What we today call the Chongqing Model and the Guangdong Model are just new names for an ancient struggle. Since the first brick was laid on the Great Wall and the first caravan set out across the desert, this country has been riven by the need to communicate with the outside world and the fear of being overrun. I first came into contact with the modern day version of this ancient struggle when I read the Tiananmen Papers, which detailed the decision-making process that led to the crackdown of 1989.
I read that book back in 2001 and I never forgot the images it conjured up in my mind’s eye: Deng Xiaoping and the Elders straining to understand what was going on around them and debating the best course of action; Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng pleading their cases before the old revolutionaries; hardliners and reformers wrestling for the helm of a nation in the midst of a transitional crisis. In the end the hardliners won out and China stayed the course that Deng had plotted for his country back in the late 1970s.
Earlier this year I finally got around to reading Prisoner of the State, Zhao Ziyang’s biography, based on tapes he recorded during his long house arrest. This book was an attempt by one side of this old feud to bring the struggle to light, to show the world – and hopefully the Chinese-speaking world – that the caricatures of the CCP as a stagnant pool of stodgy hardliners was not only inaccurate, but also detrimental to the overall future of the Party and the country it presides over.
I am a stranger in a strange land. I need connections or I will wither and die. And the connections I need are not just with my native people, or with people similar to me, but with the people who inhabit this strange land. I learned to speak Chinese out of survival instinct and I speak with everyone I can, randomly, impulsively, to maintain a healthy equilibrium. A constant contact that helps bouy me when my spirits sink.
I read of the toxic culture that poisons the ability of Mexicans, among others, to pursue happiness in the US, but so far there is little in the way of scholarly studies on the level of toxicity in China’s culture. Perhaps because the immigrant population is so low. But we all know about the China Blues. For years I relied upon taxi drivers, one-second encounters, and a potpourri of interactions with young, old, male, female. When in dire straits, I headed to the Tibetan district in Chengdu – or if I were lucky enough, a trip to western Sichuan’s Tibetan regions – to lift me up when I was down. I could always count on a nod being met with a nod, a wink with a smile, a gaze with understanding.
But I’ve noticed something over the years … some Tibetans don’t nod anymore. And some of them even meet my overtures, my pleas actually, with hostility. And I am trying to figure out what happened.
Tell me how to keep the smile on my face when I start every morning hacking like an old revolutionary until lung butter splatters the toilet bowl like adolescent lust. And clings to it like a first crush. Every morning ya’ll. I quit smoking and I remember someone saying that the first few weeks/months after quitting you’ll be hacking stuff up. But I know the difference, I’ve hacked up cigarette lung funk before and the consistency is different. What’s rocketing out now looks to be actual chunks of lung.
And my son stands there and watches me. I am his source code for all things, so no sooner do I wipe my lips and moan like I just barfed up last night’s party, then he hacks and spits for all he’s worth, letting me know that he’s doing his best to learn from me. I look into the mirror and see blackheads forming twixt me brows and feel the rattle of leftover lungsnot like the distant rumbling of Mongolian hooves. It aint over yet.
OMFG i have to get out of this place. I have to get my son out of this place.
Tom from Seeing Red in China pointed out some China Quarterly essays and one of them is the inspiration for this essay …
Few of China’s problems seem so intractable as the issue of the Chinese soul and what morals are available to guide it in the 21st century. The whole concept of a soul and of morals is intangible and esoteric, making it difficult to find stable ground in a society currently in the throes of a pragmatic emergence onto the world stage. The struggle in China over what is right and wrong intensifies each day, as news reports flood the web-waves with callous, indifference to human life – no matter how innocent – and the unscrupulous, unpunished actions of the greedy elite.
This struggle is not just vital for China and its rise out of Cultural Revolution anarchy, but the moral compass that China re-invents for itself will be the core from which China’s cultural power emanates. Right now Chinese culture is referred to tongue-in-cheek as one of the deepest, broadest, riches and oldest cultures in the world, source of countless great works and great thoughts. Yet in China today the cultural wars over the soul of Chinese people is tilting in favor of materialism and a patchwork of Western and Eastern values woven together haphazardly – easily ripped apart by the winds of stress and strife.
There are parallels between China’s struggle and the struggles of other peoples all across the world, especially in the West, where the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition has receded in the face of growing apathy toward religion and the rising numbers of those who believe in a patchwork of their own: Christian beliefs melting into pagan speculation mixed together with modern universalist appreciation for all religions and beliefs … political correctness flipping itself into defiant, antagonistic stances … we too are a magpie culture in the West, but for different reasons.