Japan and we were prepared for it. For those considering a trip to China, though, it’s not like the States; there are no smoke-free environments.
Finally, China has always been a nation of rules, be they Confucian philosophy, decrees by emperors, or commands from Mao and the Communist politburo. In the past, rules were diligently followed or else one risked suffering dire consequences. That does not always seem to be the case today. The government has plastered rules and warnings everywhere, yet many people ignore them. At the Shanxi Museum signs warn against flash photography; flashes went off regularly in front of guards. At a fountain in Xian young people entered the fountain while passing signs forbidding entering fountain. Minor rebellion against authority is not a bad thing nor a sign of social disorder. It seems like a natural step in a country that is slowly – very slowly – emerging from millennium of rigid control. Wacky hairstyles and unusual choices of clothing are reminiscent of the US in the 60s or Japan in the 80s. The Chinese government has a history of allowing dissent up to a point, then reacting strongly to put things ‘right’. It will be interesting to see how far the rebellion of the young will go.
Visiting China is not a vacation like heading to Mexico or Thailand. The food was good, not great. Transportation was clean and efficient, including the incredible bullet train from Tianjin to Beijing which reached 200 mph. Travel in China offers some challenges, not the least of which is language. (Taxi drivers were the most difficult to communicate with. You must have the address in Chinese and/or the phone number, otherwise you’ll have a problem.) I’m glad I finally made it to China, even if it was only briefly and in one small part.