|Shanghai in the mist|
A month is a long time in the blogosphere. The world rolls forward, news happens, fades and is replaced, screaming headlines washed away in diffuse watercolour ripples of words and opinions. I’ve been away, as most people who know me will be aware. There’s something self-indulgent, even tasteless, about writing a travelogue, since it proclaims to whatever friends you might have left that you’ve ‘been somewhere’ and they haven’t which drives people into paroxysmal envy or downright disgust at your narcissistic insecurities which suppose that anybody might be remotely interested. Travelling is disturbingly unpredictable and anxieties rise simply because they do things differently in foreign parts. Returning to France is an like an anchor, where the familiar sits comfortably, like a good sofa where I get to sit and think. People groups carry their own unique cultural stamp and it is all too easy to form opinions which can develop into a form of xenophobia, almost racism, just because the unfamiliar is not like we do things at home. There is a large part of me that is a diarist, chronicling events precisely and sequentially but if I did I would find myself missing the significance of the random. Our thoughts do not fall neatly into well-ordered piles, so much of what follows is unapologetically tapestried.
The Chinese were literate, numerate, architecturally and scientifically sophisticated when Saxon tribes were slaughtering each other in battles of attrition. They spit loudly and frequently from the windows of their cars and in the streets, preceded by gravelly hawking, grating against the more restrained European sense of propriety, perhaps in response to a society governed by a secretive, shadowy elite without whose patronage and influence nothing gets done and because of it the workers are kept in their place. Chinese society has, decades afterward, still not recovered from the staggering waste of human resources after the Cultural Revolution. The homes of the bourgeoisie were pillaged and vandalised – even toilet seats and bookcases were removed and hurled into the streets – and people were sent in their millions for re-education in the country, a process which consisted of mindless manual labour and relentless, repetitive exposure to the Thoughts of Chairman Mao, who is still regarded as an almost godlike figure. His statues are still to be found in Shanghai flea markets – his podgy little hand outstretched. He has earned the dubious reputation of presiding over the greatest social disaster of the twentieth century – Stalin killed his millions, Mao his tens of millions – the lowest common denominator established was at the time considered the only panacea for starvation and wretchedness,leaving behind a people who obey instinctively and ‘follow the panda’ in well-organised, manageable groups. And yet, it’s interesting to detect,underneath the veneer of conformity that is so characteristic of Chinese society, a smouldering, almost palpable resentment, a sense of internal dislocation from the groups in which they are forced to participate.
There is a sense in which China is at a point of inflection – the middle classes, vibrant, wilful and more outspoken than formerly, growl mutinously under the sternness of their rulers, corruption is on an epic scale and environmental degradation is horrendous – small children wear ‘Hello Kitty’ facemasks routinely. The collective, nevertheless, is still the primary social lever – in aeroplanes people chatter loudly like starlings, oblivious to the discomfort felt by individuals – after all, what do they matter anyway? Yet, for them, such behaviour is normal in its indifference. They push against one, the envelope of personal space is different. Their hospitality is, however, generous to the point of embarrassment – we were invited to a private dinner party in Shanghai by a well-known artist and the dishes just kept coming.