Postcard from Xinjiang

Only a postcard, and not a letter, as I’m a bit pressed for time. But who writes letters anymore?

Here’s the front of my postcard, a quick snap I took surreptitiously out the window of my cab. (The characters on the truck – more likely PAP than PLA? – read “The happiness of the ethnic people is our desire”.)

Army truck in Xinjiang

The stamp mark in dated Kashgar, 25th June. Not bad for the mail to arrive only a few days later, right?

On the back I scribble in a spidery, cramped scrawl:

That truck is part of China’s crackdown in advance of the one year anniversary of Xinjiang’s July 5th riots. The nerviness this kind of police presence creates reminds me strongly of Tongren, the Tibetan town with it’s own history of unrest, where I’ve just come from. But don’t think too much of it: for most of the population, life goes on just as it did before and will after. It’s a beautiful corner of the world, where the sun sets at 10pm (I should be two or three timezones before Beijing) and the old town feels more like my imagination of Persia than my experience of China. Maybe that’s why the truck is there. Wish you were here.

Now think of the act of blogging as me leaving the address space blank, and instead glueing the postcard to the back of every computer connected to the internet in the world, should the user have the curiosity to look for it.

Over a plate of spicy, crisp Sichuanese potato slices, Ben was telling me about a favourite song of his. It’s called ‘I want to go to Guilin’ (a famously beautiful southern province of China – think the scenery in The Painted Veil). Listen to it here. He was reminded of the tune when talking (over instant messaging) with a customer who had just been there. The chorus of the song goes like this:

I want to go to Guilin, I want to go to Guilin, but when I have the time I have no money.

I want to go to Guilin, I want to go to Guilin, but when I have the money I have no time.

(That scans much better in Chinese.)

Ben hasn’t been to Guilin. At first, during university in Shanxi, the problem was line one. Now, running his own online business in Beijing, it’s line two which is the rub: “I think the money might be enough, but now I have no time”. Two years after opening his clothes store on the Chinese eBay, Taobao, Ben still works from sunrise to sunset. Guilin, for him, is still just a song and a photo search on Baidu (a Google knock-off).

His business is growing: “actually … it’s not doing too badly”, he puts it with an abashed modesty which can only mean his shop doing very well. He has hired two assistants (in addition to his sister who also works for him), and just placed a big order with a new factory in Guangzhou, where he gets his clothes cheap. Not bad, considering that – according to Ben’s estimate – 70% of Taobao shops flop.

I saw the progress for myself after our tongue-numbing meal, when I went back to his office for the second time. The first time (which I wrote about here), the room – not far from Beida – was filled with plastic-wrapped clothes, and a single grotty computer in the back. Now, the heaps of clothes are as higher*:

And there are three new computers in a row along one wall:

Here, his assistant takes an order from a customer (using a QQ like instant messaging system):

And continues to tackle with a customer complaint:

Fingers crossed that Ben will find that long sought-after combination of time and money, and make it to Guilin. And as for me – I haven’t been there either, but will be travelling in Qinghai and Xinjiang over the next fortnight. On which note, I really must run to catch my train.

Update from Xining 6.14: caught it, in the closest shave of more nearly-missed trains in China than I can remember.


*The picture on the wall in this picture is Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and one of Ben’s heroes, along with Huang Guangyu – recently imprisoned for dodgy practice (bribes blah blah). I asked Ben if this weakened his admiration of Huang. “Not really,” he replied, “Huang Gungyu is like Chairman Mao. 70% of what he did was good, and 30% bad.”

This has been blogged about before, so I’m cheating. But I just can’t resist posting a few pics (in addition to the one I have up on China Beat) and a quick video from Beijing’s Cultural Revolution restaurant, where I had dinner with most of the friends I follow on this blog last Friday night. Yes, June 4th – to complete the political awkwardness of the night.

Out past the fifth ring road, the restaurant is a couple of hours from the student district by subway and (lost) taxi – that’s longer than it takes to get from London to Wales.

A red guard opens our beers and serves our food. As we tuck in, I breath a sigh of relief that this isn’t a Great Leap Forward themed gig.

While the show goes on in the background, I commit the biggest faux pas of my life: giving an ironic toast ‘Long live Mao’ (毛主席万岁), forgetting that I’d invited two friends from Taiwan along.

By the end of the night, we were all wondering when the Cultural Revolution would give way to Deng Xiaoping’s Reform era. Which it did … when the cheque arrived.

“Tomorrow is 6.4”

Well, actually that was a few days ago. But before burying another anniversary in the sand, here is a ‘reply thread’ to a facebook note which I was one of the recipients of. I’ve translated it into English, and kept the participants anonymous – but it’s worth noting, as is obvious from some of the content, that they’re all Taiwanese exchange students. (Correction: I’ve since learnt that only one – A – is an exchange student, the other are friends of A in Taiwan, or mainland Chinese.)

A: Tomorrow is 6.4 again. [reposts this article about the Tiananmen mothers]

B: In the strictly controlled Chinese mainland, try your best not to discuss these topics, especially this sensitive moment, from the ROC constitution’s statutory national territory. Today a Taiwanese girl has been arrested in the Shanghai Expo, just for saying that the Expo doesn’t have the Taiwanese national flag. [Ed: read about it here (in Chinese)]

A: Speaking like that, I’m a little afraid …

C: When you’re abroad, be careful.

A: What can you do … I was wrong … I shouldn’t have shared this essay with everyone … I just deleted everything I should delete … but I’m still a little trepid. I’ll certainly be careful with my behavior …

D: haha, if you’re just posting on facebook it’s not too bad, at least facebook is blocked in the mainland, in general you can be as mischievous as you like, it’s no problem.

A: It’s only facebook … everyone shouldn’t keep talking [about this], I’m very afraid …

C: Don’t think too much about it! Being discreet in what you say and do is enough ~

A: Stop this kind of conversation now, OK!

If you insist …

Here we are, June 4th, again. The first thing to say, to Chinese readers, is that we will not forget those who died on the night of June 3rd, 1989 … and nor do we apologise for keep bringing it up. On Danwei I’ve written a piece comparing the class of ’89 with the class of 2010 in Peking University, if you’re curious – but that’s not the meat of this post.

This is an essay I wrote for my Chinese language school in Beijing, IUP, as my end-of-term exam. My teacher and I had been looking at Chen Duxiu‘s essays in the early [20th] century magazine New Youth. Here I look at one essay in particular, in which Chen appeals to China’s youth to stand up, and tie it briefly to both the May 4th movement and 1989 demonstrations. I thought I’d publish it here – feel free to pick holes in my Chinese!





首先,我错了:当年该杂志还称为《青年杂志》,1916年由于跟其他杂志同名改为《新青年》。但愿改变青年的本质象改变杂志的名字那么简单。陈独秀所追求的理想恰恰是这样的一个新时代的年轻人 - 一个愿意奋斗和打破旧思想的时代。在上述的创刊文章《警告青年》里,他把反对孔教、礼法、贞节、甚至国粹的青年比喻为“新鲜活泼细胞之在人身”,把支持旧伦理、旧政治的老年人比喻为腐烂细胞。 在社会所谓的“新陈代谢”里,他接着说,这些“陈腐朽败者无时不在天然淘汰之途,与新鲜活泼者以空间之位置及时间之生命。”然而这个“天然”的过程好像也要多少人工的帮助:陈先生呼吁青年来“力排陈腐朽败者以去”。如果他们“利刃断铁,快刀理麻,决不作牵就依违之想,”那么“社会庶几其有清宁之日也”。


1919年5月4号一些大学生(北大学生带了头)集合在天安门广场上。原因在于中国政府对凡尔赛和约的软弱反应,结果当时的政府失去了所有的信用。这一天就是五四运动的高潮,而不失为对现代中国有深刻影响的一天 - 中国的青年站起来了。通过三十年的混乱和内战,陈独秀所力求的清宁日子可能到来了:1949年10月1号。但是陈先生享受不了这一天,因为首先他1942年去世了,其次他1929和他以前强烈支持的公产党分道扬镳(从《告全党同志书》 这篇文章可以看出来他的不满)。

假如陈先生1949年还活着,我认为他依旧不会相信这一天到了。因为在《警告青年》里他抱着颇悲观的态度:虽然这些青年看起来很强,但是“及叩其头脑中所涉想,所怀抱,无一不与彼陈腐朽败者为一丘之貉”。更有甚者,他对自己的寻找, 自己的呼吁,没有自信: “求些少之新鲜活泼者,以慰吾人窒息之绝望,亦杳不可得”。然而不仅仅是1919年的事情证明他错了。。。。。。




On September 15th, 1915, in the opening essay of New Youth magazine, Chen Duxiu writes:

“Youth are like the early spring, like the morning sun, like the blooming grass, like the sharp blade fresh off the grinding stone; youth is the most valuable time of life.”

Mr Chen, you’re too kind. I’ll do my best to treasure this valuable time – to use the opportunity when my blade is at its sharpest, when my sun is at its brightest, to analyse and shed light on what you write.

First off, I was wrong: in 1915 the magazine was still called Youth. It changed its name to New Youth in 1916, due to another magazine having the same name. If only changing the nature of youth was as easy as changing a magazine name. For what Chen Duxiu was striving for was precisely a new generation of young people – a generation willing to struggle and break down the old modes of thought. In the essay I mention above, ‘Advice [literally warning] for youth,’ Chen’s metaphor for the youth who oppose Confucian teachings, concepts of ritual, chastity, even the very ‘essence of China’, is “fresh, vigourous cells inside the human body”, and he compares old people who support the old theories and politics to rotten cells.

In this so-called ‘metabolism’ of society, he continues, these “rotten, corrupted cells at all times, by the process of natural selection, give space to stand and time to live in to the fresh, vigourous cells”. However this “natural” process, it seems, still needs a little human help: Chen appeals to the youth to “vigourously drive out those rotten, corrupted cells”. If “their blade is sharp enough to cut iron and hemp, [and they] don’t follow other’s lead or hesitate in thought”, then “maybe society will arrive at a peaceful day”.

Did society arrive at this peaceful day after all?

On May 4th, 1919, students (led by Beida students) gathered on Tiananmen square. The reason: the Chinese government’s weak reaction to the Versailles treaty. The result: the government of the time lost all credibility. That day was the ‘high tide’ of the May Fourth movement, a day with a deep impact on China – China’s youth had stood up. Thirty years of chaos and civil war later, the day Chen Duxiu strove for had (maybe) arrived: 1st October, 1949. But Chen couldn’t enjoy that day: for one, he died in 1942, but he had also split paths in 1929 with the Communist Party he formerly supported so strongly (we can see his discontent in this essay).

Supposing Mr Chen was still alive in 1949, I think he still wouldn’t have believed the day he sought had arrived. Because his attitude in ‘Advice to youth’ was rather pessimistic: even if the youth seem to be strong, if you “knock on their heads to see what they think and believe in, there’s not one who isn’t of the same ilk as those rotten, corrupted cells”. Even more so, he had no belief in his own search, his own appeal: “to find a few fresh, vigourous cells, to ease the blocked airway of my despair, is so distant [a prospect] as to be unnattainable”. However it wasn’t just the events of 1919 that proved him wrong …

On May 4th, 1989, students (once more led by Beida students) again gathered on Tiananmen square. This time, the reason was to commemorate Hu Yaobang, but it swiftly turned into a large-scale political movement. The result: according to conservative estimates, more than two hundred students were killed on the night of June 3rd. These young people, just like those of seventy years ago, were opposing the ‘elements’ that were “blocking the airway of society”, but the difference is rather paradoxical: this time, they were opposing the very Communist Party who before had opposed old modes of thought.

Chen Duxiu asks the reader: “The society of my country, will it prosper? Or is it doomed?” His opinion seems to be the latter. I say to the reader: don’t mind him. Although China, even today, still has many problems, none of them are incurable. To “cure this disease”, Chen writes, society must have “one or two youths sensitive enough to realise their potential, and brave enough to struggle”. The “disease” he talks of isn’t the disease of today’s society, but the prescription is just the same: new youth.*


* It’s rather weird, and bloody awkward, to translate something you’ve written yourself into your mother tongue. I’ve taken liberties, but hope the original author won’t mind.

Lunchtime in Tsinghua

My campus this year at Tsinghua University is huge, but not huge enough to leave elbow room amongst all its students. This may not surprise you, given that a) it’s a university, and b) it’s in China. (A county with 500 million people aged 5-29).

Undeterred by stating the obvious, your humble blogger thought he’d upload a couple of pictures from lunchtime, to give a poor impression of the student size, and perhaps a little feel for the campus. First, a central canteen (lunch: about 50p/$1).

Next, the North-South road leading up to that canteen. This picture really doesn’t do justice to the tsunami of cyclists who barrel down this lane at the rush-hours of campus life. If it had, I quite literally wouldn’t have been able to squeeze in to take a picture.


Update: A source has recently informed me that there are 9 million bicycles in Beijing. She continued: “That’s a fact. It’s a thing you can’t deny. Like the fact that I will love you ’til I die.” The information she provided was on record. (groan …)

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