Green Lake: Reflections from the Surface of China


3 /  

Transformations


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On the far side of the lake, after I have made my morning way through the interior walkways, past the people exercising and dancing and exercise-dancing, past the now dying water lilies and out to the perimeter again, I walk through groups of kindergarteners running relay races or jumping up and down to music. Their school across the street has just been repainted in bright colors and looks much better. A few steps beyond the kids, there is an open stretch of water to my left. Here there is one thing new: the voices of two women coming from inside the park across the broad expanse of water. They are opera singers, of the Chinese opera sort, each warming up her instrument, standing at the edge of the water casting it out as far as it will go.

"WoooooooOOOoooooooe..OuuuuuuUUUuuuu."

They are not singing words so much as syllables, almost a kind of moaning. They stand under some trees with their backs to an odd structure, which either serves tea or is an administrative office or both -- it looks like a modern ranch house in California, with knotty pine exterior paneling and modern casement windows. I am reminded for some reason of a painting by Edward Hopper, except that the faces are Chinese. I can only hear them for about ten or twenty paces because soon they are drowned out by the boom box used by the fifty or so former chorus girls (so I imagine) who meet every morning in the same place to dancercize. Still, the opera singers are a lovely little interlude.

Nothing much new at the lake, but on the other hand the authorities have just adorned it with a new bumper-cars ride, just inside the entrance gate nearest our apartment. This took over a large round raised platform of stone tiles that was never much used anyway, so it is not too bad, and the kids will love it. Immediately after finishing it, masons built a one-room storage house next to it, which took a couple of days. A week later they tore that down, closed the entrance and began digging up that section of the walkways inside the park. It has been closed for over a month now, and the bumper cars still have not been used.

*           *           *

The city continues to busy itself with transforming itself. Items:

- There's a new skyscraper abuilding. It is prominent in the view from my apartment window for it towers over everything else, even the tall office buildings. There are many more towering like this in other parts of the city. The skyscraper's upper floors are way above the steeple of the large Christian church nearby which has been under renovation for a couple of years now and which is nearing the finish line.

- Every manhole cover in the city, at least in every part of the city I have experienced, was dug up and replaced last year.

- Last week they replaced the overhead electrical wiring and the transformers throughout the city. I know this because I saw the huge wooden spools of cable they were using, and we had no electricity in the apartment complex for a day; my travel agent, whose office is in another part of the city altogether, told me that they were without power for a day recently also. At about 11 p.m. on Sunday night, I watched as a work crew, standing below a new transformer they had just installed on a platform on one of the utility poles, used a long bamboo pole to reach up and throw the three switches that turn it on. Zzzzz. - The next day other work crews started digging out some of the manholes again, the ones that lead to valves in water pipes, this time to install new and larger valves.

The universites, too: several have built entirely new campuses, far away from the ones near Green Lake. I don't even know where these campuses are. They will be for undergraduates, and already first and second year undergrads are housed and taught far away. Over the next two years, all undergrads and their professors will migrate, and in our case the Green Lake campus will become a research and graduate teaching campus. (A master's degree used to be a big deal here, sufficient for teaching; now the PhD is required).

The building in which I have my office was completely renovated over the summer, while I was away, and other renovations are in process now. My old office had a certain charm, full of hand-built wooden furniture from (most probably) the fifties, and piled high with papers and paraphernalia left there by a retired professor who hadn't used the office in five years -- everything was removed and disappeared. New electrical outlets and overhead lights were installed; everything (but the concrete floor, which remains the same) was painted white; the rust-stained sink in the corner was magically restored using some sort of acid. Modern office furniture that could populate buildings in Sao Paulo, Milan, Phoenix, or Shanghai was installed. line

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*           *           *

Still, the old China persists in the interstices of the modernization process -- now and then. I pay my electric bills at the bank. Banks are open seven days a week. On a recent Sunday, I went to pay my bill. Each clerk sits behind the bulletproof glass and speaks through that round plastic louvered thing that looks like Darth Vader's mouthpiece. Each clerk is fully equipped, surrounded by all the technologically advanced equipment in a modern office: fax/scanning machine, a computer CPU, monitor and keyboard, and a telephone. There is hardly enough room for all this in the little space each clerk occupies. I slip the plastic card identifying my account through the little depression in the marble counter that goes under the bulletproof glass. She checks her computer -- networked to the bank's central computer (often down) -- writes the amount owed on a piece of paper, and I slip two 100 yuan notes through to her. She calculates the change I am owed. She calculates it not on any of all that sophisticated equipment surrounding her, but on an inconspicuous little abacus almost completely hidden from the customer behind the computer keyboard.

And the guy rotating the two balls in his left hand while walking backwards around the lake is still there every day. My expert on these balls turns out to live in Falls Church, VA. Keith emailed me, after I'd talked about them last time:

Chinese "exercise balls," aka "yin yang balls." I've got a bowlful of about a dozen in my living room (I pick up a pair every time I go to San Francisco - it's an ongoing project to fill the bowl). Fundamental and critical difference between Western and Eastern thought: Western thought believes mind is separate from body (Descartes, dualism). Eastern thought believes they are inseparable: the "bodymind." The movement of the balls in the hand works to affect the mind in the same way that acupuncture affects seemingly non-related parts of the body and mind. Has to do with the flow of Qi, the energy of life. ... They're actually hollow, and each one contains a chime that rings when you shake it. It really is a "chime" sound -- very pretty. They're sold in pairs, and one rings on a high note, the other a lower note -- yin and yang. The standard model is the silver steel version, but you can also find balls with very elaborate and colorful enameling, which are probably made more for the tourist trade.

Just walking around still fascinates, perhaps more so now that I see individual faces more clearly and with greater -- delight and amusement. The toddlers are still marvelous, most of them dumbstruck when a Westerner stops to say hello to them, some with the most wonderful little smiles of appreciation.

*           *           *

In October, on National Day, they had a dinner for three or four hundred people out at the convention center. I was included because the university nominated me as a Foreign Expert. The Governor of the province spoke about the progress that Yunnan is making and the advance of "the reforms." The Governor is the same age as, has the same physical build as, and wears the same spectacles as Hu Jintao, and he of course wears the same dark suits. The entire congregation was then bused over to the basketball pavilion, built in the style of "modern architecture," for a performance by ethnic minorities, singers, dancers, acrobats:

Yunnan Celebration of 55th Anniversary of the Founding of the PRC

Salute to the Five Star Red Flag
Yi People's Style Dragon Dance
Children's Singing and Dancing Light Blessing
Falling in Love with the PRC
My Homeland
Falling in Love with the PRC
Wa People Singing for the New Life
My China Heart
Kunming City Bus Company Drum Dance
Yi People's Cigarette Box Dance and Rap (18 Life-Style Changes of Yunnan)
Opera of Three Different Styles: Flowers over Colorful Yunnan
Female Singer: Zhong Yong Chuoma of Tibet ("56 Blessings")
Cheer for the Homeland in October (Grand Finale)

One of the many things included in the Cigarette Box Dance and Rap was a group of guys in Tour de France outfits and helmets making their bicycles dance. They were pretty good.

A few weeks later, Yunnan's annual dinner specifically for those designated Foreign Experts was held. Eleven of us, through the efforts of our host institutions, received gold-colored Friend of Yunnan medals, a handshake from the Vice Governor, and a good dinner. I somehow received the honor of giving a speech on behalf of the recipients. I spoke, one paragraph at a time, each then translated by Aretha Liu, chief translator for the bureau in charge, about my conservation project. (Ms. Liu had a student in the old days who suggested that Aretha would be a good name if Ms. Liu wanted to take an English name, which she did; and incidentally Aretha introduced the Vice-Governor as "Her Highness, the Vice-Governor of Yunnan Province.")

One of the best things about the occasion for me was that Doug Briggs, the young doctor who volunteers his services here through Project Grace, was also honored, and I got to renew my acquaintanceship with him. He is the one from whom came the story about the mountain-top visit to his shoeshine girl's dying mother. He tells me he has lots of other stories he has collected and promises to email them to me; I look forward to getting them. He is moving to the northwestern part of the province, to Zhongdian (recently renamed Shangri-La and close to Tibet), and will be working up there. Since I was sitting next to the Vice Governor at dinner, I asked Doug if he needed anything. He said he needed a certificate from the Health Department that was slow in coming. The Vice Governor is a take-charge lady (what good is power if you never use it?), and soon she was directing another official there to help Doug out.

On my right sat a man from the party secretariat. He spoke good English and had lived in Brisbane for half a year. I explained to him that in America the network of the sort of biodiversity data centers I want to bring to China was built from the bottom up, proceeding state-by-state and eventually surrounding Washington, DC after about twenty years. We hoped to follow the same strategy in China, eventually surrounding Beijing. He said: "you know, that strategy is the same one Mao Zedong employed!"

*           *           *

Odds and ends.

Seen on a t-shirt, with a picture of the Statue of Liberty, worn by a young woman I passed in the street:

LAY LADY
LIBERTY #1
We are very much
influenced
by the United States

My friend, Bin, was riding his bike on a cold winter night about a year ago. He saw a guy sitting alone, shivering in just a t-shirt. He asked him what his problem was. The guy said he had been tricked out of all his possessions, having given them to someone who promised to get him a job. John Bean gave him 40 kuai ($5). The guy called him back about six months later to tell him that he recently found a job in the construction industry.

New article in The Observer, "Eat less meat and you'll help save the planet." In the last four decades, meat eating in Europe has risen from an annual average of 56kgs (123 lbs) per person to 89kg (196 lbs). People in developing countries ate far less to start with, though China's total per head is now up from 4kgs (8.8 lbs) to 54kg (119 lbs).

The Call to China. That was the call that thousands of Christian missionaries from Europe and the United States heard and which brought them to faraway China. Now this from a review in The New York Review of Books by Anthony Grafton, a professor of Renaissance history at Princeton:

as Lionel Trilling noted long ago, money is -- or used to be -- ashamed of itself. Colleges and universities offered a respected place where malefactors of great wealth could turn their perishable piles of cash into massive lecture halls, libraries, and dormitories, and fashionable space where the malefactor's spawn could gain some polish before they began bilking investors or hiring Pinkertons to break strikes. A century ago, white male patricians awaited the Call to China. Nowadays multiracial groups of boys and girls, many of them Chinese, Japanese, or Korean by descent, sip hot chocolate and sing "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" while waiting for the Call to Wall Street.
*           *           *

Pessimism ruled out. "Inveterate worriers" should stop worrying about China's growth, according to the Economist, because this growth is now spreading from the traditionally more prosperous coastal cities to the interior of the country -- places like Kunming. But can the exports which have supported the country's amazing growth, "averaging better than 9% a year over the past 25 years," continue to grow? Indeed, exports are likely to fall, if the Chinese currency is revalued, or if the American economy, where many of them still go, starts to slow down. Not to worry, though, because several factors will mitigate: "For a start, its economy, though trade-dependent, is not excessively so. Its ratio of exports to GDP stands at around 30%: high by the standards of America and Japan, but nothing out of the ordinary compared with European or other East Asian nations."

And domestic consumption is now kicking in as a spur to growth. Prosperity is spreading and more Chinese can now afford "life's little luxuries." The country's domestic economy is thus becoming 'a powerful engine of growth in its own right, just as happened earlier in Japan and, indeed, in America before that." Not that there aren't hurdles still to be jumped, the main one being state-control of sectors of the economy and protection of "inefficient state-owned firms that ought to go bust".

The key fact is that China for the foreseeable future will remain the world's lowest-cost manufacturer of most household items. "So the process of allowing its hundreds of millions 'deprived of material comforts by the insanities of Maoism' to catch up must in the end guarantee a healthy home market. Caution about China is in order: it has gigantic political and social problems, not to mention severe energy shortages and a terrifying level of bad debt. Pessimism, though, is not." line

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*           *           *

The preservation of Oriental biodiversity -- an immense but fascinating task even when confined to China, even when confined to Yunnan province. Just making a beginning is difficult. Take plants, for instance. China has over 30,000 species, perhaps a third more than the United States or Europe. If you want to keep track of these, you need their names. In fact, at the present time, the names are changing, many of them. A decade long (or more) international effort is now underway to update and revise the taxonomy of all Chinese plants, the Flora of China project. (This reminds me that we once had a guest in DC, a woman from NYC, who stared at the Flora of West Virginia volumes on our bookshelves and said, "Who is this Flora? And why are there so many volumes about her?").

Once the names settle down, a preliminary prioritization is needed. Which are abundant or common and in no danger of extinction, and which might be threatened? Even if these questions are asked only of Yunnan province, the task is substantial because Yunnan has perhaps two-thirds of all of the plant species in China, an incredible amount for a single province.

(One might think that botanists, plant professionals, are answering these questions, but in fact botanists are mainly concerned with a different task of enormous complexity: describing the characteristics of each species and preparing a series of steps, which they call "keys," one needs to go through with individual plants in order to identify what species it is, however similar it may seem to another species. And then there is periodic revision of all this as new knowledge comes to light, such as is going on now with the Flora of China project.)

Preliminary prioritization requires follow up in the form of determining and recording where species thought to be under threat of some kind are located and how many of them there are in each place. The threat need not be in the form of something like deforestation or road construction: extreme rarity is a form of precariousness that threatens existence in a meaningful sense.

Artemisia annua, sweet wormwood, a spiky-leafed weed with yellow flowers, is abundant in a large area of the world, and in no danger of extinction. But the immense benefit drawn from it serves as a useful backdrop against which to view the loss of other possible benefits when any species goes extinct. And the compelling story here involves China, including Yunnan province, at the very center. Mao, in the mid-1960s, ordered Chinese science to discover malaria-fighting drugs as a means of helping his ally, Ho Chi Minh, win the Vietnam War. (Quinine was becoming increasingly ineffective). Two teams, eventually consisting of more than 500 scientists, set to work in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, each pursuing a different approach. One screened 40,000 known chemicals for antimalarial effects. The other, headed by Tu Youyou, proved to be more effective and pursued leads on offer from Traditional Chinese Medicine, TCM. Researchers were sent into rural villages to ask local medicine men and women for their secret fever cures, especially those derived from plants. Qinghao, a name carved into tombs as far back as 168 BC and usually administered as a tea, showed particular promise. Qinghao is Artemisia annua.

But the chemical structure of qinghao was very largely unknown, and its mechanism of action was a mystery, as were many other things: what a maximally effective dosage would be; what dosage would be safe; how best to extract it; how best to administer it -- pill, injection, suppository? Moreover, nine other substances from the TCM search also needed exploration. By the time it was discovered what the crucial chemical in qinghao was, now known as artemisinin, the war was nearing an end. Nevertheless, clinical trials proceeded, trials which demonstrated the drug's great power in parasite-killing but also that the body cleaned the drug out so rapidly that leftover parasites were able to rebound quickly. A process of combining artemisinin with other drugs was then commenced, a process which ultimately proved effective. Ironically, one of the combinatory drugs was mefloquine, a drug the US had developed for its soldiers, but which produced nightmares and paranoia in some who took it.

Today, artemisinin is the primary drug used in the treatment of malaria. More than 400 million doses of the drug are administered each year. No career I know of offers more opportunity to benefit humankind than drug discovery. Obviously, the discoverers and those whose diseases are cured both want all the opportunities biodiversity has to offer. Losing a species is losing opportunity. line

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*           *           *

The story of Zhou Jintao (Peter) continues. Peter is the man I described last year who had known the Flying Tigers when he was a young man and who had spent more than two decades in prison here as a political undesirable.

Last spring, Bin and I went over to the old people's home to take him to lunch, only to find that he had just been taken to the hospital that morning. We called again several times in the interim, only to be told each time that he was still in the hospital.

We were worried about him and eventually decided to go over to the hospital and see him there. The hospital is over near the Bird & Flower Market. Given the speed with which buildings decay here, I would say that the hospital is about 15 years old. Three beds to a room. We got there about a quarter past noon, always a bad time because everyone is out to lunch. We decided to just go upstairs and ask at each nursing station, since the reception desk was unmanned, or rather unwomanned. We did this for four or five floors, but without luck. The hospital was not run down, but it definitely shows signs of wear. At one station there was one of those machines that monitors pulse rates -- the kind that "flatline" when the patient's heart stops -- but we couldn't tell who it was hooked up to, if anyone. A few people were wandering around; the nurses (perhaps they were doctors) looked harried. A patient, an old man in a jacket, came out of his room into the hall, looked around for a place to spit, and then spit on the floor.

We went out and had dumplings for lunch and came back at 2. The woman at the reception desk said she had no way to search her computer by patient name, but we finally determined that she could search by intake date and that an approximate date would be good enough. Here we had success. We were surprised to find that he was in ward 7, floor 9, bed 15, of the new building, a building where, apparently, party officials have first call.

I had been by this building several times but had had no idea it was a hospital. The first-floor façade and entrance way are built in traditional Chinese style, featuring a carved wooden lattice. This is very unusual for any sort of new building in Kunming at this point, let alone a hospital. Once inside, however, everything is marble and granite and could be anywhere in the world.

At the nurse's station, the sign said, in English, "Cadre station No. 1." We found Peter in his room. He was dressed and in an easy chair next to his bed, watching CCTV-9, the station in English. He had one of those things that supplies oxygen to the nose around his head. He had the remote control in his hand. He had fallen asleep.

I woke him, and he was delighted to see us. He knew my name, and we quickly determined that, far from being at death's door, he was in good shape. He said that he had had a pain in his back and in addition had been unable to sleep for four days straight, so he had decided to go to the hospital. His room was very nice, better than his room at the old people's home (he has a sister whose home he spends his weekends in). I think he was treating this as a kind of vacation.

How did he rate a cadre's room?

He rated it as a veteran.

Which war? WW2? Korea? No, he had been a member of the guerrilla forces who had thrown Chiang Kai-shek out of Yunnan from February to December of 1949. Here is a man, a banker, who was imprisoned as a "political undesirable" for 21 years, starting in 1958, and it turns out he had fought for Mao!

Actually, he didn't do any fighting. He was an instructor. Many, perhaps most, of the troops could neither read nor write. If you are going to run an army, better teach the men to read and write, so they can, among things, understand orders. That must be the theory.

We looked Peter up again recently but couldn't connect with him -- back in the hospital. I hope it's just another vacation.

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* * * ~   ~ * * *

Quite a few things new at the lake this spring.

Thinking about these changes, though, prompts me to recall something I've altogether forgotten to mention. When we first arrived at Green Lake, in September of 2002, you had to pay a fee if you wanted to go through one of the gates and walk around on the central "island." The fee was small (something like a quarter, as I recall), but it had the effect of confining many people to the walkway around the lake and venturing inside only on special occasions. The fee was abolished sometime after we arrived. I've forgotten why, but I think it was in celebration of an anniversary of Mao's victory over Chiang Kai-shek.

The part behind the gate nearest to our apartment reopened several months ago, with new paving tiles throughout. Similar renovation was made on the other side of the park, even though that had been previously renovated. There are also now little white fences around the base of each tree along the walkways -- the pickets crisscross diagonally and seem, oddly, to be made of cement. More significantly, the whole park has been made kid-friendly. There are now little benches facing the water that consist of two rabbits or turtles or squirrels or penguins carved from stone, on their haunches, holding with their paws a rectangular piece of polished gray stone for you to sit on. The ride which our daughter liked, the one where you pedal a surfaced submarine around a small lagoon and shoot a laser at military-looking mines -- which spout water when you hit the target -- has had its scruffy old mines replaced by new dolphins and other appealing animal figurines. Even the submarines have been replaced with canopied open pedal boats. Several free-standing planters have been added in various venues, designed to look somewhat like cartoon characters.

The bumper car ride I mentioned last time finally has a shiny new side-building made of yellow enameled metal. I saw the bumper cars in action for the first time the other night: seemed rather like the highways. Certainly, the drivers, who included a lot of adults, enjoyed banging into each other. A miniature amusement park for very young kids has been installed in an area behind the pagoda in which our daughter celebrated her 8th birthday with her friends. An unused building just inside the north gate was converted in a matter of weeks into a two-story restaurant with an outdoor terrace on the upper floor (serves noodles, nothing special). And behind a Chinese wall, in an area that was not much used even for the potted-plant nursery it had been originally, has been constructed a beautiful new tennis court. I need to figure out how to get permission to play there. line

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* * *

Other things also continue to change, really too fast to keep track of them all. In the very first days when our family (and our pooch) came here almost three years ago, daughter Alex and I went for a short stroll to see the neighborhood around the university guesthouse where we were staying. We walked up the block, around to the left past a vest-pocket park and a public toilet, and eventually into a narrow lane where we heard the sounds of kids in school behind a tall brick wall on our right. Above the wall, and back a bit, we could see the open windows in the four story structure the sounds were coming from. I said to my daughter, "Maybe that's the school you will be going to." She was silent, daunted by the prospect of attending second grade in a language she did not understand.

"Ok, I'll go -- but I won't understand a word they say," she said emphatically as we escorted her to the school's gate about a week later -- it was in fact the school she and I had heard and seen on that first day. Since then, I have walked through that crooked narrow lane, too small for cars (but not for bicycles and motorcycles), a thousand times. It is my favorite route for walking from my apartment near the lake to my office.

The other morning when I headed into the lane, I sensed something different. The wall that runs along it actually encloses an apartment complex, and only at one point comes into contact with a corner of Alex's school. Incredibly, on the lane side of the wall, in the slim space between the lane and the wall, several small apartments (if you could call them that) had in the distant past been built, one of them a couple of narrow rooms occupied by an ancient couple who kept roosters in cages. I used to exchange greetings with the woman every morning (I waived, she smiled, her glass eye sparkling). The couple had disappeared when I got back to Kunming last fall, and the apartments were vacant. This morning, these structures -- and the wall there too -- had been knocked down. Everything was rubble, dominated by one of those caterpillar machines with a giant arm that scoops up enormous amounts of bricks and tiles and earth.

Four four-year old boys, adorable, dirty street urchins, stood there absolutely transfixed by that machine. They settled down on a ledge on the other side of the lane. The boys ignored the calls of their mothers from down near the little toilet building. Instead, they watched in awe as the machine did its tricks. (The wall was rebuilt by the end of the week).

*           *           *

The route from apartment to office also takes me on a footbridge over the heavily trafficked (usually traffic-jammed) 1-2-1 Road. That bridge was the first image I ever saw of Kunming. Three years ago, while using the internet to research where we might go for our year in China, I picked up on the fact that Kunming had a lot to recommend it ("The City of Eternal Spring"). And I found a website put up by a professor of journalism at a small school in South Dakota who was then a visiting teacher at Yunnan Normal University. His family had been given an apartment in a building that overlooks one end of the bridge, and he had put onto the internet pictures of the view from his window, among other images. Since I have been here, I have walked over that bridge every day.

The bridge has always been crowded with nanocapitalists selling everything from goldfish to pencils and stickers to CD's to posters to fried potato slices on a stick, slathered with red pepper sauce. This always made it difficult to get by, especially at noon and in the evening when school children on either side of the bridge are pouring over it in both directions and workers headed home are walking their bicycles through the crowd. The half block which leads up to the bridge has always been a sort of an extension of the bridge itself, though dominated by fast food vendors doing a brisk business with the students from the university, who come out the small west gate to get the cheapest food in a city of cheap food -- omelets, fried potatoes, a sort of Chinese burrito, etc.

Periodically, the police would come by and clear out the vendors, none of whom had a permit. The vendors always had an eye out for when the police were coming and would wheel their carts to safety, embers glowing, as fast as they could. But now the police are serious. They have set up a booth on one end of the bridge and are permanently stationed there. This has changed the whole area. What was once noisy and bustling is now just another place to walk.

That contest between the vendors and the police characterizes for me what one sees and feels about the way life is actually lived in China today. An industrious and still relatively poor people dealing with the rules and regulations which a higher power has laid down about them and their future development. Each individual vendor in flight may have tiny dimensions within a larger picture. It is not war, nor even a national campaign to get people to do something like combat AIDS or drive cars. But the tiny dimensions seem somehow multiplied a billion-fold -- here is where the feeling comes in -- and one believes that taken altogether these events sink into the center of China with even more weight and do more to reveal the spirit of the times than any statistic or pronouncement from the Tartar City.

End of first half of this chapter. Second half forthcoming. See Additional postings

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