Media and mindsets
I’m waiting for Fintan to get back from Birmingham airport. This will bring an end to the first year of our China adventure. Having arrived back a couple of weeks ahead of him, I’ve completed a rapid round of friends and family, reaching London, Belfast, Dublin and Truro. The questions I’ve been asked have made me reflect again on how China is represented in the west. I’ve already fitted in a visit to the dentist and he was probably the most negative, asking me how I’d dealt with ‘different behaviour’. He meant the spitting rather than the driving – but then I suppose hygiene is his business. I should have mentioned to him that the dental practice favoured by the international staff at UNNC is called ‘The Cheery Dentist.’
Last night I watched most of a couple of programmes about China and this prompted some thoughts on my own recent experiences, as well as a fair amount of scenic spot smugness of the ‘I’ve been there’ variety. In the one about ceramics the presenter went to most of the famous sites – Hangzhou West Lake, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, etc, etc. But to my shame I realised that despite being a graduate of the Courtauld Institute, I have never visited the Percival David collection of Chinese ceramics in the British Museum on which the programme was based,
despite being told many times as a student it is one of the best in the world. Now I am in the curious position of having seen the wonderful collections of pots in Shanghai and Taipei, but not one on my own doorstep in London. This must of course be remedied, but it is but one example of how 10 months in China have changed my knowledge, interests and mindset. In my defence, when I was an art history student over 30 years ago, non-western art didn’t really feature much.
I especially liked looking at the pieces in Shanghai because the second time we went to the Shanghai Museum (itself famously designed in the shape of a ‘ding’ or large, bronze cooking pot) I could read the characters for most dynasties (Ming, Qing, Yuan) and just about manage those for the techniques (for example, ‘five colours’). I will be interested to see if the labels at the British Museum are in English and Mandarin as they are in Shanghai. The TV film suggested that there were more Chinese looking at the collection in the BM than British people, which suggests that despite Mao’s attempts to get rid of the ‘olds’ in the Cultural Revolution, Chinese people remain proud of and attracted to their own cultural heritage. I loved the way the European presenter in the ceramics programme was cheered in Hangzhou art school when he demonstrated his calligraphy skills. My own experience has been that Chinese people are delighted when you attempt to speak or write Mandarin – however haltingly – but amazed that you want to try.
The other programme was about wildlife in southern China. This was particularly refreshing because so much of what the British media (and I suppose my blog) communicates about China is entirely urban – skyscrapers, other big buildings, shopping malls, traffic congestion, pollution. The only non-urban pictures you usually see are of the Great Wall, and that is only a couple of hours’ drive north of the Beijing conurbation.
There wasn’t a car to be seen in Wild China, in fact hardly a road. Instead, peasants toiled with water buffalo ploughing mountainside terraces, while fisherman on the Li river showed off the fishing skills of their trained cormorants. The perennial problem of the Chinese tendency to eat anything that moves came up, but the programme included some conservation projects showing that it is not only westerners who are concerned about the environment.
The stunning photography of the dramatic landscapes of the southern provinces inspired me and I hope that in year two we will travel into more rural areas and experience something other than Chinese cities and their cultural riches – much as I have enjoyed them. One student has already written a list of ‘really beautiful’ places we should visit in Yunnan province, emphasising the pure air and lack of pollution which mark them out for her. I imagine – perhaps wrongly – that reaching them could be a challenge, but on my return I will try to acquire some ‘travelling-in-rural-areas’ vocabulary from my Mandarin teacher.
And now Fintan has returned, exhausted after 24 hours of travelling, but bearing gifts of green tea from Landlady, who is delighted I suppose that we will stay on in her flat for another two years. He feels cold and asks what was meant by the ‘heatwave’ mentioned in the newspaper. It has been nearly 40 degrees in Ningbo and intensely humid. It appears that even the temperature is all in the mind.