China's new face

In China we are dealing with massive things. It is a country where 1 billion people - a quarter of the world's entire population - live on 3.7 million square miles of land.

After my third visit in less than four years, it might seem tempting to start drawing some grand conclusions - but not with China! Each trip brings added humbleness, a deeper knowing within that an ''outsider'' can never really know China.

The largest census in history is under way this summer, as China begins counting its people for the first time in nearly two decades. Officials last year said China's population reached 996,220,000, but they concede that no one really knows.

The government has recruited 5 million census takers and supervisors, a contingent larger than the entire Chinese armed forces, to handle the gigantic task of head counting. Most of the workers will continue to use the ancient abacus, which originated in the Orient more than 5,000 years ago, to tabulate their figures. But the results will eventually be fed into modern computers.

With 80 percent of China's huge population still living in villages and hamlets, most of the census takers will make their rounds on foot and bicycle. For such far-reaching areas as Tibet, workers were on their way weeks ago.

One might wonder how an accurate count can ever be made when it is estimated that in China a baby is born every two seconds - or 1,800 per hour!

On earlier trips to China it was easy to become dazzled at the shear masses and the newness of a country that had been closed so long to the outside world. I realized I had never taken time to observe, really observe, the startling diversity among all the individuals we came in contact with.

The Chinese are a friendly and warm people. Students who are studying English at school seem eager for every opportunity to talk with Americans, especially on evening walks on the street and in the parks - and discussions can be most enlightening.

Life in China continues to be a daily challenge. The Chinese patiently wait in long, long lines for almost every necessity of life. Yet many times I have seen them step aside with a smile if a foreign visitor wished to make a purchase.

In China it is the spirit of the people that is so impressive; they seem to have a personality that cannot be crushed. Even though they live within a framework set up by the Communist Party, there seems to be a freedom of individuality and an outward expression of inner harmony.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.