01-06-2008 - Traces, n. 6

Two or three things i’ve understood
by going beyond the great wall

The neo-millionaires, importing brains, the interest in Dante: postcards from a capital where people live as if the “I” was non-existent… But then they realize something is missing

by Luca Doninelli

Tibet was still quiet when I visited Beijing. But even if the revolt had already broken out, it is likely my words would still be the same. It doesn’t take an expert on geopolitics to understand that as long as there remains just one Chinese on the face of the earth, Tibet will never regain its independence except–it’s widely acknowledged–at the cost of a war, which China would see as a war of defense. This is a problem going back hundreds of years, years that pass strangely in China. Time seems to be frozen, then all at once it starts flashing past.
Here I want to describe the enduring impressions of my journey to a special world, a civilization that shares no common root with ours, which counts time and looks at man in a different way, and yet we could become well acquainted with it within a few years’ time.

The human factor
There exists a China that is rich and modern. Millions and millions of billionaires have accumulated immense fortunes, mostly from financial markets. There are three hundred and fifty million wealthy people in China and nine hundred million paupers.
Entering Beijing from the airport is a startling experience. All at once, you find yourself surrounded by an immense forest of skyscrapers, many times the size of Manhattan. Most of these buildings are less than eight years old. Land that in 2000 was still out in the countryside has been transformed into modern business centers. All the world’s major architectural firms have left their signature here.
The population of China is made up of numerous different ethnic groups, no fewer than 24, I was told. Beijing is well to the north, not far from the Great Wall. Further north lie sparsely populated regions like Manchuria and Mongolia, which has a lunar landscape. Young people in Beijing are tall, attractive, and dress fashionably. Meeting them, chatting with them, you feel an enormous energy: you understand they mean to conquer the world and want to do it in a hurry.
A desire to conquer the world is perfectly healthy. We were made for this. This is why I find the Chinese likeable. They told me that in America a student in middle school has no idea who Dante Alighieri was, while in China no fewer than seven translations of the Divine Comedy are in circulation and Dante is much loved by young people (they read him as a sort of continuation of Harry Potter). An official at the Italian Embassy tells me that in Beijing the university population numbers about a million, including those who travel in from outside the city, and there are almost a hundred universities, counting both public and private. In many fields of advanced study, the leading centers are here, not in America. China is beginning to import brains.
Their businesses are avid for international relations. But financial experts claim that China is a paper empire, a bubble doomed to burst as soon as America decides it’s had enough. I’m not an expert on economics, and still less finance. It’s the human factor that interests me. The force of China lies not just in its financial resources or its ability to renew its economy but in its human prospects.

Mao’s paupers
There’s little love lost between the ruling class, the economic and intellectual aristocracy, and Mao Zedong. They feel he held the country back, for example by destroying the universities, sending faculty members to work in the fields, and then– after four lost years–letting them return to their jobs.
But in Tiananmen Square, the world’s biggest city square, all day long, every day of the year, people wait patiently in an interminable line to enter his mausoleum. The sight gives you a pang. They’re poor, they represent different ethnic groups from the Beijingese, and for many it looks as if all their worldly goods are the clothes on their backs. They love Mao, and wait patiently in line for the moment when they will stand before his body. He remains their father, and they believe in him.
In this Communist country, there are no trade unions, no safeguards for workers, no protection for the disadvantaged (including the disabled), no welfare system. Your pension rights are your children–or rather, your “one” child, since a law in force since 1979 prevents families from having more than one (to keep the country’s population down). Naturally, those who want more children can have them, provided they pay the State. And it doesn’t come cheap: around $7,000. Only the well-off can afford a large family. In this way, the State calculates that, within a couple of generations, the rich will outnumber the poor, who are doomed to extinction.
When that happens, where will all these wealthy Chinese go to procure the resources they need? While waiting for an answer to the question, we can observe that the individual must count for very little in China if he is governed by laws like this.
What is a man? At the UIBE, one of Beijing’s two large business universities (each with about 100,000 students), I was invited to speak on the theme of “Italy and the Sea.” The topic lent itself to talking about the birth of European humanity. The audience, including a number of faculty, was struck by the drama of this birth. The recognition of the value of the human person as the source of rights touched them deeply.
One of them explained to me that while the Roman Empire was founded on law, the Chinese Empire rested on administrators, the apparatus, and the bureaucracy. “Your civilization,” he says, “from the first, recognized the value of the person.” He explains that the Chinese are psychologists, they are skillful at discerning the impulses of the spirit, they can read people’s eyes, but they do not consider the ontology of man. Man is an administrative matter. The “I” does not exist; it has no substance.
When I visited the museums, or the Forbidden City, or the very fine Temple of Heaven (the most loved among the sites), many other observations led us in the same direction. The fact that the ancient objects preserved are associated with religion and not for everyday use. The fact that the strikingly beautiful vases are very similar whatever period they date from. The fact that here, the difference between an “original” and a “copy” is not considered essential. The fact that they count time not by years or centuries but by dynasties (time is of the gods, and the emperor, who is also a god). The fact that place names never contain man: it is always the “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” “Hall of Preserving Harmony,” “Hall of Earthly Tranquility”–never “Palazzo Pitti” or “Sala Nervi”–as if man was not a true citizen of this earth.

A secret worth stealing
Besides, it is far from inevitable that the gods will remember us. Why should they? But when the airplane approaches Europe I recall how, in this part of the world, someone, a long time ago, raised his eyes in astonishment from his flocks, his fields, or his path through the desert and exclaimed: “What is man, that You should remember him?”
Then my memory returns to my meeting with the university teachers, with the young people at the UIBE, and the Italian-language course run by the Dante Alighieri Society. The culture that has dominated China for centuries, with Chinese Communism as its latest expression, has driven the “I” out of sight, as if it didn’t exist. Yet the “I” exists: I saw it in the strength, the desire for conquest, the eagerness for knowledge displayed by many people, and above all in the desire for that question. I said to a very courteous professor: “You can take everything we have created–the works of art, the cathedrals, the palaces. But you will never be able to steal our ‘I.’”
“This,” he replied, “is precisely the secret that interests us most.”