Dear China: twenty days in China from Shenzhen/Beijing to Xi'an and back. 26 June-18 July 2023.
26 June, the air stopover in 深圳 (Shenzhen*). The spectacle of the boys spinning the PRC machine. Behind the scenes, the party and army directors, but it is the young people who make the gear. At customs my phone shows its limits and I am helped by the customs officers themselves.
26-30 June 北京， Orchid hotel. What was not known, finds us. At the reception desk, Gaby, namely Yin Tingli, 尹婷莉， tells me: Bao Chao, 宝钞 (the name of the 胡同o hutong, the alley where the hotel is located) means to have a cash treasure. And she points out: in paper, not in metal.
1-2 July: I walk about 10 km in the Chaoyang district, in the scorching heat, easy not to get lost in the big street. It is the almost straight spectacle of Chinese economic-financial power, with skyscrapers, they are all on the Internet. As can be said for others, today the Chinese also occupy their rightful place in the global world.
4th July. The Forbidden City: 紫禁城, Zijinchéng. Two hours of queuing, it's raining or drizzling, you enter by reservation but the organisation is a bit lame and luckily some young people speak enough English. Then more spectacle, that displayed wealth, refined, that the camera cannot fully render, art and wealth... statues, braziers, dragons and phoenixes, lions and turtles, in giant proportions, marble and bronze, the saying goes: eight hundred palaces, nine thousand nine hundred rooms... of the royal palaces, perhaps Versailles can remotely give an idea.
By the tens of thousands a day, here as in Xi'an (西安) or at the 长城 (Chángchéng, the Great Wall) - the Chinese, their families, circulate like a river. Perhaps more as curious tourists, but all, I believe, proud: that is, they share with me a sense of greatness and pride, felt by them, that lives on through thousands of years and unites the citizens of this nation. This is not rhetoric, this is something that circulates in the air and is in the minds.
I do not consider myself an expert for having read a couple of books. But the history of China, told as a history of different wars, ethnicities and dynasties, appears in some respects unitary, like the language, from before Christ (see some of Qin Shi's reforms), and is felt as such. Something similar to what (without political unity ensuing) Greek language and culture gave to the West, or even Arab-Islamic culture to a part of the Middle East: the culture of Middle-earth, as vast as the USA, this has brought to that side of Asia, Japan included (despite its considerable singularities). Buddhism took root there, and did so everywhere; Confucianism and Taoism, also felt as religions (but as - they all seem like philosophies to me) are ways of feeling-thinking. Beyond Islam.
5 July, 八达岭 (Badaling, Great Wall Courtyard Hotel). The motorway from Beijing leads here in a short time. Access to the Great Wall section is well maintained. On the outskirts of Beijing, NE, Yanqing district. Badaling means 'hill of the eight directions' because the wall branches out, but it is also referred to as the 'key (giving access, entrance) to all directions' or even the suggestive 北门锁钥，pinyin bei-men-suo-yuè or 'key to the North Gate', emphasising its strategic importance. I read that the stretch was built in 1505 (明, Ming dynasty，1368-1644) and was indeed of military importance. In the hotel, I find myself immersed in an atmosphere similar to that of the hinterland, as far as I heard about, with the two managers, she (I can't reconstruct all the characters of the name and I sketch the pinyin) Sen Ri hua, he 王晓飞，that is Wang Xiao fei (the owner is not on site, but she is in contact with me and speaks perfect English). They are a mature, helpful and polite Chinese couple, who use the voice translator well and give a very familiar feel to my days; on the other hand, the lobby is quite different from that of a usual hotel, the decor is very local, while the rooms and bathrooms are on three sides, equipped with TV, electrical sockets and wi-fi; solid wood prevails. She cooks very well. I get a breakfast that is a real lunch.
The climb up the Wall in the heat measures the limit of my possibilities. I pass Tower 8, give up immediately under Tower 12, also because I find the fork to go down. Is this perhaps the climb 'of the valiant man'? It is incredibly steep and I don't understand how horses could climb up and down it.
I think of how many times these defences, so laborious and costly to make (even in human lives), were overwhelmed. I think of the T'ang poets and the nagging defence of the North. I think that the very different histories of nations are similar.
7 July, on a fast train I arrive in Xi'an, the ancient capital. Gradually, looking and feeling, I seem to sense Confucius and perhaps Mozi (but also somehow Buddha). They are there, immersed in the bubbling of movement, in history, albeit in order to take the measure, to be able to live the good life. Minus Lao-Tze: so similar to Parmenides, he seems to think in absolute being and nothingness. If he truly theorises non-acting, how do we welcome his thought here today? Everything here seems to be action and movement. Yet he is present - one does not see him. Just as one does not see inner China, that of the hinterland outside the cities, which begins, I think, just outside Beijing, and goes through the valleys and countryside, up the mountains.
The frequency of public latrines, compared to our streets, is extreme. It is not only in the Chaoyang district, which in fact is westernised, at least in its spectacular part. Elsewhere, I find them everywhere. Is this one aspect of a culture that thinks differently about the body and its functions, without removing certain aspects of it because they are 'indecent'?
At the He-Designer Hotel I am greeted by a very young receptionist. She is paired with another, who will greet me on the last day, accompanying me to the taxi. I mention all the staff, for the same reason, and in particular these two, because they seem remarkable to me, despite being busy always ready to listen and help, perhaps making good use - like everyone else - of the voice translator.
8 July: suddenly, I decide: - we go now. Despite the fact that Saturday and Sunday are not recommended, I go to 兵马俑，or bing-ma-yong, the place of warrior images and horses! So I grab my purse and camera to give myself this gift, but as soon as I hit the street, Murphy's law strikes: the precious photo camera falls and breaks down - okay, I go ahead. I ride the underground to the terminus which is near the bing ma yong but, of course, there I find an ambush of taxi drivers: the price of the short trip to the terracotta army is imposed by them. I had to get off one stop early and look for the first available taxi.
"Images of warriors and horses". Animals no less than men participate and risk in the enterprise of war. I do not describe, it is indescribable. On the way back, a friendly driver takes me to a metro stop.
In all this, I seem to see a bit of myself.
The first emperor of China 秦始皇, in pinyin Qin Shi Huang (249-210 BC.) is a legendary figure but he really existed. A father of Chinese history such as 司马迁，Sima Qian, who lived in the 2nd century BC, although he is biased 汉 (Han: the Han defeated the Qin and replaced them - in 208 BC, a few years after the death of the First Emperor), the opposing party, also reports his words. Historians still debate the extent of the Qin empire and its reforms, so it is not just a question of military success. The unification of the empire made China the most powerful state in the world at the time. It was an example of absolutism, that much is not in doubt. But reforms were made in a direction that influenced perhaps millennia.
I associate (in Hotel) the images of a 20th century european historian and historian Sima Qian reading about the first emperor of China.
The (interdisciplinary) historian Huizinga counts war among the forms of play and I wonder what he means by play. Play is not only shared rules, loyalty, as he says at the beginning. But I do believe that dark aspects of the human soul, dangerous, terrible, are present in play. He himself suspects this (he says so at the end). The rules, I say, are not always shared except with reservation. On the contrary: those who break the rules often surprise the enemy and win, following the demonic aspect (so Huizinga) of the game. I ask: is this, too, part of culture? Perhaps it is. And so the great things achieved by man, by empires, how do they relate to what we call evil? I recognise that the question is loosely posed, but here I am only sharing travel notes.
In front of the astonishment that I, like everyone else, felt in Xi'an, in front of the thousands of soldiers of the Terracotta Army, one understands that mysterious, threatening, sinister motives were in the personality of this man, the first emperor, as in all of us, only he had strength and power more than anyone else. How many enemies did he have to kill to assert himself? It was an enormous massacre; without him, perhaps, it would have been the same. So for Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon...
'There are in the game' the killing of prisoners, the heinous violence on the defenceless, the torture (a setting of the otherwise glorious fort of Gwalior in India comes to mind; I think of our Inquisition), in all times, death procured with cruelty. Human sacrifices: I think of the Iphigenia episode. All this is in the game. How many things do we call play? If the child who plays helplessly cannot be said to be good but innocent, the adult who plays armed and disposes of the lives of others, what should we call him?
Furthermore, Qin Shi thought that life should somehow continue or awaken after death, and futilely cultivated the magical arts and had magicians at his court. Even in death, he devised such a trap that archaeologists still do not dare open his grave, for fear of the consequences. Sima Qian described the wonders and pitfalls in that city of the dead, which we have yet to see, while he does not mention the Terracotta Army.
10-13 July: due to organisational uncertainty and discomfort resulting from the great heat (serious perception!), later relieved by rain, I unfortunately lost a few days. I recommend, for those visiting Xi'an, to inquire well about local restaurants and food.
On 14 July, returning by train to Beijing from Xi'an, I benefit from a favourable conjunction (on a fast train, the phone starts working) and finally contact 殷晓媛，the poet Yin Xiaoyuan. She responds promptly, acts and behaves like a friend she has known forever. With the simplicity that results from her extreme refinement, she gives me an appointmant for the next day (the only one I had available) in a glittering shopping mall in downtown Beijing, the elegant ThèATRE, for a cup of tea and a first acquaintance; she hands me her gifts, including her latest book of poetry, Cloud Seeding Agent, which, obviously thought of in her mother tongue, is written by her in English. Poetry is hardly spoken of. So, despite the fact that she, like me, suffers from the great heat, we go to North Sea Park, whose existence I did not even suspect, and, besides chatting and taking photos, we admire the water lilies, the pagoda, the lake, the movement, the 9 dragons wall ... she uses today's devices perfectly, I see, I see, but each of her actions tells me something very ancient: 'I am available to the foreign guest who comes from afar, whom I have never seen, as a friend'. So he walks me to the metro stop, and says goodbye - it's two and a half hours later. He then sends me the photos in wechat and publishes them on facebook soon afterwards... with a series of likes from half the world. Thank you, and I hope to see you soon, Yin Xiaoyuan, perhaps in Italy.
From the hotels in Beijing (the reception of the Orchid, where I stayed no less than three times), Badaling (30.6-2.7) and Xi'an (E-Designer Hotel, where with both hands they brought me the gift of greetings), to the employees of China Unicom, to Yin Xiaoyuan, prodigious multilingual poet, at the reception of the luxurious hotel of the last day, the Cordis at Terminal 3 of Capital Airport; to the hostesses of Hainan Airlines, to the employees of the airports, railways and subways, to the customs. Most of them were young, small in age, very efficient in their work but also ready to help the guest, with obvious reflections of a welcoming thought. Isn't this always the case? Exceptions are everywhere, you just need to know that. But a series of small but bright spots have lit up these days.
*All characters in Hanyu, or Chinese, are in pinyin, the system used to render sound in our alphabet.
See the images in "Gallery".