No, everybody was certainly not Kung Fu fighting. Nor were we tailed 24/7 by secret Chinese intelligence officials – which we were told would be the case by our American tour guide. And although our DNA may have been collected from one of our many wine glasses enjoyed along the way, I’m pretty ding-dang sure our suitcase weren’t rummaged through in our hotel rooms…as a counterintelligence friend of ours warned….
Aside from our touristy The Legend of Kung Fu show at the ritzy Red Theater in Beijing, we failed to sight even one local Chinese resident spontaneously breaking out into Kung Fu. Actually, I would hazard to guess that’s there probably a much higher probability of spotting such frivolity as part of some flash mob in “Some Town,” U.S. of A. And while we did take a plethora of wide-angle camera shots of surrounding crowds hoping to catch the spies that must have been surely in our midst, I am sad to report a complete lack of photogenic proof. But hey, that doesn’t stop the Sasquatch-Hunters or UFO-Believers, does it?!
While we really didn’t expect to see Kung Fu fighting in the streets on our recent foray into China, at the same time we really didn’t know quite what to expect; perhaps our things would be rifled and electronic devices all copied and implanted with bugs and other MI-6 eavesdropping devices. My parents went to China – twice – in the very early eighties, when it literally has just “opened-up” a few years after the crushing weight of the 1970s Cultural Revolution had finally been lifted. They, of course, informed my early opinions of that far-away land, one that we learned next-to-nothing about in all of my formal schooling. And that concept of China centered on horrible food, substandard lodgings, an almost complete lack of cars, and the ubiquitous use of the abacus in place of cash registers or calculators. Oh, and the tours back then were escorted by the military and party officials, quite transparently.
That early concept of the Far East didn’t change too much over much of my early adult life. I did, at numerous times, get to enjoy Hong Kong and Macau, the latter first under Portuguese administration in 1999, and then as part of Chinese sovereignty in the 21st century under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. But it always was very clear that Hong Kong and Macau were not, and remain quite distinct from China. So, my early conceptual formulation, combined with decades of exposure to the indoctrinating fear and loathing of the U.S. political and military-industrial complex towards China, along with the arrogance and ignorance of most of my fellow Americans, resulted in several misconceptions about this intriguing continent-sized country, the most populous one on the planet, with the world’s second most powerful economy.
The first is its name: China’s name is not China …at least to the Chinese. We use China most likely because of its Sanskrit derivation from the Qin (pronounced “chin”) Kingdom, one of the first unified regions of today’s China that would have been reached via land-travel from the west in ancient times. Oddly unknown to the west, the Chinese peoples’ common name for their country is Zhōngguó (中国, meaning “Central Nation State.”
The next most obvious thing? Chinese people don’t speak “Chinese.” Mainland China is made up mostly of the Han ethnicity, but includes large percentages of another 56 ethnic minorities (Tibetans perhaps being the most famous). Unlike many of its Asian neighbors like Japan, Korea or Vietnam, China is not homogeneous. One could say that China is more like the “Europe of Asia.” When we Westerners think of “The Chinese,” the Han majority is what we conjure, even without knowing it. And like most other places that aren’t the great melting pot that America once was, each minority in China retains its own traditions, costume and culture. And this includes language as well.
Mandarin is the “Chinese language” that we might commonly associate with what is spoken in mainland China. But the Chinese heard in movies and TV may more likely be Cantonese as spoken in Hong Kong. Putonghua, as Mandarin is called in Mandarin, is the officially unifying language taught in schools and used by the central government and on national television and radio. But there are wide and sometimes huge differences between languages in China. For instance, people from Shanghai speak Shanghainese, which is by and large incompatible with Mandarin! Come to think of it, I reckon that’s not much different from a Californian trying to converse with someone from, say, the hills of Kentucky.
And speaking of language, don’t believe the hype about the lack of English speakers in China. There is, in fact, a fair amount of English spoken, especially in and around tourist areas and attractions. However, while English may be spoken, it may not be understood. A danger here, experienced firsthand, is that service industry personnel will smile, say “yes” and happily agree with you, especially when they haven’t properly understood. Oh, and an important tip: taxi drivers don’t generally speak English (at all), so it’s always good to have your destination written down in Chinese. See notes on language above!
Chinese food in China is NOT anything like Manchu Wok! “Duh,” I hear you say, I know, I know. But since I’ve been asked this particular question more than any other since traveling to China, I just have to include what should be fairly obvious. Chinese cuisine focuses on seafood, although beef and pork are widely available and served in quantity to Westerners. Most surprisingly, it’s chicken that is in most modern demand (see Thanksgiving in the Far East for more). Noodles are the staple starch in the north, replaced by rice is the south (where people are smaller in stature as a result, or so I’m told). The food was very good, and yes, Peking Duck is really so very much better in China!
And what about the “one child policy” that we’ve all heard so much about? Well, many Chinese do have siblings, and it’s becoming more and more common. The Chinese Government’s One Child Policy was only recently put into effect in 1979, so most people born before very likely have at least one brother or sister. In the West, the policy seems like – and at times is one of the worst forms of human rights abuses imaginable. But, in a country that was suffering unsustainable growth with well over 1 billion people at the time, such a measure of austerity make some logical sense, less the world have another Africa on its hands. Now numbers like billion don’t mean much to most people, but after a visit to China, one realizes just how many people China has! More than any other country in the world, in fact. In the mid-1970s, population models showed China’s growth spiraling out of control. Like anywhere else in the world, when there is an incongruity between people and resources, undesirable happenings like war, unrest, famine, and crime all can result. Personal sacrifice for general peace and harmony is a deep-seeded Chinese mindset stemming a long affair with Confucianism, where respect for elders (and family) and loyalty to the state are foremost above all else.
And, seldom noted in the West, the policy was never intended as blanket coverage; farmers and China’s ethnic minorities, typically much more blue-collar and agri-based, have always been allowed more than one child, especially if the first child is a girl. So if you travel to the countryside or into remote regions of China, you’ll find families with more than one child. Although the policy remains in force, reduced and stabilized birth-rates, combined with a now aging population, has resulted in shifts in the application of the rule. For instance, if two people born under the policy without siblings marry, they may be permitted to have two children.
How’bout capitalism and democracy there? Well, my own response is that even America isn’t a democracy – it’s a republic…. And our “free market” is heavily influenced and to some extent controlled by the state. China’s economy is forecasted by the International Monetary Fund to surpass that of the United States within a decade or two. Their national per capita income will double, placing once destitute China on par with European countries like Italy and Spain – without the current economic and/or political woes those two countries currently suffer from. China has been and continues to open to the global village, and while it’s a reasonable expectation that Western influences must result in change to China, China is smart enough to absorb the best of capitalism from afar while translating it into a uniquely Chinese context. Don’t confuse China’s recent economic revolution with Westernization. Those are two very different ideas.
Popular protests don’t mean that the Socialist Party’s power is in decline. The government in China, while suffering from a brutality-infused past and still heavy-handed by Western standards, still garners respect on the street. Nationalism is strong, and people are proud. For instance, older senior leaders in the party have admitted that the Cultural Revolution was a terrible mistake, and have acknowledged that much reform is still needed moving forward. It seems that at least while good times continue to persist, China’s citizenry will continue to support their national leaders and their leadership…even if sometimes only grudgingly. In a country as large, diverse, and heavily populated as China, stability is valued over almost all else. One thing for certain, the future of China’s political system will not be dictated by America…nor anyone else in the world…except for the Chinese themselves.
While American-style individualism is just starting to take root, American-style individual freedoms are not. China’s pop culture is undergoing a booming revolution, and like any fast-paced and progressive change, it comes with a whole array of counter-culture features and trends, from tattoo parlors to non-conformist artists and musicians. However, self-expression does not equate to freedom or independence. The wider Chinese society still is centered on the loyal clan over the free individual, and traditional Chinese values are still held in high regard. While horrifically destructive to the Chinese, the recent Cultural Revolution nor their conversion to Socialism/Communism post WWII failed to purge their central principles of sanctity of family and loyalty to nation. For most Chinese (and just like in Japan), the greater good of social harmony remains a noble goal that continues to trump individualism. The trick for the new Chinese moving forward will be finding the right balance that will maintain harmony between the New China and the Old.
“But surely the internet must revolutionize China,” I hear you thinking. Sure, the internet can’t help but change China, and the change the Internet brings is mostly good. But rather than causing a revolution, wiring the country with the information superhighway is better characterized as an evolutionary change. The central government in Beijing allows wide and expansive access, but retains veto power when it senses a threat to the state. Sure, Facebook is blocked in China, but would you really miss your friend’s constant status updates and inane check-ins? I wouldn’t – and didn’t while in China for a week, where, by the way, Jody and I were completely digital-free…except for our cameras. And in terms of this blog, in 2014 I had almost ~28,000 views, with only 15 of those coming from China. But while Internet users may grumble about state censorship in China, few activists are really ready to rumble over it.
And finally, what about what we’re indoctrinated to fear as an aggressively militaristic China threatening the West? C’mon people. The America War Machine remains the most-funded, best-equipped, and most destructive force on the planet, and is used to violent effect without much restraint across the globe. I find it absolutely hilarious that we in America question the rise of the Chinese military. When we stop trying to be Team American: World Police (“Fuck Yeah!”), perhaps we can see China’s intent through a less clouded and distorting lens. Sure, China is building up its military, and yes they even have a fairly capable blue-water Navy. By why do we panic whenever any other country builds an aircraft carrier? China is not about to challenge the U.S. militarily anytime soon, or is it likely to invade its Asian neighbors. While “pacifist” is too strong (or weak as it were) a word, the Chinese are not itching for a fight. Like we are, at least. “Hello Kettle, this is Pot….”
However, more importantly, in a more philosophical context, China does not inspire hearts and minds like America does. The precepts of America – government by, for and of the people (even if it doesn’t work), our Bill of Rights and individual freedoms (when the NSA isn’t listening), and the very idea of the “American Dream” all touch hearts and win minds. China is simply too narrow-minded and self-centered which serves to continually isolate and insulate. There is little doubt that China will be a world economic power. But it’s hard to imagine it becoming a world cultural or political power on par with the United States.
So, can we in the West look objectively at the Eastern Dragon without bias and misconceptions? In my own experience, having spent 20 years in the military-industrial complex – much of that serving in the Pacific – and having experienced China firsthand, however small a sliver that was, I believe that much of the Western analysis of China, particularly in the last decade, has been overly alarmist. It’s time to approach China more honestly, without fear – and without misconceptions. A genuinely cooperative and more open relationship could open an unprecedented phase of peace and prosperity, not just around the Pacific, but across the globe.