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Monday, September 16th: Peking to Suzhou.


Where are the roads?


Suzhou is a big city (pop. five million) 600 miles south of Peking on the eastern bulge of China, fifty miles west of Shanghai. We go there from Peking by gaotie, five hours and change.


Chiqian certainly got the directive. He has arranged for—and paid for—us to stay two nights at a special and very pricey hotel, the Garden. What’s special about it is, it was once a private estate belonging to Chiang Kai-shek. (Chiang was born about a hundred miles away in the next province.)


As well as the Chiangs, many later notables have stayed at the Garden, most notably Mao Tse-tung’s hand-picked successor (until he tried to stage a coup) Lin Biao, who loved the place. They actually keep Lin’s car in a garage here: a great behemoth of a thing, Red Flag marque, license plate E 11097, badly in need of some detailing.


Garden Hotel is a lovely place. In the lobby where we check in there is a little stage with, sitting on a stool and dressed in traditional costume, a very pretty young girl playing Chinese music on a pipa (Chinese lute). Oh, China.


Tuesday, September 17th: Peking to Suzhou.


Sightsmelling in Suzhou


Suzhou is famously beautiful. It is yoked with neighbor city Hangzhou in a famous old couplet: “Above there is the Hall of Heaven, below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou.” (It rhymes in Chinese.)


So there are a lot of tourists, including laowais, i.e. non-Chinese. We actually see a whole flock of laowais at the Netmaster’s Garden.


“Flock”? I wonder aloud whether there should be a collective noun for laowais, like “school” for fish or “gaggle” for geese.


Wednesday, September 18th: Suzhou.


The temple on Cold Mountain


One of the best-loved of China’s old poems is Zhang Ji’s “Night Mooring at Maple Bridge,” fully covered by me here.


As I describe, Maple Bridge is an actual place in Suzhou. I visited it in 2001 but omitted to get a photograph taken. Hoping to rectify this, I now head for the place; but it’s having some restoration work done and is out of bounds to visitors. Apparently the poetry gods don’t want me photographed at Maple Bridge.


The “temple on Cold Mountain” from which Zhang heard the midnight bell is open for business, though.


And business is definitely what they are open for. There are 1.4 billion Chinese, and every blessed one of them learned that poem in school. For the temple, it’s a gold mine. They have it carved on a big stone slab in one of the temple courtyards.


Having failed to get a photograph taken at the bridge, I thought the next best thing would be to have one taken with the poem, so to that courtyard we went.


There were a couple of hundred people there with the same idea. I got my picture at last, but it was a long wait.


Like everybody else we’ve met here, Chiqian is pretty content with things as they are. Most Chinese people aren’t any of those things either, though. Most shrug and get along as best they can.


Thursday, September 19th: Suzhou to Hangzhou.


Railroad station nightmares


Off this morning on the train to Hangzhou. The personal factor here is that one of Rosie’s college classmates, and so one of my students, now has a high position in the administration of a big STEM university there. She invited us to come and visit for a couple of days, staying at the college hotel, all expenses comped.


Our Hangzhou visit doesn’t start well. Hangzhou railroad station is about the size of Dallas, and not well signposted. We got totally lost on arrival, and it’s half an hour before we find our hostess, who has waited patiently for us with a college car and driver.


(Hangzhou isn’t exceptional here. At this point I’m having nightmares about Chinese railroad stations. I could swear we have clocked up more miles wandering around the damn places looking for the ticket office, information booth, restrooms, or exit than we have actually riding the trains.)


Language learning and mimicry


Our hostess’s duties include supervision of the university’s many foreign students. When we get there at last around 11 am she excuses herself: “I have to go expel a student.” Off she goes, leaving us to settle in to our room at the college hotel.


Later, over lunch with her, I ask her about the student she expelled. He was one of the internationals, from Morocco. His offense? “Marijuana. He was found in possession.” How did he get his hands on mary jane in China? “Brought it in with him.”


I lived in Africa. I knew multilingual Africans. While all of them seemed fluent, none could engage in the sort of conversations you and I have had together in any language. They could not read Robert Louis Stevenson. When your entire thought universe has a vocab of a couple thousand words, I think its easier to move into new languages … Japanese people judging a foreigner’s Japanese? Well. No one is ever going to criticize a foreigner’s Japanese.


A different friend, not a Japanese speaker but a race realist:


What West Africans tend to be good at is mimicry. A lot of black comedians work that. Mimicry will quickly get you some way into a language, but no further. Your pal in Japan is right: you won’t be reading novels.


That sounds right to me. The early stages of language learning are mostly mimicry. Our hostess in Hangzhou speaks excellent English; but before we got here I spent ten days among people who spoke only Chinese (not counting the Mrs, of course). Rosie tells me my Chinese has improved considerably these ten days.


A mutual acquaintance


Our hostess is a very busy lady. This afternoon, when she is showing us her office, two male international students come in with documents she has to sign—something to do with immigration. The students look Central Asian.


While the documents are being read, I ask the students in English where they are from.


He: “We are from Turkmenistan.”


Me: “Ah—Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov!”


The two students look at each other, giggle nervously, then turn away.


What is socialism?


When I first got interested in politics fifty-something years ago, I quickly learned the meaning of socialism. It was printed right there on every Labour Party membership card: “Public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.”


The ChiComs beg to differ. They have a big public campaign going on, with posters and displays all over, promoting the Twelve Principles of Socialism.


I saw a cute example of wenming promotion in a public convenience at one of the Peking parks. Set in the wall above the urinal was a card with the message: Qianjin—xiao bu; Wenming—da bu
“Advance—a small step; civility—a big step.” It’s a rough equivalent of the sign sometimes seen on American urinals: “We aim to please. You aim too, please.”

在北京的公园里,我看到了公共场所“文明”得到提升的有趣的例子。便池上方的墙上挂着一块小牌子,上面写着: “前进一小步,文明一大步。”这大致相当于有时在美国一些小便池上的标识:“我们的目标是取悦你,你要做的就是瞄准。”