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Date Posted: 23:25 30/05/2005

Chinese history and other fictions

Running Dog meets Yellow Emperors and red tourists in Shaanxi Province

Socialist spiritual civilization
THE MAUSOLEUM to the Yellow Emperor near Xi'an, in Shaanxi Province, is a curious homage to the ideology of Chineseness, to the overarching jingoism that seems to lie at the heart of current political realities. Grandly gnarled 5,000-year old trees stand in the middle of the courtyard, and some of the younger specimens nearby were apparently planted by the Emperor himself. Meanwhile, calligraphic inscriptions by Chairman Mao and Sun Yatsen cover the central pavillion, with the aim of demonstrating the uniqueness of China's historical experience and the unity of its 5,000-year old civilization.

Straight ahead lies the shrine to the brutal Qin Shihuang, and a good hundred ancestor worshippers, kneeling on pews and burning incense. On the left are a couple of stones erected, quite recently, to mark the return of Hong Kong and Macao to the proud embrace of the motherland.

It was suggested that these sites were built to cash in on the wealth of overseas Chinese, particularly in Taiwan. In the end, though, it was all about those 5,000 years. It became clear from the layout of this implausible shrine that China had done to Communism what it had done to the Mongol hordes by assimilating it into the great ocean of China itself, and into the innumerable sorrows and manifold complexities of Chinese history. It had become a mere aspect of the idea of Chineseness.

This was the final leg of a journey conducted by a group of foreign journalists in the province, and by the time we took lunch in the canteen of the county government that happened to be in charge of the Mausoleum, our entire contigent had the sort of glazed, pained expression that could only arise after having spent a week in the company of the waiban. We had been driven – literally – to the point of exhaustion after having spent something like five or six hours a day in a stuffy bus, wedging oneself up as securely as possible against the seat as the driver slalomed through the parting traffic in pursuit of our police escort.

The tour of Shaanxi Province was organized by China's Foreign Affairs Ministry. We were visiting some of the province's heavy industrial facilities and interviewing its mayors and senior officials. Various little men in overalls would show us around the pipes and boilers and chimneys of oil refineries, power plants and petrochemical complexes for as long as they had to before a humourless official led us back to the bus.

It was, of course, a salutary experience. Even the incorrigibly nicotine-addicted Running Dog baulked at the idea of smoking a cigarette while wandering through a maze of shoddy gas pipes swaddled with tape and cloth and wrapping paper.

Of course, after six days or so of relentless travelling, everything seemed much of a muchness. We attended to ourselves at the putrid trenches that served as toilets in the heart of the Shaanxi countryside. We glanced across at the nut-brown old women sitting beside their iceboxes on the dusty roadside. We followed our police escort as it swept along the roads carving through the valleys. We looked at the encouraging bursts of green in the dry brown earth and contemplated the unfathomable complexity of the lives of 1.3 billion Chinese people.

We caught glimpses, as we always do while on the road, of how the masses live. From day to day and from hand to mouth, sustaining their existence from the wretchedly dry earth as the larger forces in the country – the forces of industrialization, backed by the might of the central government – surround them with a succession of industrial parks, power plants, superhighways and mines.

Throughout the region, you could also see the frantic pace of the national reforestation policy – the rows and rows of fragile little trees poking out of the ground. The vast acres of treelets suddenly give way to a row of prefab stores, selling car accessories and emergency supplies. There were castles and caves, revolutionary sites and lavishly commemorated scenes of pre-revolutionary insurrection.

The region has undertaken a typically Promethean struggle with nature – and with the accelerating forces of desertification and global warming. The dusty hillsides were sometimes marked with slogans about reforestation and cherishing the environment. Like in Ningxia, they seemed too little too late. Still, trees sprouted implausibly from the dead yellow soil.

Everywhere we went, jerry-built houses were marked with the single character for 'demolition', one of the ubiquitous symbols of Chinese modernization, along with the flyposters for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases that are pasted, rather sadly, on walls throughout the country.

Foreign journalist blues

THE COMPANY officials we were supposed to be interviewing seemed to be intimidated by the presence of the Foreign Ministry, and most of the people we met were subsequently reduced to boilerplate bromides such as 'sustainable scientific development', the 'rational use of resources' and 'industrial rectification', among many others.

Tours like this are a serious challenge for most foreign hacks. Many of us have, to some extent, mastered the complexities and idiosyncrasies of a language that is completely unrelated to our own. Some of us have even got to grips with the fact that every character in Chinese must be spoken using one of four possible tones, producing a curious sing-song effect in a number of punctilious foreigners, including Running Dog.

In deepest Shaanxi, however, there are the usual dialect problems. Accompanying us was a translator who seemed to assume that her services were somehow redundant, and that our feeble attempts to communicate in Chinese somehow suggested that we could understand everything that was being said to us.

To compound the difficulties, there were something like fifteen hacks who all wanted to ask questions of officials who owed their position, it seemed, to their talents for circumlocution and obfuscation.

The State Council News Office head, Zhao Qizheng, recently accused certain foreign journalists of coming to their conclusions and then finding the facts that fit them, usually to the disadvantage and disrepute of the Chinese Communist Party. As foreign journalists, Running Dog admits that he is absolutely right.

Information is at a premium. Access is often impossible. We rely on the snippets of news that we have managed to obtain on previous occasions and are forced to build on that. As a result, we come out with elaborate structures of supposition and rumour.

As journalists, we can only aspire to be more or less accurate, and to revise that scale upwards to the greatest extent possible. It is easy to misunderstand, or to base our case on partial evidence, or to be steered in what particular direction by those who form the basis of our source materials.

These source materials aren’t just the obvious papers and press releases and official speeches, but also the array of assumptions we bring to the job – which may include the usually paranoid assumption that everything everyone tells us is fake.

We hit the road from Xi'an to a bronze museum in Baoji. We embark on a ride through the outskirts of Xi’an, with rows and rows of stalls selling underwear or bathroom fittings or DIY equipment.

The landscape at first is flat, with massive farms seamlessly giving way to factories and power transmission stations. These are the places where China's viciously accelerated socioeconomic transitions are most visible – where a stubbornly agrarian majority face the relentless expansion of industrialized urban centres and watch as their land is gradually gobbled up to make way for various production facilities. Throughout our journey, the wheat fields were abruptly broken up by little clusters of industry. They seem poised to expand still further.

We spot little men in pointy hats squatting in the fields. We see the frail and freshly-planted trees wobble in the light breeze.

And thus, we arrive first at the Baoji Bronze Museum and wander around to find the various drinking implements, weapons, and a number of objects pertaining to the sacrificial rites of the Western Zhou dynasty. These were, of course, nothing more than a few well-preserved monuments to the brutal ruling class of the age.

We then cut through massive swathes of Shaanxi countryside – including a few busy villages, several dirt roads and a few awkwardly placed slopes of gravel - to see an archaeological dig at the tomb of another aristocrat.

Running Dog became philosophical, and realized that the Western Zhou dynasty, in itself, is a negligible fraction of human history. Furthermore, we were seeing the bare remnants of the Western Zhou aristocracy, themselves a negligible fraction of what the society of Western Zhou actually represented.

We drive past an old (and apparently abandoned) cement plant on the way to a coalmine. Throughout Shaanxi, hundreds of grottoes stud the hillsides. The road winds between one nameless industrial facility to another, from one field of unknown crops to another, and between any number of gas stations. The otherwise bare walls are marked with slogans imploring everyone to adhere to the One Child Policy and to treat girls just as well as boys. Meanwhile, the uniform blue of the sky gives way, slightly, to a few thin patches of cloud. Electricity pylons are everywhere. The only life one sees for miles is a woman squatting outside a decrepit car repair shed.

Much of the landscape now just flashes past. Slogans call on all drivers to respect the road and drive safely, or perhaps to implement the Three Represents. Our police escort guides us past the oil trucks, the cement factories, the farmsteads, taking advantage of a loud speaker to order all the other drivers on the road to get out of the way. Goats and chickens and bulls roam along the road side. Old tyres are stacked beside frayed tents. There are even more peasants in pointy hats.

At this point, Running Dog realized that we cannot possibly write everything down, cannot possibly record every tangentially-pertinent detail about this province. We recalled the Jorge Luis Borges tale about Ireneo Funes, the young man immobilized by perfect recollection, spending hours reliving the exact structure and pattern of a leaf. But he was still 'not very good at thinking', since 'to think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract.'

The next day, we cross the bridge out of Yan'an on the way to a World Bank land rehabilitation project. The Yan River - a tributary of the Yellow River that marks Shaanxi's eastern frontier - is reduced to little more than a trickle. These are harsh, arid conditions.

We took our place in a phalanx of government 4x4s scaling the mountains, following a road that spiralled slowly towards the peak of the valley. We wandered around, looking down at the trickle of water that serves as the local means of irrigation, squinting towards the patches of grass and crop that had been coaxed from the shale on the opposite side of the valley. The hills were stepped, part of the World Bank plan to make farming easier.

Eventually, we were driven off to the village itself, and took photos of a peasant as he posed, quite cheerfully, with his hoe. A goat cowered from behind a fence and a couple of chickens fretted across the yard. A short time later, as the rain began to fall, the ranking government official in our party ordered the drivers to get the cars ready and then tried to gather the reporters together, even though many of them had already strayed towards the farmhouses situated on higher ground or to the enclosures of crops down below. At this stage, the official was at his most cantankerous, his stubby arms waving in the air, his fists trembling, his chest and belly pressed out in some ridiculous angry turkey routine.

The rain began to fall. The rain, one hopes, would sweep down the valleys and collect up in the specially-built reservoir somewhere downstream. It all helps.

Red tourism

STOPPING OFF at some old 'revolutionary base' in Yan'an, where Mao Zedong and his band of merry men were holed up following the arduous Long March from east to northwest China, we eyed the various pieces of Mao kitsch scattered about the place. While looking at the portrait of the youthful Mao hanging outside a stall under a pagoda that served as one of the old bastard’s government buildings, we realized that he was indeed the ultimate pop figure. The sort of adulation that attaches itself to Elvis or the Beatles is no different from the hero worship of Mao in the 1960s. The Chinese youth simply did not have any other options. Mao was the only cult around.

Mao had sought to overturn history and begin afresh. By now, he had become just another symbol of the past, another shrine in a nation scattered with the mausoleums and tombs of countless emperors and heroes and tyrants.

Still, in Yan'an, the expectations arising from development of 'red tourism' seemed already to have kicked in. A lone KFC outlet had already arrived. The city, it seems, was changing, cashing in on its former status as the bulwark against Japanese aggression and Nationalist perfidy. Our group wandered past a number of suspicious-looking KTV/disco joints close to the hotel, dodging our way between several meretriciously elegant hostesses fluttering along the pavement and trying to entice us in. The roads were all dug up and flagstones were stacked along the kerb. Among all this, the hostesses seemed oddly inappropriate, but also quite in keeping with the general tenor of the city - the usual third-tier mixture of poverty, nocturnal streetlife, stagnant small-scale industry and prostitution.

The main revolutionary base itself - which, naturally, has already been converted into a kind of theme park - was disappointingly tasteful. Some of the stores were overflowing with bronze Mao busts, Mao clocks, and glass Mao displays, but the old residential buildings - where the Chairman read his books, formed his strategies and nursed his insomnia, his constipation and all his innumerable grievances - were all uncharacteristically low-key.

In Xi'an, at what is now called Remonstration Pavilion, where Chiang Kai-shek was famously kidnapped by a frustrated warlord who believed that a united front against the Japanese invaders would be to his personal advantage, the authorities have allowed a suitably grumpy Chiang lookalike to wander along the slopes and have his photograph taken with passing tourists. All they had permitted in Yan’an, however, was the loom at which Zhou Enlai used to work in his spare time.

There was Mao's bed. There was Mao's bomb shelter. There was a few photographs of Mao shaking hands with foreigners or remonstrating with some Party recusant or heretic. But there were no ten-feet tall alabaster sculptures. No slogans celebrating the wonder of the PRC's main founder and the architect of the revolution. You might even have sensed an atmosphere of embarassment, even if the pedlars were characteristically shameless with their piles of little red books and their Mao chintz.

Soon enough, a crew of 'red tourists' from Anhui were queuing up to have their photograph taken with the foreign reporters. We were, perhaps, the next best thing to a Mao lookalike.

Of course, despite all these homages to the glory of the motherland, and despite the best efforts of isolationists across the millenia of Chinese history, the country remains as inclusive as it has ever been. KTV and KFC coexist along with revolutionary theme parks and heavy industry plants. The world is more various than we sometimes give credit for. China is especially so.

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