China: 1989

By RJ West

    "Take a large bowl," I said, "Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy.  Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in 3 000 years of civilization, bellow kan pei—which means 'dry cup'—and drink to the dregs."  Procopius stared at me.  "And I will be wise?" he asked.  "Better," I said.  "You will be Chinese."

             - Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds: A Novel of Ancient China that Never Was.


Like ancient Daoists before me, I wandered across the mythical land of China for the short span of a month.  I sailed from the mountain city of Chongqing though the rugged gorges of the mighty Yangtze, to thriving Shanghai and beyond!  Certainly the most beautiful place in China is Guilin.  Floating down the Li River through the 27 000 mountains—huge pinnacles of rock which surround and dot the city—as water buffalo lazily watch from cool, green water as you pass them by.  China is truly from the mists of time; as morning sun rises from the hills it is met by a lonely pagoda, while far below shadows play taiji quan.  Centuries have weathered, but not beaten, the Buddhist and Daoist temples scattered throughout the mountains and cities.

While few people speak English, a timid few will try “Hello.”  Standing on a street corner, a foreigner will soon find himself the center of attention for an entire village, as Chinese stare unabashed, a smile and “Ni hao ma?” (How are you?) will quickly earn you new friends.  The country is 30 years behind us, the government supplies 90% of all jobs and housing (there is some capitalism).  People dress just as you and I, though the women all wear knee stockings, as they can not afford full length ones.  Apartments are small with a communal kitchen and bathroom; foreigners are not allowed in domestic dwellings.  Work is gauged by quantity not quality as workers get paid more for everything produced above government quota.  Most transportation is by bicycle and you haven’t seen rush hour until you tried crossing a street in Shanghai as a million bicycles stream past!

I landed in Beijing three months after the massacre in Tian'anmen Square. There were no lights, scaffolding & tools lay everywhere, yet there was no workers.  I had to fill out forms in the dark; computers didn't exist, everything was done by hand—if they decided to.  The favorite game in China is: “Let’s make a rule.  Today’s rule is…  Tomorrow it will be different.”  Beijing was still under martial law, soldiers in full packs carrying Russian assault rifles stood at attention on street corners.  Tian’anmen Square was closed to every one but foreign tourists; port-a-potties lined one street, a museum served as barracks for soldiers I joked with standing guard around the Square.  Scorch marks on the white concrete slabs told of where fires had burned during the protest, and broken steps leading up to the People’s Monument told of where tanks had vaulted them.  Local people told me that the government had said nothing was going on, but they could hear the gunfire.  Outside Beijing, when storekeepers heard I’d been there, they would lean in and whisper: “What’s happening?  We don’t hear anything!”  The government had ceased control of all media just after the “incident.”

Looking at stunning works of artistry & craftsmanship in all walks of ancient life one can only be saddened at the total lack of care now.  During the Cultural Revolution, “the Great Leap Forward,” everything old was destroyed to make way for the New China.  I remember a statue of a dragon, beautiful except where three different shades of concrete had been slapped in to repair it.  An ancient army truck with bamboo scaffolding built around it, slowly drove along the wall surrounding the Forbidden City, a fire hose sprayed red paint over the wall, down the street, pooling in potholes and gutters.  The Chinese have a great national pride but they never know when they will be called to destroy their cultural treasures again.

On special occasions the emperor visited four Daoist temples (Daoism being China’s only indigenous religion).  The Temple of Heaven is the only one still a temple; the others became restaurants.  One evening outside the Temple of Earth restaurant I met a Chen style taiji teacher & his class practicing in the park.  His belly peeked between shirt buttons, & he constantly grinned awful teeth.  My guide told him I practiced taiji in Canada, so he brought his students under a street lamp to show me his style.  This fat little fellow moved as if his body held no bones, he struck like lightening then melted into perfect calm.  He told me, through one of his students, that if I was going to be in Beijing for a month he was in the park every evening & would teach me the form.  To stay or continue on?

I continued on, arriving late to my hotel in Xi’an.  In the dinning hall the staff was huddled around an 18-year-old waitress while a man moved his hands around her.  When I commented on this she was embarrassed until I asked if what was being done to her was qigong, then she was shocked (Chinese are amazed if you know anything abut their culture).  It turned out that a qigong convention had just wrapped up, masters from all over China & Taiwan had been in attendance.  I tried explaining that I studied taiji quan, she & her friends puzzled over what I was saying, after I tried several variants of pronunciation they said, “Ah! Taiji quan!”  I had a Mandarin/English dictionary with me & the only way to learn is to speak it; the waitress kept laughing at my attempts of her language until I told her stop laughing & teach me to say it correctly.  And that is where I learned my limited Mandarin.

In Xi’an stand 1st emperor Qin’s army of terracotta warriors.  I shall always remember Xi'an as the dusty city!  What is not brown from road dust is gray from coal dust.  Huge stacks rise over the city surrounded by mountains of coal, the major power supply for the city.  Inside a shop I bought a statue of a terracotta general for my dad who most wanted to see this wonder of the world, it came packed in its own terracotta dust, thus it is so thick in the city it permeates everything, especially your eyes and throat!

Chongqing, one of the cities the Flying Tigers helped defend during the Sino-Japanese war.  Tunnels were drilled into the mountain as air raid shelters from Japanese bombers.  If you're brave enough to open your eyes as vehicles blindside hairpin turns, weaving back & forth across mountain roads, you’ll see the locked gates leading down into the mountain, now used as storage facilities. Natural gas buses are used for long distance travel, farmers use them to come into the city.  These battered buses look as if they’ve been in demolition derbies all over China, the gas is stored in a "balloon" criss-crossed with patches, atop the bus.  No smoking please!

Incidentally, every one smokes!  Every one sounds like they have lung cancer too, whether it’s from the cigarettes or the pollution, I don’t know.  Don’t be surprised if, when walking up to some pretty little sales girl, she turns, hacks up a lung & horks it into the garbage pail before smiling sweetly & asking how she can help you.  Every one spits—great, hacking, gobs!

Tip of the day.  B.Y.O.C. Bring Your Own Chopsticks.  Most restaurants use wooden chopsticks resplendent with the teeth marks of its many patrons.  Who knows maybe somebody famous left their mark!  Make a nifty souvenir.

Chang Jiang is the true name of the Yangtze Jiang (river).  The river divides around an island near the mouth around Shanghai (meaning Up Ocean); the branch closest to Shanghai is called Yangtze.  Being the international city foreigners living there simply referred to the whole river as Yangtze.  I was glad I saw the three gorges of the Yangtze River when I did for they and the towns I visited along the way will soon be underwater; the people who lived there relocated to make room for the glorious new hydroelectric damn.  I spent 4 nights cruising on a ship called the Ms. Xiling.  We were told to speak simply & clearly to the staff as they spoke very little English.  Running into the girls who cleaned & kept ship only to say good morning, or thank you, or ask for more rice, I used what little Mandarin I knew, to their absolute delight.  Rumor went through the ship that I could speak Chinese.  I found myself seated for meals with a group of Taiwanese tourists.  One woman, Karen, I got along with famously as she decided 1 night to see how well I could drink Chinese liquor.  I yelled “Gan pai!” (dry cup) & dropped the shot back.  All the Chinese looked on to see my reaction, of which I disappointed them.  Karen, however, was coughing as the raw stuff burned down.  The girls rushed forward to refill out glasses (secretly I think they were routing for me, their champion gwailo (white ghost)).  Gan pai!  My empty glass came down, Karen gagged and slammed her glass home, the girls rushed in with grins & refills.  “No more!  No more!”  Karen waved them off; the evening’s entertainment was through.

It was a strange feeling, years later, to be sitting in a darkened theater watching Iron & Silk and recognizing the train station, having ridden on that same steam train from Shanghai to Hongzhou & back.  (Later still I would meet Master Pan Qingfu from that movie, after he immigrated to Canada…but that’s another story.)  Chinese are extremely proud of Hongzhou as it is the cleanest city in China.  However after days of travel on old Russian planes, boats, trains, & cars, we were not so impressed.  What did impress us was being able to eat a Western dinner at the hotel!  Believe me after weeks of rice, chickens feet, eels fresh from the rice paddy, and warm beer, you’ll want some “back-home” food too!

In Guilin I was forced (meaning I was afraid to leave the comfort of my bathroom) to spend the night watching TV in my hotel room.  An American movie in Chinese: Chuck Norris in Invasion USA.  I’ve seen many a poorly dubbed Hong Kong gongfu movie (personally I think only 5 guys did the voices for all those movies).  Well the Chinese aren’t much better.  A lot of the TV I saw was Chinese opera, high falsetto voices.   Chuck had a decent hero’s voice, but watching big, burly Puerto Ricans try and talk tough in high falsetto, opera voices was too much!

Trapped in Red China!  Papers you need to fill out upon entering the country that you’re not supposed to lose because you need them to get out of the country—didn’t have them.  Beijing airport in all its efficiency managed for me to slip by without telling me I had to have these papers.  When it came time for me to board the train in Guangdong to Hong Kong I was stopped by soldiers.  It’s time for today’s edition of Let’s Make a Rule!  After 20 min’s of sweating, explaining that: “With all the traveling, officials somewhere had accidentally kept the papers, so really you guys have them somewhere, honest!”  They checked through my luggage, filled out reports, had me fill out the forms, & in the interest of further tourist trade & not upsetting what few foreigners were still coming to the country, they let me pass.

Hong Kong: Fragrant Harbour, civilization!  I like to get out of the cities but it’s nice to get back.  Where China is all painted billboards & propaganda (government), Hong Kong is all neon & ads (corporate propaganda).  Mainlanders are highly motivated to have only 1 child, any more and their taxes go up.  You have to be careful what you say, you never know who’s listening (although everybody knows who their neighbourhood agent is).  In Hong Kong anything goes: electronics galore, techno. city, grandmothers trying to lure me into strip bars, laid out on the sidewalk side by each are the morning paper, comic books & sex magazines.  A place I would liked to have seen was Macao. Still a Portuguese colony at that time, and gambler heaven, unfortunately there was a typhoon warning in effect so I was unable to take the hydrofoil across.

October 1, the anniversary of Communism on the Mainland.  Usually a public day of celebration on Tian’anmen Square, that year however, Beijing officials were dreading what might happen.  Police were out en-mass on the streets & on rooftops, only the glorious People’s Liberation Army was on parade in the Square to celebrate.  I saw all this on news clips from my hotel.  There were many student protests in effect that week in Hong Kong.

After a month spent wandering through the mists of time, be it 30 years or 3000, it was a shock to return home to 3 dimensional faces, cutlery, & TV I understood but wasn't worth watching.  No more serene temples or quiet bonsai gardens.  China has much to gain form the West, but in return they have much to teach us.