Thursday, February 16, 2012

a crane’s eye view of china

Saying that you know anything about a country after visiting it for ten days is a bit like saying you know all about Mexico because you dressed up as Pancho Villa when you were a kid.

But I do have some impressions of the place.  Here are a few:

China is a beautiful country well worth a visit.  Preferably a visit lasting more than ten days.  But in those ten days, I put aside some of my prejudices about the country.

The most obvious preconception is that China is a third world country.  If you expect to run across Ingrid Bergman singing “This Old Man” in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, you will be disappointed.  At least, in the big cities.
Beijing is the capital of a political super power.  Shanghai is the financial capital of that super power.  And they play their parts.  Where there were once schools of bicycles, there are now lines of cars.  Where there were once slums, there are software skyscrapers.

In Beijing, the city is as clean as the air is dirty.  While we were there, a cold front moved in that cleared the air.  And two days later, the smog -- terrible smog -- moved back in.

But even the orchards and farms surrounding Beijing are well-pruned and manicured.  Every bit as tidy as a German farm.

Chinese culture is ancient and long-lived.  This is the place Europeans longed to come to obtain the type of luxuries the Chinese considered ordinary.  The Chinese now seek Audis, and send us shirts.

That splendor is still evident in China’s ancient buildings.  But the power of China is not in its past.  And the Chinese take pains to display that they are a modern people living in a modern world.

China’s plutocracy lives in fear of its own extinction.  It has provided a booming and relatively free economy.  Where that economy is inefficient, it is self-inflicted (for example,the number of businesses the Chinese Army mismanages).  But political freedom is not on the table for discussion.

The Chinese I met do not like the Japanese.  Considering what the Japanese did to China in World War Two, that is understandable.  The Chinese do not wear the grudge lightly.  Even though Japan is a near neghbor, it sells very few cars in China.  Our tour guides took great pleasure in pointing out that haiku and bonsai are Chines art forms.  The Japanese merely stole them. 

And, don’t let me fail to mention, it was cold in Beijing.  Below freezing.  With beautiful clear skies.  But I have not felt that cold since my skiing days.  You will hear that weather theme in a few of the following posts.

So, there are some of my general thoughts.  But I have more.  Of course.

The fact that the Communist government blocks all access to blogs has given me time to organize some thoughts on specific topics.  Here is an overview.

Getting there.  Joys in flight.

Trying to understand Chinese.  And some lessons in Spanish.

Eating out.  Why Chinese food seems familiar.

Paying cash.  Something else that seems familiar.

Starting our tour in Tiananmen Square -- where other hopes died.

The Forbidden City -- where China’s imperial history lives on.

The Summer Palace -- cold in the winter.

The Great Wall -- discovering the limitations of aging legs.

The Ming Tombs -- a walk in the park with the ghosts of history.

The Temple of Heaven -- where the emperor tried to bribe the gods,  and where seniors spend their days.

The medicine show comes to town.

A visit to  Old Peking and a brush with imperial style and the Cultural Revolution.

Shanghai – what Blade Runner would look like in a capitalist world.

And, without doubt, some odds and ends tossed in for a bit of spice.

So, grab your chop sticks and share my return to the Middle Kingdom -- Chinese style.


Al said...

Yen and I did a whirlwind tour of China about 5 years ago.  I'm really looking forward to your observations.

Beth said...

When I visited the Summer Palace in November it was very cold - I can only imagine that even more so in February.  It was one of my favorite desitnation though.  Looking forward to reading your observations.  Did you tour guide take you to the Beijing Night Market? Did you eat a scorpion?

Felipe Zapata said...

You have quite a schedule mapped out. I await its unfolding.

Abandou said...

I too am eager for what you will be sending our way if not from then about the China you experienced plus I want that beautiful piece (museum tea pot?) in the first pic!!!  Am usually beyond wanting "things" but could make an exception for that one.

Steve Cotton said...

The tea pot is made of agate jade. And it was for sale at a jade store.

Steve Cotton said...

I hope the readers do not tire of the topic before I tire of writing.

Steve Cotton said...

No night market trip. And it may have been as well. I suspect there was a scorpion there with my name on it.

Steve Cotton said...

This trip went by far too quickly. I am considering a Yangtze river cruise later in the year.

Muycontento said...

The Chinese govt does a good job of promoting things tourists like - the wall, the tombs, the long history, super glitzy Shanghi (don't forget Macau). But nobody sees or writes about the campesinos in the interior who represent 95+% of the population. It is an evil government totally controlling the lives of  desperate people  who have no hope of a better life. If not for the important economic connection (think Saudi Arabia) the US should forbid travel there. (Think Cuba).

Steve Cotton said...

That was my impression, as well. Whenever our guide talked about the farmers cleared from their land to allow apartment buildings to be constructed, she would always point how how nice the buildings looked. There was very little talk of the country poor and what the economic miracle has meant for them.

The Chinese government has a tiger by the tail, though, with the rising middle class. At some point, the middle class is going to become frustrated with the lack of political reforms. Of course, many of them fear a peasant revolt as much as the oligarchs do. But that sounds like the history of Mexico.

Kim G said...

China is not a third-world country, but it's far from rich. Average GDP per capita is about $5,300 USD, well below Mexico's which runs about $7,000.  Yes, the new cities on the coast glitter, (at least when they wipe off the smog) but there are hundreds of millions of poor peasants still struggling in the interior.

I'm in Muycontento's camp, though I think the system is less evil than it once was. But it still has a long ways to go.

Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we're thrilled we don't have to live under a communist regime.

Steve Cotton said...

You are, of course, correct. Beijing and Shanghai are rich cities. The rest of the country, though, is still stuck in the pre-industrial age. In that sense, history has not changed much. But there is no doubt the country is accumulating wealth.

I am not certain how to measure the evil level in the Chinese Communist system. All I know is that the government's fear of information sharing is a very good indicator that something is rotten in the city of Beijing.

As bizarre as Mexico's governmental system is, I love its freedom orientation.