In July 2007 I wrote that the Chinese “great awakening”
might be apprehended as a mirror of Western society and a unique opportunity to see ourselves in a new light. There are perhaps as many ways to tell a story as their are stories to tell. But for those who listen and observe, the Chinese awakening is a catalog of new forms by which to measure our own sense of accountability.
This summer Françoise and I will travel to China to meet Katie and her travel companion, Pauline on their return trip from Sydney. Katie and Pauline arrive in Beijing on the 8th. From there we will travel to Pingyao, Xi’an, Suzhou and Shanghai spending two-plus weeks in China. We return to Aix via Moscow and Paris on the 22nd of August.
In the three years since I wrote that entry, China has emerged as a world power. 300 million people have been lifted out of poverty and a vast middle class has emerged. China hosted a dazzling media event, the 2008 summer Olympics and is hosting the 2010 Shanghai Exposition, a world’s fair on par with anything the West ever organized. And yet, desertification continues in China’s far west, torrential rains and flooding dog Hubei province and the mid-Yangtse, and coal remains the fuel of necessity.
The image we in the West hold of China is that of a proud country in a rush to claim its place in the comity of nations. This is inevitably only a small part of the story and undoubtedly the story told by well-meaning and thoughtful men and women, news and assignment editors who decide which stories will get underwritten and published.
We all live in an attention economy where the rule is that “change originates beyond the pale of consciousness”. In visiting China we will meet Chinese people from all walks of life. We will sample the infinitude of spaces in which the Chinese live and move and we will get a glimpse the magnitude of their national project. But it will be a challenge to reconcile the tourism imperative–buildings, monuments, museums, landscapes, temples, mausoleums and parks–with the spontaneous exploration of people, places and community enterprise.
But even these obey the laws of the attention economy in a material marketplace, where the question “whence my next meal” trumps poetry, and where the ruckus of public life is but an note in a natural harmonic scale.