Chris’s Postcards from China

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August 8: At Peking University: the Rising Generation

 

We call ourselves the 90s generation. The late 90s — not so much the rising generation as the boasting generation, the blossoming generation — about to open up ourselves and explore the outer world.”

Max, a student from Hong Kong at Peking University in Beijing.
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Future leaders of China, from left to right: Max, Rebecca, Flora, Nick, Payton.

What I went least prepared for was the openness of Chinese people in what we call a closed society. So the last audio postcard from this trip is a 10-minute distillation of a conversation that sprang up like music to my ears in a dormitory room with five students at the venerable Peking University in Beijing. These are aspiring middle-class kids – a random sample of the top of the heap. Nobody here is bent on being a billionaire. All voiced versions of a searching interior life. Nobody mentioned political participation as they listed their ambitions. But social idealism infuses their talk. Several volunteered that inequality – of incomes, education, opportunity – is the blight on their society, a problem their generation will have to address. None expressed the slightest confidence in ideological communism. They sounded more embarrassed than outraged by official controls on information (of which they have plenty) and expression (in which they feel individually free). They credit their government with overall effectiveness. And they all spoke comfortably of loving their country and their moment in its history.

 

China is searching, the China we see today is shaped by different factors: traditional Chinese civilization, and also the western culture since 1840, when Great Britain launched a trade war and broke the gate of the Qing empire. [By now] it’s another aspect of tradition… also the communist ideology… The problem for China is we lack a national philosophy. We as a people, as a nation. We lack a philosophy that supports the spiritual life of our citizens. It’s a problem in the whole country.”

Nick, a philosophy major, whom I’ll remember specially for his short list of cultural treasures for the proverbial desert island: Collected Poems of the Tang Dynasty, Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3.

There’s societal pressure, and family pressure, to do financially at least as well as your parents. That’s one of my anxieties, and a big anxiety of a lot of my friends. You’re supposed to do well and your parents have paid a lot for your education. But you don’t know what you want to do. I haven’t declared a major yet. I’m focused on finding something I really enjoy doing.

Rebecca, a rising sophomore at Carleton College in Minnesota.

I think it’s not difficult for us to find good jobs. To earn money is not important for us, we can earn so much money. The most important thing is to find ourselves, to be ourselves.

Flora, pursuing a double degree in law and Chinese literature.

I read American books, we talk about the system of American politics almost every day. America is everywhere. I want to have my graduate education in America. It’s necessary to get to know and understand America — necessary to understand the whole world. I don’t like nationalism, and I don’t like to emphasize enemies. I think we have to cooperate, but we are not genuine friends. But we have to cooperate with each other.”

Payton, who rounded up his friends for us at the University of Peking.

Special thanks to Jiang Xueqin, an activist teacher and school reformer, for introducing us on campus.

August 4: Ai Weiwei: At Home With China’s ‘Second Government’


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Not perhaps since Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Gulag has there been a dissenting artist who got to be as famous as the government that hounds him. But Ai Weiwei’s situation is one-of-a-kind.He’s a scathing oppositionist who argues with me that China’s moral, natural, aesthetic, philosophical and family foundations have been “completely destroyed.” At the same time he is a celebrity, the virtual mayor of an industrial district in Beijing that’s become a thriving village of modern painters, sculptors, studios and galleries.

At one cheerful turn in our gab, he’s reminding me about the Chinese gift for breaking rules, for thinking outside the box, for double thinking, even under Communism: “Yeah, that’s the culture. Chinese are quite intelligent, witty, and create their own liberal space. Even in very extreme conditions, they still can achieve some kind of happiness or self, some kind of confidence, so that makes Chinese culture very different from others.”

Ai Weiwei is China’s official scare-word and favorite non-person. He’s what Solzhenitsyn called a “second government.” But let’s remember: the embattled democrat and artist of ideas was a star consultant in the design of the “bird’s nest” stadium built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He sees himself naturally as a leader and a patriot. He’s mastered what people say is a very Chinese use of paradox and contradiction. He refers to his testing of the limits as a kind of performance art.

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We met his wary sort of humor and warmth on the way into his walled garden. He parks his bicycle at the gate with a basket full of fresh flowers as a greeting each morning to the government spies who ‘mind’ him and who, it turns out, took our picture on the way out.

Ai Weiwei SpyFor almost an hour the conversation flew around a big table in the traffic of Ai Weiwei’s studio. Maybe the worst disaster in China, he said, is the flood of migrant workers out of farm villages into cities where they have dangerous jobs, small pay, no benefits and no residency rights – no rights to city schools, for example, for their kids. “This is just modern slavery” for the migrants, said Ai Weiwei. For the broken families left behind, it’s a desolation.

He says our friend the novelist Yu Hua is “absolutely right” about the continuity between Mao’s brainwashing Cultural Revolution and the booming Market Revolution today. The key links, he concurred, are violence, lying propaganda, and a tiny monopoly of political power. Just off the high-speed train from Shanghai, I confessed I was dazzled by the smooth ride at 300 kpm and by the orderly green abundance in the farmlands. “Wouldn’t this government be good for – say – Egypt?” I asked. But he’s heard the line that China is developing faster than Brazil, or India, or Egypt, and he’s not impressed. “How do you give young people hope, imagination and creativity,” he asked. “Those are the inner structures I think a lot and worry about.” As we wrapped up, he said I’d made him sound like a complainer, just a critic. We could have talked about the weather, he said, “or food, or sex.” Next time we will.

And what did I take away? Mainly gratitude to this brave man for his stubborn, almost fearless attachment to the soul questions: he’s reminding us all what it costs to stand out as an individual, and for a society to stay free, alive, critical, human.

July 24: Yu Hua and China’s Revolution Addiction

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Everybody loves Yu Hua, a giant of the literary life in China today.  He’s a free spirit with a critical eye, and a popular touch, a tragic vision, an easy laugh.  We’re in the snazzy new Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, video-recording a long conversation for Harvard’s ChinaX course on modern China.  As soon as Yu Hua walks in (with his striking 20-something son Phineas) his presence is magic, alike with the Chinese film crew and the young Harvard scholars. I know Yu Hua as much as anything through the long-suffering hero of his novel that became the movie masterpiece To Live. The film and its central character, Fugui, reminded me somehow of Charlie Chaplin, as I said to Yu Hua. He smiled and said, well, of course, he had studied the Chaplin archive. Were Fugui alive today, Yu Hua said he would most likely be among the victims of the Capitalist Revolution.  Fugui would have lost his land and been displaced as a farmer.  He might be living precariously in a tiny, unsafe apartment in a city, but he’d still be thoughtful, tidy, maybe cheerful, and indestructible.

It is a main theme in much of Yu Hua’s work and our conversation that China is hooked for a century now on something like an addiction to Revolution. And a revolution, he reminds me with heavy irony, quoting Chairman Mao, is not a dinner party.  It’s an insurrection, an act of violence.  The market revolution, he’s saying, is more like than unlike the notorious upheavals that preceded it: the war of “liberation” that brought the Communist Party to power in 1949; Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 50s, a headlong rush to industrialize that ended in famine and death for 20-million or more; then the know-nothing Cultural Revolution of the 60s into the 70s.  The problem with all the endless revolutions is that they’ve been run by political monopolies. They’re invariably violent, mobilized by propaganda, not participation.  And they’re generally heedless of long-term results – even in the market revolution that has made so many Chinese people rich.

Yu Hua reminds you that China is still a poor country – median income between ninety and a hundred in the ranking of nations, in the zone with Cuba, Angola, Iraq.

The wealth revolution that we’re conditioned to celebrate has been a hardship for most Chinese, he is saying. The divorce rate goes up on the same curve as the GDP.  A “simmering rage” is the ruling popular emotion, he wrote in an invaluable collection of essays, China in Ten Words (2011).  The capitalist revolution has been bad for human-rights awareness. “This revolution has made the Chinese people profit-driven… They care less about other people, less about the country.”  Our people are losing their health, he says.  And what about their minds?  “People’s minds are chaotic, schizophrenic,” he replies.  “I can’t figure them out.”  The last resource is the Chinese people, I say, and surely they are not destroyed.  “I was half joking, half telling the truth,” he grants, with a laugh.

So we end on a Chinese paradox.  Yu Hua sums up China’s contradictory rules and symptoms today with the point that when guests enter a hotel room in China, they see a “No Smoking” sign and, under it, a gift package of cigarettes.  He lives with such anomalies every day. His novel To Live is sold in bookstores in China.  The movie version is banned.  “The book is like the cigarettes,” he said, “the movie is like the ‘No Smoking’ sign.”

It was a high-point in China so far to feel Yu Hua’s presence.

July 5: Whose Shanghai Is It?

Wang Anyi + Chris Lydon (Photo: Adam Mitchell).

The great modern novelist of Shanghai, Wang Anyi, is coming to feel like a stranger in her city.

The enclosed alleyways of Old Shanghai — the distinctive “longtang,” in a peculiarly Shanghainese word — were the living background of her classic tale, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow. The longtang, with their cement pavements and iron balconies, their pigeons and their gossip, their card games and cooking smoke, their romances and unsavory goings on, “the intimacy of flesh on flesh, cool and warm, tangible and knowable,” are almost gone, being bulldozed in front of our eyes for the new high-rise and Western commercial Shanghai.

The local joke, she is telling me, is that in fashionable downtown today, the likeliest language is English. In the next ring out, you’ll hear Mandarin spoken. Only in the outskirt third ring, newly settled by “longtang” refugees, will you hear Shanghainese. The women of Shanghai, she says, are more independent than they were, but not quite happily so. They miss being taken care of by men, and their ambition is typically overwhelmed by romance.

Shanghai still lives in something like Jane Austen time, Wang says. “What women are most concerned about is a good marriage.” Women are still being “consumed” as products, consumed by the malls where she observes 70 to 80 percent of the branded luxury goods are aimed at women, in a market designed by men. She herself is still happier to have the man in her life pick up the dinner check.

Wang Anyi was still shaken, she confided, by the movie she’d seen the day before, Spike Jonze’s Her, about Joaquin Phoenix’s infatuation with the computer voice of Scarlett Johannson inside his phone. She was troubled to see that so much of the film was shot in the new Shanghai. Was this a joke, she wondered: thirty years of modernization in China to become a prop in a Hollywood take on the American way?

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July 2: China’s Bling Thing

The Chinese in their prosperity have become fantastic shoppers. In colossal shiny-white malls all the high-end Euro brands are here: Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier and Co. The customers are mostly Chinese, the models on display invariably Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the hand manufacturing of more and more high-end Italian shoes and bags in these outlets is said to take place in Asia.

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A certain aesthetic imperialism has met a ravenous acquired Chinese appetite for a lost season of their lives in Tuscany, or a year in Provence. Almost by accident I spent an afternoon in a made-up retail village outside Suzhou, a couple of hours on the road from Shanghai.

Opened by American entrepreneurs the village is built, in the Las Vegas style, around a Venetian canal. There are bridges and a mix of stores in buildings designed to represent the variety of towns Marco Polo might have stopped in, back and forth to China at the end of the thirteenth century. The game at Suzhou Village will be to draw visitors not simply to buy but to share an “experience,” a spokeswoman told me.

I’m digging through my notes from Singapore a decade ago, to recall a conversation with the architect Tay Kheng Soon. He is the designer of some of Singapore’s finest buildings, but ever out of step with the non-tropical, non-Chinese roots of the celebrity high-rise towers on his island.

“Kitsch is very big in Asia,” Tay Kheng Soon said to me, driving around Singapore one morning in the summer of 2002. “It’s the architecture of Disneyland. It works as a narcotic. It dulls the senses in a pleasurable way. It’s an anesthetic, in that it prevents you from knowing what is going on, and so it has political value.”

He anticipated the unease in the malls of the new China: “We know now from a lot of history,” said Tay Kheng Soon, “that the human spirit is invincible in the face of adversity. But I’ve decided that the human spirit is defenseless in the grip of wealth.”

horns dress

June 30: Kaiser Kuo, King of Chinese Media

Kaiser Kuo2 Listen to some of Chris’s conversation with Kaiser Kuo below: Kaiser Kuo was born in New York, but he has remade himself many times in Beijing by now: as a guitarist for the pioneering metal band, Tang Dynasty, in the 1980s and ’90s, as a blogger and podcaster, and most lately as a global marketer for Baidu, the Chinese search giant, with a star turn on This American Life with our guest, Evan Osnos. For a few hours on my last night in Beijing, we ate and spoke as fellow broadcasters, talking about his second home. KK at dinner Kuo told me to prepare for “paradox after paradox” on the ground in China. It’s a practical nation that drifted, for decades, from calamity to calamity in the Maoist spirit, he said. Today China is still Communist, but its city-dwellers are getting used to sitcoms and mass consumerism — and the ‘spiritual vacuity’ that comes with them. To Kuo, Beijing itself seems to be bustling or depleted, depending on which angle you approach it from. Kuo pointed me toward a song-and-dance number from this year’s televised New Year celebration, sung from a treadmill by the comedian Huang Bo, on the subject of the ‘China dream’, a political concept introduced by the new premier, Xi Jinping, in 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di-qATFK3WM The song is called “My Desires Aren’t Too High”, or “I’m Not Too Demanding”. Kuo asks us to take this song as evidence that our title, “China rising”, may have a moderate meaning against the backdrop of saber-rattling and Sinophobia in the West. The expectations of its people are rising — for cleaner air, for a seat at the table globally, for a little more say in their civic lives — and they still have a way to go in meeting them.

June 26: DUMBO East

UCCA wall Chris moved on to Beijing to meet with Ai Weiwei, Kaiser Kuo, college students and others. Hear his conversation with the curator of UCCA, Philip Tinari, here, and come subscribe to our podcast on iTunes to hear China conversations with Yiyun Li, Evan Osnos, Ambassador Chas Freeman, and more:

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, which opened in 2007, calls itself a “catalyst for contemporary culture in China.” It’s a linchpin location in Beijing’s 798 art district, a world of converted warehouses and artist spaces. (Think of it as an oversized version of DUMBO in Brooklyn or Boston’s Fort Point.)

When I visited on Tuesday, gray works by the Polish sculptor Paweł Althamer were spread around the gallery space. But I was drawn to the corner of the 70-foot-long shoebox of the room where everyone’s allowed to paint. Little jars of the primary colors and brushes are laid out on a table in the center of the space. There’s a metal movable industrial ladder that allows you to pick a spot well over your head.

The rest is up to you — or, as it happened, me. So of course I inscribed our name, OPEN SOURCE, on a small patch of floor. Alongside it there are portraits of Michael Jackson, catchphrases and slogans in many languages, and icons all over. Every so often the wall gets refreshed with a new coat of white paint, and the painting starts again.

In forthcoming conversations with Ai Weiwei, China’s dissident artist #1, and the novelist Yu Hua, I was told that China is stuck in a centuries-old cycle of revolutions, one that isn’t learning liberal ways of being, still stuck in patterns on violence and suppression.

Looking at the wall in the Ullens, I see the question from another side — is this what the slow birth of a new culture of pop expression looks like: the visual riffs on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and a free-for-all wall in an art district? I put that question to UCCA curator Philip Tinari, who has his doubts but still comes to work everyday, seeking the next artist to carry the conversation forward in China. Kid by wall

June 24: A Piano Lesson

Mrs-Ying-lesson Listen to Chris’s conversation with Tian Yang about his mother, who started him playing piano when he was three years old — and still teaches: Getting on thirty years ago, in his mid-teens, the prodigy pianist Tian Ying migrated from Shanghai to Boston to study with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory. At the time I was able to help Tian find a small apartment in town, and we always joked that he’d return the favor by showing me around Shanghai someday.

While still in his teens, Tian went on to become a finalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. From there he’s proceeded to an international career as a piano soloist and a tenured professorship at the University of Miami.

No sooner had I made my plans to go to China this month than Tian told me that he was going home himself, on the same weekend, to present his year-old son to his mother (and first teacher) back in Shanghai. True to his word, he’s been walking me around the home precincts of the French Concession, where he grew up.

It’s been a blessed reunion; the timing still feels miraculous. Perhaps the sweetest moments of my time in Shanghai were in his mother’s apartment, where she still teaches serious pianists, young and old, with an extraordinary flair.

Below, a clip of one of China’s 40 million aspiring virtuosos, under Mrs. Ying’s tutelage.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tP8nlEtP_Ho 2014-06-18 13.46.07

June 21: Shanghai 02138

220 Listen to a conversation Chris had with Ben Wood in the DR Bar here: The DR Bar (DR for ‘Design/Research’) in the Xintiandi section of old Shanghai was the third stop that Prof. Eugene Wang said I must make in his favorite city in the world. It’s the trendy martini bar a stone’s throw from the historic first meeting-place of the Chinese Communist Party. All around it, Xintiandi is a growing neighborhood of global boutiques and a sign of China’s capitalist makeover marching on.

A wax recreation of the First Congress of the Communist Party.

It was Benjamin Wood, a very New England sort of American, who designed both the bar and the shopping district that surrounds it. He was a protégé of the late Ben Thompson, the man who famously rescued the Faneuil Hall marketplace in Boston. Thompson designed and built many buildings around Boston, including the five-story, concrete-and-glass Design/Research Building on Brattle Street in Harvard Square, where locals encountered Marimekko fabrics, midcentury-modern furniture, and everything else in the windows beginning in 1969. Ben Wood told me that his China project is a kind of tribute to his mentor, who didn’t live to see it. He repurposed two blocks of the city’s old shikumen courtyard houses, slated for destruction, into an airy, luxury shopping district that sees 82,000 visitors a day.

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Ben Wood’s original plan for the Xintiandi district.

Now he serves as a consultant to many of the major and minor cities around China about their own dreams of a new urbanism. Wood is at war with the soulless, high-rise reality of those  cities, as he recounted to me over his famous martinis in the DR Bar. He favors “Monkey Gin” from Germany, which he says is the critical ingredient of the best martinis made today. I’ve come to believe him.

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Chris and Ben at DR Bar. (Photo: Adam Mitchell).

June 19: A Warning from the Bronze Age

Hear an excerpt from our China Rising hour about this vase:

Potter's hu vessel

Adam Mitchell / Suzanne Petrucci.

In the Shanghai Museum, we’re standing in front of a bronze hu-vessel, a wine urn from roughly 2,500 years ago — from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), not so long before the first emperor Qin unified the country.

We’re here because Eugene Wang told me to start at the beginning in China, and to absorb a sort of “holy grail” of Chinese thinking. The exquisite inlaid design on the bronze vessel depicts frolicking paired animals on the domed lid and, below, a poetic treatment of four seasons: embryonic animals at the bottom in a symbolic winter, swallows returning and couples mating around a mulberry tree in a version of spring. We’re looking at a “cyclical blueprint of regeneration,” Professor Wang tells me, “attuned to the cycle of waxing and waning energies.” The master conceptual scheme “is premised on the belief and observance of the natural cycle of seasonal change and renewal.” So there’s inspirational beauty here, and irony as well. The blue heavens of Shanghai today are in the subway video ads — mostly gone from the smoggy sky over our heads. About sixty miles west of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, Lake Tai is dying. Endlessly celebrated by painters and poets as a symbol of China’s natural beauty (and by fishermen for its fish and white shrimp), Lake Tai is lined with chemical factories and covered in many places with green scum. An old story in China is getting radically more dangerous. The first serious wood shortage in China was noted in the 11th century. The Maoist period, with slogans like “Battling with Nature is Boundless Joy,” is remembered now as an natural catastrophe. Today rivers are still drying up; 90 percent of China’s groundwater is polluted. “To be Chinese today,” according to a Harvard Business School case study, “means being heir to both a great civilization and to millennia of environmental exploitation.” And the legend of the bronze urn reads something like a last warning.

China Algae

A man skimming algae off Lake Tai, 2007. (AP Photo)

June 18: The Green House

The Green House in Shanghai, previously owned by  Wu Tongwen . Just a postcard from a house that wants a novel. D. V. Woo (or Wu Tongwen), who built it in the late 1930s, was the dye tycoon who put the color green in China’s Nationalist Army uniforms. László Hudec, his Czech-born architect, had escaped from Russian captivity in Siberia after World War One and had joined the flow of gifted strays (including many Jews) to visa-free Shanghai.Many Hudec buildings in Shanghai survive in one-off splendor, like his rough-hewn China Baptist Publication Society building and his Park Hotel.  This Green House, deemed his masterpiece, was Shanghai’s first private house with an electric elevator (still working).The eve of World War Two was a high time for Americans in China: among the famous names (then or later) the young scholar John King Fairbank, Claire Chennault of the volunteer “Flying Tigers,” and Leighton Stewart, the China-born principal of Yenching (later merged with Beijing) University, who became FDR’s Ambassador to China during the war.  Ambassador Stewart was caught in the post-war cross-fire between the “who lost China?” crowd in America and the Communists taking power; Mao denounced him in a venomous speech that Chinese school kids were required to memorize into the Sixties, and he is said to have died heart-broken.Meantime, the young nephew of D. V. Woo played in the gardens of the family’s treasure house and was seen to be developing an enthusiasm and flair for design. When he came to America his name was transliterated as I. M. Pei.greenhouse1On the show, our friend Eugene Wang observed the asymmetrical balance in the stories rising out of the Green House: Leighton Stewart was an American whose heart was in China.  I. M. Pei was a Chinese man whose heart yearned for America.  The Green House, impeccably restored, stands in a Shanghai visitor’s eyes for a modern cosmopolitanism, open to past and future still unfolding.  On the weekend before I got to Shanghai, the Green House was opened to the public for the first time in 70 years.  Ten thousand neighbors showed up and stood in line for hours to visit it. Chris and Yaping Shen, one of his Shanghai guides, discussed the Green House during the visit: 

June 2: Scratches On My Mind

People ask: “What kinds of people are you hoping to meet and interview in China?”  I answer: maybe people like Alaa Al Aswany in Cairo, the prophetic novelist of The Yacoubian Building, who’s also a full-time dentist.  At the end of 2012, when protest was boiling again in Tahrir Square, I sat in Alaa Al Aswany’s dentist chair as he explained: “Literature and medicine are one profession with two aspects, in that novelists and doctors are both interested in understanding human pain.” And now it turns out that, Yu Hua, a dentist/novelist in China, writes in a similar vein, in the opening of his marvelous kaleidoscope, China in Ten Words. From his training years, Yu Hua remembers discovering the intense suffering that he was inflicting on factory workers, then children, when he injected them with barbed, worn-out needles that pulled out bleeding bits of flesh.  His shock and remorse, he writes, “left a profound mark, and …  stayed with me through all my years as an author.  It is when the suffering of others becomes part of my own experience that I truly know what it is to live and what it is to write.  Nothing in the world, perhaps, is likely to forge a connection between people as pain, because the connection that comes from that source comes from deep in the heart.  So when in this book I write of China’s pain, I am registering my pain, too, because China’s pain is mine.”

“Poverty, misery, disease, hunger, famine, [and] ignorance…” were the controlling images of the China I met first in a Yale history class in the 1960s. Our background impressions of China, good and bad, had been outlined by MIT’s Harold Isaacs in his masterful Scratches on Our Minds: American Images of China and India (1958). Good China derived from Marco Polo’s 13th-century discovery of China’s ancient greatness and the remarkable intelligence, industry and stoicism of her people; also from Pearl Buck’s novels, read by billions and translated to movies for the multi-millions, about the simple, suffering good people of The Good Earth (1931). Bad China derived from the medieval, non-Chinese Genghiz Khan and his Mongol hordes – prototypes of faceless barbarism, brought vividly to life again in 1950 by Mao Tse-tung’s “human sea” flooding down across the Yalu into Korea, “massed barbarians,” as Harold Isaacs put it, “now armed not with broadswords but with artillery, tanks, and jet planes.”

Headlines since my boyhood have shuttled from the Sino-Soviet marriage to divorce; from Mao’s famine-inducing Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s to the mind-numbing Cultural Revolution of the 1960s; from Nixon’s opening to China in 1974 to Deng Xiaoping’s opening to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” in the 1980s and with it abandonment of equality as first principle.  “Let some people get rich first,” he said, “and gradually all the people should get rich together.” We are transfixed in the present by China’s transformative growth as a manufacturer, the workshop of the world; by the vast and unprecedented migrations of peasants to cities (150 million in the last thirty-some years, 300 million more in the planning); and by China’s spectacularly uneven wealth.

Evan Osnos of The New Yorker writes in his absorbing Age of Ambition that China today is going through something very like our own post-Civil War “Gilded Age.” (The U.S. had fewer than 20 millionaires in 1850, as he writes; 40,000 of them in 1900).  China today, bristling with construction cranes, “is building more high-speed railroads and airports than the rest of the world combined.”  China’s new billionaires are a primary market for Rolls Royces from the U.K. and Lamborghinis from Italy. Yu Hua observes that China’s makeover has upended the meaning of the “people,” the first of his Ten Words:  “With the flick of a wrist Chinese history has utterly changed its complexion, much the way an actor in Sichuan opera swaps one mask for another.  In the short space of thirty years, a China ruled by politics has transformed itself into a China where money is king.”

Ha Jin, the exiled novelist and poet celebrated in the U.S. for Waiting and A Free Life, tells me: “in the alleys behind the façade, a lot of the old ways have not changed.  You must find the people playing chess and poker, drinking tea, as they always have.  A friend says to me: ‘my grandmother in the countryside is still living like a peasant in China a thousand years ago.’”

I travel to China next month under the wing of the Fairbank Center at Harvard and its director Bill Kirby, having played a bit part in the production of their online course, ChinaX. My first landing on the mainland is fifty years late, but there’s a nice sentimental symmetry in all this. John King Fairbank was the founder of “China Studies” in American academia.  Bill Kirby was the last of his brilliant protégés.  Fairbank’s first star graduate students in the late 1930s were Arthur Frederick Wright from Portland, Oregon and Mary Clabaugh from Birmingham, Alabama.  Married in 1940, the Wrights lit out immediately for Asia, first Japan and then China.  Through the end of World War II they were interned in a Japanese camp in Shandong province.  After liberation by American paratroopers, they chose to stay in China and traveled widely, encountering Mao along way.  They came home first to Stanford, and then Yale, where I took their celebrated year’s survey of Chinese history.

Arthur Wright liked to say it was a two-part field: “ancient Chinese history and ancient-as-hell Chinese history.”  Their star graduate student was Jonathan Spence, who graded our blue books on his way to becoming eminent in the profession.  In their sabbatical year of 1962-63, just after my graduation, the Wrights needed a tutor-babysitter for their sons, then 10 and 11, on a round-the-world journey of research and family grazing.  Grace alone got me the job – as grand a tour as Henry James could have imagined.  But all the way, and especially as we got to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia (we skipped Vietnam), Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, the Wrights were itching and pulling every string they could to find a way under the fence and back to the real China.  That mission failed, but unworthy as I am, I take it up again in their sainted names.

May 30: Getting Ready

shanghai longtang Have I told you: I’m going to China this week, and I’m looking for your encouragement and leads. It’s my first trip to the mainland after exactly 50 years of vivid dreaming about it. I land in Shanghai on June 15, to extend a radio-podcast series over several years and many countries we’ve called “parachute radio.” The recurring question is always something like: “What are we going through, you and I?” Over and over I find that it’s artists broadly – novelists and story writers, actors and screenwriters, musicians, poets, architects and planners – who give me what I’m looking for: wide scope, the long view, and imagination about what’s coming. China is of course a wholly new story – terra largely incognita to me, which is why I’m going.  

I’ll be sending back missives and postcards  and sharing photos and bits of sound. The China watcher, Evan Osnos, will help send me off, on our program on June 12th. I’ll be talking with him and others about what I should be looking and listening for. Please help with your own questions and clues to the urgent mystery of China. What can I bring back for you? And please stay tuned as I prepare for the trip.

  • Pete Crangle

    Bring back a vial of ambient air quality. I kid of course. Cast that great net you carry within you and bring back some dialog for our thirsty ears. Good luck, safe travels, and have fun …

  • Bianca

    I love Shanghai, and I find China fascinating. Bring back your appreciation for China, but also try to find out the impact of rapid, relentless change on the daily lives of people, especially average working people. Figure out Chinglish, see fabulous art and ancient world, talk to young people about the world they are living compared to Mao’s China, questions about the world, politics, religion et all and see “the innocence” of what they see happening in Japan, Vietnam etc., ask them about Facebook and let them help you “get on FB”…have lots of fun and eat great food.

  • Potter

    I am a big parachute radio fan; never thought you would go to China. How wonderful! For years I have been focussed on the beauty and genius of Chinese pottery and the history it follows from ancient times. The Chinese were so advanced, including spiritually.

    I had a yearning to go there from watching the spectacular and subsequently banned Antonioni film that appeared on PBS so many years ago. I loved his river scenes of Hangchow/Hangzhou. But somehow the political situation has turned me away.

    All the best to you on this adventure.

    • christopherlydon

      Potter fan here, from ancient times. Where does the visitor go to see the beauty and genius of Chinese pottery today? Can you point me, dear Potter?

      • Potter

        The
 place is Ching-Te-Chin or Jingdezhen


 where porcelain production began and flourished. It’s an incredible story: 
how the ancients began in China, in areas where one finds clay, near rivers mostly. They went, over the centuries, actually millennia, from hand-built ceramics to early low fired wares and on to achieve high-fired 
wares, refining stoneware clays to porcelain. In the process they refined 
primitive but beautiful ash glazes (from the noticing ashes that fell onto the wares in the fire 
process made glaze) to more refined glazes of awesome beauty. I don’t prefer the late Imperial
 very refined designs in colored overglazes. My taste ends historically with 
blue and white wares and more simple designs and brush strokes. I hope you see the simple 
beauty of the earlier wheel thrown wares of the Han,Tang and Song dynasties,
and then the amazing Han and Tang figures, including the three-color camels and
 horses. 

 I would not want to miss the magnificent brush paintings, scrolls, some with poems that are awesomely beautiful (also a different aesthetic). The Met Museum of Art in NY has a fabulous collection of all of this but I imagine that China has a lot more in their museums in Beijing. The landscape (from photos I see) looks 
just like the paintings; the paintings capture the atmosphere
 perfectly (or the way it must have been).

  • christopherlydon

    Tell me more, Tony. Guangzhou is not out of the question. My goal is not so much the cities as the story tellers. I believe intuitively that we get a skewed picture. My friend the novelist tells me: “there’s a lot more of the old China than you hear about in the New China.” I hunger for what we don’t know. The “unknown unknown” in Rumsfeld-speak. Tell me your story, please.

  • PMinMA

    China is a huge and immensely complex place. I hear lots of trivial observations from novices trying to make sense of China, who, IMO, add noise, not clarity, to the conversation. I know you are a bright guy, but from what you say of yourself, you are a novice in China. Without expertise (and even with it, sometimes), it is very hard to recognize when you are being taken in by congenial party hacks, or to recognize that the particular village you are seeing is or is not at all typical with regard to some characteristic, or to realize that the “expert” you have brought on the show is pushing a persuasive-sounding but deeply flawed interpretation of a particular topic. You can’t possibly possess the kinds of “filters” in this unknown context that make you an astute host in contexts that are familiar to you. Because of this, you are likely to provide just a slightly more sophisticated version of the commentary we hear during the Olympics, which does little but entrench the superficial, often simple-minded American view of things.

    What harm is done, you might ask. Well, the harm is that you are tacitly reenforcing the American belief that observations by intelligent non-specialists are good enough, that we can make decisions based on what we read or hear in a single sitting. We routinely fail to grapple with complexity and nuance. You will be in no position to say much more than, “Wow, China is big! It has big problems and big potential! It is such an old civilization!” Or the wonderful journalist’s wrap up line, “This may be the turning point, or it may not.”

    I would ask: What will be the value-added of your work, beyond the level of yet another National Geographic-type series?

    My wife just read what I have written and thinks I should try to recommend something positive since you are going to go, but I think my larger point is really a belief that “parachute journalism” is always flirting with being irresponsible. The more serious the topic, the more harm that can be done, of course. This would not be true if there were a dearth of information and you were filling some sort of void, but the problem is that we are flooded with “empty-calorie” journalism. The amount of information about China that is out there is similar to the number of kinds of breakfast cereal we have. And what a first-time visitor, to China of all places, can offer is fundamentally just another version of Cocoa Puffs, even if it is from Whole Foods. I don’t see you as a Cocoa Puffs intellectual, which I guess is just another way of saying ‘dilettante.’ You have more to offer than that.

    • Potter

      I take this as cautionary advice offered in a negative fashion ( as per your wife’s criticism). So if Chris has more to offer (which you say) what harm done indeed. Parachute radio was hardly harmful; it was enlightening and humbling. I heard voices, local views, that I never would have heard otherwise. I felt they were very well chosen. What did I know about how advanced the Jamaican prison system was? What did I know about village life in Ghana? What sounds of life in the far elsewhere at the end of my day would I have otherwise heard?

      So of course this will be an (or another) American view. What else can it be? But also this view comes with a certain sensibility. A first time visitor anywhere can’t help but bring all that he (or she) is along with hunger to see, learn, meet. For sure he will not be hidden in a crowd so easily either.

  • Cathy Rosenstock

    The Worcester Art Museum has a beautiful collection of Chinese art. At the last meeting of the museum’s book club, The
    Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein, a fictionalized
    biography of the painter, Pan Yuliang, was the book read. The museum
    librarian shared some of the amazing print resources on Chinese art
    available there and invited a wonderful, local professor emeritus — Holy Cross, I think — and
    China expert to come, share his collection, lead us through the museum’s
    collection, and tell great stories about his own experiences in China. I
    encourage you to visit the museum and contact the librarian.

  • http://www.industree.org.in Jacob

    check out an architecture firm called MAD in Shanghai, they swim upstream!!

  • Garuda

    Chris: your listeners might enjoy hearing about a visit to the Beijing Genomics Institute. The arts are fun, yes, but China is making a very big push into science and the BGI is one major front. Do look it up, it will tickle your fancy I am certain! Love your show, have been following your work since the “Connection” days!

  • Garuda

    Oops, forgive the typo, that should have read “your listeners …”

  • Cambridge Forecast

    Contextualizing China

    Understanding China cannot succeed without a sense of long-term trends and some self-training in “context acquisition”. If you read the following two “items” concerning China’s past, you will begin to sense the limitedness of China-watching from the daily news or whirlwind tour and get a sense of the Deng era as arguably part of a historical Chinese “gathering storm”::
    1.
    “China is the theatre of the greatest movement now taking place on the face of the globe.” (1907!)
    (comment by W.A. P. Martin, reviewing the changes up to 1906)
    This is not from or about either Mao or Deng’s China
    but from “The Awakening of China” (New York, 1907), W. A. P. Martin.

    Quoted in: “China in Revolution”, edited by Prof. Mary
    Clabaugh Wright, Yale University, Yale University Press, paperback, 1968, page 1.

    The title of the introduction by this same Prof. Wright is itself illuminating and suggestive: “Introduction: The Rising Tide of Change”
    China 2014 is itself clearly a part of this rising tide of change and cannot be understood in isolation.
    2.
    Another “China hand” wrote to a friend in 1905:
    “The state of things today presents a great contrast with what it was when I arrived here forty-one and a half years ago. Then everything was dead and stagnant; now all is life and motion…with promise of great things in the near future.”
    Quoted in Daniel W. Fisher, “Calvin William Mateer; Forty-five Years a Missionary in Shantung China” (Philadelphia
    1911) page 311-312. (also Mary Wright book, page 1)

    Again, China 2014 is itself clearly a part of this rising tide of change and long-term motion and cannot be understood in isolation. This is meant in a non-banal way beyond the truism that “the past is prologue.”

    Footnote: Notice that the ROS introductory mini-essay above that sets up this show, mentions this Prof. Mary Wright in its discussion of Harvard’s Professor John Fairbank and his impact.

    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    Wonderful essay you added and your links lead me to a very interesting long article about Peter Hessler by Paul Cohen from this page at Fairbanks: http://fairbank.fas.harvard.edu/pages/articles-interest

    and there is a list of articles!

    I am reminded that you did interview Hessler in 2011. The way anyone has to go or read about China is figuring that it is so broad and deep that you are only sticking your toe in huge flowing river. You can’t ever say you know it.

    That is a beautiful picture above, so interesting. A credit for it?

  • Potter

    Chris, A wonderful post on the bronze and thank you!!! The latest shot of green house with the red deck and staircase is quite something too!

  • Marilyn Richardson

    Such a joy to read (and see) your dispatches when you have all your flags flying in this way! Revelations and serendipity abound. The grail, the green house pictures and story…

  • Potter

    Re the intimate chat in that DR bar in Shanghai with Ben Wood- and re the topic of urban planning, housing: It brought back a time in my life when I was so interested in urban planning as design student in the 60′s: the writings of Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford .. the dreams of Le Corbusier, Bernard Rudolfsky (“Streets are for People”).

    It’s disappointing to hear now that high-rises are still being built with such insensitivity to human scale and well-being after all the lessons that are to be learned. Perhaps the needs of the state and finance are considered more important. But surely this is short-sighted. Here,for instance in NYC in the late 50′s 60′s 70′s people were in a rush to get out of old dilapidated housing. It’s understandable. People wanted to have clean modern rooms with facilities that worked. High rises are still being built here for the same capitalist-economic reasons that Wood describes including wealthy versions. I am thinking of for instance Trump’s towers on the west side of Manhattan with windows facing the Hudson River.

    I remember the “projects” of the modern era ( the late 50′s 60′s 70′s) all over town, the biggest Co-op City, in the upper Bronx. People waited anxiously, clamored to get into these sterile seemingly uninhabitable environments.

    from Wikipedia about reaction to these towers here:

    By the late 1960s and early 1970s, many planners felt that modernism’s clean lines and lack of human scale sapped vitality from the community, blaming them for high crime rates and social problems.

    Modernist planning fell into decline in the 1970s when the construction of cheap, uniform tower blocks ended in most countries, such as Britain and France. Since then many have been demolished and replaced by other housing types. Rather than attempting to eliminate all disorder, planning now concentrates on individualism and diversity in society and the economy; this is the post-modernist era.

    I do remember Design Research in Cambridge. They sold Marimekko clothes and wonderful wooden
    toys for our newborn. This was the early 70′s after I migrated to the more humane Cambridge. After that, further back to nature.

  • Potter

    So far what I see here is China, the Chinese, trying to be more like the West. I am wondering what happened to the thousands of years of history, arts, religion/wisdom, culture? Where are the old streets storefronts, architecture, the gardens, courtyards? I might as well ask where the literati are, the poets in the scrolls, the ones that write beautiful poetry in the mountains?

    What natural beauty inspires? Is it being preserved?

    I was very interested in the art space in particular and the interview with Philip Tinari. It would be interesting to know contemporary artists views and their views about the ancient tradition of painting- the magnificent scrolls. We had a fabulous show of them here at the MFA a few years ago.