Relax. Take a moment to think about what you know about China. How do you know it? Who taught you? Why?
While living in China, I was often asked these questions. People wanted to know what people in the United States are taught about China. They wanted to know what interests us in China and what kind of relationship we want with China. I had a difficult time answering because I really couldn’t remember being taught anything about China. I had images of dragons, rice, and a big wall, but I probably learned more about China from shopping trips to Wal-Mart and Chinese restaurants than I did in school. Though connections to China were all around me, it was an unknown, mysterious place.
As a child, I actually tried to dig to China. Though this method of travel did not prove effective, I managed to make quite a deep hole in my parents’ backyard, which is still there. Twelve years later I started studying Mandarin Chinese in college, and 15 years later I moved to Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province. I taught English in Hunan University Graduate School from September 2002 through July 2004. I also studied Chinese at the university and passed the Chinese government-sponsored Chinese language exam, the HSK.
In total, I have spent 21 months in China. I worked in Changsha for 17 months, during which time I visited many cities in Hunan province including Yueyang, Hengshan, Shaoshan, Feng-huang, and Zhangjiajie. I spent the other four months traveling. At the risk of including too much detail, here is an almost complete list of the places I visited: Guilin, Yangshuo, and Sanjiang in Guangxi Autonomous Region; Liping, Kaili, Guiyang, and Anshun in Guizhou province; Yichang, Wuhan, the Three Gorges, and the Shennongjia region in Hubei province; Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, the Tiger Leaping Gorge, and Lugu Lake in Yunnan province; Xian in Shaanxi province; Lanzhou and Linxia in Gansu province; Haikou, Sanya, and Lingshui in Hainan province; and the municipalities of Chongching, Beijing, and Shanghai.
While in China, I learned from conversations with my students, friends, and strangers as well as from my own observations of the society around me. Sometimes, what I learned in this way differed from what I have learned about China from history books and official media sources. In this article, it is my intention to share what I learned by observation. I believe there is validity and importance in the kind of learning that comes from daily life and talking to common people. I do not consider my observations inaccurate just because they do not all line up with everything that I have read about China in books. However, they are not meant to be broad generalizations. China is a vast and diverse society of which I have experienced only a small sliver. I do not mean to speak about all of China or to speak for the Chinese people; I intend merely to be true to my own individual experiences. Even after two years living there, I still can’t say what I expected to find at the end of my tunnel to China; but I would like to share with you a few things that I definitely didn’t expect.
I didn’t know that China was such an ethnically diverse nation. Officially, there are 56 different minority groups in China. That number lumps together some groups that consider themselves distinct but which the Chinese government considers the same, and it does not include immigrants. My daily life was spent mostly with Han Chinese (the majority), but I traveled to visit the Miao, Dong, Naxi, Mosuo, Yi, Bai, Hui, and Tujia minorities in the Dong Autonomous Region in Guangxi and Guizhou; the Miao Autonomous Regions in Hunan and Guizhou; the Tujia Autonomous Region in Hunan; and other Tujia villages in Hubei, the Bai Autono-mous Region, the Naxi Autonomous Region in Yunnan, and the Hui Autono-mous Region in Gansu. In Yunan I also visited the Yi and the Mosuo minorities.
Minority groups in China are afforded some legal protections. They are allowed to have more than one child, as long as they don’t move to a big city. They are guaranteed representation in the People’s Congress. Many of the areas where they live are called "autonomous regions"; that means that they have control over the region’s government and can shape the laws to fit their own culture as long as they follow the policies of the party and federal law. The autonomous regions, put together, total a bigger area than the rest of China. In other words, the minority groups together hold a larger territory than the Han Chinese. At the moment, the government is pushing to develop the west of China, which means developing the minority regions. This will bring greater wealth and better education to the minorities, but the policies also encourage Han Chinese to move there, which will increase Han control over the areas.
My students were convinced that racial and ethnic discrimination did not happen in China. After all, they asked me, how could we have racism when we are all Chinese?
My observations suggested otherwise. Aside from the obvious discrimination, both positive and negative, that my friends and I experienced as foreigners and people of other races, there was clearly prejudice against the minorities. For one thing, they were always spoken of as "the minorities" and rarely recognized as distinct groups. In one class, I discovered that I could list more names of different minority groups than 20 Chinese PhD students could. The minority people who I knew requested that I keep their ethnicity a secret, but didn’t explain why that was important. Only once did I have a student who openly admitted being from a minority. The majority of the beggars who I saw on the streets were wearing traditional minority clothing.
When I started planning to travel to the autonomous regions, I was often advised against it. I was warned that they were chaotic places with little economic development and uncivilized people. It seemed to be a common belief that it wasn’t safe to travel there. My Chinese female friends were afraid of traveling there alone. Once I ended up in tears in a travel agency in Lanzhou, Gansu, because the agents refused to sell me a ticket to the Hui Autonomous region, which is also in Gansu, because they felt it was too dangerous to travel there alone. I went anyway. While there, I became desperately ill. The man who owned the hotel where I was staying cared for me like a daughter.
Instead of being in danger as the Han warned, I was received warmly in each of the minority areas.
I discussed race and ethnicity with all of the students who took my class, a total of about 500 over two years. My students came from all over China and from a variety of economic backgrounds, but almost all were Han Chinese. Usually we talked about it in a U.S. context because my contract stipulated that I could not discuss politics with my students; but I usually managed to slip in the parallels that I saw in China and ask them what they thought. One reply has stayed with me. The responder said that there was discrimination and prejudice in China, but not along the lines that I saw. He felt that people who were wealthier were treated better and respected more in general, and that poor Han Chinese were treated just as badly as the minority groups. This has reminded me to keep in mind my own biases as I learn about a new culture. Perhaps I define the tensions I saw as ethnic tensions because I grew up in a society with many conflicts over race and ethnicity, so I was looking to see conflict in that way. Either way, there was a great deal more diversity in China than I expected to find.
Another thing that I didn’t know before I went to China is that Islam is a major religion in China. I read a Chinese government publication on religion in China today, which said that Islam has the highest number of actively practicing believers of any religion in China. My students disagreed with this information, claiming that Buddhism was the largest. Though I saw many people praying at the temples that I visited, none of my students knew any Buddhists personally and all of them knew at least one Muslim. Most likely, they knew the same Muslims that I did. There were several local families who had immigrated from Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces and ran excellent local restaurants. Like most of the Chinese Muslims that I met, they were not Han Chinese, but members of the Hui minority. Both their head coverings and their lighter skin made them stand out in the community. The restaurants were popular with foreign students and teachers because the Hui treated foreign strangers warmly and equally. In contrast, the Han often made a strong distinction between Chinese and non-Chinese, especially when dealing with strangers. Inspired by my friendship with Sophia, who ran one of these restaurants, I read the Qur’an and visited the local mosque with my neighbors, who were from Iran, Yemen, and Egypt. The community of Muslims around me was an essential part of my spiritual life in China. Whether or not Islam is actually the largest religion, the number of Muslims in China is a small percentage of the population.
Chinese people are permitted to choose a religion, and they are permitted to practice it in government-approved locations in accordance with government regulations. Only members of the Communist Party are not permitted to have a religion. The church that I attended was always full and no one seemed at all worried about being there. On holidays, so many people attended the services that police were present to control the crowds. They did not interfere in the service in any way. The church itself was undergoing a complete renovation due to 1,000,000 yuan that the government paid the church as reparations for the surrounding land and hospital, which had been seized when the Com-munists came to power. The local mosque was also given government money for renovations. The churches, temples, and mosques that I visited all seemed to be thriving, but it was rare to hear people talking about religion or exhibiting religious behavior outside of them. Almost all of the people who I talked to had no religion and all agreed that most Chinese people did not have a religion.
I only talked to one of my classes, about 25 students, about religion directly because it was a violation of my contract to do so. This class asked me specifically to talk with them about religion. They wanted to know how I could believe in God when everyone knew God didn’t exist. None of the students in the class had a religion, and almost none of their parents did; but their grandparents had all been Buddhist or Christian. They said that they thought that religion was a good way of helping people with difficult lives or emotional difficulties. A couple of them believed in God, and they all agreed that it was important to teach people morals and ethics.
I found that the people I met assumed that I was Christian. While traveling in Guizhou province, I sat next to an elderly man on a bus who tenderly pulled his Bible out of his coat and excitedly talked to me about Christianity. I found myself constantly explaining that not all people from the United States are Christian, but I didn’t have the heart to tell this man because he was so passionate about it. Chinese people, especially Chinese Christians, seemed happy to meet and welcome Christians. However, in general I encountered a negative attitude toward people who come to China to convert people to Christianity. Many of these people come saying they will teach English but actually intending to teach the Bible. Teaching about Jesus instead of teaching English is a violation of contract, and proselytizing by foreigners is illegal in general. It also doesn’t seem to be effective. Instead of becoming Christian, most of the students become irritated and resentful of teachers who are not teaching them what they want to learn.
In my conversations with English teachers who came to teach the Bible, and with Chinese people who had encountered them, I realized several things. For one thing, missionaries should have training. It is probably not a good idea to get on a plane and fly to a foreign country in a surge of religious conviction without first carefully reading the Bible. It is probably also not a good idea to try to convert people with little or no experience with religion, in a country where it is not encouraged, without having the skills needed to help people with the emotional and social effects of conversion. It is not a good idea to take people to illegal gatherings in your home instead of a legal church. It is also not a good idea to show up, excite people about Jesus, and then leave in a month.
I did meet one foreign man who I felt was doing excellent work as a missionary in China. He was a Catholic priest. He had lived in the city for years and intends to continue living there. He did not talk about religion in his English classes. He taught English. He did not start his own illegal church or try to bully people into believing. Instead, he was a regular attender of the local Catholic Church and he brought interested people there to see what it was like and to talk to the Chinese priests. I myself was so impressed with the two Chinese priests in this church that I took communion and wept at the Christmas Mass last year. Both men are over 80 years old, and both spent over 20 years in punitive workcamps for refusing to renounce their faith. The strength of their conviction made mass a ritual that even an unprogrammed Friend couldn’t help but admire.
Near the end of my time in China, I was sitting on a balcony with a couple of friends. All of a sudden one said, "I believe in God." Everyone went completely silent, and even I stared at her. I was absolutely shocked because I had never heard anyone say something so strongly religious so publicly. She explained that she had gone through a divorce and was finding that she wasn’t going to be able to remarry. Though she left her husband for reasons that even the most conservative would agree were valid, all of the men she met told her they wouldn’t consider marrying a divorced woman. She found little support from the people around her, but she found herself being supported from within. She realized that she believed in God and that it was God who supported her. It was a reminder to me that, with or without being taught about religion, with or without overzealous or untrained missionaries, people everywhere respond to their own Inner Light and spirit. Whether professing a religion or not, the people around me in China often amazed me with their spirituality.
I can’t remember if this woman had become a Christian, but another woman there was a Christian. She said that what had attracted her to Christianity was the idea that we should really love everyone, even the people we didn’t know. Everyone there agreed that the interactions between strangers in China were very distant. This coldness and competition was also one of the most difficult parts of Chinese society for me to adjust to, and certainly something I didn’t expect to see in a communist country.
While waiting to buy train tickets in a line hours long, I was amazed that no one said anything to the people who would walk to the front of the line, push people out of the way, and buy a ticket. When my wallet was stolen on a bus, I was amazed that no one told me it was happening. When I ended up on foot at the scene of a terrible bus accident and started giving basic first aid to the victims, I also ended up on the news. Not only did I rarely see Chinese people give money to beggars, they often tried to stop me from giving, saying that these people were only lazy and that they would not be poor if they didn’t want to be.
A young Chinese man came up to me in the airport one day, panicked because he did not have the 50-yuan airport tax that he needed to get on his connecting flight. He had just returned from studying in New Zealand and had only New Zealand money, which he couldn’t change in that part of the airport. He had asked some other Chinese people for help, but no one would help him. He asked me for help on the off chance that I was from New Zealand. I would have just given him the 50 yuan, but he insisted on giving me New Zealand dollars in exchange. I didn’t even know the correct exchange rate, but I later discovered that he had given me the correct amount. He said that if I hadn’t helped him, he would have been stuck in the airport and would have lost his ticket for the last leg of his journey home because he was convinced that no Chinese person would have believed his story was true.
Whatever the situation, people didn’t seem to stop and help other people. My students explained that people did not get involved because they either suspected that the person asking for help was just trying to trick them, or were afraid of the consequences that they might face if their own involvement was misrepresented. They said that government broadcasts on the television and radio discouraged them from giving money to beggars. Though I did not expect to hear this kind of attitude in China, it was not new to me. I have also heard and seen this attitude many times in the United States.
In contrast, I was happy to find that the relationship between people who knew each other was much closer than it is in the United States. My closest friends in China, who were all Han Chinese, offered me a welcome and a loyalty that I