Impressions of China


The China Tour was a milestone for the PSO. It has had some impressive musical successes lately and is becoming a force in the symphony world. The concerts we played and the goodwill and connections we made were important. Audiences were enthusiastic and I believe our rather unknown orchestra made a mark in Asia. The 1st 10 days and 5 concerts were spent in Shanghai, Hefei, Wuxi, Chongqing and Beijing but the purposes of this report is not to relate those fine musical experiences but to talk about my feelings about this exotic and ancient country and civilization. As a serious student of history and a frequent foreign traveler I am intrigued by other cultures. I have traveled many times to Japan, once to Korea and once to (nearby) Australia. Like many Americans I believe I have strong layman’s understanding of European culture and history but Asia (and particularly China) is much more vague to me. I wanted to get a first hand understanding of China and to get a real perspective on it relative to my other travels and reading. In the last few weeks before the trip I had listened to a thorough history of China on audio books while driving to PSO services. While a rushed reading, it did give me a historical framework to help me understand China and its people.

Oriental cultures are SO DIFFERENT from western cultures! We in America are drenched in negative stereotypes about Asians. When I was boy I read several volumes of a standard history series that my father had in our home—probably written in the early 20th century. The chapters on China reflected on it’s long and complex history but stressed the negative things that Americans felt about the Chinese. We thought of them as backward, poor, coolies from the dregs of the world. (honestly, many Americans thought of all minorities with disdain — starting with the unfortunate saga of black slavery). This was certainly a commonly held belief likely based on the real downturn in Chinese political history in the 19th and 20th centuries.
This was due to the colonial period dominated by the European powers, the refusal of China to westernize, the decadence of the final Manchu years, the democratic and communist revolutions and the horror of the 2nd World War.

But before all of that misfortune China had the longest lived civilization in world history. And I do mean “civilization”. While almost unknown in the west it had established educational, governmental, religious and social institutions that were centuries ahead and beyond Egypt, Greece and Rome. It also structured society along Confucian ideas and later Buddhist ethics. It was still a feudal class driven culture as all early civilizations have been. The Maoist Era tore down most of the walls in society with brutal efficiency. The old people still have memories of difficult lives. With his death the
Communist government slowly brought managed capitalism on a monumental scale. So for 40 years they have let business prosper and have a long view of positive change. Their system is far from democracy but they have identified that 1.4 billion people have to rise out of poverty and to do this they have quickly invested in amazing infrastructure. But a minority still makes the decisions.

Like anyone in this digital/televised world, we know that China has made huge strides—often with unfair monetary and trade policies— and the one that bothers me the most, stealing intellectual property. But they have raised the people out of poverty to world-class status in an unprecedentedly short time. I remember my 1st trip to Japan in 1985. I was amazed at the modern buildings, the electric glass doors, parking elevators, bullet trains and the quality of just about everything. Some of them took years to come to America.

But seeing China first hand was even more dramatic to me. The number of people is astounding. Seeing the thousands of 30-40 story modern apartment buildings is hard to fathom—forests of them! My brother Joe was there 10 years ago and was amazed at the millions of bicycles everywhere. Now most seem to have cars and millions of electric motor scooters (which are dangerous to pedestrians).

Besides the cities we visited on the symphony tour we did tourist things in Beijing, Xi’an, Guilin and Hong Kong. Everyone of those cities are larger than LA—some several times larger. The traffic everywhere was horrendous. I will never complain about LA traffic again. That sudden growth in cars, trucks, and the construction of highways, buildings, factories has given much of the country the worst smog in the world. At times it was worse than I ever remember it being in Southern California. Several days during the orchestra tour it was almost sickening. We needed masks and our eyes burned. But to our good fortune and a little rain the tourist days were much better. China, to its credit, has made a serious commitment to cleaning the environment, will outlaw coal by 2030 and has mandated that electric vehicles and solar will prevail very quickly. We showed them how in Southern California. But a whole generation of people will suffer and maybe die in the meantime. Their command economy plans for the long run, not for the quarterly profits that rule the US economy.

The highways, train stations and airports are enormous, efficient and modern. Actually they are amazing and busy places. Many, many people have money enough for travel, leisure, entertainment, shopping and for restaurants. We took several flights and train rides on this trip. They were all clean, fast and modern. One bullet train from Guilin to Shenzhen went through at least 25 tunnels. In the painfully slow attempt to make America’s 1st bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco the planners and politicians can’t decide whether or not to make just one tunnel north of LA. A nation as big
empty as ours should have had high speed rail everywhere by now— the Asians and Europeans make it look easy!

Our private tour guides were wonderful in explaining the immensely old history of the Chinese people and art from prehistory to the present. It’s hard to fathom the Great Wall, Forbidden City, massive buildings, dams, canals and gardens that they have built. Of course they were all done by command economies too. We visited a private home in Beijing’s Old City and an elderly man insisted that Jamie dance with him in a park. With few exceptions everyone was nice to us. We did notice some pushing ahead in lines and there is a frustrating loud quality to everyday talking. It seemed that there were too many people everywhere—all of the time. 1.4 billion is a lot to squeeze in. I still like the fact that tipping is rare in China as in other Asian countries. Service was always good without the incentive that tips are said to provide. Give a person a decent salary and it should be enough to do a good job. The people seem genuinely pleased with the rapid rise in their standard of living. They should. Their grandparents suffered the Red Guards and famine!

Food is everywhere—in astounding varieties and amounts. I, for one, love a lot of it and I never saw so much social enjoyment as you find in the millions of eating places. But the constant crush of people would be hard for me to take everyday. We saw some spectacular natural and man-made wonders including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terra-cotta Warriors, the scenic beauty of Guilin, the overwhelming infrastructure building everywhere, huge concert halls, Buddhas, Temples, the Peking Opera, a Martial Arts Show, the multiculturalism of Hong Kong and world-class hotels everywhere. And, as usual in many trips over seas, we got to party with the local tuba players—we are connected for sure! America is blessed with so
much too. I can imagine how a foreign tourist would feel experiencing New York City, Washington, DC, Hollywood, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans, and so much more in only three weeks.

Musicians everywhere know that our orchestras are filled with talented, determined Asians (particularly string and woodwind musicians). Discipline and hard work seems to be inherent in Chinese families. It seems that everyone in China is busy—there are jobs for pretty much everyone and at times it seems there are too many people serving in public places. There is a lot of security everywhere but I did not see anyone with a gun.

The language is very challenging to me—and even to many Chinese. This is due to the two major languages and dozens of dialects in the country. At one time I thought that Asian pictographic writing would become archaic because it is so difficult for much the world to read. But modern computer tech allows instant translation and the Chinese love their pictographs, knowing that it has much more descriptive subtleties. English is on most signs too and we “foreigners” can manage.

Unleashing the energy of the Chinese People is amazing to see. They have always been the bankers, middlemen and merchants throughout their diaspora in Southeast Asia and they are doing it on a worldwide basis now with the New Silk Road Project, investments in Africa and everywhere else. Thousands of years of being the largest and most creative nation in Asia have given them lasting pride. You can’t hold them back! It may well be that the 21st Century will be the Chinese century. A command economy works with enlightened leadership but holding in greed is a much more difficult thing to manage. It was exciting to experience and will be exciting to watch in the future.

My world perspective and I have grown on this wonderful Chinese experience.

Jim Self
May 26, 2018