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Friday, 17 November, 2000, 18:51 GMT
China's changing face
Tourists walk past sign for US coffee company
Many people in China say their culture is being eroded
By Julian May

An old man walked along the path with a bucket of water in one hand and a worn out mop in the other. All around was the amazing, orderly mayhem of a park in Beijing in the early morning.

Beijing skyline
Beijing's skyline continues to change
There were ballroom dancers fox-trotting in the rose garden, a platoon of wiry pensioners slapping themselves vigorously, yelling at each other, and a few old men with their birdcages hanging in the trees, sitting back to enjoy the song and a cigarette.

There was a troupe dancing with fans, another practising tai chi, while in a gateway a man coaxed snatches of opera tunes from his erhu, a two-stringed fiddle.

There was even - and I had heard of these but never before encountered one - a backwards walker, who strode resolutely round the park in reverse, for the good of his health.

Beijing is brash now, the shops full of videos, televisions and hi-fis of splendid vulgarity

But it was the old man with the bucket who fascinated me.

I thought he was mopping the path, then realised his mop was in fact a giant Chinese brush and he was writing, one character to each flagstone, in the most beautiful calligraphy.

They were poems from the Tang dynasty, centuries ago, he told me. He came every morning and wrote them on the path with water. Already the sun was strong and before he reached the end of the poem the beginning had dried and disappeared. culture

On my journey through China, recording interviews with professors, poets, artists, students, ethnographers and businessmen, the image of this man and his ephemeral calligraphy kept recurring.

He was not any of these things, just an ordinary Chinese person at home with the classical literature of his culture.

Man in Beijing traffic reading newspaper
Beijing: Increasingly like any other big city
He was so much at ease, so poised in his possession of it that he could savour the moment of its expression afresh in his handwriting. It was so refined, so delicate, so Chinese. And in a few moments it was gone.

At the Foreign Languages Institute the students were sharply and expensively dressed. Their mobile phones played tunes, their cards listed the businesses they were running.

In fluent, US English they articulated their ambitions: to study abroad, at MIT and Berkeley for preference, to work in IT for a foreign company, to get rich.

When the artist Wang Gongxin returned after a few years in New York he had to buy a map of the city he was born in

I reminded them of the banner at the back of the classroom where I taught in China 20 years ago, extolling students to "Serve the People Heart and Soul".

They laughed, embarrassed, then one of them explained there was no contradiction.

"After all, we are the people," he insisted.

Such brio, to anyone who knew China in its decades of dowdy conformity and suppressed fear, is shocking and marvellous.

Beijing is brash now, the shops full of videos, televisions and hi-fis of splendid vulgarity. What is more, people can afford them.

Big city

Beijing itself has changed so much that when the artist Wang Gongxin returned after a few years in New York he had to buy a map of the city he was born in.

The extent of the desecration of the city is staggering, and calculated. Within metres of a Buddhist temple they have built a fly-over.

Demolished homes
Large areas of old housing have been demolished
One of Mr Wang's video pieces is an elegy for the hutongs, the narrow streets and traditional single-storey houses that everywhere are being torn down and replaced by tower blocks of unremitting tedium.

So the few courtyard houses that remain are becoming chic - highly sought after by ex-patriate residents.

"To live a Chinese life now," Wang observes, "You have to be a foreigner. We can't afford it anymore."

Most people, it has to be said, are not too nostalgic. Few of the old houses had much in the way of sanitation and after a trip in the dark down the street to the neighbourhood loo one understands the appeal of a flat with a toilet, perhaps a shower, even if it is on the 18th floor.

For those with the money, and there are plenty, there are executive homes in the suburbs, and some, artists especially, are buying peasants' houses in the country.

All of these have armoured doors, and glass-topped walls as savage as any in South Africa. In China wealth is still haunted by fear.

Beijing could be any big city now and it is this that worries China's intellectuals, who feel more marginalised than ever.

Parental pressure

Professor Lu Gusen, of Shanghai's famous Fudan University, is concerned that in the push for modernity, Chinese culture can be neglected.

"Parents hire tutors for their children so they can get into the best colleges," he said. "They'll hire an English tutor, someone to teach the piano so the children can get on.

"But no one will hire a tutor to teach Chinese, to teach calligraphy.

"My father taught me Tang dynasty poems when I was a child and I learned them by heart. That's unusual now."

Professor Lu's daughter is a hot-shot lawyer in the US, and while he is proud of that he is appalled by her Chinese handwriting.

"I blush for her," he said.

Since returning from China another image has begun to recur alongside the Beijing water calligrapher.

It is Shuncheng Jie, the Muslim quarter and one of very few old streets left in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan in the far south-west.

Kunming used to be a charming ramshackle town before they tore the place apart and laid six lane highways through it.

At one end of the street stands the Provincial Museum, one of those wedding cake buildings beloved of Stalin and topped with a red star. It looks as if it flew in from Moscow in 1956.

At the other there is the New Era Hotel, a blank, green, glass tower block.

Between these two totalitarianisms are a few hundred yards that still smell, sound and look like China - wooden houses with grey tile roofs, steamy little restaurants, vegetable stalls, grandparents minding small children, fruit sellers, herb shops.

At each end those two foreign devils, Marxist-Leninism and global capitalism, stand sentinel. And China is lurching between the two and squeezed by them.

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See also:

29 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Beijing battles for 2008 Olympics
17 Nov 00 | Asia Pacific
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