China – Subliminal Signals


We stood on the shores of the West Lake, looking across the water at the wooded hills, disappearing, in layers, into the mist. The lake was the colour of milk, calm and smooth. Tall green lotus leaves were everywhere: it was late summer, and they had just begun to turn. Camphor laurels and weeping willows were in full leaf, adding to the palette of softest greens and greys.

Only wooden boats built in traditional designs were allowed on the lake, most of them powered by the toil of the boatmen.

Boatman on West Lake

The view, one of the most famous in China, has not changed in 1000 years. The only building visible, a slender pagoda, was built in 963 CE.

“Wow,” said my companion. “It looks just like Switzerland.”

“Hmmm…” I said. It didn’t look anything like Switzerland to me.

We strolled along, the changing tableaus endlessly charming. An occasional gentle breeze made the lotus leaves clatter in their hollow way. Chinese students went slowly by on bicycles. Chinese tourists passed us, some of them carrying rice paper umbrellas, for which the area is famous.  In quiet groves under the soughing metasequoias, groups of people gathered to play mahjong, the swift slap of the tiles on the stone table distinct amid their subdued chatter. At one point the mournful notes of the erhu, China’s traditional two-string violin, reached us; an old man sat practising on a bench, gazing across the lake.

“It’s amazing … it’s really just like…what’s it called? Lake Constance. Isn’t it?”

“Mmmm,” I said.

Lotus leaves at the West Lake
Mah jong under metasequoias

*        *        *        *        *

My companion was an auditor from Australia, in China for a school inspection tour, and it was my job to help guide and chaperone him. His job was to look like an expert and a senior government official, so he usually had something to say about everything. He was a bright and cheerful fellow so his company was no hardship, but sometimes his reactions did surprise me.

Li Bai contemplating landscape

On another day we visited Li Bai’s memorial, on a hillside overlooking the Yangtze River. Li Bai was one of China’s most famous poets; he had liked to write poetry there, drinking wine and admiring the landscape. Legend has it that he died nearby, falling from his boat trying to embrace the moon.

The auditor gazed up at the Tang style gate at the entrance to the memorial, set in classical gardens.

“Well! This really resembles Japanese architecture, doesn’t it?”

“Don’t say that!” I squeaked, glancing around me. We were not too far from Nanjing, where the most spectacular atrocities of the Sino Japanese War had been visited on the Chinese by the invading Japanese army in 1937. I added urgently, “Japanese architecture looks like this, not the other way round!”

“Yes, yes, I know, same thing,” he said impatiently, “I’m just saying it looks very … Zen. Like those temples you see in Kyoto…”

It is a common habit, this one of groping for something familiar when you find yourself somewhere strange. We all do it: it is useful. T often describes the Adelaide Hills to Americans as being like Marin County, in California. Which makes them say, “Ahh!” and nod.

I guess I have been so long in and around China that I no longer do this: China is now my familiar landscape. But it took a while.

Moon bridge at Li Bai's memorial

Years ago I developed a fascination for Japan when my big sister had been an exchange student there. It was an exotic and mysterious place, and being there for a whole year increased my sister’s grown-upness in my eyes. Later I studied Japanese too, and then worked in Tokyo. Only gradually did I learn that many of the things I liked most about Japanese culture came from China: tea ceremony, wood block prints, calligraphy, elegant gardens, all that minimalist architecture and design, bonsai, Zen Buddhism…

Many Japanese scholars went to live and study at the Chinese emperor’s Court, in Li Bai’s time, during the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th centuries CE) – one of China’s golden ages. They carried knowledge of the culture and arts home to Japan and carefully preserved it for a thousand years. In China, remnants of Tang period architecture are still discernible, but the layers of successive dynasties make the picture more complicated. They used to say that if you want to see good examples of Tang architecture, it was easiest to go to Japan. Now China is claiming back her historical iconography, and it is easy to find examples of buildings in Tang style.

*        *        *        *        *

The auditor talked a lot about subliminal information: unspoken signals we send and receive all the time. He was talking about this in relation to the classroom, but it was an interesting subject for me, because such signals are an important part of negotiations in China. Although both sides were friendly and were hoping to reach agreement, there was always mistrust and caution, especially in the early stages.

Fan dance

Having been to China before, the auditor thought he knew a thing or two about how to negotiate, and seemed to view the Chinese as sporting adversaries. At one of the schools we were lead into a school gymnasium where students were practising fan dancing, a traditional martial art in China. In an aside to me he said, “Yes, very pretty, but do they practice that for real, or is this just a display for us?”

A typical feature of negotiations in China is banquets – prime opportunities for the Chinese to collect subliminal information about their visitors.  And for the visitors to do the same, but I can’t help the feeling that the Chinese are more subtle masters at this game.

During one of the many lunches given in our honour, the auditor was seated between the principal and the head English teacher. The English teacher engaged the auditor in earnest conversation; beer flowed and everyone loosened up. The auditor was confident that he could drink quite a lot of beer and not be affected by alcohol – he was Australian after all. He chatted more and more to the teacher, turning away from the principal.

I felt my boss, E, becoming tense beside me: this was not good form. Not only was it rude to our host, there was also the danger that the English teacher, in order to make himself seem important, may exaggerate or misinterpret the auditor’s words when he reported later to the principal.

Eventually I reached behind the principle to tap the auditor, and warned him softly to address himself to the principal, to give him face. “Yes, I know all about that,” said the auditor, and he did improve. He toasted the principal correctly and politely responded to the toasts made by other deputies. He became more expansive as everyone began coming over to toast with him, laughing and gaily draining his glass many times.

As I want to look prim in these negotiations, I insist on drinking only fruit juice, and try to stay reasonably alert. E must drink: for him friendly drinking is an occupational hazard, and an ordeal. He is not so impervious as our robust auditor, even with light beer. Part of his job is to delicately massage the meaning of statements made on both sides of the language barrier, to make sure no one is offended. As lunch progressed his work became harder – as though he were a dancer, or a fencer, and alcohol were mud clinging to his boots. Our counterparts from the school charmingly pressed him to drink more, watching to see if he would stumble, or if the auditor will reveal anything interesting when E couldn’t keep such a close eye on him.

Fortunately, the auditor grew more garrulous and thus less intelligible. The chummy English teacher became confused by Australian slang and his confidence wavered. He began to melt into the background.

“Tracey! Tell him he’s a wimp! Come on, fill’er up, let’s go another round. Tracey, what’s the Chinese for wus?”

At the lunch party broke up, the auditor was still in fine form, saying loudly to E, “The trouble with these blokes is that they have Chinese bladders! They all do! Do you know what a Chinese bladder is? That’s what we used to call someone who couldn’t drink much without having to, you know, keep running off to the loo…”

“Ah, yes, you are right!” E smiled and laughed with him, clapping him on the back as though the auditor had said something clever. The English teacher watched enviously, perhaps admiring E’s superior language skill, clearly the result of an overseas education. Or perhaps dismissing the banter as not proper English, and therefore beneath him. Who can tell?

To create a distraction I said a few words in Chinese very politely to the principal and his deputies, hoping that my formal demeanour would subliminally suggest that I didn’t go in for such boisterous behaviour. To suggest that perhaps we are not all the same.

*        *        *        *        *

If other people make generalisations they are idiotic or racist; if I make them, well, surely they are sensitive, intelligent insights, right? Yes, I can see the danger but think I’m safe with this one: Chinese people enjoy singing and dancing in public more than we do.

I say this because I’ve often seen them doing these things, in parks and gardens, even on footpaths. It is very charming to come across small groups of people waltzing or practising traditional dances, in sub-zero temperatures sometimes. I’ve seen this in the streets of Beijing and many Chinese cities, morning and night, and at any time of the year.

One night a local salsa club held a dance in the cocktail bar of our hotel. The auditor watched them whirling and gyrating with delighted astonishment: how had they even heard of salsa? To me it was no surprise, knowing how popular salsa dancing is in China. One of my friends in Shanghai is quite a serious salsa dancer, and had gone with her club to compete in Germany. Whenever I saw her it was usually in a salsa club, with the latest South American band playing of the storm in the corner. But the auditor couldn’t believe his eyes. “It is so un-Chinese”, he said.

To me singing and dancing is a quintessentially Chinese thing. I used to dance across campus when I lived in Beijing, with my best friend, C, who would twirl me in pirouettes until I was dizzy. She sometimes sang traditional songs to me, very sweetly, from the carrier on my bicycle as we bumped along the lanes near the university. And an earlier memory: during my first visit to China I spent a couple of nights in one of the high mountain towns in the Aba Tibetan autonomous zone. Some of the local girls invited us to come and spend time with them by dancing. In a dingy room they played us scratchy recordings of military waltzes and tried to lead us in what I presumed were two-steps. Being Tibetans, they didn’t have much Chinese and no English; we could only interact by dancing. A somewhat painful conversation perhaps, as our clumsy hiking boots constantly tripped and trod on their slippered toes.

Walking one Saturday morning with the auditor in Hangzhou, we came across a small park where local people had gathered for a morning’s socialising. They were using the space in a traditional covered walkway for a variety of things, including card games, singing opera, dancing and playing instruments. The locals didn’t mind us wandering among them, looking over their shoulders at their card hands, and listening to them play. We approached a wider space, where schmaltzy music was being played on a small sound system – suddenly a spry, middle-aged man approached me, hoping that his momentum and commanding air would overcome my embarrassment as he try to engage me to dance. I didn’t want to, and I don’t really know how to dance. But I changed my mind and let him draw me in, and then hand me off to a petite lady nearby.

Why? I think I wanted to send a subliminal message to the auditor, saying something like: look, these people are quite wonderful, and you can never fully know how everything will happen. They are tenderhearted and welcoming, they work hard and are proud of their efforts. Even though China is often hard, their hearts are filled with joy sometimes and they want to express it with music and movement. If we can move into their embrace and let them share something of what they know, we can begin to see them. Don’t you want to open your eyes and heart and let new ideas in, not try to always break down, categorise and pinpoint?

My graceful partner whirled me around and around, I relaxed and let her guide me, looking at her gentle smile, and beyond that, all of China out of the corner of my eyes. When I thanked her at the end of the dance and went to join my colleagues, I found that for once, the auditor had nothing to say.

One thought on “China – Subliminal Signals

  1. Hello PT, Thankyou so much, it’s not only great to hear from you but to be transported to such a beautiful scene was a great way to start the day.
    I’ll enjoy reading your other posts with a cuppa

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