Monday, June 3, 2013

Wandering Mystic Meditation From China

As China makes more and more headlines in western media, everyone knows that the world's biggest communist country is rapidly changing. Yet, to what degree has the Asian giant transformed? For those who have visited the country recently, there's not a simple answer to this seemingly simple question. China has altered more in the last thirty years than the last thirty centuries. Still, it's hard to give a rational account of those changes in a report of readable size. Be that as it may, I will rely on traditional Chinese folk wisdom, which treats clothing, eating, dwelling and moving as the four most essential aspects of human existence, to sketch the transformations I've perceived since my previous visit to my homeland ten years ago.

In the daily lives of Chinese people, clothing has always held a central role. For most, it's more a matter of face than warmth, comfort or style. This symbolic significance can readily be found in the ever popular Chinese saying: "Just as a Buddha statue must wear gold foil, people must wear fine garments." In other words, an individual’s social decency depends heavily on what he uses to cover the body. During a recent China visit, I observed many city dwellers wearing new clothes throughout the year, rather than only on special occasions as before, plus mended or patched clothes were less common among country folks. In fact, I found many old acquaintances not only paying heed to the color and style of garments but also their brand names.

When I addressed this topic with my former school classmates, I became a laughing stock, because I knew little about fashion. While they elaborated casually on their T-shirts, leather belts and running shoes, purchased from brand name specialty stores like Li Ning’s, I had nothing to show off, lacking the slightest smattering of fancy garments. “How come you've been living in Canada so long but still dress like old country folk?” Hearing such comments, I grew keenly aware of my clothes that betrayed me to be a poor face-losing fellow, even though I didn't give a damn about it.

Since the dawn of Chinese civilization, eating well has been a primary concern for government and people alike. Growing up in an impoverished village, I knew what famine and starvation meant. While I didn't see anyone starving during my previous China trip, I vividly remember the lack of food variety. For instance, southerners had no chance of eating sweet melons, honey dates or other fruits produced mostly in the North. Likewise, northerners could not buy fresh fish or shrimp from Dongting Lake. However, I was amazed this summer by the kinds of food available wherever one went. I could even enjoy fresh fruits, vegetables and meats imported from Thailand, Mexico and the U.S.

Given this culinary richness and the hearty Chinese appetite, it was little wonder that restaurants and food stalls were crowded on every street. Restaurants now seem to be the fastest growing business in the country. Just as cars and car-related service were once the liveliest sector of the American economy, food and eating-related commerce now represent the most prosperous sector of the Chinese economy. A typical establishment has at least two spacious rooms in which patrons can eat at large tables, listen to music, watch TV, or sing karaoke. In Shanghai, I was invited to a three-star restaurant near my Alma Mater Jiaotong University, where both my younger son and I were shocked to see a table suitable for 30 people. It reminded me of King Arthur’s round table (and the table manners of his warriors). 

No less noteworthy are the vast changes in residential dwelling. A decade ago, many villagers were still using dirt, straw, reeds and corn stalks as building materials. Today, thatched houses are seldom seen, as most buildings are now constructed with bricks and cement. For the first time in its twenty-five-hundred-year history, my native village has two or even three story houses. In cities, there are big blocks of new high-rises. When I tried to visit my old high school in Songzi County and my old home in Tianjin, I had to recruit former classmates as guides, and even they got lost. All the dwelling units I visited had been renovated to varying degrees. Most striking was the way doors and windows were metal frame reinforced, giving the impression of prison cells. 

Just a few days after arriving in Jinzhou and for the first time in my life, I couldn't open the door to my parents’ home. It operated much like the complicated lock on a big safe box. I had to wait an hour on a scorching afternoon for my muddle-headed father to come to my rescue. This wierd experience alerted me to a new reality that the doors to most apartment homes are now heavily protected by metal and often have more than three locks. This was surely something I hadn't seen there before.

When it comes to the population moving around, some things deserve mention. Improved highways are now common everywhere. Since most have been built recently, they're generally superior to those in North America. While a bit narrower, they're certainly better cared for, with trees and/or flowers lining almost every highway. There are more globalized aids such as signs in both Chinese and English, though some translations are funny or bewildering. Also intriguing are the taxis now available in every city. Ten years ago, most urbanites depended primarily on bicycle transport and rural folks used one-wheel barrows, but now more people own private cars and even more call taxis. The fees are highly affordable. In the medium-sized city Jinzhou, the initial meter charge is only $3 RMB or half a Canadian dollar. Even in major cities like Wuhan and Tianjin, it's no more than $10 RMB.

Another transport oddity is people frequently borrowing government vehicles for personal use. Every government official of section chief rank or above has access to an official car with a full time driver. So, every individual with a relationship to such a government employee can access an official car. Most of my high school friends have them at their disposal and never have to worry about driving or gas prices. When I told my section chief younger brother that I felt a little guilty using his official car, he shrugged off my confession.

I have witnessed many fascinating changes in China. Far more people talk on cell phones, surf on computers, sightsee as tourists, drink bottled water, use toilets rather than ditches or holes, bargain over luxury goods, play majong or huapai (Chinese poker), give parties and exchange gifts than ever before. Recreation, communication, shopping and healthcare may well be seen as four new basic aspects of daily life. With so much change in so little time, China is experiencing nothing less than a revolution. My fellow Chinese are leaving behind long-upheld ways of living, for better or for worse.

Changming Yuan is a 4-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of Chansons of a Chinaman (Leaf Garden Press, 2009) and Landscaping (Flutter Press, 2013). He holds a PhD in English and lives in Vancouver, where he co-edits Poetry Pacific with his teenage poet son Allen Qing Yuan. (Submissions can be sent to Recently interviewed by PANK, Yuan has written poetry for 709 journals or anthologies in 27 countries, including Barrow Street, BestNewPoemsOnline, Best Canadian Poetry, Exquisite Corpse and Threepenny Review.

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