Charming China

China has the world's largest population. Chinese history can be traced all the way back to 2200 BC. Because China developed largely in isolation from the rest of the world, much of Chinese life and thought is difficult to comprehend. For centuries, the Chinese have regarded other countries with suspicion, believing that the quality of life outside of China could never compare to their own. The western countries that had wielded power and influence when China was a young nation had long since passed away, so it was reasonable for them to hold these views. Classical Chinese literature, for example, flourished nearly 2,000 years before the great period in European literature began in the third and fourth centuries BC. In the nineteenth century, trade brought the Chinese closer to other countries, but this did not result in more peaceful relations; like others in Asia and Africa, they resented foreigners who lived on their soil, profited from their trade, and all too frequently imposed unfair treaties on them. As China entered the twentieth century, she gradually realised how important the industrial arts that the West had mastered would become, and since 1949, when communists took power, more and more emphasis has been placed on industrial development. The Western countries' aloofness persisted, perhaps because the Chinese political system is so diametrically opposed to the systems favoured in Western Europe and North America. Even the Russians, whose revolution in 1917 inspired the Chinese communist forces in their fight against the old National government in the late 1940s, and who gave the Chinese communists so much encouragement in the early days, did not maintain these close ties. 

Working in China
Working in an engineering factory in China
However, there is now a lot more communication between China and the Western powers. China's language has been one of the factors that has stifled contact between the two countries. There are a large number of dialects, which are more or less separate languages, with Mandarin being the most important. The communists have used Mandarin as the foundation for what they call the Common Speech, which is intended to become China's national language, though local dialects are likely to persist. Nonetheless, there are clear advantages to having a language that foreigners can be confident will be understood throughout the country and that facilitates communication even in the most remote parts of this vast country. The written Chinese language is also undergoing simplification. Chinese has no alphabet; instead, like the majority of languages around the world, it makes use of letter combinations to describe sounds. The purpose of Chinese characters is to convey meaning rather than sound. We use a system of Arabic numerals that is very similar to theirs. The number '8' has the same meaning for a Frenchman and an Englishman (or anyone else), though it is pronounced 'huit' in French and 'eight' in English. In Chinese, the word "salt" is represented by a character, which is a small drawing made up of several strokes. Whatever dialect a Chinese speaks, he will understand that this character means 'salt,' even though the word will sound very different in different dialects. 

Each character in early Chinese writing was a miniature drawing of the object to be described; as time went on, these drawings became more complex as more and more objects were assigned characters. It was also necessary to represent abstract concepts. The drawings became more formalised over time, and they were no longer recognisable as representations of the objects they described, but they remained complex: the character for "salt" requires twenty-four pen strokes, for example. Characters have obvious advantages over an alphabet. When a man meets another who speaks a dialect he doesn't understand, he can communicate by drawing characters in the air or scratching them in the dust on the ground. However, the disadvantages are even more severe. Every object and idea had to have its own unique character, resulting in tens of thousands of characters; so many thousands, in fact, that scholars have never been able to determine exactly how many Chinese characters there are, though the number is estimated to be somewhere between forty and fifty thousand. Not only did learning enough characters to read classical Chinese necessitate exceptional memory skills, but writing was also slow and book typesetting was extremely difficult. Reading and writing became a privilege reserved for a small group of people. This issue has also been addressed. Many of the most important characters have been simplified so that they can be written with half the number of strokes while still conveying the same message. Even so, it was realised that learning to read and write without spending too much time on it would not be sufficient. 

Administrative centre of Peking
A winter view of the administrative centre of Peking

An alphabet, based on our own Latin alphabet, has been created to assist children in learning how to pronounce the characters in the Common Speech. China is still primarily an agricultural country, with soil cultivation now carried out on a communal scale. The entire rural population is divided into approximately 74,000 communes, which roughly correspond in size to large townships and are further divided into production teams and brigades, each consisting of approximately 45 families. Prior to the Revolution in 1949, land was owned by a relatively small number of landowners, while the vast majority of people owned nothing and were perpetually in debt to their landlords, who took percentages of their crops. This would have been a bad enough situation for the peasants, but it was made worse by a lack of land (until recently, only one-ninth of China's land area was arable) and unpredictably bad weather. When there was plenty of rain for the rice, a man who struggled to live and keep his family would be ruined when the drought caused his crops to fail, because he had nothing to fall back on; constantly in debt to his landlord, he could never save up enough to get him through a lean year. The Revolution's most powerful appeal to the people was that it was determined to change this situation; only those who tilled the land, it claimed, should own it. Land was confiscated and distributed among the peasants as the communists took over each area. 

Each landlord was given a small piece of his former land, which he could cultivate like the other peasants if he so desired. When the communists took over the country, they began the 'land reform,' in which land was distributed as fairly as possible among the entire peasant population. This was only the beginning of China's rural life reform, as it was clear that real progress in agriculture could only be made if new equipment was introduced and the land was improved. Despite the fact that peasants now owned their own land and could take whatever profits they wanted without the interference of a landlord, there were still too many people to feed on too little land, and money could never be set aside for machine investment. Irrigation programmes and terracing to reclaim hillside land were urgently needed, but they required a large number of people to collaborate. Farmers were encouraged to form mutual aid groups and pool their resources to buy equipment and improve the land, which eventually evolved into cooperative farming. Even these measures, however, proved insufficient to meet China's massive food requirements. Men were also squandering their time because there was nothing else to do. Although the situation was better than it had been prior to WWII, when men worked an average of 130 days per year, there was still a lot of untapped labour. 

Yangtze River
Junks on the Yangtze River in China

During the government's drive to increase cultivable land and improve irrigation in 1957-8, a watershed moment occurred. Millions of people from both the countryside and the cities came to help build dams, dig new irrigation canals, and drill new wells. The project not only increased the country's cultivable area by s million hectares (13 million acres), but it also demonstrated to the co-operatives' members how much they would benefit from belonging to a larger unit than they already did. They could pool their spare labour and plant trees or open mines, just as they had pooled their spare capital to buy machinery that required a large outlay, just as they had pooled their spare capital to build dams. Following the lead of some co-operatives in Honan Province, co-operatives began to band together and refer to themselves as 'communes' in the late 1800s. The peasants there divided themselves into groups to deal with the various tasks that needed to be done, and when they had arranged for their children to be cared for in nurseries, the idea of the commune arose, which was organised by elected leaders and governed by its own set of by-laws. Today, a commune is more than just a convenient arrangement of labour forces within each area to make the most of the land; it is a whole community, complete with schools (for both children and adults), factories, hospitals, and canteens. 

All of the responsibilities that are delegated to local governments and industry leaders in Western Europe are delegated to the offices of the commune or, as the organising body is known, the local Revolutionary Committee in China. The Chinese staple food is still rice. Cereal crops such as maize, wheat, barley, and millet, as well as peas and beans, are grown in the north. Cotton is an important crop grown primarily in the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys, though China does not produce enough for its own needs. Tea is grown in the country's west and south. China is blessed with a wealth of minerals; not only is high-quality coal produced, but also tin and iron ore. Oil is produced in a number of provinces across the country. Peking, China's ancient capital, has been restored to its rightful place as the country's capital. More than 4,000 years ago, a settlement existed where Peking now stands. It has been burned, sacked, earthquake-damaged, and overrun by foreign powers numerous times. Kublai Khan rebuilt the city from the ground up. The old city, which is still standing, was built in a very formal pattern - rectangular and surrounded by walls. After passing through the Chinese city wall, the Tartar city wall, and the Imperial City wall, one eventually arrives at the Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City wall. The Emperors ruled over China's vast land from here. The gardens, courtyards, and perfectly proportioned palaces with their golden roofs have been preserved despite the absence of Emperors. Anyone who pays the small admission fee can now enter the Forbidden City. Peking, on the other hand, is more than just the old city. It was mostly contained within the old walls in 1949, but it has since expanded in every direction. Peking's population has nearly quadrupled since the communists took control of the city in 1949. 

Yunnan in South China
Ploughing the rice fields ready for planting on a commune in Yunnan in South China

Large structures have been constructed at a breakneck pace. Some of the most impressive structures surround Tien An Men Square, which spans nearly 40 hectares (100 acres). The new Museum of Chinese History, located to the east of the Square, houses beautifully displayed objects from all periods of Chinese history. The Great Hall of the People, which stands directly across from the Museum, is a simple, elegant structure of massive proportions. Its front-age is 33 metres (1,100 feet) long, with a banqueting hall that can accommodate 5,000 people. It also houses a 10,000-seat auditorium known as the Great Hall, where political rallies are held. Communications in China had practically broken down by 1949, after many years of civil war, but since then, a significant effort has been made to extend an efficient communications system to every part of the country. The Yangtze River, for example, is 5,520 kilometres (3,430 miles) long, and the Yellow River is 4,672 kilometres (2,903 miles) long, both of which are shadowed by more rapid and modern lines of communication. Furthermore, despite the difficulty of the terrain, the mountainous areas of western China - roughly half of the country - have now received their fair share of roads, railways, and airports; previously, the lowland east was the only area that was adequately served. In comparison to 1949. The length of railway track has increased by about 50%, the length of road has increased by five times, and there are now over 150,000 km (100,000 miles) of inland waterways, which is more than twice as much as in 1949-50. Internal air routes have been extended to many parts of the country, providing a quick and inexpensive way to travel over mountainous terrain.