A Tale of Three Cities
THE ARMCHAIR AUSTRALIAN – 1971-1972
ARRIVING IN Peking is rather like arriving in Canberra. True, a few details don’t quite match, like the massive glass-plated airport building adorned with the propaganda trappings of the socialist State. Someone has ploughed up the spaces between the runways in yet another bid to frustrate the hopes of Australian wheat-sellers.
But if you ignore that, then you could just as well be landing in Australia’s capital in the southern highlands. The air has the same fresh, dry flavor. There are the same clusters of officials farewelling and meeting each other importantly.Straight, tree-lined roads lead off in unknown directions, and the first view of the city – great architectural monuments, some Soviet-designed, thrown at random among the paddocks and empty spaces – does little to deny the Canberra resemblance. The impression doesn’t last much longer, though. Peking, when you eventually find it, is one of those rare cities of atmosphere where people, buildings andhistory blend into an integral whole. Like Kyoto or Leningrad, or Rome and Paris if they were smaller. Canberra still has some way to go in that department.
At the International Club in Peking, the foreigners still meet to swim and play tennis. The building – yet another of those Victorian oddities the Europeans bequeathed to Peking – looks a little out of place covered with Mao posters.Some of its users must feel a little uneasy about the large slogan predicting finaldefeat of the US and its running dogs. But, as the Chinese say, it is for each individual to decide whether he is a friend or enemy of China.
From a platform at the edge of the Tien An Men Square in the centre of Peking,just outside the Forbidden Palace, the emperors watched as their troops set offfor battle. Chairman Mao and his supporters stand on the same platform andwatch the hundreds of thousands below who have come to celebrate May Day. They used to include a military parade but that was dropped a few years back (China threat experts, please note).
Everyone says it, but until I had seen it I hadn’t realised that the Great Wall was (a) so low and (b) that there were so many of them. As you drive up the long valley leading to the traditional invasion pass into Peking, wall follows crumbling wallas silent proof of the fear in which the Chinese held their northern invaders. But few of the walls are more than 20ft high, including the Great Wall itself which runs along the crests of mountains already thousands of feet in height. An armywhich has come all the way from Mongolia and has climbed to the top of themountains would hardly turn round and go home just because they had toclimb another 20ft or so, I thought. Then someone explained to me that the Mon-gols always travelled on horseback. The thought of having to leave their horsesbehind and continue on foot was more than they could take. That’s what I wastold, anyway.
In the dusty, narrow lanes, or hutungs, of Peking, donkeys scuffle past the low,mud walls which surround the houses. It is a scene which could have come, (and part of it has, indirectly) from the Middle East. When the northern invaders reached Peking, they quickly set up court and imposed their way of life on the natives. The natives did not resist. Instead, confident in the superiority of their Chinese culture, they waited and gradually absorbed the barbarous outsiders into the Chinese mould. Peking today lies in much of the charm of this mixture of cultures. The palaces of the Forbidden City are Chinese in design, but the layout and sense of space, where temples squat heavily facing each other across enormous, stone-laid platforms, is something brought in from the Mongolian plains of central Asia, by Ghenghis Khan himself.
The people, too, are different. Perhaps it has something to do with the past,but they have an easy, friendly tolerance which contrasts with the more active aggressive attitudes of southern Chinese. But the real Peking can best be seen in its many parks. On Sundays, they are dotted with small knots of people watching silently and knowingly as someone, anyone, goes through the motions of Chinese fencing, acrobatics, anything so long as it is something to watch. Old men in mandarin hats move easily among young children with Mao badges. In the distance, bulldozers are leisurely attacking a heap of dirt left after building the Peking underground. There is the feeling that this is the way Peking’s residents have always enjoyed themselves and will continue to enjoy themselves.
To tell the truth, I have a strong bias towards Peking. When you learn Chinese they teach you what they call Mandarin, explaining that this is the aristocratic language of China. In fact, it is no more than the dialect of the Peking district,and this is the Chinese that the foreign invaders and their monarchs learnt when they finally assimilated into China. So when you hear everyone from the hotelservants to the lady cab drivers and village children speaking with an accent which you had always thought of as Oxford Chinese, you are naturally impressed.It is like discovering that the Cockneys could all speak clear, understandable English, as well as being the nice people that they are.
Shanghai, the old China hands will tell you, is sad, run down and depressed.I don’t know – I wasn’t there in the old days to compare. Certainly, there is something sombre about the rows of massive European buildings along the river water front or just behind it. In the past, they were the proud centres of colonial empires. Now, they have been taken over as party or government headquarters,with enormous Mao portraits on the walls, or else boarded-up and allowed quietly to decay. But on the outskirts of Shanghai some of the former slums havebeen replaced by attractive worker settlements, and I imagine that is not sad for the people involved.
There is a restless, seething atmosphere about this city which makes Peking seem a village in comparison. With a population of six million, and four million on the outskirts, it is, in any case, much larger than Peking’s three million. You realise just how much more active China’s policies to the world would have been if Shanghai had been chosen as the capital.
From five in the morning to late in the evening, the streets are full of people milling, marching and strolling. Elsewhere in China, you have the feeling that the cultural revolution is over and could eventually be quietly forgotten. In Shanghai, it still seems very much alive.
In quiet back streets, and along the waterfront, enormous billboards denounce the enemies of Mao. As if even the mention of these “traitors and scabs” could give them legitimacy, large crosses are struck across the characters for their names. Mao’s name is written in red ink, however, with a small gap at either end.It reminds me of primary school, where I was punished for not writing God’sname with a capital letter.
From the tops of the buildings at night, red neon signs flash out the message”Long live chairman Mao,” and “Long live the glorious Communist Party ofChina,” and “Long live the glorious proletariat.” In the streets below, the same message is repeated a thousand times, wherever there is space to write it.
Shanghai’s struggle to adjust to its new role is one of the most impressive things about this city. Before 1949, it served as the commercial centre for the hinterland of central China. Under communism, China has made its economy more self-sufficient and Shanghai has been forced to industrialise or perish. Today, it hasbecome the light industrial centre of China, turning out goods with a quality higher than most Chinese goods and suitable for export.
I tried to suggest to our Chinese guides that one reason for this high quality was the former Western presence in Shanghai. (For many years, Britain, France and later Japan held their own concessions where Chinese law could not apply.) They denied it indignantly. The foreigners had brought nothing but harm to Shanghai. True enough, I conceded, they did behave badly. But they could also have brought some good. After all, it couldn’t be just a coincidence that Shang-hai’s goods were of higher quality. The factories and foreign skills brought in from abroad before 1949 must have helped.
By this time, the guides were really angry. Surely I knew the imperialists came to China only to exploit it; that, but for this, China would have advanced much faster. It took a long while to think of an answer. “Surely,” I said, “the Chinese recognised that the technology of the West was created by the workers, not by the imperialists.” The imperialists might use it to exploit China, but this did notdetract from the inherent value of the technology.
They pondered this one, and when I produced a Mao quote saying that China must learn from other countries, big or small, they seemed ready to concede the point. But not before I had admitted that the West had learned a lot from China.
It is not only the past legacy of the West they dislike. In the book stores of Shanghai, they have only three sales departments – technical books, the works of Mao, and revolutionary posters, mainly of Mao. Nothing remains even of the approved pre-revolutionary authors. Nothing of the pre-cultural revolution era is for sale. And nothing has been written and published since the cultural revolution.
Book stores without books – that is my saddest memory of Shanghai. Just outside one of the bookstores, they had a wall exhibition of American atrocities in Vietnam and people dying in the streets of pre-1949 Shanghai. As I watched, a curious crowd of children gathered round. I wondered how I could tell them that the Western tradition of literary freedom was the basic guarantee of a just and humane society.
From Hong Kong to Canton takes no more than three hours by train. And from the train the differences do not seem too great. The chaos of shacks and skycrapers in Hong Kong is replaced by the standard, slightly decayed, three-or-four-storey tenement house; but there are a lot of them in Hong Kong, too.
In the back streets of Canton, the conservative Cantonese peer out of their dark,narrow houses with the same suspicion as you can find in downtown Hong Kong.Ragged children play ping-pong on broken doors mounted on bricks. Every-where you hear the harsh tones of the Cantonese language, as in Hong Kong.In hotels reserved entirely for Europeans – the Japanese in one, the rest in theother – the waiters go about their jobs with the same casual indifference as theirbrothers in Hong Kong. Great mausoleums with marble corridors, they were built for another era. In Shanghai, the hotels were also hangovers from a more worldly past. But with them came a staff which had somehow retained the attitudes of pre-revolution China mixed with the equalitarianism and Mao study sessions of the present.
In Canton, every room carried the same standard Mao portraits and slogans, displayed without taste. In Shanghai, in the de luxe dining rooms of the past, they had kept the tasteful Georgian furnishing, broken only by a well-framed scroll of Mao’s calligraphy.
Communism has hit Canton with a proletarian thoroughness that you don’t feel so strongly elsewhere in China. Lines of young Red Guards in the streets control the traffic, such as it is. In the evening, the workers gather in Canton’s many parks for typical “park of culture and rest” entertainment of revolutionary dancers and singers. In the streets are slogans warning of the need for constant vigilance. From time to time, Nationalist Chinese saboteurs sneak across from Hong Kong, blow up bridges and factories, and then disappear.
Canton used to be the entry point of all that was new, and revolutionary, fromthe outside world. As such, it was the cradle of both Chinese revolutions, nationalist and communist. Today, it finds itself a southern backwater as China moves its industry and population northwards and inwards away from the threatened south.
Only the Canton trade fair, and the foreigners who came to buy there, remainas a reminder that China once used to have a lot to do with that part of the world to her south. Perhaps eventually that contact, and Canton’s prosperity will comeback.