An Encounter with China


I was a member of a group of 23 Australian teachers who visited parts of China for four weeks in the summer holidays of 1998. This was an in-country teaching fellowship program organized by the Asia Education Foundation (AEF). Similar tours are conducted in India, Viet Nam, Japan, Korea, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia each year. They were instituted to improve teachers’ first hand knowledge of countries they teach about and to encourage the use of Asia as a site for study.

Applicants for fellowships are required to develop a curriculum project that they will complete using their experiences overseas. They come from each state and territory from government and non-government schools and contribute part of the cost. Systems and schools contribute the rest. Some have travelled before and some haven’t. Some speak the language of their host countries and some, like me, are coming with the barest knowledge of the reality of their destinations.

Our first two weeks were spent mostly in towns of 15-20,000 people in Yunnan Province, which borders on Myanmar in the far south-west of China about 800 kilometres west of Hong Kong. Jiang, a word which will recur, is one word for ‘river’. Yunnan, rugged and hilly as befits the eastern end of the Tibetan massif, is home to many of China’s ethnic minorities, ‘hill peoples’ and is described by the Lonely Planet Guide as being an ‘isolated frontier region’. Dali and Jing Hong are drawcards for more intrepid European tourists but Yunnan remains out of some of the mainstreams of Chinese life and is in some ways strongly reminiscent of other parts of south-east Asia. Even in winter — when we were there — the climate is mild and sunny.

We worked our way via two minibuses south from the capital Kunming to Jing Hong 50 kilometres from the Myanmar border, visiting schools and teaching classes in English. From there we flew back to Kunming and took one of the world’s great train rides to Chong Qing in central China. From there we flew to Beijing and later to Shanghai.

I work as an education consultant, but my job in this case was to write some pieces about what happened. I don’t know whether this trip to China was exceptional in any regard with other AEF fellowship trips, to China or elsewhere, but it was a densely packed and luxurious set of learning experiences. That was partly due to the excellence of the organizer/leader, Kathe Kirby and her Mandarin-speaking support, Jing Li who teaches at Belconnen High School in the ACT. The company and friendship of other participants, all new to us, was another important factor.

Writing about China is like writing about the world, 1.2 billion people, mainly Han, but many not; a country which is stupendously modern, futuristic, in some ways and deeply traditional in others, covering an area 25 percent bigger than Australia, some of it hotly contested by its original inhabitants. And I’m no Sinologist. Like other participants I prepared by reading and have since searched out additional information. But nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced. Rather than re-iterate apologies for my ignorance and the slimness of my contact, I will do so here, stressing that these are one person’s views shaped by a very specific context of four weeks in another country.

Mr Su will make his appearance in due course, as will the dancing. But the ‘dance’ itself has got something more to do with the thrill of finding unexpected common humanity.



All [the European foreigners] talk of is material profit … and with the meretricious hope of profit they beguile the Chinese people … They know not of the Heaven-ordained relationship between Sovereign and Minister, between father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger, friend and friend, yet we propose to require them to conform to the five principles of duty! It seems to me that one might as well bring together dogs and horses, goats and pigs in a public hall and compel these creatures to perform the evolution of the dance!

                  — Wu Ko-tu, Court Censor, from a report to the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi,  1861

With their little pig eyes and the large pigtails/ And their diet of rats, dogs, slugs and snails,/ All seem to be game in the frying-pan/ Of that nasty feeder John Chinaman./ Sing lie-tea, my sly John Chinaman,/ No fightee my coward John Chinaman,/ John Bull has a chance, let him if he can,/ Somewhat open the eyes of John Chinaman.

                  — Text from a Punch cartoon, 1858

Katherine Hellman, a young woman who works as a therapist in an elementary school in Harlem, knew what I meant by a disjunction that was almost more than one could absorb. She grew up in a wealthy family on the Upper East Side, assuming, as a girl, that a normal home was a Park Avenue duplex with Magrittes, as she put it. When she first started working in Harlem, she always felt a tremendous pressure, on returning to her own world, to tell what she knew — to try to convey, for example, that that day she had visited the home of a student where there was no furniture. ‘I have never conceived of such a thing,’ she said. ‘I wanted to bring people from my world to the apartment with no furniture. It seemed like important knowledge. You have to see it — if you haven’t seen it there is something about it you might not get.’

                  — Suzannah Lessard ‘The Split’ The New Yorker Dec 8 1997 72-73 [my emphasis]

Nothing to worry. Everything happens in China.

                 — excerpt from a fax from Mr Su

 * * * * *TAM Square 2.jpeg

CHINA. The very word. Unused in China. (Chinese refer to their country as Zhongguo in the Pinyin rendering of two ideographic Chinese characters for ‘middle’ and kingdom’ — the centre of the world.) Ultimate origin unknown, says the Concise Oxford; it appears first in first century AD Sanskrit. Used adjectivally in Australian English: Chinese torture, Chinese burn, Chinese whispers, Chinese boxes, Chinese puzzle, Chinese Scrub, Chinese checkers, and the clincher, Chinese swimmers. ‘Chinese’: a stand-in term for mystery and cruelty, and now cheating with drugs. Now doubt these things lent colour to my expectations of what I might find there.

I remember a surprising amount of what I was taught at school, but I can’t recollect even a passing reference to China except a mostly joking discussion about the way in which gravity would deliver the Yellow Peril to our doorsteps.

When I told people I was going to China I was surprised by the number who had been there already. One good friend who worked there twice, each time for many months, showed me his photos, but gasped and sighed when I asked him to tell me about it. ‘Ahhhh … China. David, I couldn’t possibly begin to explain.’ I found others who had been there in the late 70s and early 80s for reasons of their sympathetic attitude, not necessarily to communism as they explained, but to Maoism. They had learnt songs, eaten heartily and felt they had been granted access to parts of the country which had been denied to others. Their memories were fond with the romance of early adulthood.

I found someone who still wished to call herself a Maoist. Having just finished Harrison Salisbury’s book The New Emperors, I asked which aspect of Mao’s life she found so compelling: the concubines? The drugs? The flighty unexplained changes of attitudes and purpose? The mad cruelties? The distance from reality?

I remembered another friend — a drafted conscientious objector to the war in Viet Nam who could quote from the Little Red Book and had Mao posters and the epic art of peasants rising to throw off the yoke of running dog imperialists all over his walls — and wondered about the nature of the conjunction of his radical libertarianism with the strictures of communitarian living. Despite a series of disclaimers, C. P. Fitzgerald’s seminal work, The Birth of Communist China, written in the early 1960s with great style and lucidity, glowed with the same sort of hope and sense of human possibility which might be going to be realised through the Revolution. Did they perhaps know something I didn’t?

I was sure that this was a land of great events. Jung Chang’s best seller Wild Swans and Harry Wu’s books on his travails and his determination to share his experience of the brutality and repression of the current Chinese government had confirmed that in oblique ways. Like many others throughout the world, I had been deeply affected by the image of the lone person shifting around with great courage but also robotically, in front of a tank in Tian An Men Square. The guide books suggested that a fair amount of wrestling with officialdom and a surfeit of bureaucracy was likely. Other glancing impressions created complementary expectations of drabness and control, a strong Army presence, vigorous centralization and authoritarianism to mange the teeming hordes and their bicycles.

But what I retained of those impressions did not necessarily focus on China. They confirmed an impression, strengthening as I get older, of the tyranny and mania implicit in any radical solution driven by a single ideology. That applies as much to the Victoria I live in as the China, or elsewhere, I don’t. The film Raise the Red Lantern was more real to me as an ascription of place than the television broadcasts of Tian An Men Square. Like Farewell My Concubine and to a lesser extent Yellow Earth and To Live, it provided a sense of foreign-ness and unknowability, thrilling in its own way, that underpinned my misty prejudices.

I have asked myself many times where I thought I was going, what my expectations were, and the answer is always the same: actually no idea, murky, a blank.

* * * * * *

Kunming.jpegBut it was a real plane we boarded for Kunming at Singapore’s Changi airport, the sort you’d get to take you from Melbourne to Sydney; a real plane with multi-lingual air hostesses and food and drinks and cushions and call buttons and windows to look out of. It had Yunnan Airlines painted in its exterior in jade green, and was … well, scrutable.

Two comfortable and uneventful hours later, during which I discovered that one of our party had played in the ruck for Melbourne 30 ago and that Kunming had the same population as that mighty metropolis, we started our descent over Lake Dian (‘Green’). Getting lower, I was reminded of coming into Amsterdam with thousands of rows of plastic cloches covering crops of vegetables. In the sun the earth, where it was visible, was startlingly orange. Then the plane dipped round to the south and there was Kunming, like a white monument with hundreds of truncated spires.

The heavy Army presence for international arrivals was two boys sitting truculently behind a desk with their caps askew. With great courage and insouciance, I motioned that I’d like to take their photo and they smiled sheepishly as the flash went off.

Our guide appeared. Wearing a Chicago Bulls top and a pair of Levis. ‘Hi I’m Tony. Tony Tiger, English and Chinese names together. Welcome to Spring City where the weather is always beautiful.’ A lot of climatological information, each item repeated twice, followed. ‘I’m taking an Australian tour group of students to Tibet in a fortnight. Sixteen days of busing and camping.’ Ah so we weren’t actually the first Europeans to arrive after Marco Polo. ‘You’re gonna have a wunnerful time Tiger Tony is the name of an American company. I’m gonna be famous like that. I’m gonna be famous like that.’ Wild laughter.

‘We’re going to your hotel, Golden Dragon, have some dinner, they maybe you like to walk around, have a look. Quite safe, but stick to main streets; the lanes maybe be a bit different. You might get lost. Main street is Beijing Lu, Beijing Street you know, goes all the way to Beijing. Uh?’ Gales of wild laughter.

The Golden Dragon was plush. Air con, en suites, 24 Television channels with as much CNN, ESPN and MTV (from Mumbai in India, and hosted by perkily rude and delightfully self-possessed presenters with thick south London accents) as you’d care to watch. The local channels looked a lot like the ones we’d left behind at home.

In the hotel’s shopping centre you could snap up a Rado watch for 46,000 yuan (A$9,000), or a 3.5 carat diamond ring in a massive gold setting for ¥348,800. Balenciaga shirts, cashmere jackets and coats, Lacoste corduroy trousers and polo shirts, a T-shirt for 450, ropes of pearls, Zippo lighters, the ubiquitous perfumes, Lee jeans, jackets and shirts which had probably been manufactured locally. Same stuff we left behind at Changi really.

You could also get sheep’s milk from Australia, a prized elixir with many remarkable properties, at 78 yuan for a 50 gram jar. This commodity is known in Australia more familiarly as lanoline. Besides the large bottles of liquor hosting snakes and lizards, the stand-out item — and this was in the jewelry display — was ‘Certification from Mao Zedong Centennial Birthday’, a nicely framed certificate for which one would pay ¥38,800. I examined this closely, looking for, like, part of an ear or a smear of authenticated DNA, even a thumb print, but it just seemed to stand as was. I didn’t purchase.

Feeling tired and a little disoriented, we ascended the staircase to dinner. Concrete has been turned into an artistic medium in much of Asia and here was a case in point — a delicate curvature that would put most spines to shame. In between the manifold courses we watched our first dances with the wealthy burghers of Kunming and surrounds. And wealthy they would have been if they could have afforded a night out at the Golden Dragon. They ate and ran, something I discovered was commonplace. You eat and eat early to feed your body, and when you finish you don’t loiter and chat; you do something else.

Watching the dance, I wondered in my excitement (fully an hour after arrival) if this perhaps was China, the elegance, the grace, the controlled athleticism of four beautiful young women and two equally beautiful men who absorbed the music and transformed it into something visually exhilarating — so accomplished and so exact, so professional without it being professional. One focus was the hands and their weaving, winding motions with fingers bent far back towards the outside of the wrist, balancing candles in one case, holding butterfly fans in another; moving bodily without appearing to do so by delicate shuffles and transpositions, all with impassive absorption. Then I was struck by how similar what I was watching was to much south-east Asian dance. The headware and the costume would have been the only marked distinguishing features from many Balinese dances.

The small crowd, now decimated by the departure of the burghers, applauded wildly at the conclusion. Some brave characters who had assimilated very quickly joined in on stage.

Taking a deep breath, we departed for Beijing Lu. But first we had to cross Huncheng Nanlu, a broad boulevard like Beijing Lu, and encountered what I think of as ‘soft driving’ for the first time. Soft driving is like the confluence of streams of water, considerable streams at this intersection. There were traffic lights, but that night they were unintelligible to me and seemed to be ignored more generally. The cars, buses, trucks and bikes murmured to each other with their horns and bells, sometimes a little stridently when the invisible rules of this game were ignored and a rock surfaced in the stream. No one was going very fast and so negotiating within millimetres of each other and of pedestrians was both anticipated and realised. There was a singular lack of aggression and exasperation as the weft and weave worked their way through the tapestry of traffic. We drove a long way in Yunnan, sometimes hair-raisingly, and no doubt there are crashes, but the only accident we saw was a truck which had gone over the shoulder on a mountain road because of a displaced load. Soft driving is a very smooth and patient rush.

So, caressed by the traffic, we crossed safely and headed north.

Beijing Lu was lit up, not so much by its shops and street lighting as by its inhabitants. The street was alive with young people on a night out, on a promenade. Couples arm in arm and small groups chatting excitedly ambled along the footpaths, going nowhere special, perhaps down the hutongs (lanes) to the night markets for some barbecue or sweets, or peering into the shopfronts which were now as often as not populated by families watching TV, ironing, drinking tea.

It could have been High St Newtown on a Friday night or Lygon St or Rundle Mall: but it wasn’t. Our fellow promenaders looked so stylish, so healthy, so happy and confident — and so sober. All of life ahead of them and nothing in the way. It was in the body language, the sense of things going right, with the voracious appetite of youth to learn and experience innocently, more or less forgotten in our media, on full display. No drugs, no drunks, no gangs, no police, no army. They were all somewhere else that night.

And they were anything but drab. The young men wore 80s suits with very broad shoulders and deep reveres — the turn of the collar in the front of the jacket — made out of dark tweed in a vast range of patterns, shirts and ties as flamboyant as a scuttle of stockbrokers in the middle of a bullish run. Suits were popular with the immaculate young women as well, in a range of colours that stretched the imagination. Solid reds, greens, yellows, oranges, with contrasting panels and insets: a dash of velvet here, some lace there, an embroidered rose, some rhinestone set into an upturned collar, remarkable buttons, a belt of black chain. Skirts ranged from very short to very long. Like something familiar, but not what we had seen before. The influences were manifold but the effect was local, and prosperous.


A block off Beijing Lu we found a market devoted almost entirely to women’s clothing, a hectare or more with hundreds of shops replete with dresses, slacks, gowns and underwear for every occasion. These were arrayed on mannequins, the moulds for which must have been bought as a joblot from the US in about 1958. Fair-skinned (greyish really) and mostly fair-haired, high cheek bones, blue-eyed, unsmiling with fire engine red pouts, narrow waists with deep breasts, tiny feet, and plaster hair-dos the like of which may not exist anywhere any more. Kiss curls, odd bobs, hair bands, comb-ups, ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ fringes. Identical mannequins re-appeared in cities and shops, large and small, wherever we went. Someone had a monopoly … aha! yes, a light dawns — someone also known as the People’s Republic of China. A monopoly of mannequins. Amazing.

Foreigners are not terribly common in Kunming. The promenaders would turn to check our progress, some calling out ‘hello’ and otherwise enquiring about the state of our health. We did our best to say ‘ni hao’ in return.

Further up Beijing Lu a vast advertising hoarding was attached to a pedestrian bridge. To its left was another huge billboard, which suggested that the epic art of the revolution with its massive peasants straining for a crack at the future having conquered the past had found a new medium. In separate frames Steven Seagal, Danny De Vito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in full Mr Freeze regalia were, if artistically enhanced, all recognizable. Come and watch guns, knives, swords and romance, the billboard says, in a universal language. China has the largest cinema market in the world, 55 percent of global movie audiences.

beijing Lu.JPG

It was a clement evening in Spring City, and although we managed to find some crowds next day in a department store, the promenade was unhurried and fluid. Plenty of fast food but no McDonalds. We bought some just-baked biscuits from a version of a hot bread shop that might have pre-dated the word ‘shop’, and considered our discovery that we were still on the same planet, so very much the same planet, that it was warm and as welcoming as one might expect, that it was temperate and hard-working, and that the sun could shine on Chinese and juwairen (outsiders) alike. Perhaps those discoveries were the result of my original ignorance and naivete, but all learning has a starting point, and if everything I had thought turned out to be wrong, as it more or less did, I didn’t mind one bit.

Spring City, until my mind is changed again, will be mellow; and Beijing Lu on a Friday night will be just a treat.



                  ‘Presents are light, but friends are heavy.’ (Mr Su)

The four.jpegThey marched into the Golden Dragon, the four of them, looking as pleased as Punch — blow out those cheeks and let the tones resonate!) Mr Zhang and Mr Huang and Mr Xu and Mr Su (in order above). (Purse your lips, curl your tongue and give a short whistle — Xu, Xu, Xu. You can practice for some time without getting it right.)

Mr Zhang had a car. That cut him out from the herd. No one else much had a car where we were going. But he didn’t own it. It belonged to the same mob who provided the mannequins, and he was a driver. I mistook his role for that of sort of personal assistant/ chauffeur to Mr Su, but I was a long way wide of the meaning of democracy in action. If you have an approved purpose you can organise a car, an interesting thing in itself, and for the two-day drive from Mojiang to Kunming you needed a car.

Mr Zhang had no English, but he was a great communicator — I had better and easier conversations with him than with some of the Chinese teachers of English we were to meet — providing the first of many encounters with the very high level non-verbal communicative skills that many of our Chinese hosts displayed. It might be something about the language that makes you use everything you’ve got including, of course, tones, and gesture to get meaning clear.

Mr Huang was a English teacher and was immediately recognizable as a type. In schools I know, people would say of his ilk, ‘Mr Huang? Indispensable. First here, last to leave; always wanting to see if there is something he can do to help.’ He would be the person who marked out the oval at 5am on the day of the athletic sports and collected the flags at the end. He almost quivered with alertness, wired in to everything that was happening, and later played basketball in exactly the same manner.

His English was like my best foreign language. You compose carefully, maybe getting held up by a bit of vocab that’s missing. But then, satisfied, you deliver your conversational offering in a manner suitable to the completion of a task which has taken you a great deal of effort: a flourish, head back from the shoulders, hand thrown forward: and how was that one! And then, if it was a question, hope that no one would answer or at least not at any length. So while the group chatted away, my friend Mr Huang would suddenly pounce: ‘And how then do you like our gracious country?’

Mr Xu (Mr Xu. Mr Xu. I’m still practising.) was also an English teacher from Mojiang, in his early twenties and as bright as a button. His English was excellent and he was a key organiser, the king of the buses, who stayed with us for the fortnight we were in Yunnan, and was one of the factors that made travel so easy and the experience so memorable. Immensely good-humoured, he had the world at his finger tips and nothing was too much trouble for him. He would explain with a courtesy and patience that I would like to be able to reproduce.

Mr Su A 1.jpeg

And Mr Su. That great man, Mr Su. Nut brown and sparkling with vitality.

Mr Su was the reason why we were there at all. Now Principal of Mojiang Regional Teachers College, he had been principal of Mojiang No 1 Middle (secondary) School when one of his teachers was awarded a scholarship to spend some time in Australia. This teacher, Tao Ying She, now working internationally as an engineer, spent some time teaching at Hawker College in the ACT in 1990 where he became friends with Mark Hall who, with Mr Su’s help, organized the first visit by Australians to Mojiang.

‘What was my idea? It was difficult to decide. The government had not decided to make our town open. But the central government had a policy of open-ness, has said that we should learn from Western countries. So I thought, yes. Some should come. I have never met any foreigner at the time. I think hmmm … yep … very very good thing. We could learn a lot from foreigners. I would hear the language spoken which I have taught for so many years. They too can learn from our schools, our people and our country.’

It was, I think typically, a courageous decision. He had stepped over the cautious parochialism of his regional cadres and chosen to interpret the policy of the central government in his own way, reaching out to the idea of a higher good.

‘When Mr Tao returned he made a report. We know some things about Australia but very little. Mr Mark Hall had visited and when he returned he wanted more to come back. He teaches Chinese and wanted to know Chinese more. He made a plan — the Bamboo Trail [which entailed travelling up the rivers to Mojiang from the south]. I like to have PE teachers to learn some more about PE, and so a large group came for four days. They are very satisfied. We learned from each other so much, so much. From that time we have had groups of Australian teachers and students, maybe 136 persons.

‘The best thing for us is that we learn more English. Teachers and students can talk with native speakers, can make students study English harder and harder. After these activities, they feel it is not so difficult to learn to speak. They are excellent students. They work hard and live simply.’

Mr Su decided to become a teacher very young. His father who died when he was eight had been a teacher, as are his two sisters. ‘I loved and respected my teachers. I primary school I thought I would like to be a teacher. When I was young I liked to learn very much. My family’s rules are strict, and they think it is a good discipline to learn languages.

‘I went to Pu’er [a larger town 150km. south of Mojaing, famous for the quality of its tea] where I studied for three years. I had to leave my school where I knew everyone and had many friends. Some of my classmates came with me, but from then on I liked to make new friends. Yep. I like to make friends very much.’

In 1962 he went to the University of Kunming’s Teachers College.

‘At this time the Cultural Revolution began. We had no lessons at all. We just stayed at the College and had some political study and discussions. At the beginning we were involved. Later on, some of us not so interested. But for the first time you could go anywhere, you could travel. Sometimes I went Lancang [pron. ‘lun shung’] or Jing Hong, but everywhere there were Red Guards.

‘We waited for a job for two years. In October 1968 I was sent to Mojiang Middle School No. 1. At Mojiang the students did not come back [to school]. There were no lessons. They stayed in their farms and villages. Teachers had nothing to do for one year. The government organized teachers to do farm work. I could do that because I came from a village. Then school began again. Many children came back and we could teach.

‘But at that time there were no exams. When students don’t have exams, they don’t work very hard. In our school I think the students were good. They were obedient. But it was a time when you had to be very careful.’

mr-su-1.jpgHe was telling me this, drinking cup after cup of green tea from his personal thermos, sitting in the Spartan principal’s office at Lancang decorated only with an arm and chest expander hanging from a peg on the wall. Ten days earlier when we’d talked about the Cultural Revolution he had mentioned that 600 people had died in Mojiang, a town of about 20,000, and that teachers were disproportionately represented among that group. How did he feel about that? ‘Mao did many great things. He was a very great leader. But this … very bad, very bad thing.’

These experiences had not diminished his interest in education and belief in its centrality.

‘To be a teacher you must learn a lot of knowledge, about every field. When I was in College I learnt Chinese, English Language and Chinese History and I played sport. To be a teacher you must look widely. For me it is not so difficult to be a teacher … and I have children. Now my students are teachers, and I love that they are teachers. They do their job better than me!’

He had recently been studying Chinese History again to teach his own students, and what he was learning was very much on his mind. ‘Chinese must know that China is a very old country with a long history. Many famous people tried to make China stronger. They have failed. Too big. Too many people. No good government. Policy is a most important thing. A lot of Chinese people work harder and harder to make China strong, to progress. They must work harder for our country. Make our country richer. Every Chinese people.

‘Chinese government found the problem in education. Most of the students study only to enter a higher level. When they grow and have to do some job, their abilities are not so good. Our educational rules must change.

‘If the teaching is orderly, regular, consistent, students can learn a lot of things. Teaching methods have changed but not so much I think. If students want to go on they have to study hard, and the teachers must prepare their lessons very carefully. But every year children talk back a little more to their teachers. They have more free time, more things to choose and they lose what is good for them and their futures.

‘In the future I don’t know what will happen. The level of life [standard of living] will improve. This is happening all the time. Such a big change in my lifetime. The important thing is to release students’ abilities, and teach them how to learn to learn. That is the education for the future. But spiritual life may suffer and, and education has two purposes both of which must be respected: the material life and the spiritual life. The spiritual life is what might suffer.’

The key.jpegWhen we arrived at the Nationalities School at Lancang he gripped my arm and pointed at a slogan on a plinth with a huge golden key mounted on it. ‘This is what Deng says: “Education must confront modernization. It must face the world, and it must face the future.” That is what I think too. That is why you are here.’

But the slogans of politics could never do justice to Mr Su and his beliefs as he lived them. They are too abstract and arguments about them and their meaning too arbitrary and ethereal. What he offered, in this instance, was his friendship and his vitality and warmth to a group of foreigners. He was at his finest singing ‘Country Roads’ to a karaoke screen, roaring with laughter, offering toasts, chatting so openly with strangers, magically causing our luggage to appear after it had been left behind hours away on a broken down bus, glowing with pleasure at the obvious success of our contact. One form of his finest anyway. I have no doubt that he was an inspirational and quite firm leader as well. His career and the esteem in which he was held locally attested to that. A great man.

He left us at Jing Hong. We had drunk some whiskey together the night before to say farewell because he was leaving for the long drive back to Mojiang very early in the morning. But when we woke up on the rock hard beds we thought we would like to say goodbye once more. So I pulled a jacket on over my pyjamas and stuck my feet into my boots and we went down to the foyer. We waited for an hour and half before he appeared beaming. ‘Ah good sleep. Good sleep.’ As well as a great man, a human being, one of us.Mr Su B.jpeg



countryside 1.jpegIt didn’t take very long to get out of Kunming. Because all time in China is synchronized to Beijing time, it was very early and the sun appeared to be struggling to rise. When it did we were looking at a highway that will eventually, soon, link Bangkok with Beijing and the vivid yellow flowers of rape crops. We passed endless streams of light blue trucks carrying lignite, hard black coal, and timber and minibuses packed with passengers and their luggage. The haze turned out not be the mists of early morning, but smoke coming from a rack of coal-burning power stations set back into the hills on the right. Every so often there were villages with cultivated fields jammed hard up against their walls. The most majestic buildings were white- and blue-tiled petrol stations, decorated in gold.

It was still twilight when we stopped. We were not yet in the bush but we were in the country. The prosperity of Kunming was behind us. I got out of the bus and wandered over to a statue on a large column. I asked Mr Huang who it was. He told me but I can’t remember, not a figure from the 20th century I gathered. Street sweepers were busy collecting rubbish into piles, and the shops were just opening. These shops sold the essentials of life — piles of bottled soft drink and water stacked in tiers, cigarettes, salt and pepper, slabs of tofu, toothpaste, small packets of tissues and sacks of rice. Bowls of broth with noodles were available for those who wanted to eat out for breakfast.

I climbed back on. We had stopped for toilets, and this was a challenging set of conveniences. Communal, no walls at all, with slots in the concrete floor above huge piles of faeces. I had noticed the smell in the street and wondered where it was coming from. People are sometimes described as turning green, and it’s a nice if slightly overblown image. But as my fellow travellers returned I noticed that the face of one of them was actually, discernibly, tinged with green. Nauseous.

Discussions of toilets and their condition absorbed a good deal of time on the buses, possibly more than any other subject. It did seem a turning point in coming to grips with how others might live. Sanitariness was one topic, but I guess the issue of privacy was more fundamental, a significant symbol of difference that stood for far more than its manifestation in concrete rather than porcelain. After a week some of the interest had died off, accommodation had been reached, in fact it became a rather discomforting shock to be back in first world conditions when we returned to Kunming. We all slept badly. But if the conversation slackened and there was a need to engage the group, ‘toilets’ reappeared on the agenda.

We’re soft I thought as I sat on the bus watching the street, and there was something ‘hard’ to see. Immediately below me was a very thin man, his legs tied up in rags, bare feet horny and cracked from rough use, a leather jacket tight round his torso. His eyelids seemed pegged back so that his stare would not be interrupted, and his eyes were like electricity. He had a dead cigarette butt and a lighter which he twirled in a mad dance. He made no distinction between animate and inanimate objects as he jerked and twisted, addressing them from between clenched teeth and then pulling away. He would carefully place his talismans on the road, and then snatch them up again in a manically personal dance drawn up from a well of very deep organic disturbance.

I think I was the only one watching. Passers by parted around him, going about their business.

We saw a small number of beggars in Kunming hauling themselves along on trolleys or otherwise getting themselves around on battered limbs, and blind children outside the Silk Market in Beijing being pushed by their parents towards the wealthy tourists. But China would be a tough place to have a disability.

My memories are so full of richness it takes someone else to look at the photos to remind me of how comparatively poor the Yunnanese outside the big cities were. They ate well, food was fresh, plentiful and very high quality. No dairy products of course, but it was pointed out that they make you fat, if not necessarily clumsy and graceless. The fat and spoiled Chinese children, so beloved of Western media, were nowhere in evidence. But this plenitude was not everywhere. We were told that at the time of our visit and for some years previously, millions of the population in north-west China were stricken by famine and facing starvation. Millions. The scale. The scale. As a result of the famine in the late 50s and early 60s, exacerbated if not generated by the Great Leap Forward, more than 50 million died.

The teacher housing that we were invited to visit was spare and, according to our standards of great largesse with space, cramped. Furniture was what was required and little else. For decoration there were some glass display cases filled with objects precious to their owners. Farm houses were built out of concrete block and had two or three rooms with a concrete terrace, often with lines crowded with hands of drying tobacco, where the inhabitants cooked and sat. The comparatively few village houses we saw had dirt floors and thatched roofs. For children living there, to go to secondary school meant travel to a centre which might be 60 or 80 kilometres away, boarding during the week in living conditions which tended to replicate what they would have been used to in the village or farm, doing their own cooking, washing and mending.

Basic — with none of the fetish about choice we were caught up in. But below basic was big trouble.Countryside #2.jpeg



In our hotel in Yuan Jiang we were woken by a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ broadcast over the town public address system followed by a selection of Broadway favourites including ‘New York New York’. It wasn’t expected.

For some reason I was late. I’d been absorbed in the market where my colleagues had seen their first cooked dog, teeth bared in grimace. It was past the 50 varieties of ground chilli and the endless stalls od green produce, just in behind the butchery where the skill of finding some culinary or other use for every part of an animal was brilliantly on display. I missed seeing the dog, but not much. I was mesmerised by the range and quality of the live fish. Where did they come from?

The buses left for the school, and I found myself in the back of a car driven by Mr Zhang talking to Mr Su about the impact of the Cultural Revolution. We were held up for 15 minutes by the ubiquitous road works before coming to the exquisite countryside, water buffalo wandering across in front of the car, snowy mountains in the deep background.

Yuan Jiang Middle School was lie many of the other schools we visited in Yunnan — four storeys of concrete frame filled with porous red brick, bagged with mortar and covered with white ceramic tiles, polished concrete floors, an open corridor on each level, steps at their end. And as became customary, the corridors were crowded like opera stalls with students and teachers wanting a good clear look at their visitors. But they were also looking out over a small lake, excellent feng shui, and picturesque in the extreme. The boarding areas were set back in the trees past a hard dirt soccer field.

Aiyin Si Tain.jpeg

The first teaching experience in China. We had been to a school at Ershan, but had only listened to speeches of welcome, drunk tea, eaten peanuts, lolly bars and mandarins for luck, and spoken somewhat tentatively to the teachers. We weren’t into it yet: not quite sure of the protocols. I was seated under a portrait of The Great Helmsman but further along the wall were identically-sized portraits of Len Nin, Niu Dun (Newton) and Aiyin Si Tan (Einstein). These would reappear as frequently as those of Mao. Now, a day later, this was a moment of truth I was looking forward to recording. The Australian teachers were armed with plans and pictures and puppets and songs and signs and stickers and puzzles and posters; and I was armed, serenely expectant, with my camera and note pad.

I was standing on the forecourt quietly, thinking about where I would start, when Jing flew up to me and said, ‘You must teach. There is a class without a teacher.’ Teach. Teach? ‘Yes. Teach.’ Oh no. But … ‘At the end of the corridor. The ground floor. ‘Ooooh. Teach. Oh no. What was it they were doing? What songs had my professional comrades been singing? Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree. Heads, shoulders knees and toes. Teach. Ooh. No plan. No nothing. No can’t do it. No no no. Sorry, but no.

Class of 50.jpeg

I entered the classroom in a cold sweat. You don’t trifle with Jing. Sixty faces. Or it could have been two thousand. ‘Hello’, I said. A roar came back. ‘Hello.’ ‘Hello again’, I said. ‘Hello again’, they roared. That’s it, I thought. That’s me. I can’t think of a thing to do.

By training and trade I am a teacher. I have taught kids this age (13 and 14) for seven years, and kids a bit older for another four. I have given perhaps six or maybe eight hundred talks to audiences of teachers, business people, anyone who cares to step up really. But they weren’t young speakers of Chinese in Yuan Jiang.

‘My name is …’ What is my name? How should I render it appropriately, finding the right pitch between academic formality and ambassadorial friendliness? How do Chinese teachers require their students to refer to them? Ho ho ho. More basically, who am I anyway? Mr David? Mr McRae? McRae David? The depths of my ignorance are unplumbable. I think I was chatting to myself as I wrote my name on the board, but I’m not certain.

I turned around and ask if they have something to write on. Write? On? Gesturing furiously and looking at the vast range of bookish type things they have on their desks. What Australian fourteen year-olds would keep in their lockers, these children had very neatly stacked on the front section of their shared desks. Must be some blank paper in there somewhere, but I don’t know that there is.

‘Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree/ Merry merry king of the bush is he … ‘ oh terrible, just terrible. Would you teach that song, that deep and sustaining efflorescence of our native culture even in the most straitened of circumstances? The tune just hacks away, and the words … ‘oh how gay your life must be.’

‘Just a minute. Won’t be a sec.’ I fled.

I was going to find Myrna my wife to see if she had something I could steal to use — an idea, some pictures, anything. I was going to se if something came to me while I was walking. I was going to think what would fill an hour with reasonable dignity. I was going to buy some space to settle. Because in truth I was in a white panic, a lumpy grey-haired figure in a blue shirt running up and down stairs and along corridors, past all sorts of educational scenes stamped with success: roars of laughter, active groups, attentive students and there were 54 others waiting for me downstairs.

I couldn’t find Myrna and didn’t know what I would have done if I had except to interrupt her class. I stopped running, just walked fast and took some deep breaths. Uh huh. ‘I am going to teach you a song. It’s called “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree”. It’s about … a bird.’ We hadn’t seen a bird for days and wouldn’t for another ten. They may be on the menu in southern Yunnan and seem to have disappeared. ‘A bird. It laughs.’

Now I don’t do a bad kookaburra, but I did this time, the worst kookaburra you have ever heard in your life. And what would you make of it if you’d never heard one before? A bird? Or some nutcase up the front of the room making strange noises at you? ‘What did you do at school today Li?’ ‘Well we had some Australian visitors and one of them was supposed to teach us. But do you know what he did?’ Young Chinese would be far too polite and generous to explain.

Well, I thought. Well. One of the interesting things about teaching is that it doesn’t allow you to take a break for a few minutes to get organised. That would be a bit like Placido Domingo stopping in the middle of an aria and saying to his audience, ‘Just feel like I need a cup of tea, so chat among yourselves for a few minutes.’ It doesn’t happen. When you’re on, you are on. The show must go on. Not only that, when I looked around, these charming young faces were so forgiving but also so expectant, they must be offered something.

Some lumps were beginning to form. The last job I had done before we came to China was a review of the Learning Assistance Program in the ACT and I had been thinking about the strictness of the relationship between the usefulness of language and its learnability. I was also starting to feel distinctly claustrophobic stuck on my teaching platform in this room, and I thought maybe there was something outside, something that might save the situation, and me.

And there was. I waved my young stars out of the room and we went down to the lake. Normally in that situation you would chat to a few students, strolling along, keeping an eye out for stragglers. But all I could offer, like the dog, was teeth bared in rictus. We arrived at the lake. I held up my hand in a stop sign and, blue shirt dripping from accumulated sweat, made my pronouncement. ‘This’, I said. ‘This is a lake.’ And I was so pleased with myself, I burst out laughing. ‘Yes, this a lake.’ Tapping ear, ‘Say after me: lake.’ ‘LAKE!!!’ they roared. Clearly I was well on my way to becoming a successful teacher of English a foreign language. ‘Say it again.’ ‘LAKE!!!’

And so we investigated fishing with vigorous casting and reeling in, and the drain that ran into the lake and water and getting wet, until the lake was pretty near exhausted as a teaching resource, and there were 45 minutes left to go. I paused briefly to consider whether or not they were actually allowed out of their classroom (almost certainly not) and in the same instant dismissed that as a problem. Special occasion. My cobalt blue shirt was turning black from the sweat.

We did Walking. Walking with long strides, walking on tip toes, walking quietly, skipping and hopping, until we got to the boarding area where we found a mother with her baby. And bless me if the baby wasn’t wearing a hat, HAT!!! And a jacket, and boots. These are boots BOOOTS!! And this is a very tolerant mother with a lovely smile. And we stamped up the steps to the oval: ONE. TWO. THREE … FIFTEEN. And this my friends is a soccer pitch. But no it wasn’t. I was corrected immediately. It was a football pitch. Of course. Sorry. We put three of the bigger boys on front of the goal and had a volunteer take an imaginary free kick. GOAL! GOAL! GOAL!! we shouted, and some of the boys ran round like mad things but mercifully there were no belly skids into the gravel.

On the far side of the pitch we found some firewood and a cart. Axeless, we chopped and stacked; we pulled the cart and we pushed it. Below the pitch was the kitchen, so down the stairs: ONE. TWO. THREE. … The workers in the kitchen looked startled but accommodating, and we found POTS and PANS and WOKS (Woks? Wok is Chinese word, I was gravely informed. Oh yes indeed. Sure, but um … ) and all manner of produce, our feast for lunch. And then it was time to go home or at least back to the classroom.

I was breathing heavily, not quite sure what I had done, except that the hour had passed. There had been time for a very short revision: they had remembered ‘fishing’ and ‘rod’ and ‘push’ and ‘pull’, so hoorah for that at least. I wanted to sit quietly somewhere by myself and recover. No rest though, no time to mull over mistakes now past: there was dancing to be danced.

We were invited up on to the soccer, pardon, football pitch to watch and join in a variety of Yi circle dances. I was still breathing hard in the warmth of the sun but became absorbed by the elegance and daintiness of what we were trying to copy so clumsily.

At lunch at every table there was a frenzy of talk, a hubbub, a din. Toasts in beer, glasses emptying, wonderful food. Everyone wanting to talk about what had happened to them, what the school was like, how fantastic the kids had been, how hard it was teaching in a foreign language, what had worked and what would be thrown away — the sort of thunder where you would like every party to start. The Yuan Jiang teachers were not infected by the mood; they had shared and prompted it from the start. Their first visit from Australians, any Europeans for that matter, was a dynamite success.

And then the fans started to arrive. There had been some collecting of autographs during the dancing, but as we left the dining room the kids came from everywhere, holding out pieces of paper, text books, anything they could get heir hands on. And the cards started to arrive, and the precious photos, and two pink plastic covered notebooks with a page each of carefully inscribed Chinese characters, and a letter addressed to a copy of my unintelligible signature and some toys, a panda and a cat, a silk handkerchief — and my heart just broke.

‘I’m Chinese. Here you are. Goodbye. Student Hu Hua.’ ‘Hello my name is Yang Ji Xian.’ ‘Thank you. My name is Huan Jia Jie.’ ‘Happy New Year from Zhoa Li Ling.’ ‘Best wishes for you. My name is Hong Li.’ ‘Yang Wei.’ ‘Yang Chun’, ‘Li Xiao Ye.’ ‘Li Yun Mei.’ ‘Best wishes for your holidays. Yang Qang.’ ‘To a good friend from Song Yu.’ ‘ Forever wishes Li Qing.’

What had we offered that could match this unforgettable outpouring of affection and generosity? I simply can’t imagine.



Local practice gives to those who succeed in the examinations at Canton an accolade that reminds one of those reserved for the gods at their solemn festivals. Although tiers of other examinations still lie ahead, the country people see passing the licentiate’s exams in Canton as the mental and social triumph that it is, the due reward for years of sacrifice and patient study. All those who pass the final rounds of this degree, once the awards are posted, assemble dressed in red caps, blue outer garments, and black satin boots, and proceed together in sedan chairs to the Confucian temple of Canton, to pay their homage to the sage. Thence they process to the offices of the educational director to express their thanks and receive their investitures: two gold flowers for their red hats, a red wreath, and a cup of celebratory wine. Leaving the hall one by one, with their relatives and friends crowded around them, they are escorted home with ‘drums, music and streamers’, to worship their ancestors and pay homage to their parents. The next day, with presents all prepared, they pay formal visits to their tutors who made their successes possible. Any young man can nurture dreams like these.

        — Jonathan Spence God’s Chinese Son (1997:24), a history of Hong Xiuquan who fomented the Taiping Rebellion during which 20 million people died. Hong failed his civil service exams in the year 1836.

‘Our children are everything to us.’

        — Mr Li

I had prepared for the second class I taught. The topic, chosen with some deliberation, was ‘choice’, with associated vocabulary such as ‘like’, ‘dislike’ and so on. The activities were polling favourite colours and activities, along with a game of heads or tails. The students were exceptionally bright fourteen year-olds at Mojiang, Mrs Chen’s superstars.

It was hard to judge the impact of the lesson because Mrs Chen both insisted on translating and intervening to ensure that no one got anything wrong. There was not the faintest tinge of the anarchy of my experience at Yuan Jiang. She stood next to me on the teaching platform casting her own most effective pedagogical spells. Considering the topic of the class, her role somewhat undercut its purpose. There was in fact no choice in how to respond and she was there to make sure this was the case.

I think Mrs Chen would have been an exceptionally good teacher. She was experienced, most professional and her class was beautifully drilled. But there would never have been any edge in her work. I doubt whether she had spent five minutes in the last ten years wondering if there was any alternative to the way she was teaching. This was not true of all the teachers we met. Some, like Miss Feng, so serious about her vocation, wanted to explore all sorts of questions about her work no less profound for their familiarity.

In the afternoon I ran a seminar, an ‘expert’ session, on teaching English for about 20 teachers of English from Mojiang and other district schools. I proposed that while there was no one best way of teaching English, the quickest and best way to learn a second language was consistent use. But there are factors which will influence how this can happen: The nature of the school and the way it is organized, the available resources, the number of students in a class, the amount of time devoted to the study; the background knowledge and skill of the teacher, their personality and energy levels; the age and skill level of the students, their disposition to learning a second language and their expectations about what might and should happen in a classroom; and what the community and government expected about the same arena. This would be as true in southern Yunnan as it would be anywhere in Australia.

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There are three and only three ways to teach I suggested — telling, showing and doing together. I tried to model this by my 20-minute lecture (telling), by discussing copies of a picture book about learning English we had brought (showing) and by pairing up Chinese and Australian teachers to leave the school and undertake some self-chosen task together using English as the medium of communication (doing).

I think my hypothesis that doing was best was proved. Listening to the lecture was arduous for many of those there, the enormous disparities in their English capabilities clear. The small group discussions about the book and other matters were very lively, but it seemed that the paired ‘using English’ excursions were the most effective settings for learning. Among other things, the roles were more equal. But even the idea that I was venturing a hypothesis about teaching for which a single set of experiences might provide some evidence one way or the other, left us all swimming in rocky cultural waters.

Mr Su A.jpegWhile the participants were wandering round the markets, posting letters, buying warmer clothes and souvenirs, meeting relatives and so forth, I chatted to Mr Li (above right), the deputy principal at Mojiang who came further south with us, about what had transpired. My Li had a profoundly intellectual and very broad grasp of educational issues as well as excellent English. He had heard nothing new, and was rehearsing its implications, something I think he had done many times before. He thought teaching methods would change if schools had more resources, more teachers and if the rigidity of the examination system was lessened.

But Mojiang could have smaller classes. In a big secondary school like Mojiang, teachers generally teach two one-hour lessons a day. Each lesson is very carefully prepared and the teacher ‘models’ what is to be learnt, both in terms of content and performance. There is a great deal of book work on exercises which are largely transcription, producing a huge correction load which is completed daily by the teacher. (Otherwise the students would have nothing to do their work in.) But that load could be lighter.

Mr Su slipped me two tertiary-level English exam papers for me to suggest which would be better to use. They differed mainly in length. Perversely, I thought the longer one was better; but both, to Australian eyes, were odd. One question I remember was:

    An English friend invites you to dinner at six o’clock. At what time should you arrive?

  1. Fifteen minutes before six o’clock?
  2. Six o’clock?
  3. Fifteen minutes after six o’clock?
  4. Thirty minutes after six o’clock?

This very question has bothered me for years, but I searched fruitlessly for the answer. I wanted to talk to Mr Su about the fluidity implicit in such situations, but he knew what he wanted to know and it was which paper was better.

Teachers have a role and a status in China they don’t have here. Their pay comes in about the same comparative level, let’s say about the five-eighths mark where 1 is ‘rich’ and 0 ‘impoverished’; they don’t pay tax and housing is heavily subsidised. Both Mr Li and Mr Su lived on the Mojiang campus. But education matters more and is taken far more seriously. At 9.30pm we would be walking around the streets of these southern rural towns and a gush of students would emerge from the school gates where they would have been doing their homework. In the shopfronts families would be supervising the work of younger children. Education is a family responsibility. Both the child and the parent must protect the future of the family through educational success.

Michael Bond, a psychologist born in Canada but who has lived in Hong Kong and other parts of China for more than 20 years, has extensively investigated research which seeks to identify and isolate distinctively Chinese cultural characteristics from the perspectives of social psychology. He presents some of his findings in Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from psychology. The core of his book begins:

The Chinese child is brought up to regard home as refuge against the indifference, the rigours and the arbitrariness if life outside. This feat is encouraged by indulging then infant, restraining the toddler, disciplining the school child, encouraging the students to value academic achievement, and suppressing the divisive impulses of aggression and sexuality throughout development. Constantly during this process one is taught to put other family members before oneself, to share their pride and their shame, their sadness and their joy. Family relationships become a lifelong affair, with family activities continuing to absorb the lion’s share of one’s time and responsibility (1991:6) [Could this still be true in 2017? Maybe only by implication …]

If this is indeed the case, the Five Confucian principles of Duty nominated by Wu Ko-tu in 1861 (see p.2) are still very much alive and well, still at the heart of social relations. In Australia in Asia: Comparing cultures, a collaborative work (1996) edited by Anthony Milner and Mary Quilty, the many (Australian) authors provide their best shots at a similarly difficult task — cross cultural generalisation. One key idea from its chapter on education:

In Asian societies … to be fully human, to be adult is to know one’s place in relationships. The key value in a society such as this is harmony in relationships. … Ritualised interchange and deference to superiors forestall conflict and prevent confrontation or disagreement (ibid: 84) [Reflect on the events of Tian An Men Square in that light.]

It goes on to suggest that, among other things,

Western approaches to education are often seen as exotic in the Asian region. … The emphasis on debate and argument, the fostering of individuality, and the insistence on an egalitarian relationship between teacher and student run counter to strongly held values in many Asian societies.

Educated Australians take on school knowledge as their own individual knowledge. … In this process, authoritative knowledge is always seen only as a resource to draw on in developing one’s own knowledge. The novel ideas, personal fancies, interests and opinions valued in the West as signs of independence are not acceptable in most Asian classrooms. … [They] express ignorance of the norm — the ‘truth’ — and are thus evidence of a lack of education (ibid: 70-80). [Consider the exam question I quoted. The real issue is not when you should turn up for dinner, but whether you can remember the ‘correct’ answer provided by the teacher or text.]

A good teacher knows a great deal; the best teacher knows ‘everything’. [Note Mr Su’s similar comments on this subject.] The task of the teacher is to know the content, to organize it systematically and to present it in clear, vivid language. Elementary mastery means to have ready, correct recall of factual knowledge from memory. Students imitate a good teacher’s display of learning until they have perfected the replication of the teacher’s model and they know it by heart (ibid: 90).

To teach is to model: there is no applause here for the stumbler groping towards competence. Such a student makes a poor model. Only the good student who supplies a model answer to the question is allowed to act as a model for other students (ibid: 91). [See Mrs Chen’s interventions as a case in point.]

A harmonious relationship between teacher and student requires that students do not challenge the teacher. A teacher may even interpret a question as criticism: an indirect suggestion that the teacher has not been clear or lacks knowledge. Questions also waste the time of other students and risk showing up the questioner as lacking in diligence or ability. … the attributes of a good student are those of the endurance athlete: patience, precision, tenacity, fortitude and regulation of tempo (ibid: 92). [In this light, just how bad was my performance at Yuan Jiang …]

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Because of the nature of the language, becoming literate in Chinese is a differing sort of task than becoming literate in English. Each different word is represented by one or more ideographs (pictorial characters). Thus a ‘complete’ keyboard, for example, would have more than 5000 keys; to read an ordinary book or an upscale newspaper requires a vocabulary of more than 3000. A ‘Thousand Character Mass Education’ movement began in, of all places, France during the first World War among the Chinese labourers working behind the Allied lines. One of them, James Yen, decided to do something about the illiteracy that plagued this group. Recognising the difficulty and length of time required for coming to terms with and memorizing this many characters, devised a more limited vocabulary of 1000 characters closely corresponding to the language actually used by this group of workers. When imported to the home country, this was an important step in developing mass literacy.

But the significance of extensive rote memorization to development of literacy should not have to be underlined. However, as noted in Comparing Cultures, ‘Although a student achieves mastery through repetition and memorisation, one cannot assume that this repetition is mindless. In China, for example, repetition and understanding are not separated; the precise form of the words is vital to the idea (ibid: 86).

Similarly the task of writing is far more complicated than that of working with Western alphabets. Neatness, balance and attention to detail require a level of fine motor coordination that would be unusual to find in Australian students of a similar age. A teacher of Chinese among our party was chary about producing any written Mandarin because it would be deemed infantile by its Chinese readers.

I have no doubt that the ‘special’ nature of these two fundamentals of education have a wide-ranging impact on what happens elsewhere in Chinese education — in pedagogy, in learning styles, in the concern for exactitude, even in the unquestioning acceptance of authoritative sources.

Bond reaches five conclusions, each of which have strong implications for the distinctive style and flavour of Chinese education, one of which follows naturally from this discussion of memorisation.

The need to master ideographs reinforces an academic emphasis on memory, attention to detail, and lengthy homework. It also strengthens a predisposition towards perceiving stimuli as whole rather than a collection of parts, and high spatial intelligence. (op cit: 118).

The other four are similarly significant.

  • The Chinese believe in the naturalness, necessity and inevitability of hierarchy. It is self-evident to Chinese that all men are born unequal. An efficient society requires a broadly accepted ordering of people. The alternative to hierarchy is chaos (luan) and anarchy which are together worse than a harsh authority.
  • The bases of this inequality are achievement, usually academic, wealth and moral example. The last is especially important for commanding political authority.
  • Laws negotiated by men are rigid, artificial and insensitive to the changing circumstances of life. The judgment of wise and compassionate men is a better way to regulate personal, social and political relationships. [For decades the People’s Republic of China had only two areas of law: one, concerning national security, and the other, astounding given what has been said about the importance of family, the one child rule.]
  • Man exists in and through relationships with others. The goal of socialization is to train children for lifelong interdependence with others by developing skills and values which promote harmony (ibid). [And right there is the heart of our differences.]

Bond notes that all these factors exist in other cultures, but it is their combination and ubiquity in China which he believes is unique.

These generalisations are like Platonic forms, instructive and useful as abstracted reference points, but their manifestations in our reality were various. The closer we got to the border with Myanmar, the more the cracks in their universality appeared.

Our experiences of Chinese schools to this point had been a bit like a tour of Australian Disadvantaged Schools Program Schools — my favourites. They’re always going for something, DSP schools, because they’ve got no choice. They have no room for bullshit and you just have to get on with it, every day. And out of the struggle of working in one, apart from learning how to teach, you may be able to rejoice in the richness of your professional life.

Mojiang No. 1 was an example of the competitive ethic at work. It enrolled the more capable students exiting the range of primary schools in the district. It had been more like a well established provincial high school carried along by the climate of its own and its community’s expectations. It had a certain, and this seems ridiculous to say, but, comfort. (I might say the same situation, less obviously regulated, exists in any Australian town where there are two or more secondary schools. One will be ‘posher’ and more staid with than the other/s with a clientele to match.)

At Lancang the seams were visibly moving apart. The kids weren’t in uniform, the welcome was less organized and, an important signal, the head boy and girl provided speeches of welcome (in English). The girl’s speech was immaculate, perfectly formed and delivered; but Bob (‘my English name’) broke out. He spoke from the deepest passion in his heart, a passion that tested and finally soundly beat his vocabulary, a romantic in a classical setting. He may one day be a formidable politician.

After the welcoming speeches, the kids ran in! and this was obviously, if not anticipated, entirely acceptable. I remember them as ‘swarming’. Impromptu classes took place all over the shop. It was wild, and it was fun. I laugh out loud thinking about it.

At the concert that night … and yes it was that night, after 10 hours of driving over cobbles in minivans with six people sick, with Mr Dennis in his new suit and white polo neck skivvy waiting for three hours to welcome us at the guard post four kilometres outside town … at the concert that night on the outdoor basketball courts, half the lights out and the PA system not really working and sitting up like Prince Charles in a large wicker throne with three kids on my lap, yes that night … I had more or less lost my voice and was hoping we would not be responsible for another ten items worth that night.Lancang.jpeg

Besides excellent and hot green tea, what was on offer? Not just a swathe of elegant ethnic dances, but as well they provided a kung fu routine, sang ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ and another song in English the precise nature of which escaped me, and performed great little playlets that they had made up themselves, in English! Active learning in action. Mr Li was set back just slightly by this display of nouvel vague education out in the sticks.

And what did this show? To me at least, it showed that exactly the same sorts of division in school flavour and practice exist in China as they do in Australia. Lancang was more free, was breaking away from the orthodoxy. It had, let me tell you, hold your breath, pause — naughty students. I have a series of photos of one whole class becoming rowdy, and they may have got rowdier still without the tiniest reminder about appropriate behavior.

Orthodoxy may be challenged unconsciously, as was probably the case at Lancang, because in context it is simply unsuitable. It can also be challenged because, measured against absolute standards, you know your best efforts to achieve success are going to fail. The dice are loaded. From Lancang Middle School No. 1 we went a further step down, one harder again, to the Lancang ‘Nationalities’ School. (We would call ‘nationalities’ ethnic minorities.)

I have no doubt that these shifts we were observing had something to do with the diminishing proportion of Han, the dominant Chinese ethnic group (93 percent overall) among the population. The closer we came to the border, the more Lahu, Dai, Daishu, Yi and Miao people increased in number and prominence. They seem supported quite honorably by the central government which tends to leave them alone, often the best form of support when the alternative is oppressive forms of assimilation. It was suggested that, depending on relative economic and political circumstances, they migrate regularly across the apparently porous borders between China, Laos, and Myanmar. Most remarkably they are exempt from the one child policy.

And at the bottom of the pecking order, housed in a former PLA barracks, we were visiting a school composed only of ‘nationalities’ students from surrounding villages. (An aside: Lancang had been nearly totally destroyed by an earthquake less than decade ago. The barracks had been subsequently rebuilt. Mr Li and the Lancang-ese were comfortably philosophical about the earthquake: ‘In many ways, it is good to start again, to clear out the old …’)

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The dance stage at the Nationalities School was a strip of ageing red carpet over old newspapers on the dirt under the shade of some cedars. And there we saw a boy dance who was indissolubly the dance. His utter confidence and pride, his grace and fluency, merged so completely with the music that it was startling. Truly. I have never seen anyone dance like that boy and I don’t expect to again. It was breathtaking.

The principal made an unexpected departure from the norm. In his welcoming speech he gave us a case report on the state of the school. It was excellent, both the report and what it indicated about the school. They were getting kids off to college in increasing numbers, exam performance was improving — and it was a school with spunk and vim. He didn’t say that, but it was obvious. I left feeling that those kids were in very good hands. Hooray, the Lancang Nationalities School. Keep up the good work.

A few weeks later, a world away, we visited our last school, the alma mater of China’s Premier Jiang Zemin in Shanghai’s French Quarter — the East China Model Middle School, another type of school that was familiar. We were ushered into the Board Room for a PowerPoint presentation about the school, its leadership, staff and famous former students who besides Jiang, include the only Chinese person [to that point] to have played basketball in the NBA. The presentation included a scan through the contents of the school’s very sophisticated website.

The dances here were ballet, classical French ballet, including a stunning interpretation of that rousing old Aussie anthem ‘Clip a Sheep’ (Click go the shears, sung in Chinese by a Year 8 student) replete with the most graceful sweeps of hand and arm to indicate shearing and some nuzzling motions designed perhaps to obtain the full benefit of sheep’s milk. Other items included a re-dubbing of five minutes of the film Jane Eyre, a committed recitation of ‘The May Queen’ with background music, and a dramatic version, in English, of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. For the finale, thirty or so senior students in contrastingly coloured uniforms provided a very capable version of ‘Hand in hand we stand’, the anthem of the previous summer Olympiad. The whole school watched this concert, and watched us watching this concert, via a closed circuit television network accessible in every plush classroom.

But despite this welter of technology and high culture, they were kids like any others, just as susceptible to a game of heads or tails. They wanted to know about the bands Australian kids listened to, and the cool ones were familiar with Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. Mention of Michael Jackson drew a broader response. They also knew about ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Shakespeare, but giggled with embarrassment at the play’s theme. Kids, like any others, but growing up in a culture ripe and vivid with its own character.

The idea that education is the key to the future seems cemented far more solidly into this culture than it is in ours. Chang Chih-tung’s nineteenth century dictum, ‘Chinese learning for essentials; Western learning for practical applications’ does not appear to be under any threat. School achievement is and will continue to be defined in academic terms — not by sporting prowess, social success or what we might think of as personal fulfillment. That gives a teacher with a class of 50 a big head start.



The beauty of a moment lingers on far beyond it in time/ Full moon magic moving invisible strings that rule us

                  — part of a repeating pattern on the curtains at Mojiang Primary School No. 1

The existence of an itinerary doesn’t necessarily mean you know where you’re going. In the buses we had been weaving in and out of the steep hills on dirt roads and rough tracks, always getting somewhere, but without a map orientation was difficult. This day was a case in point. We were off to Bixi, wherever and whatever that was, and it was the crack of dawn.

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As the buses wound their way through the rills of mist, long vistas of orange terraces with green-topped hills would open up, their reflections appearing on the water in the paddies. By the side of the road huge stacks of fire wood were piled. It was all strangely still and inanimate, as it often was, apart from the occasional water buffalo lounging along. Now and then we would pass a stand of upended mud bricks drying in what would later be the sun, and we stopped at one point to take photos of a group of twenty or so people plucking geese in preparation for a wedding feast.

And then we arrived at Bixi. The bus pulled up in the village square next to a pile of rubbish complete with its own scurry of pigs near the memorial well full of dark green and very smelly water. We walked down the hutongs to the primary school past something that, because of the arrangement of its pews, looked a little like a church. But the television set in the iron cage where an altar might otherwise have been suggested that this was the town’s entertainment lounge. A sharp turn right, up a narrow hilly hutong and the school was at its end.


The kids were at morning calisthenics, in their lines stepping forward, arms raised, arms down, leg stretch one way and then the other. I joined in at the rear as discretely as possible. I found ten minutes of exercise in the morning and in the afternoon did wonders for my alertness. In the staff meeting room the tea, cigarettes and mandarins were duly proffered and I wandered outside to find a small horde of pre-school children who had gathered to see what the fuss was about. ‘Pre-school’ in this instance actually means ‘not yet at school’, not participants in some sort of kindergarten. I found a photo book of native Australian creatures and sat out on the verandah and ‘read’ it to them.

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This experience had two features. The first: I was going through this picture book and doing well on ‘crocodile’, ‘kangaroo’, ‘koala’ and so on until I came to ‘long-tailed grey potaroo’. Never heard of it. It looked like a rat and the kids seemed to be assuring me that they knew what it was and in fact had several at home. The second: after I had been through the book twice pronouncing the English names with a flourish, the kids copying with great gusto, one three year-old turned it back to the start and then proceeded to teach me their own words for each of the creatures, correcting my clumsy pronunciation as we went. So smart, so quick, so confident, such adept learners.

Back down the hutongs to the buses accompanied by the infant throng. This time it appeared that we were going even further up into the hills to a market which Mr Huang told me was called Chung Ling.

We arrived several centuries back in time, at a blind cleft in the hills, the first Europeans of any sort to bother the locals — who weren’t wearing ethnic dress for display, but because it was their clothes. There were a number of ‘tractors’ that we had become accustomed to, ingenious pieces of engineering, a stationary diesel motor with a large fly wheel to which you could attach any sort of belt or pulley you wished, including one which, connected a simple gearing arrangement, would pull you, your four wheels and your cab along. The outskirts of the market were devoted to livestock, mainly buffalo but with some donkeys, small ponies and goats as well. They were all untethered, restrained by nothing other than the prospect of the punishment they would receive if they moved. A couple did move while I was watching and the punishment was severe. The RSPCA would find China a challenging environment in which to work. Blankets, big slabs of tofu, musical instruments, posters, articles of clothing, baskets, pottery, fruit, vegetables, smokes, plenty of smokes: the sorts of things, perhaps, you would expect to find. A lot of the exchange was straight barter. We were in another version of the cash-less society.

The next port of call produced one of the most directly affecting moments of the trip. We bused back to Jing Jiang school near Bixi. We had been surrounded a high degree of material poverty all day and Jing Jiang was no exception. But at the stop we climbed off to find several hundred children lined up along the street, and in their light blue and white uniforms, and clapping. The teachers were at the head of the line in dark suits, each one with the tags still on the sleeves indicating they had been newly purchased for the occasion. Their first European visitors were going to be warmly welcomed, and with a sinking feeling of embarrassment I wondered if it was perhaps too warmly for the good of the hosts.

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Imposters, I thought, as we walked down the clapping lane. I am an imposter. What can I offer in return? This thrill, this politeness, this warmth. At the end of the line a 10 year-old girl was kicking some pigs out of the way. But it wasn’t the end of the line. We turned the corner and for another two hundred metres winding up a steep hill there were light blue and white uniforms all the way up to the gates of what must be one of the most picturesquely located schools in the world, right on top of one of these very high hills. The clapping had grown louder, and I burst into tears. The location must have had something to do with it, but I think it was mainly just looking at these children. They must have clapped for fifteen minutes or more before filing back to assemble on the basketball courts. Why were they clapping? Obedience? No doubt. The way all visitors were welcomed? Whatever it was, none of us, I think, had felt quite like this before.

Trina and I were given a tour of the science room, distinguished by having some glass-fronted cases on one wall containing ancient and very dusty specimens (possibly surplus potarooos) and a chart of the circulatory system. The school building was new, financed by a special World bank loan and supported by a sister school in Shanghai, but was anything but flash. Just bricks and mortar; and rather like parts of Europe in the eleventh century, sparing use of glass as a public sign of some wealth. Some. The boarding quarters were sub-Spartan, rough living on the ground.

We were hustled off to lunch. Several days had gone by and it was still only 12.30. As a sign of the esteem in which we were held, they had killed two goats for our lunch. ‘Very, very special’, noted Mr Su wagging his head sagely.

You may like goat. It has a stringy heavy texture and a flavour that to me says ‘goat’. Millions of people across the world think it a delicacy. I think, in this instance however, that one and a half of the two would have been left behind for those who could really enjoy it. Bixi mao tai.jpegA large aluminium pot of mao tai (a spirit made from sorghum) had been produced and the toasts (gan bei ‘empty glass’) which began slowly picked up in intensity. A gan bei is fine if the bei is not so big and the portion modest, but the glasses were large and the portions were like everything else about this visit, extremely generous. Paul, a picture of strapping youth, swears he discreetly disposed of his helpings out the window. Myself, a picture of aged decrepitude, well … I felt I had to do my best. It was my responsibility. Half a glass of mao tai seems to fluoresce all the way down to the stomach, and subsequently.

But after several toasts, the world appeared a better place. Never better really than where we were, in the company of people with whom we didn’t share a language, a value system, a way of life, a standard of living — but still had found some common platform of good will.bixi 3.jpeg



Chicken and pork fat covered the floor of the big room on the third floor of the Mojiang Hotel. After four days this space had very much become our home. We had met, eaten, drunk, sung, chortled and whinged there. From the window you could check if your washing had blown off the lines. It had been a huge day, for the hotel as well as us. We think there may have been at least six weddings celebrated there during its course and the staff may have fed as many as 2,500 people, and that’s a lot of bones to be spat discreetly between the knees onto the floor.


It was our last night in Mojiang (above). We had already been to Bixi and the Vocational School and had exchanged a visit to Lianzhu No. 2 Middle School for our time at Chung Ling market — a big day. For the evening Mr Su’s carefully typed itinerary said, ‘Enjoy’ (an exhortation not to be trifled with) ‘the ethnical dances performed by the Mojiang students.’ We also had to enjoy the ethnical dances performed by the warmly welcomed Australian friends, not to mention their singing. This is the point at which we turned to Ted for survival. Ted teaches at a primary school in the Coromandel Valley among the hills of Adelaide and was one of the reasons we heaved a sigh of relief during the preparatory teleconference. He was a serious bush dancer, had clap sticks, his mouth organ and repertoire of good ideas that made him worth even more than the pleasure of his company.

Jing had taught us:

Yi shan yi shan liang jing jing/ Mantian duoshi xiao xing xing/ Gua zai tianshang fang guangming/ Haixiang xuduo xiaoyanjing

If you start with ‘twinkle twinkle,’ you’ll probably get the rest right. We added ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Country Roads’ and ‘Eidelweiss’ from the karaoke (better known by our hosts than by us. ‘Five Hundred Miles’ was the other southern Yunnanese hit. When I tried to sing it to my class in Shanghai it had lost its resonance and I was confronted by the … ah … continuity of its lyrics.) Helen was going to provide ‘The Locomotion’; but then we had to dance. After our concert planning meeting we had gone up to the roof of the hotel under the clothes lines which had presented their own challenges and, with the other residents peeping from their windows, practised. Thank god for Ted. ‘One two three four,’ he went. ‘Back two three four. In two three four, back two three four.’ Round and round and in and out. Oi! One two three etc etc. I have forgotten the names of the dances. Ted knew them all and he was an excellent teacher.

We sat down to our choi sun, broccoli, and rape stalks, chop bones, chilli chicken, steamed buns with red bean filling, tomato omelette, tofu, roasted peanuts, broth with noodles, steamed rice (as an after course), and chips, chips of potato covered in sugar. The meals had been moulded to our preferences as read from what we left after we had finished. Sugared chips represented an almost inspired understanding of what Westerners really like to eat — carbohydrate, fat and sugar — all in one, almost as good as a doughnut. I was bit soggy really, I had made the most of the mao tai at lunch time and, while not badly hung over, I was ready for a snooze. The evening was going to require a deep intake of breath and a purposeful stare. I settled back into a beer or two.

If we were going a bit slowly, the local performers were not. The third floor was filling rapidly with a staggering array of colour and costume, clutches of kids everywhere huddled round hand mirrors with makeup brushed and sticks of colour. The buzz had begun.

‘Camilla’, dressed to kill, and English teacher who wants to be a tour guide and one day will be, as our host along with a senior student who repeated her words in Chinese. There was no discernible change in the background roar from the audience when we were warmly welcomed for the hundredth time and directed again: ‘You will enjoy the program presented by the students of Mojiang Middle School No. 1.’

The big room was not an enormous room and it was packed with several hundred people. We were the drab. It was a kaleidoscope of colour — sequins and sparkles, red, white, blue, black gold and green — and like a kaleidoscope, as the focus shifted so did the clusters of colours, as the members of the ‘programs’ seated themselves. So here we have eight sets of flowing white pants with horizontal red stripes, light blue embroidered jackets and large black head dresses covered in sequins. There we have bright orange skirts with tight bodices and the fullest of skirts, next to bright red bow ties topping gauzy shirts. Ten, at least, out of ten for done-up-ness.

The first program began with six younger boys in groups of three, bent from the waist with their heads touching. A frolicksome brass tune struck up, hey hey lah dee day, something like that, and round and round they went, then back again in delicate little shuffles. Six girls joined in, long plaits flying, working their way between the boys who were now upright and prancing. Their moves were constantly surprising — down on the floor, up again, lined up in formation, so precise, so competent. I couldn’t place the music, and then I could. It sounded like fairground music coming through what the English would call a tannoy, fast and furious. Rah rah tiddle liddle liddle. Now they were passing round sheets of paper folded like books with large characters on their front which became props for a rowing action. They finished and the crowd roared. It was all such a surprise.

The second item was danced by four older girls with large winnowing baskets lined with red foil, less frenetic, more graceful, bodies weaving, sprung from the knees, a matter of counterpoint. This was followed by a stamping circle dance in traditional costume to a song we heard a lot which sounded like ‘Dong xi ri Dong xi ri dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah/ Dong xi ri’ and so on, a rousing anthemic song. A young girl danced an exquisite solo, a dance like we had seen in Kunming at the Golden Dragon, the first ‘Chinese’ dance of the night.

The Mojiang teachers then sang ‘Ten Little Indians’ with all the verve they could muster. This was followed by ‘The Long and Winding Road’ from the karaoke sounding like the dirge that it is. The damage was repaired immediately by a rendition of ‘Country Roads’ that everyone in the hall appeared to know and join in with. The hall rang with unison clapping.

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Then another ethnical dance. The eight girls in the flowing white trousers with red stripes had put on aprons embroidered in light blue, silver, white and red. The feature of their dance were pairs of sticks with bells attached that they could shake and tap. This was another intricate whirling dance. Then suddenly they would stop, motionless. Then sway their hips and upper bodies before whirling off again with a tinkle of bells — so apparently easy, so fluid.

The next had a narrative, a mating game. The boys began, dancing togther. Then the girls. The boys again. This time the girls had their hands cocked to their ears to overhear what the boys were up to. Then they began to intermingle, one gender dancing around the stationary members of the other gender before swapping. Finally they joined into pairs and, as Ted would say, stripped the willow. This dance finished with the dancers throwing handfuls of glitter over the audience.

And so it went, on and on; they would perform, we would perform. We didn’t get much better, but the evening did.

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My highlight was a group of seniors who did their own version of a hoe-down to music which my daughter tells me was ‘Cotton Eye Joe’. The boys wore jeans, white shirts and hats, the girls black skirts ranging from long to very short, white vests over blue T-shirts and short black socks which were emphasized as they did their delicate and exact little jumps. It was fast and furious, the boys with their thumbs in their belts riding their steeds, the girls hitch-hiking and then urging their mounts along with winding motions, big knee lifts, the boys shadowing the actions of the girls. Where had this dance come from? It was Oklahoma — ‘The cowboy and the farmer cain’t be friends.’ They appeared to just stop but with the last chord, they banged into a dramatic tableau. Ah the dance, the dance.

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This was just like the show. When it was over, it wasn’t. It was time for photos and autographs and chat. No one wanted to go home. My sogginess had been replaced by an overwhelming feeling of exhilaration. Myrna was bailed up by a group of young boys with so much to say. ‘We warmly welcome you. Do you like the dance? Do you like our school? Do you like our country? Do you have a good time? Do you … do you … we … ‘ and then, as happens, the vocab just runs out. Finally, ‘We … we love you’, one pronounced. It was that sort of night.




I had always thought that jade looked like plastic and, although there is that remarkable carved jade carriage in the middle of the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney, beneath notice. But that was before.

Jing Hong came at the end of an exhilarating but solid set of school experiences. People have asked me what we did at night. Well, lots of things — concerts, karaoke, eating, chatting, packing, night markets, walking — but I was always glad to get into bed, tired by the intensity of the trip and its myriad parts. Jing Hong was a break, a free day at the end of another long bus trip, and it had a backpackers’ cafe (the Mei Mei) which served European breakfasts. Breakfast for 23 plus, cooked on two gas rings is a tall order and so we pored over the menu the night before. Muesli, yoghurt, bacon and eggs, coffee, toast, jam, pancakes — a bit pathetic really to think we might have been slavering over such offerings. But slaver we did.

When it came to the point, the muesli was a big pile of rolled oats, the yoghurt some tofu-ish lumps, the bacon and eggs a test, but the banana pannos, yum. The coffee wasn’t great, but the Golden Dragon in Kunming had been charging the equivalent of $5 Australian for something darkish and wet of lower quality. When in China … that’s the clear message.

So we lay back into these delights and chatted, watching the endless stream of cyclists, some with utterly improbable loads, and eavesdropping on European escapees talking about their adventures in Xishuangbanna (the local area which draws tourists to, among other things, its stone gardens). The day was beatific. Myrna and I hired some bikes and rode aimlessly over the bridge across the Mekong and watched cheeky dogs who weren’t as obviously conscious of their possible fate as they might have been. We found a market where we bought a post-modernist bag (which demonstrated influences from camouflage jackets, Hollywood, the Chinese and various other unknown flags) for approximately nothing, some Nashi pears, a pineapple (the speciality of Xishuangbanna) and some biscuits.

What more could you want? You could want jade.

Near our hotel in Kunming had been a … what? A jewellery supermarket, I suppose. It had rubies from Burma, star sapphires, emeralds and amethyst from Sri Lanka, a certain amount of gold, a profusion of sparkling bits and pieces. But what it really had was jade. Rings, broaches, ornaments, necklaces, mounts for clocks, bracelets — a sea of green.


The neophyte approaches. It might be like looking at the aisles of prepared food in an American supermarket. You’re sure there must be something reasonably inoffensive that you can eat there somewhere, but how would you know? It’s what you like yourself, isn’t it? If you like milky jade or the lime green, who is to tell you the sea green is superior? Then there is something about the clink the jade piece makes when it is on a string and you hit it with something solid. Got your string or your piece of cotton on you? What clink? Do you want it to sound clunky or bell-like? And if you can find a bell-like clink…  well I couldn’t. Flaws. What are we looking for here? No jade is clear, inscrutable substance that it is. With prices for apparently similar objects varying by 10,000 per cent it should be more articulate. We thought the safest bet was to buy the cheapest that we liked, and so emerged from the supermarket with four bracelets, not unlike green marble but more transparent, for 60 yuan ($12) and some rings. Over the road Myrna bought a pair of circlets for ear-rings bargained down to 80 yuan.

It might be its very inscrutability that gets you in, but I quickly learned that it was nothing like plastic. It has as much character as any organic substance. So when we cycled past Jade Alley in Jing Hong, a street about a kilometre long which has little but jade shops in it, we cycled in. About 40 metres in. That was far enough.

My dear companion had become absorbed by jade and so we went through the stock, not just the stock on display but the stock from out the back, the good stuff, beautifully wrapped in envelopes of multi-leaved paper. The staff was a man in a Mao suit, a sure sign of elderliness, and a younger woman who might have been his wife. He wanted a sale; she wanted the right price. They had their piece of cotton, but I had only the glint in their eye to guide me about respective clinks. Nonetheless, the good stuff didn’t have to explain itself. It seemed visibly superior. Myrna bought a bracelet, a racehorse next to the Clydesdales she had bought in Kunming, finer, translucent, a brightish white with a streak of green viscera through one side. It went clunk satisfyingly and cost 180 yuan.

This objet was admired to the extent that Kathe rushed back to that shop before the plane left and bought a big one, a good one, milkier than Myrna’s with a variety of lovely shades of pale green. Eight hundred.


Later, as they say. A day later. Soft sleepers have four-berth cabins and, whatever you do, four into 23 leaves three. So Kathe, Jing and Ted shared their cabin with a Chinese gentleman who turned out to be a jade dealer. Jade! Let’s talk jade, let’s show how clever we have been with our purchases. He laughed a lot that jade dealer, as I suspect jade dealers must. When you’re dealing with something so mutable as taste in luxury items a capacity to laugh might be considered essential.

He laughed even louder when the pieces came out for valuation. What was good? The Clydesdales produced modest praise, the ear-rings with their grass green-ness and their translucency some applause, but the pieces de resistance were worth, well a good laugh in a train going to Chong Qing. A shame really to have to revert to the shamelessness of: I bought what I’m wearing. I paid a price I’m happy about. I know what I like. I like what I bought. It’s not a completely water tight syllogism, but it makes some sense. And if it doesn’t, you can always have a laugh.


Later again. Ten days later. We are in the Shanghai Museum’s Ancient Chinese Jade Gallery. The jade pieces, intricately carved, are white, black, almost clear, turquoise, grey, ochre, mother of pearl, orange and amber as well as green. The same piece — rings, ornaments, buttons, axes, vases, heads, serpents, dragons — is often multi-coloured. The jade is particulate, marbled, swirly and solid as well translucent. I am unable to administer any clink tests.

However, the prize piece, a wine vessel with three serpents from the early Qing Dynasty, about 30cms high, glamorous in a way which transcends glamour, seems to be fashioned from a rain cloud.jade-vase.jpg



This is Hell, this is hell, I am sorry to tell you,/ It never gets better or worse/ But you get used to it after a spell/ Heaven is hell in reverse.

           — Elvis Costello ‘This is Hell’ Brutal Youth

I had been facing the 22-hour train trip from Kunming to Chong Qing (‘ching’) with some minor trepidation. I like train travel, but it seemed a very long time. However the soft sleepers were exactly that, the lulling motion of the train on the very modern hard-coupled tracks laid on concrete sleepers, barely more than an occasional ‘ccct ccct’ compared with a full-blown ‘clickety clack clickety clack’, had me asleep in no time.

We woke to the train going in the wrong direction. During the night it had been shunted and the engine attached to the opposite end. Over the 600 or so kilometres we had covered the landscape had changed to become more ‘Chinese’ as ‘Chinese’ exists in Chinese art — gorges swathed in mist with occasional boat traffic, towering cliffs, plains punctuated with single dramatically distorted trees: and more ‘Chinese’ as I remembered from documentaries and travelogues — huge power stations and factory buildings in stained grey concrete, dormant paddies and all sorts of remarkable arrangements for irrigation. The most obvious sign of life this early was a funeral on a hillside, a procession of people dressed in white carrying huge white wreaths. The villages, still sparse, now had tower blocks for accommodation. The dominant colours had changed totally from the blue of the Yunnanese sky and the orange of its soil, to grey and soft green. And it was cold.

After a time there was a repeating pattern out the murky windows of grey tower blocks, next to lacy market gardens exquisitely laid out along the contours of the land, next to huge deltas of rubbish cascading down into the water courses, back to grey tower blocks.

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It was nearly dark again when we arrived. There was a problem getting our luggage because it was dinner time and, well … it was dinner time. We stood on the platform watching as the trains came in. After one or two disembarkations we began estimating how many people were on each of them because the populations of large country towns were arriving in a regular stream — five thousand, six thousand at a time. After Kathe and Jing had gone modestly berserk, the luggage arrived and we entered Chong Qing.

Chong Qing means something like ‘double good luck’ and is the largest city in Sichuan at the confluence of the Yangzi and Jialing Rivers. Major industrialization began in the 1920s and it became the capital-in-exile of the Guomintang during the Japanese invasion of 1937 and remained so until 1945. Its population could be 3 million if you count the inner city, or 17 million if you count the conurbation. It looked like the latter, not that I could see much.

We had arrived in Gotham City. A friend had been here recently and before we left told us that Chong Qing was her version of hell. Our guide, the amazing Grace, who hadn’t thought to meet us inside the station, told us that Chong Qing averaged 27 clear days a year, and this wasn’t one of them. From the bus park outside the station through the ribbons of whatever was in the air, the lights of a shopping strip were visible. Looming high above it a massive patch of black and then, almost too high to credit, the lights of a series of tower blocks. And then, even further beyond another patch of black, like the northern lights, like an illuminated message from god, were rows of neon. I just had to stop and catch my breath. You’ve seen ‘Batman II’. Like me, you think the art direction went completely over the top. Well, here we were on set, with no computer gimmickry to supplement unreal reality.

The bus trip to the hotel only enhanced this impression: though a tunnel, glimpses of huge viaducts, the rivers are down there somewhere, and whoosh we passed a pylon for one of the major bridges, huge tower blocks everywhere built into the sides of steep steep hills, vast tips of rubbish, apartment stores, shafts of light in the gloom, another tunnel, and an express motorway lit with glimmering yellow light. Just where were we going? Could it be like a Batman film, that we were going to skid to a halt precipitously on a broken bridge thousands of meters above whatever was below, or even plunge over?

We were actually going to the Renmin Binguan, the People’s Hotel, and if the people were staying there, which didn’t appear to be the case, they would have been the happiest of campers. Modelled on the Temple of the Kingdom of Heaven in Beijing, the hotel was one of series of circular buildings, the largest of which housed a massive conference hall where national Party conferences occur. After checking in we walked around to one of the great feeds of China in a restaurant associated with the hotel. The members of our party who went off to shop missed the majestic dancing fountains in the People’s Park.

It had, of course, not cleared in the morning. Grace had promised us pandas but, at the time dawn should really have occurred, revealed that pandas would not be available. Why? ‘Sometimes in China there is no explanation’, she explained. I can take or leave pandas. They are not high on my agenda. But instead she took us to an artists’ colony which, if you could see, would have overlooked the Jialing River and might have been situated quite picturesquely. The colony and its artists themselves were stale with age and fatigue. There were some nice woodcuts. The rest … Then Grace who was fast becoming our whipping girl, put on Chiang Kai Shek’s villa set in Eling Park. I had forgotten places like Eling Park existed — bad dodgems, concrete hedges, crook food, Coca Cola, Fanta and Sprite, stalls selling tourist bits and pieces for substantial prices — like a distillation of bad English seaside resorts in the 50s. Besides tunnels to all sorts of places to allow a fast getaway, Chiang Kai Shek’s villa had pedestal porcelain toilets. I think for the foreign guest that would have been its main attraction. It was the first time I saw a cheong sam in China (for sale to tourists), and there were lots of carved jade, coins, and other things you might buy if you absolutely had to divest yourself of money.

Chong qing 2.jpegThe other virtue of Eling Park perched on top of what might have been, if you could have checked, a mountain-ette, was that you could look down the sheer cliff faces, which still managed to attract and sustain their share of rubbish, at the bleakest accommodation you can imagine — ten and fifteen storeys of scabrous concrete with washing ever so optimistically hung out on the terraces, and surrounded by the customary piles of refuse.

Now I have a detailed theory about Milan and the Sforzas role in the building of a fundamentally belligerent society based almost entirely on a full bottle of orange juice spilling out into my day bag. There are circumstances of the most incidental sort which colour a traveller’s fleeting impressions of a place. So stepping back more objectively, what else do I know about Chong Qing?

It is famous for its heat in the summer, one of China’s ‘Three Furnaces’ — the others being Wuhan further down the Yangzi, and Nanjing, further again. Its population is currently swollen by, literally, millions of unemployed workers from the surrounding regions who are exercising their illegitimate right to free trade in the shoe shining and pencil selling businesses. There is an immense turnover in building as commercial interests redevelop the sorts of tower blocks I could see from Eling Park. This is being resisted by the poor and unemployed, who will also become homeless if the developments are carried through. There are no bicycles to be seen because, I would think, only a fool would try to cycle round its hills. There are, however, cable cars.

More soberly, Chong Qing represents one possibility for China’s future. In 1996 77,000 factories across the country were closed at a stroke. The quality of the air and water would have improved immeasurably as a result, but how many workers with apparently secure jobs would have watched that security evaporate? If there were 100 workers in each of those factories, not an unreasonable estimate — 7.7million. What would they do? Chinese society is organized in work units. When you are no longer a worker where do you belong? What are you going to live on? Where are you going to live? When the shoe cleaning business is running a glut, and all those who need pencils have them, what then? And the piles of rubbish. Once this rubbish would have been organic and would have degraded as it washed down the rivers into the ocean. Now, with the advance of civilisation, a good proportion of it is polymer-based, singlet bags, polystyrene containers and the like, and this will float out into the Pacific, possibly arriving at Bondi in time for a surf carnival if it hasn’t already been engorged by a now dead fish or sea bird. One world, made emphatically real. This is a study in surfeit. For the first time in China, I thought there might be far too many people.

Chong Qing is what China could easily become. It might be for that reason that Chong Qing is one place I feel I must return to, as an unsolved puzzle on which I have spent too little time. I want another look, ah … that is, if … well conditions of visibility, that type of thing. The next time I may avoid Grace and her destinations and obfuscations, and I may see Batman, or at least The Joker, the person so obviously in charge.



TAM Square.jpeg

Tian An Men Square was crusted with ice and the wind was bitter in the darkness. But just as one will walk miles to stand under the Eiffel Tower on arrival in Paris, we were there — a vast open space where two million people can stand in reasonable comfort, Mao’s mausoleum at its southern end, a 20 metre-high portrait of him at the northern end over the entrance to The Forbidden City, and an obelisk at its centre.

This obelisk, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, achieved its own sort of fame during the struggles of 1989, but the Square had also been the focal point for a public demonstration against the Gang of Four led by Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, in 1976, some few months before Mao’s struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease terminated. This occasion was the death of Zhou Enlai, Mao’s widely respected colleague and for many years the public face of China in foreign affairs. While hundreds of people were arrested and beaten, Deng Xiaoping was the focal point for blame and he disappeared from public view for the third time in his remarkable career.

At the base of the Monument is a sign, in its own way a reminder of the potency of the Square as a political symbol. It says, among other things, in English just as it is written:

  1. The Monument to the People’s Heroes is a major national revolutionary cultural relics. Please keep the Monument solemn, respec-tidy and in good order. …
  2. Presenting wreaths, baskets of flowers, garlands and small flowers to the Monument must be approved by the Tian An Men Square Administrative Committee. Registration of formalities should ne made five days ahead.
  3. No photos, Videos or film — making inside the Monument’s protective fence without permission.
  4. No writing, carving, hanging or placing anything on the Monument. No sitting and lying down on the ground. No joking and playing, destroying the public properties. Keep off from the grass [invisible in any direction from the base of the Monument]. No entrance of inflammable and explosive materials to the area.
  5. No spitting, throwing cigarette ends, waste paper, fruit skins or cores. No urination in the area.
  6. Any violators should be punished by the Tian An Men Square Administrative Committee and other department concerned. More serious cases should be punished sternly according to the law.

Get past the Chinese English, and that’s a very clear statement. No nonsense please!

To that list can be added, no entry to the Square after sundown, as we discovered in the freezing air. Members of the People’s Liberation Army will help you firmly but politely to understand. There seemed little alternative but to try to persuade a restaurant into feeding us some Peking Duck and beer — it was after 7.30! — even if they did want to be paid beforehand so that the cashier could go home.

The Square is flanked by the Great Hall of the People and the Revolutionary History Museum, the latter closed from 1966 till 1978 in order that history could be re-assessed and appropriately re-defined. These two buildings face each other symmetrically across the Square, massive icons of Communist revolutionary architecture. Beijing with its vast boulevards and its majestic public building is nothing if not grand. And accessible. There was nowhere we wanted to go that we couldn’t, and no sense of control or repression, for wealthy white Australians at least. But the ‘hello’ people had largely been cleared away from the forecourt of the Forbidden City. ‘Hello people’ are people who for their livelihood sell tourists postcards, cheap maps, souvenirs, hats and other dross, and say ‘hello’ loudly, frequently and insistently — a whole desperate commercial language in one word.

With its covering of compacted snow, the Forbidden City looked pristine and pure, aesthetic but somehow unintelligible. Nine hundred and ninety-nine and a half rooms — home to Emperors, their families, their concubines and their eunuchs — assembled, might I say, like a Chinese puzzle. Secrecy, enclosure, self preservation, and self memorialisation, both alive and very dead. The stone slabs on the ground are seven layers thick to foil tunnellers. As much as anything it seemed like a prison, duplicated in modern times at the Zhongnanhai Compound (in the next block west) where Mao and his family, followers and concubinage lived on and off for many years. Leading China, any country, comes at a ferocious cost.

The Temple of the Kingdom of Heaven which had ample ‘hello people’ was not much more intelligible — gloriously photogenic, but redolent of another time and place which required study for access. This view might have ben influenced by the fact that it was minus 10-15C. Icicles from the water vapour of my breath formed on my beard and moustache, and despite thermal underwear, down coats, gloves and hats, staying warm was the over-riding preoccupation. The white surgical masks that I had always assumed were used to protect cyclists from air pollution were quite useful for keeping that part of your face warm in weather like this.

The next day was even colder with an intermittently brisk wind. The Ming tombs were a spectacle among their white carpet, but the Shengdao (‘god street’) leading to them with its pairs of huge sculpted figures and animals defining the curved path to Heaven was better. It might have been because of the sense of participation, estranged and alien participation but participation nonetheless, available from retracing this ancient path. The same weather became more bearable. The windows of our bus driven by ‘No. 2 best driver’ fogged up and then froze almost as soon as we boarded for a newly restored section of The Great Wall (more correctly ‘walls’ said the tourist who had read the guidebook) at Juyongguan, the ‘first best of eight scenes of Yanjin’.


From the pass where the bus stopped, the Wall snaked up a long ridge rising high, six or seven hundred metres, above the valley floor. Paul, Myrna and I had been reading Jon Krakauer’s account of the 1996 disaster on Everest Into Thin Air, and as we looked up at where the wall peaked we knew the importance of ‘turn around time’. We set off up the icy steps at a pelt with spindrifts of snow whipping across the walled passage. I decided to be satisfied at the second last guard house, but Ann appeared, vastly fortified after her illness, to ‘short rope’ me to the summit. If Armstrong could actually have seen The Wall from the moon, I would be very surprised. In the surreal-ly clear air it had merged into the grey of the valley wall just a few kilometres away.

* * * * *

We had accomplished the transition from teachers to tourists with frightening ease. To this point we had been accompanied by the paraphernalia of tourism — cameras, day bags, ‘sensible’ clothing and footwear, dirty clothes — but they were supplementary to the hefty hoard of teaching materials and presents. Even though there were times I felt intrusive, it was possible to believe that we were on a mission of substance. We actually had been I think. Friendly contact between people of very different cultures can never be any harm. Chong Qing had been little more than a striking stopover. But now that we were in Beijing with ‘Lily’ a guide of considerable skill and knowledge, we were on tour and our role and personae had changed.

Far more than previously, our comparative wealth had become apparent, and as a result, within our narrow ambit of materially-based social exchange, we were in a position of command. How much? How Much! Phhoooar, fugggedaboudit! ‘Hello people’ exist, of course, because we do. Something of the arrogance of the tourist was returning because of the medium of exchange was not labour, that great leveller, but simple wealth, and shopping had become more important than anything but eating and sleeping. The ’traps’ awaited us — the silk shop (awful), the cultured pearl shop (I liked the tie and vest made out of pearls but only to remember as the essence of dagginess, a word, a concept even, which might not exist in Chinese), the cloisonné factory (interesting, and said something important about the nature of Chinese art), the Friendship stores (utterly charmless). A tour bus can be as confining as any gaol.

On our free day, Myrna and I strolled down Jiangguomennei Dajie, part of the ‘first ring road’, to the major Friendship Store and the Silk Market, past the vast glassed-in cathedrals of banking and commerce, past the McDonald’s and the Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Dunkin’ Donuts and the DéliFrance, along the 30 metre wide footpath with scarcely a person in sight. In temperatures like this even Beijing does not teem. Neither did the Friendship Store. ‘Disinterested’ means ‘objective’ but is in common use as ‘uninterested’; the shop attendants were both. Our taxi driver searched for traffic and found it, bringing us to a standstill for 25 minutes before dropping us four or five kilometres from where we wanted to go. There, a tourist story! Silly taxi driver. We wanted to go to Wang Fujing, the George Street, the Bourke Street, of Beijing, to which we walked with the aid of a good and very cheap map bought against advice from a Hello person.

Wang Fujing was bustling with vigour and commerce, anything from great clothing bargains to the New World department store which is easily recognisable as another Harrod’s (well, like Harrod’s, but definably not Harrod’s) with prices to match. At the end of this street, however was the China Art Gallery where we wanted to go. There was an exhibition of art works from a range of countries competing for the ‘world prize’ in Chinese art. Mainly water colours and calligraphy, some contestants (mainly from the US) had stepped outside traditional bounds and, I fear, out of the contest. The winner, modern in this context, was a realist monochrome portrait in brown of grandfather, father and son, seemingly representative of pre-revolutionary Chinese traditions. It was good, but there were some interesting competitive criteria at work. Certainty, exactitude and convention stood out, as well as reference to the past. It was a metaphor as good as any for the education system.

 * * * * *

‘Everything happens in China’, wrote Mr Su, and he was right as always. Because, before leaving for Shanghai, we had an appointment at the Australian Embassy. And it was thus we found ourselves drinking Twining’s English Breakfast tea and eating familiar biscuits in a lounge with walls decorated by huge canvasses by Ginger Riley and photographs of Australian cities and the outback. And in this very comfortable environment we recovered the purpose of the trip, switching from tourists to scholars again as we listened to Ric Smith, Australia’s Ambassador to China, himself a former teacher, provide a series of touchstones for our experiences. He knew his business. What he said made me think enough to want to write something about it separately.



It was in the month of November that Kublai returned to Khan-balik. And there he stayed till February and March, the season of our Easter. Learning that this was one of our principal feasts, he sent for all the Christians and desired them to bring him the book containing the four Gospels. After treating the book to repeated applications of incense with great ceremony, he kissed it devoutly and desired all his lords and barons to do the same. This usage he regularly observes on the principal feasts of Christians, such as Easter and Christmas. And he does likewise on the principal feasts of the Saracens, Jews and idolaters. Being asked why he did so, he replied: ‘There are four prophets who are worshipped and to whom all the world does reverence. The Christians say that their god is Jesus Christ, the Saracens Mahomet, the Jews Moses and the idolaters Sakyamuni Burkhan, who was the first to be represented as God in the form of an idol. And I do honour and reverence to all four, so that I may be sure of doing it to him who is greatest in heaven and truest; and I pray to him for aid.’

           — Marco Polo, The Travels

The criticism of enemies is never listened to nor taken into account by the devout. The Moslems were not deterred by Christian comment upon their theology; the Puritans paid no heed to Catholic invective; both sides accused the other of every vice of authoritarian oppression, both sides persecuted those who did not accept their doctrine; to both sides their own was the ‘free’ world. If such critics are listened to, the hearer must wonder why those of the opposite opinion, presumably sane men, can possibly accept and submit to doctrines described as an atrocious perversion of the values of human existence. But the credulous listener would get this same impression by accepting the criticism of the other side.

When Chinese Communism is examined it is easy to see the characteristic defects of a dogmatic religion and a totalitarian system, but this in no way shakes the faith of the Chinese in their new regime, and in no way explains how it came to exercise its present authority over the minds of men. The political revolution which changed China from a monarchy to a Communist authoritarian state was paralleled by a literary and cultural revolution which had an equally profound effect on thought. The military success of the Communists would have been in itself insufficient to secure the new regime had it not been accompanied by a conversion which has aligned the great majority of Chinese intellectuals behind the Communist movement.

           — C. P. Fitzgerald, The Birth of Communist China

It does not matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches the mouse.

           — Deng Xiao Peng

Beijing rules, to the second ring road.

           — A contemporary Chinese saying. The second ring road is about five kilometres from the seat of government.

* * * * *

What do we know about China?

It has lots of people; and they’re not like us. But above all it is on the other side politically. It has been for fifty years. During the Cold War, while Russia was the dangerous bear, China was the Red Dragon, more proximate, more likely to … invade? After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it remains as the single major remnant of communist ideology. It is authoritarian and doesn’t understand freedom. Not like us, no, not like us at all. Local Party Secretaries were present at a number of our school visits. Hah, we thought, hah. Proof. Political control of education. Not like our schools. The fact that these folk may have had about as much influence as our School Council presidents didn’t faze us. Not at all.

It has dissidents who are treated harshly. Not here, not at all. Freedom, individuality, liberation. That’s us. And not them.

But then, on the whole, we don’t know much about China. Before turning to the Ambassador’s observations about the present, for context we should consider some facts about the past.

Nineteenth century China was ruled by the Qing, Manchurians who had invaded the south in the mid seventeenth century. The queues (‘pig tails’) which so caught the eye and imaginations of European visitors somewhat later were signs, initially at least, of the Manchurian hegemony. As one historian puts it, the initial invasion was held up by the Great Wall. However the Qing were granted passage by a Ming General in order to form an alliance against a peasant revolt which threatened his control. As so often seems to happen, the General and his troops were swept aside by what followed. No one likes a traitor. This is in 1644 and even then uprisings by the oppressed peasantry were by no means isolated incidents.

The nineteenth century was a time of foreign incursion on the Chinese coast, marked by sporadic and bitter wars with European powers seeking to establish trading sites with terms highly favourable to themselves. Major wars with Britain occurred in 1839 and 1860, with the French in the 1880s, with the Germans and the Russians in the early 1890s, and then with Japan in 1894-95. Recovery from one set of disturbances was truncated by the generation of another. Chinese society itself remained internally fractious with disputes based on religious and ethnic divisions. In mid century the Taiping Rebellion managed to combine both these elements with the rise of a ‘Chinese Jesus’ supported by the Hakka people a sub-group of the Han.

And yet life in the hinterland remained largely as it had been for many centuries. Jonathan Spence and Annping Chinn write:

China in the late nineteenth century retained astonishing continuities with what we know of the country in the third century BC when it first became a unified state ruled by an autocratic emperor. Successive regimes might have standardized the written language, put in place a massive centralised bureaucracy, and built canals and road systems to link the big commercial centres, yet in 1890 Chinese lives remained generally unaffected by these changes. Most people still spoke dialects unintelligible to those from other regions, practised folk religions in a bewildering array of local temples, raised families and arranged marriages according to local traditions, and dealt with the bureaucracy only when they absolutely had to (1996: 11).

In 1900 revolts in Shandong and Hebei led to the ‘Boxer’ Rebellion (so called because of the martial arts practised by the ‘Boxers’), the sharp end of a nationalistic uprising against foreigners. With great force and cruelty, British, French, German, Russian, American and Japanese forces launched a series of reprisals against the Boxers and their supporters. As well as other cultural humiliations, China was required to pay crippling reparations to the victors including fines equal to 450 million ounces of silver.

Despite this war, efforts were made by the Qing to ‘modernise’ in terms of building railways and more sophisticated forms of communication, of reforming the education from its Confucian basis and of developing an industrial base that would among other things service greater military power. images.jpegThe Chinese Nationalists (the Guomindang) led by the indefatigable Sun Yat-sen (at left) recognized that the success of these reforms might result in the Qing retaining power far into the future and resisted, both peacefully and through a series of violent revolts. The ‘Last Emperor’, Puyi, was three years of age when he ascended to the throne in 1898 and his Manchurian regents were politically incompetent. China was moving irrevocably moving towards some other form of governance.

In 1909, the first provincial governments which had some elected members were established and in 1910 sent delegates to a national assembly. In a story as old as time, these ‘advisory’ instruments of government began to claim control over finance and taxation and to demand a say in military planning and development. The gradualist reform planned by the Qing collapsed. The 1911 the army mutinied in Wuhan, leading to widespread outbreaks of anti-Qing violence and disruption. Manchu garrisons were attacked and their inhabitants massacred. On the second last day of 1911 a Chinese Republic was announced, centred in Nanjing with Sun Yat-sen as its titular head. The first national government was elected in 1912 and with that the Qing Dynasty was overthrown.

But by 1913 Yuan Shikai, a politician with a strong military base had instigated a crackdown on members of the Guomindang and Sun Yat-sen was exiled. In that year Yuan forced the dissolution of parliament, but died himself shortly thereafter. Zhang Xun led a brief restoration of the Manchu dynasty, but the central government was fragmented and weak. Domestic uprisings followed by cruel suppressions and attempts at even more rigid governance were common. A number of regionally-based warlords chanced their arm at power fiercely taxing the local populace to support their ambitions. Opium, introduced by the British decades earlier, was an additional major source of income. Even so, historians suggest that this was a period of massive growth in business and trade. The Qing railways were moving goods on an unprecedented scale and sales techniques learnt from America were ensuring they were sold on arrival. That’s modernisation.

China’s first official and formal act in international foreign affairs was to declare war on Germany in 1917 and more than 100,000 Chinese joined the Allied effort in France, travelling to Europe via Canada. But the circumstances surrounding this alliance, revealing that Japan had been granted remarkable territorial and commercial concessions in China, came to light during the Armistice Treaty negotiations in 1919. These revelations produced outrage and prompted the May Fourth uprisings against the government.

CKS.jpegRussian Comintern agents began arriving in China and creating ‘peasant associations’. In 1922 the Comintern agent Borodin struck a deal of cooperation with Sun Yat-sen and the nationalist Guomindang which he was rebuilding for the third time. Russian arms and ammunition followed. Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 and after a messy struggle he was succeeded as leader by Chiang Kai-shek (at left) who, if such terms have any meaning, took the Guomindang further to the right.

These ‘surface’ events should be set against an environment in which there was constant turbulence — sporadic outbreaks of strikes and worker and peasant uprising, increasingly repressive responses, warlords juggling to add to their power, large semi-private armies being raised, and used, foreign powers seeking to add to their influence through various forms of intervention. In 1920, for example, there were more than 90,000 foreigners living in Shanghai’s ‘French Concession’ and ‘International Settlement.’

In 1928 the Japanese began military incursions in the north purportedly to protect their investments in Manchuria. The invasion proper did not occur until 1937. The Japanese term for this was the ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’ war. Eight years of Sino-Japanese war yielded 3 million Chinese deaths in combat, 18 million dead civilians and 95 million displaced refugees, in addition to quite specific horrors such as the rape of Nanjing, and experimentation with gas, biological and bacteriological weapons on civilians. This unconcern for human life was not confined to the Japanese side. One contemporary estimate suggests that 1.4 million Chinese conscripts died of disease, malnutrition or maltreatment before seeing any action against the Japanese.

Another feature of this period, the civil war between and nationalists (the Guomindang) and the Communists can be dated from the beginning of the Long March in 1934 until 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan. Desperate times.

The point of this most cursory sweep across a century of history is to gesture towards the ferment and turbulence, the cultural humiliations, the horrors and cruelties on which modern China has been built. Whatever other judgments may be made about the last 50 years in China, the Communist government has kept the country together and relatively free of the depredations of foreigners for that period.

What this government did was largely of its own Chinese design; and what they created and saw through was one of the strangest social experiments of all time and certainly one on the grandest of scales. Casting back over that thumbnail sketch, the Communist Revolution becomes far more intelligible. If the prospect of gaining some forms of freedom meant chaos, and chaos which had dominated which had dominated at least the previous fifty years, who would not have chosen the sacrifices required for the prospect of order and national unity and strength? The extreme, and destructive, gestures of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution can be understood as binding mechanisms, elements of corrective national discipline and posture, carving off the weak, the querulous and the questioning for the greater good of the masses — a hard but intelligible logic.

Reading about Mao and revisiting the Little Red Book, I have been struck by how much his idea of governance is an art work, a long Chinese poem, internal to its author, whole and consistent in itself, untainted by connection with reality and what was actually happening. Deng’s story is the antithesis. He could make things happen, an organiser and a manager, a realist and pragmatist, an embodiment of another very longstanding version of Chinese culture — the survivalist. He built the bridges over which the country is now crossing to an uncertain destination. China now confronts another revolution, no less profound that what happened in the early 1950s.

From my notes and not to be held as verbatim, this is how Ric Smith, Australia’s Ambassador to China saw the moment.

Last year (1997) was a very big year for China. Deng died, as was expected, but the transition was smooth with little disruption to political process indicating the increasing maturity of the leadership cadre. Hong Kong was handed over and the idea of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ was put into place, something very hard to sustain, and yet it has worked without any obvious shocks. The Party conducted its 15th Congress [these occur every five years], a major review of direction, policy and leadership. Li Peng will step down as Party Secretary [he has now been replaced by Zhu Rongji]; this is accepted. The most important and reassuring thing was that the Congress confirmed the reform agenda. The forthcoming National People’s Congress will agree to the directions from the Party Congress.

The Premier Jiang Zemin visited the US quite successfully, despite protesters appearing wherever he went. President Clinton will visit shortly and the issue of World Trade Organisation membership will be closer to resolution.

However the country still faces huge economic challenges, especially in the context of the turmoil in the Asian region. It has coped so far. China has little foreign indebtedness. It has US$140 billion in reserves and a currency which is externally unconvertible and thus it has a buffer from the influence of the international money markets. But it may suffer secondary effects. It has a very high level of trade with both Korea and Japan. Most of its foreign investment comes from Asian countries. There are 308,000 state-owned enterprises of which most are insolvent in our terms. Over US$120 billion is owed to banks which are, or course, government owned.

The pace of reform is very gradual. One of the major hurdles is reform of the financial system. There is no modern capital market. Nor is there any well-established commercial law. [There has never been a legal system as we know it in China. Wise man have been trusted to make decisions on a case by case basis.] For decades there were laws only regarding family planning and national security. The last decade has seen several hundred laws passed, but there is still a void of legal and judicial practice.

Relations with Australia were strained during the last election. Did the public discussion represent a significant and long term lurch back to a Eurocentric view of the world? The Dalai Lama’s visit was deemed to be an important slight. However relationships are currently improving. The Embassy’s new strategy includes:

— a substantial direct dialogue in human rights issues (shifting from the UN as a vehicle)

— discussions on regional security and defence issues (for the first time)

— developing consistency across consular operations

— focusing on commercial success and tourist access to Australia for Chinese. Two aid programs have been developed, related to human resource development and environmental works, to meet the most pressing elements of national need.

Pauline Hansen’s ideas have been less of an issue in North China than South China and South-East Asia because of comparatively limited media coverage. The Chinese are ‘interested and curious’, but the alert ones recognize that this perspective has long existed in the Australian populace.

There is a National Environment Planning Agency, but the problems are huge (1.2 billion people, 22 percent of the world’s population on seven percent of its increasingly fragile arable land). There have been forty years of ‘development at all costs’ industry policy, including the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, and ten years of 10-20 percent economic growth. Last year one million villages elected their own councils. Increasing pressure is coming from local committees and candidates on environmental issues on such immediate grounds as ‘there used to be a river here and now we have no water’, ‘we can’t breath any more; people are getting sick’. As in Australia there is a constant interplay between centralization and decentralisation, and negotiation about the form of government expenditure. One thing that is known is that the wealth of an area distinctly influences the nature and resourcing of schooling.

Communism is already well diluted. Deng was the bridging factor; a remarkable transitional figure and great pragmatist. The economic changes are generating their own pace of social, cultural and political change. Freedom to travel, increases in personal wealth and increased exposure to the rest of the world and especially Western ideas and experiences all carry an impact.

Our discussion finished with conjecture about whether the spread of wealth and maintenance of good order may be retarded by increasing democratic rights. And they may. ‘Liberty’, at least in its rather limited manifestation as the right to vote may, perhaps even should, come after a full belly and a roof over your head have been achieved. These needs are not in conflict but are rather interwoven and interactive with no strict hierarchy of formulation. But then of course, there’s Tibet. To understand Human Rights properly may mean to understand them without capital letters and without reference to the misty clouds of universalism.

I recently read in an American journal that ‘The large political questions seem mainly settled.’ Oh no, I thought. Not really. Not while money is in circulation; not while testosterone remains a hormone.



[with comments in italics added after a visit 15 years later]

pudong.jpgThe Huangpu makes a final broad sweep before it enters the East China Sea. The Suzhou Creek enters at the apex of the bend, feeding a river already massive by Australian standards. Countless barges with a freeboard which can be measured in millimetres diligently slosh along in its opaque water. Ferries costing almost nothing one way and nothing at all coming back, honk that they are ready to depart.

On the western bank is a scene — whether as an oil painting, a massive photograph or the real thing — in front of which Chinese from all over the country like to have their photo taken. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, opened to great acclaim in 1921, is the standout building in a long row of examples of muscular European imperialism, sans flair but solid with just a whiff of indomitability. It’s the Bund, old Shanghai, the main drag of the International Settlement, centre of banking and commerce and goodness knows what else for a hundred years from the middle of the nineteenth century. Shanghai was a fishing village on the silt flats of the Yangzi delta with a population of considerably less than 100,000 before the British established a trading concession here in 1842. The French followed, establishing their own Quarter which is still quite identifiable.

As you lean on the river wall and look across to the eastern bank, it is not possible, not at all possible, to ignore the Pearl Television Communications Tower, a vast rocket of a building awaiting take-off. There is a taller tower in Kuala Lumpur; but this is Shanghai, a metropolis of eight million, which must surely be one of the great cities of the world. The Pearl Tower, across the river in Pudong, is a potent symbol of where China may be heading.

Not eight million anymore. Fifteen years later, around 25 or 27. Maybe 40 depending on where you draw the line. Regardless, Shanghai is either China’s biggest city or biggest conurbation. And the Pearl Tower is no longer the dominant landmark on the Pudong bank. It’s good. Great. Fabulous really. But one among many. And the big lump in the background with the three cranes hanging off will be 640m high when it is finished, more than 200m taller than the Petronas Towers in KL. They were working at 10.30 on this gluggy night. I noticed the cranes move; then saw a bucket of concrete on its long journey up.

Nor would the ferries cost nearly nothing any more. Shanghai is a world city and charges accordingly. I saw a very ugly watch for 6.3 million yuan in a shopping mall devoted exclusively, exclusively, to shops like Cartier, Bulgari, Ermenegildo Zegna, Ralph Lauren and so on. We also saw department stores full of Sino-ey knock-offs. No not Zegna, Frognie Zila.

We didn’t have to take the ferry either because there is now a tunnel under the Huangpu and for 70 yuan return you can go on a very strange underground traverse with a new attraction/distraction every 30 metres or so. (Magma falls, ooomm, cosmic fossils, oommm, meteor shower, oommm, giant waving air puppets, ooomm, etc.)

We had a couple of days in Shanghai to finish, at leisure as Lord Rowland would say, excited about revisiting the National Museum, looking at Pudong and just wandering around with the prospect of satisfying an unfulfilled penchant for dumplings and pork buns.

Visibility wasn’t much of an improvement from Beijing when we arrived and we were both very tired: 32 interviews in the can, about eight hours of video. Tiring. And that seems to have happened last time as well.

The maximum temperature was still hovering around zero and the air was thick with misty smog. The changes in climate and the density of our activities had taken some toll. On the first night in Shanghai we seemed to walk forever to find our quota of dumplings, Chinese pastries and beer. Homesickness was apparent, there was some trouble about rooms, and … well, all of those things. It looked like Shanghai might be a bit of a slog.

The next morning as we wandered through the hutongs, I found some lip balm for my badly cracked lips in a chemist shop, and was tempted by the vast range of aphrodisiacs and the pillow of roots which, had I slept on it, would have cured senility. My grey hair indicated great age to the shop assistants. The narrowness of the streets and the height of the buildings said city, said people, said, even stationary, plenty to look at, plenty to do. We took the ferry over to Pudong and went up to the observation platform of the Pearl Tower. Even with the limited visibility, you could see perhaps 80 or a 100 buildings going up, almost growing as you looked like bamboo in a tropical rain forest. Directly below us you could see the ingenious lattice-like rafts of concrete which have been devised to allow tall building on silt. (On the other side of the river Shanghai’s buildings had subsided several metres when comparative measurements were made between 1925 and 1960.)

In the afternoon we rode the helter-skelter of Shanghai’s traffic system, now on the ground, now up in the air on the ‘viaducts’ of its (not really) freeways, now in a tunnel under the river, now in Pudong proper. Our hosts had brought us to a tower block perhaps fifteen kilometres from the heart of the city and we were escorted up to the thirtieth floor to look at a model of a new development. Mmm … a model. Very nice thank you. Then we looked out the window, and there it bloody well was. Most of the dormitory accommodation was in place with its swimming pools, the villas for the wealthy were there in neat rows, the great sprawl of low rise factories ran west to the horizon and the market gardens to the north had been razed in preparation for more building.

There are currently about 12,000 active major building sites in Shanghai city and, it is guessed, about 15 per cent of the world’s cranes at work. Economic growth (albeit from a relatively low base) has averaged 15 per cent per annum for the last few years. Investment at an estimated rate of US$50million per day is being poured into this area, one of three free trade sites in China. (The others are north of Beijing and in Guangzhou, the province abutting Hong Kong.) The call of the biggest market in the world has been heeded and those with capital have flocked to get their share. The Ricoh factory, assembling fax machines, we visited was a model of technological enterprise — antiseptic, superbly organised, good wages and working conditions — and this is one of a hundred thousand. Consider what one such enterprise can mean to a country town in Australia; then multiply by thousands, hundreds of thousands. I had an image of Bill Bixby turning into the Incredible Hulk, shirt ripping, trousers too short, a new massive creature emerging into the world with its goals and directions not entirely clear.

The sheet anchors of the vast population, almost constant war, famine and ideology have in the past held China’s economic development back. But there is a very strong sense that they have also made the country tough. The world awaits China like the delights of a fun park. Let’s go. Let’s see how many of these rides have some interest and value and, more to the point, let’s see how many we can make some money from. Good at that, the Chinese. Focused. 

Here’s an answer to the question: What do you do when you ‘do’ the future? You go for it. You surge forward on the basis of your instincts and your naked need to do so. You draw on all that restless, unsatisfied energy. You push forward without necessarily thinking about where you’re going, not with any larger view anyway — fire, ready, aim. This is the full tilt unadulterated blast of testosterone, and to unaccustomed eyes it is astonishing. It is a sight every Australian should see. 

Fifteen years ago all that was visible. Now it’s happened. It’s all different. There is still an apparent capacity to make impossible things happen and keep happening. Focus on the future not the past.

I was so tired that night I went straight to bed before dinner. One more day, one more push uphill. My journal says: I find myself missing the accessibility of Mojiang and Lancang — the strength of the interaction between people perhaps. Yet now a chance has come to have some more classes. I felt a bit ambivalent about that, though I would really like to. I just wish I felt fitter. [Most of the party including me had come down with the flu.] But there is not one thing I would have missed. Even tonight I wonder what the others are up to, what splendors I am missing. Maybe I’m just promiscuous.

In the morning I searched the book department of the local Friendship Store unsuccessfully for the longer and more academic version of Beyond the Chinese Face which I had seen in Beijing and wandered around the jade counter. I bought some collections of largely inscrutable Chinese cartoons (punch line: ‘Both the young and old need to carry things on their necks.’ Uh huh. Mmm. If I showed you the drawing it wouldn’t help.) Lunch was at 10.30-ish. Foooofff. Was I up to that?

Lunch, which turned into a party with a banquet as its centrepiece, was put on by the staff of East China Model Middle School at a restaurant with which it had some association. Both were in the French Quarter, full of vivid life and not a little elegance: close to the barrage of cyclists and steam and market calls and taxis and beautifully dressed women and street sellers; close to one of the world’s beating hearts overflowing with the energy of cosmopolitanism and the wealth of several thousand years of relatively unmediated history of its own; close to the founding epicenter of Chinese communism and the site of a number of its most important moments; close to the dens of iniquity which had provided just one Tong with an average of six million dollars a week from opium and prostitution in the 1920s; close to the nightclubs, shops, dance halls and entertainment centres, to the electric trams, restaurants and cinemas of the same period; close to the new subways; close to the shops in Nanjing Lu, more exclusive and more filled with the fire of commerce than those in Beijing. Close to the thrilling mix of flavours that make a city great. And Shanghai is a great great city.

There was a time when the populace of Shanghai had more cars than the rest of China combined, and now, again, writes Beverly Hooper: ‘China has become a consumer society with a vengeance’ (1998: 17). She cites figures from the Chinese Statistical Yearbook of 1996 which indicate that in 1982, 16 of every 100 urban households had a washing machine, one a colour television and 0.7 a refrigerator. The comparable figures for 1995 were 89 percent (washing machine), 90 percent (a colour television) and 66 percent (a refrigerator). The three ‘most desired’ products at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid ‘70s were a bicycle, a watch and a radio. By the early ‘80s these had been supplanted by the three products mentioned above; and now it not possible to say. Consumer demands and wishes have simply become too various. Hooper quotes from the magazine ‘Chinese Youth’ (March 1993):

Some say the ‘three main products’ are a video, CD player and air conditioner. Some say they are gold jewellery, new furniture and a modern kitchen. Some say they are a telephone, private apartment and a car.

This diversity translates into eight categories of ‘desires’ related to: comfort, time, health, beauty, entertainment, education, ‘exhibition of tender feelings’ (like, for example, sending gifts or flowers) and peace of mind. Just like us. The ‘massive disparities between the newly wealthy and the mass of the poor’ is noted by a historian about Shanghai in the 1920s. It applies equally today. Again, just like us. It was appropriate that one of the day’s activities was a session with a member of Shanghai’s branch of Austrade.

I have written a little about the school elsewhere. The welcome was as generous as it could have been anywhere else, and the teaching and the contact just as interesting and stimulating. I could have stayed longer, but we were off to watch a jolting, bucketing 3-D sensurround film, to eat dinner at Shanghai’s Hard Rock Café (I note quite incidentally that in Penang one can eat at ‘Granite Hollywood’. Cultural adaptation can be a very fluid and immediate process) and to an acrobatic show, before returning to the Peace Hotel in a self-caught bus (see parentheses above) for a meeting. Yes, a meeting. A meeting to celebrate, to draw waverers into line, to get some shit off the liver, and then to drink some expensive beer in the Peace Hotel Bar, listening to the resident Dixieland jazz group, renowned I think mostly for their age. Some of them may have been listening, at least, to the same sort of music in the same bar in the same hotel before China became communist.

Back to the present … [2012 anyway]


Bayden had commented on the rabid addiction to the mobile phone evident everywhere but certainly making it hard to get attention in shops. Maybe you had to ring up the shop assistants. He had come to Shanghai for some time-lapse footage from the 48th floor of the JW Marriott hotel through the crystalline air. And visibility was shocking. From his window we could see part of the People’s Park covering the main subway station and site of Shanghai’s main cultural edifices. It was once the racecourse. The building with the red-roofed tower to the bottom was the Club building. The Grandstand was reputedly the largest in the world in its day, and no doubt was. The turf was described as “smooth as a billiard table”.

National Museum. Even the coins seemed interesting and I found something newly fascinating about calligraphy which has left me cold in the past. I could see the individuality of the styles and the variation according to purpose. And there was the jade.

We topped up with some dumplings at a street shop over the road from the Museum and walked off to the French Quarter. It all seemed much more knowable than last time. Hundreds of shops with what one might describe as ‘cutting edge fashion’, including dead set no worries ‘pop ups’.popup-shop.jpg

We found some contemporary art, in sum somewhat discombobulating and not really the feel of having grown naturally out of the environment as was the case at 798 in Beijing. But the top floor had a well hidden restaurant full of style, welcome and nice food.

Our waitress sent us off to her pick of Shanghai’s art areas, hutongs off Taiking Road. There was certainly plenty of art there but it turned out to be like a gigantic Camberwell Rotary Art Fair — nothing wrong with that, and a cultural statement in its own right; but not exactly what were looking for. More the deflated tank made out of leather.

The French Quarter still has its charms with ten of thousands of plane trees planted, I believe, by the British. In a photo I’m looking out the window of a Printemps department store. Printemps in Paris provides a very cheering shopping experience. I think we were expecting something the same with perhaps some nice coffee and a macaroon. Incorrect. We worked our way without success through the various offerings of the food hall and, on further exploration, realised we were in a shop (maybe like most other shops in the world) full of pretty awful Chinese knock-offs.

But we had a very fine walk and we found all the appropriate vestiges of humanity including the rather grand house from which Chou En Lai fled the Guomintang spies in 1942, and the insect market. We could have picked up a couple of quality cicadas cheap but didn’t know if we could get them back into the country. However damaging to my reputation, I’m glad there’s a photo from the insect market. It wouldn’t be China if there were no freakshows included.


Finally it was clear, the last day, and everything took on a new hue. And it was just like it was last time.

* * * * *

If the developments on the east bank of the Huangpu are generated by testosterone, the throb of the west bank comes from the firm palpation of oestrogen — people, their families, their neighbourhoods and their social futures, history, time spent, lessons learnt, as well as their intersection with the things that the east bank, Pudong, produces. When you face the world, you face its calamities, disappointments and treachery, as well as its material richness and splendour. You face the facts of overpopulation and the common challenge of a sustainable future. You face consumerism and its distinctly unpleasant offshoot, commodification. And you have to face the ways in which we might get on together.

The acrobats. That laconic forum for minor miracles, the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, learnt a lot of its tricks from Chinese acrobats. And here we were in the presence of the teachers. The performance began at a very high pitch with tumbling and juggling, and then ascended — a suitable metaphor for the nature of our experience in China. Here was a young man balancing on four layers of rolling slats, standing on one foot, flicking first one, then two, then three, and finally four soup bowls simultaneously from his other leg to catch them on his head. Later, seven young women did handstands on chairs balanced one on top of the other in a long arc. Oooo, we went with the rest of the audience. Aaaaaah. No. Not possible. But with aspiration, discipline, patience, endless practice and a certain carelessness about the possible consequences, it can be done. And this might be a suitable metaphor for the future of the next great world power — China. 


AODALIYA (The Pinyin word for my home country)

Coming home to Melbourne from overseas often feels like arriving at an absolute terminus.


The light was startlingly sharp and clear, buildings had their edges starkly defined. The air was fresh and clean. Airport West and Gladstone Park were spread out over the hills of the western peneplain like butter on toast, like heavy carpeting. Where were the people? Where were the cars and the bikes, the markets? At that moment this society seemed much stranger than the Middle Kingdom — provincial, hollow, cozily self-satisfied, struggle free. Blank with exhaustion, I wanted to leave again immediately. I felt I had left far too much behind.

By Brunswick Road, with its neat trim houses in neat trim gardens, so clean, so familiar under a grey sky, I was looking forward to seeing the kids, and when I saw five weeks worth of mail on the kitchen bench and the notepad full of phone messages, I realized it would not be long before I was swallowed whole again. Life doesn’t wait. For the teachers school was a couple of days away. Most of us had snuffles and coughs or worse. Ten days later I found myself in another country. Life really does not wait.

My experiences and reactions are very much my own. We hadn’t all enjoyed what had happened equally or in the same way. But the evaluations of the trip generally had a sense of ‘wonderful’ about them. How could it be otherwise really? Travel, food and lodging organised; an extraordinary itinerary spread across what turned out to a kind of sequence between rural and traditional China and its urban and cosmopolitan futures; great opportunities for access in the warmest and most arresting of ways to slivers of the population who appeared to be as happy to see us as we were them; a professional purposefulness and camaraderie. A great banquet of experiences, all laid on.

And group travel? Travelling in a group is not good. Not ‘good’, not g-o-o-d. ‘Good’ is much too slim a word for that range of experiences. There were five or six times when I felt like dropkicking one or another of my companions into oblivion, probably a few less than one or another of them felt like doing the same to me. The dynamics of the group were a study in themselves: the ways people found a buddy; the teams of interest that formed; the gender differences; the various levels of energy, enthusiasm and compliance; the emergence of confidence and independence in unfamiliar environments; the confidences proffered and exchanged in the long bouts of travel. But in all its complexities and its gossip and its spats, it was good. A shared experience, particularly when it has an element of challenge, is always something special.

What did I learn? In my evaluation I wrote that: ‘it ranges over issues like language, art, culture, food, lifestyles, family patterns, child rearing, early and late education, teaching conditions, agriculture, housing, environmental management, costs and expenses, domestic life, occupations and life chances, weather patterns, ceramics (and jade), similarities with other parts of Asia. There is not enough room to write it all down. It was the world.’ A new world, for me at least.

I have written here, of course, about some of the things I learned and the experiences which gave rise to that education. But the thing I have remained preoccupied with is how you can live normally with entirely different cultural ideas about what might be normal. It has made me wonder about the way in which freedom and poverty might be related. There is something about the baggage of our material possessions which isolates us and which intervenes in the directness of our experiences. What do we buy with our wealth? We buy space, we buy privacy, and we buy separation, exclusion and loneliness. We buy our way into communities which are homogenous and unthreatening, mates who talk our language, who work in the same field, who share our interests and judgments. We buy our way into gated estates with security guards at the threshold. It’s more comfortable that way.

And more peaceful. Some years ago I was studying the impact of changes to school work organisation. One dramatically successful school had been troubled by a constant ripple of fights and physical flare-ups. Over a period a several years these had become virtually non-existent. The factor that I thought might have made the most diference was the increase in the size of the teaching spaces. They had shifted walls so that each class of 25 to 30 now had half as much space again in which to operate. The kids weren’t getting in each others’ faces in the same way.

Chinese do get angry. We witnessed some furious anger, from zero to a hundred in milliseconds. They may be disciplined, but they are anything but phlegmatic. However, they have developed a modus vivendi suitable for their circumstances — just as we have. It’s there as clear as day in ‘soft’ driving, in the nature of their attachments to and treatment of their children, in the fact that a Communist regime could be established. I have learnt something about that.

I have learnt that acquiring Mandarin by a non-native speaker is tough but may be within the realms of possibility. I have learned that independent travel in China is entirely feasible. But above all I think, I have learned that among the perplexing warp and weft of cultural cloth there is a great deal that is shared and contiguous, as well as so much that is alien. And, as a result, I have developed another vantage point to think about myself and my world. And that is a solid prize.

Here is an example. Yesterday I had a small argument about the desirability of more strenuously encouraging homework. The other side suggested that such a thing would be an infringement of the rights of students and of teachers. And I saw again the kids pouring out of the gate of Mojiang No.1 at 9.30pm. Where will you want to live? I thought. Chong Qing or Shanghai? And if it is to be Shanghai, then steps will need to be taken. Lots of homework. Lots.

And how did I learn these things? It was by being there. To return to one of the epigraphs: ‘You have to see it — if you haven’t seen it, there will be something about it that you will not get.’ You can watch the football on TV, but if you think that that is the experience of being there you have made a very serious mistake. And it was being part of it. In her journal Myrna, reflecting a common theme, wrote:

I think that the contact with the teachers and students has made this trip come alive in this exceptional way. The people are like me and other people I know, except they are so friendly and hospitable. I keep feeling that the people are just like at school — I feel that I am used to them. I’m surprised it is so much like being at home, the level and type of interaction is so equal.

As they say, travel broadens one, a splendid and honourable cliché, and this sort of travel more than most. All travellers are otherwise unoccupied, out of the rut and adrenalised: hoping for good companions, for good experiences, for the best. Perhaps this misinforms their (my) judgment. (I have wondered if I want this experience qualified by further contact.) But good travellers are permeable to other types of experience. They discover ‘scale’ and can place things where they belong — as the locals do. And after the experience you do ‘get it’ better, you do have some touchstones, you do have a sense of the surrounds in at least three dimensions and possibly many more. ‘It has been the ultimate in professional development’, wrote Sandra, with ‘ultimate’ heavily underscored.

When I was training to be a teacher I was very taken by existential theories of learning. Adventure camping had underpinned and formed this attraction. It was the idea of placing the learner in a situation from which he or she couldn’t help but learn — and it made sense to me. There would be loose ends, serendipities and epiphanies, but the core of the experience would be unavoidable even if the range of learning would be very hard to define precisely.

In an age of endlessly defined ‘outcomes’, the popularity of these ideas has waned. But could someone who had been involved in this trip to China have lived through it in a capsule which reproduced their life at home? I think not. It could have been hated or found disturbing, but it could not have been without impact. That’s what happened to us I believe. We actually did have that joke idea of the ‘70s, an existential experience.

And what did we offer our hosts in return? The chance to speak English with native speakers? Certainly, but I do hope it was considerably more than that. Perhaps just being present, on show, for them to make up their own minds about the nature of some foreigners at least and to determine their own reactions. Perhaps that is what matters.

A lot of this has been written looking back over our photos and from the video of the dancing that Ted so generously made for me. I am reminded again of how visual souvenirs eventually become the trip and am glad I have so many. I am grateful too, to have had this chance to live it all again. As I have been writing I have been there again — promenading on Beijing Lu with those thrilling young Chinese, stopping the buses to set off crackers in the Yunnanese hills, gasping at the development in Pudong, popping packets of tissues at lunchtime in the big room at the Mojiang Hotel, gazing up in disbelief at the lights outside Chong Qing station, in Beijing in the cold eating Peking Duck, hurtling around the bush roads in buses, vomiting comprehensively in that wretched hotel in Si Mao, walking down those human lines of welcome and reading with the little kids at Bixi, and talking with Mrs Chen, Mr Huang, Mr Li and that great person, that great Chinese person, Mr Su.

Mr Su may come to Australia this August. I wonder what his story will say.

* * * * *

Mr Su did come, part of a large delegation with all appropriate political coverage.

He found our schools odd and anarchic. The delegation as a whole was shocked by teaching which seemed so undisciplined and that at times students might even have their back to the teacher. I think he found the natural environment unremarkable although the group as a whole enjoyed the native creatures at Healesville Sanctuary: the obvious creatures, rather than the subtle ones. They came for dinner to our place and were stunned by its space, ‘luxury’ and especially the white goods on display.

But as the toasts mounted up none of it mattered. We became the mates we were again. Just chatting away.mates.jpeg

An email from the Australian Embassy, from two years ago, when I wanted to find him again:

 Hi Kathe

We at last tracked Mr Su Hou down. He seems to have based himself in Simao. As you will see in the attachment, he gave his daughter’s address and phone number as a contact. She (Su Mei) lives in Kunming and I imagine speaks English.

One of our Chinese staff and I had a more than one hour phone call with him. He mainly spoke Chinese and I couldn’t catch all of it. So our Chinese staff member prepared the attached summary of our phone call. You will see that the names of Australians that led visits is written as we heard Mr Su’s pronunciation, although he pronounced your name perfectly. He downloaded a lot of detail plus some of the “reason why” and  “benefit” detail from his perspective which we were chasing.  I think you will find the summary interesting.

Yours, Tony.

THE Memorable Event for Su Hou

Kathe Kirby’s first time visit to Mojiang prefecture when was also the first time I met with Kathe Kirby. They visited Menglian prefecture where a place with a mainly ethnic minorities of Dai. Australian Teachers had been to poor countryside and local residents welcomed them by ways of roasting Chinese spirits and killing goats. Three days they lived in “Bamboo” building hotel. And even trying to eat the big bees after convinced by local people, they felt good about the taste.

They visited 24 schools mainly included kindergartens, elementary schools and high schools. At least three times to visit to children special needs school in Simao. They would send a numbers of presents to children on every visit.

Australian teachers had a variety of entertainment with local people. They singing and dancing to their hearts’ content at night and playing firework, music accompanied by drumbeats reverberates throughout the villages. Australian teachers regarded it as an exciting experience. 

He knew.



Barr, Pat (1970) Foreign Devils: Westerners in the Far East: the sixteenth century to the present day Penguin Books, Harmondsworth

Bond, Michael Harris (1991) Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from psychology OUP, Hong Kong

Fitzgerald, C. P. (1964) The Birth of Communist China Penguin Books, Harmondsworth

Hopper, Beverley (1998) ‘Keeping up with the Wangs: Consuming desires in post-Mao China’ Asia Pacific Magazine 9 & 10, 17-22

Milner, Anthony and Mary Quilty (eds) (1996) Australia in Asia: Comparing Cultures OUP, Melbourne

Polo, Marco (1958) The Travels Penguin Books, Harmondsworth

Salisbury, Harrison (1993) The New Emperors: Mao and Deng, a dual biography Harper Collins, London

Spence, Jonathan and Annping Chin (1996) The Chinese Century: A photographic history Harper Collins, London

Spence, Jonathan (1997) God’s Chinese Son Flamingo, London

Taylor, Chris et al (1996) China: A Lonely Planet travel survival kit Lonely Planet Publications, Melbourne























Here above are samples of the first two.

Looking over the Old City (the smallest, oddest and most under threat) to the towers of Pudong separated by the Huangpu River. I’m craning out the window of our AirBnB on the 23rd floor of a tower block with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and, bless it, a washing machine with an excellent place to dry clothes — and a wall decoration worthy of record.

IMG_1855.jpgIt turned out to be an excellent place to begin, on the fringe of the tourist bubble, but next to another tower block full of restaurants and a huge supermarket. Our entry to the Old City from the south was up through a ‘normal’ street studded with noodle and dumpling shopsIMG_1824.jpg and the hordes who wanted to take photos of junior foreigners.IMG_1834.jpgThat the Old City exists at all is a phenomenon. It is vigorous with popular life, hundreds of tiny shops with odd collections of sale items, complex sculptural versions of wiring,  people still doing their washing in troughs in the street belting it into sparkling submission with long poles, sitting, eating, chatting, watching. Apparently it was declared a Historical Cultural Scenery Area in 2006 preserving it from the depredations of developers, if not tourists. The closer you get to City God Temple and the Yu Gardens the more dense they become.


It was a walk to the Bund from where we were. There was no shortage of other photographers. Having your photo taken here is an important Chinese pastime.thumb_IMG_1257_1024.jpgAnd below is the view to the other side, dominated by the office towers of New China. The first time we went to Shanghai ‘the bottle opener’, still under construction at the time, was the big building. The Shanghai Tower, all 628m of it, now ummm towers over everything else.

I’ve written about this part of Pudong elsewhere. It is a reminder that one-third of the world’s billionaires are Chinese.IMG_1840.jpg

We were in Shanghai for the purposes of child-minding while our daughter and son-in-law were working for/with a Chinese drum manufacturing company. The modern world.IMG_2004.jpg

With 25 or so recruits from the company and elsewhere they spent several days developing and practising a performance for the Shanghai International Music Expo which was a spectacle in itself; no idea how many hectares of display space, tiring just to look at. I’ve checked: in total 2 sq km of indoor space; 3 sq km, of outdoor display space; 17 display halls each one bigger than Jeff’s Shed (a Melbourne yardstick of ‘big’).thumb_IMG_0403_1024.jpg

Three generations of gorgeous gals here. The third one is on the banner behind. The spectacle (Fr.) was deemed a success.thumb_IMG_0458_1024.jpg

And we feasted yet again.thumb_IMG_0491_1024.jpg

For this part of the journey we were living in the third face of Shanghai, the one where most of its population lives, the endless forests of tower blocks that make up 7/8 of the city. This is the view from the window of our hotel.IMG_2068.jpg

Not Shanghai Disney or Madame Tussaud’s, although we went there too, but somewhere being turned into living spaces.


Each night some of the street corners provided old style commerce and life: here wok- and Bbq-cooked food; on the opposite corner, fruit and vegetables from the back of a truck. Below, after a big feed inside, passionate dance.IMG_1889.jpg

One night we went for a walk after dinner to shake down the jellyfish, chicken feet, chilli greens and blood jelly, just a stroll round the blocks and, lo and behold, stumbled on hundreds of people on several street corners dancing, guǎngchǎng wǔ, public square dance. It was a surprise but apparently more than 100 million people participate. (So a tiny minority activity! Ah … you can say things like that about China.) I didn’t partake but a gallant gentleman inquired if my wife was interested and of course she was. Crummy photo of a memorable event.thumb_IMG_0494_1024.jpgWe returned to the luxury tourist version of Shanghai for the last two days and had a luxury tourist version of a good time: mooched round, ate Macca’s, bought things, went to Mme. Tussaud’s most successfully, and made an assault on Shanghai Tower.

It is a simply magnificent building, nine blocks stacked on each other inside a glass sheath with a twist and an inset, and yes, 628m high, the second highest building in the world.

As will be obvious the weather had been fine and hot and the air relatively clear for the duration — until the last day, the day of our ascent.IMG_1344.JPG

We spent modest fortunes getting to the 128th floor and sawIMG_1345.JPGI had in mind something more like


But what the hell. We can do it again next time. 

Two eccentric faces that don’t really count.IMG_1312.jpg

That’s called ‘stopping in the middle of a panorama’.

We found the painting below in M50, Shanghai’s arts precinct with its intriguing contents. It probably tells China’s contemporary story — and a tale of the world’s future — and illustrates that the new empire will not be completely bereft of irony.thumb_IMG_1331_1024.jpg