What is like to travel with others in the two Chinas, in both communist China and capitalist China? How do people perceive the differences? How are their preconceptions challenged or confirmed? I was accompanied by two women, both from Eastern Europe with youthful experiences of communism, but both had never been to either of the two Chinas before. One was a communist, having grown up in Yugoslavia before it was attacked and dismantled by NATO. The other was mostly anti-communist, having celebrated the end of communism in Bulgaria. We first spent a few days in the massive commercial centre of Shanghai, one of the two great creative cities of the twenty-first century (the other being Beijing). From there we immediately went to Taiwan, long the only officially recognised ‘China’ by the West, location of US bases, capitalist industry and parliamentary democracy.
So how did they respond? In Shanghai it began with the food and eating implements. The celebration of food in China is embodied in the very word for ‘hi’ (Chifan le ma?), which actually means ‘Have you eaten?’ And eat we did. The problem for my friends was that the food was thoroughly unfamiliar and often unidentifiable. What is that strange looking blob in the bowl? What precisely is that yellow hue to the dumpling? From what part of what animal does this squiggly piece with a blob on the end come? And why are there no cafes that sell coffee for confirmed caffeine addicts? Wisely, most Chinese eating places have pictures of the dish that one may wish to choose, so at least you have a rough idea of what it may contain.
One of my friends, the communist, completely gave up at first, seeking out a shop called ‘Croissants de France’, where she could buy her beloved coffee and croissant, or a Korean barbeque restaurant where her much desired and identifiable meat appeared ready to be cooked on the small grill in the middle of the table. The other friend was willing to give some dishes a try, digging her way through the myriad components of a soup from a Muslim Chinese restaurant, or exploring with interest the items of a dish she had simply not encountered before.
Yet her openness to the food was coupled with an extraordinary collection of preconceptions about Chinese people. At one point, we were observing in awe the negotiations of a Shanghai intersection. A vast chaotic jumble of trucks, cars, motor-scooters, bicycles and pedestrians all seemed to be intent on a massive carnage.
Then she observed: ‘There will be a crash soon, for Chinese people have no peripheral vision’.
Imagining that she had some authoritative source in mind, I asked, ‘How do you know?’
‘Everyone in Bulgaria knows it …’ she said … and then laughed with us, realising that it was part of a whole unverified construct of China.
To that she added Chinese susceptibility to microbes – hence the face masks when people have a cold – and the slowness of the East to change. All of which collapsed in the face of the reality of China itself.
But we were not finished with the food just yet – or rather, the implements with which one eats food. Places with the supposedly useful fork were as scarce as a blond Chinese, so my friends had no option but to test their dexterity with chop-sticks. I can say that coming from a land (Australia) where chop-sticks have been part of the culinary furniture for close on 200 years, these two sticks were familiar enough for me, although I still find a good number of challenging items – slippery balls, soft tofu, things with shells on them. But for my friends chop-sticks had been until now part of the mystery of the East. Not any more. Faced with myriad foods they had never encountered, attempting to locate two sticks among five fingers, they dropped their food, broke it apart, were awed by the suddenly massive distance between plate and mouth. One allocated a chop-stick to each hand, bringing them to bear on the plates, with limited success. The other resorted to spearing the various bite-size pieces with one stick, only to realise that it was a terrible faux pas. Initially beaten, they retreated to the small ceramic spoons always available, the blessed respite for foreigners. They told stories about the wonderful invention of the fork that came from the Arab world, via the Byzantine Empire and into Western Europe. Of course, by the time they left the two Chinas, our host had kindly armed us with a small satchel with steel chop-sticks and a spoon for our further adventures.
Deeper than all these engagements, however, was an intangible feel on the streets. How to express what cannot be directly observed? Is it a matter of time? People in Shanghai – even bustling Shanghai – never seem to be in a hurry. One walks at a leisurely pace, taking in the street life. Does the secret lie in that very street-life itself, with its stalls for anything under the sun, bicycle repair-men, steaming metal pots, makeshift outside tables for a bite to eat, a man picking his toenails in a leisurely manner, a cleaner taking an interminable break, a couple of people haggling over some fresh fruit …? Is it the fact that women do not wear makeup as a rule, thereby not absorbing an extraordinary amount of chemicals over a life-time? Is it a deep shift in the coordinates of space and time, in which so many people are still able to find a quiet spot and plenty of time to themselves in the midst of everyone around them? It seemed to be all these and yet more. All I can say is that it gave one a strong sense of collective life, of lived space and time.
How did my friends respond? The communist was absolutely thrilled, noting so many things in this Asian city that reminded her of communist Yugoslavia, from the student accommodation at the university, through the way this vast city was thoroughly lived-in, the health of the endless people who made the streets their own, the absence of make-up on the women, to the way that one struggled to find an overweight person. At a much deeper, physical and psychic level, she felt the difference from her adopted home in Australia in a way that reminded her of what the lost communism of Yugoslavia was like.
My anti-communist friend was thrown. She had embraced the rapidly-imposed capitalism and bourgeois ‘freedoms’ of the new Bulgaria, blocking out their dreadful cost. But now, she was reminded again of the Bulgaria of her teens and twenties, before 1989. And this surprised her immensely. Once she saw through her pre-conceptions about Chinese, she too felt at that intense level the presence of communism here. Perhaps she put it best: they seem to have achieved social peace here.
Too soon did we need to leave communist China, taking a short and newly reinstated direct flight to capitalist China, to Taiwan (for only a couple of years have direct flights begun again, when a pro-mainland government, sensing the way the economic winds were blowing, was elected). We passed from the PRC to the ROC, the People’s Republic of China with its 1.3 billion to the Republic of China with its 2 million inhabitants. Here too were Chinese foods and implements and languages, here too was the same landscape and vegetation, and here too one might expect that Chinese ways of living would be the same. But it was not. Immediately, my friends were struck by a very different set of familiarities, from their lives now: Western chains were immediately evident, from 7-Elevens to coffee-shops. The pace of the traffic was faster, much faster, with everyone racing to beat each other to some putative destination. The young people were more overweight, the air and water and streets far less clean (compared even with the massive Shanghai), the living conditions obviously poorer and more ramshackle, and space itself giving way to the power of capital.
But once again my friends felt the difference at a level to which I could not relate, since I did not have their experience of two worlds, of two modes of production, two different social lives. My anti-communist friend, who had begun to become uncertain and surprised at her response on the mainland, wrinkled her nose in despair. It reminded her far too much of what had happened in Bulgaria after 1989, knowing full well that massive profits were made here by the rich oligarchy, even though the economy was in poor shape. And that wealth certainly did not make its way into the population at large. She withdrew into herself and became resigned, seeking small pleasures within – precisely the way I have encountered her in Bulgaria.
But my communist friend was outraged, her passion flaring up all the more, full of revolutionary fervour and enthusiasm. In Australia I had known her as bitter and cynical, often exploited, living in a cramped quarters, nostalgic for a beautiful country and a life that had been lost. But now she had tasted that world again and she was not going to let it remain a memory. Full of prophetic disdain at the very dis-organisation of time and space in Taiwan, of the way capitalism inhabited the bodies of its people, she found herself re-enlivened. Fired up with vast and forgotten passions, she declared that she had once again discovered that it was indeed possible to change the world.