Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The China that I Want to See

Several months ago, as I went through my old National Geographic magazine collection at home, I stumbled upon an old issue that stood out from the rest: dated November, 1964, it was published 16 years before I was born.

The cover featured a female Chinese performer adorned in a traditional Chinese opera outfit, complete with full make-up of pinkish white. There was a headline that read, simply, “This is the China I Saw,” a short teaser to a 48-page article written by a Danish journalist named Jorgen Bisch about a country that, at the time, was not seen by many who lived in the West.

As I read through the piece and the many colorful spreads, I wondered how Bisch’s feature article could help me make sense of my own China Road Trip during the 2008 Olympic Games. What, aside from offering a base for comparison showing China’s record-breaking transformations since the economic reforms started in 1978, could this 44-year-old story reveal?

The obvious and simple contrasts are certainly there. Bisch toured China under heavy supervision, always chaperoned by four to 15 guides who stood ready to lecture him about the virtues of communism. He was whisked from factory to factory so that the plant managers could recite state-sanctioned production figures and numbers that conveyed China’s industriousness and efficiency. He missed multiple chances to take scenic shots as his drivers and handlers neglected his repeated requests to pull over during car trips. And, most memorable of all, on an overnight train ride he woke up at six in the morning to the loudspeakers declaring that “socialism is good.”

Conversely, I will be among the estimated 500,000 foreigners, including 30,000 journalists, roaming the Chinese streets. Though my e-mails might still be read and some websites I try to access blocked, I do not expect a dozen officials carrying out duties of annoyance around me. As opposed to Bisch’s hesitant drivers, I will probably be encouraged to ride through the many new subway stations to my heart’s content, just so I may catch a glimpse of the new and supposedly better and more sophisticated China. And at least around Beijing, factories will most likely be shut down so that athletes can actually compete without choking on air pollution.

All of these contrasts, to be sure, are interesting to read, especially to the many general readers who might not know very much about China’s ancient traditions, political revolutions, and modern transformations. The human mind, after all, is often attracted to comfort zones: beginnings and endings are desirable, because they bring closure and clean understandings. Hence most are tempted to see the world in episodic ways.

But realities are rarely classified neatly, and as hard as the Chinese regime may have tried and still try, it is difficult to sever history completely from the present and the future. In China’s case, as in almost everything else, continuums and past connections are just as valuable tools to learn about the country as the exciting new developments and building projects.

One must bear in mind that changes are sometimes reactions, affirmations, breaks, or connections (or all of the above) to the past. After all, when the Ming Dynasty rulers built the Forbidden City in the early 1400s, they had the previous dynastic rulers’ palaces in mind. When Mao Zedong took down 10,000 homes in the 1950s to make way for the open and accessible Tiananmen Square, he had the closed and mysteriously backward Forbidden City in mind. And when Sir Norman Foster designed Beijing’s new airport terminal in the 2000s, he had the august and revered Forbidden City in mind.

Revealingly, in all of these cases, rulers, political figures, and architects managed to use the Forbidden City as a reference point to evoke a “New China.” With this fact in mind, how can one look at a new building in China merely as a stand-alone new development and still render its many layers of meanings, both sweeping and narrow, justice?

On Bisch’s six-week China tour, he covered 15,000 miles that took him to Beijing, Xi’an, Yan’an, Nanjing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and a few other cities and villages. By coincidence, with only a few variations, my China Road Trip over the next four weeks will mirror Bisch’s.

As I explore Beijing and capture its modern and historic urban scene, hit up the glitzy financial capital of Shanghai, tour the rural villages away from the coast, take a train ride with domestic migrants into the crowded and complicated social scene of Chongqing, revisit the international trading port of Guangzhou of yesteryear, and examine how life has changed in Hong Kong eleven years after the British left town, I will keep Bisch’s trip in mind.

And, in doing so, I hope my China trip and the reports that I file will go beyond the “transformation snapshots” narrative, and instead reveal what, exactly, the Chinese have in mind when they think of the 2008 Olympics and the new buildings, social norms, and feelings that come with it.

“You may photograph whatever you like,” Marshal Chen Yi, China’s Vice Premier and Foreign Minister, told Bisch at the time of his visit. Though Bisch had some trouble taking Chen’s invitation literally, I fully intend to take up on the Vice Premier’s offer.

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