a worthy project

September 14th, 2008

This article (via Danwei), well, one point near the beginning irritated me:

To my taste, the arid western provinces are the most beautiful areas of China. The eastern seaboard is mainly flat, featureless, overdeveloped, and devastated. Much of the west is awe-inspiring to see. This is the austere beauty of the desert: limitless vistas, clear skies, dramatic topography, an unforgiving environment for life of any kind.

I would not describe the east of China as mainly flat. Nor featureless. Overdeveloped, perhaps, but not ‘mainly’. Devastated? Well, large parts of it. Now, isn’t this James Fallows guy based in Beijing? If so, then does he never look to the west and north on those days the sky is clear enough to see the nearby hills and mountains? Or do his office and apartment windows only open to the south and east? But it’s not just Beijing. Of all the cities I’ve been to in China, I can only think of three- namely, Tianjin, Changzhou and Zhengzhou- from which you would not be able to see hills on even the most sparklingly clear day. And I’m not sure about Changzhou and Zhengzhou, my experience of those two cities being rather limited. And I’d hardly call any of those cities ‘featureless’. Coastal swamp (thinking Tianjin here) is a feature, as are the intricate networks of canals, rivers and lakes of the Jiangnan Plain (Changzhou).

And his presentation of the kang also makes it seem like some odd relic of the underdeveloped west, which is odd, considering, if he is based in Beijing, that kangs are still used for sleeping every night in rural areas only a few kilometres from his apartment. And kangs are actually really comfortable (once you get used to the hardness) and practical, too, especially in the winter. Ain’t nothing better than being heated directly from underneath.

And if I have any other criticism of the article, it’s the apparent assumption that one has to travel really far west to see that kind of poverty. Well, I can’t really compare, never having been out that way, but I’m pretty sure Fallows could find equally rough and ready areas an easy day ride or weekender from Beijing. Some of the things I heard from people working in rural areas of Shanxi when I lived out in Taiyuan were truly heartbreaking.

But that excessive pedantry only shows that I’ve been a teacher for far too long for my own good. My really very minor nitpicking aside, it’s a story well worth telling, a story of two Taiwanese businessmen who developed a passion for rural western China, its children, and its future immediate development. And it’s a story very well told, too, a story that takes you right into the mountains and valleys of Gansu.

Fortunately towards the end the article does include a link to the website of this project- the Chinese-language homepage is here, the English version here. Check it out. At first glance it’s a project well worth supporting. I hope that first impression is accurate.

Actually, it reminds me of one section of 《美丽的大脚》, in which the big city teacher decides to broaden her northwestern rural students’ horizons by getting a computer and an internet connection in the classroom. Of course, it takes some effort to convince the village bigwigs, but she gets her computer and internet… Unfortunately, a single film isn’t really enough to explore such issues and this issue isn’t really the focus of the film, anyway.

Heh, lzh has commented that if I hadn’t married her, I would’ve run off down south a long time ago. Perhaps. I will always have a certain soft spot for Changsha. It is my “Chinese home town” in that that’s where I first started learning and experiencing China, and it’s a great city to live in, and that week I spent in Yunnan was brilliant, and I’m told Chengdu is just my kind of city, but… But. I have this thing for the northwest, too, especially Gansu. I blame it on Rewi Alley. Ever since I started reading about him and reading his books I’ve been fascinated with Gansu. I really have to get out there one of these days, it’s a kind of pilgrimage.

Oops. All this rambling on completely irrelevant stuff and all I wanted to write was that I was impressed with that story and the project that inspired it.

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