Chengdu blues: Nation without a past

January 1, 2019 § 10 Comments

I was at a party last night ringing in the New Year, which means I was struggling valiantly every minute past 9:00 PM then giving up and going home around ten, sound asleep by 10:30. I ran into my friend Scott at the party. “How come you quit blogging about China?” he asked.

“I didn’t really quit, but the remaining posts are so unbearably long that simply copying them from my notebook will take forever. And no one wants to read about China anyway.”

Scott, who has traveled there extensively, shook his head. “I do.”

That was the shot in the arm I needed. Most of the time, one reader is more than enough! So here we go, cycling in the South Bay be damned.

Tour shortage

By Day 7, Chengdu had finally run out of tours. The Sea of Bamboo Tour, a 2-day trip, was closed in winter, as were all the trips into the high mountains and up onto the Tibetan Plateau. The Panda Research Center tours were all booked and I was starting to think that meant “We have enough Chinese guests and don’t need the clumsy American one.”

So I asked for a private guide but apparently that’s not a thing, unlike in Taiwan. I figured I would go back to Chunxilu shopping district, find the fake Rolex huckster and ask him for a guide. Or maybe ask a cabby or a moto-cabby. I couldn’t imagine that someone wouldn’t be willing to take my money, even if it just meant driving me down an alley to knife me in the back.

“Why don’t you take a day off?” the hotel clerk wanted to know. She meant “Why don’t you quit giving me all these tour operators to call?”

“Because it’s my vacation. Who wants to rest on a vacation?”

So I began the AM with language study featuring Peppa the Pig in Chinese, bear cartoons, news shorts, then simul-read, in depth #propanews. As I readied for the day I realized that my shopping had gotten out of control. For souvenirs I’d already bought ass-hot Sichuan soup stock, ass-hot Sichuan sausages, and ass-hot Sichuan tofu sauce. I’d bought books, tea, bookmarks, knick-knacks, leather gloves, a jaunty cap, a 20-meter scarf … so much for light travel.

I asked the desk clerk to please find me anyone, a student, retiree, recluse, ex-military, IDGAF, just someone to tromp across the city who I could assault with my Chinese for seven or eight hours. She said they would ring me so I sat in my room impatiently, all scarfed and jauntied up with nowhere to go.

The call never came so I went out on my own again, and passed a giant building called Tour Bus Center, and stepped inside. Surely this was the answer to my tour dreams. It was jammed with people and had a huge electronic timetable for buses going everywhere from one hour to two days’ distance. I picked the nearest destination to a place I’d never heard of, Huanglongxi, an hour away.

All the seats were sold, and at $1.40 a pop I wondered how they were making money. It was a horrible bouncy trip stuck over the rear axle again, which seemed to be the preferred seating for Americans. We got there and I wisely bought my return ticket rather than waiting until it was time to return and then having to fight the bus scrum. Next, my camera died. I’d forgotten to bring a charger and didn’t really care. Cameras are simply one more burden and they don’t add anything to your trip, though they do add a lot for others who wonder if you actually went to China.

Huanglongxi was a massive, endless, riverside warren of souvenir shops masquerading as a historical site, and this is the problem with modern China: There are no ideas or beliefs here besides commerce and consumption. And it made me wonder, again, if any society has ever long survived without the constant under-fermentation of dissent, i.e. art? It struck me again that there was no art anywhere, only pretty things, or in many instances extraordinarily beautiful things, but nothing that criticized or that could act as a vehicle for new ideas, for anger, or for change. Thus no novels, no paintings, no sculptures, no murals, only officially approved pretty things, many of which were not pretty at all.

What happens to a nation starved of ideas and debate, where the only outlet for creativity and thought is commerce and consumption? Like North Korea, it must become even more repressive in order to stamp out and tightly regulate the inflow of thoughts created by the domestic vacuum of art, literature, and journalism. It’s no coincidence that the surliest people I’d run across worked at the government run Xinhua Bookstore, whose primary aim appears to be to discourage reading at all costs.

The lovely old #faketown

I walked quickly through the old #faketown. It was early in the day and the masses of tourists hadn’t hit full swing. Moreover, it was the off season and many of the shops were shuttered, so instead of getting to choose between a thousand varieties of souvenir combs, you could only choose between about nine hundred.

The nicest place was down on the river, polluted and ugly and lined with endless tents and upside-down chairs indicating the cafes were closed. There were few people, and it stank. I liked it.

I returned to the bus station, not sure that this was any worse than Disneyland, and ultimately convinced it was quite a bit better. The entry fee was zero, you didn’t have to buy anything, and it was at least based on a historically real place more than 1,700 years old, with a good many authentic buildings from the Qing Dynasty still standing. And, I hate Mickey.

For all the yammer about a nation whose only values are commerce and consumption, how does it differ from the U.S., where bare-fanged corporatist capitalism cloaked in the phrases of democracy hasn’t worked out well at all for African-Americans, most minorities, or the poor? At least here there are 1.4 billion people and zero homeless; no miles and miles of tent cities, no overpasses crowded with tarps, no Skid Row welcoming you to one of the biggest cities in the world. And perhaps it’s an illusion, but it sure looks like anyone who wants to work, can, and that food and education and healthcare are available to most.

The big “C”

I got back to Chengdu craving coffee. Chengdu has a paucity of coffee shops, by which I mean there isn’t one every ten feet. I didn’t want Xingbake, and I had had a killer coffee and donut the day before, but instead of returning there I decided to chase down a coffee shop with a sign that, but for the substitution of the letter “f” would have been the best-named coffee shop in the history of coffee shops.

Unfortunately, “Luckin’ Coffee” was a stand-up bar and I wanted to sit as the bus had dumped us all off on a random street and I had walked a solid hour to get back to Chunxilu and “Luckin’ Coffee.” Then I recalled a place named “Ms. Coffee” on the 11th floor of the Nine Dragons Clothing Emporium, and so I made for it. It is a fact that things taste better the harder you have to work for them, and this was no exception, AND the coffee came in a ceramic mug AND had a pretty foam design AND it was super smooth AND despite the millions of shoppers the coffee shop’s tables were all but empty, so I easily got a seat AND although there was no indoor heating, hot air rises and the 11th floor was toasty and cozy AND all I really needed to make it perfect was a pair of eyes to gaze into AND although you can’t have everything, sometimes your imagination, if properly fed, will do the trick.

Sipping coffee in the giant emporium it made sense that if China is ever convicted of a crime it will be for raising generations who have never seen the sky. It’s crazy how you forget about clouds, sun, sky, moon, stars, and you accept the gray lowering pollution as that with which we were born, like living on Neptune or at the bottom of the sea or in a mine shaft, our inheritance.

The beautiful English language, or, Panky Boy Hot Style

On January 15, 1987, or immediately thereafter, I came to be thunderwhacked by the legendary Japlish that adorned, well, everything in Japan from caps to underwear to magazines to companies. In my youth and my arrogance (redundant), I laughed a these misbegotten abortions of the English language, even doing what tourists before and after have done far better than I, which is cataloging the screechers.

Here in Chengdu, 31 years later, it’s deja vu all over again, made most magnificent by the teen clothing brand called Acne Studio, and punctuated by the knee-length yellow jacket with “Lazy Motha Fuckers” emblazoned on the back. An amazing catalog of Chinglish is right here for the asking, more various and amusing and thought-provoking than anything I ever saw in Japan, with the winner of all time being a runner charging the street, his t-shirt saying only this, profoundly and beautifully, co-opting everything Strava, Nike, or life ever imagined: “Beat Yesterday.”

I can say, gratefully and shamelessly, that the intervening decades have whittled me the fuck down, especially the iceberg of arrogance regarding English that I used to tow behind me everywhere I went. The whittling began when my wife’s cousin’s ex-husband laughingly interrupted my efforts to minimize and ridicule Japlish on a signboard in Utsunomiya, circa 1992. “But Seth,” he said, “It’s not being written for you.”

This opened my eyes to the beauty and malleability of English in other cultures, not as I would use it, but as someone would first think a thing in Japanese, find an English analogue that sounded cool or pretty or interesting, then translate it back to Japanese, all the while comparing it to other options, some better, some worse, all beyond my ken because I had never thought the Japanese to begin with.

China’s love affair with designer English is vivid and fresh and stimulating, a tool that experts are using to carefully craft a message that their targets will understand in the millions, or tens of millions, far better than I.

Acne Studio, indeed!

No more history

It occurred to me as I was walking home to stop and read the inscription next to a giant sculpture commemorating the February 16 uprising, an inscription piously and emptily advising me that this “great” sculpture had “great” implications for understanding modern Sichuanese history, presumably more so than Sichuanese spicy hot pots, Huawei, and Acne Studio.

Of course it begged the question, “What modern history?” and even more desperately, “And where would one find it?”

Because in all my wanderings and in all the informational plaques and guide discourses I had heard, I could determine that China only had three periods of history:

  1. Ancient civilization marked by emperors and archaeology.
  2. The war for independence.
  3. What Xi Jinping said or did today.

There was no history that I could see of Mao, Deng, or any other post-war anything, a fact easily explained by the fact that after 1949 there was no journalism, literature, history, or art to record it, and by record of course I mean criticize, as art without criticism is just a pretty picture, if you’re lucky, and literature without searing critique is simply a bedtime story, #propanews, or Hemingway.

It also explains the frenzy associated with extolling the narrative of ancient China, as it takes the eye off the sick absence of any modern history at all. In that sense America and Europe are incomparably richer, as their literature and art have faithfully assassinated the corporate creed that profit and wealth make right. China is left without a past, unable to point to a single meaningful modern work of art or body of literary thought, as all such endeavors must by definition crucify the official religion that relentlessly stamps out free speech and critical thought of any kind.

So the tourist is left with either an artistic vacuum or shopping, or worse, is sent home with a copy of Du Fu’s 1st Century poetry to spend the rest of his life trying to unpuzzle, that he may never ask the question, “Yes, but what about today?”



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§ 10 Responses to Chengdu blues: Nation without a past

  • Craig Ayers says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience and your writing puts the reader right along with you. Another vote for these entries being worthwhile. 🙂

  • Drew C says:

    I second your friend who wants to read more about your trips abroad, Seth, particularly in China (where my son lives). I think also that you’ve brought up an important point about it, in that there does seem to be very little of it’s post-Mao past to learn about (though I know no Mandarin to know this first hand). Insightful post!

  • LesB says:

    Reading this I wonder if there are any frustrated Chinese artists or authors who have emigrated the the US or other western country to practice their craft. Maybe other countries can be the rescue of Chinese contemporary liberal arts.

  • sippybrennan says:

    I want more of China as well….I spent so much time there in the 80’s. We used to stare out the windows of our hotel watching people bike to work. There were very few cars. Hundreds of bikers off to work, all ringing their bells….. Inevitably, there were multiple accidents. It was like watching dominos fall. Loved hearing about China, and good for you leaving the phone behind!

  • I would never read a blog about Chinese culture, but I read every word of a bicycling blog with articles about Chinese culture. Thanks for the education!

    Just one Chinese cultural question remains burning on my mind: Are their toilets similar to traditional Japanese toilets where you squat instead of sit?

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