I am in Beijing a week after the PLA parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of China’s war against Japan. On subway trains, the TV screens are beaming the visuals in a loop: soldiers marching down Changan Avenue, followed by tanks and missiles; little ones waving flags vigorously; President Xi Jinping inspecting the parade, deadpan expression firmly in place. I seem the only bored captive of these visuals. Other commuters are transfixed by their mobiles, checking mail, occasionally cracking a semi-smile (not a smiling lot, these people), watching movies, playing games. One standing man is trying to read a book but gives up, only to resume when he manages a seat.
Suddenly Old China intrudes. First I hear tinny music from a boombox. Soon enough, an old woman in a grey Mao suit, incongruous in the crush of well-clad, well-shod, mostly young Chinese, is going around begging. No one meets her eye, no one gives up a yuan. She moves on. The wailing music recedes.
On a Sunday, Tiananmen Square is a sea of picnickers. Old women in wheelchairs dutifully pushed by family members, a young mother shepherding her unruly twin boys, young men carrying handbags of their lady loves, apparently a sign of serious commitment in China.
A week later, I’m reading the board in front of the Summer Palace of Emperor Xuanzong’s favourite concubine, the lady Yang Guifei. Only the stately buildings remain; the innards were emptied out years ago. I read that “...this was also the site of the October incident”, and ask our guide. “Ah yes,” she says smoothly. “A leader of the Kuomintang....” She breaks off here and asks if I know the Kuomintang. I assure her that no, I do not—which is true, for I only know of them. Well, it seems one of their leaders (no names forthcoming, but I found out later it was Chiang Kai Shek himself) hid out here and made a dash for the Li Shan mountains looming to the rear of the palace. He was captured and sent to Taiwan, and the rest is, er, history.
I’m a good tourist and have read all the online advisories, alerting travellers to China’s crowds (true, but they don’t shove as much as we do in India, and they don’t grope at all), the abysmal state of public toilets (true, but at least there are quite a few, unlike in India), and that it would be better not to ask too many political questions.
So I stare expressionlessly at the giant portrait of Chairman Mao that adorns the entrance to Puyi’s palace complex in the Forbidden City. I nod impassively when I’m told the lettering on the mountainside hedging the magnificent Great Wall at Mutianyu is the First Chairman’s name, etched presumably for posterity. I look sympathetic when another guide, this time in Shanghai, tells me that Mao gets bad press occasionally (his exact words) but that the good in the great man far outweighs the bad.
In Xi’an, they are still talking about Prime Minister Narendra Modi—where he stayed, how the roads were closed off for his motorcade, how he is taking Indo-Chinese friendship forward. Our guide tells us with some satisfaction that Modi’s visit has encouraged quite an influx of Indian tourists. I don’t see any though, except for three on the Great Wall. One says he isn’t too impressed, and that anything China could do, India could do better.
We catch the 7,411th show of the incredible The Legend of Kung Fu, an 11 years and running ballet of Chinese wushu. I thrill to the storyline, which has much in common with Indian tearjerkers: a doting, suffering mother, a cocky young man giving in to a siren, earning his guru’s ire, a love song (and dance), tears and recriminations, subjugation of the ego and eventual mastery of his craft.
No more chowmein
In China, Chinese food is a revelation. It’s fibreoptic food: light on spices, light on the oil, light on the stomach. I eat everything: Peking duck of course; a soupy Malatang; beef with cumin and coriander: flat Biangbiang noodles; pork cooked a dozen different ways; bouza dumplings; the delectable jian bing, rice pancakes with vegetarian as well as meat fillings. And to wash it down, hot water lightly infused with tea, or a popular yoghurt drink. And I realise that once you have eaten this food, you will never touch a chowmein or gobi Manchurian again.
The Middle Kingdom continues to be opaque, but on the surface, the overarching impression is of a country where everyone has turned consumer with a vengeance, acquiring and consuming relentlessly, aspiring for the next iPhone, the next iPad, the sleekest Tesla cars. Is the First Chairman turning over and over in his grave, I wonder.
Across China, one saw young women with plastic sprigs of two leaves and a tiny flower atop their heads. It’s the latest accessory, pinned to the hair, and standing erect.
Sheila Kumar is a journalist, manuscript editor and writer based in Bangalore; E-mail your diarist: kumar.sheila [AT] gmail [DOT] com