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!
When I started writing this post, I was reminded of one of the simplest and tastiest dishes I had in China – stir-friend green beans with almonds. It was perfectly cooked and delicious. So was the Cantonese meals dished up on the train from Changsha to Guangzhou.
It made me think of some of the dishes I’ve enjoyed over the years which were simple yet remain in my memory: French saucisson with impeccably cooked French fries in a small bistro in Strasbourg; Currywurst in Stuttgart: white sausage sliced in a crispy roll with tomato sauce and curry powder (sounds ghastly but was quite delicious eaten in the ChristKindlMarkt in the lead-up to Christmas on a bitterly cold winter’s day); veggie curry, alfalfa sprouts and chapattis in an Ananda Marga cafe in Perth, Western Australia; and last but by no means least, a burger and chips in Burger King in Hong Kong.
The last one sounds somewhat less than gourmet but we found it after we’d flown from the UK to Hong Kong for a stopover in 1994 on the way to Australia. I was suffering a lousy bout of bronchitis and, by the time we arrived in HK in the early morning, I was pretty ill and spent the day in bed fighting for breath. In the evening we sortied out to get a meal and the Burger King offering was absolute bliss! I returned to bed, my fever broke overnight and I woke with the bed soaked in sweat but me breathing more easily and able to travel on to Perth. So much for a stopover in Hong Kong – sleeping or staring at the hotel ceiling!
Anyway, from the ridiculous to the sublime! Returning to our trip to China in 1998, soon after we arrived at the Peking Hotel and had got settled in, we were taken to the main Peking Duck Restaurant operating at the time, where we were served a full Peking Duck banquet. Every part of the duck is used in this banquet. The whacko parts first: you have never lived if you haven’t looked at the beady eye of half a duck’s head resting on your plate. And another friend got stuck with the duck’s feet! Nor have you lived if you haven’t tried one of the entrees: shredded jellyfish – it bounces back however much you chew it, until finally you wash it down in frustration with water and hope you’re not going to choke on the sticky shreds. The chap beside me gave up on manners and decorum and pulled the shreds out of his mouth as they stuck in his throat.
The other entree dish that looked decidedly dodgy was what looked like lumps of black jelly in a dark-coloured sauce. Our interpreter told us it was sea cucumber, but I hung back, it still looked pretty horrible. The same guy, however, bogged in and had a mouthful of this gunk when the interpreter suddenly said: “Oh, sorry, you call it sea slug!”. I thought my neighbour was going to throw up as his face went green, but he managed to keep eating and slumped in his seat once he’d demolished the sea slug.
But hoo boy, when we got the duck meat, with pancakes, hoisin sauce, cucumber and shredded spring onions, we were in hog heaven – it was an absolutely brilliant dish, one of the best I’ve ever eaten. The small pancakes are cooked facing each other, you peeled them apart, then stuffed them with the duck meat, hoisin sauce, cucumber and spring onions. And to wind up we were served duck soup from the bones and remaining flesh.
Going back to food use, at a banquet in a village in the countryside I saw another dish which looked seriously gristly, grey and yukky. While no-one was looking, I managed to whack the pieces I was served under some leftover prawn shells. It was donkey tendon which, as a tour member gleefully informed me later, was a euphemism for donkey penis – thank god I never ate it.
At breakfast and dinner we mainly ate on our own. At lunchtimes, however, we were served banquets wherever we happened to be visiting as we were obviously considered honoured guests, being among the first tourist contingents to visit China as it was opening to the world. The banquets we were served during our tour were really pieces of art. The vegetable carvings and the way in which everything was laid out were absolutely beautiful. The food itself was delicious and the many veggie dishes were amazingly tasty. Everything was served in a Lazy Susan in the centre of big, round tables and we were seated alternating with tour members, welcoming committee members wherever we were, and our interpreters. We could help ourselves but our Chinese friends took great pleasure in picking out food to serve us. I got very adept at waiting until people’s attention was elsewhere and then whacking suspicious-looking food under leftover bones or whatever, as I’d done with the donkey penis.
In Dalian we were shown around a fishing cooperative and then served a fish meal. Luckily for the rest of us, the tour leader had the honour of eating the fish’s eyes when a whole fish was dished up. We ate quite enormous prawns with gusto, and were tucking into the most delicious fish I’ve ever eaten with similar gusto until the head of the fishing co-operate remarked benignly: “I see you like that fish, you have to be careful in its preparation. It’s called puffer fish or fugu in Japanese.” This is the fish which can kill you rather quickly if any of its poison gets into the flesh and I can tell you, it brought us all to a rapid halt. We lowered the fish back to the plate then cast surreptitious glances around to see if anyone started looking a bit ill or complaining of tingling lips or tongue. Luckily for us, the preparation of this fish had been perfect but none of us ate any more!
When I visited China again on a shorter tour in 1995, we went to Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province. When we arrived, our interpreter asked if there was anything we didn’t eat and I promptly said: “No dog” as I’d found out since our 1978 visit, that dog-eating was quite popular in parts of China. On the way to the hotel, the interpreter turned around to point out what I’m pretty sure was a barbecued dog on a stand at the side of the road, took one look at my face, shut up and hastily looked forward again.
The one dish I remember from Xian was a steamboat which, again, was absolutely delicious. It consisted of a centre steamboat with a broth, which was surrounded by various bits and pieces of meat and veggies – chicken, beef, pork, fish, prawns, carrots, beansprouts, greens, mushrooms and so on. You took whatever you fancied into your chopsticks, dunked it into the boiling broth until it was cooked and then tucked into the cooked food. The broth gradually got more intensely flavoured from the food cooked in it, and then at the end an egg for each person was broken into the steamboat, cooked and then the soup-like mixture wound up the meal. Absolutely luvverly.
In China you learn that nothing is wasted, because it has such a huge population and the many millions upon millions of people have to be fed. At the time we visited, the country had made great strides in development but was still a very, very poor nation, engaged in re-building after moving from a feudal to a socialist society in 1949, recovering from the ravages of British domination and Japanese occupation during World War 2.
All sorts of food were utilised to feed the billion-plus nation, which is why donkey penis ended up on the plate, along with ducks’ feet and ducks’ heads. It may not suit our Western tastes, I know I learned to check out everything dished up to us, but most of us in the West have never known the poverty and hunger which stalked China in its feudal times and in the post-war, rebuilding era.
Adults in 1978 mainly wore grey or green clothing, because that was the cheapest to produce. And that bit of information was a surprise to me as I thought it was a sort of revolutionary choice in post-war China, but instead it was a simple, economic measure.
In my final post on China I’ll write more about my trip to Xian in 1995 and the massive changes I saw since the first time I’d visited this enormous nation in early 1978. Changes there were but some things remained unchanged – the welcome; the earthy sense of humour; and last but not least, the ubiquitous flasks of jasmine tea waiting for us in whichever hotel we stayed in.