China-Me and the Dragon

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 7 (v.1) - Chengdu

Submitted: December 30, 2008

Reads: 309

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Submitted: December 30, 2008

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Chengdu
The first thing you notice on arriving in Chengdu is a sudden deterioration in air quality, and let’s face it, the air quality on the bus was far from pristine. It’s like you’ve suddenly gone back in time and found yourself in a Dickensian industrial city: an evil grey on all sides; an environment that is somehow hostile permeates through you; sticking to your skin and clinging to your lungs.
China boasts some 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. Chengdu is not the most polluted city in China, but it is still the 16th most polluted city on Earth, and it was by far the most polluted placed I had ever visited. The air pollution is so great that there is a permanent haze hanging over the city, a kind of cold smog.
In case you’re wondering, the most polluted cities on Earth, in terms of air pollution, are Cairo, Delhi and Calcutta. I have now been to two out of three of these cities, and although they are certainly polluted, I remember the shock of pollution being greatest in Chengdu, probably because it was the first time I had experienced it, and also because I was coming from picturesque and pristine Yangshuo.
Chengdu’s air is bad enough, but if you take a broader measure of pollution, and define it in terms of its likelihood to damage your health, then China takes first place, with its three-million strong city of Linfen, deep in the heart of the coalmining province of Shanxi, in the centre of the country. China takes not only gold but also silver in the League Table of Toxic Cities: Tianying, in the north eastern rust belt, produces half of China’s led, and this and other toxic metals enter the water and food supplies.
Why do people choose to live in an environment they know to be poisonous?
The disturbing truth is that after only a few hours in Chengdu, I had stopped noticing that the air I was breathing was part coal. We can get used to anything, and if we couldn’t then cities, both clean and polluted, could not exist. Cities, as I have mentioned before, are not an environment we were designed for. They are an environment we have created and learned to live in. Humans can learn to do anything.
It is this adaptability, however, that may prove our undoing. We can put up with almost any level of pollution, and psychologically at least, stop noticing it very quickly. And if you stop noticing a problem, then it many ways it ceases to exist. Like the proverbial ostrich which was once thought to bury its head in the sand to avoid having to deal with a problem, city dwellers, even in the filthiest of cities, are almost blind to the problem, and find it easier to learn to live with it than to do anything about it. Like the cigarette smoker who quits after he’s been diagnosed with cancer, we often do things too late.
To put it another way, we have difficulties changing current behaviour patterns in response to long-term consequences of behaviours, regardless of the severity of the consequences. To be blunt, my fear is that we won’t start to really do something about pollution until we’re a few hours from choking to death on it, and by then it will be too late.
With this happy though in my head, I left the bags in my musty hotel room, guarded by old world charm, 1950’s furniture, and peeling wallpaper, and set off to explore Chengdu.
Firstly, let me tell you a little bit about the city. Chengdu, in central China, has a population of about nearly eleven million and a history that spans over a thousand years. Indeed, its very name translates as ‘become capital’, and it was the capital city during a large part of the early imperial period.
However, as with most Chinese cities, its history has been destroyed by war, progress and indifference, and little or nothing of its past survives.
Chinese cities have more than the occasional make-overs; they have plastic surgery, and it’s difficult to tell what they looked like before.
Today’s Chengdu contains many wide boulevards, some faceless communist architecture even Stalin would have had seconds thoughts about, and an enormous number of bicycles, which by some perpetual miracle, manage not to collide into one another. It also contains many bars and teahouses, more than either Beijing or Shanghai, in spite of their higher populations, and people here have a reputation for being a ‘party city’.
We went to the People’s Park, which was full of pensioners doting over chubby grandchildren. We sat in a teahouse, fought off some touts, desperate as always to clean my boots and loath to take ‘no’ for an answer. One innovative tout wanted to clean out my ear wax with an odd wire and cotton wool contraption that looked like something one might click a blocked drain with, but I declined, in spite of my curiosity.
Instead, we sat and watched grandparents play with the children. Sociologists tell us that the extended family has been replaced by the nuclear family, but no-one told China, and people here continue to live three generations to a flat in relative harmony. Both parents usually work, and upon retirement, the grandparents settle down to a life of bringing up infants. As they themselves probably had full-time jobs when their own children were growing up, it is often their first experience of full-time parenting.
Judging by the happy scenes in the park, they seem to enjoy it. I imagine the one-child policy makes things easier for them too, by reducing the number of children they have to look after. Indeed, it struck me that Chinese pensioners seem to be a great deal happier than their western counterparts, who are often left to rot away in old-folks home or die in freezing flats; unwanted, frightened and considered a burden by a society that has moved on.
Western society has no place for the old: “That is no country for old men,” if I may be pompous enough to (mis)quote Yates.Their Chinese counterparts, on the other hand, are respected and seen to play a vital role.
In the park, it was mainly grandmothers who watched over the toddling ‘little emperors’ while the old men gathered in groups and played cards, mahjong or held impromptu discussions. Some of them still wore blue Mao suits and eyed me suspiciously, wondering what this ‘foreign devil’ was doing in their midst. I wondered if things got nasty whether I could outrun them or not. They had the numbers, a better knowledge of the city, and were more used to the pollution, but I still had my own teeth.
What they were discussing, I have no idea, but it all seemed so much better than a semi-circle of pensioners in an old-folks home in England, rotting zombie-like around the inane nothingness that is day-time TV.
After the park, we visited an ancient temple, luckily not central enough to have suffered the same fate as an even older temple, whose name I’ve forgotten, which was demolished to make room for an enormous Mao statue during the Cultural Revolution.
Mao and his Red Guards were quite keen to destroy anything that smacked of being one of the ‘Four Olds’: Old Customs, Old Habits, Old Culture, Old Ideas. Anything that existed before 1949 could be considered old, so temples suffered most of all. Indeed, the Red Guards probably did more damage to China’s historical monuments than the fourteen-year war with the Japanese or the civil war that followed it. Not surprisingly, however, the Communist party has never published a list of exactly what damage was done.
The temple we visited was very popular with actual believers, rather than simple tourists, and Taoist devotees dutifully left incense sticks at various Buddha shrines, dotted around the complex. They bowed and mumbled incantations as they went, and red robed monks went among them.
It surprised me at the time to see so many active Buddhists in one place because the Chinese I had previously met always seemed completely uninterested in religion, and I had come to the conclusion that the Communist Party had thoroughly purged what Mao called ‘the poison of religion’ from China.
However, my knowledge of what Chinese people think or don’t think was largely limited to classroom discussions, but since the PSB (the Chinese police) often operate incognito, and keep a very close eye on all interactions with foreigners, students were always careful about what they said or didn’t say in class. The PSB are especially sensitive to any references to religion and determined to prevent any and all proselytising. Two other slogans in the Cultural Revolution were ‘Beating down foreign religion’ and ‘Beating down Jesus following.’ so it is understandable that my students never brought up the subject of religion.
Expressing a strong religious affiliation still makes your loyalty to the Party questionable in China, in spite of the supposed religious freedom the Party propaganda machine likes to claim is normal in today’s China, and if you have strong religious convictions, you tend to keep them to yourself.
The temple’s monks were a lot less colourful than their saffron-robed Thai counterparts, and held in far less esteem, needless to say. However, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are long since passed, and monks are no longer forced to attend re-education sessions, or to take their monasteries apart brick by brick and rebuild them as barracks, factories or even pig sties.
Buddhism, even under the ever watchful eyes of the Party, does appear to be making a slow comeback in China, but it’s hard to imagine it ever occupying a central role in peoples’ lives again. Even in Hong Kong and Macao, where Buddhism it seemed somehow ephemeral and almost irrelevant to people’s daily concerns.
At least, it seemed that way to be, but a voice in the back of my head tells me I am missing something crucial here, and I must admit I often miss what is not blindingly obvious.
One should always beware of ‘false prophets’ like myself and their sweeping generalisations, and I am probably mistaken in believing that because the Chinese don’t talk about religion much, it is not important to them.
Witness the Falun Gong movement, for example, which has grown since its inception in 1992 to become a ‘movement’ with 70 million practitioners today, in spite of a severe government crackdown. It even somehow managed to amass 10,000 silent protestors outside the headquarters of the Communist Party in 1999, taking the Party by surprise. Since then, the Party has become even more determined to deal with the movement, and it has been claimed that two thirds of all government torture victims and half of China’s labour camp population are Falun Gong supporters.
I never met a Falun Gong believer, but since they are hardly likely to advertise their membership of the movement, I wouldn’t know if I had. Like so many things in China, it is hidden.
We ate at a vegetarian restaurant in the temple complex. The tofu meat imitations were some of the most impressive I’ve ever had. In fact, it looked and tasted so much like real meat that Sandra couldn’t eat it, convinced that for reasons unknown, there had to be real meat in it. I had no such qualms, and trusted the monks not to slip me a piece of pork on the sly.
I must have eaten nearly a whole chicken’s worth of spicy tofu, and paid for it later that night with some terrible stomach pains. Sichuan’s food is very hot and spicy, and it is by far my favourite type of Chinese food. By the way, there are four main types of Chinese food, the ‘Four Great Traditions’: Sichuan (spicy); Canton (oily); Shanghai (sweet) and Huaiyang (?). This is, of course, a gross oversimplification.
To distract me from my red hot intestines, we spent the evening at an ‘authentic’ Sichuan opera, which also offered a puppet show and a shadow dancing ‘extravaganza.’ A purist might object that it was all rather touristic, but 90 percent of the audience was Chinese, so I didn’t mind so much. I figured that if it was good enough for Chinese tourists, it was good enough for me.
The costumes were psychedelic and almost other-worldly. The characters in Chinese opera usually represent Gods; such as the ‘Money God’, the ‘Pride God’, the ‘God of Compassion’ etc. This explains the bizarre make up, the inhuman grimaces, and the screeching voices. As an ignorant westerner, I was completely lost and hadn’t the foggiest idea what was going on, but I must admit I’ve always kind of liked that feeling of being immersed in something completely new, of being lost. Perhaps this is the universe toddlers and young children experience; piecing reality together bit by bit, surrounded by a shiny beautiful world they do not understand.
It felt as though I had been transported to a different planet, where strange bipedal life forms occupied time and space in much the same way as I did, and appeared to be using sound as a means of communication, but what were saying or doing was unknown and unknowable. If astronauts are ever sent as emissaries to study new life forms, they should first be sent to see a Chinese opera to let them know in advance how little they can expect to understand.
Captain Kirk had an easy time because just about everyone spoke English, and all the species operated according to easily understood codes of behaviour. The Vulcans, Klingons and Romulan societies may have been different to Captain Kirk’s, but they were easy to understand. He never came across anything as bizarre as the characters in a Sichuan opera. I wondered what Bones, Star Trek’s doctor, would have made of the opera characters, and imagined him reporting to Captain Kirk that: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.” Yes, indeed.
We went home immediately afterwards, and tried not to communicate with the fungus in out hotel room; another strange life form I had no desire to make first contact with. We had to get up early the following day to see one of the cutest life form this planet has to offer: the Giant Panda.
We dragged ourselves out of bed at the ridiculously early time of 6.30, but you have to get to the Panda Centre early in the morning, which is when the pandas like to eat and play. Otherwise, you just get to see them engage in their other favourite pastime, sleeping.
As we arrived at Chengdu’s world renowned ‘Panda Breeding and Research Centre,’ I wondered why the world had not set up a ‘Phillip Breeding and Research Centre’, but I let that thought go, realising that world wasn’t that interested in the propagation of the Phillip species, and I had already spent most of my life researching myself anyway, and had nothing to show for it. Moreover, pandas are a great deal cuter than Phillips.
There’s no getting away from the fact that pandas are cute. I read somewhere that we find them so irresistible because the black markings around their eyes exaggerate their eyes’ size. Oversized eyes remind us of babies, which we are hard wired to find adorable. Pandas are also fluffy, another admirable characteristic in animals, although less so in babies.
The Panda’s cuteness, however, has not stopped them being brought to the edge of extinction. There are only about 1,500 left in the wild, and 250 more in captivity. Moreover, with the few remaining bamboo forest being eaten up by human expansion, their future survival or lack of it may be determined by the success or failure of breeding centres like this one, and according to the breeding statistics proudly displayed on the wall of the museum, the Chengdu Centre has by far the most successful of the breeding programs. It’s the Sex capital of the world, as far as pandas are concerned. There’s probably a Hugh Hefner panda somewhere in the complex, publishing PlayPanda.
Pandas are, it must be noted, partly to blame for their own fate. They are incredibly fussy animals; the prima donnas of the endangered species. They will only eat bamboo, for example, and only certain types of bamboo, in spite of having the digestive tract of a carnivore which is entirely unsuited to digesting it. Indeed, they often die from digestive problems.
They’re also very fussy about when they’ll mate and who they’ll mate with, and so artificial insemination is often used to get around this problem.
You can’t help wondering though what goes through the mind of a panda when she realizes she’s pregnant but hasn’t had sex. Does she suspect the miraculous intervention of the Holy Panda Spirit? Does she therefore expect to give birth to a Messiah, a second coming, a King of the Panda People?
But you can’t feel angry with a panda when you come face to face with one.
We happily watched them stuff their face on prime bamboo, and felt star struck when one of them occasionally looked up and gave us a glance. Moving on to the ‘baby panda’ enclave, we ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ while we watched panda cubs frolic about with each other and with their handlers, all dressed in scrubs and wearing face masks, lest the precious cubs caught a cold. In between bursts of play, the spoiled cubs were fed with baby bottles.
Pandas are so high profile, and the government so keen not to be seen to let their extinction happen, that they’ll probably survive. The fate of other less lovable animals in much more grim, both in China and in the world at large. The Giant Phillipus Moanicus, for example, is almost certainly going to become extinct.
The culprit, of course, is us: you, the reader, me, the writer, and the other six billion humans who have not read this book, and are completely unaware of our existence. We’re all to blame, to a greater or lesser extent. What the world needs most is fewer humans.
The Chinese government is unique in the world for having the determination, power and foresight to face the population problem head on. By limiting the number of children to one per family, China has saved its population from eternal penury, from the famine of overpopulation; and in theory at least, it should have saved its environment too; but in reality, its environment is in freefall; the most toxic on the planet, and getting worse all the time.
The economic miracle means that Chinese pollution levels are still increasing dramatically, thereby further weakening an already fragile ecosystem. Yet again, I wondered if China, and the world at large, could survive an affluent China, and the effluent it will produce. I wondered if the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) would find, in twenty year’s time, that it has saved its emblem, the panda, from extinction, but few other species remained. We cannot, both morally and ecologically, only save the cute species from extinction. We must save them all; the cute and the hideous.
These grim thoughts were matched by the eternally grey sky. Chengdu has even less sunshine than London, and to distract myself from the guilt of being a member of a species that has brought untold numbers of other species to extinction, and will being countless more to the same fate, unless they are somehow ‘cute’, I spent the long mini-bus journey back into Chengdu city lost in fantasy.
Religion is not the only opium of the masses, we also have our imaginations. What follows are my notes at the time for might have been the world’s worst ever B-Movie. If only Ed Wood was still around to make it, it might even have surpassed his ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’.


© Copyright 2020 Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.

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