09 May 2004

Signs, Sanitation and Historic Sensibilities

Why proofreading matters - on the ticket for the Badaling section of the Great Wall are the words “TICKET FOR THE SCENCE SPOT OF BADALING SENCYION OF THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA.”

Now one thing to note is that often confusing or humorous (or both) displays of Konglish (Korean/English) and Engrish (Japanese/English) are seen much less frequently here in China, basically because there isn’t much English out there to be humorous or incorrect. Sometimes, though, just the phrasing of the few English signs gives a fairly accurate clue that one isn’t in Kansas anymore.

Take, for example, this sign near the Forbidden Palace - “Value the Cultural Heritage of Our Ancestors, Shoulder the Historic Mission of Conserving Their Relics.” Shouldering historic missions (which translates into “don’t toss your garbage into the 700 ear old bronze vats, don’t place your kids in the same vats for family photos and please don’t carve your name into the stones and wood of the palace”) is not something we do in the United States. We are much less participatory. Our signs would simply list the Don’ts and add a brief comment on respecting the antiquities.

Another set of signs of interest were near the Great Wall. They read “In Order to Keep Fit, No Spitting Please” and “No Throwing Waster Everywhere.” Now I didn’t realize that fitness came from avoiding expectorating in public and apparently one can throw waste in some places, just not everywhere. There were also frequent signs urging people not to carve into the Great Wall, but pretty much any stone easily accessible had some form of writing on it, be it in Chinese, Korean or English.

Another reference to waste (a frequent topic here, as they are really trying to restructure people’s thinking on garbage and litter) is the paired waste-cans around downtown. One says “recycling,” the other “unrecycling.”

And speaking of recycling, it is big business here for local entrepreneurs. There are folks with their three-wheeled bikes going around collecting recyclables, newspapers, old waste from all over the city. And the other day I watched a gleeful child racing down the street with two big bags of empty plastic bottles being chased by the angry restaurant owner whose recycling had just been ripped off.

Beggars and panhandlers are much more frequent here than in Seoul, though many do play on traditional instruments. Others wear the remnants of their old uniforms, limping along and seeking the pity of those who remember the wars. The one and only time I gave anything to a beggar here, I watched shortly thereafter as the local security officer took some of his money and apparently chastised him for begging from a foreigner.

But there is no hostility to foreigners that I have seen. And what at first appeared to be a total disinterest in foreigners (except from the more ambitious shopkeepers) now seems to be more of an attempt to be discreet. If one watches, there are frequent looks, though these are almost always surreptitious, secretive glances – none of the overt staring one encounters in Seoul or other parts of Korea. And when children here point out a foreigner to their parents, it is with a little tug and a cautious finger-pointing, rather than the a loud shout and noisy dance.

There are the occasional signs of more open recognition, and these then become all the more memorable. A friendly and open smile from a fatigue-clad old man pulling a cart of recyclables. A bemused smile and gentle laugh of a couple as a foreigner leaps off the great wall to follow them down a dirt trail to another section of the wall. The friendly greetings of workmen atop a building they are tearing down. The Ni Hao of the older residents of the building as I leave the homestay in the morning, the giggles, shocked looks and cautious “hello” of the schoolgirls in the halls as I return home in the evening.

These, more than the sense of being a non-entity, a non-person, are what will stick with me long after I leave Beijing. They will sit alongside of the irony of the massive scale of Communist architecture dwarfed by the old imperial system they hold is such disdain, yet simultaneously embrace not as an example of wise kings and predecessors to the current state but as examples of the power and ingenuity of the Chinese people, in spite of their exploitative rulers.

It is an interesting dichotomy, this embrace of history and fabricated distaste for the old rulers. On the one hand, as one Chinese student put it, while the United States is a global super-power, it only has 200 years of history, and that not very well remembered even by its own people. What China has to offer the world, and the United States, is thousands of years of history, and this is where Chinese pride stems from.

Yet for the Communist government to embrace the past systems and history would be anathema to the ideals of the people’s government, the core of Chinese Communism. So history is re-interpreted as the progress and power of the Chinese people, of the laborers and craftsmen, and the successive regimes are portrayed as exploitative – and their overthrow by popular rebellion is commented on with a sense of destined glee.

But even this must be done cautiously, for the very idea of a popular backlash to the government (ie Tiananmen Square, the Falun Gong demonstrations) raises a serious sense of fear in the central leadership, and their ability to retain power relies is some sense n their legitimacy as the people’s government, a legitimacy undermined by frequent corruption scandals, mismanagement, extortion, nepotism and all the other ills of a massive and closed bureaucracy.

And so history is treated with a cautious embrace, with one arm wrapped tightly around while the other wields and eraser and pencil in order to modify and change as the need arises. And this is the pity, for it is China’s history of war and conquest, intrigue and deceit, dynasties and upheaval, artistry and culture that set the country apart from its neighbors and really do give a sense of pride and respect needed to hold such a massive state together into at least a sense of a unified whole.

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