A Journey of Rediscovery

It began as a delayed mutual promise: to travel around much of Australia by rail. Often we had put the journey off, due to commitments, time pressures and responsibilities. In the end, some years ago, we simply decided to go, frazzled and pressured as we were.

The journey would take us northwards from Adelaide, two days on the Ghan train to Darwin. A car was needed for the next leg, almost 2000 kilometres through the Gulf Country, heading eastward to Mt Isa in far north Queensland. Another train would take us a further 1000 kilometres to the coast, and then we would wind our way some 3000 km southwards on a couple more trains, down the coast to home. It was to be a 9000 kilometre journey in all.

We began wearily, with long months of disrupted sleep behind us and expectations from work weighing upon us, all of it symbolised by the creaking burden of books in our packs. Initially, on the Ghan we plunged into our books and opened our computers to get some headway on the many tasks we hoped to complete on our way. Gradually, we turned less to the books and the computers began to be lie dormant for longer periods. I pulled out my camera and spent long hours walking the train and standing at windows, testing the capabilities of the camera. She slept much and gazed out the window, an open book lying on her lap unread.

In Alice Springs, Katherine Gorge and Darwin we simply walked all day. Still our talk was around projects, plans, grant funds, writing tasks and ways around problems at work. We went over difficult conflicts and frustrated projects, looking for new ways to achieve them.

The talk continued in the car we rented for the next few days. We intended to belt along the main road and get to Mt Isa as soon as possible. Soon enough a turn beckoned, into Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. Our talk turned to other matters, of life and death and love and the endless, endless land. We stayed a night in a remote community or two, struggling to find accommodation. Until we happened upon an extraordinary road.

Named innocuously the Tableland Highway, it was barely a ribbon of undulating and wavy asphalt across vast spaces and beneath infinite skies. Water was scarce on the way, marked by the regular wind pumps of yesteryear. Now we fell silent as we were absorbed by the land. Occasionally, a native animal would pass our way, especially as dusk drew near. We stopped regularly to soak it all in, simply standing and looking out, aware that we were possibly the only human beings as far as our eyes could see.

On every roll in the road, I felt as though I left behind one more expectation, one more pressure, one more plan, one more struggle. Into the sky and the open plains went my sense of self-importance. I had begun against my best intentions to believe in the hype and to throw my weight around, feeling that I had the gravitas to do so and thereby change the world around me. As the road unwound through the vastness, that whole sense was simply taken away, little by little. By the end of that road, as we drove into Mt Isa, I had rediscovered myself.

I did not realise it at the time. In Mt Isa, I slept deep and long for the first time in months. The sleep would continue all the way home. Her process was more gradual, for she was processing much about identity apart from her work. She spent the 28 hours on the amazing Innlander train, from Mt Isa to Townsville, looking out the window and snoozing. I found this rail journey one of the most fascinating I have done for a long time. I absorbed everything around, thrilled by the experience. The train played only part of the role, for it was the rediscovery of myself now expressing itself.

By the time we left Cairns a few days later (after a short bus ride north from Townsville), we realised what we needed to do. The train helped, with its rail-bed sleepers on the run south to Brisbane. She would disconnect from what frustrated her at work, pursuing her passions in new areas, wherever that took her and wherever that might be in the world. I would resign from the many editorial boards, networks and leadership roles, disconnecting from the identity that had been forced upon me. I too would recover my passions and pursue them, anticipating the opportunity to join her wherever she went.

The return home, after the day-time XPT train from Brisbane, saw an immediate manifestation of all that we had experienced. We had a massive purge of books, thousands of them. Books we would never use again, crap books we had kept, and anything deemed fit to go. Our home opened up and we felt we could breathe again. The resignations and disconnections took another day. We were full of enthusiasm, freed, passionate and rested. The summer that followed was long, quiet and simply glorious. It was perhaps the most important journey we have undertaken for quite some time.

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The Best Cup of Coffee

I’m sitting in the corner feeling glad.

Got no money coming in but I can’t feel sad.

That was the best cup of coffee I ever had.

And I won’t worry about a thing,

Because we’ve got it made,

Here on the inside; outside’s so far away.

These are words from a little known song (at least these days) from 1970, simply called ‘Inside’. Yet they capture a particular intensely felt moment for me, and have done so since I first heard them many decades ago.

I no longer drink coffee, but I used to drink it with enthusiasm and with deep pleasure in my twenties – the same way I approached smoking. It helped my concentration while young children were being born and growing up around me. It helped me stay awake late at night while I continued studying. And it helped me unwind when I had a rare occasion to be away from other human beings.

Out of thousands, if not tens of thousands of cups of coffee, one has forever remained etched in bodily memory.

I was on a solo road trip through the mountains and narrow tracks of eastern Australia. Some parts were barely discernible, where no one had passed for many a year. Other parts left a dust trail billowing behind me. Other parts were worn, rocky and bumpy and required low gear. At nights I camped in remote places, with only dingoes and kangaroos for company. Together we chatted and smoked by the campfire late into the night.

On this particular day, the dirt track had been particularly slow and bumpy, with not another human being within the known distance. I was working my way through a mountain range, bump after jarring bump. By the time the sun was lowering, I began to wind my way down the western escarpment of the range.

A space opened up on the side of the road, with an old fireplace that beckoned me to stop a while. I lit a small fire, enough to boil some water in the blackened and knocked-about billy and make some coffee – as I had so often done before. Nothing fancy, but I poured it into an old and stained enamel cup and rolled a cigarette. I sat quietly on the ground and looked westward over the hills and plains as the sun set, drawing on the smoke and sipping the coffee.

I am not sure quite what it was. Was it the taste of an old and unwashed billy? Was it the fire that burned with eucalyptus wood? Was it the end of a weary and dusty day of driving? Was it the taste of tobacco newly rolled along with the coffee? Or perhaps the view from the height and the joy of being away from other human beings? Probably all of the above, but they still do not capture the feeling. I still recall the taste of that coffee and the act of sipping calmly while the world lay there before me.

It remains the best cup of coffee I have ever had. To be sure, I have tasted fancy, crafted coffees since then. I have bought my own coffee beans and ground them myself. Indeed, I have drunk thousands of cups of coffee since.

But none have been able to come close.

The Strange Tea of Rijeka

Perhaps it was the tea, strangely coloured, with an unknown spice that evoked the ‘east’. After one sip, I paused, drew in my breath and retreated from my immediate involvement in the world. I raised my eyes after a moment and saw it in very different way: my retreat and abstraction from the world now meant that I was intensely aware of the moment, sensing all that was going on around me.

A portly middle-aged man sauntered past, with pointy shiny shoes off to do some business, whatever that might be. Two women in impossibly high heels puffed on their cigarettes and walked in the opposite direction. An older woman, with dyed red hair curled in a tight frizz, sat at the next table, smoking a long thin cigarette and sipping on her first of many coffees for the day. Her formula for keeping her slim figure was obviously one would ensure she remained so in her soon to be occupied coffin.

The tea belonged to the old square in the middle of a town called Rijeka, a forgotten place in today’s world, a place we had not imagined we would visit. But this was our time, which stretched out to infinity and yet would not be repeated.

We had not planned to spend a day in Rijeka, but our ship had arrived in the morning and our overnight train left in the evening. The ship was old but serviceable, for it was still to catch up with the emerging tourist appeal of the Dalmatian Coast of the new country of Croatia. It sported streaks of rust and a massive image of a leering Pope John Paul II. After some searching, we had boarded at the walled town of Dubrovnik further south. Many slept in open spaces and on the lounges scattered about the deck, although we had opted for a cabin at little extra cost. The food had been cooked long before and kept in a warmer for meal times – at least it meant one did not have to wait longer than 60 seconds for the meal to appear on the table. Two days later, at first light, we arrived in the port of Rijeka, with its old fishing boats and a few cargo ships.

The town had not always been forgotten, since for long had it been at a cultural crossroads. First settlements were by Celts and Liburnians, well before the ancient Greeks took notice in the fourth century BCE. Since then, the place has been the site of fierce struggles, given its deep-water port and strategic position. Romans, Italians, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Avars, Hungarians, French, Yugoslavs and Croats have claimed the town as their own. Needless to say, it has also changed its name time and again: Tharsatica, Vitopolis or Flumen by the Romans; Terra Fluminis Sancti Viti (after dedication to St. Vitus in the 4th century CE); Sankt Veit am Pflaum by the Germans; Fiume in Italian (which was also adopted by the Hungarians); and initially Rika svetoga Vida in Croatian after Croats began to settle there in the 7th century CE. Eventually, it became simply Rijeka after it was made part of the state of Yugoslavia in the early 20th century.

Once upon a time, it may have rivalled Venice in power and wealth, especially when Frederick III, Archduke of Austria, purchased it in 1466 – the beginning of 450 years as the main port of the Habsburg Empire. But these days, after the devastation of the NATO led breakup of Yugoslavia, it is far less ostentatious. The walk up from the harbour revealed a town that had been in better condition under the communist government of Yugoslavia. Footpaths  and roads and stairs need constant maintenance by active local and national governments. The liking for cement rendering on buildings may work well when the rendering is maintained and painted. Without such attention, money and time, it soon begins to look cracked, tattered and broken.

But for us at this moment, the town had a distinct appeal. No matter how tough times may have been in the last two or three decades, no matter how ‘informal’ the economy, men and women made sure they dressed as well as they could. Not a few years before we arrived, the new state of Croatia had staked its elusive search for prosperity on tourist euros. But then the 2008 economic crisis hit, and prayers were uttered in parliament that the tourists would still come. Not so many did while we were there, so we felt as though we had the town to ourselves.

So we sat on old wicker chairs, sipping evocative tea in the town square. Our cups seemed to fill of their own accord, no matter how often we tried to empty them. Eventually, the lanes of the town beckoned and our legs needed to stretch. So we left the tea to for others to finish if they could and disappeared into a lane. Out of nowhere a Roman Arch appeared. It remained part of the house structures on either side, with it worn hand-cut stones still tightly bound overhead. I stood beneath, imagining the slaves’ hands at work on the stone, the ancient scaffolding needed to place one stone upon another until the last slid into place at the crown. The Greeks did not know the arch as an architectural feature, for the Romans had conjured it up from somewhere. For two millennia it had stood here, its original function now forgotten. How many more millennia would it hold, until the stone finally wore away?

A narrow door appeared with the word ‘Biblioteka’. Our desire to sit quietly and read drew us inside and up the stairs. Two chairs were free. The rest were filled with quiet readers. I perused the books, journals and newspapers on display. But not being able to read the new ‘language’ of Croatian (invented after the 1990s when Serbo-Croatian ceased to ‘exist’), I sat and opened one of my own books. I read little, for the tall windows drew my gaze outside and into the town.

A taste of eternity remains a taste, for we became conscious of the fact that our train would leave soon. We found the railway station but could not find the train. The station bore the dust of its former Austro-Hungarian glory, with a carefully constructed main building to give the impression of power and importance. Stone work and arched windows featured in the three stories. But it was also festooned with graffiti and rust. The tracks could barely be seen for the grass that grew around them. It was a long time since a train had run here. Were we in the right place?

Eventually a conductor appeared and we asked, having determined by now that German was the old lingua franca of these parts. He pointed to a siding in a corner we had missed. There sat a new train run by Deutschebahn. This was our train and this was our sleeper for the journey north, taking us eventually to Copenhagen.

We boarded and immediately knew we had at that moment left Rijeka, with its past and present, not quite sure now if it is part of Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia or Croatia.

Meeting Isabel Crook

‘Put that down, mum’, he said. ‘Someone is here to see you’.

He strode into the room, while I paused at the door and looked inside to see Isabel Crook for the first time. Books spilled out of ceiling-high shelves and were piled on the desks that surrounded her. Sitting in the only free space in the room, she had been reading. She did not look up at first, but focussed on putting the book in its place. She stood and walked to the door of her own accord.

Her 60-something son and began to introduce us, somewhat loudly.

‘Hello, I am Isabel Crook,’ she interrupted. ‘Pleased to meet you’.

I replied in kind, with a clear and strong voice.

She smiled. Her no-nonsense hair may have been grey, and she may have been slightly stooped and a little shrunken. But the sparkle was still in her eye and I immediately saw the origin of her son’s energy.

It was the middle of May, 2015, in an apartment built in not long after the communist revolution. They had lived there ever since the 50s, in Beijing.

In the common room – for eating, guests, discussion – she paused and pointed to a poster on the wall: ‘This is priceless’. A youthful Mao Zedong was watching over a long line of marching men and women, holding the red flag aloft.

‘You can’t read the writing now’, she said. ‘It has faded over the years’.

‘Why priceless?’ I said.

‘These posters were all over Beijing when it was liberated in 1949. I managed to get hold of one. It was amazing. We looked all down the streets … students all with red triangular flags waving … the incoming army … cavalry, which was very exciting. It was the most joyful event I’ve ever watched’.

Isabel Crook, along with her husband, David, had been with the Red Army on that victorious day. Most men and women had walked thousands of kilometres in order to get from Yan’an to Beijing But since Isabel was pregnant with their first son, Colin, she was provided with the comfort of travelling in the back of a truck. Given the conditions of the roads after decades of civil war and the anti-Japanese war, I am not sure an old truck in 1949 would have been so comfortable. But she was obviously a tough woman.

We – Isabel, Michael (her second son) and I – sat and talked over a cup of tea. We talked of Mao, Deng Xiaoping, China today, Marxism, as also of families and the initial matters of what one is doing and why. Later, a couple of other people joined us and we made the most of the spring weather to have lunch at a simple outdoor restaurant somewhere on the edge of the Summer Palace grounds.

Isabel and I gravitated towards each other – as we did on later occasions – given our common interests in Marxism and indeed religion. She was born to Canadian missionary parents in Chengdu, China, way back in 1915. While she was brought up as a Christian in China and attended a Christian school, she followed the path of so many, from Christianity to communism. Crucially, her parents – Homer and Muriel Brown – were Christians with a social conscience, although they looked askance at communism (and Isabel’s future husband, David Crook). They reconciled themselves to the fact that a social cause was better than pure self-interest.

After anthropological study in her parents’ home country, Canada, she returned to China in 1940, under the auspices of the National Christian Council in Sichuan province. By 1942 she joined David in England, where she joined the communist party and where they married. Further study ensued, only to return to China in 1947. She has remained there ever since, becoming a participant-observer in the communist revolution itself and especially socialism in power. Many are the jobs Isabel has had, from anthropological researcher, through language teacher to lifelong social activist. Indeed, her commitment was of the sort that led one to action – to supporting an actual communist revolutionary movement on the ground.

Her story has been told many times (as of David), from foreign sources to many outlets in China. Her 100th birthday was saluted by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), her commitment to education and research is often noted (playing down her communist credentials), and even the Wall Street Journal managed to come up with a story. Of more interest are the accounts on CCTV and, above all, the website that tells her own story, simply called ‘Isabel Crook’. With all this information available, I do not need to dwell on all the details.

Her witness of socialism in power is, for a foreigner, second to none. In Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn), a communist area of Hebei province, she and David witnessed the profound effects of land reform already underway. She saw first-hand millennia-long practices being dismantled and replaced with socialist approaches. As she observes: ‘The land reform was obviously going to change the whole future of China’s history, because it would get rid of the feudal system … it would put the farmer in power, rather than going on with the old way’. The result was a hugely influential book, written by her and David, Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village.

And of course, there was the teaching. The new China would need people skilled in English, so they were asked to stay and teach. Over the years, their work would become one stream that fed into what is now Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Over dinner one evening, I mentioned to Isabel that I had been to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Her eyes lit up.

‘I have had students from North Korea’, she said. ‘Ten of them, sent by the government to study English’.

‘How did they go?’ I said.

‘They were very good,’ she said. ‘Although one struggled. I believe in giving marks for actual performance, so his grades were not so good. As they boarded the bus after the course, this student was crying. “Why is he crying?” I asked one of the others. “He knows he will be reprimanded for not doing so well in the course and failing his country.” I wanted to stop the bus and hug him’.

She also experienced socialism in power during the Cultural Revolution.

‘During the Cultural Revolution, I was suspected of a being a spy. So I was put in prison for three years’.

‘Did it make you doubt the communist movement?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’, she said. ‘My sons were on their own, but I knew they could manage’.

‘What did they do?’ I said.

‘They were teenagers’, she said. ‘And they knew how to take of themselves. One day, they realised their visas had run out, so they sent the youngest to the immigration office, hoping they would be deported. The woman behind the desk simply stamped the passports – another two years!’

We laughed.

‘Another time’, she said. ‘Before I was imprisoned but during the Cultural Revolution, one son was in hospital. I was on my way to visit him and the gardener out the front said, “Your son is fine”. In reply to my complete surprise, he said: “I’m the doctor. I am doing my duty as gardener now”’.

‘But what did you do in prison?’ I said.

‘I knew they had made a mistake and decided to make the most of it’.

‘How so?’ I said.

‘I asked for something to read’, she said.

‘What?’ I said.

‘The Selected Works of Mao Zedong’, she said. ‘I read the four volumes through many times. I even noted how many times laughter appears. Do you know how many?’

‘No’, I said.


We laughed, with Isabel assuring me she remains as ardent follower of Mao Zedong.

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A Journey Through Easter – After a Death

This journey is a little different from most – a journey from death to life, if I may call it that. Or rather, it is a voyage of meaning, turning around the unexpected ramifications of Easter, of all things, after a death.

Easter had often been a weary, worn and empty time of the year for me. With bodily memories of short nights, midnight and dawn services hard after one another, of an emptiness as to what one might say, I was always thankful I was no longer in ministry when Easter came around. And I was puzzled at the way a supposedly once-off event, the pivot of history, the high point of revelation and salvation, had to be repeated, every year, ad nauseam. It was as though the old pagan celebration of the dying and rising god, the one that Christ’s death and resurrection had supposedly condemned to the dustbin of history, had returned with a vengeance. Rather than lifting himself above such annual cycles, he had become one more name in the legion of resurrected gods.

But two events set me on the road from this dreary point of origin. One was a prolonged bout of atrial fibrillation, which eventually passed with the assistance of a mild electrical shock. Not immediately fatal, it had the potential to lead to blood clotting in the heart; should it form, parts of that clot may break away and happily journey to one’s leg, arm or brain. It also meant my heart was not pumping blood efficiently, especially with exercise. This second-by-second reminder of my own mortality opened up – quite unexpectedly – an appreciation of that strange narrative of suffering, death and new life.

I found myself drawn to a liturgy, directed by an older priest with an extraordinary, almost shaman-like, ability to sense one’s immediate need and direct his attention there. The church was from my Reformed heritage, but through Lent I was there, usually at the simple and brief evening prayer on a weekday. By Palm Sunday I was part of the flow, participating in the harrowing experience of Maundy Thursday, joining the vigil for a short while, quietly slipping in for the stark Good Friday service, attending a renewal of baptismal vows with a small crowd on Saturday evening, and then joining the vast celebration of new life on the Sunday morning. Pomp and ceremony it was, far more than the simple story warranted; hints of cloying piety were there at odd moments. But the drama resonated in a way it had not done earlier.

At that Easter service were my father and mother, enjoying a stimulation of all the senses that was absent at their own church. By the following Easter my father was dying from cancer. To experience the death of someone intimately close, with whom I had argued and struggled and whom I had loved for a lifetime, to see him fade as the cancer took hold, to share with him in ways that had never happened before, to see him take his last unconscious breath, to see the pulse stop, to hear the rattle of internal fluids, to dress his body already stiff from rigor mortis before the funeral directors arrived, is to absorb death into one’s own life.

As he lay dying, he asked me: ‘How old are you?’

‘Forty eight’, I said.

‘I was forty seven when my father died’.

Unlike me, he had not been present, day by day, at that time, not even afterwards, for his father had died in the night from a stroke (perhaps brought on by that hereditary fibrillation – who knows?) and my father could not afford the trip, half way around the world, to the Netherlands for the funeral. His quiet regret at not having seen his father one last time had stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The following Easter, after we buried him that August, touched me even more deeply. I was drawn down, out and then up with the richness of the Easter cycle at the cathedral. At the recollections of the last supper and the austere moments of Good Friday I felt much greater sense of what it means to die, to breath one’s last and pass on. Throughout the quiet morning prayer at the cathedral on the Saturday (with one or two gathered, quietly reciting the prayers) I thought of my father. And he was very much present at the morning blast of music, colour, eucharist and sermon of Easter Sunday.

In the midst of the celebration, I recalled his of faith and fear, his hobbling presence the two Easters before. He may have been staunch in his faith, holding to it through a life of ups and downs. For all his assertions that he knew where he was going, my father also realised, with some trepidation, that he did not quite know all there was to be known about the destination or indeed the journey there.

Only in China

Is it still possible to have a unique experience, one that you cannot have anywhere else? Or has the world become thoroughly homogenised? Sometimes it seems so. Wherever you go, it is the same experience, over and over again. A European city centre, a restored historical village, a hotel room, a museum, food, coffee, beer – in one place after another they seem eerily the same. Should tourism begin on Mars, it too would have the same experience.

I beg to differ. It is the unexpected moments that are unique, moments that can easily pass you by in the myriad events of everyday. To see them, you need a peripheral vision, a seeing out of the corner of your eye; or, as I prefer, a relaxing of the shoulders, a slowing of the breath and an easing of the mind so that you can catch them before they pass.

Mao’s Statue

We had been talking about a possible trip to Suzhou, a little up the road from Shanghai. She was keen to show me around the fabled town, with its canals and boats and cuisine. Indeed, beautiful girls come from Suzhou … or so goes one of the sayings.

As a neophyte to matters Chinese, I asked: ‘what time suits you best?’

‘How about Friday morning?’ She said.

‘Excellent’, I said. ‘Where shall we meet?’

‘I’ll meet you by Mao’s statue – the big white one at the front gates – at 9.00 am’. She said it as though it was the normal suggestion in the world.

Student party meeting

Over a simple lunch of long noodles, two students and I sat talking. Spring it was, after the first rains of spring in a cool Beijing. They had wanted to take me to a kosher dining hall, provided for the Chinese Muslim students. It had the reputation for good quality clean food. We had lined up to order our dishes and I tried to read the menu on the wall above. Some characters I could recognise, some not. They translated where necessary while we waited our turn. Soon enough, the dishes were ready, announced on the loudspeaker. We picked up our bowls, found some seats and slurped away.

The dapper student looked at his watch and made to move.

‘Excuse me’, he said. ‘I need to go to a student party’.

‘A party’, I said, thinking it was one of the regular student parties that happened with extraordinary frequency. ‘At lunchtime?’

They laughed.

‘No’, he said. ‘It’s the student branch party meeting. I am the secretary’.

It hit me: ‘Are you a member of the student branch of the communist party?’ He had not struck me as a typical member, but then what is a typical party member?

He smiled. ‘Yes, and I am the secretary, so I need to be at the meeting’.

Young Pioneers

Intrigued, I began to ask students about party membership. At an afternoon gathering some weeks later, we discussed reasons for joining the party. Some said it was for a better job, others because a grandparent was a member and had influenced them deeply, and others because they felt they could contribute on their own small way to the collective good.

‘What about young pioneers?’ I asked.

‘We have that in the schools’, a young woman said. ‘It is a mark of honour to be invited to join the young pioneers. It may be for academic achievement or for sport or even for some service’.

‘Were any of you members?’ I asked.

Nearly all of them nodded.

‘Do you have young pioneers in your country?’ Said the young woman.

Of course, every country should have such an organisation.

Foot Binding

A slightly older student, of about 30, had finally realised her dream to come to Australia and spend a year of study here. She spent a good deal of the time travelling and a little less on her study.

In one of our many discussions, she said:

‘When I was six years old, my grandmother said to me that I should have my feet bound, just like her. I was really frightened and lay awake at night’.

‘She must have been born before the communist revolution’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But she was very traditional in her attitudes’.

I had thought that such a practice had been abolished with the communist revolutionary victory of 1949. Perhaps not in the minds of some.

She continued: ‘During the revolutionary war, women used to fight in the Red Army. They would have natural feet and cut their hair. When one of them was captured by the Guomindang nationalist forces, she would be shot immediately. They assumed that if she had natural feet, she was a communist. The practice of foot-binding goes back to the Qing emperors. Since they were Manchu nationality, they made the majority Han women bind their feet as a sign of subjection – or at least those of the upper class. It became a custom.’

‘Did your grandmother ever make moves to bind your feet?’ I asked.

‘No’, she said. ‘But it really frightened me, since children are supposed to show deep respect for grandparents’.

That’s Socialism

Another young woman and I were walking past a student dormitory, where washing hung in the windows.

‘How many students share a dormitory?’ I asked.

‘Six to eight for undergraduates’, she said. ‘Four for masters and two for doctoral students’.

‘Does anyone have a single room?’ I asked.

She laughed. ‘No, we all share’.

A little later we had eaten in a dining hall and were on our way out.

‘I usually eat there’, she said. ‘The food is cheap but freshly cooked’

‘Who else eats in a dining hall?’ I asked.

‘Everyone’, she said. ‘Students, professors, gardeners, maintenance workers …’.

She paused for a moment and said: ‘That may be socialism! I guess we have it in ways we do not realise’.

East-West – A Myth

East-West: this distinction is pervasive in many an Asian or indeed Eastern European country. You need not be there for too long to realise how pervasive it really is. My recent experience is from China, where I am based for up to four months each year. Here the distinction takes on a particular form, where ‘China’ stands in for whatever the ‘East’ is. Some examples:

Chinese food (Zhongcan) – Western food (Xican)

Chinese medicine (Zhongyi) – Western medicine (Xiyi)

Chinese medication (Zhongyao) – Western medication (Xiyao)

Chinese clothes (Zhongfu) – Western food (Xifu)

Chinese culture (Zhongguo wenhua) – Western culture (Xifang wenhua)

Chinese language (Zhongwen) – Western language (Xiwen)

Chinese style (Zhongshi) – Western style (Xishi)

The list goes on and on. More specifically the opposition ‘zhong-xi’ means ‘middle-west’, with China being the ‘middle’ and indeed embodying the ‘East’. The comparisons run through Chinese thought and perceptions of the world. However, ‘Western’ is a slippery term indeed. Try to pin it down and it excludes most of the world and refers to ‘Western’ Europe, but the next moment is means the whole world apart from China. It is clearly a northern hemisphere distinction, focused on the Eurasian land mass with its complex history of imperial struggles, massive migrations and shifting powers.

As a result, I refuse to use the terms. They obfuscate rather than illuminate. One solution is to use other terms, such as ‘Chinese’ (zhongran) and ‘foreign’ (wairan), but this risks the ‘inside-outside’ binary. Another solution is to specify exactly what the reference means, by referring to the specific place in question. But this risks identifying something as characteristically French, or Russian, or Korean or indeed Chinese.

Perhaps it is better to analyse the function of the terms ‘West’ and ‘China’. I suspect that ‘West’ really functions as a mythical category. I use the term ‘myth’ quite deliberately. Due to the complex history of the term, it refers simultaneously to a fiction and a deeper truth, to a construct with little basis in reality and to a form of language that seeks to locate a truth that cannot be expressed in the usual referential terms. The various myths of the world’s origins comprise one example, the myths of an ideal future world another.

The fiction is that the ‘West’ as conceived in such a binary opposition simply does not exist. This ‘West’ moves about so adroitly, changes its meaning and shape so effortlessly, that it will never be found. So what is the deeper truth?

I suggest that says much more about China (on indeed any other place that likes to use the ‘East-West’ dichotomy). From the eighteenth century, it became clear that China was losing for a time its millennia-long status as the world’s leading power. As it did so, the obsession with the ‘West’ began in earnest. Again and again, comparisons were made between ‘China’ and the ‘West’, with people moving between one category and the other. Sometimes they rejected one in favour of the other, at others they sought a mediation between them. But all the time, the search was to find what ‘China’ really means. It was and continues to be a search for self-definition by creating a mythical other that is everything ‘China’ is not.

Indeed, the great Chinese story, Journey to the West, insightfully captures this double sense of a mythical ‘West’. The Buddhist monk from the Tang dynasty court and his three comrades make an immensely long journey to the ‘West’ – in this case India! – to find copies of the Buddhist Scriptures. But when they arrive, they find that the ‘West’ in question is nothing like what they imagined. The Scriptures they are given are blank pieces of paper on which nothing is written. It turns out that the journey itself is the real discovery, for it is a parable of self-enlightenment.