THE CHINESE – DAVID BONAVIA

1. They are the most paradoxical of nations. Masters of agriculture, they have to import grain. Possessed of the most refined musical tradition, they write the worst modern music in the world. Their ancient political theorists rivalled the Greeks and made possible a stable society which survived invasion, famine, and civil war for more than two millennia, yet their modern political theory is crude and derivative – little more than a set of rationales for what they find it expendient to do. With a per capita national income less than that of many countries generally accounted poor, they have launched earth satellites and developed nuclear weapons and ICBMs. Possessing the most voluminous literary tradition of any country, they have produced barely a dozen works worth reading in the past two decades. They have some of the most beautiful women in the world, but until very recently had deliberately set out to make them the ugliest. Child-loving to a fault, they have made it virtually a crime for a couple to have more than two children. Derisive of religion, they turned a man into a god for ten years and then discarded his memory without regret. Always mindful of personal comfort and good food, they can endure hardships beyond the breaking point of most other people. (p.16)

2. Noise means company, and company means security. Most Chinese people are happiest in a crowd, feeling cheerful and safe in the anonymous throng. (p.29)

3. It takes the labour of four or five Chinese peasants to produce food for themselves plus enough surplus to sell to the State to feed one city dweller – (…) (p.39)

4. Cold dry air from Mongolia and Central Asia meets warm humid air from the Pacific over northern China, producing sudden heavy rainfalls which can cause flooding and heavy soil erosion, aggravated by centuries of wanton deforestation of the hillsides. At other times, there are prolonged droughts. (p.39)

5. Because chemical fertilizer supplies are inadequate, manure is so highly prized in China that even the word fen, meaning shit, has only a faintly derogatory context in everyday speech and crops up in the oratory of leaders and in articles in the Party press. The manure of domestic animals other than pugs – mostly water buffaloes, donkeys and ponies, and camels in the west and north-west – must be collected where it falls. The pig, making its home among the hens in the peasant’s backyard or in the collectively owned stye, obligingly deposits its fertilizer output by the doorstep, where it can be most conveniently collected. (p.40)

6. The Chinese village – home for some 800 million people – is still the basic unit of the rural economy. It typically consists of a few dozen families, sometimes with only one surname, more often with several. Their houses are built of wattle covered with dried mud, or stone, fired brick or concrete blocks, according to the prosperity of the locality and the individual family. Two or three generations normally live under one roof. The commonest form of floor is of pressed earth, though the better-off may have concrete. (p.41)

7. The village streets are narrow and mostly unpaved, with open drains. Where there are many animals, a layer of straw is put down to gather the manure and urine as fertilizer. The communal latrines are dry. Water for all purposes is from wells or streams, sometimes from a standpipe in the street, rarely from indoor taps – and carrying water is a major chore. Lighting in each home is by a bare light bulb of 40 or 60 watts, except in the more remote villages not yet hooked up to the electrical system, where light for the hour or two spent out of bed after dark comes from paraffin lamps, natural pitch, or whatever other kind of oil or fat is available locally and is not too valuable to be used in this way. Glass windows are few.

In accordance with the Chinese style, beds are just wooden boards covered with some kind of plaited mat, in winter sporting thick padded quilts or coverlets. People set up their sleeping quarters in any odd corner of the house, so there is little privacy. Some sleep on a brick platform, heated – when it is very cold – by a stove underneath. Heating is mostly from twigs, straw, and a little coal or animal dung. (p.42)

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