China Road by Rob Gifford
I've just finished China Road by Rob Gifford, and what a fascinating book it is! It took me back there, into China, and I learnt so much. For instance when I went to Yizhou, a 'small' town in the south west of China, two people met me at the station - my guide, and also a 'local guide' who I now suspect was someone from the local government keeping an eye on me. At the time I wondered why she was there. She would point out subtle things like the improved driveways of houses, and various other positive features, which my guide would translate for me. According to 'China Road' visitors are expected to report to the local authorities, and I think this extra guide was making sure my visit was a positive one.
Another incident that came to mind was when I decided to investigate the sauna in my posh Shanghai hotel I was told to make a booking for the next day. Apparently, this is because the sauna in Chinese hotels, even the upmarket ones, are likely to be fronts for brothels. I'm pretty glad I decided against now.
Starting in another Shanghai hotel Rob Gifford follows 'route 312', which takes him through the northern part of China, through Xi'an and then to the extreme northwest, following the northern silk road. Along the way Rob Gifford makes observations about modern China, as well as giving a historical context.
Rob Gifford spent 20 years studying and working in China, and so he knows a lot about the Chinese psyche. He adds to the idea I'd gleaned from reading Simon Winchester's excellent book about Joseph Needham (Bomb, Book, Compass) that Chinese science festered during the Qing dynasty because all the potential scientists were diverted into the civil service. It was partly that, but also due to a complacency harping back to the golden age of Confucius making all further innovation unnecessary. Furthermore, because there was no aristocracy, apart from the emperor, there were no other contenders for power, which also contributed to the general scientific stagnation. Towards the end of the book he also considers the influence of a non-alphabetic written language. It is inflexible, and has remained the same for over a thousand years. This, he thinks, may also stultify creativity. Art also failed to develop until the twentieth century. This followed a decree in the Tang dynasty which meant that art would remain the same for over a thousand years.
Apart from Confucianism which pervaded in the office, the other main religions for the ancient civil servants were Taoism. Whereas Confucianism emphasised order and finding one's place in society, Taoism was more metaphysical and concentrated on finding one's place in the universe. These were joined by Buddhism in the first century AD, and this triumvirate of philosophies subsequently intertwined. In contrast to Judao-Christianity, there were multiple gods, and also a lack of certainty. Man could never find 'the way', all he could do was search for it, and maybe approach it. Rob Gifford illustrated this very well when he encountered a hermit in a cave. He went there for enlightenment, but came away with something else. It is very funny.
Apart from the many entertaining sections, there are a few disturbing accounts too; he encounters a doctor who performs forced terminations on foetuses that are almost full-term, and is repulsed by her attitude. Since the character for 'good' is composed of the radical for 'woman' and that for 'son', the importance accredited to a male heir is clearly ingrained, and I suppose that it is little wonder that Chinese society now has a predominance of young males. Because of this policy, introduced in the early 1980s it is estimated that by 2020 there will a shortage of 30 million brides.
Rob Gifford confesses that he is confused by China. Some days he loves the place, other days he is glad he is leaving, but every day brings something different.
The road end in Urumqi - a place that I was intent on visiting when I was first planning my visit, but decided not to following Foreign Office advice. The book describes the background to the tensions there, as well as a description of the place that seemed so fascinating that I searched for images on the web. Immediately I came across video footage of rioting in July 2009 - exactly the time I was thinking of going there. The Han Chinese were most of the victims, but this book explains why the uprising occurred. It is still a place I would love to visit, eventually.
This is just part of a history I compiled while reading this book:
A Potted History of China.
Up until 19th century Confucian philosophy: China the centre of the world and Chinese superior.
During 19th century suffered military defeat at the hands of 'The Ocean People' (foreigners from outside China arriving by ship). They realised then that they would have to change to avoid being annexed.
1905 Confucian examination system abolished.
Old Hundred Names (Rural peasants) 750 million people.
1912 Emperor over thrown
1921 Mao Tse Tung founder member of Communist party
1927 toured Hanan - convinced revolution should come from peasants.
1940s Civil war and chaos.
1950s land reform - ruined by collectivisation.
Late 1950s Great leap forward. Industrialisation and blast furnaces. 30 million died.
1966 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Young encouraged to rise up and attack old, proletariat and foreigners. Intellectuals sent out to countryside and labour camps. Encouraged large families. Life expectancy increased from 35 in 1949 to 71 today.
1976 Mao died.
1980s Hope of economic reform. One child family policy introduced.
1990s New liaison with urban masses. Corruption and stagnation. Rural poor looked down upon again.2006 promise to rural poor to give free schooling and free medical care as part of 5 year plan.
Finally, looking the at the index of the book I came across a very interesting website which investigates a village in a part of China close to where I have been. It seems to be well worth further investigation.