Friday, January 28, 2022

Reflections on China

Chinese bicycling to work in 1980.

Chinese bicycling to work in 1980.

This is the third of a series of articles comparing experiences and impressions of China from 1980 with a trip in April-May, 2010.

Beijing Day 3, April, 1980

Beijing smog reminds me of Los Angeles. It’s caused by burning soft coal, and is dense, gray and choking. Visibility is poor until the smog burns off or is somehow dissipated. There are no trees in Beijing. Chairman Mao had them all taken down to get rid of the rats. He apparently didn’t think about the annual Gobi Desert sandstorms that hit Beijing. The sky turns yellow as the winds blow across the desert, and the sand rises above thirty thousand feet. Today we could not see a full block. The sand actually came into my room through two panes of glass. No one knows how long the storm will last, but we cannot get out of Beijing. All flights have been cancelled, except Iran Air, and we are not anxious to join the list of hostages.

The assortment of vehicles in Beijing is incredible: Bicycles by the thousands; horse-drawn and mule-drawn carts by the hundreds; military vehicles by the score. Crowded buses are the major forms of public transportation. There are also many motorcycles with sidecars, as in cops and robbers movies from the thirties. The Chinese like to drive peculiar looking three-wheeled vehicles that pull carts. They sound like lawnmowers.

Drivers of all vehicles in China rely on three things, namely the horn (most important by far), accelerators, and steering wheels. The way to drive in China is to weave in and out of any traffic while continually leaning on the horn. It’s important to pass everybody if you can, and you should not stop for anything. A line down the middle of a road is meaningless. It takes courage and a lot of idiocy for a westerner

Badaling portion of the Great Wall in 1980. Submitted

Badaling portion of the Great Wall in 1980. Submitted

to drive in Beijing. Another peculiarity is that drivers don’t use their lights at night…they rely on that wonderful horn.

Automobiles are rare, and a strange collection. Most of them look like ancient Chevrolets or Plymouths. There are a few Toyotas and big, black monsters with red plastic pieces on the hoods. Those are the Red Flag Limousines and are only for VIP’s of the highest magnitude. Many have dark curtains in the rear.

The following are a few notes about sightseeing and education. First, sightseeing: At this point everything is open and available. In the Forbidden City a tourist can enter the large main buildings and see relics of the Han, Tang and Ming Dynasties. Some examples are thousands of years old. There are pieces with a written language going back 4,000-5,000 years. Mao’s mausoleum is also available and foreigners are given priority in entry.

About two hours driving time from Beijing, at Badaling, there’s a section of the Great Wall of China. To get there you drive past communes, factories and workers’ buildings. The land is flat, but suddenly the mountains rise dramatically and you are at Badaling where you catch your first sight of the Great Wall. The sight is staggering because the wall not only goes through the mountains, but it rises almost vertically in some sections.

The wall is enormous. Its height is about twenty to thirty feet. It’s eighteen feet wide at the top to accommodate mounted soldiers. It is simply not possible to explain the experience of standing on the wall and looking out for what seem like endless miles. The wall was completed in the Qin Dynasty, over 2,000 years ago.

From the Great Wall you can head back to Beijing with a stop at the Ming Tombs at Shisanling. Past a marble gate that was built in 1540 is another

Foreign tourists were a rare sight and a curiosity to the Chinese in 1980.

Foreign tourists were a rare sight and a curiosity to the Chinese in 1980.

red gate that leads to the tombs. On either side of the road there are statues of animals – lions, camels, elephants, horses and some that cannot be identified, and twelve statues of humans dating from the 15th Century. There are thirteen tombs of the Ming Emperors, but only two have been excavated. The tomb of Ghang Ling is the largest, but has not been excavated. The tomb of Ding Ling (Yep, that’s him) is the first to have been excavated and here he is with two wives. Unlike the tombs of Egypt, these have not been robbed, so there’s a lot of treasure to see.

It’s fascinating to see large posters put up by the government to show how much it cost to construct the tombs in contrast to what that money would have meant to the peasants. The Ming Dynasty ended in 1644 after a peasant uprising, and the government has posted a detailed map.

China has universal education.  It is a keystone in the drive toward modernization. The Chinese emphasize math, science and English as most vital parts of their curricula. I’m fortunate to visit one of Beijing’s finest schools, a middle school that is for children aged twelve to fourteen. It would be shocking to many American’s to see this school as one of the best in Beijing. The physical plant looks like a ghetto school that hasn’t been maintained for many years. Lab equipment is dated “Chicago, 1935”.

My high note is an invitation from the Vice Chairman (Note: In China all heads of institutions are Vice-Chairmen, since only Mao can be called “Chairman”) to “teach” an English class. It is not only fun, but also an insight into what education means to the Chinese, how the children react, and how hard they work.

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