Seeing China face-to-face

Shorthand turns people into monoliths – until we step closer, into their homes and lives and hearts.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A man struggles through knee-deep mud, carrying newly cut rice stalks to the edge of a terraced paddy in China’s Yunnan province.

As journalists, we often refer to a country or capital as if it’s an individual – China is doing X, Washington demands Y. Or we see the leader as the face of his or her entire nation. It’s understandable. Readers are busy people. They want the big picture. Journalists do, too, and this shorthand helps us get to the point quickly.

But there’s a danger in this. The names become monoliths in our minds. We forget that, behind the labels and the leaders, stand a multitude of faces, lives, and daily struggles. 

As I researched a story for the Monitor on how the pandemic began in China, I fell into an us-versus-them mentality without realizing it. A single word snapped me out of it: Yunnan. 

China’s lush southwestern province of Yunnan, famed for its terraced rice paddies, was apparently home to bats that carried one of the closest known cousins of the novel coronavirus. (The pandemic itself began in Wuhan, in central China.) For me, Yunnan brought to mind the mosaic of humanity my husband and I had witnessed while accompanying Chinese friends on their vacation there several years ago.

I recalled brightly clad women fanning out into a rice field, armed with sickles, cutting sheaves for the men to beat, sift, and carry off in 55-pound bags. I remembered the villagers we saw wading through knee-high water with nets for their annual fish harvest, as neighbors lined up to watch. 

And then – at the end of a long drive to a guest house that turned out not to exist – there was the family with no running water who took us in for the night, setting out more than a dozen dishes that rivaled the best restaurants we’d visited. 

A year before, I could have counted on one hand the number of times I’d eaten Chinese food. When we were first getting to know my Chinese colleague and his wife, they presented us with a slender box of wooden chopsticks. I was touched, but wondered, “What will I ever do with these?” But those chopsticks turned out to be about so much more than picking up rice. They marked the beginning of a friendship that brought us elbow to elbow over steaming bowls of noodle soup in rural Yunnan, where I got a crash course in eating forkless and spoonless.

That evening, our impromptu hosts took us to see women practicing the singing and dancing for which their Yi ethnic group is famous. In the morning, they dressed me up in their wedding finery with its brilliant reds, shocking pink, and tinkling coins adorning the front zipper – an honor, even if I looked ridiculous with my baggy hiking pants underneath. From a poster on the wall, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his wife looked on. 

I have no idea what their politics were, but as I entered the one bathroom shared by 900 villagers, I knew for a fact that if I lived there I’d heartily support whichever party would bring in running water, clean those toilets, and get rid of the flies.

We drove for hours through the countryside and into cities far larger than Boston that I’d never heard of, encountering an extraordinary diversity of faces, experiences, livelihoods, and languages. In some places, our friends – both native Mandarin speakers – couldn’t understand their countrymen. They snapped instant photos of kids with shy smiles and handed them out as mementos.

After one such photo session, we descended a steep path where a man was leading three horses laden with sacks of stones to build a new road. Nearby was a water trough engraved with a tribute to Chairman Mao Zedong – a testament to his far-reaching influence as the Chinese Communist Party, personified. 

Likewise today, it’s easy to personify this vast country simply as “China,” a faceless monolith. Throughout history, however, behind any leader, behind every country’s name, there is a sea of humanity. 

And while Beijing may argue with Washington, I’ll never forget that family deep in the hinterlands of Yunnan who treated total strangers to a feast.

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