Xiè Xiè, Xi'an...





If I had to put a date on it, Spring finally made his flourishing entrance onto the Xian stage on March 23rd.  The blossom burst from its buds, fountains started flowing and the mood of the city lightened as the Xianese took a big collective gulp on the “fresh” warm air. 


There is a fragile balance in this city between being cold and dirty and dusty on the one hand, and hot and dusty and suffocating on the other.  Maybe I’m just hard to please.   It does at least seem that when the balance is struck, Xi’an really is a wonderful place to be. 




On a warm evening, as the heat still lingers in the city, the back streets come alive with vendors of everything under the sun.  Being in China, it is mostly food, but with a bit of patience you can (and I have) found the most obscure bits and bobs that you might need.  You can take an evening stroll passed the steaming pans and roaring coal fires, the loud music and strip lighting of hairdressers, the greasy floors and cheap formica tables laid out in every eatery, hunched over by lip-smacking diners slurping down their food; passed multi-coloured piles of plastic tubs and bowls and brushes, and boxes overflowing with brightly-coloured fruit.  These residential areas, known as cun, are where the lifeblood of the city flows.  These little village communities embedded within the city are easily the most interesting way to see the Xianese going about their daily life. 


The Muslim Quarter night market


If you ever come to Xi’an, you could do worse that seek out the community where I live – BaiJiaCun – but almost any straying from the main arteries of the city will lead you into a taste of all this.


Moving up a rung or two from these lower levels of existence, there are huge developments being thrown up at every point of the compass.  Vast wastelands that look like First World War battlefields have been bored out of the heart of the city – mostly hidden from view by boardings adorned with pretty and aspirational pictures - waiting for the spanking new residential complexes and office buildings and recreational projects (meaning massive parks with nouveaux historiques flourishes) to rise up from the ashes. 


Xi’an is trying to reinvent itself as a centre of hi-tech innovation.  The apparent pace at which they are pursuing this suggests there is no doubt in their minds that all this will succeed.  I guess it’s a good time to be bullish about China’s prospects. 


But occasionally one encounters a dissenting voice.  One that suggests that these huge building projects are more about lucrative contracts that line various people’s pockets at different notches up the greasy pole of officialdom than the reality of economic growth that will keep up with these changes.


Whatever the outcome – and only time will tell - one thing is clear to me.  The accountability of Western politicians to their electorate – and especially the probing incisions of journalists – is a healthy and necessary thing.  According to China-watchers with a wealth of years’ of experience far beyond mine, the difference between China’s officialdom and the West’s is not that Chinese politicians are any less honest than those in the West.  (Repeated scandals in the West show that.)  But rather that the whole system is skewed in favour of obscuring transparency, rather than allowing it.  This means any official’s capacity to resist the temptation to take advantage of his position essentially boils down to his own moral backbone.  His ability to say no, when he could so easily say yes. 


But it’s not that simple.  There seem to be conflicts of interest build into the system.  With so much power in the hands of P@rty officials and government officials to see anything get done, the system is teed up for exploitation, even if it is not intended to be.  Build this on top of the ancient Chinese appreciation of guanxi  - relations/connections – and everything is in place.  And given there are so many opportunities to make money through acting in an official capacity, is an official not responsible for providing for his family as best he can rather than standing on his own personal moral high ground and seeing his family struggle?  With no one watching standing ready to blow the whistle at any false move, it is easy to see how corruption will flourish on this seedbed. 


It is usually only those corruption cases that threaten to embarrass the whole system that come to light.  And of course, once an official loses the favour of his superior, the clock is ticking.  But it seems that above a certain level, there ceases to be any real scrutiny of P@rty cadres and government officials, unless it is good politics to have someone removed or slap them on the wrist. 


Many visitors come here and wonder where are the signs of Commun1sm amid all this economic growth and evident interest in the pursuit of money and financial prosperity.  They are mistaken if they think it is gone.  Or at least mistaken if they think that the Commun1st P@rty is not still fully in control.  The P@rty controls the government – meaning P@rty officials outrank government officials; the People’s L1beration Army swear an oath of allegiance to the P@rty, rather than to the nation of China; and the P@rty has power of appointment over every major position that forms the basis of Chinese society, including of course government and the army, but also heads of industry (banking, telecoms, energy, heavy industry), the media, and religious bodies.  The fact that visitors may perceive this less and less only serves as a testimony to the P@rty’s success at concealing itself. 


My understanding from what I have read – in particular a book called The P@rty by Richard McGregor, which is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in China – is that the genius of the Chinese Commun1st P@rty lies in its ability to adapt.  As far as it is concerned, the Commun1st P@rty is the only institution capable of running China.  It is the clear winner of history (at least for now) and it will adapt itself in any way in order to maintain its position of power.  The last 20 years seem to have shown it can do this very well.  In its own words, “Democratic government is the Commun1st P@rty governing on behalf of the people” according to a 2005 White Paper on Democracy.  All its actions are orchestrated to strengthen this principle and its position.


Speaking for myself (and some other friends who’ve been here longer), I don’t get the impression that the average man or woman on the street wastes much time questioning all this.  Yet all good things come to an end – as anyone who’s been to a fun party knows.  How this particular P@rty will end is a question that will no doubt keep journalists and political commentators in coin for some time to come. 


But such high-flown political analysis is beyond me.  I’m far more at home talking about what really matters – like riding my bicycle.


A typical busy road heading north


I thank heaven for the 5 or 6 years’ experience I gained motorcycling around London when I lived there.  It has prepared me well for being both a cyclist and a pedestrian around this city.  Whereas in Paris, taxi drivers will steer and accelerate at you, as a pedestrian, out of spite, in Xi’an this is done as a legal right.  The motorcar is overlord of all, and woe betide anyone who stands in the way of a shiny black 4x4 and his (illegal) left turn – whatever the colour of the lights.  Not to be outdone, out of vainglorious grit, pedestrians are often seen – lonely figures in four lanes of traffic – artfully and patiently awaiting the passing lorries and buses as they skip one way and then the other, until the sliver of an opening allows them across.  Overlaid on this are the three-wheeler scooters – essentially very very dirty tuk-tuk-style bikes - which are a complete law unto themselves.  With loose nuts flying, doors flapping, engines wheezing as the drivers draw rakishly on their cigarettes, these will use any and every direction to reach their destination.  Seeing these trundling along the wrong way up the side of a busy street makes one marvel at the sheer oblivious care of their own life and (perhaps more to the point) their passenger’s. 


To see four people racked up on a scooter is a relatively common occurrence: one in the footwell (often a child), the driver, then two squashed on behind.  More unusual is seeing this sight when the man in the footwell is a Japanese teacher, the driver a Spaniard, while the Ukrainian teacher at the back is responsible for propping up the unconscious Chinamen (the owner of the bike) in between.  Though this has been known to happen.  I did begin to have my doubts about this highly practical and carbon-friendly means of transport when I noticed a young woman merrily scooting past.  What looked like her shopping lodged in the footwell in fact turned out to be her two year old child.  This littlun’ was bravely clinging on to her mother’s knees – as she’d no doubt been told to do - with knuckles visibly white (even at 30kph) and a look of rigid terror gripping her face.  Perhaps that was the sanest look I’ve yet seen on the road in Xi’an.


Bus route home


All this is to say that I have been influenced to some very small extent by this style of road etiquette.  At junctions it is nothing to flick five or six “life-savers” - (a quick look that could save your life in motorbike jargon) - in various directions to check I am not about to be steam-rollered by a bus, gunned down by a Discovery with blacked-out windows, knock down an old lady myself, or engage in a head-on collision with a three-wheeler taxi.  The notion of traffics light has become a fluid concept for me as there is usually at least one direction that will enable continued movement.  More recently I’ve noticed an alarming tendency of mine to enter the flow of traffic first and look to see what’s happening later.  It is a sure bet my luck will run out before too long so it is just as well I’ll be leaving the city in less than a week and heading for the long straight desert roads where you can see any potential danger advancing from far away on the horizon.


A concept you will hear a lot in China is cultural exchange.  Although the meaning is obvious enough, it is not something – at least in England – that we talk about at all. But it seems to crop up all the time here.  As you can imagine it really just involves talking about differences in each other’s culture, and learning more and being enriched by that. 



 The old city walls of Chang'An

In many ways, Xi’an is an archetypal centre of cultural exchange.  During the Tang Dynasty in the 7th – 9th centuries AD, Xi’an was situated at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.  It embraced not only the goods that followed the flow of trade from Rome in the West all the way here, but also inventions, artistic style, forms of music, and religious and philosophical ideas.  For a time the Tang Court was interested in understanding everything, and willingly assimilated whatever it found beneficial into its culture.  This “multiculturalist” attitude ailed a bit towards the end of the Tang period as the Imperial power felt increasingly threatened by forces from the west, and alien influences already at work within their native culture.  This led to a period of persecution and expulsion of Buddhist schools and temples, and establishments of Nestorian Christianity, for example, in the late 8th and early 9th century. 


And you can see this pattern repeated throughout China’s history.  During periods of buoyancy and confidence, the ruling powers were outward looking and cosmopolitan; as power waned and confidence fell, China would turn in on itself.  Right now of course China is on the rise, growing in confidence and very much self-conscious of that fact.  So cultural exchange comes naturally.


I am indebted to the students of my various English classes who taught me a great deal about China, its culture (especially its food) and its people.  What comes across very clearly is a deep love of their country and their people.  After the so-called “century of shame” from around 1850-1950, when it seemed any foreign power that happened along could have their way with her, China is happy to have stood up and be dusting itself off, ready to dazzle the world in any and every way.  It’s difficult to gainsay that on the basis of Western attitudes about how things should be.  One thing that is also clear from engaging in “cultural exchange” is that, when stood before a mirror, Western societies are very far from perfect themselves. 


Be that as it may, I’m not sure my students got a fair trade.  While I got insight into their daily struggles, dreams, food, festivals and tales of beauty and love, they got careful renditions of Cambridge drinking society initiations and how to confuse American tourists in a Cambridge punt. 


Still, there is something ennobling about even that.


All this has created in me a great desire to know China better.  While I have made moderately good progress with picking up spoken Mandarin, my understanding of Chinese characters lags far behind. But like any language, ultimately these apparently incomprehensible scribbles make sense.  There is a beauty and genius to the writing that our Latin script lacks, and – as a dear friend once described – the learning of a new language is like arriving in a foreign land as a mist is settled all around.  With each new word, and phrase, and (in this case) radical or character, the mist thins just a little – and occasionally a sunbeam breaks through and you catch a glimpse of the landscape, which is the soul of the Chinese people. 


For me the mist has thinned but a little – but the glimpses are tantalising.  What is equally true is that for a Chinese person to learn English goes far beyond this.  I had to prepare a talk on behalf of the school trying to encouraging people to come and learn English.  The basic message was: learning English will improve your life.  Although I never got to deliver this talk in the end, I was at least ready to believe my own message.  Learning English for a Chinese person is not just about expanding their cultural appreciation and being able to chat with tourists.  In many cases, it can allow a radical elevation of social status, opportunity and therefore quality of life. 


But the time has now arrived for me to be moving on.  Xi’an stands as the eastern terminus of the network of ancient trade routes known as the Silk Road.  During its heyday from the 1st century BC through to around the 9th century AD, treasures, goods, people, ideas, religions and technology travelled back and forth along the Silk Road between the mighty empire of Rome in the West and the flourishing civilization of China and Xi’an in the East. 


On April 6th, I will set out in the footsteps of a host of travellers whose shadows have fallen in the dust of the Silk Road before mine: Chinese pioneering generals, Buddhist pilgrims, Sogdian traders, Uighur migrants and swash-buckling European Great Gamers.  All have been lured by the call of an adventurous spirit into the empty tracts of the Qinghai desert, the merciless wastelands of the Taklamakan, towards the towering majesty of the Tian Shan – or Heavenly Mountains – in the West.


And I must go too.


Probably the best sight so far....

 Watching the dawn on the East Peak of Hua Shan

Travellers along the Silk Road are often described as intrepid.  But I must confess a pretty healthy dose of trepidation as I make my final preparations to launch out once more.  The unknown can always be a source of fear in any aspect of life.  But the fact that one feels fear is often a good indication that something is worth doing.  And I think what I am about to do is that. 


So alongside my fears, I am bubbling with excitement.  I feel tremendously lucky to be in this position, poised to embrace an old day-dream, and turn it into reality. 


I am delighted too to be raising money for two very worthy causes.   The first is Wellspring International (http://www.wellspringinternational.org/) which identifies and fund projects which help under-privileged women and children. The other is the Harry Mahon Cancer Research Trust (http://www.hmcrt.org.uk/) which funds research into the early diagnosis of cancer.  If you are interested in or inspired by my adventure, please express your support by giving to one or other (or both) of these charities.  We are all extremely grateful for any donations!


I hope over the course of the next few months to do some justice to describing some of what I see along the road, and that you will join me in meeting the people along the way. 


Thanks for taking the time to read this.



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