For the past year I’ve immersed myself in Chinese culture, reading biographies, histories, novels and articles, even cramming a little Mandarin. My next novel takes place in the Middle Kingdom and I wanted it to feel authentic. Luckily, I live in the age of information. Never before has it been so easy for someone to learn so much about other cultures. Anything I want to know is a mouse click away. Another book from Amazon, a Wikipedia article, or one of a million geo-tagged photos on Google Earth are all I need to illuminate an alien world. If I’m writing a scene and wondering whether to make it rain in Shanghai in July, I can just pull up a hundred years of temperatures and climate data. And yet for all my reading, I knew to truly make the book what I wanted it to be, I needed to go there. And so I did.
I spent the last three weeks leapfrogging around the country, letting it wash over me, piecing together a trillion little fragments of information floating around in the oceans of my unconscious. I went to Beijing, Xi’An, Chengdu, Tibet, Chongqing, the Yangtze River and Shanghai and now I can share a little of the experience of that trip, punctuated with the best of the more than five thousand pictures I took while there.
During my studies, I’ve come to love the country’s rich and twisting history that stretches back over three thousand years. My travels only solidified my fascination with the inner workings of the rising red dragon.
It’s safe to say that China might be the most interesting place in the world right now. It’s living through an accelerated industrial revolution that’s swept hundreds of millions of people into newfound wealth and opportunity. The average disposable income rocketed from $280 a year in the 1980’s to more than $3000 by 2010, a ten fold increase in a just two decades. It’s developing so quickly that if you buy postcards that are even a few years old of the famous Bund skyline in Shanghai then the photos won’t contain even half the buildings. Just a decade ago the brilliantly colored skyline, glittering in the evening mist across the Huangpu River didn’t even exist. Instead, across the river you’d see a wasteland of dilapidated houses and farms. This is the type of change that we only read about in American history books. There is not a person alive today who lived through our industrial revolution.
And yet because of the current political climate there it’s impossible for Chinese to freely tell their own story in one of the most incredible times in their history. In the future that will likely change, as China has seen a constant cycle of autocrats and more liberal minded authorities in their storied timeline but for now that leaves it to outsiders like me or to Chinese ex-pats to chronicle this amazing time in their evolution.
I can tell you that for all the tremendous progress the country has made, the fear-mongers in America that worry we’re losing to China have little to nothing to worry about, because they still have a long way to go. Basic systems are still broken or don’t exist. The energy grid is developing slowly and sporadically. Depending on who you ask the controversial Three Gorges Dam that displaced millions of mountain peoples was supposed to supply the country with 10% of its power needs over the next few decades and now it may only account for 2%. Most of the country still runs on smog heavy coal. There are already plans to create as many as twenty additional dams on the Yangtze, likely displacing millions more people and leading to more ecological nightmares.
The lack of consistent power showed up everywhere while I was there. We saw the entire left side of one street in Lhasa with no power and all the businesses running off diesel generators. In many of the most populous cities, mandatory once a week shutdowns have people hauling their groceries up dozens of flights of stairs and scrambling to get to work on time.
Pollution and environmental damage may be the worst problem China faces. Unlike America, which has more than 40% arable soil, China has only 10% and much of that is already destroyed. It’s hard to feed a billion people when you have little to no farmland and your rivers are so toxic that several are not even designated safe for industrial use. The water is undrinkable without double boiling and filtration. Good hotels give their guests two bottles of water per day.
The rush of hundreds of millions of newly minted middle class people to buy cars and reap the rewards of an advanced society is making the problems much worse. Our bus got stuck for thirty minutes on a tiny side street because it was packed with illegally parked cars. The cities are so cramped that Beijing dictates certain days you can’t drive based on license plate numbers. If you want a new car, there’s a wait list of more than a million people jockeying for only 20,000 permits to even buy a car. All of that is an attempt by authorities to curb the poisonous smog that made it impossible for me to kick a sore throat and left my eyes and nose watering.
I woke up coughing wildly every night with crusties caked on my bloodshot eyes when I was in Beijing. This is known as the notorious “Beijing cough.” I found myself living on Dayquil and Mucinex and hiding behind my N95 mask. Everywhere you find people wearing masks in the big cities. Unfortunately, they’re mostly useless, unable to filter out the deadly particulates because their tiny unseen holes are too big. A good hospital-grade mask is tight, hot and uncomfortable and mine was certainly that, but by day three I wore it almost constantly. Zyrtec was virtually powerless against my raging allergies. It was like taking a placebo. It’s so bad that a safe level of pollution is 20 ppmv or parts-per-million by volume but an op-ed piece in China Daily said that their iPhone apps didn’t even bother alerting them before 200 ppmv.
Beyond the physical problems of the country, the Communist Party wastes a tremendous amount of resources trying to keep a tight lid on information and perceptions. You may be used to pulling up Yelp and Google Maps whenever you want to find a restaurant or find your way home, but in China the Internet is a horribly broken mess. With millions of censors employed to delete messages and control dissent and the Great Firewall of China blocking useful sites it makes the Internet painful to use for consumers and businesses. On one day you might sail right to Yahoo mail and then next day it might take five minutes. Even worse the blocking is inconsistent. I browsed several well-known porn sites with little to no trouble and then found smaller ones cut off.
But it’s not just blocked sites that cause trouble. When the Great Firewall blocks things like fonts.google.com that many, many sites use to standardize the fonts you see in your browser, you then have to wait for a minute or two for that part of a site to time-out before the page loads. This is a complete waste of energy and resources and money for a growing society. Other than providing jobs for the censors, it does little to nothing to control real perceptions. And the young people know how to get around it all with Tor and VPNs, though I found many of my own VPNs blocked when I ran them on standard ports. Standing in the way of VPNs blocks businesses and other legitimate traffic from getting work done and all for nothing. It’s about as effective as the American war on drugs which has seen the US spend a few trillion dollars for a net uptick in drug use.
Repression goes beyond the media as well. We were warned repeatedly not to take pictures of the intense military and riot police presence in Tibet. We were told they were there to guard the borders of India and Pakistan. They called it a ‘liberation” repeatedly but I know an occupation when I see one. When you land in an airport and they check your passports and special Tibetan visas ten times when entering, something is off. When you see five Mig fighter jets take off in rapid succession in a commercial airport that doubles as a military base and military men strolling around the city and riot vehicles, all to hold a tiny backwater of the country, something is not above board. And yet for the life of me I could not figure out why the Chinese even care about holding Tibet? It has practically no industry and little to no growth possibilities. Its primary economy is subsistence farming. Then someone on the tour figured it out: water. The water flows from west to east in China and if the Tibetans wanted to dam up all the water in China, it wouldn’t be hard. Other than a Chinese variation on manifest destiny I can’t see any other reason to hold a tiny former theocracy with a small population and little to no business.
But even as I watched what was wrong with China, its problems had my internal speculative fiction engine screaming with new ideas. I found myself dreaming of giant anti-pollution machines churning the air, mounted on the tops of the endless skyscrapers and tiny robotic mites unleashed into the lakes and rivers to gorge themselves on waste. This is just one of the tiny ways that life influences fiction. With any luck fiction may just influence life and future engineers will read my work and wonder if they can build such a machine and then do it. China’s future may depend on it, as well as the rest of ours.
And yet the answer might be even simpler than more big technology. While the city planners in Beijing were struggling to plant trees everywhere, the young saplings perfectly spaced and held up by wooden slats, the southern cities of Chengdu and Chongqing seemed to have it under better control. Unlike the capital, the greenery is an integral part of the landscape with gardens dotting nearly every terrace and balcony and roof. Massive, rolling parks seething with bamboo and tea-houses, where old folks play Mahjong all day, seem to suck up the pollution and keep the air breathable, even when it’s blanketed with layers of soft fog.
China is a country of vast diversity. It’s about the size of the United States and its landscape is just as varied, from soaring mountains, to vast and surging rivers to sprawling cities. You can tell a man’s temperament by the cities he falls in love with. For me Shanghai, with its cosmopolitan mixture of French, English and Chinese culture, where no two buildings are alike and every building seems to compete with the next stood out as what one of our guides called, the “future of China.” I excited me that I’d chosen Shanghai as the center of the power struggle in my novel and when I got there I knew it was the right choice. I never thought I would call a city more beautiful than New York, but as soon as I saw its lights across the Bund I knew it was the greatest city on Earth. A few fellow New Yorkers on my tour said the same, which surprised me a little.
Outside of Shanghai, the southern cities stood in stark contrast to the gray slab high-rises and pollution of Beijing. With a climate like the southern United States, hot and humid, and rolling bamboo gardens and rivers slicing through the city center, it feels like a completely different country. The local guides described it as more laid back and for a man who’s lived in San Diego for the past ten years it made sense to me. Watching the old folks drinking tea and playing Mahjong and laughing or seeing the old ladies dancing in groups for exercise made me feel like I’d come home. Even if I never see the country again, due to my choice to write about controversial things, I could see myself living and retiring in Chengdu or Chongqing, drinking tea in the park and reading until the hour grew long and weary.
Today’s China is a study in contrasts, a constant clash of the old and the new. It’s a two-tone pink and silver Lamborghini illegally parked on a street across from old Shanghai apartments with laundry hanging from the balconies and street vendors hawking lychee nearby, all while a meter-maid waits impatiently for the owner to return so she can deliver a ticket that probably won’t represent even a tiny fraction of the owner’s income. And of course, everyone on the street is illegally parked since there seems to be nowhere to park anywhere in the major cities. It’s as if an entire country forgot to make parking spaces and shoulder lanes.
The contrasts suffuse the entire culture. You’ll find a thousand year old Buddhist temple, a smear of brilliant yellow light in the night, surrounded by towering skyscrapers and ads for high fashion. On one street you’ll find top restaurants staffed with three star Michelin chefs and only a few streets away you’ll find a night market with locals gobbling street food next to a heap of trash and crippled homeless people jiggling a change cup. The age old sociological concept of “face” or prestige/respect drives them to light up the Bund with a billion colors so people can take pictures and yet in Xi’An we met a woman who told us one day a week the government randomly turns off the power with little to no notice. At least it’s good exercise when she has to climb the nine stories to her apartment.
It’s a culture steeped in ancient traditions and superstitions and yet it’s desperately trying to modernize without losing its soul. It has some tremendous advantages over democracies for rapid acceleration into the modern age. The government owns all the land and so it can swoop in and bulldoze entire city blocks of old style apartments, where families live in two hundred square feet and share a bathroom with four neighbors and replace the whole grid with identical high-rises. And yet that power often leads to tremendous corruption as families are given little to no compensation and can’t afford to move into the new apartments that are sprouting up where their old homes used to stand. Many of the huge apartment complexes stood nearly completely empty in many of the cities, their windows bereft of plants, laundry and other signs of life.
This lack of property rights leads to some strange aberrations in Chinese society. People “buy” a house or an apartment there, but they only own the rights to it for seventy years and you get the sense that the government could just rescind that if they felt like it. The Chinese culture tends to focus on the whole instead of the individual and at times that means individual rights get swept under the rug for the good of the community or the local party boss. Nobody knows what will happen in those seventy years other than they will have to go to some dingy gray government building and beg to keep what they “own” after paying some tax or bribe. Even businesses don’t own anything but a lease for forty or so years and that leads to some ugly surprises. I found myself drinking tea in a beautifully maintained tea shop, with groups of locals eating and smoking happily and yet I went in the back and found a stinking bathroom with puddles on the floor and flies buzzing around the toilet. My best guess is that, at some level, because nobody really owns anything, there is no true pride of ownership and hence no real desire to get on your knees and scrub the toilet or the squatter hole.
This lack of property rights, like so many things in China, is a double edged sword. On one hand it allows the country to sweep aside the old and squalid quickly and effectively. On the other hand you can often smell the direction of bathrooms before you see them. Few things in China are black and white. It’s an economic miracle but an ecological disaster. It’s steeped in wonderful history and yet its traditions often hold back its progress. Everything is shades of grey.
Take something as simple as the notorious propensity for Chinese people to push and shove anyone in their way or cut a line that has thousands of people winding around a block. At first I shrugged it off, but on my more weary days after traveling on yet another plane ride followed by bouncing along on a bus I wanted to turn around and punch someone. And yet I soon realized that not all pushes are created equal. In a country of a billion people you don’t get very far without pushing and fighting for everything you can get. While there are certainly people who just don’t care about anyone but themselves there, like the family that tried to steal my cab after I’d been trying to hail one for twenty minutes, I was surprised by the many subtleties of a simple push. My favorite was a woman pushing aside someone in our group in a temple in Tibet, so she could kneel before a statue of the Buddha and pray.
Sometimes I would feel a shove and turn around in anger, only to see the delighted look on the face of some peasant as he gazed in wonder at some massive bridge or sweep of skyscrapers, a delight that echoed my own. And then I couldn’t feel mad at all because he was so excited to see the changes of a country that went from the madness of the Cultural Revolution where people needed a voucher to buy a single pair of shoes in the only store in a tiny village, to the sweeping skylines of a runaway state capitalism that is putting up so many buildings so quickly that outsiders have joked that the national bird of China is the crane, after the ubiquitous giant cement cranes that dot every city landscape. There is a kind of sweet innocence to so many of the people. You can see it on their faces.
And they saw all this change in a single lifetime. In short, China is one hell of a massive head-trip for outsiders and insiders.
In the past writers like James Clavell, author of Shogun, had to spend years painstakingly researching Japan through incomplete texts written largely by westerners that did not include many native books to write his Asian Saga. But even with all that research, nothing substitutes going there and seeing it for yourself. It’s a terrifying and exhilarating experience to find yourself in a distant land with few safety nets. And yet for all the talk of the Party’s madness and repression, China itself feels incredibly safe and free for day-to-day affairs. As long as you don’t raise your fist and shout “Democracy Now” you are incredibly safe there. I never once felt like I was going to get robbed or attacked. The police are often out in force, their cruiser lights flashing in the darkness, letting people know they are there and ready to swoop into action.
Like Clavell I find much to loath, love and admire in Asian culture. Clavell spent three years in a prison camp during the war and yet still found himself in love with a faraway culture much different than his own. In Japan, starving Samurai used to go around picking their teeth rather than admit they were starving, an image I find both beautiful and horrible at the same time. And yet isn’t that true of so many things in life? Everything exists on a continuum of good and bad. Often it’s all of it rolled into one. China is both beautiful and terrifying. It’s running headlong into the future and yet it’s forever stuck in its past. How could it not be? Societies are the products of human beings with all the things that make us great and terrible reflected in every aspect of a country’s infrastructure, laws, customs and relationships. That’s true of my own civilization and every other one that ever existed or ever will exist. For all our differences on the surfaces, humans are much the same underneath. Cultures are products of all the people who have ever lived in them, the great and the small, the people who fluttered like ghosts through their lives as well as those who put the shadow of their hand over their kingdoms.
China is a land of emperors and peasants, a place of fantastic periods of technological development, followed by times of intense isolationism and superstition. Right now the country is poised between two destinies. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Will it stand up and become a massive world power, its influence throwing a shadow over the Earth the way America’s has the last century, or will it falter and slip back into insanity and isolation, never realizing its potential? Nobody truly knows. But speculating about it is tremendous fun and seeing it in person is an experience unlike any other on the Earth right now. I’m so grateful that I got a chance to see it with my own eyes. I hope everyone does during their lifetime.