Tuesday, November 12, 2013

October 22, Beijing

The days are jam-packed, not my ordinary or preferred schedule but I am experiencing and seeing so much this way. (More in the “nothing is all good or all bad” category.) This morning we went first to a cloisonne factory, an art form imported originally from Europe in the 1400s and perfected here. It's an amazingly complex process. First a copper thing is produced – plate, urn, bracelet, whatever. Then tiny pieces of wire, held with tweezers, are dipped into a strong glue and glued onto the copper according to a pre-established pattern.

Within a few minutes this is dry and can be painted with enamel that has been baked and ground – essentially colored ground glass.

The enamel is mixed with a little water and applied not with a brush but with an eyedropper. The piece is then fired and this process is repeated many times to achieve a subtlety of color. Then the wire is sanded down level with various kinds of stone in increasing fineness so that it is smooth, and baked again. Last the wire, the top, and the bottom (assuming it's a vase or an urn) are gilded. A large piece can take several months to make. I loved the intricacy of the process.

Next we went to – where else? – a section of the Great Wall. This was an hour and a half outside of Beijing, now in the mountains, and the air pollution was so bad I could look directly at the sun, which looked like a yellow-orange moon. I was wearing a hospital mask, but still the thought of what is getting into your lungs here is disgusting. Other people in the group say they brought masks but I am the only person using one. They say the air isn't too bad. I can see it and I can smell it and I can feel it in my throat. I have looked it up when I have an Internet connection in the hotel lobby, and it says the air quality is “unhealthy.” To say the least. The long traffic jams, a constant occurrence, are a blessing: the bus filters the outside air. I think we must have spent at least six hours between 8:15 AM and 9:15 PM in the bus.  

Beijing, by the way, limits traffic by making it illegal to drive in the city if your license plate ends in say 0 or 1 on Monday.  So they keep 20% of the cars off the roads on weekdays with no limits on weekends.  Not much help.  The air pollution comes from the cars and trucks of course, but also (possibly more) from the coal, often low-grade coal, that is still used in factories all over the country.  The lower the grade of the coal, the more pollution.

It was freezing cold at the Wall, with a strong wind whipping through the valleys. What you are seeing in these next two pictures is not haze or fog.  It is air pollution.

There was nothing in me that found the idea of climbing over 1,000 steep steps to the top, especially in this freezing weather, an attractive proposition – just to be able to say I did it. Definitely insufficient. So instead I sat at the bottom and contemplated the engineering of building a high stone wall, with big turret stations (as above) every half kilometer or so, starting in 200 BCE and continuing through several dynasties, that snakes over 4,000 to 6,000 miles of mountainous Chinese terrain. It's a myth, by the way, that you can see it from outer space. Then I bought a woolen hat and pair of gloves. I figure if it's this cold here, Tibet will be something else. Here is Mike modeling a fur hat.

 Driving back to Beijing the sun got even less bright and even easier to look at directly. Never could I have imagined such a thing. The lung cancer rate in Beijing must be out of sight. In fact, I just looked it up and found a paper that analyzed lung cancer in China.  In 2008 it became the most common form of cancer and the incidence increased 465 percent over the past 30 years. Everyone who knows me knows I am not fanatic on the subject of health, but being here can cure me of this.

After another excellent dinner – a custard made of quail eggs! – we went to the Beijing Acrobatic Theater. The best troupes from southern China perform here – southern Chinese are the only ones with small enough bodies. You can imagine the honor, performing in the country's capital. Kids are accepted into special programs for talented acrobats starting at 4 or 5 years of age, when they practice for 4 or 5 hours every morning and then when they are good and pooped out are given school lessons. You can imagine how much they can learn then. Their acrobatic careers end when their bodies get too big for acrobatics, around the age of 16 or 17, when they are given remedial school. Except for the few who are accepted as acrobatics teachers, they then go on to a more normal life.

We saw a group from Sichuan, and I sat in the very first row. The sets and the costumes were glittering and it was terrific: think Cirque du Soleil in miniature but with equivalent talent. Acrobats performed on a high wire, climbing up and down poles and swinging from them, juggling NINE balls, jumping through stationary and moving hoops, riding bikes, and more. At one point nine women in gold lamé costumes were all perched on one moving bike. There was a woman who held her body up in the air by one arm while moving all the rest of her body, slowly, muscle by muscle, into every possible position. Just marvelous.

A highlight of the day is when Mike told us why he is so happy to be alive in China now: in his short 41-year life span he has seen extraordinary changes. Born in 1972 in Xi'an, when he was young his family, consisting of his parents and two older sisters, couldn't afford meat, new clothes, and new shoes more than once a year at the Spring Festival. His parents couldn't afford to buy store clothes, then available only in green or blue, so his mother made them for the oldest sister; he wore second-hand hand-me-downs. In 1982 he remembers his parents were paid at the last minute and were therefore able to buy him new shoes after all: because it was before midnight and therefore not yet the Spring Festival, he couldn't wait to put them on but walked on newspaper – not really wearing the shoes! – until midnight when he walked on the floor.

In 1984 his community center got the first television he'd ever seen, of course black and white with a small screen. People lined up early and brought stools to sit on; he tried to be first in line as often as he could. He and the other children were allowed to watch exactly 40 minutes of the one state-run channel. The first 30 minutes were news, always good news. Then there would be a few minutes of announcements, then an advertisement, then a few minutes of “program.” The TV would then be turned off to make the children go home and do their homework. He was nevertheless thrilled. Five years later his family was able to buy a television, again black and white, small screen. He was proud to invite his classmates to his apartment, consisting of a few tiny rooms, to watch his television, which now could get three state-run channels.

In 1999 his older sister's boyfriend was a tour guide and much envied because he got to stay in hotels where the televisions could get CNN and a movie channel and a few more English-language channels. What's more, if you were a guest and could show your room key and pay a little money, you could use the Internet. He used his sister's boyfriend's key and was in heaven – he loved the Internet. At that time families could have computers and some did, but no Internet, but by 2005 he could have the Internet at home.

A few years ago there was a huge scare that Google would be shut down in China, and he was in despair.  He stayed up all night downloading sites he thought he wouldn't be able to see again. At the hour Google was supposed to go out of business, he was astonished to see he could still get it, but this time the URL changed from google.cn (China) to google.hk (Hong Kong). I told him the story of what happened, which he hadn't known, that Google was refusing to cooperate with the government's demand for information on which websites Chinese Google users were visiting. I myself never knew the end of the story but do now.

He still has no access to Facebook and looks forward to it. He is sure it is coming, and the trajectory of the last 30 years suggests it will, and soon. “Our dream,” he said, “is to have as many freedoms as you do.” Now isn't that interesting, a “communist” system that permits, or at least gives up prohibiting, the freedoms we take for granted?

To me, this story is so much more interesting than the Great Wall! I am not a very good tourist, am I?

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