I had vowed never to go to China until my friend, the exiled poet Bei Dao, was able to travel freely there, but when I received a sudden invitation to the Century City First International Poetry Festival in Chengdu, he urged me on: ‘If you wait for me, you’ll be too old to enjoy it.’

The international dimension of the festival was to be limited to two Americans. Luckily, they asked me to choose my compatriot, and I had no trouble picking Forrest Gander – excellence and congeniality being a rare combination in American letters. Tracking him down in an artists’ retreat somewhere in the Texas desert, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of re-enacting Eric Newby’s famous telegram to his friend in Buenos Aires: ‘ARE YOU AVAILABLE NURISTAN JUNE.’ I had rehearsed the casual tone: ‘Hi Forrest, want to go to Sichuan Province next week?’

As we staggered off the plane and rode into the city, the young poets assigned to meet us evaded casual questions: ‘They’ll tell you at dinner.’ We were driven to a Las Vegas-style extravaganza, complete with rows of spouting dolphin fountains, called Hotel California – China, in the 1970s, having had a Cultural Revolution that evidently saved them from Top 40 radio. Ignoring the department store, multiplex cinema, ice-skating rink, opera house, ten banquet halls, Fisherman’s Wharf (‘old bar from San Francisco’), Seine River Left Bank Grill Room and Blue Danube Night Club, we were hurried into the basement to Chengdu Famous Snacks Town, a re-creation of a ‘street in Old China’ with oversize paper lanterns, soy sauce and rice wine in barrels, medicinal herb sellers, calligraphers and shadow puppeteers, where a large group of poets was waiting for us in the Authentic Tea House. As the endless delicacies spun around on the Lazy Susan, there were veiled allusions and exchanged glances, but only exhortations to eat more. Finally, our host, the poet Zhai Yongming (now 50, she was always known as the Most Beautiful Woman in Sichuan), with great embarrassment, broke the news: the police had cancelled the festival.

Government intervention in a provincial poetry event was the only thing that would turn out to match my expectations. I knew about China’s capitalist boom, but I had imagined the cities to look like those in the Third World, with high-rises and shopping malls around the corner from shantytowns. I also assumed I’d see a collage of New New China and Old New China: Calvin Klein here and Chairman Mao there. Instead, it appeared that the conversion to Calvinism was complete. ‘Boom’ does not begin to describe it. In the cities we visited, most of the old neighbourhoods had been torn down and replaced with buildings of a futuristic massiveness. Everything was new, or under construction; the streets were spotless, the air filthy from the factories and traffic; human energy and natural resources were being consumed at blast-furnace rates.

Since 1990, the average annual per capita growth in China has been 8.5 per cent. (In India, with which China is invariably compared, it is 4 per cent. In the US, averaging the 1990s boom with the Bush bust, it is 2 per cent.) It is the ultimate capitalist dream: 1.3 billion consumers who don’t yet own an iPod. Japan’s economic ‘miracle’ depended on exports, and became less miraculous when they had to go abroad for cheap labour. It is not difficult to imagine China thriving without having to export anything at all, the goods for its expanding middle class supplied by the bottomless pool of labour in the villages. As has been the case throughout most of its history, China barely needs the rest of the world.

An hour outside Chengdu, we were taken to the Mrgdava Museum of Stone Sculpture Art. (Mrgdava is the Deer Park where the Buddha delivered his Fire Sermon.) ‘Supervised and sponsored’, according to the catalogue, by Zhong Ming, described to me as a formerly penniless poet, this was a magnificent private collection of more than a thousand large pieces, mainly from the Tang and Song Dynasties, housed in a museum designed by one of China’s best architects, Liu Jiakun. The American robber barons took 50 or 75 years to make their money, amass their collections and build their museums. Zhong Ming had done it in ten. No one could explain how.

The received wisdom is that the cities in China are thriving at the expense of the countryside. Certainly it is true that farmers are not allowed to migrate to the cities, and there are countless stories of corrupt officials expropriating peasant land, as the archetypal greedy landlords of Maoist propaganda once did. But government statistics say that only 3.1 per cent of the rural population is below the poverty line, most of the poor belonging to the largely Muslim minorities in the western provinces. (In the US, the equally semi-credible official statistics are 12.7 per cent of the general population.) A further 6 per cent is listed as ‘low income’, somewhat above the poverty line. According to Unicef, primary school enrolment is 93 per cent (the same as in the US). In 1990, 43 per cent of the villages had telephones; now 92 per cent do, and China must be the only place in the world where cell phones work in remote mountain fastnesses. The literacy rate is 90 per cent; in India it is 57 per cent. Life expectancy for a newborn is 71 years; in the US it is 77; in India it is 64. The villages we happened to see in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces appeared to be self-sustaining farming communities, without the visible suffering of similar hamlets in India or Latin America. The Tibetans in these provinces – unlike, by most accounts, those in Tibet – seemed to be thriving, no doubt because they are an unthreatening minority in Han Chinese areas, and were building elaborate temples and stupas.

Everywhere we went was packed with middle-class Chinese tourists – urban people are now free to travel without permits. We were told beforehand that the festival would arrange to take us on a four-day jeep trip deep into the mountains, and I had come prepared with my Greenland gear. The expedition turned out to be a five-bus caravan with 150 people who had attended an art festival in Chengdu, and our destination was not a pup tent above the treeline but Jiu Zhai Paradise Holiday Resort, a Disneyland version of a Qiang minority village under an enormous stately pleasure dome made of glass and evidently modelled on Biosphere in Arizona (like those in Biosphere, most of its trees were dying), surrounded by 1100 guest rooms. A visit to the nearby national park was like a horror movie produced by the Sierra Club, as we became stuck, immobilised with no escape, on a narrow mountain trail with about ten thousand other hikers. The sheer number of human beings in China is ungraspable, like the distances in the universe. The relatively low percentage of the poor translates into 100 million people. My favourite factoid – perhaps apocryphal, but still believable – is that if China becomes an entirely middle-class country, and every Chinese person decides to spend only one week of his or her life visiting Paris, there will be an extra 400,000 people a day trying to get into Les Deux Magots.

One might wonder why, amid this orgy of laissez-faire capitalism, the government should still care about poetry. Bei Dao, China’s best-known poet, is a case in point. After the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989, he went into exile in northern Europe and the United States, travelling on ‘stateless citizen’ papers (which drove immigration officials crazy, as there was nothing to stamp). For nine years, his wife and daughter were not allowed to leave the country to visit him, and his books were, of course, banned. A few years ago, having become a US citizen, he was allowed to visit his dying father, as long as he stayed at home in Beijing and made no public appearances or statements. He was permitted a few more visits, none longer than a month, and was once allowed to travel to Shanghai. A book of his poems was published, sold out its first printing of 50,000, and was not allowed to be reprinted. He has now remarried; his wife, whom he met in the US, lives in Beijing. He was able to go to China for one week last December for the birth of their child, but has been refused a visa since then. His wife is free to travel, but the baby has deliberately been given no identity papers, and cannot go abroad. The family remains suspended in bureaucratic limbo.

Unlike in Maoist China, however, censorship is now random and decentralised. A book will be banned at one publishing house and appear from another. In the case of our poetry festival, the venue was simply changed and the events declared ‘private’, though anyone could attend. Some thirty poets from around the country had shown up anyway: everything had been paid for by the owner of Hotel California, Ju Zhai Paradise and a dozen skyscrapers in various cities apparently copied from Metropolis and The Jetsons. (A reputed poetry lover, he never materialised; nor did I learn his name.) So we had a few long panel discussions at a local university and an all-night reading at a trendy bar owned by Zhai Yongming.

As with all poetry festivals, it was difficult later to remember what anyone had said on the panels, but the types were familiar: the poet-professor, inordinately pleased with his apposite quotations from Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy; the passionate youth who didn’t want to read anything at all, so that his feelings and insights would remain pure; the shy, spiritual poet who, when asked how Buddhism had informed his poetry, replied, ‘I like the silences’; the energetic and charming young grant-getter; the two or three women invitees rightly angry at the scarcity of women; the untranslated poet who claimed poetry could not be translated; the polymath, equally at home discussing the latest American poetry or Shang Dynasty numismatics; the senior poet, too drunk to say much at all. The writer most mentioned was Borges, and there were quite a few references to Harold Bloom, who had recently been translated into Chinese. Everyone was surprised that Forrest and I were rather tepid on the Western Canon; they assumed that this was the universal gospel, and couldn’t quite believe our assertions that it was more like a dying cult in New Haven. They were also enamoured of the ‘anxiety of influence’ version of literary history, though it is largely inapplicable in the Chinese tradition; perhaps the Oedipal drama had particular resonance in a nation of single children. All in all, one wondered why the police had bothered to shut the whole thing down.

Visual artists, in contrast, seem to be able to do whatever they like. In Beijing, the ‘Post-Sense’ group is escalating the Actionism of 1960s Vienna: nailing themselves into coffins full of animal entrails, cutting off pieces of their own skin and sewing them onto a live pig etc, and – no one knows if this is true or not, but it’s all over the fundamentalist Christian websites – cooking and eating an aborted human foetus. I briefly met one of them, a pretty, smiling young woman named Peng Yu, who, with her husband Sun Yuan, largely works, as they say, in severed human heads and the cadavers of children. The couple caused a scandal on a BBC programme, Beijing Swings, pouring blood on the corpse of Siamese twins. A more recent work is a four-metre-high pillar of human fat, collected from clinics that perform liposuction. Unfortunately, it is not titled ‘Would You Like Fries with That?’

I spent a day and a long evening in Da Shan Zi, a Beijing district of small factories and machine shops, half of them still in operation and half turned into huge and funky artists’ studios, galleries and the inevitable cafés and restaurants, much like those in the former East Berlin. Happily, the artists I visited were at the quirkier end of art and performance art. Ye Fu had built a huge bird’s nest at the top of a tall tripod and lived in it for a month without leaving. Cang Xin likes to lick things and has had himself photographed licking the Great Wall, the sidewalk outside the House of Commons and statues in Rome. Chen Wenbo paints large canvasses depicting blank sheets of paper. Many of the painters openly parodied Mao and Maoist propaganda. When I asked how the artists were avoiding censorship while poetry was still being banned, they replied: ‘Oh, no one cares about artists.’

It’s almost impossible to understand what’s happening in China, and those I asked had no answers. Rural and urban people seem to live under two separate governments. In the cities, money is the only ideology. People are largely free to do what they want and say what they want, though they can’t always say it in print or on the internet. (I was surprised by the openness with which opinions were expressed in conversation, even in large groups where not everyone was known to everyone else. In Albania last winter, it was notable at dinner parties that no one said much of anything at all, although it was years after the end of the dictatorship; they passed the evening telling very long jokes.) Except in Tiananmen Square, the police and the army are invisible in the cities – they are there, but their low profile was unexpected. The last bastion of Maoism seems to be a soap opera about the Long March that runs every night on television – swamped by music videos and game shows – featuring a kindly, avuncular Mao helping old soldiers cross streams and sharing his rice with peasant children. Otherwise, what used to be called ‘Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought’ is now a get-rich scheme for Party members.

In the villages, movement is strictly controlled, to keep the cities from becoming, like Mexico City or Lagos, junkheaps of the uprooted. But peasant unrest has always led to the fall of empires in China, and the government is frantically applying bandages: eliminating taxes for farmers, building roads and power grids and schools and hospitals. The policy towards the minorities seems to have changed, encouraging cultural identity rather than subsuming it into nationhood. In the parts of Yunnan Province that I saw, the Naxi people and Naxi everything were ubiquitous: the Naxi language, with its truly pictographic writing, was now being taught in schools, and Joseph Rock – the first Western Naxi scholar, whose writings haunt the last Cantos of Ezra Pound – has been canonised as a local saint. The government remains stubbornly unaccommodating, however, in the case of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice, popular in the villages, which officials see as a subversive force that must be suppressed. This seems hopeless – martyrdom is always the best means of recruitment – and inexplicable, especially when Taoist and Buddhist temples are being built or restored everywhere, and are filled with practitioners.

Perhaps the greatest surprise for me was that the hundred-year Chinese inferiority complex towards the West appears to be over. They have gone from desiring the things of the West, to making the things for the West, to owning the companies that make the things – including the IBM computer on which I am typing. China is the one place in the world where the Pax Americana seems far away, where almost no one asks about Bush. It’s holding the chits for much of America’s trillion-dollar debt; in China, the US is Little Brother. At the cancelled Century City First International Poetry Festival, I never figured out where Century City is, but it was clear where the century is going.

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