Dezhou and Jinan and on to Xi'an

I took the train from Beijing to Dezhou. Here I stayed a night with Yijun, an undergraduate studying Engineering who had kindly invited me to visit her. In the afternoon, she showed me round Dezhou, a modern city with a population of five million, greater than that of New Zealand, and famous in China for its solar panels. We went on a rollercoaster in a small theme park on the edge of an artificial lake lined with skyscrapers. In the evening, her parents, according to the Chinese tradition of generous hospitality towards guests, invited me to dinner with her extended family in a private room in a Dezhou restaurant.


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Yijun (far right) and her family. Her aunt holds up a bottle of the ‘white wine’.


Two posters of Chairman Mao hung on the wall, his fat cheeks and greased-back hair shining glossily; one a portrait bust, the other three-quarter view of him sitting on a train, smoking, in his communist workers’ jacket. Yijun had promised that we would eat scorpions, since I had never tried any. Soon they were brought in, amidst a banquet of other dishes. They looked much smaller than I had imagined. Black, battered and skewered, they lay on a plate strewn among threads of fried rice, a mound of prawns, and some pink orchids. Yijun’s father showed me how to eat them: pinch off the tail and sting, snap off the pincers, and eat the body at a single small crunch. They did not taste of very much: a little paste, a little sugary batter. Later a very expensive ‘white wine’, which was actually a 53% spirit, was opened in my honour. This was only to be drunk after a senior family member had made a toast. This wine, the father told me through the interpretations of his daughter, had been Chairman Mao’s favourite. He told me he was honoured I had come; I told him I was honoured to be there; Yijun led me around the circular table, and we each made this toast with all the adults present.


The following day, Yijun and I went to the industrial megacity of Jinan. We climbed a mountain scattered with temples on the edge of the city, and drank green tea at a café half way up. A man was sitting at another table, also drinking tea, and singing along to a high-pitched keening song about Mao on the radio, what a glorious leader he is, and how we will give up everything to serve him. Yijun told me that this came from the 1950s, when love-songs were banned. Nowadays, she said, with television and the internet, the Government cannot force people to do and believe what it wants – at least to the extent that Mao could.


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Posing Chinese-style with a neon yellow bag bought in Jinan.


I flew from Jinan to Xi’an that evening. When I arrived at the airport, at near midnight, I was planning to take the shuttle bus. However, a pushy taxi driver accosted me. He spoke a little English, and I was too tired to argue, so I agreed to pay ¥120 (£12) for him to drive me to the hostel.


My suspicions were aroused when he led me, not to a taxi waiting immediately outside the building, but right across a shadowy car park to an unmarked vehicle. Looking back on it, had I been less tired, I should have realised that then was the time to run away. However, naïve tourist as I was, I got in the car, almost pushed in by the driver. We went out to the motorway. He suddenly pulled in to a layby. He got me and my bag out of the car, and bundled it and me into another taxi which had pulled up ahead of us. This time it was a registered green city taxi, although the driver spoke not a word of English.


At this point I was distinctly alarmed, but there was absolutely nothing I could do, except sit in the car and hope that everything would be all right. And in the event, it was. After an extremely tense journey on my part through a completely unknown city, the taxi dropped me off on the right street, albeit nowhere near the youth hostel. I paid the previously agreed price, and wandered along the black pavement, until I found some people sitting at a table outside a small food stall who knew enough English to point me to the hostel entrance.


I stayed at Xi’an for six days. I would have stayed there for a shorter time and gone on to Tibet, had I not learnt that the Government had inscrutably decided to put a temporary ban on visits from citizens of the UK, Norway, Austria, and South Korea.


On one day I joined a Chinese tour group to visit the Famen temple, according to my guidebook an important historical complex. I was obliged to take an all-Chinese tour, with a guide who knew no English, because there was no other way of getting to Famen within one day.


The temple complex bore witness to the Chinese government’s usurpation of Buddhism. There were police in the museums, with truncheons hanging from their belts. Next to the old but restructured pagoda and the bell and drum towers were the halls of a colonnade plastered with photographs of the Dalai Lama, not the one familiar to the rest of the world, but the one officially sanctioned by China. Down the road from these buildings lay a new complex which dwarfed the old in scale and bad taste: a modern, government-sponsored set of vast, empty, yellow-plated concrete quadrilaterals. The road itself was flanked by notices in Mandarin (not Tibetan), and enormous faux-gold Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. As we were being driven along this road in a tourist ‘train’, the sweepers, with wrinkled yellow skin and thin faces, stood to one side.


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A sweeper on the road between the old and new temples.


In the tomb of the princess Yung Tai, a guide asked me in broken English, ‘Where are your friends?’ ‘Not here,’ I said. It had become quickly apparent that the staring, the unintelligible comments, and the shoulder-poking from Chinese people increase dramatically when one is a white woman – the complexion is the most obvious indication of foreignness – travelling alone with virtually no knowledge of any local language outside the big cities. I was a curious object. It did not help that people tended to take me for eighteen instead of twenty-eight. I felt foreign in China in a way that I had not anywhere else.


On another day, I joined a busload of Italian and German tourists to visit the terracotta warriors, possibly the most famous tourist site in China. Our guide informed us that they were never intended to be terracotta. They should have been the Emperor Qin’s actual army, buried alive with his dead body. He was only persuaded against this by his generals, who protested that there would be no-one left to defend the vast realms (greater than modern China, our guide admitted reluctantly) which he had conquered. There was, however, no similar objection to burying alive his three thousand concubines, whether because he thought they would follow him into the afterlife or simply because it would have been an outrage for their bodies to have been used by anyone else after him; the purpose of their existence disappeared with his own extinction. He ordered his substitute army to be built facing east, towards his enemies, but to be hidden underground, so that no-one would destroy them.


The workers who made the warriors and dug the pits were executed if their statues were not good enough; and those who survived were killed when their work was finished, lest anyone discover the secret army and plunder it. After the Emperor’s death, the peasants, tired of the taxes and the forced labour on the three thousand miles of the Great Wall, revolted. Fighting between the rival generals was eventually followed by the establishment of a new emperor. But later, the Han enemies to the east overran the old empire, and looted the palace and tomb. Only the secret army survived for another two thousand years, the clay warriors and the concubines’ bones. More recently, some of the warriors were inadvertently destroyed by peasants who buried their families in a new cemetery on top of them. Then one day, another peasant, trying to dig a well, discovered them. Now he sits at a stall and signs autographs all day, the worker turned celebrity, while doubtless the rest of his family continue to dig wells, and the state parades its past and future glory to the world.


The museum labels indicated, in Mandarin and English, the didactic and propagandistic intentions with which the exhibition had been designed. According to one of them, ‘The chromeplating technology was invented by the Germans, Americans in 1937 and 1950, but it had emerged in China 2,200 years before. How amazing it is!’


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Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair: the terracotta army.


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‘How amazing it is!’


By Emma Park


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