A creaking wooden shelter which one attains by a wooden walkway, wave upon wave of mosquitoes attacking our bare legs and arms and heads, sweat running down the smalls of our backs, the plops and squeaks and murmurs of a lake alive, peaceful gardens formed in that distinctive Chinese fashion, faces alight with the intensity of our conversation, furtive looks from some to assess possible interest of another sort – on a steamy July evening on the outskirts of Beijing, we sit under that shelter and discussed life, relationships, people and politics. Seven of us are part of that group: two young men, a down-to-earth woman, Liu, who translates with exceptional fluency at the more difficult moments, and three of the most beautiful women I have encountered in China. We talk late into the night, although it seems but a moment. I keep some notes, but when I am looking at them later, the wind takes them and scatters them far and wide, so I rely on memory to reconstruct that extraordinary evening.
Food, language, relationships and politics are our main topics, although we also laugh over my bewildering moments in China, dislocations that make me stop and realise I am in a very different place in the world. During the whole process, a subtle shift happens in my own perceptions of China. To put it bluntly, I begin to fall in love with China. It is not the glorious food and absolute importance of meals for getting things done (two hours are allocated to meals as a matter of course), not the intricate script and musical intonation of the language, not the everyday matters of love, life and relationships, not the increasing expectation that I would learn Chinese, not even the refreshing feel of Marxism being a part of normal, everyday life. Or perhaps it is all of them and more.
I begin by recounting those bewildering moments, which my interlocutors seem to find exceedingly funny.
‘In my room’, I say. ‘There’s a Taoist god over the toilet: all red, face screwed up in a grimace, as though to indicate precisely what one should do immediately below’.
‘Maybe he would like this’ says Yang, one of the young men, pulling a brightly coloured satchel out of his pocket. We lean over and peer at it.
‘“Coffee for Men!”’ I say. ‘That would help’.
‘Maybe it has added testosterone’, says Eva (her English name, I forget the Chinese one).
‘Or maybe a triple dose of caffeine’, says Liu. ‘That would really get things moving’.
‘Or a smoke or two’, I say. ‘There’s no shortage of cheap cigarettes here’.
‘Just like a communist party gathering’, says Yang. ‘It’s normally shrouded in an impenetrable cloud of smoke that screens their deliberations’.
‘But what about the signs everywhere?’ I say. ‘They announce the ‘Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign Committee’ and its warning not to smoke. Yet beneath that very sign is an elaborate ashtray, just in case I can’t help myself’.
Laughter echoes across the lake at the sheer practicality of the Chinese.
With all this talk of human plumbing, discussion turns to food.
‘The food here is not likely to block up your pipes,’ I say. ‘Endless varieties of freshly cooked vegies, tofu, fish, fungi, soups, rice, and intriguing parts of land animals and sea creatures I have never seen before’, I say.
‘In fact’, says Chen, ‘each region has its own specialties, likes and dislikes, creative ways to eat in a way that is usually extremely good for one’s constitution’.
‘You know’, I say, ‘when I first went to China, I was thrown by the sheer amount of the food provided. It comes out in stages, a few dishes to begin with. So I would do my duty and try to eat all that was placed before me’.
‘But then more dishes follow’, says Liu, ‘with soups towards the end and fruit, all pushing the earlier dishes towards the middle of the table and then, when no room was left, piling dishes one on top of the other’.
They all nod.
I say, ‘Well before the middle stage of that feast meal I realised that even my optimistic approach to food and renowned eating habits would not make even a dint in this feast (really an ordinary meal). I had been brought up by Dutch parents, for whom the greatest compliment to the cook is to eat all the food. If you leave something behind, it obviously means you don’t like it’.
‘It’s the same in Japan’, says Eva. ‘But that Japanese custom has led to more than one diplomatic crisis. For in China, if you eat all the food, the host has obviously not provided sufficient food – the source of great shame’.
‘So how do you approach a meal now?’ asks Chen, touching my knee.
‘I sample each dish, making approving noises, helping myself to more of the ones I like’.
‘What about chopsticks?’ asks Chen, still with her hand on my knee. ‘You are quite good with chopsticks’.
‘Ah, now I am wary’, I say. ‘I have been told that when someone in China says, “you are very at this and that”, it means you are actually terrible’.
Again they laugh.
‘But seriously’, says Yang, ‘you seem to manage with them …’.
Is this another form of the ‘compliment’, I wonder. But then I say, ‘We actually have a long history Chinese presence and food in Australia, back to the gold rushes of the early nineteenth century, so chopsticks are well-known’.
‘Yes’, says Eva. ‘Usually the food matches the implements, bite-size pieces that are easily handled by those two sticks. But what about that shellfish, or the massive chunk of pumpkin, or the slippery sea cucumber that simply will not sit snugly between the sticks on the way from plate to mouth? How do you manage those?’
‘Ah, not so well’, I say. ‘Maybe I need more practice? But I have a question for you: why chopsticks?’
‘We just have them’, says Liu.
‘It’s more than that’, says Chen. ‘Did you notice at the party last night that the pieces of fruit were provided with toothpicks, the cake was served on small platters with a plastic knife, the banana is eaten while touching only the skin’.
‘Yes, I did’.
‘The real reason’, says Chen, ‘is that we do not touch the food with our hands. The thought of using fingers and hands is not on the agenda’.
‘Very hygienic practice’, I say.
‘What about Australia?’ asks Liu. ‘What are your distinctive foods?’
I mumble a few things about an immigration nation having displaced Aboriginal people, about the creative mix of a mind-blowing range of culinary traditions. Then it hits me: ‘Yes! The Aborigines have given us crocodile, distinctive fish, goanna, unique vegies … and kangaroo’.
‘Kangaroo! Can you eat that?’
‘Of course’, I say. ‘It is very good for you, even for vegetarians, since all the meat is in the tail’.
‘But aren’t they rodents?’
Suddenly I have an image of the Land of Oz covered in oversized, hopping rats.
‘Are you planning to learn Chinese?’ says Chen.
‘Yes, why don’t you learn some Chinese?’ adds Eva.
‘I have been asked that question far more often on this visit than before’, I reply.
‘How many times have you been here?’ asks Chen.
‘Four’, I say.
‘It’s about time you did, then’, she says.
‘Well’, I say, ‘I am trying to become proficient in Danish first and learn some basic Russian. Perhaps Chinese is next’.
‘You can’t rely on a translator forever’, says Liu. ‘Especially if you keep coming to China and spend more time here’.
‘Ah, the translator’, I say. ‘There’s something extremely intimate about the translator’s voice in your ear, with those small headphones. It feels like she is close beside me, leaning over and whispering, with a silky, slightly husky voice, deep and resonant’.
Chen leans over and whispers something in Chinese into my ear that I can’t understand … for now.
‘But why do you ask me to learn Chinese?’
‘China is becoming more important in the world’, says Yang, ‘so more and more people are showing us some respect by learning Chinese instead of expecting us to speak their language all the time’.
‘As Mao said: the whole world will learn Chinese’, I say, laughing with the others. ‘But you have the most amazing and formidable script. I am continually in awe at the way you write it. What is it like to learn at school?’
‘It takes many years’, says Liu. ‘You see, the top half usually tells you what the syllable is; the bottom half the intonation’.
‘That musical intonation! Beautiful but damned hard to learn’, I say. ‘It’s like a flautist on a caffeine overdose’.
Liu says, ‘There are four types of intonation: type 4 is a short up and down, 3 is longer and goes down, 2 goes up, 1 stays level at where you finished the previous sound. So my name, Liu, is a type 3, while the lecture yesterday was given by Liu, type 2’.
‘Oh shit’, I say. ‘As soon as I try to speak, I’ll probably say, ‘Would you like to see my arse?’
‘Here’, says Liu’, ‘Try this’. She writes out a couple of sentences in Chinese, with the transliteration’.
‘Wo hui zhong wen? Ni hui ying wen ma?’ I try.
They laugh and insist I try again, stressing the intonation until I come close.
‘But what does it mean?’ I ask. ‘I am an idiot and cannot speak Chinese?’
‘Close,’ says Liu. ‘It means: I cannot speak Chinese. Do you speak English?’
‘OK, I am going to give Chinese a go’, I say. ‘I will set out to learn 400 words by the time I return, so I can get by’.
‘200 words would do it for a start’, says Liu.
‘I’m encouraged by a Russian friend’ I say. ‘She launches enthusiastically into a new language without shame. Words are mangled, syntax pure Ukrainian, punctuation all over the place. Yet I can make sense of it most of the time, especially since it is improves daily through such enthusiasm. So next time I will try the same in China’.
Chen leans over and translates what she said earlier, with a smile: ‘Maybe you should move to China …’
‘What about relationships?’ I ask. ‘I notice that most couples over 25 seem to have a child’.
‘In the countryside they may have two, or if they are rich’, says Robert.
‘Yes, I’ve learnt not to ask whether people have children’, I say, ‘but whether they have a child’.
‘The fine is very high if you have a second child in the city’, says Robert. ‘Although sometimes a couple will return from overseas with a second child, and then you don’t get fined’.
‘What if I turned up with four children?’ I ask.
‘That would be fine’, says Robert.
‘But doesn’t the one-child policy produce an ageing demographic?’ I say.
‘Yes,’ says Eva’. ‘There’s increasing pressure on the government to change it and allow two children’.
‘But the great feature of the policy is the way it has broken down the traditional focus on patrilineal descent’, says Liu.
‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
‘Well,’ says Liu. ‘It used to be the case that the chief inheritance passed to the eldest son. His parents would buy an apartment for him and his wife and he would be expected to carry on the father’s work’.
‘What about the daughter?’ I ask.
‘She used to have to take care of her ageing parents alone’, says Liu.
‘So sons used to be expensive’, I say. ‘And daughters cheap and useful’.
‘Exactly’, says Liu.
‘But what happens when is there is only a daughter’, I ask. ‘Like you’.
‘Now an only daughter must inherit’, she says. ‘But it also means an only son must take care of his senile parents, and parents assist a daughter as well as a son in buying a place’.
‘So patriliny has become mixed lineage’, I say, ‘It depends entirely on the gender of the only child’.
‘Yes’, says Liu. ‘And that’s a good thing’.
‘But when do people begin relationships and marry?’ I ask.
‘In the countryside it may be late teens or early twenties’, says Robert. ‘But in the cities it is more late twenties’.
‘Does everyone get married?’ I ask. ‘Or do people live together and not get married?’
‘It happens more often now in the cities’, says Robert. ‘People increasingly live with their partner before marrying’.
‘Like you’, says Yang.
‘Yes, my girlfriend and I have been living together for a few years’, says Robert.
‘But what if you want to have a child?’ I ask.
‘Then we would probably get married’, he says.
‘What about staying single?’ I ask.
‘It’s slowly becoming more common’, says Eva. ‘Some prefer not to marry, enjoying their own company and (for women like me) the flexibility that comes with not having a child’.
‘Gays and lesbians?’ I ask.
‘Yes, that’s becoming more common in the cities,’ says Robert. ‘It’s difficult to come out in the countryside, but in the cities there’s more flexibility and creativity for an open gay or lesbian life’.
‘Sounds like most countries’, I say. ‘But what about affairs and divorce? Do people get divorced?’
‘That’s now more widespread’, says Chen. ‘If a relationship goes sour, people are more ready to end it’.
‘What about you?’ I say. ‘Are you married and do you have a child?’
‘I don’t want to talk about’, she says, and turns away.
‘The children’, I say. ‘They seem incredibly well-behaved. I understand that children are taught to show great respect to parents and grandparents. How does that work?’
‘The key is a Confucian word: jiong [*CHECK]’, says Huong. ‘It may be translated as “respect for parent”’. Huong has just walked up the short stairs to join us in the shelter. She wears a hugging Chinese dress with a split up the thigh.
‘Before the revolution it also included ‘ti’, says Eva. ‘That means respect for the elder brother. But that has now disappeared. So one must do what one’s parents say, consult closely concerning relationships and marriage, care for one’s parents in their old age’.
‘Ah, if only my four children had learned jiong!’ I say.
‘Four!’ says Chen. ‘You have four children?’
‘Yes’, I say. ‘All between the ages of 29 and 20’.
‘You don’t look old enough to be the father of four children’, says Chen.
‘Flattery will get you everywhere’, I say, laughing.
‘Do they show you respect?’ says Huong.
‘If only’, I say. ‘Two did not speak to me for some years during their teenage years, but now they all speak to me now, so they must think I am not a complete idiot. But that’s quite normal …’
‘Normal!’ says Liu. ‘Doesn’t sound like it to me’.
‘Perhaps jiong was formulated to negate precisely the effect of those difficult years’ I say.
‘Yes’, says Huong. ‘Should a teenager swear at his or her parents, the whole network of relatives, especially in a village would come down on the recalcitrant like a ton of bricks’.
‘Then again’, says Robert. ‘Teenagers do rebel, take paths against their parents’ wishes, choose not to take up work in the family farm’.
Is China Still Communist?
‘Communism …’, I say. ‘Is any of you a member of the communist party?’
‘I am’, says Chen.
But the rest are not.
‘Why did you join?’ I ask her.
‘It’s a good idea’, she says. ‘But becoming a member also enables you to take on more important jobs’.
‘Like vice-president of the university?’ I say, laughing. ‘But do you think China is still communist?’
‘Of course’, she says.
‘Tell me more’, I say. ‘Western media and analysis – for which I have little time – portrays China as retreating from the revolution, as a fully capitalist country that is no longer communist, as run by an autocratic government that doesn’t permit any difference of opinion, throws dissidents and business people in prison, and won’t allow liberal democracy’.
Chen laughs. ‘They don’t really know what is going on here. Let’s say there are three layers. The first is at a local level, where you find plenty of communal efforts at a local level, with farming, market gardens, people looking out for one another and so on. The second is what we might call mafia-style capitalists, the wealthy business people who try to stay ahead of the law’.
‘Yes’, says Robert. ‘They’re responsible for the contaminated infant formula, exploding watermelons, extortion and so on’.
‘In the West, these mafia dudes are known as “good business people”’, I say, to much laughter.
‘But the third level’, says Chen, ‘is what I would call the planned economy. This is where the government comes in. They own all the major businesses, permit outside investment if it is partnership with the government, ensure that all of the economy comes under their control’.
‘What about the mafia capitalists?’ I ask.
‘They try to stay one step ahead of the government’, says Chen. ‘But more often than not the government catches up with them, at times arresting those who have flouted the law too much’.
‘I remember a couple of Australian citizens of Chinese origin who were arrested recently for bribery, corruption and industrial espionage’, I say. ‘The press in Australia reported that they had been arrested for business reasons, that the government wished to influence a particular deal in which they were not coming out favourably. So it was presented as though you cannot operate a business without the government wanting to seize their assets’.
Chen laughs again. ‘In other words, they were trying to operate outside the planned economy’.
‘For many in the West’ I say, ‘that is no better than an autocratic government, a dictatorship, or an oligarchy’.
‘But that assumes some ideal form of government’ says Chen, ‘like the thoroughly discredited “liberal” or parliamentary democracy maybe. To be a hard-nosed realist about this, if you are surrounded by those who would love to see your demise, and if your long-term goal is the victory of communism over capitalism, then a hard line is sometimes required’.
‘In another world’, I say, ‘where capitalism is a relic of few basket-case states, then you might be able to switch to a very different way of operating. But that isn’t the case now’.
‘I used to believe that liberal democracy was the best way to go’, says Eva, ‘but then I realised it’s crap and that what we have here is better’.
‘Actually’, I say, ‘the description of China as retreating or betraying the revolution expresses an impossible romanticism about the pure revolution and its aftermath. It is always best if the revolution is still to come and that all the revolutions we have had are failures which can conveniently be forgotten’.
‘That’s easy in the West’, says Chen, ‘where there isn’t a successful revolution to learn from. Instead of day-dreaming like that, we have had a successful revolution, like in Russia. Both Lenin and Mao realised that any revolution needs a good, efficient army (actually, Engels was the first to articulate this position), since everyone will do their best to rip apart any communist revolution’.
‘One of Engels’s favourite sayings was taken from the Gospels’, says Eva. ‘You need to be as innocent as doves and as cunning as serpents’.
‘And I have noticed’, I say, ‘that the reality of Chinese life is that communism very much part of the social and cultural fabric, of everyday discussion and debate. For example, Marxist studies are fostered throughout China, the work of Marx and Engels is being retranslated into Chinese from the original sources instead the first translation, which was made from the Russian translation, the school curricula has Marxism as a central feature, and even the struggles over softer and hard-line approaches take place within a Marxist framework. That seems more communist to me than anything you’ll find in most other places’.
‘That’s true,’ says Chen. ‘Let me put it this way: in light of a fair degree of capitalist economic relations and the pervasiveness of Marxism, we can take four approaches. First, those in charge are thoroughly cynical despots – a little like the priests in the church who foist superstitions on the people but don’t believe it themselves. In short, they are simply in it for their own gain while mouthing platitudes to Marx and Mao. Second, they are stupid and don’t know what they are doing’.
‘Both possibilities don’t seem tenable to me’, I say, ‘since they don’t measure up to what is going on’.
‘So that leaves us two other options’, says Chen. ‘Third, they have released something over which they have no ultimate control’.
‘That would be the favoured position of those in the capitalist world who mistakenly see a connection between capitalist market relations and bourgeois democracy, arguing that China will eventually follow a path similar to some Western states’.
‘Some “dissidents”, as they are called in the West, believe the same thing’, she says.
‘But that would be to overthrow the state’, I say. ‘I think in other countries it’s known as “high treason”’.
‘Exactly’, says Chen. ‘So that leaves us the fourth possibility. The government is in fact largely in control through a planned economy. Some elements of mafia-capitalism seek to escape that control, but they keep getting caught in the larger scope of planning’.
‘Perhaps they have had a good look at what happened in Eastern Europe’, I say. ‘There mafia-capitalism gained complete control’.
‘So I’d call what we have here state capitalism’, she says. ‘It was a term originally coined by Lenin when describing Germany under the Social Democrats before the First World War. They sought to use the best features of capitalism – technological know-how, organisational practices, even factory efficiency and Taylorisation – in order to build communism. But the state was firmly in control – hence state capitalism’.
‘It goes much further that what they tried in the USSR’, I say.
‘Yes, it’s also quite different from what they tried there’, she says. ‘Actually, what we are undertaking is a massive experiment, one that hasn’t been tried before’.
‘I guess no one knows quite how it will turn out’ I say’. ‘But it’s definitely worth giving it a go and is scaring the pants off the capitalist West’.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to come to China?’ She says.