In 1995 I had the opportunity to go on a short tour of Beijing and Xi’an. I looked forward very much to seeing the differences between then and my earlier visit in early 1978.
I had an interesting start to my visit when we took off in a quite small China Airlines 747 airliner from Sydney. As soon as the plane had taken off and seat belt signs were off, heaps of Chinese people on board quit their seats, squatted or sat on the floor and started gambling. It was quite chaotic but the flight staff handled the various groups on the floor with aplomb while the gamblers had the time of their lives.
The real drawback was the smoking which wasn’t then banned. The Chinese on the plane were great smokers as well as gamblers and the cabin was soon thick with cigarette smoke which – as a non-smoker – I found very hard to handle. I was feeling quite under the weather by the time we landed in Beijing and, as with my previous visit, the city still looked grey and cold in the mid-winter weather – quite a contrast from the hot weather I’d left behind in Sydney.
I did wonder how commercialised China had become and soon found the answer in the lobby of the hotel our group was staying in. I’m not a fan of Christmas and all the shlock surrounding it – too commercialised, too money-grabbing, too cynical, too many buying too much and getting in debt, and so many people looking unhappy and desperate in the last-minute rush. So I’d boasted to my husband that I’d be leaving the Christmas “festivities” behind, in a rather gloating manner. Silly me. Our tour walked into the hotel to find a dirty great big Christmas tree and the soft, dirge-like sounds of Christmas carols, quite a difference from the last time I’d been in the city when there was no sign of Western Christmas bling at all!
Being realistic, tourism had grown tremendously since my first visit in early 1978 and the Chinese obviously have to cater for visitors and their tastes. Plus the Chinese need the currency exchange tourism brings, so I’m hardly in a position to criticise from the sidelines!
I really noticed the difference when I went for a walk in Beijing. There were far less bikes – they’d crowded the streets in 1978 – and a heck of a lot more cars. In 1978 most cars were for official business but now the streets were choked with all sorts of vehicles – cars, trucks, bikes, motor bikes – it was chaotic and road rules seemed completely non-existent although people seemed to somehow cope with the bikes and cars creating a sort of mad kaleidoscope of movement.
Gone too was the ubiquitous grey and camouflage green clothing that predominated the last time I was there. Now most people were dressed in bright colours, good quality clothing and lots of swish accessories. Young people particularly looked confident, well dressed and bright. The country had obviously made great strides since I’d first visited and it was good to see.
A lot of people would like China to have stayed in the relatively backward state it was in the 1970s as people were less hurried, less sophisticated and, I guess, a bit naive. But that’s like saying our Western civilisation should have stayed stuck in the 1970s too. Change happens and I really don’t have too much patience for those who say how wonderful life was “back then”.
We did go to see the Summer Palace in Beijing and that really was quite amazing. What really takes me aback when I’m in Beijing is the obscene wealth flaunted by the rulers in olden times compared with the poverty and hardship of the great majority of the population. The Summer Palace is composed of lakes, palaces and gardens and is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Here’s a link to Wikipedia’s coverage of the Summer Palace which gives some idea of the size, beauty and history Summer Palace, Beijing. We also admired the Marble Boat, Summer Palace, Beijing, a quite extraordinary construction which really embodies the excesses of the Chinese ruling class.
The Summer Palace was pretty much destroyed twice by Western powers, as explained in Wikipedia:
“In 1860 the British and French burned the palace down at the end of the Second Opium War (the Old Summer Palace also ransacked at the same time). The punitive action was undertaken in response to the torture and killing of a European peace delegation that included Thomas William Bowlby. The destruction of large parts of the palace complex still evokes strong emotions among some in China……
The Summer Palace was slighted a second time in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion when it was seized by the eight allied powers. The garden were burned and mostly destroyed. Many of the Palace’s artifacts were divided among the eight allied nations. These are still retained by various countries – such as France and United Kingdom – much to the annoyance of the modern Chinese government.”
I have referred to this in detail because we in the West like to pontificate on how China should organise itself and what it should do and how it should behave. This completely fails to take into account the way in which foreign, mainly Western, powers have historically interfered in China and caused immense hardship to the Chinese people. Westerners need to study Chinese history in order to understand what goes on in China today and why lectures from Western governments get up the noses of leading officials and the Chinese people.
A bit of modesty and self-restraint wouldn’t go amiss and this was re-affirmed to me when we were in Xi’an. Thankfully, when we took off from Beijing Airport for Xi’an, the fighter pilots who had flow the aircraft when I first visited in 1978 had now been replaced by modern-trained pilots, so we took off at a normal speed instead of rocketing up into what felt like space when we flew in China in 1978!
We visited a museum in Xi’an which hadn’t been open long when I visited the city with its draw card, the Terra Cotta warriors and horses. It had a reconstructed version of a 5,000-year-old village which had been excavated in Shaanxi Province and our tour guides were very proud to inform us that this had a matriarchal social structure.
We looked at the most beautiful artifacts over the 5,000 year old history portrayed in this museum and it reminded me that China had a flourishing culture and creative outlets when nothing like this existed in early Europe or Britain. American Western culture which US leaders are proud to boast about only started up at a comparatively recent past, in 1776. And saying this does not include the extensive history of Native American/First Nations cultures which was ignored for so long and subjected to many attempts to destroy it completely.
Visiting the Terra Cotta warriors and horses is really a quite humbling experience. Here were ranks upon ranks of warriors, each one crafted individually, and designed to protect the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. They were buried with him in 210-209 BCE, with the aim of protecting him in his after life.
The existence of this army was forgotten until 1974 when a peasant digging a well during a time of drought hit one on the head while excavating. It is a quite extraordinary experience when you walk into the great hall housing these terra cotta figures as each one is crafted individually. In the slight haze of dust in the air, you can almost imagine them moving and coming alive. It’s estimated that more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses were buried in the area, with some still being excavated.
As you drive around Xian you see mounds all over the place which denote the burial places of ruling figures including relatives. We asked our guides why they hadn’t been excavated and they told us that, while they knew which figures were interred where, they were in no hurry to open up tombs until they had the expertise and knowledge to do the excavation work properly and efficiently. This went particularly for the tomb of the Emperor Qin which still hasn’t been opened up. They were adamant that Chinese specialists would be in charge of any excavations and it was clear that there is still a great sensitivity to the actions of foreign countries in the past as well as the plunder of Chinese artifacts which are displayed in Western museums, an affront to the dignity and self-respect of the Chinese people.
I left China on my last visit with a profound respect at what had been achieved since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. People who criticise the country forget the devastated country that existed after the end of World War 2 and the way in which the nation has pulled itself up by its bootstraps. We’re fed a diet of constant criticism in the Western media when a bit of self-examination of what’s happening in Western nations wouldn’t go amiss – particularly the huge and growing gap between the super-rich and the rest of the people.
Do I think everything’s hunky-dory in China? No, of course not. I don’t look at the country through rose-coloured glasses. But I do look with respect at what has been achieved and the great strides forward in the well-being of the people. I watch Western governments like the US and UK bang on about human rights in China but, to me, it’s simply an attempt to interfere in China’s affairs. If Western leaders were so concerned about human rights, they could look in their own backyard, take responsibility for the awful carnage that has erupted in the Middle East after the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, criticise the perfectly dreadful human rights situation in Saudi Arabia (but hey, they’ve got oil) or stand up for Palestinian rights to self-determination.
And with that final little rant under my belt, I’ll wind up my series of posts on my visits to China. I still have very good memories of the goodwill of the people I met, the wonderful sense of raucous humour and the patience with curious tourists who really must drive those in the tourist industry right around the twist on many occasions. So I will finish with a toast of “Ganbei” to the achievements of the Chinese people and memories of skulling the Chinese liqueur mao-tai which, quite rightly, was described by CBS’s anchor, Dan Rather, as “liquid razor blades”. He could also have mentioned the smell of burnt rubber!
I’m doing a slight detour here from my next post about the counselling I received after my mother died, as I’m hopping back to my involvement in women’s liberation.
In 1975, my boyfriend at the time and I had decided to go back to the UK for a holiday but I changed my mind as I simply wasn’t interested in returning to England at all. I was fascinated by Australia, Asia and all things going on in this region of the world where I was now living.
So I took my share of our holiday money and put it towards my fare to Thailand and back when I was invited to act as Co-ordinator of the Secretariat of the Women’s Conference held by the Asian Students Association in Chiang Mai in November, 1975. The Women’s Conference was being held as part of activities in the United Nations’ International Women’s Year in 1975, and preceded the general conference of the ASA. There was a lot of political activism among Asian students in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand at that time as there was considerable repression in those countries.
I flew from Perth to Kuala Lumpur via Indonesia. We landed in Jakarta in what looked like cool weather, overcast skies, rain – only to enter a truly oppressive sauna when we stepped outside the air-conditioned plane. We only had a short stopover in the city but the sight of armed police with machine guns was very sobering. It was a very solemn reminder that the Suharto dictatorship was still in power, more or less a decade after the massacres of 1965-66 when genocide was carried out against sections of the population alleged to be communists or sympathisers, or of Chinese origin. The army was the driving force when nearly a million Indonesians were brutally murdered and a blind eye was turned to this disgusting atrocity by the Australian, US and British governments.
When we arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport, I was pretty appalled and panicky when the customs guy started checking my suitcase as, at the bottom, were copies of Malaya News Service, a newspaper produced in Australia by progressive students and which I was bringing to pass out to other students in Thailand. For the first (and last) time in my life I did something which went right against my principles, and flirted outrageously with the Customs guy to deflect his attention from my suitcase. It worked and hey, while I hated acting like a ditz, it probably saved me imprisonment in a Malaysian prison as they didn’t muck around in those days, and still don’t. The Emergency Powers were used to imprison people without trial and that would have been my fate if the newspapers had been found in my luggage.
I had a day or so in Kuala Lumpur before catching the train to Bangkok, and enjoyed looking around the city. It seemed so Western to me with traces of Malaysian heritage, and of course exotic as this was my first prolonged stopover in south-east Asia. I was staying in a very Westernised hotel but took public transport to one of the big night markets, it was fantastic, I really enjoyed myself.
Then I boarded the train to travel to Bangkok. It really was a wonderful journey, to see such a totally different culture and scenery, to talk to people on the train and to really feel like I was in a foreign country. I’d travelled a lot in Europe but this was something else altogether. We saw small villages on the edge of the jungle, small stations, stopped in the big station at Penang for a while, then set off for Bangkok.
That city was a real eye-opener. Even in 1975 it was crowded, the traffic was chaotic but the various shrines to Buddha around the city were such a stark contract to the slightly seedy feel of the city in those days. It looked calm on the surface but suddenly you’d see an army truck go past full of armed soldiers and you somehow felt that there was a seething turmoil beneath the benign, placid, public face of Bangkok. As I was to find out, attending the Asian Students’ Association Conference was also dangerous, as there was huge conflict between left and right forces in Thailand which still exist to this day.
I met up with fellow participants at the conference in the hotel we’d been booked into and then, once all the delegates had assembled, we set off for an overnight coach journey to Chiang Mai in the north. When we arrived we were in a fairly modern hotel, but told not to stray from the hotel. I thought that was seriously weird – why come all this way to Chiang Mai to lurk in a Western-style hotel? So I took myself off, explored the city – it’s beautiful and was much cooler than Bangkok as it was so much further north – and had a wonderful time browsing in the various markets.
However, when I got back to the hotel, I found out we’d been advised to stay put because right-wing students were threatening to attack participants in the ASA conference and to bomb the hotel. We also had students armed with guns who were our bodyguards wherever we went in Chiang Mai!
The conference went well with various speakers on many issues: it was noticeable that the students from Malaysia and Singapore were very nervous about government surveillance of them, and they were very careful in what they said publicly at the conference. In between the switchover from the Women’s Conference to the General Conference (if I remember the timing rightly) we were taken for a remarkable experience which I still remember with profound gratitude today and which is why I wanted to write this post.
We were driven outside the city to the outskirts of the jungle, then walked quite a way through until we ended up in a small village where we were to stay overnight. It was an amazing stay, one I remember with fondness and great gratitude. The people were extremely poor but their hospitality and generosity were just unbelievable. We had an evening meal and then attended a community dance out in the open afterwards. In the middle of the event, a young man jumped up to launch into a speech which I guess was critical of the government, but I’m not sure. No-one turned a hair but applauded the speaker when he’d finished and then carried on the celebrations as if nothing had happened!
When we returned to the hut where we were to sleep overnight, I remember asking (or miming, more like) the lady of the family where I could use a toilet. I always remember her warm words as she held her open hands out to me and said (a student translated for me): “The jungle floor of my home is yours as much as it is mine”. Well, it was a reminder that a conventional toilet was out of my reach, but the way in which she offered such basic facilities with grace and dignity is a memory I really treasure.
The next day we had sticky rice balls, sugar of some sort and plain water for breakfast, before we thanked our lovely hosts profusely for the generous way they opened our homes to us and then walked out of the jungle to get on the coach back to the hotel.
And here comes the crunch. I got gastric poisoning from the well water we drank at breakfast. About four of us copped a violent stomach bug which left us very ill and bed-bound. It was vicious and I almost died in the early morning when I was vomiting and choked on my vomit. I remember lying on the floor, struggling to breath, with my room-mate fast asleep oblivious to my difficulties, thinking I was going to die on the floor of a bathroom in northern Thailand, away from family and friends. And then finally I to cough and clear my airways. What an immense relief – and that’s probably an understatement!
I was left with severe bouts of diarrhoea which would hit me without any notice. So one lunch-time, when we were back in Bangkok, we were having a meal with a lady we’d met from the United Nations when I started getting severe stomach cramps. I ran round to the restrooms – which were labelled in Thai so I had no idea which loo to use. I turned to a family eating nearby and gestured to one of the restrooms and they just smiled so I ran in and used the loo, which was one of those in the floor. When I walked back, the family were laughing their heads off so I figured I’d used the male toilet instead of female. I’d just got back to our table when the cramps hit again so I ran back and used the other restroom, assuming that this was the ladies. But when I walked out, the family at the table nearby were in absolute hysterics. So I never did find out which restroom was for women and which for men!
I finally flew home into a political storm in Australia as it was just after the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, had been sacked by the Governor-General and a Liberal-Country Party administration installed. There was upheaval, rebellion, marches, general uproar and my time in Thailand faded to a wonderful memory.
But in the following year, the Thai Army staged a coup and introduced martial law. I saw scenes of deal people on the streets of Bangkok and so many of those were the lovely Thai students I’d made friends with. They were murdered by army forces with many of the young women raped before being killed out of hand.
It was such a sad ending to my Thai experience but I treasure the memories of those I met at the conference, and also so very much the kind villagers who offered complete strangers such wonderful hospitality.