Note: I first wrote this for Writers' Centre Norwich blog but am posting it here as a companion post to the ludicrously long one earlier and since it is such a long time since I updated.
In September my colleague Laura and I were invited to take part in a British Council trip to China. Over 10 days we joined 84 other young (under 30) artists and arts professionals on a whistle-stop tour of various cultural and heritage organisations. Some of the trips offered fruitful opportunities to engage in dialogue on a wide range of themes with those engaged in writing, producing, and performing arts, others were little more than PR opportunities to spread a positive message about how great China is. But by the end of the trip, my view of China had changed dramatically from the one I left with.
You see, I had all sorts of preconceptions about the sort of country China would be, and to be perfectly honest very few of them were positive. The briefing session we attended before the trip focused on the need to be careful in China: what not to wear, how to avoid causing offence when handing over a business card or sitting with your legs crossed in a meeting, how not to draw the omniscient eye of the state. All this presented a distinctly intimidating view of China. And when added to the censorship, Human Rights abuse, pollution, social coercion, the bizarre meshing of supposedly communist politics with free-market economics, etc that we hear about all the time, it is no wonder I boarded the plane anticipating a journey to a distinctly ‘other’ type of place.
Yet my experience of China was not like this at all. That great ‘other’ I had heard so much about turned out to be as familiar as many places around the world. Shanghai, where we spent much of the time, is a global financial centre much like many major western cities. The airport, the hotel , skyline, inflections, intonations, body language, weather, colour of the sky, brand advertisements, roads…everything about Shanghai felt like the sort of major international conurbation I have been visiting my whole life. Even the language felt no greater barrier than it would in, say, Italy or Spain.
Urban China appeared relaxed. Despite being there just over a week before the People’s Republic of China celebrated its 60th anniversary, there were neither masses of flags, nor rampant propaganda images, and no sign of any sort of pre-celebration clean-up operation. Walking the streets was similarly relaxed. Those police officers we saw were utterly uninterested in us: I felt less watched and controlled than I do walking around London. It is meant to be illegal to congregate in a large group outdoors yet I saw many occasions when gatherings of between fifty and one hundred people were taking place in very public places without any sense of panic on the part of the police.
It all felt very, well, relaxed. And though the sky was perpetually grey with a kind of humid haze which stretched down to street level, and sometimes stuck to the skin uncomfortably, the air was not noticeably more polluted than other cities of comparable size.
And what was most surprising was to find a couple of organisations willing to discuss censorship openly and (it appeared) honestly. One of these, the Hunan Morning Herald (imagine a regional newspaper with the circulation of The Guardian in a Province with a population the size of the UK) was particularly interesting, acknowledging that while censorship does exist, most notably in the areas of politics and international relations, little by little it is being eroded away as media organisations grow more powerful and China engages with the Western world. China, it appears, is changing fast. It was notable that many of those we met with had travelled to and worked with people from around the world.
In his 1983 book Red Dust, Ma Jian wrote that “China feels like an old tin of beans that having lain in the dark for forty years, is beginning to burst at the seems.” Twenty-six years later, to the eyes of a passing visitor, China felt like a shiny steel can of beans with a flashy logo which can be bought in supermarkets around the world. To think of it as ‘other’ in any way is to miss the point completely. While there is no doubt that most of the experiences in China were organised and interpreted by the All China Youth Federation, a central pillar of the communist state, and that everything must therefore be taken with a pinch of salt, it is equally impossible to discount the preconception-destroying experience of being there. By the same token, I am by no means arguing that everything you hear and read about China is wrong. But perhaps it doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, every writer knows that the easiest trap to fall into is the one that others have dug already.
Since returning home I have been reading lots of books on China and trying to get some sort of fixed idea of the country in my head so that I can write coherently about it. But, as usual, books don’t have answers, just many more questions. What seems clear is that China, like most countries, is far too big and diverse to sum up or understand in a glib blog post. The truth about China, if there is one, probably lies in the gaps between words, rather than the words themselves.
And the same is true for much of literature.