This is my first visit to China; I’ve been here for a week now. It’s one of the world’s great superpowers, with nearly 1.4 billion citizens; it’s an industrial powerhouse, and a study in subtly applied political and economic force. Regardless of what you imagine China to be like, it’s a country that should interest us all. I’ve known this for years, but until I landed in Beijing, China had a ghostly existence for me. I could call to mind a few stories about the Cultural Revolution, multi-national corporations, and the government’s intense involvement in every citizen’s life; that was all. My strongest impression of Mao was seeing him through Andy Warhol’s lens, all done up, with lipstick.
As you travel through China, an unshakable melancholy accumulates inside you. This isn’t because it’s some kind of totalitarian nightmare; that’s simply not how it feels. The police and security forces are polite and unobtrusive. The Great Firewall feels like a specific feud with Google, once you realize that Yahoo! works everywhere in China. (I admit that logging into my Yahoo! account makes me feel like it’s still 1999, but the site has actually become a decent copy of Google.) You need your “papers” more often here than at home, and you get fingerprinted when you arrive; other than that, you’re at your liberty. There are cameras everywhere, but that’s true in Britain as well; hell, it’s true in the United States. The only difference is which guy owns the cameras, and in a world where our government can subpoena anyone’s surveillance footage, that’s a pretty meaningless distinction.
No, this is not North Korea; even in Beijing, the Communist Party hardly casts a shadow. It’s China’s relentless quest for progress; that, and the weight of the past that confront you in eerie combinations. On the high-speed train between Beijing and Xi’an, what you see most often out your window are big machines designed to clear a path for progress. Bulldozers. Forklifts. Cranes with giant arms putting their frame around everything else. There are plastic tarps everywhere, holding down projects halfway complete and stretching for acres. The earth is raw from incessant re-shaping. Across lots of China, at the edges of the cities, there’s no longer any grass at all. What remains is muddy space, both vacuum and ruin, extending in all directions.
Drubbing China for its pollution feels like a cheap shot. Somebody has to be the First World’s industrial backyard—now that the Chinese have taken on that thankless job, we scold and mock them for their dirty air. They know the score: many people in Beijing wear filtration masks all day long. It’s one of the world’s great cities, and worth the pack of smokes you inhale during your stay; one hardly notices the smell after a single night in town. What you don’t expect, though, is what happens to the sun and stars. They are… not there. The sun, at its brightest, is a scattered glow, a rumor of light. There’s no moon, either; all that remains of it are the tides. I don’t sit around thinking about God on every sunny day at home. Nonetheless, there’s something strange about the feeling you get when the heavens are never in view. It makes the atmosphere feel like another of China’s spent glories. We did this to the air: that’s how you start to think when you try making peace with the way the skies are in China.
Imagine it: a nation of one and a half billion people where you almost never feel crowded or jostled. There’s a pervasive, collectively realized state of order and decorum throughout China. There’s also a ton of open space. If you’re used to the streets of India, say, or know Asia through Bangkok, this comes as a genuine surprise. The ceilings are vaulted and massive in every public building. The queues are usually short and swift-moving. Even when there’s a long line, the people waiting are efficient and reserved. (I saw exuberant people in China, too, by the way; I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that the citizens are numb or hushed. I had my first Chinese meal next to a rowdy table of men who were chain-smoking, and yelling their way through some kind of number game, drunk and ecstatic.) China’s citizens are just very mindful, and purposeful, about whatever it is they’re doing.
There’s a funny tone that the Chinese use for something mischievous or destructive. It’s absolutely woeful, as if somebody has just sprung the locks on Pandora’s box all over again. I heard it when I happened to stumble, and a passerby thought I was drunk in the mid-afternoon; I heard it from a tour guide who noticed my sweet tooth. They sound a little like Nick Carraway at the end of The Great Gatsby, when he speaks so bitterly about careless people. There’s no anger mixed in with Chinese anxiety, though. They act resigned when things go awry, like someone who kneels and picks up the pieces of a freshly broken vase without saying a word.
As you make your way through China, you glide from one ancient treasure to another, waist-deep in spectacle and heritage. It isn’t long before the sight of yet another painted dragon becomes an almost burdensome signifier: look, here’s something preserved and venerable. National pride is one of the most universal attitudes you encounter anywhere you travel, of course; patriotism in China is pretty much the same as it is everywhere else. Not many other places, though, define their culture as something already finished and perfected. Subtract its foreign, cosmopolitan elements, and Chinese culture is a pageant of preservation. The Great Wall is one perfect example, since most of today’s Wall was never part of the original structure. Most of it is newly built, but to understand what China is like, you must grasp that they fake it so real—to quote Courtney Love—that they’re beyond fake.
The Wall is staggering. It snakes its way over the jagged mountains, unperturbed, aggressive, and territorial. It brands the earth as China’s property, even now, when it’s no longer the border of anything. There’s a ticket office, a small parking lot, and some coffee shops; beyond that point, the Wall is it, with pristine wilderness on both sides. There are no gaudy signs or long-winded historical explanations. The Wall speaks for itself.
The only modern things are the mounted speakers. Over a soundtrack of gentle flute music, there’s a single repeated message explaining (in both English and Mandarin) the park’s extensive list of rules. No “erotic activities” in the park. No gambling. No pets. No smoking—no fires whatsoever are allowed. Call the hotline if you see someone climbing. In an American park, that would be a joke. I doubt the call would even go through. Here, I’m certain it’s an open line, fully staffed both day and night; when somebody climbs, people call. On most days there’s no need. Respect for the Wall, like all shows of respect here, is as close to an absolute as human behavior ever gets.
It’s a respectful nation, but it teems with awful drivers. They’re nimble enough in the crowded alleyways; I just mean they’re awful by American standards, where pedestrians always have the right-of-way. Here, pedestrians are just an unfair obstacle that a driver has to endure. This is true in plenty of other nations with congested cities, but the disregard means something particular in China. A car is a symbol of success, power, agency; pedestrians, in turn, are people who cannot afford a car. They’re an unimportant nuisance.
There’s a weary, incurious attitude towards the lives of others at work here, too; unless you’re misbehaving, or transacting business, very little you do in public qualifies as news. In America we complain about the indifference to crime; when my car was robbed in San Francisco, dozens of people must have witnessed it without doing a thing. It’s safer here. Chinese people stand ready to enforce the law, and the larger social contract, and to deal at once with any breach. It takes some getting used to, but eventually I found it comforting. Beyond that—within the boundaries of Chinese tradition and Chinese law—when you’re at large in China, your intentions and needs are of no concern to anybody.
I mention Chinese driving because it’s part of a larger cultural trend. In China, progress is defined narrowly. It’s purely a matter of yuan earned and objectives accomplished. In other words, when they need to use modern technology, or are doing business, the Chinese allow for gigantic exceptions to their ancient cultural norms. Cars go too fast to imply much concern for people still traveling on foot. Accordingly, Chinese thinking goes like this: so be it. Pedestrian, beware.
Meanwhile, the people revel in tradition, creating dazzling, virtuoso displays that never vary or disappoint. When a Chinese person scarfs down the same noodles that others like themselves ate 1000 years ago, they experience that continuity as a cause for celebration. Traditions provide certainty, and certainty is paramount. You see this in their attitude towards foreign things: to the Chinese, good foreign products are definitive.
When Red Bull was introduced into China, the Chinese response was called “War Horse.” It’s yellow. It tastes like Red Bull. It is even named after another, associated animal. In face, I doubt anyone understands Red Bull better than certain people in China. But it’s a fool’s errand, from a Chinese perspective, to be dissatisfied with Red Bull and stuck trying to dream up a different, better energy drink.
When I toured the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an, our tour guide explained that they were being pieced back together using expensive German glue. It was obvious, from her tone and emphasis, that Germans make the best ceramic glue in the world. If one has to pay the Germans $1000 USD just to glue one statue back together, so be it. To choose is to be uncertain: after all, what does it feel like to scroll through all nine thousand songs on your iPhone?
As far as I’m concerned, it feels mildly awful. We quickly drown in possibility, even when we’re doing something as trivial as choosing what album to play next. In China, to have no choice is an accomplishment. It is something to cherish. It means that one knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what’s best.
The terra cotta warriors of Xi’an were discovered by accident on a farm; now, what was previously farmland is an immaculate park. It’s so big that you have to walk a mile just to get from the ticket office to the first exhibit. There, under a steel ceiling of stadium size, thousands of the emperor’s horses and men stand at attention. Their hands are clenched around missing weapons; at some point long ago, a Chinese general commandeered those weapons for immediate deployment. “The weapons could still be used,” our guide explained. Of course they could be used; in fact, I bet there was absolutely no difference between them and the ones being produced centuries later.
The warriors are the color of the earth: pale and dun-colored, for the most part, with streaks of charcoal and red. Once upon a time, they were painted, and so life-like that they terrified the man who discovered them. The paint begins to fade, however, as soon as the statue is exposed to air. This is the tax the present levies upon the past.
Our guide recommended we buy some of the unique souvenir photos: your face, photo-shopped into terra cotta. She also gave us some good news. The paint on their most recently discovered warrior had lasted much longer than usual. It had been visible for a month, maybe even a little more, instead of a week. “Our archaeologists are getting better,” she said. I looked over her shoulder at the expansive pit, its armies in place for the Emperor’s protection. Even today, he’s infamous for trying to discover the secret of eternal life. He found it by placing his warriors most carefully, out of sight, where there is neither light, nor air. Nothing breathes there. Nothing ever has to die.