“You are a lion”, said my reading and listening teacher.
Well, she didn’t say exactly that, she actually said “你是狮子”. The week before, we’d learnt that the measure word for small animals was 只, whilst for larger animals, including lions (but excluding horses and camels, in case anyone’s interested) is 头.
I had my hair down. This comparison has been made before, and remains popular with several friends at home. Fair point, fair play. “When I first saw you, I thought that you were so…so..think? No, that’s not it, so – 瘦”
“thin?” I suggest helpfully.
“Yes, yes – that. I thought that you are so small. But now, no absences, no qingjia 请假”. She looked surprised.
Notice that being thin, or slim, or petite, in this sense, is not a positive quality. It’s a sign maybe of a weak physical constitution, and lack of strength. Fragility, and perhaps even bad health. To the western mind, and the aesthetic which currently dominates the U.S.A and Europe, this might seem odd. This comment struck me not because I was offended by it, or even too concerned with it, until I remembered one of the first times that I met my boss in India (albeit when I was pretty ill and lying in my mentor’s bed…) and the first thing she said was “you need to grow more”. It seems that my statue creates a pretty meagre first impression for me in Asia.
But the winds of change are blowing in. The millennial generation in China, in particular the “little emperors” (the only children born to Chinese parents under the One Child policy) are building their own pedestals. There’s a reason that being in China at the moment is so exciting – things seem to be changing, gathering pace, by the day.
The street where I live in Jinan is many things, but at night, it becomes an (illegal, or at least, “unofficial”) market. The most insightful thing, or the area that holds my attention is a small patch of pavement, almost an island actually, in between two sets of fast-moving traffic lights, where Wenhua Dong Lu 文化东路 turns into Wenhua Xi Lu 文化西路 at a giant (and mildly terrifying, if you’re a pedestrian) crossroad intersection. This unremarkable piece of sidewalk becomes a book stall by night, f the weather permits. What it sells – or tries to sell, as I have no idea how much they actually sell – are texts that you might find in the charity shops of any UK university town. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Hitler’s Mein Kempf. These are probably set texts, the world over, for most arts students. Something caught my eye though, the biographies of Nelson Mandela and Vladimir Putin. The former, because of the link that I made in my last post, about the solidarity that I had never really considered before concerning the support of the Chinese for black civil rights, as part of a wider struggle against white supremacy and domination. The last book that I mentioned, Putin’s biography, surprised me because I don’t think that I’ve ever seen that for sale in England, though I can’t pretend that I’ve actually looked for it.
All things considered then, it’s worth bearing in mind that the tastes and thoughts of young people in China are changing, and not necessarily along the same lines as their western counter-parts. More so than India, China represents an alternative vision of modernity, which does not include a state endorsed religion, or democracy. That being said, it still manages to sustain a huge popular, possibly more diverse than the entirety of Europe, if we were to list all of the ethnic minorities under its remit. Moreover, China is succeeding at something a great number of Asian countries have only just started to attempt. Attracting foreign students, in significant numbers, to their higher education institutions.
I could produce various statistical facts, but instead I’m going to go with my own personal experience. The truth is (and it is slightly embarrassing) that I’ve met more people of other nationalities in the last three months than in the entire duration of my life in one of England’s most diverse cities. Definitely more than the three years that I spent at university. They all have their own reasons for coming to China. The economy and job prospects in their own country might be uninspiring, they might be fleeing actual political instability, or they may be drawn in by the cheaper cost of living in China as compared to most of the world. China is not the cheapest place to live, when compared with other developing countries, but I get the feeling that its academics and love of learn may be more established than in other South East Asian countries. All of these young people; some from Russia, some from Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, Mauritania, Surinam, Sudan, Kenya, Thailand, Korea, India…they bring in parts of their own culture, and create tiny hubs of exchange on university campuses across China. Whereas most Chinese people may never see every province in their own country, if they overcome the ferocious 高考 (gaokao) , and attend university in a major city, then they’ll most like encounter foreigners from several different continents. In truth, the international community surrounding even a 2nd or 3rd tier Chinese university, like the one that I am currently attending (based on the C9/ Project 211/ Project 985 models, not a criticism of Shandong Normal university) is a real force to be reckoned with, and a great driver of cultural change.
Nowhere in China encapsulates this cultural “melting pot” mentality like Xi’an, a city which has, for centuries, known no other way of functioning than to act as the last stop on the ancient Silk Road trading route. Of course, today the city is a thriving metropolis and tourist attraction in its own right, and so there is a permanent stream of foreign visitors. Yet its history remains exceptional. The Muslim quarter (回民街) of the city, selling its famous Biángbiáng noodles, pomegranate juice and nut cakes, had an intensity of noise and colour to rival some of the bazaars in Delhi. The smell of flat breads cooking instantly took me back there, and I was reminded of what a strange thing it was that China had (with varying degrees of tolerance) somehow managed to admit both Islam and Buddhism into its borders, at a time when Europe could not accept the co-existence of different branches of a single religion – Christianity (which, as the Nestorian Stele tablet reveals, was also permitted to reside in Tang China, though later emperors persecuted Christians).
For me, the ultimate synthesis of Chinese and Indian culture is to be found at 大雁塔, Wild Goose Pagoda, where the Chinese monk Xuanzang translated Buddhist scriptures (taken from India) from Sanskrit into Chinese. His story was written into one of the greatest legends of Chinese literature, 西游记 The Journey to the West. India has left its mark on the monastery (which functions as a working monastic community to this day), with its gold statues and Sanskrit scripted ceiling tiles. Walking across the courtyard I was reminded of the first Buddhist monastery that I’d ever encountered in Asia – at Lantau in Hong Kong. Like the “Big Buddha” (Po Lin) monastery in Lantau, the Wild Goose Pagoda also houses a precious Buddhist relic, not to mention some of Xuanzang’s original palm-leaf Buddhist scriptures.
So what’s left for the children of China, not just those of Han nationality, but the minorities, and the ever-increasing number of waiguoren 外国人(foreigners) that have come to call this place home? I can’t speak with certainty, but I’m hopeful. My hope has nothing to do with economic forecasts or politics, and everything to do with a name, not my own, but that of the city I just described.
Xi’an. It is a name composed of two characters, “Xi”西, meaning west, or western, as Xi’an is west compared to the eastern seaboard of China, the most developed area of the country which includes Beijing and Shanghai, and the part of the country where the earliest civilisations are recorded as living. “An”安, the second character, frequently appears in girls’ names in China, in fact, it’s already appeared on this blog, in the post “The Lessons of AnNa”. “An” means many things; “undisturbed”, “at ease”, possibly even peaceful, and when combined with the character of “quan” to make anquan\ 安全 it means “safety”. Above all things though, it suggests that that which is chaotic and crowded might actually prove to be a paradigm of tranquillity, in much the same way as a small girl might also be a lion.