Sounds of Zhejiang

This weekend we ventured to the West Lake at Hangzhou, now one of China’s premier tourist destinations. Tourism for Chinese nationals is a recent phenomenon – one of the outcomes of Reform and Opening. In Maoist China there was very little internal movement – and not much left to look at after the Cultural Revolution.

We were sitting near a willow by the lake, thinking of Song Dynasty poetry (well, something like that) when we noticed a young couple dismount from their bikes (two of the 50,000 available to rent), hold hands and gaze out over the misty water. We then noticed faint music in the background. Further investigation revealed a speaker covered by a grille in the undergrowth. The piped music was all part of creating the romantic atmosphere. Earlier, I’d caught the strains of the Skye Boat Song.

The previous evening, we enjoyed an evening brandy and coffee by the lake, alongside many affluent middle class Chinese. Live music was provided by a young man who sang in the style of early Bob Dylan, often in English and with a melancholy air.

Saturday afternoon provided a whole host of other kinds of music. There were many groups of older people singing and playing traditional music, just as I’d experienced on my first Sunday in Ningbo. There were also groups dancing to recorded music or taking part in dancercise classes. We passed older people carrying small radios which blared out pop music. They often clapped and skipped as they walked along. Young people didn’t seem to join in these public displays so much, although we came across one kareoke performance by a young girl.

Just as tourism is a post 1978 concept, so is the use of public spaces for community activities. In Mao’s China, leisure in the way Westerners understand it, did not exist. Any physical exercise in your spare time was to make you fitter and therefore better able to perform work tasks. Hobbies – even keeping pet birds or fishing – were discouraged or banned and public spaces were only for marches and parades to celebrate nationhood. Now there are thousands of anglers’ associations! Could it be that the new extrovert musical displays are part of a reclamation of civic space? The longer we have been here the more interested I’ve become in this and am thinking it might be a stimulating topic for an MA dissertation.

These are some of the pleasanter sounds we’ve experienced. China is extraordinarily noisy. As I write, at 9pm on a Sunday night I can hear the whine and crashing of the local building site and – this will go on all night. There are occasional car hooters – very tame compared to daytime driving. As there appear to be no rules of the road, hooting is a substitute. On our bikes we notice the many different tones – perky one offs from ebikes meaning ‘I’m here’ to loud and aggressive parps from cars, buses and lorries if any vehicle or living creature is in the way.

Chinese is a noisy language. Of course it is tonal, so the choice of pitch is significant. To attempt the fourth tone (going down) you must sound angry. And there appears to be a lot of shouting. Chinese people shout at each other at any time of the day or night. A Chinese man who doesn’t get the taxi he wants after queuing with the rest of us in a scrum at the station is a verbal force to be reckoned with. A popular restaurant full of say 300 Chinese people enjoying local Hangzhou cuisine, such as Beggar’s Chicken – chicken baked with beef and mushrooms in clay – is a clamorous place.

And to our chagrin we found that a 5 star hotel thinks nothing of allowing staff to dismantle tables from a banquet on the floor above our room all through the night. The technique was to roll the round tables along the floor. Another noisy place? The waiting room at Hangzhou station full of about 2000 people waiting to board the 16 carriage train back to Ningbo. For the first time I experienced a kind of panic at being in such a crowded environment, especially as we surged forward to go through the narrow gates down to the platforms.

Tomorrow it will be back to work at the university and sanity will be restored – and peace and quiet. If you arrive around 8am you can find Chinese students practising their English – reading texts and translations aloud preparing for classes. The library is truly silent, the only occasional sounds are computers booting up or pages turning. What bliss – I can’t wait!


Student life in Ningbo

It’s exactly forty years since I started my BA degree at the University of Exeter. I’ve reflected a lot on my first experience of higher education since I’ve been in Ningbo. It’s not just the climate and environment that are so different – although a constant temperature of around 25 degrees and bright sunshine are very different from wet and windy Devon.

In 1972 I travelled on a special train organised by the university from Paddington to take all us home counties types down to Devon for the new term. I think it cost about £3 – or maybe it was free. Once installed in halls of residence (all meals provided), we were able to walk to our classes, up and down the many hills of the campus.

In Ningbo, I cycle from our flat to my classes – and most mornings this is an education in itself. Before I leave our compound I pass East Lake Garden Primary School, and at 7.45am watch greeters with baseball caps and flags welcome the children as they are dropped off by parents. At 8am you can see the children assembled in serried ranks, standing to attention as they listen to the national anthem broadcast loudly over the playground. A bit later, I’ve seen PE classes – the same lines of children all doing exercises in unison. But playtime looks pretty much what I’m used to – boys playing football and chasing around, girls chatting and laughing under the trees.

I pass a massive and dusty building site – a new shopping centre full of global brands and apartments is going up just outside East Lake Garden – dirty and noisy construction usually takes place from 6am to midnight 6 days a week – and then I settle into the wide cycle lane adjacent to the 4 lane highway. Usually things are straightforward, but I keep a weather eye out for creeping, silent ebikes – the ubiquitous form of transport – only the really poor or the daft foreigners still use pedal bikes – and for pedestrians and any vehicles (including cars)coming the wrong way down the cycle lane.

I try not to mind the frank staring – the other day a workman on a tricyle with a 15 foot handle to his spade, turned and stared at the strange foreign woman at the lights on a bike WITH A HELMET for so long that he almost collided with his work mates. Then there are things I want to stare at myself – such as a man with two dead turtles strung over his handlebars – presumably for his lunch – or women sweeping leaves with rather useless leafy stick brushes, or whole families on ebikes – once I saw a woman breastfeeding her baby while her husband braved the traffic.

The final half of my journey is through a pleasant park near to the university campus. The juxtapositon of first and third world China can be stark. I’ve seen homeless people living in a tent, and a man washing himself and his clothes in the park lake, and people clearly fishing for food – not for leisure. At the same time I pass adolescents sauntering along to the hugh high school and a large and intriguing piece of bronze public art showing about 100 ‘significant’ modern Chinese people (about 2 are women and one is the chancellor of the University of Nottingham, a nuclear scientist), visited by middle class Ningbo people in their cars. The new shiny business district, complete with skyscrapers is also visible, two blocks away.

Before I turn into the campus, I negotiate the local driving school. Things have advanced slightly since Peter Hessler’s account of driving in Beijing and journeying along the Great Wall(s) into the desert (‘Country Driving’ – recommended, along with his earlier book about teaching in Fuling – ‘River Town.’). At least now learners actually get to drive a car, rather than just take a written test. But in Ningbo this happens in the quietest part of town, in a number of clapped out old VW Santanas. Hessler includes some interesting stuff about the early joint ventures in car manufacturing around 1980 as China attempted ‘Reform and Opening’.

For my MA in Contemporary Chinese Studies, I take three modules and each has a seminar group. In one I’m the only non-Chinese student and of course I’m nearly 40 years older than the rest. We are studying research methods and theories in communication studies. The students – 90% girls are serious and assiduous. The European lecturer wants to find out something about their assumptions and knowledge base. He puts a poem – ‘I wondered lonely as a cloud’ on the whiteboard, complete with pictures of daffodils. Yes, they do all know about content analysis, and yes they have read Wordsworth and yes they know the poem. A young woman in my group talks confidently about Derrida as an entry point for discussing media content. I am overwhelmed – I think of myself at 20 – certainly unaware of anything called theory, and of course not taking a Masters degree in a foreign language. What can I contribute? And yet my group of charming, intelligent, well-informed young people are unfailingly respectful and listen to any comment I offer – so much so that I try not to speak at all. Other groups surreptitiously talk in Mandarin – my poor group has to talk in English because of me! We have an interesting conversation about government censorship and the control of news through CCTV – they get all their news and current affairs over the internet and are wise to attempts to cover up inconvenient disasters and scandals.

My other seminar group is international – about 30 students studying the rise of modern China. Most are British from Nottingham, UK but there is a sprinkling of other students from all over the world, including my three fellow postgraduates from the USA, China and Thailand. At first I feel quite alienated by the class. Many of the young men arrive in shorts and flip flops, a few are usually late, and there is talk of hangovers and drunken escapades. At first, they appear disengaged and bored. It couldn’t be more different from the other class. But I am proved wrong – at the first week of discussions and seminar presentations the students suddenly show their academic prowess. They are well informed about China, they can argue their point, their presentations are very well organised and they speak confidently. I feel proud of the western style of education. At the same time I am horrified by the generally conservative nature of many of the opinions expressed by the British students – especially in relation to monarchy – no republicans there! My presentation is about a Chinese feminist writer of the first half of the 20th century – it is unclear what the class thinks of it.

It is too early to draw conclusions from my experience as a mature student, but I do feel immensely privileged. 40 years ago I was one of less than 10% of the population to get a university education – a free one at that. Now I am able to revisit a university campus in a completely different culture, and learn something about China alongside bright, young Chinese and international students. So far it makes me feel pretty optimistic about the future.

From ‘Peaceful Wave’ to ‘On the sea’

I have just bought the helpful Pleco App for my iPhone and have discovered that the two characters for Ningbo mean ‘Peaceful Wave’, while those for Shanghai mean ‘On the Sea’. And over the weekend we took the long distance bus between the cities. We needed to learn the characters for Shanghai as Ningbo bus station has no signs in Pinyin – and we wanted to avoid getting on the wrong bus.

We negotiated these initial hurdles with aplomb, and found ourselves in the right seats on the right vehicle. As we inched out of Ningbo onto the new expressway, the driver turned on the entertainment – a two hour film about Mao’s victory in the civil war – leading to ‘liberation’ (as it is known here) in 1949 and the triumph of the Communists. Every Chinese person on the bus (that is everyone except us) instantly fell asleep. How effective is the propaganda? Interesting to speculate for me in the context of the course I am doing on research methods in communication studies.

The journey took three hours including a toilet break at the services just over the new 35 kilometre bridge across Hanzhou Bay – truly spectacular. Each 5 kilometre section is marked by railings in a different colour of the spectrum.

In comparison with Ningbo, travel in Shanghai is a doddle. The new 12 line metro system is in Mandarin and English – with announcements and maps in both. Within 45 minutes we were at our centrally located hotel, The Langham Yangtze. Mao would have been very, very disappointed in us. We had a truly luxurious stay in a beautifully restored hotel, built in 1934 at the height of Shanghai’s reputation as the sin city of East Asia. For 2/3rd the cost of a night in a London Premer Inn we enjoyed every comfort – including the wonderful decor and Hershey chocolates, not to say a Roman style bathroom.

The CCP had difficulty with coming to terms with the legacy and reputation of Shanghai – centre of banking, commerce and trade and a flourishing intellectual elite – before WW2. It was seen as dominated by foreign imperialists and shameful in its espousal of capitalism. Part of Mao’s strategy was to invest in the countryside and not just the cities, to reduce inequality. It has only been since Deng’s Reform and Opening that the great city has been able to flourish once again.

To visit the city is to experience all its history and the current contradictions of modern China in an intense way. People flock to the main shopping malls and famous streets – it is hugely fashionable and once again throbbing with money. Many old streets and alleyways have been destroyed, making way for tower blocks and hotels. The population exceeds 16 million. The traffic is intolerable. But poverty is not difficult to find – there are occasional beggars prostrated at the bottom of the new walkways and precincts and street hawkers press their wares continuously on tourists. It doesn’t look as though the massively expanded middle class has much sympathy with those – often old and displaced – who haven’t made it. And not much of a safety net is in evidence. If your family doesn’t look after you, your prospects are bleak if you are old, ill or disabled.

Unable to deal with the relentless crowds, we actually found it easy enough to walk on empty streets. These were usually parallel to the shopping arteries, but just a block away. On one such detour we found the No. 1 Hardware Market and the area for nuts, bolts, cables and engine. Tens of tiny shops selling every conceivable type of metal spare parts – a kind of widget heaven. Each shop had two or three people guarding their wares – usually arranged neatly in rows by size (the widgets!) – but there were almost no customers. How did they make any money? Will they be another casualty of modern China?

Of course we also fitted in as much high culture as we had energy for. We enjoyed the extraordinary contents of the new Shanghai museum, built in the shape of a traditional cauldron, with two ‘handles’ visible on the skyline. We learned to identify the difference between Ming and Qing furniture and ceramics, and that Tang dynasty sculpture is the most admired. We promised ourselves that we would return.

On our final morning we walked to the northern end of the famous Bund – the promenade of colonial banks, offices, hotels and clubs built in the 1920s and 30s. Many now have ‘Shanghai Heritage’ plaques as the local authorities wake up to the potential of the burgeoning tourist industry. One building we visited is now a contemporary art gallery beautifully refurbished by David Chipperfield, running an exhibition and education programme. To our delight, a visiting lecturer in November will be Fuchsia Dunlop, talking about Chinese cuisine.

On the Bund, many young couples posed for photo shoots in their wedding getups in front of the skyscrapers across the river in the spanking new Pudong business district. The photos will be displayed at the wedding party (marriage ceremony safely out the way) and will be the most important part of the ritual.

We made our way back to the bus station and sank onto our Ningbo bound bus. It was the same bus driver, and yes, the same film about Mao and the civil war. It didn’t last the whole journey this time. Instead, there was some light relief with stirring songs about China’s unity and finally some comedy. It didn’t make much difference though – everyone slept all the way back.