I wish I could find the photos of my one and only visit to China. They weren’t digital, digital wasn’t available. They were on 35mm film (shot with a Praktica B200 if anyone cares, and I still have it). They are in several packets somewhere.
That was around 1990 and even then, I found China to be nothing like the evil communist empire it was painted by the press. There weren’t many laws, in fact as far as traffic was concerned there seemed to be none at all. It seems to me that as long as you stay out of politics there, you can have a pretty good life.
Sure, people there don’t earn much compared to the West but then everything was so cheap, you don’t need much money at all. If you sold a house in Birmingham you could buy a town in China. The people weren’t oppressed. They were mostly pretty happy.
I mean, if it’s that bad a regime, how come we keep seeing stories about roads being built around someone’s house because they refused to move out, or the one shabby shack in the middle of a brand new housing estate because the shabby-shack owner refused to sell to the developers? In the UK they would have been subject to compulsory purchase and the residents frogmarched out. In China, redevelopment of entire blocks of flats can be held up by one stubborn sod.
We had ‘minders’ while there because it was work, none of us spoke a word of Mandarin and they were terrified of losing us. We were not prevented from photographing anything we wanted, not even inside the government buildings in Tiananmen Square.
Incidentally, Beijing had a lot of street sweepers keeping it clean but the only time I saw one of our minders tense was when he and I were smoking in Tiananmen square. It wasn’t the smoking. It was the cigarette butts. China is very proud of Tiananmen Square. Anywhere else in China you can dump a rusty truck or a dead elephant and nobody cares. In Tianamen Square, you do not drop any litter at all. Not one butt. If you stab someone you will be arrested for getting blood on the tiles. That’s why the tanks stopped for that student.
In China, if you smoke, nobody cares at all. Not in the slightest. They have not become weak little crybabies who demand their government protect them from a smell they dislike. If we ever go to war with China they will kick our arses and one of the main reasons is the Leftie enfeeblement of a large chunk of our population.
In the West we have law upon law against offending the ever-twitching nostrils of the Righteous or hurting their gossamer feelings by saying something not directed at them, to someone they don’t know. Or even saying something they disagree with.
In China, people can still look after themselves. Insult someone in China and they will choose one of the following options:
a) Insult you back while smiling, often in a way that you won’t understand is an insult until days later.
b) Rage at you in Mandarin so fast that even if you can speak the language you will have no idea what he is saying and will be expecting him to go all Jackie Chan on you at any moment.
c) Smack you in the mouth and move on.
Option c does not bring a charge of assault down upon them. They still live in the real world.
It’s now over thirty years since I was there, drinking some perfumed evil spirit with pig farmers, being carried back to the hotel and having to visit the Great Wall the next day. The photos were essential, I don’t remember much of that day.
One thing I do remember was a rare glimpse of the Chinese police. They were moving on a beggar. Gently, but determinedly. The beggar had transgressed by troubling tourists and that was not allowed.
Overall, China is not that bad a place. If you feel strongly about political change, best do it somewhere else. They really don’t like that. They don’t like murderers or rapists or drug dealers either – those are lucky if the police catch them first. Overall though, it’s a pretty nice place to live, I think.
You need to know ‘Lu Wai’ (old foreigner) because you’ll be called that often. It’s not like France or Germany where you can blend in by keeping silent. In China, if you’re not Chinese, you are very noticeable.
You definitely need to know that they drink spirits from tumblers and they have a tradition that the guest’s glass must never be less than full. Take a sip and they top it up. You have no idea how much you’re drinking. Also, if someone lifts their glass and says ‘Gambey’ to you, you are both expected to down it. The buggers have filled yours!
Another useful phrase is ‘Mae win ti’ which means ‘No problem’. You hear that a lot.
An aside (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?) – in Marseille for a conference, some years before the China visit, I was approached by one of those English types who think that all foreigners understand English but are deaf. You just have to shout it at them to get through. He wanted the post office. Which was behind him.
I tolerated him long enough to recall enough O-level French to say ‘Ah, oui, la gare’, and then gave him broken-English directions to the railway station. To get there he first had to turn to face the post office. Never saw him again. Probably for the best.
Can’t do that in China. It’s a very hard language to learn. They have Mandarin and Cantonese, they have many dialects and they have words that can mean very different things depending on the tone of voice it’s pronounced in. You can get a warm handshake or a black eye with the same sentence, depending on your tone.
Incidentally, in the University of Beijing they have a vast library. It contains pretty much everything written in every language plus a lot written only in the Chinese languages. They know a hell of a lot of stuff we don’t, you realise?
Maybe that’s why China isn’t smokefree.
In the West… well, we call China ‘oppressive’ because it does not oppress the same way we do.
But we are learning from them. Soon we too will have controlled internet and one-child families.
I wonder how hard it is to move to China. To the Free East.
I think Brian Aldiss was prophetic with his short story ‘All the World’s Tears’. Eric Idle was prophetic also in 1980, with this…
Better get some Mandarin classes. They are going to walk the next world war.