Learnings - about China and its People


It is nearly three weeks since I rolled into old city of Xi’an in central China, happy that, after all my efforts of the previous month and a half, I had managed to reach my destination. 


So ended the first part of my journey from Hong Kong to England – which, despite cutting a 2,800km cross-section through half of China, is really no more than the prologue to the great endeavour to cross the vast tracts of land that lie to the west, on the road to Europe and home. 


But this pause has given me a chance to reflect on what I have learnt in the time I have had on the road so far.  Much of it may be very personal, but some may be of general interest and some may even carry with it some insight into your own life. 


I suppose it is easiest to start with what I have learned about China itself, and the interesting, wonderful and unique people that populate her.  This article concerns only this subject.  What I learned about myself, and perhaps life in general is covered in the next article.


To say that I had planned a route from Hong Kong to Xi’an would be an overstatement.  When I looked at the map, I recognised a single place-name in the entire swathe of land between these two cities.  This place was the town of Guilin.  Of Guilin, I knew almost nothing except what I remembered from a few photos my brother had taken when he passed through there roughly 18 years ago.  So with a single waypoint in mind, I set out to see what China is


Perhaps it was simple good fortune that my route led where it did, but the first thing I came to see about China is that much of it is stunningly beautiful landscape.  The few trips I had made to China up to this point were almost entirely limited to Beijing, with cursory sorties to the Great Wall – admittedly an impressive sight.  However, I was not prepared to be repeatedly blown away by the spectacular scenery that characterises the provinces of Guangxi, Hunan, Hubei, Chongqing and Shaanxi.  This has entirely altered my opinion of China as a travel destination, and perhaps because of this, so too has it changed my desire to know and understand more of this country. 


China is no longer just an “interesting” country to me, necessary and important to understand because of its role and influence in the world.  It is a land of beauty, majesty, romance, mythic and mysterious places, incredible scale and artistry.  It is a fertile homeland of grand rivers and soaring peaks, bustling agriculture, blazing autumn colours and vibrant patchworks of fruit orchards.  I struggle to think of a country to visit that offers as much variety of natural beauty.  The United States perhaps, I suppose Europe taken as a whole as well.  But would you think to travel to China to see this?  Certainly this idea had never been impressed on me to any extent.  Yet beyond the places I have seen are even more remarkable landscapes – Tibet, Yunnan, the Qinghai desert and the Taklamakan desert to the west, the final frontier of the Tian Shan, the Heavenly Mountains.


So I hope the little I have seen and reported may awaken your imagination to the possibilities of travel in this unusual land.  Of seeing beyond the frantic pace of China’s burgeoning cities and the relics of her ancient civilizations, out into the natural artistry of her hinterland beyond. 


So much for the land.  What of China’s people? 


Again, my expectations were almost entirely neutral.  I was a blank page.  While people warned me to take care, fearing for my possessions or personal safety at the hands of unscrupulous men, I didn’t take much notice of this.  Instead, I carried with me a vague sense that for all their “otherness” to me, there does at least seem to be a gentleness and civility in the Chinese that, for example, the Russians lack. 


In the event, my experience to date is that the people of China are kind, friendly, inquisitive and hard-working.  I have absolutely no complaints at all about how I have been treated as I passed, an alien, through their land.  I have been shown repeated kindness and hospitality in an array of circumstances; people have laughed with me and at me; they have gone out of their way to help me, and have proved incredibly patient in dealing with my struggling efforts to communicate with them in their language.  Although I have met other travellers who find them rude and difficult and accept that this may have been their experience, I do not count that as my experience at all. 


Before I disappear into a prolonged eulogy to the Chinese people, it is equally obvious to me that if all I can see in a people is friendliness, “sweetness and light”, then I must be missing something of the picture or else I am being naïve.  I have seen an incredible unity of purpose, enjoyment and community in the Chinese.  But I know at least enough history to see that the same unity that brings hundreds of people together on a town square in the dawn gloaming to perform their rituals of “tai qi” may also be harnessed in the raising of a mob, the removal of heads from bodies and general insurrection and bloody mayhem in the land.  The full picture then must be more nuanced than I can presently see.


The limits of my insight, constrained as they are by my ability to speak mandarin, mean that I cannot claim to understand the soul or the social predicament of the Chinese.  Is it even possible to talk of such things as applied to a whole people?  Are they happy?  Are they restless?  Are they searching for something more?  Wherein lies their hope for the future?  I don’t know the answer to these questions, and so far I have not found much out that will help me form any answer. 


However, to the outsider, it seems as though, for the most part, in their pursuit for a better life, their lot is thrown in with economic prosperity.  “Moderate prosperity for all” is one of the Communist Party slogans which characterises the mood and drive of Chinese society at this time.  And my anecdotal observations suggest that the standard of living is indeed rising throughout China. 


Overlaying this conclusion, which is no more than an impression really for me, is the obvious proliferation of industry throughout this country.  Everywhere I went – albeit with a few exceptions – the land was alive with change – from railway traffic to new shop openings, from the shining new palaces of city developments to mass inundations of domestic tourism, pristine new arteries of infrastructure to aspirational banking adverts, from unending files of river traffic to the beeping of a billion mobile phones – China is coming.  Few people stand by this wayside of economic progress with nothing to do.  If they are not working, it is because they have something better to do - the men are gambling, the women are eating or playing with the children. 


Yet for all its dynamic launch into the 21st century, the greater portion of the people I have cycled past eat food that has been grown and prepared using agricultural techniques and tools that date back to before the Flood. 


I suppose the question is how will all this hold together?  As I understand it, this is the grand concern of China’s leaders on a daily basis.  How do we maintain unity?  So long as they can provide more jobs year on year, and continue the pace of economic growth, then political unity is possible.  So long as people’s lives are changing for the better, perhaps they can overlook the questions of the social contract into which they have entered – a one party state, the political control that flows from this, in return for the vast acceleration program to drive China’s economy forward.  But what will happen if the economy falls over?  Anything I say would be mere speculation since I am not an economist.  But even a cursory view of China’s history shows that it is one of oscillation between periods of unity on the one hand and fracture on the other.


Although I had very few conversations about politics so far, I did sit down with a couple of men in Xi’an who spoke good English, during which I got my best insight (so far) of how an average person might think about all this.  Briefly discussing some of China’s history through the 20th century, both these men made some concessions that mistakes had been made in the running of the country.  But was this not inevitable?  Everyone makes mistakes.  And Chairman Mao was no different.  But on balance, Mao “made a good contribution to China” – apparently they were able to quantify exactly how good: the ratio was 70% good: 30% bad.  Both men freely admitted that they spent little time reflecting on political questions and none discussing them with their friends.  As far as installing full democracy (in the Western sense) in China, one ruminated that this level of change may come about in 100 years or so.  But it would be very slow.  I could only think that if there were no signs of change occurring any faster than that, then really that meant there were no discernible signs of change at all.  Political commentators in the West rarely stray beyond predicting what might happen next year, let alone in a hundred years.


The same man even asked the quite reasonable question, what great good a western model of democracy could be expected to bring to China?  It is a legitimate question.  The point is not whether I have an answer to this, but rather that as westerners we take it for granted that democracy is better than one-party rule.  In China, many people have yet to be convinced that this is the case.  My impression is that any movement that would seek to convince the Chinese people otherwise has a massive amount of inertia to overcome, not to mention the opposition that would be met from those parties for whom multi-party democracy is contrary to their personal interests. 


So much for matters that, in all honesty, are way beyond my expertise.  Nevertheless, I hope that as I spend more time in China, I will have a better idea of where it is going as a country, and how it is going to get there.


For all my own personal interest in things spiritual, I have encountered very little directly in the way of the religion or the spiritual direction of the Chinese.  Speaking from the perspective of the Christian faith for a moment, there are very few outward signs of Christianity in China.  In a month and a half I passed two churches, and met no one who identified themselves as Christian.  Admittedly I hadn’t at any point thought to ask.  Yet despite this lack of obvious signs, a recent estimate I read had the number of Christians in China today at 40 million. 


In Xi’an I have met some Christian families and was shown some video footage of services run by so-called “underground churches”.  There are two main types of churches in China.  The first are the state-approved churches, which are registered and licensed with the state.  The pastors who lead these churches are appointed by the government and are ordinarily members of the Communist Party.  The rest are unlicensed churches which are referred to as “underground churches”.  They operate on a semi-secret basis, although the government has given them a much freer hand in recent times, and turns a blind eye to their activities. 


Certainly the videos of these church meetings were pretty animated and demonstrated a widespread hunger for the kind of spiritual nourishment they apparently get from these meetings.  Bands of Chinese evangelists roam the countryside from village to village performing plays and music and preaching the gospel, which appears to be received readily.  The estimate of 40 million Christians in China is all the more remarkable when you consider that many westerners’ view is that Christianity is a religion of the West.  Yet with 25 million Christians in a country like Indonesia, or 2 million now reported in Iran, and only around 1 million in the UK, can this view really be held any longer?


Certainly Christianity came to China from the west as long ago as the 7th century AD, and then with greater impetus with European trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.  European missionaries tended to bear the brunt of Chinese animosity against Western influence over the creaking artifice of Chinese civilization as it was dragged rather reluctantly into the 20th century.  Whenever ill-feeling flared up against the extortionate terms European governments and armies managed to extract out of the Imperial palace for their commerce, the nearest Europeans to hand often were headed for the chop, and these tended to be missionaries (together with their converts), as in the Boxer Rebellion.  The fact that European governments would respond by sending in gunboats to protect or avenge their missionaries didn’t help in severing the link in the minds of the Chinese between the speculative commercial policies of the European powers and the message of peace and salvation from their missionaries.  To the indignant Chinese, this was all one and the same.  On top of this, rumours circulated that missionaries were really out to abduct children and sell them into slavery, and other such salacious claims besides.  Nothing so very different from the early days of Christianity under the Roman Empire, when Christians were reviled amid accusations of incest because they were always going round saying they loved their brothers and sisters, and of cannibalism because their ritual was said to involve the eating of a man’s flesh and the drinking of his blood.   The fact is wherever the gospel is preached, it can expect to meet with resistance along the way, and in China it has been no different.   Yet perhaps the government has learned one of the obvious lessons of history – that the more the Church is persecuted, the more it flourishes.  This might explain the relative alleviation of pressure on the church in more recent times.  Instead, the glittering message of Western materialism and economic prosperity, albeit dressed in Chinese garb, might be used to keep those who are searching for more in life from turning to the Christian faith.


Whatever is really going on, it is interesting to hear of the proliferation of the underground church now, when Western powers no longer hold the upper hand, but rather file through the diplomatic palaces of Beijing, cap in hand, trying to angle for some of the crumbs that may fall from the Dragon’s table. 


As for the other faiths and worldviews that blow through the lands of China, the oldest and most established is Buddhism, and one sees Buddhist shrines and temples fairly frequently.  But there is little to suggest that the people themselves visit these with any great reverence. Perhaps the cultural revolution dampened enthusiasm for the Buddhist faith, I am not really sure.


However, what is common is a general belief in the value of acquiring luck, and the multitude of ways in which this is done.  Lucky numbers, lucky places, lucky days and festivals, tying red ribbon around your wing mirror for luck on the road, lucky words and names, the whole system of Feng-Shui.  All this suggests a desire to control their destiny by the choices they make in many details of their life, and a belief that this is possible. 


Beyond this is a tremendous reverence for dead ancestors.  This becomes so elevated at times that honouring the dead can stray over the line into ancestor worship.  Some of the traditions such as burning money as a kind of spiritualistic wire transfer to the dead for their use in the afterlife reflect both the extreme practicality of the Chinese as well as revealing perhaps a denial of the painful reality of the death of loved ones. 


The main region of China where the Muslim faith is practised and widespread lies further to the west on my journey.  However, Xi’an, being linked to the west as part of the network of trade routes that make up the Silk Road, is home to a relatively large Muslim population.  The Muslim quarter in the heart of the old city is one of the most interesting, lively and fun places to visit.  I hope I will learn more of this aspect of China next year as I travel deep into the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang. 


I could go on about many other aspects of the Chinese people which I have noticed, and which have begun to condense from impressions into more solid opinions but which surely cannot yet be said to be undeniable truths about these people.  A lot of these are good, some of them are not.  But it remains very early days and I would not dream of thinking I have gained more than the briefest of glimpses into who these people really are. 


The one thing I have found is that whatever a Chinese person is doing, they are never far away from a smile.  Unlike some of the Russians I have encountered, who can render one the greatest service with an unwavering scowl on their face, in the Middle Kingdom you can be run out of town by a Chinaman who is beaming at you from ear to ear.  And this I enjoy.  Much is forgiven in a smile!


I look forward to getting to know them better in the days to come. 

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