Chinese Marxist Ethics

Lunli, they call it in these parts, or Gongchanzhuyi daode – ethics or communist moral principles. These are by no means abstract terms, debated by philosophers with little connection to real life. I encounter it day to day in a very concrete fashion.

Here Chinese tradition meets Marxism in a way that continually amazes and bewilders me. To begin with, the dushuren or xuezhe, the intellectual (literally ‘book reading person’) and scholar has a venerable place in Chinese society. The intellectual is simultaneously expected to devote significant time to reading, thinking and writing – whether scholarly works, moral maxims, poetry, or a range of other genres – and to the good of public life. This expectation is embodied in part in the word yiwu, which means both to volunteer and a duty. One volunteers to contribute in some way to the greater good of society, but this is simultaneously a duty or obligation. Although it is manifested as many levels of social relations, for an intellectual it means service in or for the government, or perhaps work that contributes to solving a commonly recognised problem.

Further, the first character in yiwu is yi (义), a significant aspect of Confucianism. Its literal meaning is ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’, but it also includes ‘human relationships’ and ‘meaning’. Thus, yi involves the intertwining of justice and relationships, in a moral framework of doing good and the understanding of how to do so in a sensible and fit manner. In other words, one must know the underlying reason for such righteousness and not simply follow precepts.

For a scholar, especially a professor, this means that one is engaged and not engaged. Or rather, when one is engaged directly, one longs to be disengaged, to find the tranquillity to think and write and identify the deeper framework. But even in this situation, one does so with the public good always in mind.

By now it should be obvious that the ethics of a scholar are somewhat high.

What about communist moral principles? By now, they have been etched into Chinese culture, distinct and yet meshed with Confucian ideas. A communist is expected to be honest, direct and trustworthy, not concerned with personal gain and focused on the public good.

This morality appears at many levels. For instance, an ethos first developed at Ruijin in the early 1930s – during the first Chinese soviet – focused on providing poor peasants not with communist ideas, but with enough food, clothing, and shelter. They should feel secure (anquan) in life – a fundamental desire of Chinese life. When people find they have such things through the communists, they will flock to join the movement and become revolutionaries.

Or it can be seen in Mao Zedong’s urgings for party members (cadres) after achieving power. In 1949, Mao wrote: ‘I hope that the revolutionary personnel of the whole country will always keep to the style of plain living and hard struggle’. Again, in 1957, he wrote that party members must not lose the revolutionary spirit of wholeheartedly serving the people. Instead, they must ‘persevere in plain living and hard struggle’, ‘maintaining close ties with the masses’.

Chairman (or president) Xi Jinping has been consistently evoking these admonitions from Mao over the last few years, especially in terms of uniting and strengthening the party through the ‘tigers and flies’ anti-corruption campaign – the most thoroughgoing and pervasive in modern Chinese history. As he does so, he and the leadership evoke the deep chords of communist morality.

Already five years ago, a new ‘eight rules’ were promulgated, echoing the ‘eight points for attention’ from 1927. The new eight rules focus on how leaders and party members should reject extravagance and reduce bureaucratic visits, meetings and empty talk. Crucially, the purpose is to strengthen ties between the people and officials, which had been eroded through corruption and power abuse.

That this approach resonates deeply with people shows up in complex surveys, with 80 percent or more of people supporting the measures. Why? Communist morality has become deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and society. If one is a communist, which means a party member, one is expected to live up to these ideals. If one fails, the fall is even greater.

What if you are a Marxist and a scholar? By now it should be obvious that the ethical standards are higher still. The combination of Confucian and Marxist ethics entails an expectation of almost impeccable morality – speaking plainly and directly, being honest, living simply, avoiding any sign of personal gain, and substantially focused on the public good.

National Day (Guoqingjie) in China

2016 October 029

On 1 October, 1949, Mao Zedong announced – in his good Hunanese accent – the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The communists had pondered which capital would be best. Nanjing, literally the ‘southern capital’, had been the base of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek). But Nanjing had what is known as bad fengshui for power. Each of the powers that had based themselves there had not lasted so long. Power was felt to leak out of the city along the Yangtze River. So Beijing, the northern capital, was chosen as the new base of power for the communists.

Since that first and famous declaration on 1 October, the occasion has been celebrated each year. In 2016, I decided to experience the event for myself. Actually, I wanted to film the event with a film crew. Easier said than done, since filming in Tiananmen Square requires special permission – especially for a foreigner.

After much discussion by phone with the Tiananmen Management Committee Propaganda Department, we wrote a detailed application. It included the usual information: who, when, why, and so on. But the crucial question concerned my political orientation. So the application closed by stating that I – Bo Guoqiang (using my Chinese name) – am ‘friendly [youhao]’ towards China, indeed I have a ‘deep affection’, if not ‘ardent love [re’ai]’ for China. Further, my political position is ‘without problems [renhe wenti]’ for China.

This declaration did the trick. After submitting the application, the reply came within in a few minutes. We had received a privilege rare for foreigners: to film in Tiananmen on a major day in the Chinese calendar. The letter of permission, with its all-important seal, was picked up later that day.

This letter was like a magic wand on 1 October. The film crew, director, and I were allowed to enter zones closed to most. The letter opened a passage in the crowd to get the best view. Occasionally, a security guard asked us what we were doing. As soon as he or she saw the letter, they smiled, and even guided us to places for the best shots.

But what exactly happened on 1 October, 2016?

We arrived at 4.00 am to find the square already full of people – in fact, thousands and thousands of people. Quite a number of young people had slept overnight in the square, so as to gain a good position for viewing the proceedings. Indeed, this is a rite of passage for many young Chinese, to do it at least once.


2016 October 011

It was still a few hours before first light. Yet already people stood shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the actual celebration. They talked, took photos, listened to the announcements on the loudspeakers. Here, we were told, Chairman Mao Zedong (Maozedong zhuxi) had made his famous announcement. Mao was clearly present, with his huge picture on Tiananmen gate in one direction and the mausoleum with his body in another.

Finally, a little after six o’clock, at the first glimmer of light, the sound of marching band music began. Everyone craned and shuffled forward to gain a better view. Cameras and smartphones were raised above everyone’s head as they tried to film and photograph the event.

I was profoundly moved by the occasion. Why?

The key for me was the absolute simplicity of the experience. A line of soldiers marched out to the music in perfect formation. They circled a massive flagpole and stood to attention. From their midst three flagbearers came forward, attached a massive red flag and its yellow stars to the flagpole, and raised the flag slowly to the heavens. As the flag reached to the top and unfurled in the wind, hundreds of doves were released. They circled the flagpole and square. The massive crowd let out a cheer.

That was it. It took maybe 10 minutes in total and this is what people had waited hours and hours and hours to witness.

Now, I must admit, I was expecting politicians to give big speeches, to have all sorts of events going on for hour after hour.

But no, the actual event was stunning in its simplicity. In an age of oversaturated media, of an oversupply of information and news cycles, this simple event was all the more powerful. Its symbolism was simple, its time brief, its effect deeply moving.

This is how people actually celebrate and experience the birth of modern China, the People’s Republic of China no less.

But what did they do afterwards? They spent a few more hours in the square, taking photographs, exploring the square (for many had come from outside Beijing), finding somewhere to eat, and beginning to enjoy the week-long holiday that would follow.

2016 October 017

Filming Chinese Marxism

‘How about some baijiu? I said.

Their eyes lit up in the midst of tossing yet more raw ingredients into a local version of hotpot. ‘I’ll come with you’, said one. ‘You’ll need to know the best one to buy’.

The two of us strode out into the night and found a local shop selling the fiery liquid.

‘How about that one’, I said, pointing to one of the highly priced bottles on display.

‘Ah no’, he said. ‘This one is better … and much cheaper’.

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

‘I’m from Gansu Province’, he replied. ‘And we drink this all the time, especially in winter to keep warm.’

It was a little over 20 RMB, or about 4 dollars. I did not object and we returned with our prize.

We were in Yan’an, in Shaanxi Province, celebrating the last night of our Chinese Marxism tour.

It had begun a week earlier, in Shaoshan (Hunan Province), where Mao Zedong was born, moved onto Ruijin (Jiangxi Province) and finally to Yan’an. It was a ‘Red Tour’ in all its glory – Chinese style.

What in the world is a ‘Red Tour [hongse zhilu]’? Nothing less than travelling to major sites of the revolutionary struggle leading up socialist victory in 1949. I love these places. Why? You can have a Red Tour only in a country that has had a socialist revolution in its history. Some critics may feel that Red Tourism belittles and commercialises the revolutionary struggle. But I take a different approach: all of the tourist sites, the Mao memorabilia, the incessant promotion – these and more signal in their own way the reality of a successful revolution.

But this was a Red Tour with a difference, since we were actually filming a documentary on Chinese Marxism. The documentary (which was also the basis for an online course) would be structured in terms of the life of Mao Zedong and the closely associated founding story of the Long March. We selected five key locations in this story:

  • Shaoshan, where Mao was born.
  • Ruijin, in the south and the centre where the first communist government or ‘soviet’ was established in the early 1930s and where the Long March began.
  • Yan’an, in the northwest and at the end of the Long March, where one finds the cradle of modern China in terms of theory and practice.
  • Beijing, with a focus on the ‘National Day [guoqingjie]’ celebrations on 1 October, when the people’s republic was declared.
  • Mao’s mausoleum, in middle of the epicentre – Tiananmen Square – of a major global power – Tiananmen.

Each site also raised a crucial concept for understanding China today: at Shaoshan it was the theory of contradiction; at Ruijin the question of a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights; at Yan’an it was the form of the socialist state; at National Day it was socialist democracy; and at the mausoleum it was reinterpreting Mao today and the meaning of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

How to film all of this? I gave the camera crew some general guidelines as to what I wanted and encouraged them to let their creative talents loose – which they thoroughly enjoyed! The director-producer ensured that the whole operation went as smoothly as possible, so I was able to explore, reflect, discuss … and pay for everyone’s accommodation, travel and food. The outcome was a vast collection of stunning footage that could be reworked by the studio whizzes back in Australia.

All of this conspired the make the journey itself part of the story.

The places are hard of access, even in our time with it planes, motorways and high-speed trains. Back then, the communists had at the beginning of the 1930s made the crucial turn away from the cities and to the countryside. The remoter the better, since here the Nationalist forces (Guomindang) under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) found the going much tougher in these parts. Shaoshan itself was relatively easy to access: a high-speed train to Changsha, capital of Hunan, and then a bus to the village. Ruijin in the remote mountains between Jiangxi and Fujian was another story, requiring trundling hard-seat trains and an overnight stop in the mountains. And Yan’an, way to the north-west in Shaanxi province, needed yet another hard-seat train, overnight stop in a glorious family hotel and then a flight on the one plane a day to the tiny airport.

Each place has nothing much going for it, unassuming places that force one to reassess the origins of the most powerful socialist country in human history. At Ruijin and especially Yan’an, the communists gained valuable experience in governing, developing comprehensive theoretical insights, and setting China on its current path. Still these places are relatively poor, with mosquitoes aplenty in Ruijin and dust everywhere in Yan’an, but here the small seeds took root and began their phenomenal growth.

What did I love most about the journey?

Perhaps it was the hard-seat trains, with their solitary squat toilet at the end of each carriage, the drink trolleys laden with baijiu or fruit or snacks. Like most on board, we had brought our own food, and were thankful that we had reserved seats – which are themselves three on each side of the aisle. Occasionally, when one had to make use of the toilet, stretch one’s legs, or simply stand for a while in the vestibule to watch the world pass by, a ‘no-seat’ passenger – of which there were many indeed – would make the most of the opportunity and promptly sit down in the vacant seat. What to do on returning to the seat in question? I pondered sitting on the welcoming lap (should it seem welcoming) or perhaps squeezing into the non-existent space on either side, but I ended up ejecting them – ever so politely. It was an exceedingly intimate journey, where one felt secure in the intimacy of bodies of complete strangers.

Perhaps it was the small family hotels hidden in the countryside. Much of our journey we made up as we went along, with our producer deftly locating yet another simple hotel for a ridiculously low price. One had the family living downstairs, with rooms upstairs. If we wished, they would cook food for us in their own kitchen. Another was down a bumpy dirt road, with the night-duty boy sleeping on an old couch behind the desk. We arrived late indeed and tried to warm our rooms with heaters that had a knack of switching off as soon as one drifted off to sleep. The drainage plug was actually the squat toilet – an effective method of ensuring that the toilet was constantly cleaned by the next shower.

Perhaps it was the local buses and endless walking required to get around the sites. Occasionally groups of school children would join us, keen to practice English and witness a rare event in these parts – a foreigner. I duly took it upon myself to practice my Chinese, which was at about primary school (xiaoxue) level. I was absolutely thrilled when they understood what I was trying to say.

Perhaps it was the people, people everywhere. Ordinary people, from the countryside for a trip, tour groups that included the sites in their itinerary, children and parents and grandparents, workers with Mao caps – these and more frequented Shaoshan in their thousands and millions. Ruijin may have been a little different, with sparser numbers due to its sheer remoteness. But Yan’an even in early winter saw group after group pass through. Among them were the Communist Party groups, visiting Yan’an as part of their continuing education program. Here they would undertake classes, visit the many revolutionary sites of the communist base from the mid-1930s until 1947, and try to gain a sense of the ‘Yan’an spirit’ [jingshen]’.

Perhaps it was being the solitary foreigner in these parts. They are clearly geared for internal tourism. Shaoshan may have had signs in Chinese, English, French and Russian, but I saw only two other foreigners among the thousands. In Ruijin and Yan’an I was clearly the only foreigner, and the signs and information boards offered only Chinese characters.

While I became quite used to my difference, I became acutely conscious of the fact that such a Red Tour, with the Long March as its determining narrative, is absolutely vital for understanding China today. And that was my focus throughout: the implications for China today. Why do so many Chinese visit such places? How have these experiences shaped modern China? How has the founding story of the people’s republic been constructed and how is it constantly reinterpreted? It is indeed a founding narrative to rival the best of them, not least because it is a communist story.

In the end, the food made the journey, is the custom in a country where one travels for the sake of the local food. We ate in tiny breakfast eateries, in simple restaurants, on the road. I knew the others would be hungry with all the travel and work. And since I was the elder, it was simply assumed that I would pay – another custom. So we ate and ate and ate, with the requisite baijiu to improve – as they say – the taste of the food.

By the last evening and our last bottle of the strong spirit, belts had to be loosened considerably. The others laughed and observed that they had put on at least five kilograms – the ultimate affirmation.

Building and Unbuilding the Empire

‘We’ll be holding our noses and voting for her’, he said.

He was referring to Hilary Clinton and the watershed United States elections of 2016.

We had met by chance in the dining car of the Empire Builder, a train that crosses North America from Chicago to Portland, Oregon. He was a retired African American lawyer, having worked his life in Chicago, but now settled in Los Angeles. I was trying to find myself on the last North American transcontinental rail crossing.

The feel was decidedly weird, apprehensive even, although we had different reasons for feeling so. For me it may have been a growing sense of futility and uselessness of liberal (or bourgeois) democracy. For him it was a sense that the system in which he had believed for so long, even committed himself, was showing its real and rather ugly nature.

Do not get me wrong. The setting was brilliant, if somewhat surreal. I had made my way, by ‘The Cardinal’, from Philadelphia to Chicago. From there, I would board the fabled Empire Builder to Portland, Oregon, and then travel southward, for a fourth day, on the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles.

On the heavy, if somewhat battered, Amtrak rail carriages we trundled westward. In contrast to the few moments spent in Illinois, we ambled across Wisconsin and the vast plains of North Dakota. Well into Montana we began – as the name suggests – to rise into the mountains in all their glory. Here we touched in Idaho, passed through the Cascade Mountains and Glacier National Park, before running through Washington to Portland, just over the state border with Oregon.

Yet this breathtaking countryside is also soaked in blood, where systematic extermination of the indigenous people was attempted, by killing off the food sources (bison), poisoning water, starving them, driving them off the land, or simply slaughtering them en masse. This was land that assisted in defusing social unrest and potential revolution, for the under-employed and poor working classes were unleashed on the ‘west’, to vent their class fury in hard toil, disease, and early death. This is part of North America that makes the chic urban types of the north-east or west coast shiver with apprehension. And this is where Donald Trump found so much support in the election a few days later.

I sat long in my cabin, pondering the land, life and the universe. Or I was down the stairs in the vestibule, camera in hand, or relishing – as always – a shower on the move. Being the loner and nomad that I am, I savoured the long hours and deep slumber on my own. In this context, the dining car is a strange pleasure, with its communal seating. In the past, I have been able to distinguish between the world seen through the panoramic windows and the world inside the train. On this journey, the world outside, especially the social and political world, was everywhere inside.

In the dining car, I met a black earth farmer, who spoke not a word for most of the evening. Two older women had been making very polite conversation, in the curious way they do in this part of the world.

But when asked his name, he said, ‘I am a black earth farmer’.

‘Black earth?’ I asked.

‘Up north’, he said. ‘The best soil in North America’.

Then I remembered: ‘Like the black earth in the Ukraine and south-western Russia’.

Eyes wide, he said: ‘My grandfather immigrated from Ukraine, after his family had moved there from Germany’.

‘Why have you kept so quiet?’ Asked one of the women.

‘I prefer to listen to people who are more intelligent than I am’, he said with the slightest of smiles.

But now he was unleashed, speaking of GPS steering of farm equipment, of agribusiness, of being 74 (he certainly did not look it), of children and grandchildren who did not want to work the farm. All the while a sharp sense of humour shone through.

At another meal I sat at an all-male table, with a hipster from western parts and a know-it-all California wine merchant who obviously enjoyed the benefits of constantly sampling the products he sold. When I asked about the looming election, the hipster quietly indicated that it was a taboo subject.

Not so for my lawyer friend on his way to Los Angeles. He had been visiting daughters in different parts of the country, returning home by the means he loved best. In years past, he had experienced what it was like to be a black lawyer in a country riven with racial discrimination. And this experience had driven him to become a member of the Democratic Party.

‘I’m a Bernie [Sanders] man’, he said. ‘I’m really disappointed in the way the party machine froze him out and put up Hilary’.

‘So it’s now Trump versus Clinton’, I said.

‘The way I see it’, he said, ‘Democrats will vote for Clinton holding their noses and Republicans will vote for Trump doing the same’.

‘But all the opinion polls suggest Clinton will win’, I said.

‘Yes, yes, but the feeling is not right’, he said. ‘It’s weird’.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘They’re missing something’, he said. ‘I hope Clinton will win, but I am really not sure’.

Brexit came up often, in the way that the opinion polls had missed the mood in the UK a little earlier in the same year. Their methods seemed to be outdated, so they were unable to do what they are supposed to do – gauge public opinion.

‘I fear a large number of people are not saying what they will do on election day’, he said. ‘Or that they will make up their minds on election day and vote the other way’.

Despite his concerns, which turned out to be well-founded, he remained a firm believer in the system as such.

At one point, I suggested, ‘People in China look at the system in the United States and say “no thanks”’.

To which he responded, ‘And we look at China and say “no thanks.” We don’t want someone else telling us what to do’.

This exchange soured our open conversations, so that we began to avoid one another on the run south from Portland, on the Coast Starlight, to Los Angeles.

I needed more time to myself by that stage, so I did not mind so much. But even my solitude could not block out the mood about the train. A mixture of disbelief, suspense and barely contained anger abounded – depending on which side one was on. For some, the disbelief was based on the apprehension, if not desperate expectation, that the unexpected could happen. For others, the anger at a system that had made their lives worse could not wait for election day. For me, I found it hard to believe that anyone would find such a system desirable.

Meanwhile, I could not help noticing many other signs of a crumbling empire – apart from its political system and social fabric. The train, while solidly built, was increasingly battered and groaning. The cracks on the station platforms seemed wider than ever. The forms of payment seemed archaic. The list could go on and on. It seemed that only thing keeping the system going was the insatiable demand for military expenditure, funded by the extraordinary process of relying on the funds from others, via US Treasury bonds. An empire built on massive debt, enabled by brute force and grudging trust.

But a question kept coming back to me. I would ask: ‘Why do you call it the ‘“Empire Builder”’?

No-one seemed to have answer. Was it a signal of the age-old plans to invade Canada when it was still a British colony? Or was it a signal: this is line; anyone who dares cross it risks life and limb? Or was it part of the extraordinary process of defusing unrest from workers and farmers, pushing them west in a perverted form of the ‘welfare state’? In this case, the state compensated those who took on the task of dispossessing and decimating the indigenous population. Now it seemed as though their descendants were intent on unbuilding the empire through an unlikely champion.

2016 November 036

Writing with Jethro Tull

A teenager in the mid-1970s studying for his high-school exams, bulky old-fashioned headphones wrapped around his head and plugged into a cassette player, blocking out the noise of his three brothers and sister as he tries to concentrate. And what is he listening to? Jethro Tull.

That teenager was me, almost 40 30 years ago. Ever since, I have listened to Tull while writing. The first bars of a Tull album have the effect of switching my concentration on and the noise of the world around me off. Only then can I write, pretty much unbroken for the next forty to sixty minutes. The words flow, my fingers dance over the keyboard, and my mind seems to fire off all sorts of new ideas. Sometimes, if the mood takes me, I will listen to another artist or three, but when I really want to think and write, it is Tull to whom I turn.

How did it all begin? I came to Jethro Tull latish – in the mid to later 70s, after the flurry of early records when they established themselves as one of the great bands of the time. My first taste was a crackly cassette tape, recorded from one of those vinyl records, of Minstrel in the Gallery. From that moment I was hooked. I loved the way hard rock, classical and medieval strands wove themselves together in the music, especially since I’d been through rock and jazz guitar and was then deep into classical guitar on an old axe I’d picked up cheaply somewhere. But my family was poor, my father a clergyman on a subsistence wage with five children to feed. So I couldn’t rush off to buy a bunch of new records. We had an ancient mono record player that my father wouldn’t let us touch and I had a tinny cassette player. I had to save hard to afford even one new record or tape, so I picked up an original Living in the Past from the sister of a friend for a couple of dollars, handed other friends cassette tapes that had been wiped so they could record over them, and scoured the discount racks at record shops. Slowly I built up a collection.

The first new record I bought was Heavy Horses. It was really precious, a brand new album in a cover that wasn’t bent or stained and a record that wasn’t scratched. It is still one of my favourite albums even after 30 years. So the Tull I got to know first was the Tull of the later 70s and 80s. Apart from Heavy Horses, records like Stormwatch, Broadsword and the Beast, Songs from the Wood and even A were my staple. Later I picked up the earlier albums and by the time Crest of a Knave, Catfish Rising and Rock Island came out I could afford to buy them when new.

How did I come to listen while studying? In my high school years we lived in a house that was really too small for five kids, four of us teenagers. I had been in a room with two of my brothers, but eventually I squatted in the back veranda. I built a wall out of book-shelves, bits of wood and a curtain, moved my bed and small desk there and it became my bedroom. The catch was that my new ‘bedroom’ was right by the toilet. Every morning, one after another, my parents, three brothers, sister and whatever friend was staying the night would make their way to the toilet. I could tell who it was not merely by the sound of footsteps, but also by the distinct noise they made when pissing or crapping. So it went on all day. I was also hard by the loudly squeaking back door, which was really the main entry point for the house, next to the laundry and its perpetually running washing machine and my room opened out onto the kitchen, which was the social hub of the house. My brothers and sister would always have friends over, they would talk in the kitchen, use the toilet, and the back door would swing and squeak without ceasing. That’s why I soon got some old headphones, plugged them into my cassette player and listened to Tull while studying.

What do I write? Since those days I have been pretty much a full-time writer. And I write all sorts of things. It might be magazine articles on Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia or long-distance bicycle rides. Or it may be a short story on the end of the world from the point of view of religious crackpots. Lately I have been actively filling up my blog ( But I spend most of my time writing about Marxism and religion. When people ask me what I do, I say, ‘Oh, I write about religion and politics’. And they would immediately turn to another topic, or better still, someone more interesting. Not any more, since religion and geopolitics have become vitally important, and the rise of China has put Marxism and modern socialism firmly on the agenda.

For all that time Jethro Tull has been in the backdrop. If I need to think through a problem, I put on a quieter album. If I’ve been stalling and need to get writing, it’s always Crest of a Knave. If I need a long stretch of concentration, I listen to one of the concert albums. If the wind is up and the rain is pouring, Stormwatch or Broadsword and the Beast comes out. If I need to get fired up and write fast, it will be a good rock album like Aqualung, Catfish Rising, Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll, Minstrel in the Gallery or even Rock Island. Every now and then I begin with This Was and work my way through the whole collection, ending with some Youtube videos of the latest concert gigs. And unlike many a Tull fan, I thoroughly enjoy the latest offerings, such as Home Erraticus and Thick as a Brick 2.

I’ve been listening to Tull and writing for almost four decades. Who knows? Perhaps I will do so for another four.


Ten tips on using a squat toilet on a Chinese train

The moment of truth has arrived; with bowels ready to burst you realise that to hold on any would lead to serious internal injuries. You realise that the decision to catch an ordinary train in order to meet ordinary people in China has certain consequences. One of them is the fact that you need 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 you are sure is travelling much, much faster than it should. What to do?

1. Ignore the sheen of liquid on the floor. Or imagine that it is water or floor-wash and not piss from the hundreds who have gone before you.

2. Step forward and place your 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.

3. Drop your pants to a strategic level on your legs to avoid soaking them in the pungent floor wash.

4. Grab firmly the handrail directly before you. It is there for a purpose. Even though it may look as though previous users have balanced on one foot blind-folded while the train was racing around a curve, you should by no means try to emulate them. Handrail gripped; eyes wide open.

5. Squat and let go. You will be surprised at how comfortable it really is, despite the initial feeling of having all your 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.

6. Reach for your own roll of toilet paper! Unfortunately, most such toilets may have had some toilet paper at the start of the trip, but it will be long gone by now.

7. Remember to place the used toilet paper in the basket provided – otherwise you will block the toilet and 300 accusing eyes will fix on you for stuffing up the one avenue for collective relief. That basket is of course the reason why Chinese public toilets smell the way they do. If you have forgotten your roll, just remember that old biblical saying: do not let you right hand know what your left hand is doing.

8. As you pull up your pants, dig out your vital bottle of dry hand-wash. There will be no soap and perhaps no water for your own ablutions.

9. Do as the Chinese do: sniff up a good hunk of snot and hack in the toilet to chase down whatever you have left behind.

Sailing the Seven Seas: How to Travel by Container Ship

When most people think of a sea voyage, they think: cruise ship, wealthy and obnoxious retirees, bars, shops, discos … But another, far more satisfying way of sailing the seven seas exists: containers ships, or, as Americans call them, freighter ships. The problem is that if you walk into any travel agent and say, ‘I’d like to arrange a voyage by container ship’, you will get a blank stare in response. So here are a few tips to get on board.

What destinations? Each year 44,000 container ships ply the world’s major trade routes. Some of those ships take passengers and they will take you to most destinations on the globe. You can go around the world in 84 days or belt your way from Sydney to South Korea in 10 days. It is up to you, but the common destinations are on both sides of the Atlantic, along the trade route from Europe through the Suez Canal and the Far East via Singapore, and across the Pacific between North America and Asia. It is easy to sail from Australia and New Zealand to Europe, North America and Asia. Since the ships typically spend 12 hours or more in port, you can usually get a shore pass for a few hours. But make sure you are back a couple of hours earlier than advised, since ETDs vary.

How frequently do they sail? Two examples: four times a week a passenger-bearing ship leaves Bristol (UK) for North America; twice a month a CMA-CGM ship leaves Sydney for Europe via the Panama Canal. In other words, more frequently than you would expect! Remember, the purpose of such ships is to move freight: passengers must fit in with that. So you need to be prepared to board a day or two earlier or later from the initial date given. Flexibility is the key.

Is the accommodation comfortable? Forget compact cabins and bunk beds; on a container ship you will be given one of three officer cabins. Bathroom, shower, comfortable beds in a separate bedroom, living space, desk, plenty of portholes – all make for a very comfortable voyage. Plus you have access to the recreation room with spacious lounges, TV and DVD player, large desks.

How many passengers? Up to six, since the rules change beyond that number. Often there is less.

How old do you need to be? Between 6 and 80, although at the upper end you usually need a medical certificate to clear you for travel.

What is life on board like? They are working ships, so you fit in with that. 20 to 25 crew are on the ship, including officers and engineers. The crew are mostly Filipino, Korean, Kiribati and so on, and the officers often but not necessarily European. Above all, life is quiet, relaxing and simple. Unlike a passenger ship, you are allowed anywhere on the ship. The bridge is a favourite haunt, where you can talk with the officer on duty or enjoy the peace and quiet. The deck and engine room are also yours to explore, although the officer on duty likes to be told where you plan to go and – for the engine room – the engineer needs to give you the nod.

What do you do? Ponder the sea: out on the ocean you have the million different moods and shades of the sea to keep you mesmerised. Talk with people: at meal times, on the bridge, on deck, at the equator barbeque, over a drink at a party – everyone loves to talk at some time. Read: there is usually a library. Exercise: run up and down the hundreds of stairs or use the small gym. Write: about the voyage. Snooze: whenever you want. In short, you learn to entertain yourself and enjoy your own company.

What is the food like? You eat what the officers and crew eat, made by the cook. The quality varies from cook to cook, but is usually excellent. French ships (like CMA-CGM) often include wine with lunch and dinner.

How much does it cost? If you think of a container voyage as a means to get from A to B, it is more expensive than most flying. If you think of it in terms of travel, good food and accommodation for anywhere between 10 and 90 days, then it is relatively cheap. For example, on a recent voyage of 37 days from Melbourne to Tilbury (the port on the Thames), I paid $AUD 4500. That’s about $AUD 120 a day, or EURO 90 per day. You can find cheaper and more expensive fares, ranging from $85 to $180 per day.

Who do you ask? A few travel agents deal specifically with container travel, such as The Cruise People in the UK, A La Carte Freighter Travel in Canada, Freighter World Cruises in the USA, or Freighter Expeditions in Australia. However, by far the best is Hamish Jamieson’s Freighter Travel NZ – He is able to get you on a ship earlier than most, especially to and from Australia-New Zealand.

Not long ago (the 1950s) a sea voyage used to be the way most people travelled ‘overseas’. Who knows, maybe it may soon be so again.