The Politics of Script

‘If we are unable to read the script, then we are unable to read’. So it is said concerning the ‘traditional’ Chinese script. The saying is really a lament concerning the most recent process of simplification of the script. Of course, it was Mao Zedong and others who instigated this change, which unfolded over half a century from the 1930s to the script used by the vast majority of Chinese, in the People’s Republic and around the globe.

But why lament the process of simplifying the script? For some, the very nature of the script has become a marker of an intellectual and scriptural tradition of more than three millennia. For others, a script that can be used by so many diverse languages and dialects acts as a potent sense of unity. So to simplify the script is seen by these people as an attack on the tradition and on the unity of China. However, the script has also been a symbol of class, or better, caste. The ability to read and write belonged to the select few in the imperial administration, especially those who had undergone the arduous examination system for entry and promotion into that service. The result was that no more than ten per cent of the population as a whole were able to use this formidable and complex script. The remaining ninety per cent – peasants – had no hope of learning it and were actively prevented from using it. Writing was not only a means of power, as Lévi-Strauss would have it, but also of caste.

Compare, for instance, the traditional character for ‘horse’ (馬) with the simplified version (马), or indeed the second character in ‘university’ (學 versus 学).

The communist challenge to the traditional script was therefore a challenge to the power of that scribal ruling class. It was, of course, not simply a challenge to the script. The primary motivation was to empower the peasants, not merely through a new socio-economic system and army training, but also through the ability to read and write. The simplification of the script was therefore a means to this empowerment. The first steps were taken back in the 1930s, in the Yan’an Soviet (where the Red Army had ended the Long March). In the makeshift schools established in huts, cave-houses, and in the open, peasants were taught to read and write in large numbers. To ease the process, a simplified script along with the pinyin (Romanised) system was developed along the lines proposed by Qian Xuantong. The success of the project ensured that the new and easier script would eventually become national policy, a policy that continues today with the latest List of Commonly Used Standardized Characters published in June, 2013. Needless to say, the initial act of simplifying the script undermined the very claim to superiority by the intellectuals who had preserved the traditional script for themselves.

In this respect, some of these intellectuals have never forgiven Mao for what he did. Their response has been to establish a common assumption that the simplified script was a dumbing down – for peasants – of China’s literary and cultural heritage. They also managed to secure the astonishing assumption that Taiwan is more traditional than the mainland. Any visitor to Taiwan can see that it is deeply Americanised and more pervasively capitalised than the mainland. ‘Traditional’ is certainly not a word that comes to mind easily, if at all. Yet, many on the mainland insist it is more traditional. Why? It is simply because Taiwan has not broken with the traditional script. Forget the fact that the Guomintang kept that script as an explicitly elitist, anti-communist measure once it had escaped to Taiwan. Indeed, forget the fact that the process of simplification has itself gone through waves from the time of the Qin dynasty of the late third century BCE, with perhaps the most significant effort during the May Fourth Movement after 1919.

In light of all this, it becomes a little easier to understand the Cultural Revolution. ‘To the countryside’ was the slogan. The intellectuals accustomed to their caste superiority, to keeping the cogs of bureaucracy running, to keeping the peasants ignorant, were now told to learn from the peasants. The intellectuals were not, of course, to give up being intellectuals, but to learn a new way of being so. And a crucial part of that process was to use the simplified script. It is a useful reminder of the depth of Mao’s challenge to the vested interests of intellectuals that he also pondered whether to abolish the script entirely and simply use the Romanised pinyin system. Perhaps he took to heart Lu Xun’s statement, ‘If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die’.

I, for one, am grateful for the simplification. Given that it is a little more difficult to learn a new language as one gets older, and given that Chinese is a challenge at the best of times, the process of learning is somewhat easier with the new script. That is not to say it easy in itself, but I am thankful indeed that I do not need to learn the traditional script.

Trundling out of Chengdu

‘What a weird pack’, says one of the rural men beside me. He looks it over carefully, its straps and belts and zips and its odd shape. Or at least, that’s what I guess he is saying, since my Chinese is rudimentary at best. His companion joins in and they engage in an animated debate, laughing and examining my pack once again. Not long ago, I had slung the pack on my shoulders – the glorious moment that signals it is time to depart, to take to the road. The feel of the pack’s weight first on one shoulder and then on the other; the tightening of the waist belt to shift the weight to my hips; a small adjustment and I am off.

A few stops on the metro line bring me to Chengdu North Railway Station. Most Chinese cities have more than one station, given the sheer complexity of the railway system which transports millions of people daily across a vast country. At the station, an old man carries an equally ancient bag from which the handles have fallen off sometime before the Cultural Revolution. An old and round woman with a shiny face from the humidity sits and eats and watches me write. A young woman clicks past on high-heeled footwear, attempting to gain some height from a reasonably low point. As is characteristic in the south, her face is rounder, with fuller lips and a matching fuller shape. Meanwhile, the two farmers continue to discuss my pack.


If I have any lingering doubts as to the press of people, they are dispelled by the check-in. (Already I have gone through two checks, one a full security scan at the gate and the other for entry into the waiting room for my train.) Hundreds of black heads bob and sway as we shuffle forward. The smallest vacant space beside me is immediately filled by yet another person, in a way that speaks of small personal space. And if I have any continuing doubts as to my solitary status as a foreigner here, they are dispensed by my scan over the heads of those around me. The waiting room is overflowing with nothing but Chinese people. Do not foreigners fly, or perhaps take one of the new high-speed G-trains? Needless to say, I am somewhat of a curiosity.

On Board

More than twenty carriages await me on the platform, and more than twenty young women stand at each door to welcome passengers. Uniformed in blue, they hold their hands at the midriff with elbows out in the traditional indication of being there to help.

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The beautiful woman at carriage four smiles and holds my elbow to assist me up the steps. Do I look that old? Does she know in some way that I am a grandfather? Or is it the assumption that a foreigner is not familiar with such a train?

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A T-train it is, with its soft and hard sleepers, soft and hard – seriously hard – seats. The staple of the Chinese long-haul rail system, they trundle along at a comfortable pace for hours and often times days. My journey will take a full day, from the south-western province of Sichuan to Beijing. I must admit that I continue to be amazed by the Chinese rail network, which is surely the most comprehensive and efficient in the world. Some information: five types of train criss-cross the country. The oldest and slowest trains simply have a number, and they are the cheapest, since they specialise in hard seat and no seat tickets. All of the others are called “fast” trains, or rather, variations on fast. The K- and T-trains are “fast” and “faster,” since they were once the most modern trains available. Luxuries include beds, washing rooms, and dining cars. By comparison, most countries in the world with serious long-haul lines use similar trains. In China, the “very fast” trains are prefixed with a “D.” They too have beds and travel at a decent pace of 200 km per hour. Not long ago, they were the sleekest and most modern of all – and they certainly seem so to anyone who has travelled by train elsewhere. But now the “extremely fast” G-trains have arrived, and their network stretches ever further across the country. Belting along at more than 300 km per hour, they have dedicated tracks and brand new stations along lines that run for thousands of kilometres. The only other places with occasional trains like this are Europe and Japan, where they travel the ridiculously short distances characteristic of those curious parts of the globe. But with the G-train network, China has given yet another indication that it now leads the world in terms of technology.

As I wind my way along the corridor, I realise again why I prefer a train like this. Grandparents haul massive bags into compartments while scolding a grandchild. The ever-present attendants slip past in a way that indicates how easy and creative people here are with space. At my cabin door I am met by a waft of body odour. It seems to belong to the bald fossil, with barely a tooth in his mouth, in the bunk across from me. An additional flavour for the journey, I guess. In the bunk above a couple snuggles close in a way that suggests they may engage in the transfer of bodily fluids at some point during the night. But then their young son turns up and clambers into the other bunk.


I try some rudimentary Chinese – names, place of origin, family, destination. That is about it, until the man from upstairs pulls out his smart phone and starts firing off words that seem like English. With the phone between us, we engage in a conversation of sorts, each searching for words to express what we want to say. Meanwhile, his son starts singing ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ in English. I join in, to scattered applause at the end. He is both dying to try out his English and yet embarrassed to do so. But we speak nevertheless, with me constantly rephrasing what I want to say until he registers the meaning.

Soon enough, food is shared, as one does in these parts. Rockmelon, bananas, cherry tomatoes, and peanuts festoon the small fold-out table by the window. Multi-coloured cups of two-minute noodles follow – including my own. I have learnt quickly enough that relatively few people grace the dining car or even avail themselves of the food trolley. It may come clattering past at regular intervals, with its driver calling out that food is available, but people mostly avoid it. Why? It is simply too expensive. Better to get hold of the universal travel food – noodles and assortments of fruits and nuts – before departure and make your own meals. It helps that even the newest trains have a hot water dispenser at the end of each carriage. Here one may obtain hot water for drinking, or pour it into one’s tea flask, or fill a cup with two-minute noodles and let the boiling water do its job.

Meanwhile the attendants seem to be everywhere, always on an errand, always impossibly smart and always smiling. One comes to our cabin for the routine introduction to the carriage, while another cleans out the cabin bins every 30 minutes or so. Another stops by with a folder, into which she puts our tickets in exchange for a plastic card. To prevent ticket swaps on the way, I assume. The toilets too need a regular wash down, as do the bins where the locals love to put their soiled toilet paper. The carpet needs to be swept before everyone falls asleep, and the emergency mess – from a child – in the third cabin requires urgent attention. A guard stroll by and jokes with one of the attendants, while later be brings their meals from the dining car. The woman pushing the clanking food trolley comes by again, yelling in her mechanical way behind a clear face protector so she doesn’t splutter on the food. Multitudes of people need numerous attendants, but it is a good way to keep high employment.

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At times, I take to the fold-out seat in the corridor. In most other parts of the world, such a seat would seriously block the corridor; it may even be designated a hazard for emergency escape. Here, people simply make their way past the seated person. Even the rattling food trolleys manage to get by without a fuss. In a strange way, that small seat in the midst of the corridor bustle enables one to find some quiet space, as much mental as physical.

Out of the Window

By evening, the potentially randy younger man upstairs is already asleep. But he is doing his best to ensure that no-one in the carriage, if not the train as whole, will not sleep. His apnoeatic snores rattle windows, threaten to tear down curtains, and seem to shake the heavy carriage itself. No wonder his wife has slept long during the afternoon – clearly a survival mechanism in such a marriage. Somehow I manage to drift into sleep too, switching off to the thunderous noise around me and feeling the deeper movements of the train.

By then we have already travelled eastward from the Chengdu plateau. Nestled at the foot of the towering ranges to the west, Chengdu sits in a lush part of the world where rice grows and civilisations have flourished for thousands of years. Eastward are mountains too, a little lower but still toweringly jagged in a way that speaks of recent geological history. No wonder earthquakes happen frequently hereabouts. Through these mountains we pass on our way to Chongqing and then to the river basin of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) at Wuhan. Here we will turn north and travel along flatter terrain during the night.

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So I make the most of the daylight and soak up the landscape. On the journey to Chengdu, we passed through vast river plains and over never-ending bridges. But on this journey, we travel through the mountains after reaching the end of the Chengdu Plateau. We creep to the top of the range, only to plunge through endless tunnels and yawning gorges as we drop down, down off the plateau and into the river basin below. In between the tunnels, I see houses, with the typical pointed eaves, clustering in villages in folds in the hills. Ripening crops of late spring – cabbages, potatoes, local herbs, and green items I have not seen before – appear in pockets of rich, red earth where one least expects them. Odd corners, flattened rises, twisting valleys, terraces on the slopes, beneath overpasses; a list like this cannot really provide the feel of such a land where every conceivable piece of land is utilised. And there is no mono-cropping here, for in each small field a different crop grows – for mutual protection from pests, for giving off the best odours and signals that encourage their neighbours, for differential use of the soil’s nutrients. Terraced rice paddies follow the lines of creeks and rivers across slightly larger open spaces. On the lower slopes with their gentler inclines, the rice paddies are almost everywhere. Now that the plants are reaching maturity, the paddies are drained and the water pools beside them are full, awaiting the next sowing season when their contents will be needed again. Occasionally, the clothes of scarecrows flutter in the breeze. Unlike other places in the world with their single scarecrow to a field, here one finds many such figures. I ponder why one is not enough. And finally I realise why: since the fields are usually full of many tanned people, an equally great number of scarecrows is needed. The birds are simply used to seeing multiple figures at any one time.

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Chinese cities may be construction zones, particularly in the hinterland now that the eastern coast has had its major phase of rebuilding, but the vast majority of the country is rural. Through the cities and towns we pass, with their cranes and building sites and scaffolding. We stop for a while for the usual passenger exchange, for the eager walkers and smokers who wish for a breath of fresh air, but most of our time is spent ambling through tunnels, across bridges, along ridges and on the sides of mountains. I can look up and down the slopes, but rarely across an open landscape.


My sleep is long and deep, and when I wake the snorer is up and about. He reeks of his morning cigarette, which obviously helps his sleep apnoea immensely.  But for me it is time to wash off the night sweat. In the washroom, I am jammed in with children (who stare) and mothers (who try not to stare). I strip down to my waist and soap up using one of the three taps. Rinsing leaves my pants doused with water, but I splash on while washing my hair. For some strange reason, not much is more pleasurable than a travel wash with a trickling tap. Refreshed, I fill my last container of noodles with hot water and await the run into Beijing.


The Villages of Hebei

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‘Qing jin’, she says. ‘Come in’.

Her wind-browned face opens up with a smile and crinkles in the corners of her eyes as she shows me the kitchen. A large wok-shaped bowl sits in a low brick platform. Beneath it the fire of corn stalks is about to be lit to cook the midday meal. Nearby is a simple cutting board propped upon an up-ended barrel; a knife and some fresh green onions lie upon it.

‘Water?’ I wonder. She points outside to the pump, which brings water up from the well. Immediately, she hands me a bowl of water to taste. My eyes light up! Ah, the freshest and sweetest water I have sipped in a long time, especially since I have been living in Beijing for a few months.

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But now I am not in Beijing. I am in the mountains of Hebei province, visiting some small villages. A visit such as this is not really possible for a foreigner travelling on his or her own. In fact, it is difficult even for Chinese people from other parts of this vast country. Dialect is the key, for when locals hear someone speaking their own tongue, they automatically trust them and invite them into their simple homes. Fortunately, I have a local man, along with a couple of his friends, to show me around. Only in this way can we be invited into people’s homes, sit around and talk, share some food and a smoke or two.

Keeping It Simple

Simplicity – this is the key to village life hereabouts, some of them having as few as half a dozen families. As our car pulls up in the narrow laneway of the first village, the local boy (our driver) blasts his horn a few times to let people know we have arrived. Out of the house comes his sister, with the wonderful smiling face and wise, inquisitive eyes. A couple of her children are there too, as well as her mother. After many ‘nihaos’ and shaking of hands, I am invited inside. I duck and pass beneath the lintel of the double wooden gate, with its two fierce demon posters to keep the evil spirits away. All around me are vegetable gardens with new spring crops poking through the soil – the ubiquitous onion family of these parts, joined by some chillies and bitter cucumbers. I pause beside a large barrow, with its handbrake to keep a heavy load from rolling away down a slope (and in the mountains, level ground is scarce). Before I know it, I am persuaded to push the barrow across the yard, posing in ridiculous positions for the inevitable photos. The barrow rolls to a stop beside a wooden lid on the ground and our local boy lifts the lid and beckons me down, down into the depths of an underground storage facility for vegetables during the winter (where they do not freeze).

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As soon as I have squeezed out of the narrow hole in the ground – while pondering the diminutive size of the human beings for whom the hole was constructed – I am led inside, into the kitchen with its cooking stove and peanut-shaped heater. Here are some well-worn stools, for around the heater people sit during the bitter winters, warming themselves, smoking, talking. I walk through to the living area, which doubles up as the first bedroom. Again, simplicity strikes me: a worn lounge, a large bed, a single dressing table resting against the wall, in which all of the family’s clothes are kept. Scanning the plastered walls covered with old print as wall paper, my eyes light up.

‘Xi Jiping!’ I say.

All laugh and nod at the colourful poster of President Xi Jiping and his wife.

But the second and more dedicated bedroom is the highlight, into which we walk from the living space. Here the bed is a large wooden structure with a colourful cover and blankest neatly folded in the corner. Hard beds are simply the norm – good for one’s back I am told repeatedly. To eat, one sits on the bed cross-legged (which I do with delight), with a very low table lifted into place for the bowls of food.

Looking up, I cry out again: ‘Chairman Mao!’

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On the wall is a large poster of Chairman Mao sitting in his wicker chair, cigarette in hand and the mountains of Hunan in the background. What better way to sleep than with the chairman watching over you?

By now others have turned up, hearing quickly of the laowai visiting the village. More ‘nihaos’ and requests for the photographs follow, while the master of the house crouches down to prepare a snack for me. I join her, enjoying the company. She hands me some fresh shallots, freshly picked from the garden. I pass a few around, and munch gleefully on the remainder. Some berries follow, which I have never eaten before. And then she sits in the sun and lights a cigarette. My quizzical look evinces the explanation that women in the countryside smoke more, for they do not have the inhibitions of city girls.


As we talk, I am reminded of a comment from Marshall Sahlins: ‘There are after all two roads to satisfaction, to reducing the gap between means and ends: producing much or desiring little’. Clearly, these people desire little. Even their clothes are few and worn for days, if not weeks at a time. The sheer simplicity of their lives is immensely appealing, an impression that is reinforced by a few other homes. One has only two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom-living room. Up on the hill of a village with only five families, the home is close to the goat herd, with which I mingle as they thrust their mouths into my hands for the corn I hold. Inside the home, I admire the view from the front door, while their younger son comes up beside me and pisses out of the door onto the slope below. In yet another small village, another woman with an immensely pleasant face invites us into her home.


No matter that we – including a foreigner – have emerged from the trees on foot as she is working in a field with her twin daughters. She welcomes us in and calls her daughters to say hello in English – which they do, proudly. Here a mule or two are still used for traction, and a heavy stone hand-mill stands in the midst of the village for hulling grain. Here too the water is fresh from a well, but we must drink it all and not waste it, for otherwise the local dragon will be angry as such wastage.

As we leave she returns to the field with her daughters, engaging in the age-old practices of manual agriculture. An almost fossilised man leading a mule passes us by.


I ask: how is the absence of private property managed? I am told that every ten years or so, the land to be cultivated is reallocated among the villagers depending on family needs and abilities. Now this is an ancient practice, one that goes back millennia: the social determination of production, in which communal concerns are paramount. Private property in land is simply useless in such an environment, apart from the fact that it negates speculation in land.

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The Teacher

In each village, our presence draws out others, who gather not so much to gape at the foreigner, but to welcome us all. Unlike the provincial cities and towns, a foreigner seems no big deal. One of those who says hello is the local teacher in charge of the school. Neatly dressed in white shirt and pants, he invites me to come and look at his school.

A short walk along the dirt road reveals a pair of high gates, behind which are two white-washed buildings with a playground in between. With a massive bunch of keys, the teacher opens one colourful and well-ordered room after another. He shows me walls and blackboards full of the careful examples of how to write Chinese characters, textbooks with stories of the Long March, and – with much pride – the new computer room. But my delight is the teacher’s office, festooned with images of Gorki and Lu Xun … and Engels. Beneath the bearded Engels he stands for a moment, and I manage to capture the moment.

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An even greater delight is the final moment of my visit. In my honour, he pulls the Chinese flag, all red with its stars in the corner. I hold the flag as he raises it aloft on the flagpole, where it unfurls its announcement to the rest of the village.

Socialist the village may be, but it is also traditional. As I pass outside the school gates, I notice a small structure to our right.

‘Is that a shrine’, I ask while walking towards it.

‘Yes,’ says my translator. ‘Here we pray to the local gods’.

‘For what?’ I say.

‘Oh, for rain’, she says. ‘And for good crops’.

The red flag of the People’s Republic flutters close by.

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My access to the villages, to the school, inside people’s homes, and even into the intimacy of conversation in the simplicity of life is predicated on the fact that we have a local boy with us. He may live in the big smoke (a term that takes on whole new meaning in Beijing), but his home is still here. One of the extended family homes is his, and his sisters and brothers are all about. The homes – bar one – that we visit are of his family. A sister here, a brother there, while sons and daughters and parents and grandparent are always present, let alone uncles, aunts, cousins ….


I would still be welcome if this were not the case, but the intimate closeness would not be felt. No embarrassment that a foreigner may have to use a toilet that is little more than a hole in the ground (with a shed), or that he may have to sit on a lounge that has seen far better days. Instead, they simply assume: this is our life, take us as we are, since we take you as you are.

Knowing the strength of kinship structures in theory is all very well, in all it benefits and drawbacks. But experiencing it in the way I do is another matter entirely. It strikes me one evening as we sit around a dinner table, eating local food of goat and fresh vegetables, mostly of the onion family. You wrap the various items in a large lettuce leaf, make a roll of sorts, and daub it liberally with a pungent sauce. And you drink a local and fiery brew. As the spirited toasts begin, I offer a few Australian expressions, repeating them so my hosts learn the specific feel of the drawn-out vowels and their intonations.

‘What is the word for one’s closest friend?’ I am asked.

‘Maaaaaate’, I say, with a drop and then slow rise in inflection as the vowel passes through its various modulations. ‘Actually, it’s a “good maaaaaate,” or “good on’ya maaate”’.

We practice and practice again until they have mastered the peculiarities of Australian dialects.

‘What about Chinese?’ I ask.

‘Bi xuuuuuuuuuude!’ Says our local boy, with a high a sustained ‘uuuu’.

In my turn I practice until I come close.

‘But what does it mean?’ I ask.

‘It’s what you say to your gemener’, he says. ‘Your closest brother. From now on, you are my gemener’.


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