Red Guards, rationing and food coupons, badly fitting gray clothes, that is something that you won't find in nowadays China. I visited the People's Republic of China, Mainland China or the big, real China, however you want to refer to it, during September 1996, and I was amazed at what I saw.

This, of course, is a personal view, afforded by the fact that I have I don't know how many megabytes of space for a WEB page and I got into an inexpensive group tour, $2000 for 13 days, all, absolutely everything included, so, this is my personal view.

The People


As you would expect, the place is crowded. No wonder, a fourth of the word population lives there. Shanghai is the largest city and it has 13 million inhabitants. Not so bad, actually, Buenos Aires has 12 million for a country of 33 million, so more than a third of the country lives in one place. This means that China population, though bigger, is far more distributed, which is good. There is still about 75% to 80% of the people living in rural areas. Current liberalization and the possibility of being self-employed, is bringing more and more people to the cities, which will spell trouble in the long run.
They dress just like you and me, well, actually even better, since we both eat a diet with far more calories than we burn. They eat less, and much less meat than we do and they do more exercise: they bike lots! No beer bellies there. Kids dress really colorful. People dress in about any style you can think of, it seems all fashions coexist. Panty hoses seem not to exist, women wear their silks either ankle length (even with short skirts) or just above the length of their skirts, which shows the edge when they bike.



They eat Chinese food.

Let's be a little more specific, we ate nothing but Chinese food, which means that, though the food was as good and as bad as you will find elsewhere, we got a little tired, so we started to make fun about it. They eat lots of deep fried anything. They fry a lot, which would be bad if they didn't also steam a lot. Vegetables and rice mostly, some meat of any kind. In the free markets, you could see all sorts of things swimming and walking and crawling in plastic tubs. I didn't ask what I ate. After visiting the free market, I felt it was better not to even try to guess. It was like the Navy: if it moves, you salute; if it stays still, you paint it; if it is warm, you eat it. I didn't have to salute any of the food, at least not at my table.

A place called California Restaurant offered Chinese food but with less oil and better presentation, and they also brewed beer in the same place, just like in some places in California.

We were offered far more meat than they usually eat. Meat is not lean, chicken and duck was with a nice layer of fat in between the skin and the meat. Meat is chopped randomly into small pieces. It turns out to be difficult to access the meat in between the bone and the fat when you are holding it with your chopsticks. Oily and fatty as it is, you are unlikely to try with your fingers since napkins seem to be scarce. One guy described a dish brought to the table as "deep fried breaded fat".

Steamed rice is abundant, though they serve it last, since they serve the lesser dishes last, and rice is just the filler. Sometimes we asked to speed up the rice so we could soak some of the oil. They don't put soy sauce on the rice.

They don't bake. They steam even the bread, which comes out as foamy as regular baked bread, but white and certainly not crunchy.

Recent additions to their diet came from McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, and Hagen Dazs for dessert.

On the last day of the tour, our homesickness was obvious as we enjoyed burgers and fries at the Hard Rock Café in Beijing. My kingdom for a lasagna!

Water is out of the question, it is polluted all over. They have no sewage treatment plants, rivers are polluted more from organic than inorganic matter as well, which seeps underwater. Boiling usually takes care of that. All hotels put hot water thermos bottles in the rooms with tea bags. Use that to even wash your teeth.

Beer is a good alternative. They have lots of it and sells for less than bottled water. They don't have six-packs but 10 packs, made of bottles and tied by hand with twine, that's the way it comes from the factory.

Soft drinks are everywhere, along with all the advertising, just don't expect them to be real cold nor dare to ask for ice, it might be made from tap water.



For me it was as if they were all taking Chinese, which, in fact, was exactly the case. Big towns have street names in 'pinyan' which is the phonetic transcription in roman characters, otherwise, everything is in ideograms. Even if someone gave you directions, like, go to street this or that, you wouldn't be able to recognize the name.

Unfortunately, they have chosen English phonetics for their transliteration, they even call them English characters instead or Roman. Problem is that intonation plays a big role in their language. Most words are one or two syllables, and they differ by the change in pitch. The example they always give is MA, which has different meanings in the four intonations they use, rising pitch, level, up and down and down. Using diacritical marks, like the French do, would have suited them nicely so they would be able to differentiate, for example, Ma from Má from Mâ from Mà.

Computers don't help much with the writing due to the ambiguities in the transcription. They use the regular English keyboard and they type the phonetics of the character. After two, three or four keystrokes, the program offers, at the bottom of the screen, a choice of the characters that match the sound you typed, then you select from that. The people I saw typing had to stop every two to four characters to make the final selection from the options offered. I really couldn't see how you could be proficient with that system since the final list is almost random, it is not related to the language itself but an arbitrary convention adopted by the programmer. Part of the ambiguity comes from the lack of the diacritical marks as mentioned above and a lot also comes because English phonetics is also terribly ambiguous, as the words 'though' and 'thought' shows (the pronunciation of the first consonant depends on the very last letter). This forces them to add letters to further identify the correct sound.

Word Processing


Not very useful either. You know A goes before B, and B before C and so on. Trouble is, what is considered alphabetical order in Chinese? Two choices, one is by Pinyan, which requires the user to know the sound for each character, meaning, basically, you have to know Chinese. The other is to know the root symbols. Every symbol is composed of other basic ones plus some more strokes. If you break up the symbol into its constituents, you can find the character under its root. Problem is, how you know what the root is under such a mix of characters plus binding strokes. Once again, you almost need to know Chinese, in which case, why would you need a dictionary anyhow.
There are no names in China. Parents select for their children any two sounds that they like and bind them together into one word. Full names are ordered from family name to given name. Traditionally, the middle name is given to the firstborn of a generation within a family and all the rest of the siblings and cousins carry the same middle name. That has been dropped.


Birth Control

One child per family is the rule, and it seems it really works that way in cities. Actually, it is one birth per family, so twins or triplets are fine. Couples cannot marry until 21 or 22 (don't remember) and they are rewarded if they take their time until having their child. A second birth takes away all the benefits and you have to pay fines, plus possibly loosing your job. This is valid only for Han people, who are the ethnic majority, with almost 90% of the population. Other ethnic groups are allowed complete freedom.

Kids enjoy the most loving and caring parents you can imagine. You could see all over how much attention was devoted to the little ones.

Since usually both parents work, grandparents take care of the children. This is further helped by their tradition, that keeps families together, (three generations usually live under one roof) and their little mobility: changing jobs or moving to other cities is too new to them, so grandparents are always at hand.

Farmers can have a second try if the first is a girl, since farming is really labor intensive and the responsibilities at the farm are still pretty much divided by sex. We saw a larger proportion of boys in villages, far larger than this policy would justify. Actually, if you make the numbers, the second try has as much probability of getting a boy as the first so the ratio of boys to girls should still be about one to one. The difference is that it allows for ¾ of the families to have at least 1 boy in the family. Where are the missing girls? Unfortunately, we didn't like the few possible answers to that question, so we didn't ask.

In the city, though, it didn't seem to be any preference for boys or girls, we found women in the most varied jobs. It was a female junior officer in charge of changing guards at Tiennamen Square when we were there.

There were not very many people we could talk with, just the tour guides and translators who, after all, were government employees (actually, joint ventures, but with the government holding the larger share), but even they didn't seem uncomfortable speaking their mind. Mao is still very respected, though he is seen more human and less godlike: yes, he made mistakes. The government and the people seem as detached from one another as their are anywhere else. In the west we might make much more fuss about it, but our votes just select the least evil amongst two. They dispense with that formality.

There is CNN everywhere and lots of satellite TV antennas. Dictatorships usually prevent foreign news from reaching the ears of their subjects. Not here, moreover, they promote the study of English and every town has an English corner, usually some park where people meet on Sunday morning to practice English.

News about events like Tiennamen Square have been manipulated in opposing ways in and out of China. History, though, didn't stop and bigger news catch the attention of Chinese almost daily, the last 20 years of openness have brought a more steady and fast growth that they could think of. Tiennamen Square doesn't seem to be more than a bump in the road.

Lots of power is in the hands of what formerly where communes and now are townships and villages. Since they can freely dispose of whatever excedents they make from their production, they have money to spend, and they are proud to spend it in schools for their most beloved single children and recreational facilities for their revered elders. Thus, communal centers are a very frequent investment, with kindergartens for kids and craftsmanship classes for senior citizens. Moreover, some of them are able to sell their crafts further increasing their income.


Street Crime

Doesn't seem to be any. Everyone in our group walked through the streets at any hour and met other Chinese of all ages and sexes. In one walk we met a group of four youngsters, two boys and two girls, who started trying to practice their English with us. After a couple of blocks, the girls said bye and headed to a side street, not particularly well lighted without the least hesitation, nor did the boys volunteered to escort them. Most women in our group took some time to digest this and some started actively enjoying the freedom.
Terrible! Worst I've seen. I know México city and some other badly polluted places, but this one is tops them all. In Beijing we couldn't see any blue sky. Considering that it has 10 million inhabitants and the car density is far lower than in the west plus Beijing is open to the winds, unlike México or Los Angeles, were the smog just stays there at the bottom of the valley, the pollution is way much worst. They burn a lot of coal and have no environmental controls in place. The whole country seems like the decommissioned army bases, where the lack of independent fiscalization produced the worst pollution. Joint ventures with car manufacturers are producing large number of cars for internal consumption, without any requirements as to fuel efficiency or emission control. Coal is also packaged in forms suitable for home use (compressed into cakes with holes to help air circulation and probably some filler like charcoal or straw to help it start), adding to the pollution.


Mix of technologies

A very simple motor seems to be very popular for farm equipment, delivery trucks, small vans, barge propulsion and a bunch of other mobile or stationary motorized contraptions. The sound seemed to indicate very low compression and along the flywheel pointed to a single cylinder. Even in tractors and small trucks, transmission was via rubber V belts instead of solid axles, to soften the uneven output of the crankshaft. I'm quite sure the thing is of the hot plug type, since I couldn't see any wiring for a spark plug. If that is so, it means the thing can probably run on any fuel you can think of, and its maintenance is easy and cheap. Pollutes a lot, though, but you won't get any speeding tickets driving it!

On the other hand, I could see the people at a farming village bent under the hood of the truck others were loading with apples for the market, fixing the turbocharger of the diesel engine. How can you support high-tech equipment without the infrastructure in place? If they need a spare, they would probably have to ride the puff, puff thing to town to get it. Did the apples get to the market in time?

Going from one town to another, I could see several places where they worked huge stones. Some were carved in the shapes of dragons, lions, turtles and other shapes. Other places carved grinding stones, huge 4 feet diameter, 1 foot width grinding stones for flour mills.

Foreigners were welcome. In places like Shanghai we didn't call anyone's attention. Inland they paid more attention to us. Lots of people said Hello! And even more whispered at our backs. In the small cities they seemed particularly amused when we approached to buy things at non-tourist shops, like ice cream from street vendors or batteries, music or regular clothes from regular shops. Of course, the language was a big obstacle and both sides usually overcame the frustration with lots of laughs, hand signals and bowing.

Westerners could be called rounded-eyes devils by communist propaganda, but few ever saw an evil westerner, since the opium was is too far back and most westerners were in Shanghai and nearby places. Japanese didn't need any bad government propaganda, all Chinese know very well the cruelty of their occupation, by experience or by tales of their elders. One day at the hotel in Beijing there was a group of senior Japanese and one of the ladies was dressed in a traditional kimono, not a flashy one, just a normal one, but clearly Japanese. We met that same group a couple of times more during the day, and she didn't draw any more attention from them as it did from us due to her peculiar dress.

One of our guides put it this way, "we were weak then, we are not weak now". It didn't sound like a threat but a hard lesson of real world politics.


Middle Class

Almost everyone seems to be middle class. Officially, there was nothing else, right? Since the free market policies started to allow people to be self-employed, some have done really well. Farming is and always has been tough, and some people started to move to the cities. Some prospered, most failed. The middle class is widening, there is upper middle class, lower middle class, middle middle class. Still the higher class is negligible in number. What there isn't is a gap. I've seen much of that in Latin America and I didn't perceive it in China. Gaps in between one class and another are barriers that block people's ability to move, and that creates stress. Still, we just saw some cities in the well developed east of China, other places inland are almost different countries, and if we consider the population and distances involved, they might as well be. We can fit a lot of Europe in any Chinese province.
It was really long, huge, thousand of miles, four thousand still existing (in very different levels of repair) but probably about three times as much if you consider all the various walls built and rebuilt over centuries. It is the oldest of the only two man-made structures seen from Earth's orbit with the naked eye, the other is the coastline of Holland.

When you are climbing it, well, you are just climbing IT, IT, you know, THE Wall, not any other, not Pink Floyd's, that one is THE ONE and only.

It's wide, about 20 feet and it contours the highest parts of the mountains, so the enemy would have to come uphill. That means that it's all stairs going up and down all the time. Wheels would serve no purpose there. Some of the steps are 1.5 foot high and half a foot deep.

Some say the Wall failed it's purpose, the Mongols got through. Actually, it held the roaming tribes of the north for centuries and when it failed, it was not the Wall's fault. The empire was in bad shape and the logistics were failing, meaning, the guards at the numerous gates along the Wall could be easily bribed with just the smell of food. It was, indeed, human failure

The Great Wall

Summer Palace

We visited lots of palaces and temples. The Summer Palace in Beijing, though, had an important difference, the setting. It is built in between a hill and a lake, which allows for lots of different perspectives. Most of the other places are built in flat areas and they are built as one walled rectangular courtyard within another, with the main building(s) in the center. This one is spilled on the hillside, overlooking a big lake, with several structures built all over the coast.

It is also nice since it is open to the public and there are lots of local people (and I mean lots at a Chinese scale) enjoying the place and the boat rides, so the whole place is quite alive.

On the other side of the hill, though the trails winding around are very quiet and relaxing.

We actually started the tour going the wrong way. I think we followed a large group which we later figured out were employees going for lunch, so we started at the back, going over those nice quiet trails. When we got to the top, we started going down the other side, towards the lake. We crossed a gate and, suddenly, at the other side of the wall that shielded us from it, all the noise from zillion voices down below hit us. Ouch!

Still, it was really beautiful

Well, this is it, so far, but I'll keep adding to it. Pictures will go in as soon as I find someone with a color scanner. Please, feel free to comment, just remember, this is not meant to be a profound and thorough study of China. I didn't see a representative nor random sample of China, and the little I did see, I saw it from my own perspective.

If you ask me if it was worth it, I definitely say YES!!!!!

Daniel (Satyam) Barreiro