Non-fiction

The Name of China

CHINA! The name of the world’s Number One State strikes me as properly onomatopoeic, especially perhaps in English. China! It rings grand, and big, and sonorous, like a great copper gong, but to my mind there is something mysteriously discordant to it, as though the alloy is defective. Of course this interpretation is ridiculously subjective, but then China has made such vague and varied contributions to my sensibility, from insular British childhood to cosmopolitan old age, that the effects of its name are bound to be cloudy. The Middle Kingdom has been a lifelong presence in my psyche, but its form has been protean. Like the sound of it, its shape has sometimes seemed fine to me, sometimes faulty, now charming, now brutal.

     And while much of this is my own fancy, some of it is a true effect of history.

 

 

When I try to remember my own first consciousness of the name, I think of it as sinister. Slant-eyed baddies, comic-book gangsters, dangerous Chinatowns in pulp novels, opium dens and secret societies – these were my first Chinese images. A familiar schoolboy form of torture, involving arm-twisting, was called the Chinese burn. A Chinese whisper was a murmured message that started with one meaning and ended with another. I don’t think I ever saw a Chinese person during my childhood and adolescence, and although I do remember one or two music-hall turns in which comedy artistes dressed up in robes and pigtails to make us laugh, the only Chinese theatrical name that had entered into popular musical language was that of Chu Chin Chow – and he in fact was a character in a musical comedy who never actually appeared, having been murdered offstage before the action began.

     Perhaps it was in an echo of Chu Chin Chow that allegedly Chinese music entered my childish awareness. It was often played, as it is even now, to typify the Orient more or less in the abstract and was easy to adapt from Western music, I am told, simply by the substitution of the pentatonic for the diatonic scale and the addition of lots of cymbals. Phony though it was, it was my first intimation that China had a culture different from my own, and if I mixed it up in my mind with Arab musical forms, well, so did its composers. Willow-pattern dishes ornamented our kitchen dresser, but it never occurred to me that those dark blue trees, the three figures on that little bridge, the boat and the birds and the blueness of it all were anything to do with China. All the tea in China, went the proverbial phrase, but my family preferred Darjeeling.

     Nor did China figure much in our educational curriculum. I remember learning only about the Great Wall, the Boxers, the Opium Wars and Kubla Khan, who was not exactly Chinese, but near enough (and whose Xanadu was, in fact, not far from Beijing). The British Empire, it was true, had long ruled the coastal Chinese city of Hong Kong and made lots of money in the interior too, but China and Chineseness never did enter the ethos of Empire, as India did; and because the country never was marked pink on the map we seldom took much notice of it. It seemed almost inconceivably far away, and although my favourite childhood occupation was watching ships from distant countries sailing up the Bristol Channel, never once did I see one flying the Chinese flag (whatever that was, in those days).

     And out of the recesses of my memory comes a nonsense rhyme that perhaps expressed the mythical nature of Chineseness to British children of my generation:

 

     Inky-pinky Chinaman

     Went for a ride in a catamaran.

     When he got to the other shore

     He rang the bell and asked for more.

 

 

Of course as I grew up the name of China came to mean more to me. It meant the delicate delights of chinoiserie. It meant silk, and silkiness. Remote and marvellous sages replaced those old villains in my imagination, Buddhism crept in, and the glories of calligraphy, and I began to realise how much of our own lives, from paper to gunpowder, had come to us from China. World War II did not make China itself feel any closer to us, because so few of us served there; but it did perhaps shift our historical perspectives to see Chiang Kai-shek sitting with Roosevelt and Churchill at summit conferences, and eventually to find China joining the United States, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and France as one of the original Big Five of the United Nations.

     Everything has changed since then. The meaning of China has changed, for me as for everyone else in our remote British islands of the West. Things Chinese have infiltrated every aspect of our lives. First there arrived Chinese restaurants, not only in the various Chinatowns of our great cities, but in every last small town of the kingdom. First chop suey, then Peking duck, then squid in mango syrup, then even Chinese beer became staples of the British diet, and today in Scarborough as in Chipping Camden, in former bank buildings or adapted pubs, almost anywhere you might see the British islander, bred to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, descendant of John Bull and the imperial nabobs, doggedly trying to eat fried rice with chopsticks.

     The very name of China, too, entered the everyday British vocabulary, if only because by the late years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st it seemed that almost everything we purchased, from garden hose to iPod, was made somewhere in China – and unlike the first cheap Chinese goods we bought, these things were not trash, but quality merchandise of obviously advanced technology where appropriate. It no longer seemed anomalous that the Great Wall (as we were assured, wrongly as it turned out) was the only man-made object to be seen from outer space. Almost anything, it began to dawn upon us all, was possible in China.

     So it seemed to me that the end of our own world dominion, the British Empire, was best symbolised not by the successive granting of independence to emancipated colonies, but in 1997, by the surrender of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China – the last great British colonial possession to go, and the only one that was handed over to a foreign power rather than to its own people. The spectacle of soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army assuming authority from the British Army brought home to many of us that the presence of China in the world was more than a mystery, more than a legend, but would be one of the supreme historical facts of the 21st century.

 

 

But the gong, though certainly grander than ever, still rang disturbingly, for me. I had always felt, somewhere at the back of my mind, that China was obscurely threatening – not in the crude old sense of a yellow peril, but as a potential rival to everything I had grown up to accept as our social, political and historical norm. As the people of the Holy Roman Empire once felt about the Muslim Turks, so something told me, rightly or wrongly, that China, the Chu Chin China of my childhood, was destined to alter all our futures.

     Years ago, in novelettish fantasy, when communism momentarily burst into the frenzies of the Cultural Revolution, I imagined that perhaps the myriad Chinese restaurants of the West were really the first agents of Chinese world expansionism, linked in a vast waiting web. It was only a fancy for fiction, but in the 1980s I visited for the first time the tea plantation in Sri Lanka – Ceylon in those days – where my Australian father-in-law had died during World War II. His home was an archetypal colonial homestead among the hills, where he had spent his last days in the care of his kind Cingalese workers, almost an allegory of the British Empire’s decline. But when I reached the place, unannounced, 40 years after his death, and swept up the long drive to the verandah, I found that the plantation had been taken over by Chinese.

     It was happening, I see now. We were about to enter the Chinese century. The gong was ringing fatefully, and it rang for all of us. 

 


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