Monday, June 28, 2010

Get Your Kicks on Route 312

I'm reading another great China book. This one is China Road by former NPR correspondent, Rob Gifford.

The book is about Gifford's final days in China before accepting a new assignment with NPR in Europe. Gifford celebrates his leaving China with a six week road trip west on Highway 312 out of Shanghai. He sees his journey on Highway 312 in the 2000s as comparable to rolling down America's famed Route 66 in the 1940s. Gifford's goal is to go from the east coast of Shanghai all the way to the border of Kazakhstan in Xinjiang. Along the way, he wants to figure out what modern China is (or something along those lines).

I'd heard glowing reports about this book. To be honest, I was a little nervous picking it up since I just recently read a book about a road-trip in China - Peter Hessler's Country Driving. My worries were unfounded. The two books are very different and both worthwhile. I'm really enjoying Gifford's insights into a country he understands deeply. His take is very fresh (even though it's three years old, which is forever in China time).

China Road has hit close to home several times. Gifford spends a lot of time in Xi'an and Shaanxi Province on his journey. He has a whole chapter on my favorite holy mountain - The Hermit of Hua Shan - where he finds a daoist hermit living in a cave and chats with him about the meaning of life. He also spends time in Xiahe, the closest to Tibet I ever got.

There have been a lot of passages that I've considered posting about. One stands above the rest for me though. Here is an excerpt from pages 101 and 102 about the terracotta warriors that discussed China in a light that really struck me:
In 230 B.C., he (Qin Shihuang, who built the terracotta army) was the ruler of just one of seven states that existed in northern China, states that had themselves been formed from dozens of smaller ones. China as we know it today had never been unified, and in fact the period from 403B.C. until Qin’s unification, in 221 B.C., was known as the Warring States period. His unification is still hailed by the Communist Party.

I’m not convinced it was such a wonderful event, though. Qin’s unification is the first reason, the political reason, why China’s system never developed the checks and balances that eventually emerged in Europe. Qin unified the states not through skillful negotiations or cunning diplomacy, but by banging a lot of heads together rather hard and with a less than selective use of those thirteen-element-alloy weapons. The doctrine he espoused in both conquest and ruling was known as Legalism. Not a doctrine of laws in the modern sense, it was more a doctrine of rules, rewards, and punishments that brought about obedience. Qin's violent, heavy-handed means of conquest, however, did not prove the best method for ruling the new united territory, and when he died suddenly, aged forty-nine, in 210 B.C., the Qin dynasty ended after just eleven years.

But Qin Shihuang had set a very important precedent, which has survived to this day: that China should be united. It has fallen apart many times between then and now, but each time, someone has said, "China must be reunified," and set about doing so. Chairman Mao was just the most recent in a long line of reunifiers, and if Emperor Qin were to return to China today, he would recognize the mode of government used by the Communist Party.

I have to say that I find this idea rather scary, that two thousand years of history might have done nothing to change the political system of a country. Imagine a Europe today where the Roman Empire had never fallen, that still covered an area from England to North Africa and the Middle East and was run by one man based in Rome, backed by a large army. There you have, roughly, ancient and modern China. The fact that this setup has not changed, or been able to change, in two thousand years must also have huge implications for the question - Can China ever change its political system?

The Roman analogy is an apt one. The tendency is to think of contemporary China in terms of the United States, because of their similarity in geographical size. Actually, to understand China today, the best comparison by far is Roman Europe two thousand years ago: lots of people with different languages and dialects, different customs, different artistic styles, even different cuisines, all with a shared heritage but ultimately held together by force. It makes no more sense to say you're going out for a Chinese meal that to say you are going out for a European one.

The laments you hear constantly in China that the country is too big and there are too many people can both be blamed on Qin Shihuang. At one fell sloop he not only created both of these problems but made sure they would be perpetuated throughout Chinese history. He created a "country" that needed a strong man at the top to hold it together, and that requirement precluded any constraints on his power.
That's some pretty hard-hitting stuff. Any nationalistic Chinese person will most certainly be disgusted by it. In fact, I bet that nearly all Chinese people who read this assessment of their country hate it and think it's false.

I think a lot of what he says in this passage rings true though. When I think of many of the parts of China that I've seen - from the Taklamakan Desert out west to the Himalayas in Yunnan to the karst in Guangxi to the villages in Shaanxi to the capital of Beijing - China can seem more like a collection of cultures on the same continent than a country. Gifford really nails China with this passage. In fact, I think China's leadership has largely come to the same conclusion he has.

Mandarin language has been a requirement in schools since, as Gifford puts it, "the last reunification" under Mao in the 1940s/50s. Before that time, people spoke regional dialects. People older than the age of fifty-five or sixty years-old nowadays very well may speak very broken or no mandarin at all. They simply didn't learn mandarin when they were children. Unifying language has been a key component of China's development.

In addition to language, China has "sinified" areas on the country's periphery with Han immigrants that could, feasibly, be more volatile. Russia did a similar sort of thing during the time of the USSR.

There is a case to be made that Beijing sees things in exactly the same way Gifford lays things out. China seems to, now and since 1949, rule China in a lot of ways with Gifford's assessment in mind.

One is probably right in saying that China's "tying up of the loose ends" and making sure that people who may not feel as connected to "China" is largely working. There are plenty of counterexamples - a couple controversial areas out west come to mind. But for the most part, the "moderate prosperity" (a term that Gifford loves) much of China's enjoyed over the last thirty-plus years has given people on China's fringes the chance at a better life. And that, more than politics opposed to Beijing, has won over a lot of people.

Gifford, again and again, talks about how most Chinese are getting something now that they have never had before - choice. He's not necessarily taking about politics. Instead he's talking about things in daily life. The choices Gifford highlights are the choices between eating noodles or rice for lunch, taking a bus or a cab or biking or driving a car, or having a cell phone with 3G or without. Freedom of choice, Gifford argues, is one of the things that is changing Chinese people more than anything else.

One scene I liked a lot was when Gifford is making his way further and further west and runs into a group of Tibetan construction workers. Gifford asks them about whether being a construction worker is better than what they did before. "Of course it's better," one of the men responds. He then says that he no longer has a 靠天生活. 靠 means rely, 天 means heaven, and 生活 means life. This man no longer relies on the heavens for his subsistence. He has the option of getting on a highway so that he can go to another part of China where he can do something different than what he and his family members have done for generations. Being able to become independent and break free from the shackles of a 靠天生活 is an unbelievable freedom that millions upon millions of Chinese people are finally enjoying.

I'm not sure exactly where I'm going with this post. I started with my praising of the wonderful book, China Road, then went on to promote the premise of China being a flawed model of a country, and then further went on to say that the sinification of China is raising up millions upon millions of people.

I guess one can take from this post that China is a confusing place.

China really could be a number of different countries. China's Henan Province has a population of 97 million people. Shandong Province has a population of 92 million people. Sichuan Province has a population of 82 million people. All of those provinces are more populous than the most populous country in Europe - Germany. On top of that, the food, climate, language, cultures, etc. have extreme diversity.

At the same time, the country is working (both literally and figuratively). Its economy is churning while the rest of the world is in stagnation and most Chinese people have more hope now than they or the past several generations of their families have ever had. There are scores and scores of problems in China and plenty of people getting left behind, but China is working out for a lot of its population.

Gifford doesn't have all the answers to China or a special way of looking at things that makes everything crystal clear in China Road. One day during his road trip he can't fathom why he's leaving China and then a couple pages later on in the book he can't wait to get outside of the country's borders. Such is China. Gifford's book is a fantastic way to attempt to understand China more and there aren't any dull moments accompanying him on his road trip.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great book and a fresh take on the Qin era. China has been making small strides lately that once again give me hope. I can understand the CCP wanting to take cautious steps, but when they take no steps or backward steps I worry, lately though, I have seen some small baby steps.

I found your line about how the Chinese would be disgusted by the author's take to be rather humurous. Reason being, my wife has been watching a series on the "Three Kingdoms" and explaining to me how she was led to believe as a youth that one of the Kings was the good guy and the others were bad guys, but as she has exposed herself to more information outside of China her view has done a 180. Of course its more complicated that "good guys" and "bad guys", but I hope the meaning is clear.

Well its been a couple of months.... you still riding that bike? How often?

Mark said...

That's funny about your wife getting a new perspective. It's hard to change an opinion from what you've been told all your life. That's the beauty of being abroad though - getting to see your home country with new eyes.

I am still riding my bike to work. I rode it today actually! I'm riding it once or twice a week. I was riding three or four times a week for a while but haven't been able to keep up that pace recently. I'm going to blame the hotter weather for that.

One benefit of the hot weather is that it's been great to go home and swim at our apartment pool after the ride home. Having a "free" pool is a very underrated aspect of living at an apartment, in my opinion.

Are you doing any riding at all?

I know you're not a Jayhawk fan, but thought you might appreciate this picture my brother sent me from Jinan the other day - Being able to buy shanzhai KU gear in central China has to be some kind of milestone in the history of globalization.

Ramesh said...

Very nice review Mark. Seems like a must read book ; have to search for it in the one place that sells English books here.

Yes, China is many cultures put together and attempts to pigeon hole China as a whole is tough, despite the overwhelming centralisation that has happened in the country. We, from the outside, can understand it, but a little. But we have the advantage of perspective, which in an information controlled society like China, is a huge advantage. The only conclusion I can derive is that its all fascinating and that there's a lot lot more "good" than "bad".

Anonymous said...

@Ramesh, Wise words. I think a lot of us China observers tend to get Marco Polo syndrome from time to time and just when we feel we have it figured out, she throws a new wrinkle at us. Always a good thing to keep in mind that China is a place that can never be pigeon holed. I think its the one mistake I see made time and time again by the western media... China is this... or China is that. And agreed, the good>bad.

@Mark, Funny pic, I just got this image in my head of that hat going on some kind of crazy journey to find itself there. Like falling off a truck as it is shipped from a factory, being picked up by a traveler destined for Central China, being used in barter, and being karmically placed there for your bro to purchase, or at least have material for a good pic!

I haven't ridden in years, I don't even own a bike anymore. I've bought enough bikes and rode enough in my 20's and 30's to last a lifetime. Now I just hop on the treadmill and watch the news to get the heart rate going. Well I am still impressed that you are getting in a couple of days a week, most people would have it just collecting dust by now. Keep on ridin'!

Oh, and I was impressed with all the Jayhawks that were snapped up in the draft.

Mark said...

@Ramesh - I agree with all of that.

One thing I liked about Gifford's book are his wild shifts in attitude towards China. One minute, he is in awe of China and the next minute he hates it. Living in China, I know you can relate.

@Hopfrog - That would be a good story on that hat! Who knows how it got there.

In thinking of it today, I remembered another Big XII apparel encounter I had at Hua Shan. Check out this picture. The guy is sporting a Texas Tech stocking cap!!

This reminds me of another one too. When I was teaching kids a couple years ago, there was a kid with a University of Missouri Tigers football jersey. I was flabbergasted when I saw it. I asked him where he got it and he said his mom bought it for him.

Although the Big XII nearly collapsed a couple weeks ago, it seems to have made its inroads into central China!!

The draft picks were nice. Hopefully they'll keep KU relevant in this messed up era of college basketball. Just feel bad that Sherron Collins has no guaranteed contract. But even as a worst case scenario, he can go to Europe and get paid to play. Doesn't sound bad for a 20 something year old!

I've never been able to get into working out indoors. I guess I like a destination on my work outs or something.

Anonymous said...

@Mark, yeah working out indoors isn't something I like, its more like taking my medicine. We live in a pretty busy part of Vegas so getting out and riding or jogging would be nowhere as enjoyable as the scenic and peaceful looking ride you get to enjoy.

Man, I remember watching that video of you and the Tech guy talking in Chinese and I totally missed the hat!