On Nov. 19, I was privileged to join my husband, Vergel, at the lecture of journalist-historian Martin Jacques for his book “When China Rules the World.”
I have been able to read only a few of the 600-plus pages of it at a time, since Vergel seldom puts it down. And just as well, as the book’s main thesis scares me: It’s only a matter of time before China and its 1.3 billion people, with basic beliefs that run counter to those I hold, rule the world.
I’m still struggling to fit into any manner of acceptable culture the carnage at Tiananmen or the seemingly amoral push for market profit or the bullying of neighbors by a nation that claims to be more civilized than any other. In fact, Jacques attributes this last attitude, which it assumes over territorial disputes (with our country, for one) to a Chinese sense of racial superiority that regards all outsiders as barbarians.
That the Chinese are a people who think forward in centuries and are in no hurry to rule the world is to me small consolation, especially since 40 years ago I had been afforded a glimpse of their development into their present-day character.
How unreal the Mainland China I saw just before the curtain of martial law fell on us in 1972. China then looked proud, though insecure, reaching out to neighbors—the barbarians. We entered by train from Hong Kong, accompanied by guides conversant in both English and Filipino. The two-week tour, covering Guangdong, Shanghai and Beijing, happened in another life; my husband then and I traveled with fellow doctor-wife couples at the invitation of the Chinese government for an exchange of medical know-how.
I remember the martial music playing throughout the train ride and everywhere else we went. But what really unnerved me was the uniform, classless, sexless, ageless dressing among the Chinese. Flying on a small plane to Beijing, we were surprised when a young girl emerged from the cockpit, prompting one of our doctors to ask, “Was that our pilot?”
The most impressive medical breakthrough shown us was in reconstructive surgery. Presented to us was a man whose hand had been completely severed in a factory accident and reattached without any loss of function, as he himself demonstrated.
We were awed by the wide application of the ancient Chinese science of acupuncture. We saw well-equipped hospitals and met Chinese surgeons, like our own American- and European-trained and English-speaking ones.
“Barefoot” (not really) doctors served in the remotest places in dirt-floor clinics equipped for basic services, including abortion. When a Filipino obstetrician asked what was the last allowed stage for abortions, we gasped in unrehearsed chorus at the answer: eight months.
Perhaps what especially bothered me were the children already born and kept in boarding schools. Lacking spontaneity and a natural sense of mischief, they behaved like little robots, playing orchestrated war games with plastic guns and bayonets.
They didn’t speak, they recited. They stood too straight, their faces devoid of expression. I wondered what they would be like in adulthood, having been separated from their working mothers almost at birth and handed over to state nursemaids and soon after to boarding schools.
I found most amusing but still bothersome the obsessive honesty of hotel employees. We couldn’t throw anything away, even an old toothbrush. Not a few times did a chambermaid come chasing after our bus, waving a toothbrush or some other discarded item.
There’s no denying the Chinese have come a long way. A most welcome news was the disappearance of spittoons, an obvious attempt at discouraging—under pain of what, I don’t know—the national habit of hawking and sharp-shooting spitting into spittoons in public. Only our own jeepney drivers’ snot-clearing comes close.
The public restrooms at the Great Wall have been westernized; gone are the pit-holes with foot guards on each side, reminiscent of our provincial outhouses, minus the pigs.
But only recently I received e-mailed pictures showing some of the ridiculously funny results of westernizing public toilets in China; one showed a toilet door cut too high above the floor, so that when one sits, the whole business is exposed, save one’s face. Another situates the toilet seat too far for the user to reach the toilet paper.
My favorite is the one with the seat niched between the three bathroom walls obviously facing the wrong way, requiring the user to ride side-saddle.
But, seriously, nothing about China is to laugh about, especially if the toilet humor is intended as a protest.
Martin Jacques reminds us that the Chinese are still struggling between feelings of inferiority and arrogance. How they will conduct themselves eventually as rulers, especially in this part of the world, would depend on how they see themselves and us by then.
He implies—and he apparently means it as a consolation—that the Chinese will be nothing like the western conquerors we’ve known.