Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China 
by Paul Theroux.
Hamish Hamilton, 494 pp., £14.95, September 1988, 0 241 12547 2
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Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform 
by Orville Schell.
Pantheon, 384 pp., $19.95, June 1988, 9780394568294
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The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa 
by Philip Snow.
Weidenfeld, 250 pp., £14.95, June 1988, 0 297 79081 1
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Ancestors: Nine Hundred Years in the Life of a Chinese Family 
by Frank Ching.
Harrap, 528 pp., £12.95, September 1988, 0 245 54675 8
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The idea of China is elusive. Not only was its civilisation different from those that shaped the West, but it flowed earlier and more continuously – and mutual contact was tenuous. The picture of China that we carry in our heads is a misleading collage. It builds first on the exaggerated respect paid to Chinese institutions by the French Enlightenment in the 18th century, and is then overlaid by the risible images of China’s feeble response to Western imperialism in the 19th century, and now in the 20th century by the figure of that extraordinary half-god, half-demon, Mao Zedong. Since much of Chinese life today bears no obvious relation to these images, we find it difficult to view it for what it is, instinctively reaching back instead to the things we think we know. As Paul Theroux remarks in Riding the Iron Rooster, ‘China exists so distinctly in people’s minds that it is hard to shake the fantasy loose and see the real China.’

Here, then, are four authors taking different routes to ‘the real China’, each carrying different baggage and each arriving at a different part of the truth. Orville Schell’s Discos and Democracy describes China’s intellectual, artistic and political life during the year 1986. His preconception is that something noble was thrown out with Maoism, to allow all kinds of greed, selfishness, degeneracy and aping of Western modes to flourish. His head swims, he says, with the incongruity between China’s permissive present and its spartan recent past. He opens with the discovery that the old Maoist slogans on the walls of Peking University are beginning to reappear as the Dengist paint that obliterated them a decade ago flakes off with wind and rain and sun. He ends with a reproachful contrast between Mao’s Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square and the brash Kentucky Fried Chicken establishment, replete with posters of the Statue of Liberty, that faces it.

Schell is captivated by the written Chinese culture. An entire chapter is devoted to a guided tour of the China materials in his own study, culminating in an irritable outburst against cultural change: ‘I suddenly felt grateful to my dictionary for having so insistently served as a reminder of this ... aspect of China, which superficial reforms were unlikely to erase.’ He shows little interest in the peripheral provincial societies (Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan) which made no contribution to Chinese civilisation and yet have piloted a way through the early shoals of modernisation without entirely losing their Chineseness, and may therefore help us to predict China’s outcome. Schell treats the preoccupations of China’s intellectuals as the central reality.

Philip Snow defines his China in terms of a contrast, between what Kang Yuwei, the late 19th-century reformer, used to call the gold and the black. Few people are less like Chinese than Africans, and The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa spells out relentlessly how mutual understanding escapes them whatever political goals they may share. This tells us much about China that is not otherwise obvious but Snow’s obsession is with China’s joining the world and not turning in on itself again – which may still prove to be only a fragile hope.

Another way of defining the China phenomenon is to examine one dominant institution, and Frank Ching in Ancestors chooses the family – his own, which he was able to trace back for 900 years. To review almost a millennium of Chinese history through the single genealogical line which leads to a young American journalist does reduce that history to a human scale. It illuminates how and why the family distorted China’s social relationships into a pattern which the West, with its universal ethic, finds puzzling – suffocatingly close in one way, aloofly anarchical in another. But Ching is lucky. He sprang from a mandarin family of government ministers, judges and administrators, for whom family links and records became a cult. How many ordinary Chinese could boast such a pedigree? There is nothing here on the reasons for China’s economic decline or present social malaise.

Paul Theroux made no previous study of China, and aimed merely to travel as far and as long as he could on China’s limited railway network. This should have enabled him to approach another truth – the wide geographic spread of China – without cultural preconceptions or political hang-ups. But he wears a chip on his shoulder, in the form of seeking to disprove the Chinese saying that ‘we can always fool a foreigner.’ Theroux was highly conscious of the prejudices which ordinary Chinese would entertain about him.

I was the hairy big-nosed devil from the back of beyond ... whom the Chinese regards as the yokels of the world. We lived in crappy little communities that were squeezed at the edges of the Middle Kingdom ... we had noses like anteaters. We were hairier than monkeys. We smelled like corpses.

He gets his own back by trespassing into premises not open to visitors, unscrewing the loudspeaker in his railway compartment to silence its continuous blare, and generally playing the awkward squad.

Snow’s story is the most novel of the four, marshalling new historical material which places the first Chinese visitors to Black Africa in the 8th century. Then came the great 15th-century voyage of Zheng He, with a landfall in Somalia. But it was all too expensive, with over sixty galleons carrying 28,000 men, and Zheng, a Moslem eunuch, soon lost backing at the Imperial Court. After probably nosing past the Cape of Good Hope several decades before Bartolomeu Dias ‘discovered’ it, Zheng’s ships sailed home, never to return.

The next encounters were instigated by the Portuguese, who brought black slaves and mercenaries to China, and by various European powers who shipped Chinese convicts and recruits to the Congo and South Africa in order to ‘teach’ Africans the work ethic. Only in the 1950s, more than five centuries after Zheng He, did a (Communist) Chinese government again open up intercourse, assuming a ‘missionary’ role in Africa to win the support of independent governments there for China’s diplomatic causes. Although this 20th-century link has been officially cultivated for almost forty years, it remains cool and trustless. Prejudice against blacks is normal in China, and the Chinese in Africa do not like to mix. They refuse to unbend or relax, and most things African, from the food to the vivacity, transport them into acute culture shock. During the 1970s several thousand Chinese technicians built the world’s biggest post-war railway between Tanzania and Zambia. The achievement is not nullified by niggling later criticisms of embankments being too narrow or locomotives too weak, but it has to be qualified by the enormous difficulty China had in creating a corps of Africans capable of maintaining and repairing the railway. In doing things themselves, the Chinese can display awesome persistence, but when human cross-cultural relations are involved, they falter. There is a psychological issue here which Snow does not address. Race is one answer, perhaps. On the contemporary chessboard of pigments, ‘the Chinese thought they were white,’ as Snow correctly states it. He goes on to cite the Chinese scholars of former times who judged Africans ‘stupid’, and the Somali teacher in China who finds the Chinese ‘very arrogant, in a deep passive way’.

In other racially-prejudiced cultures there is room for dissenters to save the national reputation by behaving more tolerantly. Fay Chung, a third-generation Cantonese who has risen to become an Education Minister in independent Zimbabwe, plays such a role, and there are established Chinese traders in other African countries who succeed in hurdling this cultural barrier. But they are very few, and the gap between them and the millions of their bigoted compatriots is immense.

Frank Ching’s Ancestors explores some of this ground. Its message is continuity. The China we have recently witnessed may appear chaotic, undisciplined and violent. Yet this Chinese American reporter could stumble across the gravestone of an 11th-century ancestor tended by 12 generations of peasants to whom it had been entrusted, and found so solid by the Red Guards that they gave up trying to uproot it. Upper-class families or clans of China like the Chings were almost mini-states. Their codes covered time as well as space, individuals seeing themselves as links in a vertical chain connecting their ancestors before them with their descendants to come. A meritorious official would jump for joy if his grateful emperor posthumously honoured his parents or grandparents, since the present generation would benefit from the merit of an ancestor. By the 19th century these Chings had located all their graves, put up plaques and portraits, compiled a genealogy, built an ancestral hall and temple to honour sons of exceptional filial piety, drafted clan rules and regulations, established a fund for poorer members’ needs and built a clan school. The tie was felt to be very literal. When Ching’s father, a distinguished lawyer, was about to flee from the Communists to Hong Kong, he gave relatives one of his teeth to bury: ‘to symbolise my return to my ancestral home’.

Ancestors is an entertaining canter through the more interesting of the Chings. Some were callous like the provincial governor who reported to the court on a local famine so appalling that, on being told of it, ‘I lost my appetite.’ Others were resourceful, like the 15th-century official facing the White Lotus rebellion led by sorceresses immune to his weapons. He paraded naked prostitutes on the city walls and sprayed dog’s blood to simulate menstrual flow, neutralising the black magic of the attackers. Later he killed one of the witches by firing a dead rebel’s severed genitals from a cannon.

The family normally takes precedence over state or party, and Confucius taught that informing on a father, however guilty, is a crime. Yet the family could not escape politics or the necessity, in extreme situations, of bowing to political authority. Frank Ching’s father allied with the Guomindang leader and the underworld boss of Shanghai, Du Yuesheng, while two brothers followed the Communist flag. In 1927 a Guomindang Ching even ordered the execution of a Communist Ching and hung his head from the city wall as a warning. Another Ching under the pseudonym of Bo Gu was for a time senior to Mao Zedong in the Communist Party Politburo.

The result of this astonishing cult of family was to sharpen filial piety to an absurd degree. Frank Ching vividly remembers the story of little Wu Meng, which used to be told to him as a child. The boy’s family was too poor to buy mosquito netting, so he exposed himself every night in the hope that the insects would sate themselves on him and leave his parents alone. ‘Such stories,’ Ching comments, ‘made me feel unworthy since I knew I could never be so selfless.’ Two 15th-century brothers gave their blood for their sick father to drink as a cure, and licked the pus from their mother’s knee wound to heal it – and won a wall-plaque on their house with the legend ‘Double Filial Piety’. A price was paid, however, for family unity. Privacy was impossible. Confucianists even denounced Buddha for deserting his father and family and going to live only for himself in the forest: ‘Such is not the mind of the sage, nor is it the mind of a gentleman.’

Paradoxically, individual morality was also flouted. Frank Ching’s grandfather fell in love with a young serving girl: ‘Grandmother was aware of his feelings and, despite her education and relatively modern outlook, the influence of traditional Chinese culture was such that she considered it her duty to buy the maid’s freedom, then present her to grandfather as a concubine. But the action broke her heart.’ Frank’s father in turn fell in love with a prostitute whom he treated in every respect save the legal as his wife, and by whom he had six children. When he did later marry, for family form’s sake, a respectable girl whom he had never seen before the wedding, he did not live with her – it was the courtesan who was, ‘in a real sense, his wife’, even though she could not be acknowledged.

The exaltation of family was responsible for many weaknesses in Chinese society, including diffusion of loyalties, fragmenting of ethics, the repression of individuality, conformism to the group and male chauvinism. How these problems still beset China in spite of all the republican and Marxist reforms of this century is seen in Orville Schell’s Discos and Democracy. The Chinese would like to be as free as Westerners are, but are socially trained to think of freedom as regrettable self-indulgence. To take up such individual rights as free speech and free association can feel like putting one’s selfish desires before the interests of some group or of society as a whole. It is, as a high provincial official told Schell, ‘a clash between Confucius and Rousseau’. Hence the slow growth of democracy, and the capacity of the Communist Party to survive such shattering mistakes as the Cultural Revolution with still no rival for political power. As Fang Lizhi, China’s sagest intellectual, observes, Chinese expect democracy to be conferred from above, whereas its whole meaning lies in its being asserted against the wish of authority: ‘Loosening someone’s bonds is not democracy.’

Fang Lizhi can now say openly that the Party is hindering progress, advocating ‘superstition instead of science, dictatorship instead of democracy, conservation instead of creativity and dependency rather than independence’. He dismisses Marxism as a thing of the past, ‘like a worn-out dress that should be discarded’. He even declares the West more civilised, which is a hard thing for a Chinese to say. Schell is delighted by all that, but cannot stomach the popular end of West-worship, such as the vulgar craving for European physique that devalues Chinese bodily form in favour of tall, well-built, narrow-waisted, bulging-muscled Hollywood stereotypes. A doctor apologises for lengthening legs (by sawing the shinbone in half at an angle and sliding the resulting slip joint an inch or two apart before resetting): ‘Nowadays everyone is concerned with how they look.’ Shanghai disco-goers worship local pop singers of mixed Sino-foreign parentage above those who look Chinese. Schell makes a big production of those discos – ‘the final sad stage of musical poverty in China’. He buys a little book entitled The Official Guide to Disco: A Revolutionary Step-by-Step Approach to Being a Hit on Saturday Night. What wounds him most is that the one group which makes an effort to integrate rock and roll into the Chinese tradition, the Honking Donkeys, who, by singing in Mandarin instead of English, and playing the tenor sax like a Chinese oboe, convey an indefinable Chineseness in the sound, have never won official approval.

In a China which follows the new slogan ‘To get rich is glorious’ people are naturally interested in stocks and shares, bonds and futures, productivity bonuses and self-employment. Schell deploys his sarcasm against this, but is evidently less interested in the economic re-structuring for growth than in its side-effects and excrescences. He fears a total cultural collapse at the feet of Westernisation, arguing that China ‘no longer had, as an antidote, a home-grown model to provide it with a cultural identity, and thus cultural resistance’. China may become ‘little more than a second or third-rate imitation of the West and Japan’. This would be good news for the Westernised middle-class of Hong Kong, but it is surely premature so to judge the outpouring of xenophilia (towards a successful West) that has been artificially dammed up for forty years.

Schell is no Communist, yet he quails at the prospect of Chinese-style capitalism. He seems to approve Chen Yun’s famous image of today’s economy as a capitalist bird in a socialist bird-cage, without appreciating that capitalist countries (even Hong Kong!) also have bird-cages, and that the real question is how big they are, and how much room the bird has to fly in. Again Schell likens today’s eager young technocrats to someone putting up a kitchen shelf, who unintentionally knocks down a wall in the process, goes on to build a new room and finally remodels the whole house – all without benefit of an architect’s drawing. Yet he has not been uncritical of China’s planners in their heyday.

At the national level, Schell goes for nostalgia, for consistency and continuity, for the group’s interest in an espousal of traditional Chinese values. For individuals he appears to demand choice, liberty and variety. The contradiction is never resolved. The individuals, given their head, prove irresponsible, unpatriotic and selfish. There is a lesson here, for Westerners to stand aside, neither hoping too much nor fearing the worst, and allow China time to come to terms with its own modernisation process.

A society that cannot relate racially or culturally to Africa suddenly develops a crush on the West. A country where the patriarchal family can override the state suddenly starts to take an interest in free individuals and emancipated intellectuals. These can only be the tentative expressions of intended change, as vulnerable to counter-currents, whims of fashion and central political manipulation as were many other fresh starts made in the past. The weight of tradition remains heavy, though reformers try to pretend otherwise.

The least successful of these four voyagers is Paul Theroux. He set out to ‘grin like a dog and wander aimlessly’, and has produced a patchy travelogue with a few good stories and hilarious vignettes but surprisingly little perceptive comment. Getting his own back on the Chinese sense of superiority includes bridling at all those inventions: ‘Yes, the Great Wall was a masterpiece and the Tang Dynasty had been glorious and they managed to thrash the Japanese, and they invented poison gas, toilet paper and the decimal point: but they also had a long history of convulsions and reverses.’ When he tries to be funny he often merely patronises, as in the human parts re-construction surgery: ‘You only had to see the amazing contraption of hosepipes that filled the trains with water at the larger railway stations to realise that it was inevitable that such people in time would be able to rig up a new penis for an unfortunate Chinese castrato.’ When he feels calm enough to compose an unadorned description he is informatively excellent: see his passages on the varieties of Chinese laugh, on China’s north-south personality divide, or on spitting – ‘like the suction on a monsoon drain’. But he is politically naive – for example, in assuming that anyone believes in the sincerity (in the Western sense) of the Four Principles whereby the present regime retains a token allegiance to Maoism.

Another preoccupation is with the contemporary Chinese having lost touch with the erotic aspects of their own cultural legacy. He induces one of his guides to confess that, being yet unmarried, he had never slept with a woman. ‘With that, 2,000 years of sensuality went straight out of the window. Mr Wei seemed blind to the fact that Chinese culture was rooted in sexual allusions.’ Theroux revels in reading the ‘graphically sexual’ Golden Lotus in a country where it is restricted, gaining thereby a satisfying superiority in sexual matters and an ability to demonstrate the preeminence of Western democratic attitudes to culture.

Whereas Ching explores China through time, Snow through external contacts and Schell through ideas, Theroux’s medium is space. The snag is that investigation of territory leads inexorably to the edges, especially to the land borders where the personality of China is diluted. His finale is thus a set-piece on Tibet, where he distributes his fifty portraits of the Dalai Lama to great effect and which he sees as a ‘reminder of how harsh, how tenacious and materialistic, how insensitive China could be. They actually believe this is progress.’ Such certitude is enviable about a community spread over half a million square miles of which Theroux visited perhaps a dozen for the first time and without speaking Tibetan. China’s political actions in Tibet are indefensible, but whether or not there has been socio-economic progress since 1950 is at least arguable.

The train rides leave Theroux clear about the Chinese, who are not at all enigmatic or inscrutable, and are not even averse to being fooled occasionally. Nice chaps, really. But China itself remains a blur: ‘It was very easy to say what China wasn’t ... but it was hard to say what China was.’ China in the past was self-contained, needing neither foreign contacts nor, by and large, foreign commodities. Its public order relied on a loose and flexible co-existence between family and state. Now that system has broken down. Theroux cites a man of thirty who refused to budge from the three train seats he was lying on, even when the other passengers called a policeman. The latter argued with the man, but could do nothing with him and would not use force – and everyone tut-tut-tutted how unusual and frightening this was, how badly the ‘lost generation’ of the Cultural Revolution behaved. Because of this kind of social breakdown, something like a Western-style structure of human rights and democracy is needed, but would run counter to traditional social behaviour. The resulting tension produces wholesale flirting with the West (Schell’s discos) as well as sharp changes of tack in dealing with Africa and Africans (Snow). The Chinese need time to digest the modernisation. Westernisation and cosmopolitanisation they have so hastily gulped down, and Western travellers may have to postpone their dream of successfully defining China. As Theroux philosophises, ‘the bigness of China makes you wonder. It is more like a whole world than a mere country.’

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