Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.99.6: ENCOUNTERING THE MIDDLE KINGDOM

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No one can fully comprehend China; wherever and whenever you start from will not likely be the same by the time one gets to the “end” of that project. “May you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse. It is an apt curse for anyone these days who hopes to fully understand China. The times in The Middle Kingdom are indeed interesting, but they move at blurring speed.*

Everyone who encounters China comes with their own preconceptions. My generation came to its political and geographical consciousness at the time of the Korean War hearing reports of waves of Chinese soldiers surging over 38th Parallel hills at the American troops, and reading even in the comic strips such as Steve Canyon, of Chinese pilots in MIG-15’s yelling “Yankee dog, you die!” into cartoon bubbles as they fired at Steve and his American F-86 Sabre jet.**

The Good Earth (1937). I don’t know whether I understood at that time, that the lead actors, Paul Muni and Louise Rainer were actually European Jews playing in what I later learned was referred to as “yellow face.” I actually thought Chinese spoke pidgin English that way. I don’t think I was as fooled by Sidney Toler, an actor of Scandinavian extraction, who played Charlie Chan with his eyes taped up and uttering so-called “Chinese sayings” that sounded like they were extracted from fortune cookies. There were no Chinese lead actors in those years, save for Los Angeles born Anna May Wong who was stuck mostly in roles playing Dragon ladies or the daughter of Fu Manchu; she never got the guy, but she did get to die, a lot, as Western audiences were a long way from abiding cross-cultural romances. It was “Yankee dog, you die!” in the cartoons, but “Chinese Dragon Lady, you die,” in the movies.

Those were my first “encounters” with Chinese culture and, mostly in retrospect, it was Orientalist faux Chinese culture. But, years later, I did not come to China that ill-prepared the first time. I studied up quite a bit, especially on Chinese cities and urban life, because I am an urbanist by academic background, and because I was preparing myself to be an escorting professor for American tour groups to China. By that time I had read a number of the books that are in the bibliography of this volume, watched as many movies as I could find, and interrogated at length my one my Chinese graduate students, a bright young architect from Shanghai. My new mnemonic bags were packed with a stir-fry of mismatched images put together like a magpie with no sense of categorization, organization or temporal relevance and, because there is always a grain of truth in them, a residue of those early stereotypes in Steve Canyon and The Good Earth.

I soon discovered that in looking for matching reality I seemed to be in search of an “old China,” the “Middle Kingdom,” not the Ming, or even the Qing, but the more immediate Chinese past of cities of broad imperial avenues, austere warrens of hutongs, all Gobi-dusted in sepia, curb to curb pelotons of black Flying Pigeon bicycles, belching factory smokestacks, hordes of drone like Chinese in Mao suits, Red Guards with little Red Books being the only color against the dusty gray of buildings, people and sky. But “my” China was the post “Nixon goes to China” era. It was the late1980s now. Long gone were the obsequious, queue-wearing Wang of The Good Earth, gone was Pu-Yi, the last occupant of the celestial throne. Even Mao was in his Mao-soleum. Now there was chain-smoking Deng Xiaoping sounding like a Wall Street hedge fund huckster, and the fierce image of the Red Guards had been briefly, of not prophetically, usurped by a nameless, faceless young man in a white shirt facing down a column of PLA tanks in Tiananmen Square. This was the China with which I would finally get to meet “up close and personal.”

If one is interested and open-minded there is much to learn in encounters with foreign cultures. But perhaps the one overriding message is that in the comparative is always a lurking transcendental element of consciousness; for even the expat, as much as the visitor, no matter what the amount of time and level of familiarity one acquires there is always the “they” and the “them” running in the background that insistently, even of subliminally, contrasts with the “we” and the “us.”

I still hear the myth, oftentimes when among Chinese friends or acquaintances who learn that I am an Italian-American: the myth that pasta was brought to Italy by Marco Polo, that the noodle was, like gunpowder and movable type something that originated not in Italy, but in far-off Cathay. An “honorable guest” ought not to gainsay his hosts, even in respect of truth, but I grew up (and later, a bit outward) on pasta (my favorite being “bucatini”) and so I offer gentle correction, presenting as “hypothesis” that the creation of dried (hard) pasta by the Roman navy—well before the time of Marco Polo—originated a means of keeping weevils from consuming their semolina might be mythical.***

But I did not go to China either as a trader like Marco Polo, or as a crusader on the clarification of culinary provenance. Although I went there as an “academic” and scholar recognizing that the new knowledge and ideas can bring about change, my intent, unlike that of the of the missionary or the ideological zealot, has not been to “convert” and transform but, more like the ardent ecologist, to “leave the place pretty much as I found it.” The irony of that intent is that each time I return it is not as I left it.

I might have arrived in China earlier but it was my ethic heritage and education that kept me focused on Europe for most of my early years of travel. I went to Roman Catholic Jesuit schools, studied Latin, classical Greek and French, and knew little more about the Orient other than that the famous Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, established many missions throughout the Far East. But the “civilization” that most mattered was centered in my “Eurocentric” universe. Athens and Rome, not Peking or Xian were the cities I dreamed about. Moreover, in the days of my early education China was popularly regarded in the United States as the great “Yellow Peril.” Though we were allied with them in World War II, they charged at us in seemingly endless numbers over the frozen hills of North Korea in the 1950s. Even worse, they were Communists; godless obedient hordes of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, were they not? Chinese were, ideologically at least, an enemy. “Yankee dogs, no noodles for you!” Even Marco Polo would not have been able to go there from 1949 to 1972.

Maybe Polo could have hitched a ride in that latter year when, unexpectedly, of all people, that great anti-Communist American politician, Richard Nixon, made his historic trip to Beijing to shake the hand of Mao Zedong. It is unlikely that Nixon went there for the noodles; it was a political outflanking of the Soviet Union in the then very chilly Cold War, and there was that huge potential economic bonus of a billion Chinese who might like to buy all of our American products rather than make them (more on that later, too). But first, we had to get acquainted with our long–cloistered new Asian neighbors. China soon became a (somewhat restricted) travel destination and, at the time I could not have imagined the day would come when I would be leading tours there, lecturing at its universities and making almost a second home in Hong Kong.

I began visiting China well before I even owned a computer, much less even thought that I would one day be posting articles about Zhongguo on my own website. But I was always an inveterate note taker and, when I first started posting essays on the site I created—Dragon City Journal (in 2003 in Hong Kong)—I was already forming opinions and recording observations about the world’s most populous and protean nation that continues to surprise and fascinate me over the years.

When I first visited Hong Kong Deng Xiao Ping was beginning to sound like some Chinese version of Gordon Gekko, adding to the unfathomable list of “Chinese sayings” (my own addition is that there ought to be a Chinese saying that “the Chinese have a saying for everything”) that “to grow rich is glorious,” and the euphemistic endorsement of the rampant, pragmatic capitalism that followed in his wake, “it does not matter whether the is black or white so long as it catches the mouse.” China was about to change faster than the fate of a duck that saddles into a Chinese restaurant. That was the early 80s, and by the mid-90s Hong Kong was preparing itself to exchange a century and a half as a British Crown Colony for some limbo-like status as “one country, with two systems” (for 50 years). These were indeed interesting times, with interesting curses, and they proved interesting to be a witness to. If they were times that were also humbling for those who hoped to grasp their meaning and portent the Chinese might say: shi zhei yang de (supposedly, “that’s how it is”).

__________________________________________________©2005, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.14.2015)

*It is not so even for the Chinese themselves. See Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (2015).

** The Steve Canyon cartoon strip was created by Milton Caniff and ran for all the years of my youth. I am trusting my powers of recollection on the specific cartoon panel of “Yankee do, you die!” But I was an impressionable kid.

*** There is another dimension of this matter that could be regarded as equally discourteous. Pasta should be prepared al dente (“to the teeth,” or firm and chewy), not soft and slurpy, like Chinese noodles. It is a difference with a substantial distinction. But we will not elaborate that here.

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