Thursday, February 27, 2014

Changing Faces in CHINA...

Say ‘bian lian’ to anyone in China and they’ll know what you mean. Translated as ‘changing faces’, it refers to an extraordinary form of Chinese opera, from the southern province of Sichuan, in which the players’ masked faces do just that. They change–before your eyes during the performance and with lightning speed. As the players act, sing, dance and do acrobatics, to the lively accompaniment of Chinese musical instruments, their colourful and elaborately-decorated faces suddenly change for no apparent reason and with no obvious
involvement of hands. One moment deep blue, then, in the blink of an eye, the same face turns a ghostly white. A quick flick of the head, and red becomes green, black replaced by yellow all in a split second. And I defy any westerner to tell me how it’s done. Ask a Chinese, and you only get that oriental smile that gives away nothing. The closest I got to discovering the mystery behind the changing faces was ‘it’s a secret!’

In March, 2008, an uprising by Tibetan militants was brutally crushed by the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The militants gained only sympathy from posturing western media – a somewhat hypocritical response from nations that have spent hundreds of years conquering and plundering other countries all over the world, destroying cultures and civilisations in their wake. And there is the Chinese version of the Tibet story: that Tibet has been a part of China since the Mongols invaded in the thirteenth century, this association consolidated during the early Qing dynasty until 1928 when, with a weakened central Chinese government following a century of interference from the West, Tibet claimed independence. Since Mao’s crushing invasion of the newly-created independent state in 1959, Tibetan
insurgency has smouldered on, occasionally erupting as seen earlier in 2008.

Could a comparison be made with Britain and Northern Ireland in the seventies and eighties? Maybe not. One thing is certain, however. The PLA do not do ‘half-measures’ when it comes to quelling dissent. But then it is an army, after all, and this is what soldiers do? Or is it?

On May12th 2008 a massive earthquake, Richter scale 8, struck Sichuan. I was there with my Chinese wife – one hundred and eighty miles from the epicentre, on a bus in the Jiuzhaigou National Park. If our Chinese guide hadn’t told us to
push and shove like the Chinese, we’d never have got onto that bus. With the motion of the bus we felt nothing at the time, but at the next bus halt we learned there’d been an accident involving the bus behind us (there, but for the grace of God!). Later, it transpired the bus had been hit by a landslide and a Chinese tourist on board had been killed. It remained buried by rubble for three days.

Gradually the whole picture emerged. Our guide had a phone call from her boyfriend telling her there’d been a massive earthquake centred in Wenchuan, near Chengdu where we’d been the previous day. We had to detour on foot because of another landslide further down the valley, and on the way back to the hotel our driver encountered a boulder, the size of a
mini van, on the road. During the night we were shaken in our beds with each aftershock, and my poor wife’s teeth were chattering like castanets for it’s a terrifying thing to feel that the very ground you have lived on all your life is on the move.

Having been shaken by the earthquake, we were so stirred by what happened afterwards that we felt compelled to donate as generously as we could to the earthquake relief fund.

China had shown the world a sudden change in face so utterly different to the one seen when she’d put down that Tibetan uprising. The speed and efficiency of the Chinese government’s response to the disaster, at local and at National levels, took the international community by surprise, but even more unexpected was the face of caring and compassion,
particularly from the soldiers of the PLA who worked tirelessly, at risk to themselves, to save trapped victims. They never gave up hope and continued to their search for the living under the rubble for well over a week 266 hours in the case of one eighty-year old man who, miraculously,  was brought out alive; surely a world record worth more than anything China’s gold medallists achieved at the Beijing and the London Olympics.

How did this remarkable change of face occur? All I can say, from being in the country at the time, is that the ‘caring’ was evident from the very top downwards immediately after the disaster struck, resulting in swift and thorough organisation of relief. Premier Wu Jiabao flew to the disaster area within twenty-four hours (if only George had done that for New Orleans!) and personally supervised much of the rescue and relief
organisation. The non-stop internal reporting was transparent, detailed and, above all, intelligent. The impetus was maintained hour by hour, and it was an eye-opener to see the story unfold, see how anticipated problems were dealt with: prevention of epidemics, temporary re-housing of the homeless (fifteen million people displaced), planning for future rebuilding, counselling for the psychologically-traumatised, particularly children, and later, after mother nature dealt the region another blow with torrential rain that caused quake lakes to form upstream of landslides, plans to re-channel these and evacuate those at risk from flooding when the dams created by these landslides burst.

It’s hard to say whether the example set by the government was the cause or the effect of the coming together of over 1.3 billion Chinese, and really it doesn’t matter. What matters is that everyone pulled together behind a caring face: a nation of impoverished peasants and multibillionaire business magnates, of communist cadres and dissidents, of political ideologists and Daoists and Buddhists and Muslims and Christians, of old people with
expressionless, yellowed parchment faces that give away nothing of past sufferings and of smiling, smooth-skinned, doll-faced children; a nation of impossibly beautiful women. This huge capitalist nation, run by a communist party, taking with it Chinese from Taiwan, Singapore and Chinese communities across the globe, became as one and cared passionately about fellow human beings – in stark contrast to the American response following the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, or the tragedy played out in Myanmar after the Irrawaddy Delta was swept by Cyclone Nargis.

Of course, Chinese efficiency, which doubtless saved many lives in Sichuan, has been there all the time staring us in the face. How else could a country the size of China have emerged
from desperate poverty in the wake of the Cultural Revolution to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful on earth within just three decades?

Yes, there was the Cultural Revolution: a face of China that no one in the world would ever wish to see again, and one that has left a permanent scar on the nation herself. None could forget that recent period of Chinese history when unthinkable terror was unleashed to a level of madness upon her own citizens; an exercise in social brutality that served as a blueprint for some of the world’s other madmen, such as Pol Pot. And can we really lay all
the blame upon the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ which included the wife of Mao Zedong? Was Chairman Mao asleep for all those years when the Red Guards tried to lay waste a culture that had grown over five thousand years? And they came very close to succeeding. Now the official Chinese take on Mao is that he was right seventy percent of the time and wrong thirty percent of the time. Maybe the same might be said of other political monsters, but it’s what happens in that ‘thirty percent’ that determines the suffering inflicted by such tyrants. For the Chinese to admit the man who pulled the country from the edge of an abyss after a century of weak and inept government, and a humiliating invasion by Japan, was also one of the most evil leaders the world has ever known would be a great loss of face.

Loss of face is very much an Asian thing, and hard for us westerners to fully comprehend, but I believe keeping the face of Mao Zedong, wart and all, staring across Tiananmen Square has something to do with the importance of not being seen to lose face. The Gang
of Four must take the blame for what happened, so that’s all right now for the man who waved a Little Red Book at the masses and caused the deaths of, possibly, eighty million Chinese.

But the real issue for the rest of the world is whether or not the face China revealed during that awful period will ever show itself again. Only a crystal ball could give us the answer, but many still remember June 4th, 1989, when the tanks rolled out across Tiananmen Square crushing no o
ne knows how many student protesters. It was a sudden change of face the world outside China hoped it wouldn’t see, for it seemed the students were only voicing concern about the corruption that was then rife, not trying to overthrow the government. It’s a topic to be avoided by those who visit China now, but could that face still reappear one day? And was this the same face as seen by those Tibetan militants?

There was, of course, another face to the Sichuan Earthquake, one the Chinese don’t wish to dwell on: corruption.  The official death toll for children was 5,335, though some suspect the true figure to be higher. The main point, though, is that the majority of these youngsters were in school buildings which collapsed like propped-up playing cards. Had funds intended for their safe construction been siphoned off? We’ll never know’  

Our guide who was with us during the Sichuan earthquake was wonderful. She showed the two faces of China we needed to see at the time. Caring and efficiency. Unable to fly out from the nearest airport the day after the quake struck, we spent a miserable night in a Sichuan Tibetan hotel, together with many Chinese tourists. The hotel people were kind and did their best to feed us all, but it was cold and damp and most of the time the electricity was
off and it was snowing on the mountains outside and there was vomit on the staircase. Our guide was hardly off her mobile phone, trying everything she could think of to get us out of the earthquake zone and on to Yunan, the neighbouring province. She even went to pray at the local Buddhist temple and she wasn’t, she told us, a Buddhist. Either by miracle, or through her sheer persistence, she managed to get us onto flights out of the earthquake zone, via Chongqing. She was our guardian angel.

Then there was the passport saga. Our tour, arranged by a Chinese tour company, was due to last thirty-seven days. Unbeknown to them, the Chinese government had altered the visa regulations. The maximum stay allowed had been reduced to thirty days. Eager not to cancel bookings and shorten our trip (which would have caused the company loss of face)

they lobbied the Chinese embassy in London, but without success. Thirty days max, they said. The girl who told me had one of those Chinese smiles that so frequently deceive foreigners since it always heralds bad, not good, news (the oriental smile is a whole topic on its own). Cancel all those bookings, then? I asked, my blood starting to boil. Oh no! the girl replied. No problem! Just get a visa extension from a public security bureau in any Chinese city. So, in the Beijing public security bureau we join a long queue of foreigners wishing to get their visas extended. Half way through the wait our Beijing guide, who’d been strutting around glued to his mobile phone, told us we’d need a registration document from our hotel. So off he whizzes in a taxi, back to our hotel, whilst we sit and wait some more. He returns, we rejoin the queue, and as we approach a row of grim-faced women manning the desks, dressed in blue uniforms with intimidating chevrons on their sleeves, he tells us that they’ll have to keep our passports. And the following day we were due to take the train to Shandong to stay with my wife’s half-sister. Leaving our passports behind in Beijing with one of those grim-faced women was almost as frightening as being shaken by the aftershocks of the earthquake.

No problem! they said our guide and the man at the other end of the phone – the tour company boss in Beijing with a responsibility for Yanks and Brits. Express delivery! Your passports will be sent to you in Taian. Couldn’t someone from the company actually deliver them in person? I asked. What if they get lost in the post? Silence. I repeated my question. I’ll pay anything for someone to personally return our passports to us here in Shandong, I said. More silence.

I should have known. If a Chinese feels there’s no discussion to be had he’ll say nothing. Not a word. It’s the Chinese way. Of course, it means that neither party has to suffer loss of face. Also, I should have trusted Chinese efficiency. I’d seen it in action in the aftermath of the earthquake, and now, having travelled right across China, taken thirteen flights (every flight on time), two train journeys and two by road, I realise how extensive this efficiency is. It’s the norm. Our passports arrived, by express delivery, a day earlier than promised.

In Shandong we saw the best of all Chinese faces. The face of hospitality. Asian hospitality is legendary, and combined with a Chinese determination to make promises actually happen (not a feature in all Asian countries, I believe), it’s a wonderful, and humbling, thing to experience. We spent a fortnight with my Chinese in-laws and loved every minute of it,
pampered to the very marrow of our bones, with every meal (that’s three a day, in China) a feast.

It matters not a jot why or how the faces of the Sichuan opera players change so
abruptly. It’s entertaining, and the mystery of it is all part of the fun. But the many faces of China? Believe me, it matters. I love China. Not only because I’m in love with a Chinese woman. I love her five thousand year history, her calligraphy, an art form itself, her language that sounds like music; I love the quirkiness of hearing a jaunty rendition of Jingle Bells in June against a backdrop of the haunting strains of the erhu, I love the constant smiles (the
other sort–not the smiles of embarrassment), the friendly dragons that help bring on the rain for the farmers, the food direct from heaven and the antics of taxi drivers who must surely have been coached in hell (Beijing, full speed, wrong side of the road… wow!) and the police cars with their circus clown honks. But I respect China. And, as a westerner, I know I should also fear her. The PLA showed extraordinary gentleness and selflessness in Sichuan, but the PLA is an army. The largest in the world, well-equipped, well-disciplined, and with nuclear potential. I wouldn’t wish to come face-to-face with the PLA in its role as a military machine.

Let me now put it like this: there are insufficient resources, including food, in the world to give the average Chinese the same life-style enjoyed by the average American citizen. Fact! China wants her own citizens to have the same living standards as those people on the other side of the Pacific. Fact! Now do you see why it’s so important for the west indeed, the rest of the world to take an interest in the many faces of China? Why we should all learn more about that vast country and the reasons behind her changing faces? What face will she show us when the oil begins to run out, and food gets scarcer? Still not convinced? Well, keep your head buried in the sand if you must, but I strongly advise you do at least hone your chopstick
skills and learn to count up to ten in Mandarin. Failing that, then read this excellent book by an expert, Martin Jacques: When China Rules the World.

PS My wife and I are off to China again in two days!

And so the wheelie bin blog rolls on... as a blogroll...

Please check out the following writers' blogs... they are enjoyable and informative:

Dorothy Bruce, author of political satire In the Wake of the Coup


Jules Horne, Scottish playwright, dramatist and fiction writer

Bridget Khursheed, Scottish Borders poet

Tom Murray, Scottish Borders writer, poet, playwright and Scottish Book Trust Reader in Residence for Borders Libraries.