Socialism is dead in China
Socialism is dead and buried here in China as far as I can tell. Mao, along with Marx and Engels, must be rolling over in their graves as they watch China’s free enterprise economy thumb its nose at the socialist ideal or they are applauding as the money flows freely.
It would be really interesting to hear what Mao thought of this tsunami change in his economic plan. Of course from what we have learned about how the upper echelon Communist leaders in China actually behaved behind closed doors, Mao apparently believed socialism was good for the masses but not for the elite so I’m guessing that Mao is not unhappy to abandon the theory and follow the practice. What makes it interesting for a visitor is to watch how everyone is trying to capitalize on the new economy, especially those without much education and prospects.
Free enterprise in China
Speaking to the locals
First I should say something about communication. As will be obvious from the examples, I have the advantage of speaking Chinese, more or less fluently even though I grew up in the US after my parents immigrated when I was 3 years old. They insisted that we speak Chinese at home and my mother even had daily lessons to teach us to read and write with Saturday morning exams. Learning to speak was relatively painless: you simply have to enforce the rule “no English in the home”. Learning the characters was excruciatingly painful and the subject of almost all of my childhood traumas. Imagine having to tell your buddies that you have to quit playing baseball because it's time for Chinese lessons at home. Of course my mother taught us the traditional Chinese characters, not knowing that Mao would simplify the characters extensively in the mid 50s. So, many of the characters that I did manage to learn were changed so they are no longer recognizable. In any case my advice to parents who want to teach their children a different language is that learning to speak is easy but, at least for Chinese, learning to read and write is several orders of magnitude more difficult because the language is not phonetic (knowing how to say a word does not help much in recognizing its character or writing it) and probably not worth it. Nonetheless I thank my parents for having the foresight to teach us to speak the language. Our experience in China would have been completely different if I could not speak the the natives. Now back to China.
Practically everywhere you wander, there are people peddling goods of one kind or another on the street. Some of these are concentrated in markets selling fresh produce or meats of pretty much anything you can think of. All the streets are crowded with shops, most of whom look like they are run by Mom and Pop. Once we got familiar with the shops, we saw that sometimes the stores would change suddenly: one day it’s selling wonton and three days later it’s completely changed and a different vendor is selling peanuts. It’s only in the large shopping malls of the big cities that you see chain stores, many of them international brands. There are so many people in Shanghai that one can find highly specialized stores selling, for example, camel’s milk products. What’s interesting to me though are examples of what I called nimble entrepreneurs, people making an extra yuan however they can, but all legally. What’s equally interesting are people who refused money for various reasons, going against the grain of “doing anything to make a buck”. Here are a few examples we’ve seen.
On the bus ride from Zhangjiajie to Fenghuang (about 5 hours) the public bus had a guide who got up and started a long spiel telling us about Fenghuang and the area. She probably spoke in a very irritating voice for 2.5 hours, most of which I could not clearly understand. Near the end of her spiel she brought out some snacks for us to sample, small packets of candy and meat products of various types. And then a bit later she began taking orders for large bags of those snacks. To my surprise many of the riders bought bags and bags of the stuff. I asked the fellow sitting next to me why he bought them and he said that there was a good discount and it was so convenient to get it on the bus. Near the end of our ride, the bus stopped on a street corner and a fellow jumped on with the bags of purchased food with each customer’s order in a separate bag, which the guide then distributed. An interesting retail model.
On the train from Kunming to Dali the conductors came by to check our tickets, but later one came by with big bags of some kind of candy (like cheng pi mei) and tried to get us to buy some. When the first attempt failed, she came back 4 or 5 more times to peddle the same goods. Then later a different conductor came along to sell socks, special thick or thin socks that could stand abuse and didn’t smell, so he claimed. They actually were rather amazing because he stuck a sharp chopstick through the sock and then pulled the chopstick down the sock which would normally rip the socks, but these seemed no worse for the abuse. It was like a magic trick. Only 10 yuan/pair. I actually regret not buying one, but I just didn’t like the pushy sales appeal.
It turned out this is not uncommon. On several other bus rides the ‘guide’ revealed toward the end of the ride that he or she had rooms that we could rent if we didn’t have a place to stay that night. In one case we had taken the overnight train from Shanghai to Huangshan and had to take a bus to the mountain. We were the last ones on the bus and I was squeezed into the very last row with a fellow sitting in the aisle in front of me and several older couples around me, all of them speaking Shanghainese. Well near the end of the hour ride, the guide announced that she happened to have access to some rooms for the night at a cut rate bargain. The couples around me, who did not know each other before they boarded the bus, began discussing what a good deal it was, especially if they shared an apartment or room. The guide told them that they shouldn’t go up the mountain that day but instead should rent her room so they could get an early start the next morning. This was, of course, a ridiculous argument since it was then about 8 AM and we had decided to take the overnight train exactly because we wanted to go up the mountain early that day. To my surprise these couples were overjoyed to get a cheap room and be in position for an early start the next morning!! I warned them that the forecast was for heavy rain the next day but that didn’t seem to deter them. We got off the bus where the cable car started and they did not so I believe they actually took the guide up on her offer of a place to stay. And the next day it rained heavily all morning.
These stories show a stereotype that, as usual, has some truth to it: Chinese love a bargain. It may be that rarely do the locals pay full price for anything. An example of this was at the Shaanxi museum in Xi’an. The museum had two entrances, a block apart, one was empty and the other crowded with people. I naturally went to the entrance with all the people but by the time I got to the window, it became clear that the entrance was only for those that had a discount coupon. The other entrance was for those who were paying full price, like us.
A common thing that happens everywhere we go is that when we step off the bus or train, we get approached by several people offering rides, guide service, or whatever. At Huangshan this fellow latched onto us as we were considering our options on which cable car to use and quizzed us about where we were staying and how the cable car we were considering was not a good one. He walked around with us as if we were traveling together. He claimed that the better one to reach our hotel started around on the opposite side of the mountain, which was a good 30 minute car ride away. He never revealed exactly what he was offering but I decided that he must be a driver who would offer to drive us there.
A funny example was when we took the Shanghai subway out to its end, intending to go to one of the watertowns. A group of ladies were outside the subway stop passing out flyers of some kind to all the departing passengers. At first I thought that they were offering places to stay for the night because the flyers described apartments. But it turned out that the apartments were for sale. They were looking for residents of Shanghai who wanted to buy an apartment out in the suburbs, where the prices were not as high as in the city. But the thought of looking for an apartment by shopping via these random flyers at the subway stop made me laugh. This also probably reflects the overproduction of apartment buildings in the outskirts of all the large towns we saw, with many similar buildings lined up in a row, most of them empty. I think many natives bought apartments hoping to sell them for a handsome profit.
The other problem is that many of these entrepreneurs are as good at telling the truth as our president, in other words they tell blatant lies. At a train station in Kunming, as we were looking for the line to pick up our tickets, this fellow came up and announced that the next train to Dali wasn’t until noon but he could drive us there in 3-4 hours. It was then about 8 AM for our 9:30 train. It turned out our train was about 40 minutes late, but I doubt he had any inside information.
And of course the problem with this sort of culture is that you don’t know when people are telling the truth, which is not a problem with our Liar in Chief who never tells the truth. With Mei and Sarah we took the subway to catch a bus to the Jinshanling great wall but as we approached the bus stop these drivers came up and said that the bus was not running and we should take their taxi. My initial reaction was that they were not telling the truth, but it turned out that there was a sign indicating that on that date, June 1, the Jinshanling great wall was indeed closed. But then if the wall is closed, why would we want to take a taxi out there? He assured us that it didn’t matter if it were closed, you could still get up on the wall. So at first he was telling the truth, but then the second part sounded sketchy. We ended up back tracking and going to the more crowded Badaling site.
It’s also amazing how little money these entrepreneurs are willing to work for. The night before we returned to Shanghai in the city of Huangshan we were going to dinner from our Airbnb and had a recommendation for a restaurant about 1 km from our place, but we didn’t have a map of the city or an address, just the name of the restaurant.
So a woman riding a pedicab stopped and offered us a ride to the restaurant for 8 yuan (about $1.20). Then as she’s pedaling us to the restaurant she told us that the restaurant was not very good, overpriced, etc. and she knew one that was closer, more authentic, better, etc. As we hesitated, she promptly drove us to the one she recommended and said we should go look at the menu and if we didn’t like it, she’d take us to the other one. Having nothing more than a weak recommendation from our Airbnb host, we decided just to go to the one we were at for convenience. Then the pedicab lady offered to take us back to the hotel after dinner for 10 yuan total round trip. And refused payment until after dinner. She gave me her phone number and said to call after we finished dinner. So she was willing to get our ride for an extra 2 yuan, about 30 cents. Then halfway through dinner we see her sitting outside of the restaurant in her pedicab waiting for us to finish eating. It turned out to be one of the better dinners we’ve had in China as all of the dishes were tasty and different.
When we left Beijing for good, I had the two extra subway cards that Mei and Sarah had used. To get a subway card, you pay a 20 yuan (about $3.00) deposit which you get back when you return the card for recycling. And if there’s any money left on the card you get that back too. I had done that already for the Shanghai subway cards so I knew the drill. But when we arrived at the Beijing railway station where we were going to board a bullet train to Shanghai, we had trouble finding the right kiosk to return the cards. The obvious one only added money to cards but did not handle returned cards. She pointed me to a place across the station at another exit. When we went to where she directed us, there wasn’t any obvious place. Several inquiries later, we were directed to a place that was actually outside the subway station and in the adjoining railway station. This didn’t seem right to me but indeed there was a kiosk but no one in sight. By now I was getting irritated and thinking I could just eat the 40+ yuan ($5.50 or so) when a fellow came up to us and offered us a ride. This is very common when you look like you don’t know what to do or where to go. When I told him that I wasn’t looking for a ride but rather for the place to return my subway card, he pointed to the kiosk and said that’s the place but apparently the person is on lunch break. Then without missing a beat he offered me 30 yuan for the two cards. So he made at least 10+ yuan and I was happy that I didn’t have to wait for this person to return from lunch break, as my traveling companion would probably insist. In retrospect, we considered the possibility that this guy is actually the person who is supposed to be manning the kiosk and he does this to scam the system. I don’t think that’s true but it is possible.
Cab drivers are often offering their services for the next day, or for when you finish with your visit to take you home, or whatever. In Dali after a tiring hike up and down a very cold mountain we decided to take a horse driven carriage ride to see the Three Pagodas, a landmark of the city. The reason for choosing the horse carriages was because there were no taxis in sight but the horses were right there. We quickly arranged for a ride and settled on a fare. The driver who turned out to be a friendly guy tried to get other couples walking on the street to join us, and then when we got to the pagodas, he offered a deal which I had already decided to offer to him. That is, he take us around the pagoda park and then back near our Airbnb for an additional fare. In the end we ended paying him more than what it would have cost for a taxi but he took us through some very small and narrow streets and the horse ride was fun.
A counterpoint to the nimble entrepreneurs were a few examples of people who refused to take money when offered. Tipping is not expected at all in China and we met a few individuals who actually turned down tips. For example, a few taxi drivers rounded the fare down. Admitedly this was unusual. In big cities most payment is through WeChat so there’s no problem with rounding up or down.
In Lijiang we went out to dinner at a small cafe and midway through the dinner I noticed on the wall that they had an item I missed on the menu which was toasted mantou, the common steamed bread. We were scheduled on an early morning bus the next day so we thought that having some mantou would be handy for breakfast in the morning for they are easy to eat on the bus. So I told the owner that I wanted an order of toasted mantou to take when we finished dinner and explained to him that we planned to eat it for breakfast. But he protested that the mantou would be cold. I assured him that we realized that and it was fine. However, he kept saying that it wouldn’t be good when cold and turned his back, refusing our order! The only explanation I could find was that he was so proud of his food that he didn’t want to sell it when it would be consumed cold. How many restaurants have you been in where an order is refused because the food was not going to taste at its optimum?
The best example of turning down a tip was an incident with my favorite dumpling shop just across the street from our Airbnb in Shanghai (see Life in Shanghai for more). Since I frequented the place, I got to know the 2 brothers who ran the place at least for a casual greeting as I ordered or waited for the dumplings to cook. My usual order was for 6 dumplings which cost 6.5 yuan (about US$1.00). On our last day in Shanghai before traveling out to western Yunnan and Sichuan, I dropped by and ordered my usual 6 dumplings. However, I was feeling sentimental about this last chance to taste their delicious shengjian guotie so I gave them a 100 yuan bill and told them to keep the change (93.5 yuan). The brother who took the bill immediately said, “No, no. We can’t do that”. But I insisted and explained to him how it was my last time and how I had enjoyed their dumplings so much and would miss them in the US. The brother was adamant and kept counting out the change to give me and thrust it to me. Finally, I had to turn around and just walk away to prevent him from putting the change in my pocket. The two brothers who ran the shop worked 7 days a week for about 12 hours/day. The only time that the shop was not open was for the spring festival at New Year’s. So the tip would represent a significant fraction of their day’s profits, yet they refused it.
This story has an interesting coda: after our month trip to western China, we had to return to Shanghai to pick up our remaining luggage before returning to the US. The morning of our flight, I returned to the shop to have one last meal of dumplings. When I walked up to the shop there was a small group of people waiting for the next batch of dumplings to cook. When the brother saw me, he said “I thought you were gone back to the US?” I explained to him that indeed we were leaving later today and just came back to pick up our luggage. So when I ordered my usual 6 dumplings, he refused my money and said that I had already paid. I could tell from their looks that this surprised the others waiting in line who had seen that I hadn’t made any payment.
There is a bit of a trick to eating xiaolongbao, or what’s often called soup dumplings, which is the steamed variety, or the Shanghai specialty, shengjianbao, which is fried. Both of these are unusual in that they have a tasty soup inside as well as the normal meat/vegetable filling. They are tricky to make because the skin of the dumpling must be thin or it will be too chewy but not too thin or the skin will tear when handled and the soup will escape. Most people will pick them up gingerly with chopsticks but some, like myself, prefer to use a spoon to catch the soup in case the skin tears. Because of the soup inside, it is not recommended to simply take a big bite of the dumpling or the hot soup will squirt onto your lap or your companion’s lap. The aficionados will make a small hole by taking a small bite and then suck the soup out. Finally, since they will arrive at your table fresh from the steamer, you should wait a couple of minutes or else the soup will burn your tongue when you bite into it. Don’t wait too long, though, because they are best when they are hot.
What about Mao?
I was curious what people think about the Great Helmsman following the Cultural Revolution. Of course he was revered from the time that he successfully overthrew the Kuomintang Army of Chiang Kai-chek to take over the country in 1949. And without question he did a fantastic job in pulling the country up by its bootstraps from a disgraced third World country to a respected world power by the end of the century. But the last 10 years of his life culminated with his Cultural Revolution which is widely believed to be a disaster for the country. So what do people think of him now? A common answer is “50/50”, meaning he was 50% good and 50% bad. Or some other ratio. The fact that the bad fraction is in the equation at all is a reflection of how bad people judge the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand there were some people that said that Mao is still a god.
Walking around the cities, it is notable how seldom one sees his picture compared to back in the 1980s when we were last here. Of course it’s still dominating Tiananmen Square in Beijing and people still line up to see his body though the building was under construction when we were there. A side note on this matter: I made friends with the chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Embryology at Fudan University in Shanghai where I borrowed some human brains to use in my class. He was proud to tell me that after Mao passed away, his department was charged with the task of designing the perfect embalming fluid to preserve his body. Apparently they came up with some top secret formula.
There were a few notable places where we encountered Mao era photos and art. One of our favorite places for breakfast, called Lao Wei Dao (老味道. or old tastes) had a decor that evoked old Shanghai. A mural covered one wall with a drawing of a typical old Shanghai street with a breakfast place. On the opposite wall was a collection of Mao-era postcards as well as some drawings of Mao-era propaganda art. I am not sure if the decor was tongue in cheek, or truly meant to glorify the Mao years. One of the murals had the only mention I saw in all of China of the Red Guard, and it was only indirect. The Red Guards were young revolutionary teenagers who did most of the dirty work during the Cultural Revolution with Mao’s blessing. The mural showed the “紅小 兵 (red small soldiers) who were too young to be Red Guards. The red small soldiers were elementary students. Apparently it is all right to commemorate the young red guard-to-be but not the red guards themselves.
In Kunming we went to a restaurant that definitely glorified the Mao years. All around the walls were posters and newspaper propaganda articles from the years that Mao was fighting the Kuomingtang and reviving the country. The food was good though. A group of Filipinos who we just happened to meet on the street recommended this place. We actually spent a day with this group visiting the Stone Forest near Kunming because they had a driver and had extra room for us. That was nice!
It’s difficult as a foreign visitor to China to get a good feel for what life is really like for the native Chinese. We decided to live in the former French Concession in Shanghai to try to get closer to the locals, but we didn’t really make any friends with the neighbors though some were quite friendly while others were just curious and stared or ignored us.
We had an interesting encounter one night when we came home and saw a fellow in the alleyway. When I greeted him with a ‘ni hao’ (how are you?), he asked where we were from. When I told him that we were from the US, he responded that he knew right away we weren’t locals. I said that yes, my Chinese was not very good but he said it was because we were too polite, that natives wouldn’t greet him. This seemed surprising to me but I think it is true that it’s unusual for the locals I meet in the courtyard to greet me with ‘ni hao’ before I greet them. This fellow than went on to say that he thought people in the States were more polite and cultured than the Chinese. When I disagreed with him, he pointed to a pile of dog poop on the entryway and said that people in the states wouldn’t let their dog do that without picking it up, would they? I had to agree that it was unusual, though not unheard of. Several other people have also expressed an admiration for the US when they find out where I’m from and there’s the general sense that the US is stronger, whatever that means. Usually I think they are referring to the economy and military might. I think there is a general sense in China that the country needs to catch up to the US.
In Shanghai I asked a stranger on the street for directions and he asked me where I was from. He then went into a long winded discussion of how China was superior to the US (at least, that’s what I think he was saying). I didn’t try to disagree with him, but he just kept following me around and reiterating his position. His chief piece of evidence was how much nicer he was dressed (his sport’s jacket was definitely more becoming than my jacket)!
China through the windshield of taxis
I’ve found that cab drivers can be useful fount of information since there’s usually a captive audience with time to discuss whatever. Some of them were eager to converse while others had no interest. Of course this is a narrow and biased window to look at the country, but it’s nonetheless a slice of life. One problem is that pretty much all of the drivers speak the local dialect which is usually difficult to understand so some of these conversations are extractions and best guesses.
Cab driver in Datong
I asked about the card games in the park and on the street. A very common sight in all parks and some streets in China is groups of people, usually men but women too, playing games. If more than two people are involved then it is usually a card game. He said that the common card games are not gambling, some sort of partners game two on two played for a small prize. However, the mahjong games are mostly gambling and in Datong they are not allowed on the streets. So people have the games in private homes but the police will come to raid the games. So people pay the police and they don’t bother them. So despite the campaign against corruption, it is still endemic to the culture.
When he grew up (was about 12 in 1980), each family got a ration booklet for buying meat every year. If I have the dates right, he would have been the age to possibly be a young red guard, born in 1968. I didn’t have the courage to ask him if he were a red guard and what he thought of that experience, which is what I would have liked to ask.
Since we were there during the national holiday of Duanwu jie (dragonboat festival) we had a conversation about who got holidays. He mentioned that the workers who swept the streets worked every day without a break. And when we went by a big factory near his hometown of Little Southern town (xiao nan cun), I asked him how many hours a person working in the factory put in. Nine hours/day, which didn’t sound so bad, until he told me that it was 7 days/week. (However, Cathy at NYU thought this was not true in Shanghai and may only be true for the smaller cities. She said if you worked on the weekends, it was for overtime). So basically they never got any time off except during the national holidays. That made sense why the travel and crowds were so much worse during the holidays. This led to an extended conversation about the Chinese economy and his observation that though the economy was much stronger in China now and most people were not going hungry, unlike the 50’s – 70’s, there was now much more discrepancy between the rich and the poor. As he put it, the rich were working in offices in what we would call white collar jobs which didn’t require any effort, yet they got weekends and holidays to rest while the workers who put in so much effort working every day for 9 hours didn’t get to rest. And of course it’s the labor of the workers that is making the upper class rich. I don’t think this is what Mao had in mind. All of the goods we buy in the States that are made in China are courtesy of the sweat of these workers who work 7 days/week for 9 hours/day! Keep that in mind when you go shopping at Walmart where 90% of the goods are made in China or when buying I-phones which are all made in China.
The capacity for work in China is rather incredible. Of course you often see people who are ostensibly working but are just napping or not doing anything. Not uncommon are small shops where the person running the shop is sleeping or nodding off. But then you see people sweeping the streets with brooms, cleaning the windows, or polishing the handrails of the subway which are more or less clean already. Then you see farmers in the fields working in the hot sun from daybreak to sunset. But generally the number of farmers in the field are not consonant with the amount of work that needs to be done to plant the enormous quantity of plants all in neat rows and often with straw mulch or plastic around every single plant. The labor involved in supplying the population with enough food is mind-boggling! Or the laborers in the mountains we’ve been visiting carrying backbreaking loads up and down the mountain to provide the food and water for the hordes of guests (like us) who are laboring just to make it up the mountain.
Or the policemen/women or traffic cops in the big cities, 4 or more at each big intersection, directing traffic with each change of lights. Here traffic means mostly the many many motorcyclists and bicyclists who do not have to obey the traffic laws so they are going against the light, against the traffic, and doing whatever they can. Cars, on the other hand, are pretty good at obeying traffic laws because of the ubiquitous traffic videos. Basically there are video cameras at all intersections and along all streets apparently recording all of the traffic. If a car is speeding, then this is recorded by the video (by Doppler shift?) and in a few days or weeks the owner gets a traffic ticket with a fine and points off. 12 points in a year and you lose your license. Several cab drivers we’ve ridden with have slowed down significantly as they approach a known video camera so this story does seem to have validity.
While Mao’s ideal was a classless society, this has not been achieved by any means. I think that many of the workers at the low end of the spectrum were born into the job. The best example of this is the fellow in Yangshuo who poled us down the river on the raft. He said that he was born on the river and that his father’s occupation was also to take people down the river. He just naturally fell into the same job. I didn’t ask him if he had any education but I suspect not. Similarly, I suspect the workers toiling to haul back-breaking loads up and down the tourist mountains were also born into the job. It would be interesting to know the statistics on this.
Back to the Datong taxi driver, his car when new was about 50 – 60,000 yuan or $7-8000 or so. Quite a bit cheaper than in the US for a new car. Electric cars are unusual in China, though some cab companies do use all electric cars. His car burned something other than gasoline (methanol?? Or diesel?) which was about half the price but he said it was not as powerful so it worked well in cities that are flat without hills. In the big cities, like Shanghai, the cost of getting a license plate can actually exceed what it costs to buy the car. This seems to be the way the government is trying to limit the number of cars on the road.
Cab driver in Xian
We hailed a cab in the city for the ride out to the Terra cotta warrior’s museum, a ride that takes about 45 minutes. He asked if we wanted to be charged by the meter, or if we wanted a round trip ride since it was difficult to find cabs out at the park (which turned out not to be true). We finally settled on a round trip price and he said he would stay out there and wait for us to finish at the museum. When he asked me approximately how much time we would spend at the museum, he was surprised when I told him we probably wouldn’t finish until 4 PM or so. Then it became unclear whether the driver was going to stay out there the whole time or not, but before letting us off he drove to the ‘exit’ and he said he would pick us up there when we called him.
When we finished with the museum and called him, we had trouble finding each other as the ‘exit’ didn’t look like the place we were shown earlier. It turns out that there is not one definite exit that everyone takes. When we were in the taxi and driving back, the driver asked what time we came out to the park in the morning. When I expressed surprise and said that he had brought us out in the morning, I realized that the cab driver was a different fellow. So it turns out that he and the original cabby share a car. He takes the night shift that begins at 4 pm while the other fellow has the morning shift until 4. Basically the car is in use for 24 hours/day. So when I had told the original cabby that we were probably going to be at the museum until around 4 pm, apparently he switched strategy and arranged for his buddy to pick us up. This accounts for why he was a bit evasive on whether he would pick us up. but he didn’t bother to explain why. Another indicator was the first cabby asked us to pay for half the fare when he dropped us off. Other cabs we’ve had that arranged a round trip would not collect any fare until the return, I think because it made it more likely that we would not find another ride back, counting on the good will of the passengers not to stiff him for the ride out.
In any case, the second cabby was very talkative and friendly. He was interested in how much the average salary for factory workers was in the US as compared with China. He said that if the wages were less than $4000/year, income tax was about 8%. I think the reason that they share the cab is that they pay the cab company a set amount for the cab and their salary is basically how much they can make above the company’s charge. He didn’t tell me that but it makes sense from what other cabbies told me (see below). They must share a cell phone to make this arrangement work.
When we were in Xi’an with the grandkids, I had an extended conversation with another taxi driver where we learned all about the problems of having 5 passengers in a taxi (see the blog on “Xi’an, Datong and Beijing” for discussion of the problems of 5 passengers). . He was very friendly and talkative. When I asked him about the local Xi’an accent we had a discussion of language and I asked him if he spoke any English. He said that if he knew any English, he wouldn’t be driving a cab, which I thought was a pretty cogent comment on his life situation.
Cab driver in Beijing
When asked if he were from Beijing, he told me that only local Beijingers were eligible to become taxi drivers. One driver said that he leased the car from the company for which he paid 5,100 yuan/month. His income then was whatever he could make over that amount. He was responsible for all the expenses of the car (gas, upkeep, etc.). On average he said that he could make about 6-7,000 yuan/month which means that his income, including any car expenses, was 1-2,000 yuan/month. He worked an average of 12 hours/day and never took a day off since any holidays that he takes means that he doesn’t earn any income. From these rough numbers, it seems like making 300 yuan in rides in a day is a pretty good day, which explains why some cabbies are willing to take you out to your destination and wait for you to finish the visit to take you home since that is guaranteed money. With this arrangement, you can also see how the shared cab arrangement in Xian makes sense.
Some other cab drivers in Beijing own their car, which they buy from the cab company when new. What they get is a car painted like a cab which makes it easier to get rides on the street. The driver that I discussed this with said that it takes about 5-6 years to pay off the car, so he only gets ‘paid’ after the car is paid off. But he can use the car for his own use when not working, which explains perhaps why empty cabs don’t always stop when you try to hail them.
Almost all conversations with the locals start in exactly the same way. First they ask me where we were from, and then the next questions was usually how old am I? In fact even when we were hiking at a national park or mountain, the people going in the other direction would sometimes stop and ask how old I was. One driver, after finding out that I was in my seventies, asked how our children would let us travel alone in China like we did. He said that he and his siblings would never allow their parents to travel by themselves, especially in a strange country.
All visitors to China quickly learn that when they arrive at a new place (airport, railway station, bus stop) and walk towards the exit, there’s usually a mob of people who approach them asking if they need a ride anywhere. These are unofficial taxis, like Uber drivers except not employed by Uber. (China also has an Uber-like system called Didi which we used on a couple of occasions). Anyway these unofficial taxis are usually to be avoided. There are lots of tales of people getting scammed, or worse, when riding with them. The official taxi drivers, with metered cars, are usually waiting out on the street. For a less adventurous ride, these are the taxis to take. On the other hand, in the remote rural areas, the unofficial taxis are sometimes the only choice. This makes travel in these areas adventurous. See the blog on ‘Adventures in Western Sichuan’ for our experiences there.
For the past few years I’ve been reading a series of crime novels set in Shanghai written by Qiu Xiaolong who is living in St. Louis but is from Shanghai. The novels center on Inspector Chen, who is a policeman in Shanghai assigned to various crimes. The crimes are not particularly noteworthy but the author does a great job in describing the environment in the city so I thought it gave a good view of life in Shanghai. It is clear that Qiu is also particularly interested in food and Chinese poetry as he often goes out of his way to describe the food choices for Inspector Chen and quotes from classical poems when appropriate.
So I was happy to see that NYU Shanghai invited Qiu to come to Shanghai and give a talk during the time we were there. He gave an interesting talk. First he described his personal history. He was an author in Shanghai until 1988 when he received a fellowship to go to the US for a year. He decided to go to Washington Univ. in St. Louis to study T.S. Eliot. While there, the Tiananmen incident happened in 1989 and he gave money in support of the students who were sitting in at Tiananmen. He said that almost immediately he received a notice from his Chinese publisher that they would no longer be able to publish his work. At that moment he realized that he could no longer return to China or publish in Chinese. So he decided to stay in the US (post Tiananmen it was easy for Chinese to get permission to stay in the US) and switch to writing in English. That’s how Inspector Chen was born. For many years he could not go back to China but eventually times changed so he has been back for visits to his parents. One of his novels is called “Red is Black”. He said that the origin of the title has to do with that expression which refers to the change in China over the last 30 years. Red, the favorite Chinese color, is a symbol of good while black is the opposite. There has been such a change from the times of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) to the present that what used to be black 40 years ago (e.g. making money) is now red. Similarly what used to be red (being a peasant) could now be black. Qiu remarked that his father suffered during the Cultural Revolution for doing or being someone who now would be praised and admired.
In preparation for coming to Shanghai I reread a couple of his novels to see if I could identify specific restaurants that he praised in the books. However, I wasn’t able to find any references to the 3 or 4 restaurants he mentioned so I asked him if the places he cites in his novels are real or not. He said that he was indeed very interested in food and his German publisher had in mind that he could publish a guide book to restaurants in Shanghai. So one summer he and his German editor went around the city sampling restaurants for this guide. But by the end of the summer they realized that many of the places they visited early in the summer were closed or had changed hands so that any guidebook was quickly going to be outdated so the project was abandoned.
After we returned to the US, I reread a number of this novels which were more meaningful because I now knew many of the places in Shanghai that are discussed in the stories. When I reread the novel “The case of two cities” (which is set in Shanghai and St. Louis, the two cities the author knows well), there was a translation of a poem that I found vaguely familiar. The poem, “Going down to Chiang Ling”, is by the famous Tang dynasty poet Li Bai. and describes a boat trip down the Yangtze River. Sure enough, I discovered that this poem, with quite a different translation, was one that we had used on the flyer of the memorial service that we had for my father after he died in 2000. The poem was put into the flyer and translated by my uncle, Dad’s younger brother, who is also an ardent fan of ancient Chinese poems.
The USA compared to China
On a visit like this, it is inevitable to compare the two countries. Most Chinese have a generally favorable view of the US, even though they see it as their chief rival on the world stage. After all, they had a common enemy (Japan) during World War II. Furthermore, when the Boxer Rebellion against the colonial powers (Japan, Britain, Germany, US, Russia, France) collapsed in 1901 and the Qing Dynasty was forced to pay reparations to the foreign powers (estimated in current dollars as $61 billion over 40 years), the US set up a system that diverted much of the money to pay for Chinese students to study in the US, which in the process set up Tsinghua University, one of the leading schools in the country.
We last visited China in 1980, a few years after the Cultural Revolution ended, and the country in 1980 versus today is like going to a different planet. In 1980 there were no private automobiles. Streets were clogged with bicyclists, pedestrians, buses and taxis. Almost no one had a refrigerator (so considerable time was spent every day shopping for food), no one had a phone (phone calls went to a general phone in the hallway of apartment buildings where whoever was passing by was supposed to answer it and go find the person being called), and perhaps most important, food was rationed by food stamps. The progress that the country has made in the intervening 37 years is truly staggering and unbelievable.
Counter to all of the Western expectations, opening of the economy and the people to the internet has not liberalized the social structure. The government is still monitoring all aspects of people’s private lives with an iron hand. There’s little public opposition to this approach following the Tiananmen incident in 1989, which probably marks the high point of such opposition. One gets the feeling that if the government sets its mind to do something, like build a new high speed railway line, then there’s never any opposition to the plan. If there are villages in the way, the people living in the villages will be displaced with little or no discussion. Human rights are not a concern. Compare that with the efforts to set up high speed rail in the US, where getting the rights to the land remains one of the biggest obstacles to the project. As a result, the US remains a Third World country in its transportation system.
I had an interesting discussion with a taxi driver about the long and mostly glorious history of the country which is easily evident when one visits some of the fantastic ancient sites in China, like the Great Wall or Terra Cotta Warriors museum in Xi’an, or any of the great museums. The Chinese name for the country translates to ‘Middle Kingdom’, reflecting the view that China is the center of the universe. This driver commented that the USA has only had a 300+ years of history during which it has dominated the world stage for about the last 80 years or so, while China’s history spans over 4000 years. Yes, the 120 year period from 1880 to 2000 have been bad for China, but this is just a short blip in the long history of the country. It is now ready to assume its place as the Middle Kingdom again. Looking at the economic marvels of the last 30 years in China, it’s difficult to counter that view, especially with the state of our regressive policies of our Liar in Chief .