Numb in China, part 5: 为人民服务
On the Chinese people and other mammals
In his travel diary, Albert Einstein described the Chinese as an ‘industrious, filthy, lethargic people,’ adding that ‘even the children are spiritless and look lethargic’ and ‘the Chinese are incapable of being trained to think logically and specifically have no talent for mathematics.’ That was one hundred years ago. Back then, it was very ordinary for Europeans to write a lot of drivel about the inscrutable Oriental mind and its mysterious concept of ‘face.’ Today, we know that there is no national character, not really, just offensive stereotypes; the human material is the same everywhere. (There’s a particular vision of the Italian character, for instance—but the first Italian person I knew socially was a pale, shy economics student.) But might we have gone too far in the other direction? What is it like to grow up in China, with Mao and Confucius each trying to govern your upbringing? How does China’s very long and very particular history repeat itself in the individual? And what happens when you try to break out of it? Who are the Chinese? What are they like?
From now until September, Numb at the Lodge will be in China, investigating these questions and more. Paid subscribers can join us in a brain-melting tourist odyssey across the past and future of Chinas real and imagined. This is a travel blog now.
Today I’m writing from Chengdu in Sichuan province, the city of twenty million where the pandas outnumber the people.