Coming Home to China

This is a place where one has never been before, although it is still native to us

(Ernst Bloch, Spirit of Utopia, p. 120).

From using a squat toilet on a moving train to open political discussions, from Harry High-Pants to the cultural revolution, from a Shanghai street to the strange feeling of having come home, this journey through China was a proverbial eye-opener.

I had come for an impossibly quick tour, a string of lectures in Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The original plan had been for roughly three days in each, up to three lectures in each, with a rail journey (where possible) in between for a pleasure and a break. I ended up staying in Shanghai for five days and the vertigo-inducing Hong Kong for barely more than twenty-four hours. But it was in Shanghai that I first felt that strange feeling of having come home at last.

Shanghai? With the total population of Australia gathered in one vast city, with its impossibly bad air (you can see the smog wreathed around the buildings at the end of the street), with its commercial frenzy, crazy bicycle riders, the busiest port in the world … Still it felt like I was coming home to a place I had never been before. This piece is an effort to understand why.


To be sure, China is strange enough to a Western visitor, even one from that country which finds itself caught between the West and the East, culturally hanging onto the last threads of a Western heritage, geographically and commercially part of South-East Asia. The list of its unfamiliarities are potentially endless – language, with meaning hinging on careful attention to intonation and lilt, the seeming chaos of city-life, the traffic, the food, the patterns of social interaction – but they are not what really struck me as so strange. Instead, it was the Harry High-Pants (or bodily carriage), squat toilets on jostling trains, and politics.

Harry High-Pants

One of the perpetually fascinating features of different countries and cultures is bodily carriage, the way the shoulders move just so, whether buttocks are clenched or pushed out, the tilt, sway and way of moving one’s head. Scandinavian men may walk as though they have a pole up their arses, swaggering stiffly, knees bent in a cowboy bow, toes pointed outwards; Australians may move a little more smoothly, slightly slouched, uncertain of their place in the world. But Chinese men of a certain vintage – anything past the mid-thirties – begin to sport a loose pair of pants belted up to the armpits, shirt (polo or button-up) tucked firmly in. In movement, the torso remains still, the legs moving of their own deliberate accord. A street full of such men was a weird sight indeed.

Squat Toilet on a Jolting Train

Yet the High-Pants were only the beginning, for the experience of using a squat toilet on a moving train reminds you that you are way outside your comfort zone. It happened at last on a standard rail journey – about 21 hours – between Shanghai and Zhenshang (near Hong Kong). I had held on as long as I could, but eventually the moment of truth arrived; with bowels ready to burst I realised that to hold on any would lead to serious internal injuries. I also realised that the decision to catch an ordinary train in order to meet ordinary people in China had certain consequences. One of them was the fact that I needed to use the same toilet as about 300 others – all in the one carriage, given the Chinese habit of selling no-seat tickets.

Door open, squeeze in, turn around: stop. It’s a squat toilet, on a rocking train that I am sure is travelling much, much faster than it should. What to do? I ignored the sheen of liquid on the floor. Failing that, I tried to imagine that it is water or floor-wash and not piss from the hundreds who have gone before me. I stepped forward and placed my feet in the footrests on either side of the rounded, stained-steel trough. It may have stainless steel once upon a time, but not now. I dropped my pants to a strategic level on my legs to avoid soaking them in the pungent floor wash. I firmly grabbed the handrail directly before me. It was, I realised, there for a purpose. Even though it looked as though previous users had balanced on one foot blind-folded while the train was racing around a curve, I quickly decided that I would by no means try to emulate them. Handrail gripped, eyes wide open, I squatted and let go … and was surprised at how comfortable it really is, despite the initial feeling of having all one’s vulnerable parts dangling low. Let me just say that the position encourages you to do what you have to do. In fact, it usually produces a greater feeling of lightness and relief.

I reached for the toilet paper – my own! With some premonition and much travel experience, I had come prepared. This toilet may have had some toilet paper at the start of the trip, but it was long gone by now. I placed the used toilet paper in the basket provided – otherwise I would have blocked the toilet and soon found 300 accusing eyes fixed on me for stuffing up the one avenue for collective relief. Such baskets are of course the reason why Chinese public toilets smell the way they do. Without my precious roll, I may well have had to invoke the old biblical saying: do not let you right hand know what your left hand is doing. As I pulled up my pants, I dug out your vital bottle of dry hand-wash. There was soap, not even water for my own ablutions. Then I did as the Chinese do: sniffed up a good hunk of snot and hacked in the toilet to chase down the steaming deposit I had left behind.

I got out fast; a line of at least was waiting to follow me in and savour my smell.

The Yellow Peril?

My third experience of strangeness was political, although for a vastly different reason to the one I expected. Let me put it this way: the oddness I anticipated – of a communism in which one could not express all one’s political opinions freely – was, to my surprise, about to be completely overturned.

When I arrived in China, my ears were still full of comments like these:

‘China is fundamentally evil and we engage at our peril’, said Andrew Benjamin, an ostensibly intelligent man in Australia.

‘Be careful of those Chinese’, said Tat-siong Benny Lieuw, an ex-pat in the USA.

‘China is dangerous’, said Fernando Segovia, who has Cuban heritage.

‘Make sure they don’t keep you there since they like what you do so much’, said my mother on the eve of my departure for this lecture tour.

One could add many similar observations to the list – a thousand passing comments, misguided newspaper opinion pieces and frowned warnings from the best of friends – but the point is the same: one should be infinitely wary in China. Above all, forget about discussing politics, for soon enough that man over at the other table who had been reading the same page of his book for the last hour would have a quiet word with the powers that be, one’s hosts would receive a quite telephone call and your own application for a visa next time would be held up indefinitely due to unspecified irregularities. All this was of course due to the communist dictatorship in China, where freedom, parliamentary democracy and the right to buy the endlessly useless and badly made products of capitalism were denied to honest Chinese citizens.

My own experience was vastly different: no black limousines and chaperones; no agent appointed to follow me at a discrete distance; no blockage of internet access or skype; no delays at the arrival or departure gates. Instead, the China I found was one of profound openness in discussing all manner of topics.

Around a dinner table in Shanghai they laughed when I told them stories in the newspapers about ‘inscrutable China’, about fears that China was out for world domination, and about the ‘yellow peril’ in Australia. They laughed loudest when I related the fearful and wary statements with which I began this section.

What did we discuss? I had thought some topics would be off limits, so I began cautiously, asking about the nature of contemporary China, about education, wealth and poverty, about a new middle class (the objective conditions exist but there is no subjective identity, which means that the class is unstable may fade away at a moment’s notice), about life in the country, and about communism and capitalism. But soon we moved onto all manner of topics, all of which were on the table for discussion. It was pointed out to me that China is not a violent or aggressive country, despite what is reported in Western media. Intellectuals may be dissenters by confession and conviction, but it was done within a framework in which Marxism was not a marginal approach for a few crackpots or relics for the 60s (if you are old enough); Marxism is part of the mainstream mix, breeding of course its own nominal membership and adherence, but making the debates far more interesting.

We connected through philosophers like Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukács and soon found much common ground, but what I enjoyed being surrounded by sharp minds and the ability to see the complexity of matters, the need to avoid simple dismissal or enthusiastic advocacy. Used to being wary about the Marxist label from time to time, I began to feel as though I had come home in this strange country.

Coming Home?

How could this be, feeling strangely at home in a country I hardly knew? Other elements confirmed this sense of homecoming to a new place, the feel, as Bloch put it, that this place is native to us even though we have never been there before.

With my own sensibilities strongly set to the creative use of space, the dominance of bicycles and trains as modes of human transport, and the rich human interaction of the street, China made itself more and more homely. In countries like Australia, the vast amounts of space have bred an inability to deal with space creatively or efficiently. It is thrown about, wasted, awkwardly encountered, but never made human. In China I was constantly taken with the way the smallest corner became a space for two or three to gather, smoke and talk. On the trains, where scores would sleep within one carriage on the ‘hard sleepers’, a little foldout stool in a busy corridor became a quiet space for contemplation, watching the country go by. And people simply threaded their way through the legs and arms and torsos without a concern.

The trains themselves are an alternative transporter’s dream. With one of the best networks in the world, with passenger trains at 30 carriages or more on each long run, with people accustomed to the feel of human breath, the trains are not to be missed. Forget the bleached experience of flying, the train was for me the way to travel.

If it was not a train, then it was a bicycle. No matter how old, rusty, slow, or loaded up with a household, the bicycle is an inescapable part of Chinese street life. At first it seems like a major miracle that the streets are not scattered with the bodies of erstwhile cyclists, but after a while a certain rhythm begins to show itself. The Chinese approach to harmony, I was told, in which everything flows together in its own way – with the help of plenty of horns and bells and deft weaving. But a city without bicycles is a sad, sad place. On that score, Chinese cities and towns and brimming with joy.

The street itself was perhaps the most fascinating of the lot. In Shanghai, where for a confluence of reasons I was to spend more time than I had planned, I preferred to wander about and sit on the street outside the small hotel where I was staying. Have you been to the Shanghai Expo? I was asked. The museums? The theatre? The temple? No, I preferred the street. For here the fruit and vegetable shop would receive fresh supplies all the long day, selling fresh produce for next to nothing. Next door the Chinese massage parlour plied its trade, the school across the road opened its doors early and closed them late and the phone-booth-sized kiosks on the side of the road sold all manner of wares.

In at least three places an old man with a few pieces of equipment and some spare parts would repair a bicycle’s flat tyre, wobbly wheel, dodgy steering … I was told that these roadside repairers were one reason why Chinese knew next to nothing about repairing their own bicycles, since there would always be someone ready to do the job on the next corner.

But the street never stopped. Old men with Harry High pants spitting, young women strutting, friends talking, a group of boys sucking on a drink, meandering past, an ancient freighter-bicycle passing by with water, vegetables or building materials, motor scooters, often held together with masking tape, buzzing past, children off to school or going home, older women gathering at the vegetable shop to test and discuss the goods, and people stopping to eat, always eating, at a roadside food-stall or in one of the hole-in-the-wall ‘restaurants’. The street was a village to itself and it made me feel very much at home.

All the same, nothing quite managed to do so as much as the centre that had invited me at the university (Fudan in Shanghai). It was not merely the friendly welcome of the people, but above all the very fact that here, in one of the major Chinese universities, they have a Centre for the Study of Marxism Abroad. Every university in the world worth its salt needs a centre like that. If they did, I would feel much more at home in the world.