China -- Yunnan & Guanxi (Part 3)
May 6-24, 2001

-- Vast, Disparate, & Different
-- Practicality & Survival
-- Community & Government Control


travelling through yunnan and guanxi in southwestern china was the extension to my first mainland visits to Beijing and Shanghai. getting away from the big cities made me feel much more close to the "real" china, especially when we were traveling through the agrarian countryside. over three weeks, we had travelled overland from Kunming (in southwest China) north towards the Tibet border, and then southeast through Guiling and Yangshuo.

from the outside, china may seem to be one monolithic whole. however, after three weeks travelling through yunnan and guanxi, what struck me most in contrast to my earlier visits, was how vast China was, and how many differences there were in landscape, culture, and people. and that was only after having travelled through two municipal regions (Beijing and Shanghai), one Special Administrative Region (Hong Kong SAR), one province (Yunnan), and one autonomous region (Guanxi Zhuang AR). in effect, i was just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

in vietnam we always seemed to be stopping to see new things. in china, the distances were so much greater that we seemed to be traveling much more and unfortunately seeing less of the daily life of the people. However we did see many more different ways of life, from the city people of Kunming, to the Bai of Dali, the Naxi of Lijiang, the Yi of Qiaotou, the Tibetans of Zhongdian. Each in their own different environs had developed their own ways to dress, interact, and survive.


in general, my sense of chinese culture was that practicality always seemed central to everyday living and survival. After 5000 years of history, the Chinese had nothing to prove to outsiders or to themselves. and although certain traditions may have seemed outdated and ritualistic, daily life had much more of an acceptance for practical everyday solutions -- crowded private bus transport services (really small family owned vans), transporting live animals to keep them fresh, prison factories which were necessary to make the prisons economically self-supporting, relieving yourself of excess gas in crowded places. practicality was sometimes the lack of "basic" western luxuries -- having to pay for your own toilet paper, going without heat, plumbing, and hot water.

On the other hand, there also seemed to be a history and acceptance of other 'practical' solutions as well, though mostly officially illegal, that were a little less comfortable to the western mind -- drugs, prostitution, the sale of children and wives. One did not have to be a direct witness to get a sense of what could be going on. From excellent films like the 'King of Masks' where children were sold in old china, to reports of the sale of wives for rural country men, one got a feeling that people were just doing the best they knew how to survive. As one character said, in a fictionalized account of old Shanghai which i was reading, why should the whole family starve when they could sell a child to buy food, while potentially placing that child in a better environment. Likewise, good or not, i felt that financial solutions were often accepted as practical reality. In one town we visited, many of the old women would grow marihuana as an extra source of income, even though there were harsh official penalties. And in many places, it seemed, there were quite a few barber shops that were open well into the night (and i don't think the girls were all cutting hair).

Yet for all practicality, i knew there were horrible excesses as well. The New York Times recently ran an article of a women who had been kidnapped and sold to a rural family. and in one town, i met a young girl and her best friend who had tried to commit suicide after the first girl's mother had tried to force her to sell herself to pay off her mother's gambling debts. practicality though often accepted, was never always pleasant.

and yet in general, and all over asia, i felt a sense of fragility and fatefulness of life that made survival seem a matter of a more disaffected practicality -- making death, even if tragic, almost as natural as the setting sun. and wasn't that really reality anyway? so who were we, from our priviledged Western environs with the latest amenities, to be judging other people's efforts for survival.


throughout Asia, but most especially in China, one of the most powerful threads that have seemed to hold things together is the integral asian sense of community. one might have already noticed this in the large groups of asian tourists that cross the globe, the bus loads of japanese that pour into Louis Vuitton on the Rue de Montaigne, or the little chinatowns that seem to sprout up in every city. but throughout china, it is normal to see grown men draping arms around each other as they walk down the street, girls and boys hand in hand and arm in arm, sometimes four or five across. as if everyone were afraid of being alone. was this a sense of community, safety in numbers, or was it something more powerful than near anything a central government could muster? is it almost no wonder that we have such a problem with the homeless in our 'advanced' western anomic societies?

in the East, it seems that familial community is the familial responsibility (and benefit) of caring for family members and taking social responsibility for what family members do. what begins as familial community can become social community. and a strong social community effects strong incentives for social action and strong deterrents to anti-social action. crime is much less easy in a small town where everyone knows each other, rather than a large city, where people sometimes don't even know their own neighbors. so, as when everyone knows each other, strong community effects a great deal of accountability -- which can be seen as positive or pejorative.

the same community that cares for its aging population and members of the community in difficulty, can also be the same community that prevents its young people from dancing, playing cards, or listening to Elvis; that keeps tabs on when you're coming and going and with whom; that determines what community members will do for a living; or that places limits on freedom of individualist action in deferrance to a stated greater group good. this could be as simple as requiring drivers of cars to pass vision tests, or evolve into much more strident controls. where we in the west see centralized socialized governments as negative in comparison to societies that seem to champion individualistic freedoms, in some sense, if any society were suited to centralized socialized governments, i think it would be the asian societies.

yet no matter how much power the Chinese central government could leverage from a unique Chinese sense of community, as i travelled, i was repeatedly reminded of the reality of the limits to the government's reach and resources. in china, education is not free, children's families need to pay for school. beggars seemed to be a more often common site, especially near tourist areas. and local towns and families seemed left to their own devices to figure out solutions to their daily lives and existence. prisons often source factories with their inmates to cover daily prison expenses. and even the army (People's Liberation Army, or PLA) had been forced to finance their own training and supply activities, resulting in today's significant PLA ownership of China's industrial production. indeed, although china was under a communist central government, that same government today had a much more limited reach than i had imagined. and likewise, as the country was transforming from a mostly agrarian into a modern post industrial society, individuals seemed to have more power than ever to find their own solutions to their lives.

so while the previous generation had made the communist revolution a reality, and while the current generation had sacrificed and tried to rebuild a country torn apart during the cultural revolution, today's newest generation had more freedom than ever to lead their own lives. as a young Chinese MTV executive expressed in a recent Fortune magazine article profiling Asian personalities, today, the youth of China are trying to live their parents' dreams. They have a difficult road ahead.

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