By Matt Cutugno
Matt Cutugno - Nanjing
Rudyard Kipling famously wrote, “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet…” That was well over 100 years ago and times certainly have changed, as I believe the twain has long since met.
How small the world is now. The great nation of China, Zhōngguó, is changing every day, both from within by its own (albeit slow moving) reforms and under the influence of the rest of the world. But influence is a deep current that runs in two directions.
I’m thinking of ways in which we influence China, what they get from us. The most obvious thing (aside from high-minded ideals of Freedom) is pop culture. Sitting in front of my TV here in Nanjing, I watch what surely seems like American-inspired programming and commercials. Stupid game shows? Got ‘em. Mindless reality television? Of course. Endless advertisements for drugs and medicines we may or may not need? Check.
I also watch extensive coverage of the NBA (American basketball) and its Eastern reflection, the CBA – the Chinese Basketball Association. Is it possible that lán qiú – hoops – can contribute to world peace? I’m not sure of that, but as I observe Chinese players fist bump and chest pound each other, I see that they think a lot of themselves, just like our own celebrity, millionaire hoopsters.
Our American institution of fast food is solidly established in China, much to my chagrin. I passed a KFC on Jiangjun Dadao (avenue) the other day and it was nearly full of patrons. I noted too that it was open 24-hours a day (as if it was located in Times Square, New York), offering high calorie/low nutrition meals into the wee hours. I can now predict the use of the word pàng (fat) occurring with more regularity in conversational Chinese.
Conversely, a question must be asked: Is China specifically and Asia in general influencing the West and America? I think the answer is certainly “yes.” There are the negatives – who can forget the not-long-past news of poisonous dog food coming from the East, and unsafe toys and even hazardous medicines? We couldn’t help but be concerned by stories out of China about “tofu” building practices where construction is done with substandard materials.
But all is not dark clouds. I recently attended an event in Hong Kong – it was a gathering of students from a top prep school in the U.S., all of who were from China. What an impressive class of bright, articulate and well-spoken kids. Mostly from Hong Kong, they also hailed from Wuhan, Nanjing and Beijing on the mainland.
They were Chinese, but they spoke English like real American kids. In conversing with some of them, they even expressed the idea that they now considered English to be their first language. Others hoped to live and work in Mei Guo, America, when they finished their schooling.
So, in a manner of speaking, we send China super-sized chicken sandwiches and they send us a fine, new generation of Americans.
The Sword of Nanjing
Nanjing is China’s most storied city. It is situated near the flow of the great Yangtze as the river winds its way 250 km to Shanghai and the East Sea. The city was the site of capitols of dynastic kingdoms and ancient intrigue, and its high stone walls, the longest intact stretch of such protection left in the world, snake their way past modern skyscrapers and bustling street markets.
Lantern Festival Float of America, Nanjing
It is the final resting place of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic, and his tomb in the fabled Purple Mountain is a top tourist attraction. When Mao Zedong’s forces chased the government of the Kuomintang from Nanjing in 1949, the vanquished followers of Chiang Kai-shek sought to remove the tomb and take it with them. There wasn’t enough time and Taiwan’s loss remains Nanjing’s gain.
The mausoleum of Hong Wu, the founder of the great Ming Dynasty, is also in the city, and an impressive site it is. It is said that the Emperor had prearranged several funeral processions, each heading in a different direction, so that enemies and potential robbers would not know where he was buried.
One of my favorite spots in the city is Xuanwu Hu (lake), an ancient waterway that still retains much of its original natural beauty. Stands of bamboo and wild flowers are abundant as are majestic willows. Taking a boat ride in the lake’s center, surrounded by the modern city in the distance, is like floating in suspended time.
All this is by way of noting Nanjing’s importance to the history of China. But history illuminates the past, and if that were Nanjing’s only function, it wouldn’t be the special city it is. It is very modern, and a recent article in the New York Times paints a portrait of the city (with its vibrant and progressive business and art communities) as nothing less than the new face of China.
Indeed I have had the opportunity in recent weeks to get to know several students who have been raised and educated in this impressive city. Each one tells a story of pride in the city’s past, but also, more importantly, its hope for a brighter future.
“We respect Sun Yat-sen more than Chairman Mao, we want freedom,” one young man frankly told me. Another student, a smart woman who will be attending college in Beijing, noted how aware she and her friends are of staged news stories of happy Chinese grateful to their government for looking after their best interests.
“China is free only to those who stay within the box they create for us,” she offered. I was surprised at her candor. I have spent a good deal of time in other Chinese cities and have mostly heard talk parroting the party line, even among the young. It’s a nationalism that represents an “us against the world attitude” that in my opinion does not best serve the interests of the admirable Chinese people.
Perhaps these voices from Nanjing are calling to their fellow citizens (and to us in the West) from a future place, a new China.