There is an irony to coming up for air in a city synonymous with some of the worst air pollution in the world.
|These days the sun does not stand at midday so much as stagger and clutch at curtains of smog.|
But after five years in Tokyo which have descended into a desolating and futile ordeal, a brief escape to China to visit some old friends provided a valuable dose of perspective.
Tokyo is a bubble: an artificial self-contained world which soaks at your soul, slowly dissolving away any distinguishing features until – if you are not destroyed resisting – you have been absorbed into that city’s socio-economic illusion, by when everything outside that membrane appears universes away. And now, as I contemplate with growing finality whether to bring my time in Japan to an end, just a few days looking in from outside proved invaluable.
I was a Chinese Communist once. During my school days in London, in an environment of arrogantly triumphalist right-wing capitalist menace, it was all I could do to draw upon my interest in East Asian history and half-Chinese ethnic heritage to build up a defiant identity-fortress of revolutionary ideology and red books and banners to counter them.
Nowadays I no longer do -isms, but this was a crucial period in developing values of my own, as opposed to submitting to allow any society to feed me its own. However I was never a friend to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has yet to face up to the many atrocities it has caused and errors it has made, most or all of them needless, and most tragic perhaps in their squandering of the real opportunity and hope that movement represented in creating something better for the world, all the more so today.
And yet for better or for worse, China has always been in some way a part of me. Perhaps family connections were also involved, whether in the China of great upheavals from my parents’ own stories, or in those heroes of the 1980s democracy movement I came to know and in some cases meet through my father’s diplomatic work. Although I would never call myself Chinese any more than any other nationality, this is a country which has always held a certain connection to my soul.
Which is strange, considering I had only been there once, in the mid-1990s, long before my own communist period. I was too young then to remember much of that trip now; it lasted only a few days, its outstanding memory my father’s finger-waving altercation with the clerk at the Forbidden City who attempted to charge him a higher price to enter for being foreign.
That at least they no longer seem to do. Much has changed in this country in the last couple of decades, or so it is said.
Perhaps on that visit I also entered the hutong (胡同) streets and alleyways to visit my parents’ own old friends, made in the turbulent days of transition from the madness of post-Cultural Revolution xenophobia (I have heard that it was too dangerous for my parents, one Chinese and one British, to walk down the same street together) to the opening and reforms of Deng Xiaoping.
This time at least I was better aware of these alleys’ significance. The hutongs are the traditional heart and soul of Beijing – hence why, in the name of that strange religion we call development, we have seen fit to wipe them from the map to make way for soulless high-rise apartments and skyscrapers.
Nonetheless no small number of hutongs remains, and at first sight, especially if one is used to the relatively immaculate streets of a city like Tokyo, they can project a shabbiness that disconcerts. Walls and vehicles lie in rusting decay; rubbish overflows from bins uncollected, and all around drift the sights and scents of questionable foodstuffs being prepared under still more questionable sanitation. But from beneath those first impressions rise reassuring currents of genuine humanity: the dwellers here know each other, greet each other with warmth or properly shout at each other when angry. There is a real community here, living amidst walls whose purpose seems less to keep people out than to whisper stories of hundreds of years of continuity: any alley may have its own tale to tell of ways of life unchanged down the centuries, illustrious sons and daughters, thriving markets and businesses, abiding temples, or dissidents hiding from palace or party authorities.
Beijing and Tokyo are both cities that have utterly transformed over the last seventy years, and been heavily critiqued for what they have sacrificed to do so. But in the hutongs of Beijing that remain, the livelihoods and community bonds of the laobaixing (老百姓, “old hundred surnames”) – the ordinary people of the city – are in plain view, in a way which to my knowledge has no real equivalent in Tokyo.
For all the violent upheavals it has experienced down the ages, Beijing’s rectangular civic scheme still evokes a cosmology that dates back to when the Mongols established it as the Chinese capital. It was consolidated under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which was when many of its most iconic structures appeared. Among those was the Forbidden City, the seat of imperial power at the exact centre of the capital and in line with its north-south axis, as well as the four great temples, one in each compass direction: the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Moon, Temple of Earth and – renovated in the 18th Century and now by far the most prominent – the Temple of Heaven.
|Needless to say, most of these sites are now money-spinning temples to the modern tourism industry.|
The city continued to grow after the Manchu conquest, remaining the capital during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Additional gardens and estates appeared, most notably the Yuanmingyuan (圆明园) and Yiheyuan (頤和園) summer palaces to the northwest – the latter now a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven.
These sites of course are now synonymous with a much more painful and still highly relevant part of China’s story: its pillaging, looting and humiliation by the European empires, most notoriously the British and the French, during the dynasty’s 19th Century decline. Both summer palaces were ransacked by those countries’ forces during the Second Opium War (1856-60) with many of their treasures plundered, and the burning down of the Yuanmingyuan on the orders of the British consul remains symbolic of how a civilization that saw itself as the centre of the world for five thousand years endured a century of abject suffering on account of the naked greed and bloodlust of upstart foreign predators.
This experience, and the struggle to stand back up, has been central to the Chinese narrative ever since, especially to the CCP’s legitimation of its rule, and still informs the way China conducts its journey and its relationships with the outside world.
|The vast gardens and complexes of the Yiheyuan are now another of Beijing’s popular cultural sites. By contrast the ruins of the Yuanmingyuan are largely unrestored; their historical significance and environmental challenges on the site make any renovation plans controversial and politically sensitive.|
|Suzhou Street in the Yiheyuan, built to resemble the Shantang Canal in Suzhou. This too was totally destroyed by British and French soldiers in 1860 and only rebuilt in the 1980s. Those in the UK now advocating for their soldiers to be exempt from international human rights laws while fighting abroad would do well to remember that the British armed forces have a very long history of atrocities and abuses - and that most parts of the world where they have left their footprints remember this.|
It is a complicated country; as with Japan, far more so than its caricatures common in the media or political rhetoric. But where Japan’s contradictions tend to be more starkly defined and readily identified, China’s feel somehow messier, more raw. Like most of the world it seems to have plunged headfirst into market fundamentalist globalization and the faith of development, throwing away left and right any valuing of people, their rights, their relationships or the natural world, for the sake of hammering out and disgorging astronomical tons of material stuff. It shares the tendency to boast of what is measurable in enormous statistics, while forgetting what is too valuable for numbers to capture. The destruction of the hutongs and other heritage; the abandonment of millions of rural poor; the everyday nightmares of air pollution and neverending gridlock on the roads; and of course, a reflexive intolerance for and repression of political dissent and ethno-cultural minorities – all of this is real, and is testament to a share in a global madness here magnified to an unthinkable, uniquely Chinese scale.
But at the same time, it is a country for which history – real history, both the long sweep and the recent cascade of trauma after trauma – matters, and matters acutely.
In this it is quite unlike Japan. There – at least in the big cities – one is given the sense that the concern for story or journey has been lost altogether, let alone people’s agency to write where it goes from here. It is as though history in Japan is awkward, embarrassing, and in the final instance unnecessary; so like most difficult topics it is left undiscussed, or at best reduced to sanitized stereotypes of ninjas and samurai for the consumption of undiscerning tourists. But in China the story is right there in the streets, in the walls and in the haze; no matter how much the maws of development devour, no matter how many times its own leaders might bend and twist it to hide its more shameful chapters, it is a story of such weight, such unimaginable magnitude, that no jaws nor carpet would ever be wide enough to fully engulf it. The story will still be there, and those who deal with the Chinese ignore it at their peril.