My children's books said that if I dig a hole deep enough into the earth, I would find myself here, on the other side of the world, where you’d read backwards. Roughly described with slit eyes and wearing a shiny silk dress, "the Chinese" once even was my carnival disguise during primary school. With a thin braid sawn in the large conical hat and a thin mustache sticked over my lip I was easily recognized. Emperors and dragons were subjects of dreams and nurtured the desire to travel to such a different country one day. In the meantime, however, much has changed in China.
After 3000 years of civilization divided into dynasties, this reading way of history was reformed by two revolutions in the last century. The first, in 1911, meant the end of the empire and thus the foundation of the first republic. The second, starting in 1949, was an attempt of rebellion against the capitalist/business oriented, western social order - independence and liberation for the sake of an own future, own solutions for the protection of the own identity.
I'm sitting in a Starbucks in front of a window, a vitrine on ‘today’. The people and their suits are running to their destination. Large letterings crown the skyscrapers, the brand names even manage to overshadow the sky. For them to "illuminate" at night too, many people spend the longest part of their days right underneath. At home, in the evening, an even smaller and filled cube awaits them. I imagine everyone sitting there in silence as if in prayer in front of the advertising box: the new psalms that confirm the promise for a better tomorrow and justify today's reverence. The new credo is clearly capitalism.
On the next comfortable seat I am being restored: pedicure, haircut, hair removal, slowly the wildness that my body had reached in Mongolia is erased. At H&M I buy a cheap dress, I haven't worn one for a long time and now I look as neat, feminine and anonymous as it befits a modern city. Uprooting, cleansing, deleting for the purpose of a ratified form - the appropriate introduction to the experience of this country.
In Beijing I find a five star rewarded hostel, obviously rated by young party people. I spend my first days in bed: in Mongolia I had a concussion, the almost two weeks long hospital care was interrupted by the expiration of my visa. As soon as I get back on my feet, I visit the nearby hutongs and walk until where the noise of the motorcycles rarely passes by and the little lights hang in the dark. I draw for the waiter of the family run restaurant a fish, a pig and a cow each with a cross on them and a smiling carrot, the cook serves me wonderful fresh vegetable dumplings.
On the crowded and noisy streets of the city the answers to my questions are often rough, but I discover that through a smile the Chinese immediately turn into the most tender conversation partners and fun soon becomes the basic mood of our being together. I found it particularly funny when a gentleman told me that we westerners all look alike and are difficult to distinguish from each other.
Diary extract, Beijing:
Disoriented and confused by the multitude of people and heavy matter, by the smooth and reflective surfaces, which also constantly reflect my almost forgotten appearance, the crossings, the constant movement of objects, the images and writings that recommend stuff or command directions. Confused and yet excited, I feel a little lost. But small conversations give me the direction; it is only through intimate encounters, one to one, that I can feel at home also here.
I love to spend my mornings in the peaceful Temple of Heaven Park. Here mainly older people practice Tai Chi or dance together, as couples or in groups to the beat and melodies of different music styles. Retired opera musicians usually practice in threes, two instruments and a voice, but all groups on the same small square, so that it results in a somewhat uncoordinated yet perfect concert. I watch enthusiastically a singer who is raised from his wheelchair by the high pitch of the sung notes - probably a female role. In shadier corners Dishu, the Chinese street calligraphy is also practiced, my watching or maybe even my presence feel too loud for the volatility of this exercise. The long brush turns clear water into the author's thoughts, the poetry evaporates, it’s an ode to ephemerality.
I look for the space and the quiet I miss with an excursion to the Great Wall. On a section that has not yet been renovated, I am indeed alone and fascinated by what we have called a wonder of the world. To grasp this mass I need a long silence, I have the feeling to see 'time' concretely. The wall was built as border, separation, barrier, fortress, a powerful vocabulary that has evolved hand in hand with human history. On the landscape I can read the forms of the needs and in contrast to the walks through history books, today I do not only meet heroes and thus pass the intellectual overview.
There is, I believe, always at least one symbol with which one realizes to be in a certain country. This happened to me in China in front of the portrait of Mao Tse Tung in Tian'anmen Square. In his eyes I try to see his vision, many of our fathers proudly carried his little Red Book in their pockets. The idea of an alternative development had already spread as hope and necessity in the world at that time. Then I look at the extended picture... It is difficult to sum up the concept and the meaning of communism with the help of a single, framed face on a large square, imposed above the many heads. The ego is in fact the very first barrier, I think.
Finally I am ready for a visit from the tourist offer and visit the Forbidden City. It is called so, because apart from the members, nobody was allowed to enter without the explicit permission of the emperor. Today it contains the maximum density of people in Beijing, which in turn contains perhaps the highest density of people in the world. The stream of visitors looking at what remains of the masterpiece only on camera and pad screens and the ultramodern but not well working WiFi audio guide make me decide to skip all the places to visit in China and travel directly to the south. There, small ethnic groups should still live in an apparently unspoiled environment. I flee at 300 km/h. On the high-speed train crossing the country in 11 hours, the gentleman sitting by the window politely leaves his seat to me so that I can enjoy the landscape he already knows. When I thank him with a "Xiexié", half the car laughs and raises hands with thumb outstretched.
Guilin is located in the northeast of the autonomous region of Guanxi. During a walk leading me to the city centre, I refuse to pay the fee for the walk along the river road and prefer to take other paths randomly. A few hours away from the city, lie the Longsheng Longji rice terraces, where the Yao, the Zhuang, the Han, the Miao and the Dong ethnic groups live. I prepare myself for a day in nature and intimate encounters, but find myself in a parking lot with numerous buses and a forest of selfie sticks. In the guide it is recommended to let the inhabitants carry the luggage, they would certainly be happy about the small coins. Young travelers who follow empty-handed a loaded, old woman on the steep path into the valley, embody the modern concept of altruism.
The Yao women are famous for their long hair, which can only be cut once in a lifetime at the age of 18. Only the future husband had the privilege of seeing his wife with open hair on the wedding day. In the event that a stranger accidentally spotted the loosened hair of an unmarried woman, for example while washing in the river, he was forced to live with her family as son-in-law for three years. This custom survived until the 1980s, today there is a 'Hair Show' at the river every day at 4 pm. Also missed on purpose.
The silence of this place can only be imagined, drilling machines and hammer strokes have replaced it, hotels are being built all over the valley. On the way, inhabitants sell Coke and Fanta, most of them pose for the not included in the price photos. In the evening the tourists disappear, in the light of the moon I may finally enjoy the masterpiece of nature and man - this peace is a right from which we have withdrawn ourselves.
Diary extract, Guilin:
It seems to me to see the dynamics of what is happening more clearly than ever before. Everything is replaced by a single value, money, and what I am looking for, diversity, tradition, 'other' cultures and beliefs, is erased in front of my eyes, replaced by what I already know and have left at least for the moment. When did we decide it was worth giving all this up?
There's a ferry to Yangshuo. The Li River, which meanders through the karst mountains, is a landscape often found in paintings and was chosen for the back of the 20 yuan banknote. Today this motive is taken daily by thousands of clicks, but in watercolor it looked most similar to reality... perhaps impressions are the value of translations. An electronic voice tells the mythology of these hills, a choreography of heads and arms changing direction at the same time to recognize horses and dragons in the outlines of nature, lets me recognize the tourists a new ethnic group, I enjoy trying to describe it scientifically.
My journey shows me a massive destruction of a biological and cultural diversity, which will soon only be admirable in catalogues. Species and ethnic groups are driven out of existence by our development strategy - uniformation, standardization. What often remains is only the subtle consistency of an image, and soon one can no longer even trust the image anymore. Very few of the cormorant fishermen I have met have actually fed themselves and their families through this activity and lost their lifestyle because of the tourist traffic on the river. They are now forced to work as models and stand perplexed by the riverbank. The rehearsed alternative is a 'cormorant fishing night show' offered by the travel agencies... with such a photo motive and the poses of the professional "actors" is guaranteed one the fame on the social media.
Along the way it happens meet people whose shy presence is not described in any historical book, but through which it is possible to read what really happens. So powerful and big is China, so quiet and intimate are the moments through which you understand its essence. Diversity and uniqueness of this country today require humility, tranquility and care to be discovered. With the means at our disposal, it is also possible to record the subtle events, the quiet voices of the non loud ones. The soon lost knowledge should be given a chance to teach.
In Yangshuo County I am myself an English teacher and for each lesson I receive a list of questions to work through. When asked how to help the homeless, poor people in the country, the young students answer "The state takes care of that, we don't have to do anything". What interests me is what they want to learn the language for, the answer, without exception, is "business". Our lessons will soon revolve around the meaning of this word - in a country where Google is banned, I believe a second opinion can't hurt.
Diary excerpt, Yangshuo County:
What happens if everyone hears only one and the same word and therefore trusts it without criticism? If you don't have the opportunity to look at something differently and be surprised by the unknown? What happens if you are not allowed to get options and you have to follow a prescribed direction? Through comparison, I also recognize the culture from which I come. What then, if all options are already wrapped up and you get the convenience to just choose and sign for the chosen? What happens if you don't have to talk anymore because it's not necessary, because we've learned to classify types by appearance? Generalization creates masses, this way details disappear.
I read about Mao and realize that everything he did was carried out in a form of mass campaign. Much of his politics came about thanks to the upliftment of human will and enthusiasm. I am fascinated by this sense of belonging of the Chinese. The Chinese tradition seems to demand individual rulers and so one of them said: "The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history", "(...) We have always maintained that the revolution must rely on the masses of the people, on everybody's taking a hand, and have opposed relying merely on a few persons issuing orders.  (...)", "All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned." Between 1958 and 1962, as many as 45 million people died as a result of one of his best intentions - the 'great leap forward'. Thanks to the passionate participation of his disciples, Mao won the title of the greatest mass murderer in world history.
I read about the Dao, which originally meant "way", which explains the progress of the world through the interplay of Yin and Yang. And through this lens I now read what I am looking at: power creates coercion, permission creates prohibition, knowledge creates ignorance, to before follows after. Yin and Yang are also the starting point for change. If you divide something into two halves, it disturbs the balance of the wholeness, which allows both halves to hunt one after the other while seeking a new balance with each other. In order for everything to flow, one must enable division and recognize the interdependence of the parts. There is no mass without a word under which it can gather, no exchange without a partner, no death without a life before, no heroes without followers. If one realizes that one exists only in the relationship, in the relationship with the environment and with the other, responsibility and respect should be a natural consequence.
Diary excerpt:
I fall in love again with the complexity of man, with his ability to believe, with his will to being part. I see the desperate attempts to be happy, which even if they go wrong, tell us what we are like. I myself realize today that nothing could be missing, no detail of my past to stand where I am, here and now. I had to check the boxes of a long list of duties to be accepted by myself and socially. Once through I was alone, responsible for my decisions and actions, without tasks. Only with the awareness of this loneliness do I recognize my responsibility, only with this awareness of responsibility do I recognize my role in this whole. I need my mistakes and the meaning of freedom is for me now, not being able to blame anyone for them anymore.
Back to Top