June/July 2007

(click here to see photos)

(Click here to see a blog on the courrent political situation in China, which seemed to make a worthwhile, and provocative,read)

I’m back from 3 weeks in China with my son, Nick, and my friend from Harvard, educator Eleanor Duckworth.

I’m exhausted and stimulated; it was an unforgettably great trip. But I haven’t yet digested it all. I’m by no means now a China expert, so this is mostly for friends.

Someone—was it George Bernard Shaw?—in the 1930s came back fro the USSR and announced: “I’ve seen the future, and it works.” We know how wrong he was. Yet in some ways, I might say the same about China, except with fear and sadness. It may “work,” but…

The trip had three aspects. One was being a professional educator! Which I’ll get to last. Second, a tourist of great classically Chinese scenes and structures. We did “everything” on the short China tour list, such as seeing some of the greatest of Chinese gardens, temples, walls, ruins, etc. We visited only one Museum (in Shanghai). We boated on many rivers and lakes. We even bicycled around the Yangshuo countryside (plus rafting down a river). I also fell of my bike (with minimal injury). But, actually, I was thrilled to discover I could still bike at my age! I had thought that was a pleasure best left for the past. The third was seeing modern China.

The old China. It was very hot and humid (mostly in the 80s and 90s), but we walked our legs and feet to their limit. Nick and Eleanor did everything I did plus some things I didn’t on that score. Sometimes I sat in a quiet spot and read. I was reading a book about 19th century China, and I was pretending I was back there when women chose foot-binding over servitude. In my “pretend mode” I walked the Great Wall. My walking companion (a young man who is making his way up in the new China) and I imagined his life in the Ming dynasty—as a solider on this wall. In Beijing Nick and I sat in a Princely palace by a pond with ducks that reminded me of the children’s story Ping, and read our books side by side in a gazebo. We “covered,” in all, Shanghai, Suzhuo, Hangshou and the West Lake, Guilin, the Li River and Yangshuo (and caves), Xi-An (terra cotta soldiers), Beijing and the Great Wall at Mitanyu (several hours out of Beijing). We visited the Forbidden City, Heavenly Temple, Tiennaman Square, and so on. We saw mountains of many sorts—which matched the visions we saw at the Shanghai Museum’s landscape painting halls.

Then there was modern China. First and foremost was the impact of Shanghai. It was the city skyline out of a futuristic movie—like Star Wars. Miles upon miles of gleaming glass skyscrapers, lighted up in fanciful ways (advertising), in a maze of overpowering shimmering glory. The city was crisscrossed with futuristic elevated highways (that reminded me of scenes in the 1939 GM exhibit at the NYC World’s Fair), joined together by circular ramps going every which way. Down below were trucks, rickshaws, cars, taxis and thousands of bikes of every sort rule-lessly and ruthlessly making their way here and there.

Across the river was an entirely new part of Shanghai (Pudong) that 10 years ago didn’t exist at all—just farmland we were told. It mirrored the “old” city, except that it was unbrokenly new. In Shanghai “proper” there were many old sections left intact, and probably a few restored for tourists. The highlight of our stay there was watching some men put up a bamboo scaffold in order to take down a sign on a building across from the famous tea houses and gardens of old Shanghai. We were mesmerized. (We also had a delightful cocktail overlooking the Bund in an elegant “club.”)

Our favorite hotel was in Yangshou, a town on the Li River near Guilin. It was a 4 story little hotel looking out on the busy street of this still quaint small town. We felt for two nights that we were in the heart of China, although in fact it’s a town full of tourists and hippies! We visited a remarkable cave there, and also this is where we took off on our biking and rafting trip.

We visited a professor in her “country home” outside of Hangshou—set midst a bamboo forest and attached to a rice paddy farmer’s house! It was a lovely evening. She’s a busy woman so she ordered dinner “out.” Imagine being delivered a Chinese dinner in China! Our last night in China we were invited to a fancy restaurant in Beijing where we had an enormous feast and watched a charming Chinese stage show—supper club entertainment, We certainly ate—everywhere. Ate and ate and ate. One beautiful dish following another and then another……and then still more…and more. Ending with soup.

We felt very comfortable talking with people, although aware that speaking English is not as widespread as many told us it would be. Even those who were well-educated understood only some of what we were saying and translation was very helpful. At least we think so, although of course we couldn’t understand the translations. Still there were lots of signs in both languages, and sufficient visual and verbal cues for us to get around on our own. But in fact we rarely did. Eleanor’s former students met us everywhere! They and their families and friends insisted on treating us royally. We rarely paid for a meal, were mostly met at airports and delivered back at the end of each stay.

Throughout the countryside as we drove or trained through parts of it we were astounded by the huge housing developments often sitting isolated in the middle of seemingly nowhere. Literally square miles of tall ugly skyscrapers that reminded me of the Taylor public housing in Chicago—with no Chicago attached. Many were still under construction and/or still empty. But they are apparently being built for the anticipated rise in the urban population over the next ten years. Instead of the rich moving into the suburbs, the suburbs are being constructed for the poor. I think.

And we visited with people, mostly in restaurants, mostly Chinese but occasionally fellow Americans. A Dissent contributor, Dan Bell, met me at his University in Peking (the MIT of Peking—MIT being the only school besides Harvard most well-educated Chinese consider to be legit). We had a lovely lunch as we shared his sense of China. He’s been in Asia for nearly 15 years and is married to a Chinese woman, and his child goes to a Chinese public school. (See his pieces in Dissent for more on his interesting ideas. The last was published a few months ago and is called From Marx to Confucius.) In Shanghai my brother’s friend Bruce Robertson took us to see the Shanghai Racquet Club (actually it’s a luxurious housing development surrounding a club.) which Paul designed. It was beautifully done, although sadly the counterpart to it (phase two) has been done on the cheap. Bruce claims that much of the new housing we see in China has been designed in such a way that it will look old and deteriorated in ten years.

Nick and Eleanor took hundreds of photographs. They come later.

On the “professional” side:

Eleanor and I spoke in Shanghai at least twice—once to East China Normal School students and once at a conference on the new school reforms being instituted (perhaps) in China. It was billed as a World Conference, but the audience was almost entirely Chinese school people and the speakers mostly Americans (some working in Canada) and a few Japanese. We each gave our usual speech, and we were well received (we did it again in Hangzhou, and Eleanor also talked at Peking University in Beijing). The idea is that the Chinese government (Communist Party) wants to reform the school system to encourage innovation and initiative, and to inspire the young to appreciate the practical not merely scholarly arts. To this end they are “flirting” with progressive education although very hesitantly. The exam system is the be all and end all (it was taking place while we were there), and is entirely based on rote memorization of scholarly matters. The Chinese believe that nothing else will count but doing well on such exams (getting into college is entirely dependent on one’s exam scores). This rather limits their reforms, and is an underlying contradiction to their interest in our ideas. (All the speakers they brought in were decidedly progressive in my sense of that word and all spoke quite frankly about their ideas).

The schools we visited were schools working with the Shanghai Normal College on reform. So far as I could tell at this point the only “progressive” aspect was an occasional attempt to create smaller groups (the average class size in China is about 50), and to encourage the use of “doing”, not just passive listening. The “doing” we saw was pretty rote too—e.g. everyone copying butterflies out of books. I don’t know what Chinese schools looked like in the old days, but they were pretty super-traditional in American terms. There was, however, some grouping in math classes, that reminded me of the USA. Kids were called on frequently, and stood and loudly and clearly explained or repeated answers. Teachers talked in loud voices, and there was a lot of choral responses, but they appeared orderly and cheerful. The schools we visited were on the more middle class side, and possibly even exam schools. It’s as hard in China to get straight answers to such questions (as I find it to be in NYC, and other major American school systems these days). The kids all wear red scarves denoting their membership in the Communist youth organization—the Pioneers.

We were told that conditions for schooling in the countryside was bleak, as few teachers wanted to go there and resources were limited in rural schools. There is, of course, an acute shortage of teachers. The government wants all kids to go to school from 1st through 9th grade. But since all schools also charge some fees, some kids don’t. We got differing estimates of the effect of the fee structure—some claiming anyone could afford them and some claiming otherwise. Aside from rural China, cities have substantial “migrant” populations—many of whom are “uncounted” because they are only semi-legal. I do not know exactly what that means, but apparently one should have permission to move from country villages to cities.

Since returning to the U.S. I realize there are literally articles every day on China, and many on Chinese schooling. So probably many of those reading this know as much as I now do.

General Impressions?

Of course, one also “knows” that all of this that we saw was part of a deceptive picture of the “whole.” Imagine a complete foreigner “generalizing” on America after three weeks visiting NYC and Washington D.C. with well-connected friends? And China, while the same “size” as the US has 4-5 times the population. We did not see almost anything about how the other 80-90% live, or feel the impact of tight censorship (in some realms), etc. We did notice that we couldn’t get Wikipedia! And that no western newspapers were sold, even in American-style hotels. On my return I read a piece in The Nation by Jahangir S. Pocha that reminded me of the appallingly low wages most Chinese get, and the price they pay if they object, protest, etc. But the only constraints we saw were mild, and reminded me mostly of what happens in the average school district meeting—where “dissenters” are quickly shushed.

On the whole the Chinese we met were remarkably open about their own views, their cynicism, etc. One woman we met talked about her experiences during the cultural revolution (she was born in 1956 and soon went with her professorial parents to the countryside). She even had some “nostalgia” about that experience. She is chilled, she said, by the absence of concern today for the poor, and the obliviousness to the growing income gaps. But otherwise, while cynicism was high we didn’t get much sense of “politics.” We spent one evening with a wealthy Chinese philanthropist (married to a Communist stock broker), who ran a foundation for the poor that provided food for several thousand poor students. She was intrigued by the “idea” of poor kids getting free breakfast or lunch in the USA. Nothing like that exists now in Communist China. It reaffirmed my amazed feeling about being in a so-called Communist Country that outdid the west in its materialistic and capitalist aspects—and the divide between rich and poor!

(We were frequently reminded that any external semblance to “representative” government was a sham. The Communist Party and bureaucrats ran everything—the latter two terms being used interchangeably.)

It was a startling experience, and one I shall never forget. I felt immensely and instantly embraced by many of the educators we met, and eager to stay in touch with them. There was a kind of naive (?) enthusiasm in many of their comments that touched me. Being treated so well has an effect—-leaving me with a sense of emotional connection that most trips I’ve taken have not.

But as we stood in the vast Tiennaman Square one evening, in front of the large picture of Mao, I thought back to 1989 with an immense sense of sorrow. Have I seen the future—and is this it? Or is this too a “phase” on the way to a more equitable society?

I might even go again.

© 2007 Deborah Meier

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