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Table of Contents
First impression (arrival)
The way the pendulum swings
Beijing, on the eve of a new year
The first of October – National Day
Let’s get to know each other first
Hello, have you eaten yet?
Gaokao: the university entrance exam
Yesterday’s China, today’s China
Reform in 1979
Freshness is everything
From black to green?
Contemporary Chinese literature
Change, does everything change?
Spanish literature in Chinese translation These days it is not just Don Quixote which is read in Mandarin
Mo Yan China’s front door key to the contemporary canon of world literature
Sample Pages Preview

Let's get to know each other first At a reception in Beijing, I happened to meet Wu Guoping, who some thirty years ago was a young Chinese lad studying Spanish, while I was at the time a newly qualified young teacher in a higher education languages institute in Beijing as it was then. Today Wu is a leading economist, a lecturer who specializes in Latin American affairs and a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. We talked about the differences between those times and China today: another country, another society, other perspectives, but with a living history in its memory, its culture and its language, in its palaces and temples, in its art and monuments, which has been unfolding over thousands of years, a luxury which very few countries can boast of. We also talked about the frenzy the country has lived through recently, in the course of the 20th century: first the democratic revolution of 1911, led by Sun Yatsen, founder of the Republic; the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, with Mao Zedong, later transferred to Taiwan by Chiang Kaishek and the Guomindang party. 1976, the year of Mao’s death, was to witness the start of the process of opening-up and reform which, from 1979 and led by Deng Xiaoping, would establish the profile and new course of China today, in a race towards the future which has only just begun. You notice every day how modern China is perceived by western corporations as a great business opportunity, a notion which the Asian nation cultivates. When all is said and done, it is no easy feat to meet internally the basic needs of its 1,300 million inhabitants. In spite of China still being classed as an underdeveloped country with some very poor areas, especially in the northeastern regions, the essential problem is not food or clothing, which have, relatively speaking, already been resolved, but how to make these areas fit into the locomotive of the development process. The problem becomes a matter of investment, of knowledge, of the mastery and application of new technologies, which rides on the need to provide hundreds of millions of young people with quality primary, secondary and university education, a fundamental priority of the Chinese government, but which also rides on the possibility of attracting new investment. Expo 2010 Shanghai had a huge impact on the business world, perhaps just as important as that of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Expo 2010 reflects China today, a major league player who aspires to end up winning not by getting singles and stolen bases but by scoring nothing but home runs, one after the other, with long throws intended to leave the home field and arrive in all corners of the world. Zhong-guo (Central Country), having been more or less completely shut off for hundreds of years, is decentralizing nowadays and embarking on a voyage towards the West, not in imperial galleons like those which visited it from western European powers and which bled it dry in centuries past, but through its discipline of work, negotiation and investment, in which the Chinese have shown themselves to be consummate masters. Just like Mr Wu himself, thirty years on, replicated by the thousand, indeed make that by the million. The cultural clash between China and the West, regarding how to get closer and forge those personal relationships which are so important to the Chinese, gets in the way of business exchanges. Wu, with full knowledge of the facts, gave me one crystal clear example: a Spanish industrialist wanted to export his machines to China and sent all the information, detailing their finer points and advantages. By return of post, he received from his opposite number in China a long list of the potential difficulties involved in selling within China. Wu advised him to visit in person, so the Spanish industrialist did just that. Was this for a business meeting in China to clear up any misunderstandings and weigh up the technical advantages of his machines compared with his competitors’? No, the first priority was to invite his potential sales representative for China to a banquet. Ah, so that he could then organize a meeting or a working lunch? No, at the banquet nobody would talk about work at all: there would simply be conversation, laughter, toasts drunk with maotai (an alcoholic drink made from sorghum), an exchange of business cards and gifts. Nothing whatsoever to do with work. After this came a second banquet, this time laid on by the Chinese businessman. Ought the Spaniard, this time, introduce new information, maybe give a PowerPoint presentation or show a video? No, the Chinese businessman already had all the information he needed; information was never the issue. Once again there was an abundance of dishes on offer – Pantagruelian, as the Chinese like to provide on these occasions – conversation at length, laughter, time and again ganbei (cheers! literally: empty glass) and mutual displays of camaraderie and trust. At last, a response from the Chinese businessman arrives: he is willing to act as sales representative, the negotiations have reached their conclusion. Were there further questions about the machines? Not a singleone. All the businessman wanted to do was to meet his associate, discover with whom he was making the deal: the Chinese do not do business with people they do not know, they need to meet their counterpart in person in order to size them up and develop something akin to friendship. And if you go to the trouble of learning afew phrases in Mandarin for saying hello and goodbye, that will be the cherry on the cake. The Chinese, with good reason, are tired of the fact that it is always they who make the effort to communicate, and can see only too well that it should now be up to westerners to do it, or at the very least to attempt to do it. They will recognize these attempts and fully appreciate them. This is the traditional, personal, empathetic side of things which the Chinese have not given up – and let us hope that they never give it up. Whether it is a matter of free trade agreements, premium quality products on offer, or modern technologies for long-distance communication, the Chinese will always – at least they always have up until now and there is no reason to think that they will change their ways, at least in the short term – need to see, in person, the face of their business associate, and above all see in that face trust, laughter. So, global investors: get over your fear of flying, if you have one, and come to China, and even if you do not manage to close your deals, at the very least you will return having lived ‘the Chinese experience’, essential in today’s world and tomorrow’s, or so it is said. And if you do close a deal, China is the promised land, with its 1,300 million inhabitants. Somewhere among all of these, there is a Chinese man (or why not a Chinese woman?) waiting for you. Zai jian!


In his biography of Marco Polo, Maurice Collis relates how, back then, the city of Hangzhou, quite apart from being a delightful place to live, with good shops and roads, effective policing and plenty of entertaining things to do, was the leading artistic and intellectual hub of the entire world, far superior to any city before it (including Ancient Rome) or after it (including London and Paris) “because its culture was rooted in a far lengthier and more robust evolution of the mind”.
Collis points out that if Marco Polo, instead of travelling in the company of a rich merchant, possibly a foreigner like himself, had struck up friendship, on equal terms, with the cultured intelligentsia of Hangzhou (also known for being scholars of Confucianism), he might have come to understand the depth of the spirituality which prevailed in that city. Collis then pictures how, once that ideal of friendship had been established, the Chinese might have shown the Venetian, in the privacy of their libraries, the uninterrupted development of their culture over thousands of years, and the accumulation of thinking which that brought in its wake. He concludes by saying that, with a greater degree of “understanding, sensitivity and imagination”, Marco Polo could have learned far more from the Chinese which, ideally, would have transformed him from “a medieval merchant into a man of culture, but neither his sensibility nor his imagination were sufficient to allow this transformation. Nevertheless, his personality did develop, as a result of his travels and experiences, to a point where it was only with some difficulty that his western contemporaries came to fully comprehend what he wrote, although he did not sever the mental ties of his European education as much as he might have done had the Chinese succeeded in raising him to their own level”.
Fortunately, the Impressions of China presented here have been written not by a merchant but, quite the reverse, by a man who has dedicated his life to developing understanding, sensitivity and imagination. Albino Chacón graduated in Comparative Literature in Canada and has since worked as a university academic, in Costa Rica as well as in China and other countries. He observes, but from the viewpoint of someone appropriately prepared and with the refined culture of the radical humanist and advocate of ‘pluriversity’, as he himself expresses it in his lecture El asedio de las diversidades: de la universidad a la pluriversidad (Diversities under siege: from university to pluriversity), where he reminds us that: “not only are we diverse from each other, but also each one of us is in himself an agglomeration of diversities”.
Therefore, in view of this meeting of cultures put forward by the author, it seems to me to be important to point out the difference between universalism and pluriversalism, as proposed by the philosopher and legal expert Danilo Zolo, who explains in an interview:
Two philosophies exist concerning international order, indeed a world order in general. One which aims towards the unification, homologation and simplification of symbolic universes and of values, and which clings to the hope that world unity could eo ipso bring about peace, justice, progress and happiness. It is a vision which is elementary, simplistic, dare I say childlike in its theology and rigidly ‘monotheistic’ in a Weberian sense. Then there is the other world vision which takes into account pluralism, difference, confrontation within diversity and complexity as part of the cherished evolutionary heritage of the human experience. The ideal upheld by adherents of world unificationis universalism. The idea supported by defenders of complexity is what I suggest should be called pluriversalism.
Zolo adds that “those who are advocates of complexity aspire towards achieving peaceful interaction between different cultures and civilizations, defending the right to teach about pluralism and relativism of values and about their historic, dynamic and evolutionary characteristics”. In my opinion, these Impressions of China champion that cultural pluriversity and are written with the intention of achieving rapprochements, understanding and better relations between East and West.
George Orwell, in 1984, explains that, if the governments depicted in this novel were to allow the average citizen to have contact with foreigners, the closed world in which they live would break open, and this might dispel the fear, hatred and fanatical inflexibility which form the basis of their morality. Unfortunately, not all of us are able to ‘live the Chinese experience’ by travelling all the way to that country and living there for long enough to fully understand the true scope of its culture. However, to paraphrase Lin Yutang, reading empowers us to escape from our physical prison, our limited contact with just a handful of people who live close by, and break free of our immediate world, in time no less than in space, to find ourselves in a totally different world...