Skip to main content

Highlighted Passages in Thubron's Behind the Wall

A camera hung from every arm. And here I noticed first one of those small phenomena which (I thought fancifully) might unravel a whole society for me if I could only understand it: the flurry of Chinese snapshots was directed not at this beautiful and curious valley, but exclusively at one another. A place seemed to take its meaning only from a person's presence there. Sometimes I received the overwhelming impression that these snapshots were really statements of identity, that to be commemorated at a famous site was to be touched by its mana. 'You're travelling alone?' I was later asked, 'Then how do you manage to photograph?'

      ...These ritual snapshots seemed the heart of their journey. They never stopped to read the ancient poems carved in the cliffs, or to look down at the mottled beauty of the lake. I could not tell whether they admired the scenery at all, or simply cherished the idea of themselves in it.

      By nine o'clock at night the city is already closing itself away. A single thread of lights glows dimly above each street and a river of lampless bicyclists. The enormous lotus-bud columns of Changan Avenue sprout stately clusters of whitish orbs, but all the alleys and hutongs have darkened to threads. Here and there, a lit window hangs in the night like a lantern-slide. In its rectangle of grimy glass, a family huddles with lifted rice-bowls under a naked bulb, or sits round a television beneath walls pinned with garish calendars.
     As I walk across Tiananmen Square, ringed by its monstrous, soft-lit halls, I find couples sitting in the paved wastes alone, their arms circled about one another's backs or tucked-up knees. The girls bury their faces on their forearms or their partners' shins, as if in public contrition. A group of youths stands drinking orange-juice and listening to anaemic pop music on a transistor. Nearby an elderly man lies curled on the stones like a foetus, his head resting on a polythene bag, his eyes wide open and staring before him at nothing.
     In the neighbouring strips of public garden, the couples have locked their bicycles together on the paths, and monopolise a nearby pine or cypress tree. There they stand motionless, leaning against one another in the same half-forbidden tenderness, their eyes not meeting, their mouths not kissing - simply stand there in a frozen embrace, while bats flitter out over the square.

      At random points along the way, monkeys had set up toll-gates for food. If unrequited they could turn vicious, and it was the custom for pilgrims, after running out of propitiatory peanuts, to show them empty hands. I was tramping upward, my eyes on the stairway, when three hefty apes lumbered out of the bamboo... I tried to circumvent them. But they came at me with threatening coughs and squeals, and extorted my last biscuits.

The man went on: 'We found a porter who had been reading novels with a love interest. I don't mean porn. Just a personal story. This was decadent. We beat him unconscious, and burnt the books. Then he died.'
      I looked at him in astonishment, mesmerised, for some reason, by his immaculately pressed trousers. Once the armour of social constraint had been stripped from him, the person inside had been exposed as a baby: conscienceless. Was that China, I wondered, or just him? In any case, where was that feeling of pity which Mencius said was common to all men?

      The great altar had been laid out by mathematicians and astronomers, and was steeped in magic. Its lowest level symbolised man, its centre earth, its summit heaven. The 360 pillars of its balustrades represented the days of the lunar year, and the balustrades themselves ran in multiples of nine - the celestial number which divided the sectors of the Chinese heaven. In the stairways between each terrace the steps too numbered nine. From the centre of the topmost tier nine rings of paving-stones radiated out in concentric multiples of nine, and fanned down into the lower terraces, nine rows to each, in ever-expanding manifolds of nine.
      Into this haunted circle the emperor stepped at the winter solstice.

I started conversation with a weatherbeaten veteran fifteen yards away. 'Where are you from?'
      'I'm from England.'
      After a pause: 'Where's that?'
      'The other side of Russia.'
      A smile crept into his voice. 'Is that the same as America, then?'
      'No. It's an island. On its own.
      I added: 'It used to control Shanghai.'
      'I don't remember that...'

Life before Google (or rather Baidu):
     Down one of these streets, in a moment of surrealism, a student wavered up behind me on his bicycle and requested in punctilious English; 'Excuse me, sir, how many children did Charles Dickens have?'
     'Four,' I guessed.
     'Thank you, sir,' he said, and wobbled off into the crowds.

     All over the country, in town squares, factory halls and commune headquarters, the Great Helmsman has come crashing down, to be replaced by dancing-girls or rocks topped by stags and storks - or by resounding emptiness.
      'Do you miss them?' I asked. I was trying to imagine all the churches of Europe vanishing at a stroke.
      He countered: 'Wouldn't you miss it if every statue of your Queen disappeared?'
      'There aren't any,' I said. 'Statues usually go up after a person's dead.'
      He looked surprised, the laughed with a dry, nervous rattle. 'That's when ours come down.'

I knew he was hurt, because he was smiling. the [Yangtze] river fell behind, I wondered if it were true (as some scholars thought) that the effort to master its awesome, meandering force - exacting a constant collective effort to build dikes and channels - explained the deep conformist instincts which infuse the Chinese still.

She began feeling sorry for me. She was boiling noodles on a little stove. 'Why aren't you married?'
      I had not the English, let alone the Mandarin, to answer this. I said: 'There must be Chinese men who don't marry, aren't there?' But I realised I'd never met one.

     We were on delicate ground. Either I was naive or he was paranoid. I was thinking: this is how totalitarianism works - by creating dementia, a conviction of all-seeing authority. But its inhuman efficiency is an invention of its victims. While he was thinking (perhaps): this is how totalitarianism works - by concealing its mechanisms so successfully from the innocent (and the stupid) that they do not know what is happening to them.

'I've heard about teachers being persecuted,' I said, 'but I can't imagine... in a place like this... by their own seminarists?' He was silent. 'Did they?'
     'Not me personally. But some of the teachers were... badly abused.'
      So his pupils, I thought, had turned out less Christian than Chinese. They had withdrawn, perhaps, into an ethos ancient in their history — a womb-world of submission to the group, a family obedience emanating out to the largest family of all, whose father was the emperor ruling by the Mandate of Heaven.
     Here, at worst, a person relinquished all responsibility, all self. Conscience was stillborn. To dissent was to defect from Nature, from the very order of things...

      ...Momentarily my head filled with savage, condescending notions. The Chinese (I raged mutely) knew cruelty and squalor enough in their hierarchy-ridden families, where wife-beating was common and equality unknown. Their massed millions made the individual expendable, almost valueless. Perhaps it was strange that any imaginative sympathy survived at all...
'This sort of thing isn't peculiar to my country,' the priest said: he might have been thought-reading. 'Look at Germany, Russia. Of course, those countries are not old civilisations like ours, but still...'
      Of course. I was wading into an ocean. He was listening patiently, but I could not assemble any coherent thoughts. I wanted to explain that it was not the presence of cruelty which surprised me, but some imbalance between obedience and mercy, the collapse of domestic compassion in the face of official demand, the refinements of tortures practiced against teachers and friends, the denunciation of parents - but I stumbled into inarticulacy. I was juggling only with my own values, not with theirs. I knew nothing.
      But I said, bluntly, insultingly: 'In Europe we sometimes think of the Chinese as cruel.'
      I was speaking to his faith, separating off his nationality. It was clumsy, unforgivable. At that moment I saw myself in his eyes: a spoilt Westerner, sentimentally concerned about pain, favouring an incontinent sympathy above moral decision.

Mao Zedong had described the peasant as a blank sheet of paper awaiting Revolutionary inscription, but in fact the paper had always been scored with a deep, incoherent language of its own. The old ways continue everywhere under Marxist disguise. Now, as in imperial times, rule is less by law than by a collective morality. Beneath the age-long supervision of one another in clans and street committees, lies the timeless ideal that a person melt harmoniously into the mass rather than visit his individuality upon it.

A Guomindang member, imprisoned by the PRC for 25 years:
" 'Why?' is not a Chinese question."

'Suffering? All that suffering?' The publisher glanced at the books in his lap with distaste. 'No, nothing much came out of the Cultural Revolution. No great novels, no genius.' The admission caused him some distress. 'Just mediocre talent. That's all.'
      'But there must have been something?' I was foolish, surprised. After the crushed idealism, the forced exile among the peasants, the broken careers and ambitions - hadn't that generation made any real testimony at all? 'If this had happened in Europe...'
      'This isn't Europe,' the man said. 'The educational standard of our youth simply isn't high enough.'
      'But it can't just be education... There were millions of them!'
      'No, it's not just that...'

The dance-floor filled. Young men in Sanyo t-shirts threw themselves into the mood. A few girls joined them... Only once did a swarthy youth and his gypsy-dark girl touch their backs together with a cursory wriggling. Immediately an official in a red arm-band pulled them off the floor...

I wanted to ask him other things, but most were too painful. I said obliquely; 'Do many people believe in an afterlife?'
      'Some. Perhaps not many. But I do not believe. I cannot believe.' Suddenly his face was contorted by mingled sorrow and bitterness, held in by a heart-rending laughter. 'We Chinese have a saying, "All that is born must die". But that doesn't stop this... this...' - he turned his forefinger against his body, insinuating it between his torn jacket, drilling inside - '...this grief.'
      In the naked room, with the single bulb slung in its doorway, his imagined loneliness was unbearable. I wanted to touch him, but remained inert. He seemed beyond pity. He was stricken instead by a terrible acquiescence - not the blinding loss or hope of Christian mourning, but a recognition of the balance and proportion in things. Suddenly his people seemed immeasurably old. Perhaps this, I thought, was why they sometimes seemed able to look on death - and even inflict it - unmoved. They were not less humane than we, only less illusioned.
      But it was only a passing thought.