Politics & Policy

Between the Middle Kingdom and the Land of Snows: Part III

A mountain named Everest, the eating of bitterness, and an ironical chuckle at the Chairman's expense.

Editor’s Note: This is Part III of a five-part series relating the author’s travels in China and Tibet. For Parts I and II, go here and here.

‐ China’s family-planning policy is alive and well, I can report. (I say “family-planning” instead of “one-child” because minorities, such as Tibetans, are generously permitted two children.) One of the striking things about rural China is the endless “family-planning” propaganda you see scribbled on walls and buildings. Usually it is spraypainted in crude red characters. But at the head of the only street in Manigango, a Tibetan town in Sichuan Province, I find a large tile mosaic with the following words in Chinese (and, I assume, Tibetan, though I cannot read that language): “Control the population’s size; raise the population’s quality.” (The Chinese, let it be noted, have a mildly fascistic tendency to assign whole peoples an overall “quality.”) In the mosaic, three high-quality persons are depicted dancing with their pet yak.

The curious may see this mosaic here.

This is Chinese family planning at its mildest. It gets rather less jolly than hortatory mosaics, I’m afraid. Those who violate the policy must pay a fine often equivalent to a year’s salary. And several years ago in Haba, a town in Yunnan Province populated mainly by people of the Naxi ethnicity, I saw a “family-planning services” van that was quite clearly an AbortionMobile.

‐ There is a Chinese expression I like: “to eat bitterness.” When you are doing something especially onerous, you are said to be eating bitterness. And there are no people on earth who can eat bitterness like the Chinese can. I marvel at their work ethic — from college students who spend every waking moment in the library or the lab, to road crews in Tibet that do backbreaking labor in a clime scarcely of this earth.

I meet many, many road workers while trekking to Mt. Everest. Now I am a reasonably hearty fellow; I’m happy to sleep in tents, break a sweat, eat lousy food, and suffer generally — at least for a while, and for the right reward. But I cannot imagine living as these workers do. They are, most of them, hundreds of kilometers from home, sleeping in filthy makeshift tents, and toiling each day for as long as the sun is up. They do not rest on weekends or holidays. The quasi-nomadic conditions of rural Tibet are almost unbearably harsh: You freeze at night, the sun burns your skin to a crisp during the day, instant noodles are the finest dining to be had, you are always dehydrated, and the elevation produces severe fatigue until you acclimatize (which you may not do quickly).

But the workers are, most of them, highly chipper, and simply grateful to have a job. (I say this on the basis of long conversations with many of them, mainly while hitching rides in their tractors and trucks.) They are true monuments to Stoic virtue. Having seen them in action, I am able to imagine their Cantonese forbears blasting tunnels through the Sierra Nevada, and I am not without gratitude.

‐ They are also gentlemen. After hitching a ride with one crew, I begin to carry our bags to the monastery guesthouse where we will spend the night. My traveling companion — a woman — tries to help, but the workers insist on carrying her bags themselves.

‐ There is an unusually dense concentration of such workers near Mt. Everest right now. Why? Because the Chinese have decided to pave the dirt road leading to its north base camp. Why? Because they are going to have a climber “run” the Olympic torch over its summit. This strikes me as risky. The climber could, you know, die — falling down a crevasse, suffocating under an avalanche, freezing in a hurricane-force storm at 28,000 feet. On the other hand, perhaps the authorities could arrest everyone who knew the bad news before it spread.

‐ English has a word for describing Mt. Everest’s north face, and it is “wow.” The Nepalese side doesn’t look impressive, at least in the photographs I’ve seen. And the standard route is not a technically challenging climb (though it does require great physical stamina). But the north face — the Tibetan side — is an ice-covered cliff with a vertical relief of some 10,000 feet. You see it and feel it would like nothing so much as to kill you. That feeling is heightened by the total absence of naturally occurring life in its vicinity — no trees, no grass, no lichen, nothing. (Too high and too dry.) It possesses the most austere beauty I have ever seen.

‐ As I walk through one work camp on the way to Mt. Everest, I am welcomed into a tent. At its front flap, a Tibetan man offers me a bottle of ice-cold water. (Many of the road crews are mixed, Chinese and Tibetan.) “How much do I owe you?” I ask in Chinese. “It’s free,” he says — and then with a smile: “Serve the people.”

“Serve the people” is of course Mao’s most famous slogan. (Not a very clever one, either, I’m afraid.) It was the slogan printed on the messenger bag that got poor Cameron Diaz into so much trouble when she visited Peru recently. Unlike Ms. Diaz, my Tibetan host knows whereof he speaks, and means the slogan as a double irony: I am certainly not “the people,” according to Mao’s definition, and neither is he.

‐ In Dege, a highly isolated Tibetan town in Sichuan Province, I find myself hanging out in a Chinese police booth with the Tibetan officer there stationed. On his wall are two photographs: one of Mao Tse-tung, the other of an incarnate lama I cannot identify. I smile at the irony — unintended, this time — and at the horror Mao would feel upon seeing this juxtaposition (as also upon knowing that thousands of shrines across Tibet are festooned with banknotes bearing his image). I have no settled views on the afterlife, but I certainly hope Mao is alive and alert somewhere, horrified in this and other ways. (Have I mentioned the Buddhist hells?)

With that, we recess until tomorrow’s thundering damnations, which include: cities without souls, Shanghai with sleaze.

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