(An excerpt from the Introduction to Kerry Brown, `Chinese Life: A Tale of Five Cities’, published by China Publishing Corporation, Beijing, 2020. This is an attempt to simply describe the experiences and atmosphere of the five places in China that I came to most understand and enjoy).
I was born in Kent in the south eastern part of the UK, in the late 1960s. Kent is famous as a place rich in history, a crossing point between the coast and the ports of Dover and Folkestone, and the northern parts of the island, via, from Roman times two thousand years ago, the city of London, which was established then. Kent is small, and existed as its own kingdom till the eight century. It was then amalgamated into larger kingdoms. Its identity, though, has always been strong. And it has perhaps of all the British areas the richest literary history. Chaucer, the earliest English language poet, often came here; Dickens, one of Britain’s greatest novelists, spent much of his childhood here, and lived in the western part of the country as an adult. Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond 007 spy novels, had a house here, and wrote some of this thrillers while staying here. The poet T S Eliot sat in a beach hut in Margate and pondered his future after a mental breakdown, writing parts of his seminal poem `The Wasteland’ here. H G Wells lived in Folkestone, on the southern coast, and the great director Derek Jarman owned a house and small but extraordinary garden in Dungeness. Perhaps most extraordinary of all was the Polish-Ukrainian born sailor Joseph Conrad, who made the villages around Canterbury his home in the latter part of his life. It was here, writing in his third language, that he produced `The Heart of Darkness’, one of the greatest of twentieth century novellas, and which he set on a ship moored near the port own of Gravesend. Kent was even the home of the war time leader, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Winston Churchill.
I was educated at schools in Kent, in the state system – first at a primary school and then a grammar school. And through them, I gained a position at Cambridge University, and read philosophy and then English literature. My interests were, throughout this time, within the western tradition. Greek philosophy, English thinkers like Locke and Hobbes, and Europeans like Wittgenstein and Kant – these were the staples of this kind of education. English empiricism, with continental idealism regarded as an exotic counter-tradition. This was a world which began and ended with the Western cannon, and where ability to read and think in French or German was regarded as unusual, and acquaintance with Russian language and literature `oriental’.
Later on I became acquainted with arguments by figures like Edward Said, the American Palestinian writer, about the tradition of Europe to be self-absorbed, and to confine everything outside of this cultural sphere to that vast area called `The Orient’. As a school boy, and at university, these places were not only unknown, but unknowable. My earliest memory of anything Chinese was the face of Mao Zedong on television in September 1976 announcing his death. A decade later, I acquired a large history of Chinese civilisation, and tried to read it. But it seemed to refer to a timeline and a narrative of history that I found impossible to relate to the European ones I was familiar with. There, lists of the reigns of kings and queens and different emperors and states gave me a backbone by which to have a handle on the progression of history. But Chinese imperial dynasties were complex, and went back deep into the past. Names were so unfamiliar, and it seemed to refer to a sense of history, and a story, wholly different to that of Europe, and one where, apart from occasional contact during the Yuan era and the modern period, were parallel with each other but not remotely interconnected.
In my school library, the only books relating to China were an Everyman edition of Confucius’s `Analects’. But a reading of that when I was about 15 was bewildering. No metaphysics, and no straightforward argument like I could find in the almost contemporaneous `Republic’ of Plato, the book seemed to be a collection of cryptic utterances. On television, China was a subject only sporadically glimpsed at – some documentaries, and occasional mentions of the reforms under Deng Xiaoping then underway in the news. But apart from this, China was remote – behind its famous Great Wall, an object I was told (wholly incorrectly, as everyone knows now) which was visible from the moon.
People of Chinese ethnicity in the UK were largely at that time those who had either come to the UK as migrants, or who were the children, or descendants, of earlier arrivals, largely from Hong Kong or Guangdong. There were Chinatowns in London and cities like Manchester, and Chinese restaurants – but again, these were exotic places, and the food that they offered, I found out later, heavily adapted to British tastes. For all of that, they were some of the few places where you could see Chinese characters – mysterious swirling figures utterly unlike the Roman alphabet – or Chinese art, on scrolls or watercolour pictures, and with a style completely different from most western art I was familiar with. There were very few students of Chinese or Asian ethnic heritage in any of the schools I went to. Indeed, the first person of my age I actually talked to in any depth was a student at Cambridge from Singapore. The simple fact was that in the 1980s and even the 1990s, Chinese tourists and students in the UK hardly existed.
The first encounter I ever had with Chinese writing was reading the `Cantos’ by the American poet, Ezra Pound. Pound, through an early twentieth century scholar of Asian cultures Fenolla, had become acquainted with some Tang and Song poetry in translation, and, without fully understanding the meaning of the characters used, had incorporated them into later sections of his epic poem. They sat on the page, between the other lines he had written in English, or Italian, French or Latin, mysterious, stark, and almost disconnected from the text around them. Pound did include transliterations, in the old Wade Giles system, in his text to explain the characters he used – and he also devoted a whole section of a poetic account of the rise and fall of some of the Chinese dynasties. But the effect, in this poem, rendered in this way, was to reinforced the sense of China and Chinese language, history and culture, being radically different – so different as to be almost unknowable.
Making Chinese knowable, and accessible, happened to me personally by accident, rather than intention. I was not a good linguist – my French was passable after two months spent in Paris at the age of 18, and I was, and still can, read it relatively well. My German after two years was almost non-existent, and attempts to self-study Latin got nowhere. If I had presented myself to a university in 1986 when I went to study as a potential student of Mandarin Chinese I would never have been accepted. Chinese was consigned to the `most difficult’ category of languages. That meant only those with proven skills in learning languages could get on formal courses to study it. Oriental studies at Cambridge was a mysterious, very niche area – I met one student in my whole time there on this course. It seemed highly technical, and almost invisible. And the message I got was that a subject like this was for only the most hardcore, serious minded scholars. China and Chinese studies were for the elite of the elites, people with a deep vocation – it often seemed almost like an exclusive religious cult.
One of the books I had been most impressed by around the mid-1980s was `Auto Da Fe’ by the Nobel Prize for Literature winner in 1981, Elias Canetti. The central figure in that, Peter Klein, epitomised the stereotype of a sinologist. Based in Vienna before and during the takeover by the Nazi party, Klein lived a life of severe self-discipline, and pure devotion to his scholarship. The book starts with a dialogue between he and a young boy in which he explains the meaning of a Chinese character. But as the story develops, his life complicates and darkens. He enters into a disastrous marriage with the only person he has had any regular contact with over the previous few years, his house keeper. She proves to be a grasping, greedy and brutal person. The other figure who appears in his life is a sinister dwarf, and his whole story escalates out of control, resulting in his final demise and the ruination of his orderly, controlled life.
`Auto da Fe’ is a work of wonderful originality and strange power. Often written in an almost semi-hallucinatory way, the choice of career for the fictional Klein is puzzling. Why of all things did Canetti decide on him being a Sinologist, rather than a classicist, or a scientist, or expert in literature. Part of the reason must be because this area above all overs confers a degree of otherness on him, and grants him a kind of mystique. The same might be said of the use of Chinese characters in Pound’s work. Neither had any deep understanding of Chinese language or, for that matter, any lived experience of China. The one poet from the West that did live in the country for any length of time over this period, William Empson, produced works which, tellingly, were devoid of any extensive mentions of the country he spent over a decade in in the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps familiarity to him cured him of any temptation to `exoticize’ China. Even so, despite being a hugely accomplished intellectual, he did not study or learn much Chinese while he was there.
Klein was a poor role model for a career that I was one day to end up pursuing. Until the end of my university career, therefore, the best you could say was that the British educational system I had been through, excellent and comprehensive in so many ways, had given me only the most patchy, and superficial knowledge of the culture, history and language of a fifth of humanity. In some ways, it was worse than this. I had also been exposed to hardly anything about Asia more generally. That grew to seem increasingly anomalous as I grew older, and is one of the puzzles that I often think about the cure to today. How was it possible to be highly educated, and yet not educated in some key areas at all. C P Snow, a scientist and academic, had complained in the 1960s about the problem of the `two cultures’ – that of the world’s of natural science and physics or biology, and that of literature and the humanities. His critique had been in its term savagely criticised by the critic F R Leavis in the early 1970s. For Leavis there was only one culture, and different modalities of it – which science, humanities and other thought forms were parts of. But I could say that my educational upbringing had made me aware of a similar kind of `two cultures’ – ones which seemed almost segregated from each other, those of the West, and of the East. How could this great divide be remedied? That is the key theme of the stories in this book.
Up until 1978, one could argue that there were many reasons why China, in particular, was less known about. In the age before instantaneous electronic communication, and airplane travel, for one very practical reason – physical distance – China and the UK were very remote and often inaccessible to each other. Then there was the issue of cool political links between the two up to the 1970s, when there wasn’t even a full embassy in each others’ capitals – only legations. All of that was removed by the rapprochement between the US and China in 1972, which meant the UK was able to upgrade its relations with the People’s Republic. Finally, there was largely a lack of real commercial engagement. China was a developing country, a small economy, and one that was, till the 1980s, largely dependent on primary industries and agriculture. It simply didn’t have the kind of logistic and people to people links with the outside world that meant it was present in people’s lives in ways which, for instance, the US or Australia were. Added to all of this were language problems. The UK and China did not speak the same language. And very few people from either place could communicate with each other.
All of that has, in the second decade of the twenty first century, changed. There are 110,000 Chinese students in the UK in 2018. China is an investor and trader with the UK, and the rest of Europe, and the world, in ways which were not the case before 1978. 120 million Chinese tourists travelled abroad in 2017. Chinese signage is now on shop fronts, greeting people at airports, appearing on adverts on their mobile phones. You no longer, if you live in the west, need to search China out once you develop an interest in the country and its cultures and history; it will, no doubt, come and find you. And yet I suspect that children and young people can still go through the educational system in the US, Europe or elsewhere and come out with as patchy, and incomplete a knowledge as I did three decades ago.
It was a sheer accident that I eventually came to invest the time and effort into understanding China, and to learning its language. There was nothing planned about it. A teacher at university had spent time in Suzhou and recommended going to China to look – but I did nothing about this till I worked in Japan in 1990 for a year, and took the opportunity to fly the short journey from Osaka to Shanghai and Beijing in May 1991, during the famous Japanese Golden Week. Being a tourist in Beijing at this time with not a word of Mandarin was tough. The hotel I stayed at, City Hotel (now no longer) was near Sanlitun and the Worker’s Stadium. I was too afraid to use the underground, even though only two lines existed at the time, and could only go to restaurants where the menu was in English. Everyday, I walked the two miles or more, often in very hot weather, to the Friendship Store, and then on to the Beijing Hotel. I made one attempt to see the Great Wall, by going to what was then a small train station in the south of the city and showing the ticket seller a sign for `Wall’ (qiang). Needless to say, she had no idea what I was trying to ask for. On this occasion, at least, I never got to see the great sight.
I did at least by this time know some written Chinese. I had been studying `kanji’, the loan characters from Chinese in the Japanese language, in Nagahama, Japan, and had managed to memorise about 500. Many of those, however, were in traditional, rather than simplified form, meaning probably about half were recognizable when I tried to interpret menus and other signs in Beijing. The seven days there was a challenging experience. But it also created a kind of bond. The place seemed both very different, and yet very familiar, in ways which were wholly unexpected. The idea of China being `unknowable’ and profoundly mysterious and beyond comprehension started to be seriously challenged. This was a place full of humans like the one I had come from, trying to live their lives, and going about their business in ways very similar that of my home town. A six month stay in Melbourne, Australia, after I left Japan in 1991 reinforced the idea that China and the Chinese language were things I could and should be more knowledgeable about.
Despite its distance, Melbourne was a good place to try to at least get a start on learning Chinese. It had, for one thing, an excellent book shop with learning material in the Chinatown in the heart of the city. And China seemed far more present here than it did back in London. There were more Chinese restaurants, more people of Chinese ethnicity, and, most important of all, some non-ethnically Chinese who had mastered Putonghua – and therefore made it clear to me that this was something one could do even if it wasn’t an inherent part of one’s cultural and family background. The greatest inspiration came from a person I was lodging with at the time – Andrew Beale, a native Australian, but someone who had mastered the language of China to fluency, and who taught it at a secondary school. Days and weeks speaking to him about his life and experiences in China had a huge influence. I am glad to say he is still a good friend to this day, almost thirty years later.
Making China knowable was important. Everyday, I would try to memorise a few more Chinese characters. I was working in a Duty Free shop specifically catering for Japanese tourists, of whom there were plenty at this time. They tended to come in large groups, entering and leaving the shop, and making large, unbusy gaps in between. I would stroll around the shop, with a pad in my hand, convincing the manager I was occupied doing inventory and stock checks, but actually writing down all the characters I knew. Usually I got to about seven or eight hundred. I even kept a primitive diary in Chinese. I tried to learn Chinese at night, and during the journey in and out of the city centre on the tram. The problem was, however, that while I could work out the grammar well enough (and we overjoyed by how much more familiar it seemed than gender-infested German or declension drenched Latin) even coming out with the simplest spoken sentence often proved impossible.
Back in the UK, I found that there was only one practical, year long post graduate diploma course in Mandarin Chinese. It was here that I hit the issue of how specialised and exclusive studying Chinese was in the British system again. Leeds and the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS) both did masters courses, but with very limited language learning. The response to most of the places I spoke to was that I either learned Chinese privately (which was extremely expensive) or did a whole new undergraduate degree, taking up four years. Only a place called Thames Valley University, which before this went under the name Ealing Polytechnic before these were upgraded, had something affordable, and practical. Even then, without a bursary from the Great Britain China Centre I would have found it hard to embark on a degree.
My memory of learning Chinese in earnest therefore is not of living in Beijing, or Shanghai, or some of the places mentioned in this book. It is instead of sitting in a small bedsit in West London, near to Acton Town tube, over 1993 and into 1994, and learning passages, reading Chinese novels and news papers with a dictionary by my side, and having conversation exchange partnerships with about half a dozen people, sometimes putting in ten hours of study a day. For eight months I did this, trying almost to create a little world of China around me in a city thousands of miles from the country I was becoming so interested in. If I bought books, they were about China. It I went to films, they were the few then being shown which were in Chinese. I tried to eat each day in Chinese restaurants, and get whatever knowledge I could about China. Even when I went to Second Hand Bookshops I trawled through the bookshelves trying to find anything relevant – some of it over a century old.
This could almost be called my second education. I started to know that there were figures like Cao Xueqin, author of the great Qing dynasty novel `Dream of the Red Mansion’ and historic figures like Sima Qian, the Grand Historian from the Han Dynasty. I came to appreciate that Confucius was one of a large number of other thinkers around the Warring States time, four centuries before the time of Christ – people like Mencius and Han Fei and Mo Zi. For the first time I learned of Lu Xun, the greatest of the early twentieth century Chinese writers, and of events like the May Fourth Movement in 1919, and the anti-Japanese war from 1937. I read Edgar Snow’s `Red Star Over China’, the first account in English of the rise of Communism in China and then his subsequent visits to the country in the 1960s. I learned about oracle bones, the First Emperor, the Tang Dynasty, and the voyages of admiral Zheng He in the early 15th century. It seemed an extraordinary thing that this world, which was there all the time, had never appeared to me. But then, like most other people in the West, I hadn’t been inclined to look, and had been given the impression that even were I to seek, what I would find would prove to difficult to understand.
Carl Jung, the psychologist, and one of the western intellectuals figures of the twentieth century most interested in Asian religion, philosophy and belief systems, had categorised humans as `symbol loving species’. I guess one could add to that that humans are, through symbols, lovers of stories. One of the great challenges of engaging with China was to try to create my own understanding of the China story I needed to construct, and what my own China story would be. Chinese history was long and impossibly complex. But it was also, at first inspection, full of contradictions – a country which was new and old; one that seemed diverse and yet uniform; a place where there was no unifying framework supplied by adherence to a common belief system, as had, eventually, happened in the West from the fourth century onwards through adoption of Christianity. There was this China of what looked like industrialised cities and the other place which seemed to have jungles and pandas still living in the wild there. This place was not an easy one to fit into any pre-conceived box. It seemed to evade easy assumptions and frameworks. And Chinese people, after all, during the early period of learning about the country, were not that present even in a major centre like London.
The only remedy for that was to actually go and live in China. So I applied to work for an organisation partly funded by British government aid money at the time, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). That was the reason why I spent two years in the Inner Mongolia region of China from 1994, where, to all intents and purposes, I finally manged to speak and read Chinese with some fluency – and, after a fashion (as the first chapter will show) write it.
The `unknowability’ of China, and the need to move beyond that and make both a China story, but one which is honest, truthful and, above all, manageable, is the main theme of this book. The personal account I have given above at least offers some context for why someone who had never had any link whatsoever with China came, from their mid-20s, to increasingly focus on the ideas, histories, literatures and people of this geography. Since 1994, I have worked as a diplomat, business person, consultant, and then finally academic in, with and on China. I have been to every single province and autonomous region, lived in the country for over five and a half years, and visited more than a hundred. From 2006, I have written twenty books on China lectured about the politics, economics and history of China in over 35 countries in four continents. I have lived over three years in Australia, working as an academic dealing with China, and back in the UK. Over that period, I have been interviewed by every major news outlet, from CNN to BBC to Sky to ABC and Al Jazeera
, along with what was once China Central Television (CCTV) and is now China Global Television Network (CGTN). I have written on China for the New York Times, the Telegraph, the British Independent and Guardian, the South China Morning Post, China Daily, and about every other major European language news paper or internet journal. If anyone would have told me even in 1989 that I would have a career like this, I would have regarded them as crazy. At most, I thought I would specialise in English literature. And until 1989, I wanted to simply stay in Cambridge and continue my career there. If I had a dream, it was an English one, not a Chinese one. This book is primarily, therefore, a story of how that England Dream became the China Dream for me.
Before anything else, I have to say that entering and then living this `second life’ has, whatever its challenges, been a source of great joy. And if anyone reading this who is in the same position I was thirty years ago is encouraged to make China and its rich culture and literature knowable the same way that I did, then that would be reward enough for writing it. Sharing the pleasure of knowing about China, and coming to know China better and deeper, is the principle meaning of my professional, and much of my personal life, now. Seeing that there was another realm, a different world with a different view of life and destiny, was immensely liberating. And while there were periods over the era of this encounter in my life when things were very challenging – when it seemed extremely tough to fit in in China, and hard to make sense of many of the things I was experiencing and seeing – that has all been immeasurably outweighed by the returns of investing in understanding the country and getting to know some of its people better. China being knowable for someone who started off even till quite late in their life knowing woefully little about the place is my main theme. And showing the many different strands of that knowability, and the ways in which it can be shared and understood by almost everyone else who devotes some time and effort to it is hugely important.
The way I have chosen to convey this however is distinctive. A simple autobiographical account would have been tempting, but in the end too limited and subjective. It would be one narrative amongst all the others of those who weave in and out of the life of China, or who belong to the current country’s great and vast national story. My aim is to aim for something which might be a little more useful, and give some ideas or tips about just how those unfamiliar or new to China might make what they see and experience there part of this mission to make all aspects of the country `knowable’ without losing the integrity of its `otherness’ and difference. This is not a popular idea in the era post-Said, where Orientalism and creating `otherness’ is regarded as discriminatory and limiting. Despite that, I will try to show in this book that there is a point beyond this one can see the familiar and the unfamiliar in one organic, balanced, embracing vision, and hold them with their uniqueness while also seeing what connects. The great work of divination from the earliest dynasties of China, the I Ching, talks of everything being connected. Striving to understand and appreciate those points of connectivity , but also to see clearly where margins, boundaries and division lines are is important.
In fact, this lay behind the work of someone I did, very peripherally, know about, and physically at least see a few times, from my college days. The Cambridge college I spent three years as an undergraduate at, Gonville and Caius, was the home of Joseph Needham. He was, in the time I was there, in his mid to late 80s, a stooped, venerable looking figure who would slowly pass across the quads on his way from his rooms to college dinner some evenings. I never managed to speak to him, but was alerted to his great work, `Science and Civilisation’ and to some of his long and distinguished experience of China from the 1940s. I had, too, at least one thing in common with him – he had clearly come to study and understanding of China relatively late in his career, after an early period where he had been a biochemist. Needham had worked at the British Legation in Chongqing as a Science and Technology attaché in the latter part of the Sino Japanese War era, when the nationalists moved to this south western city then in Sichuan province to make it their national capital. It was there that he had been alerted to the rich history of scientific thinking in China, dating back to the pre-Qin era, and to the eras in which China had historically been an innovative and inventing powerhouse. This inspired the rest of his life – resulting in the many volumes of his great work, some authored by him, some by other experts, which continues t this day. A few years after I graduated in 1989, he died, aged 95, in 1995. One of his obituaries noted that he was the greatest European scholar since Erasmus, of the early renaissance period.
Needham had answered one of the enquiries about what had drawn him to China so deeply by the statement that engagement with the country and its intellectual history and the values underpinning this had been an exposure to something wholly different from that of the western tradition. It offered an alternative, another way of looking at reality. When I deployed this line at a talk in Shanghai some time in the mid-2000s, someone in the audience rightly pointed out that this was `orientalist’. But even so, it seemed to me an idea I was reluctant to give up. China didn’t exist on another planet, for sure. But it had a coherent set of social practices, a narrative of its histories, and a whole attitude towards the world which certainly differed from the tradition I had grown up in. How could I ignore that?
In this book, I have decided to focus on something tangible, and very physical, as a way of telling my China story, but also illustrating this issue of difference, but how differences can aid the quest to make something more defined and knowable. Place is something that always fascinated, and continues to fascinate me, in my life in England. The relationship of particular places, for instance, to the lives of writers, something I mentioned at the start of this introduction, in Kent. The memory traces, as they are called, that are left after major events in places like fields where battles occurred, or buildings where major events happened, or cities or towns which testify to the many different kinds of lives that have been lived there over the generations. Ancient places were of specific interest – fragments of old churches in the UK which went back to the earliest period when Christianity was being spread here, in the fifth and sixth century, or the faint traces of roads from the Roman period, which are often left in the landscape. Domestic buildings which, despite modernised facades facing the high streets, were clearly very ancient behind these, or woods which had iron age or other remains covered up by shrubs or trees, but still were just about visible.
Coming to a new city, right from when I was quite young, I would always try to get a map of it in my head. This was helped in Britain, and Europe, by the simple fact that almost every place, however old or new, usually had a specific pattern – a church or churches, or a cathedral, somewhere near the centre, and then perhaps a city or town or village square, with businesses, restaurants, a pub, hotels, and, spanning out from this, parks, monuments, major streets, leading to other hubs and major features. Sometimes there were very visible public buildings – government offices, or institutions, or museums. At other times there were art galleries, or newly rebuilt areas where the feel and features of the buildings were wholly different. All of this helped build up an idea of age, character, and contributed to the sense of place.
One of the great challenges in exploring places in China, as this book will illustrate, is that the lay out and geography, and the meaning of particular places, along with the best way to interpret these, is very different. Contemporary China, the place I have been visiting and familiar with over the last quarter of a century, is a place that has undergone and continues to undergo immense physical transformation. Cities can change in the space of a few years, so they are often almost unrecognisable from the first time one visited. This only adds to the original problem – how someone from a different cultural background can start to `read’ the terrain they are physically walking in. Temples instead of churches is one of the easier issues to readapt to and be alert about. But the ways in which city space and town space is organised and managed, the functions of buildings, their style, the ways in which you can date them – all of this needs different kinds of knowledge.
For someone non-Chinese like me, navigating and coming to terms with a new place in the country is challenging. But it is absolutely necessary. One issue is the very practical one of climate – of how because of temperature, it is frequently not easy to walk far in Chinese cities, particularly in the southern more tropical areas, where being outside for only a few minutes can leave you drenched in sweat. The other is how often paths and roads in China are not easy to walk along – simply because there is so much traffic, and so much of it is different (bikes, vans, lorries). Chinese cities, unsurprisingly, are far more crowded than most western ones because the population is greater. Their signage is different, road etiquette completely unlike the UK (crossing roads in China can be famously challenging, rules of the road are different, the status of pedestrians also different). Very finally, in many Chinese cities, particularly further back in the past, when I walked around I was conspicuous, the only person with fairer hair. It was hard to simply fit into the crowd. If I stopped to look at something, I sometimes gathered a crowd of onlookers around me. In recent years, with the rise of foreign tourist numbers in China, this issue has become almost negligible.
What sense one makes of what one sees, however, is another matter. Local histories, and the ways in which places testify to events in the past, is largely conveyed through very general guidebooks, and then in Chinese language material, which is, of course, harder to access. The places I have written about in this book are mostly well studied and well known. There are other books about them, many in English. Even so, getting real intimacy with their stories is not easy. So this account is predominantly personal – and not a pretence at writing anything like an authoritative history of these places. In that sense, it offers simple a history of me understanding and growing to have feelings and impression and attitudes towards these different cities.
The places I have covered all have symbolic importance to me. Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia, was the city I went to in 1994 to work for VSO at the Inner Mongolia Medical College. Whatever I knew about China, I knew next to nothing about the climate, location, culture and history of this place. For two years, I studied Chinese there, in the main local university, while teaching post graduate doctors English. I went back many times after I departed in 1996, and saw the physical transformation of this place. But this is also about the grasslands, stretched around the city, and the difficulties of trying to understand their geography and atmosphere.
The second chapter covers my experience of the capital, Beijing, from the first visit there in 1991, to the period in which I lived there from 2000 to 2003 as a diplomat, and the times I have been since. In some senses, as the place I best know in China this chapter operates more as a palimpsest, offering up different parts of the city and different times when I visited. The best I can do is to chose some of the most meaningful places, and create a personal narrative from this.
The third chapter is of a place I have actually written a whole book about – the great city of Shanghai. This is in some ways the account of a conversion – from disliking the city because of its sheer size and energy when I first visited in 1998 as a freshly appointed diplomat still based in the UK, to spending a great deal of time in the city at the end of the next decade working on the link it had with Liverpool. It was over this period that I great to appreciate the extraordinary atmosphere of the city and the way in which it so dramatically conveys some of the contradictions, and the innovations, of modern China.
The fourth chapter is about Xian, the great Tang dynasty capital, and home most famously today of the Terracotta Warriors, a city I visited for the first time in 2000, taking a British official delegation there, and then returned to many times, becoming increasingly fascinated by the almost endless residue of former dynasties and previous Chinas in the buildings and historic artefacts left in the city.
The final chapter is on Hong Kong, only restored to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, but a place that maintains a unique atmosphere, and which has proved perhaps the most difficult to make sense of. My Hong Kong is not that of a long term expatriate there, but of someone who has enjoyed many short visits since my fist encounter in 1991. For me, therefore, Hong Kong is a special, but very Chinese city – an international Chinese city, perhaps, and one that has physically changed perhaps the least of the others in this book, but offers examples of transformation in other ways.
There is a final strand that runs through this book, and the places I have listed above. That is the business of that most mysterious thing of all – everday life. When I worked at the British Foreign Office in the late 1990s, I remember one day a colleague I was working with sighing and saying that he had `no idea what most people fill their time with.’ In fact, it is even more perplexing than that. We in our own lives, the lives we live, which we alone have complete ownership over and scrutiny of, often have little idea of where time goes, and, when gifted with the freedom and ability to deal with our time, are often overwhelmed or unable to structure it well. We keep busy, we bury ourselves in distraction, and find targets, ideas, things to chase after each day. Sometimes, too, we cede control over the majority of the waking hours we are conscious in by subscribing to the structure and discipline of whoever we work for. In London, most people commute, get on trains, sleep, read the paper, wait till they arrive at their terminus, then get onto buses, or other means of transport, and then go into the place where they work. Most of the time, these are offices, more often than not communal ones, meaning one deals with a specific circle of people each day, with the pleasures, reassurances and challenges that involves. There are meetings, lunches, appointments, times before the computer, times on the phone, times in meetings. The grammar or daily life in post-modern societies, for all the variety, is often standardised, no matter where one lives. For me, even in the times when I lived a life like this (thankfully, not very often) it was always a case of trying to create more variety, more stimulation, more engagement in the prescribed daily structure that was supplied for me. Probably many people are like this – creative about the opportunities open to them, making the structure of the day more bespoke. But there are limits. And bosses are often intolerant of too much creativity.
The structure of the day and of everyday life in a new place as the separate accounts which follow of each of the places will show, was often different. In Hohhot, I was immersed in a new cultural and social context and from day one had to find co-ordinates, familiarity and reliable routines, things that shaped my time. I had limited teaching hours – the rest was for me to fill. And as someone wholly fresh to this place, that meant challenges, creativity, a sense of being on an adventure where there was freedom to do things and shape things and a great deal of self-determination. But there was also the task of learning new social norms, new codes of etiquette, new boundaries that I had to be heedful of in order to integrate and settle in. We all know of the intolerant outsider, the person who comes, particularly from a western context, into a place like China, and expects, wants, demands things to be absolutely as they had found them back home. The constant battle to achieve what is impossible, because of course things cannot be the same, often leads to a period of fractious battle with the environment and the people in it around them, and then either reconciliation and adaptation, or, more often, dissatisfaction and departure.
In Beijing I was more of an organisation and lived a more structured life. For Xian and Shanghai, and to some extent Hong Kong, things were different. For these places, I was a visitor, never staying for more than a few days at any single time, passing through, and had limited commitments to the environment I lived in. That entailed a certain amount of privilege – not needing to grow too attached to the place, able to exercise the detachment of an observer rather than someone too implicated and owned by a place. But the range, and depth, of feelings for the second kind of relationship to a place are very different to the first. That will hopefully come across in my accounts.
Because of this interest in the basic structure of everyday life, that gives the accounts that follow a different kind of flavour. These are not travelogues. They are not seeking for the exotic and strange, and not trying to use the privilege of an outside perspective to tease some deep `message’ from each of the places, and put them into some kind of narrative of what China is, how it has to be seen, what its meaning as a country or a culture is. Instead, I have recognised the subjectivity of what I am conveying. There was me, with my set of experiences before I arrived at a particular place, the background I have described above, and the interests I had – and then there are the illuminations that happened when that life, that set of experiences and expectations, happened to then be placed in the new environments mentioned in this book. In a totally different context, the Anglo Saxon historian Nicholas Howe wrote in his book on looking at ancient sites in the UK from the period of the dark ages about how this involved negotiating two realities – the site seen, and the seer, the person looking, with their sets of knowledge and ideas. In China, for me as an individual, as will be seen, this became a constant pre-occupation, particularly as I started to know enough to critique my knowledge and understanding of what I was seeing and experiencing, and start to see it in a richer and more complex context.
The French philosopher Michel de Cereau wrote in `The Practice of Everyday Life’ a rich set of observations about what constituted this `mysterious thing’ – the business of simply going through each day, as an individual. Daily life to him is not the most common and normal thing, but something loaded with different symbols, the site, in fact the only site, where meaning is created, and where goals and stories and aims are defined. Daily life is the ultimate space, the place where life itself happens, not something humdrum and demotic and boring. One of the ideas he articulates is that of frontiers between different spaces of our daily lives – that of work, of leisure, or rest time and active time, intimate time and active time – all of these of course circumscribed by the cultures and habits and modes of behaviour of the larger environment within which a single individual with their life is inevitably embedded. In that sense, a daily life can be seen as an rendition like a soloist of a larger `text’ – the sorts of expectations, beliefs, desires and ideas which arise in any society and culture and which everyday life is an iteration of.
It is not often that one sees lives from such different cultural backgrounds properly described. A lot of material, much of it very good in terms of its honesty and complexity, is written in English, French, and other languages describing China and life in China, the life of Chinese, from the point of view of an observer. The privileged position of the authors of these kind of works is based on their linguistic distance, their specialist knowledge, and their desire to demonstrate neutrality. David Bonavia, one of the finest earliest journalists from Europe working in China after reforms started in 1978 produced, soon after his time there, an account simply called `The Chinese’. No one could contest his knowledge of the environment he lived in. He as a superlative linguist, and a fine journalist. But there is distance built into his account, something which is true of all similar endeavours produced since. It is as though someone were looking through a telescope and seeking, and finding, in an object wholly separate from them, differences, and not only differences but differences that are evidently meant to mean something, and to imply an almost irreconcilable distance.
In this account I have simply tried to cure this problem of distance by focussing on the things that would unite people, whatever the place and background they came from – the physical environment they have to exist in to be people and be in a place with its smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and the ways in which these construct narratives and meanings – and the simple temporal existence of people each day, living in time, patterning their daily habits, no matter whether they are Chinese or from elsewhere. Chinese time as I experienced it in the different places described in this book was something I lived in, as a perpetual outside, but it of course changed and forced adaptation on me. I had to observe the sort of customs of time boundaries in each place I found myself in – the times of shops opening and closing, the moments of the year when there were major festivals, the habits of people each day when they had siestas, or ate, or were watching television, and it was best to either join them or refrain from contacting them till a suitable time came up. The space which China is, and the time that it has as a place, are present as threads throughout this book, and transcend, it seems to me, the issues of culture and habit. They act as fields in which things and people can actually do the business of living. That, in essence, is my theme- the way in which I, coming from elsewhere, negotiated, adapted, and changed, the places and times of the locations in this book. A simple subject, for sure, but one that is so utterly essential, and so often ignored, as a means of describing how finally a bridge can exist between two such different worlds and traditions and cultures and histories of that of China, and of the West.