I went to a wonderful lecture last night, given to Canada-China Friendship Society members in Ottawa by a former diplomat, banker, financial expert and business consultant, Lars Ellström. He told us that on retirement in 2009, he decided to take one last good look at China, a country he'd loved since the age of 10 and where he'd lived in for most of his life, by going for a walk. He said, "I decided to get off at the last station at the western end of Line 1 on the Beijing subway––Pinguoyuan zhan––and start walking west. I had no definite plans as to where I was going." He finished his walk a couple of years later on the borders of Kyrgyzstan, in Kashgar.
I just love that kind of story, and Mr. Ellström told it very well, showing slides for illustration. The first few slides included two famous Chinese proverbs, 百闻不如一见 bǎiwén bùrú yījiàn: Seeing it once is better than hearing about it a hundred times! and 实事求是 shí shì qiú shì: Seek truth from facts.
Beyond the edge of Beijing, with no particular lodgings in mind, Mr. Ellström wandered into the Xishan (西山, western hills), often following traces of the Great Wall, sleeping where he could, either in ¥10-¥15 guesthouses or under the stars, and so continued into Hebei, Shanxi and inner Mongolia, which was a "centre of contention". Here he came to Ordos where he met migrant workers building a new city that seemed as yet deserted. Since then Ordos has become inhabited. Three Mandarin-speaking sisters that he met told him they were direct descendants of Genghis Khan, of the 30th generation. Aristocratic ladies, he called them.
Most of his encounters, though, were with poor and often illiterate people. He showed us a photo of a kind, welcoming man, head of his household, who had been born in 1960 and who'd had no proper schooling because of the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Ellström's conversations with local people (speaking Mandarin with strong regional accents) were over and over again the same: Where do you come from? Ni na'r lai? Where are you going? Ni qu na'r? The people he met often had no concept of Sweden or even of Europe, only vaguely aware that it was somewhere far away to the west. They asked him about his rulers in Sweden. Were they corrupt? Here, they told him with bitterness, in a sort of refrain, all officials are corrupt. "Do Swedish farmers own their own land?" Mr. Ellström did his best to explain and was met with incomprehension. The frustration of the Uyghur peasants, nomads forced to be farmers under bureaucratic control, was expressed by a tearing down of public notices and a strewing of litter, including dead animals, all over the roadsides. Mr. Ellström saw this as a form of civil disobedience, subversion.
Thence into Gansu and along the He Xi Corridor (aka Silk Road ... although that is a western concept) that stretches between the Tibet Autonomous Region on one side and the Gobi desert on the other, to his destination, the province of Xinjiang––the Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the wooden gates in the towns are decorated with beautiful patterns. They had no cemeteries in these faraway places; their dead simply lay under mounds by the roadside, in "auspicious" spots.
He was fascinated by the place names on the way, often having something to do with the Wall or a defeat of The Others. He showed us how the village names were written in large Chinese characters (hanzi) with their original names above, in smaller, Arabic font. He saw many women wearing burqas, as a sign of defiance, he thought, clinging to their Muslim culture. There's a growing sense of defiance among these people, although the minority languages are diminishing in use. The Han Chinese have traditionally seen outsiders such as the Uyghurs as barbarians. Now, their homes have touristic value. He mentioned a place not so far west, where (migrant) construction workers were tearing down ancient, Ming dynasty houses and building replicas of them in their place, so as to create a tourist resort. "Like it or not" (quoting another Chinese phrase) their owners had had to leave. In another location, an unhappy family was being evicted into the desert so that their home and land could be flooded and a new reservoir built.
His conclusions? Modern China is agro-industrial, despotic, expansive, militant. It is a "Realm of Walls" and at the same time, when he thinks of the individuals who welcomed and fed him along the road, "a Realm of Human Warmth." His final conclusion is that it is a Realm of Contradictions!