Sunday, July 7, 1995, Lu Xun Park, Shanghai. It is quite warm, low nineties, and I have come here at 7 a.m. to see the ballroom dancers. It cost me one and a half yuan to enter this park, but it cost the Chinese less; the price on quite a few things here is raised for foreigners. Somehow, this seems right.
Several groups of women are performing Mu Lan Qigong, a martial art named after a famous lady general. One group, in matching white shirts and pink pants, move to the music of a boom box, opening and closing red fans. Another larger group of men and women stand in silence, arms straight out and knees slightly bent, in one of the opening poses of the more widely known Qigong. To the side, a few people move through a complicated Tai chi.
Next to the pond, two fishermen with fifteen-foot bamboo poles hold their rod tips close to the water; today I notice the small worms wriggling on the hooks. Little boys and a man are trying to catch fingerlings with a small net. Several men with caged birds greet each other in their usual spot under the trees. They hang their bird cages close together on the branches. As they pull back the blue cotton covers, the birds begin to chatter. I notice some of the few young people in the park, batting a badminton birdie in a field where people swing swords in measured drills.
There are a few lazy joggers and babies being walked in their strollers. As I take all this in, I think these people are performing various rituals to connect themselves to the space around them as dancers do. It is done delicately, in keeping with the peace and quiet of the sculpted gardens. Some are hidden in the shrubbery; others prefer the congeniality of the group.
In the stone room of a nearby pavilion, a woman is singing a traditional-style song and the haunting, high notes bounce off the walls. On the terrace nearby, two couples maneuver across a cement floor. One couple does the cha-cha. The other couple, younger people, are waltzing. The woman is wearing a pale yellow skirt and the man has on a blue jogging suit. I notice he is leading incorrectly, with his inside foot, which trips his partner when he tries to turn her. I find it charming the way the Chinese have adapted Western ballroom dance--no fancy clothes or sophisticated atmosphere, only constant practice on Sundays when they have spare time.
Was this the real China? I was part of the Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad program in China, and all of us were pestered by this question. Our mission was to observe firsthand the monumental economic and social changes sweeping the world's most populous country, and we were anxious not to miss any unscheduled opportunities to find the answer. Some of us hoped to find it in these morning rituals in Shenzhen and Shanghai.
Others sought to find it by sampling the eight unusual dishes served at meals. Some went to bars; others went to an English teacher's apartment to eat a bowl of noodles and "see how the ordinary people live." Some tried to find the real China by "surfing" Chinese TV or by looking at groceries, household items and temple offerings in the stores. We even thought we could learn more about China by devouring the sweet, ripe lychees from the trees on the Shenzhen University campus, although my Lonely Planet guidebook warns that "Shenzhen is not the real China." In China, from its feudal past to its present socialist market economy, the truth is that business, political and social worlds are so entangled they are almost impossible to separate. When I asked a UM exchange student at Hangzhou University if the Chinese were now as loyal to their families as they were before communism, he told this story:
When the father of his Chinese teacher hired a nephew to work in his factory, the nephew stole machinery to set up his own business. When the factory owner accused the young man of stealing, the nephew told a party official his uncle had not been paying his business taxes (businessmen commonly ignore these). The Chinese teacher went to an acquaintance connected to a high government official, and asked her to plead her father's case. She did and as a result, her father was not accused of withholding taxes and the nephew "ceased to exist."
Many traditional Chinese social values have resurfaced with China's transition into a socialist market economy: pragmatism, support from family, a desire for self-employment and "guanxi," a system for doing business by blending social and economic connections. Yet this change is confusing because the business and social customs of one generation don't hold true for the next. Reflections in a pool are not clear when the wind blows; codes of conduct are not easily deciphered in times of change.
The signs of change are everywhere. Skyscrapers, automobiles and new superhighways have displaced farming villages, carts and bicycle paths. Workers, no longer assigned to communist "danwei" or work units, are abandoning inland China and rushing to the thriving coastal cities we visited, where some contribute to increasing pollution and crime. Several hundred thousand have been turned back at the borders of the coastal provinces. Migrant workers who land temporary jobs send money home to their families in rural areas. Nearly all the young, mostly female workers we saw in the labor-intensive joint venture companies signed three- year contracts, saved their money and returned to their villages when they were done.
These changes have affected the status of women. Under Mao Tse- tung, women "held up half the sky"--they shared duties of soldiering, political leadership and earning a living. Now, as old Chinese patriarchal values have resurfaced in the new China, middle-aged women are once again being exploited in China' s new commercial climate. As the economy shifts from light to service industries, they are losing jobs. Employers are also reluctant to hire women for long-term jobs because of mandated pregnancy leaves and their belief that "men are stronger."
We may have come the closest to finding the "real" China one morning at dim sum in Guangzhou, where at 9 a.m. every banquet table was filled. The room echoed with a cacophony of jovial diners, including different generations of families enjoying their most valued custom: eating together. Business deals seemed to be progressing favorably with toasts and jokes.
We wondered how all these people could be partying during working hours. Maybe these were the new entrepreneurs, the people with time and money that we had been hearing about. May- be they were "real" China. Or was it only in America that the newest is most "real?" In China was it the oldest? Or was it rooted deep in the park's stone pavilion, echoing with the woman's song ringing out over people moving in unison with precision and concentration? We will listen and watch as the giant awakes.
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