Tianjin Diaries, 9/1

A few years ago, the writer Ye Meng published a short story imagining urban life jumbled into an epic traffic jam. The characters in the story quickly redefine their immobile vehicles as “home” and carry on with daily life, family, and romance as these might be divided between the front and back seats, pavement and breakdown lanes. It’s an exaggerated satire, but in one respect falls short. Ye Meng’s fictional traffic jam lasts for two days, while the real snarl on the highway from Inner Mongolia to Beijing lasted for 9 days, finally unwinding last week (for now). Its immediate cause was road work necessitated by the heavy truck traffic on the highway; the truck traffic is mainly in illegal coal, which uses that particular highway because tolls are lower (I gather). So far, on the other side of Beijing, we’ve been doing alright in cabs, even in rush hour, but China adds 14,000 new vehicles to its road every single day. Everything about life here is “so far,” “for the present.”

“Traffic Jam” ends with this vision:

Just then I looked over her head into the distance. The cars seemed to have become one with the sky.

I don’t have the story in Chinese of course, but I’m guessing the final word is 天, tiān, “sky, heaven, heavenly, day.” Tiān, as in Tianjin, 天津, which means “heavenly ford” or “sky crossing.” Heavenly sky is also a tag for the emperor (“son of heaven”), who forded the grand canal here in 1404, naming the place. The equation of tiān and traffic could mean several things: consumerism is heavenly, cars entirely fill our days, or even that car culture has merged with the ancient imperial state. I like that at the very last minute, the gaze of the story wrenches from the distant horizon to the vertical up, as this happens all the time here. Oddly, on most days there is no sky, just a heavy luminous gray haze. (So, one of the expat websites praises Tianjin as a city where you can look at the sun without hurting your eyes. (That is, if you can find the sun.)) (However, on Saturday night, we admired the moon and several stars on a beautiful mild evening in Beijing.) But there is plenty to see overhead, because Chinese imagination has always faced an intricate heaven. Traditional buildings are poised and powerful on their fat wooden pillars and perfect feng shui pediments, but the glorious decorations are under the eaves, where the cantilevers lift the roof up and out from its base. The brilliant reds and blues are tucked up there, along with mazing patterns and panel paintings. One example is the Long Corridor at the Summer Palace in Beijing. The Summer Palace is the imperial retreat from the heat, about ten miles from the Forbidden City, built amid hills and lakes. The Long Corridor is a covered walkway that snakes for half a mile along Kunming Lake. On its beams and side panels are 14,000 paintings of everything Chinese — landscapes, historical scenes, legends, and myths. The corridor encourages slow walking with eyes up. There’s no exact order (as far as I know) so you connect the images as you like, lingering on some and sweeping over others. There aren’t many written characters along the journey, which is unusual as so many surfaces here are inscribed. For the illiterate, then, the Long Corridor is a relief, a painterly powerpoint without bullet lists. Nothing you need to know or do or watch out for. Just look up.

The Summer Palace, like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, also exemplifies the Chinese capacity for action at a colossal scale. The human cost for these projects is enormous, reflecting huge and powerful states throughout history. But at the same time, the sheer idea is breathtaking — who, one wonders, could even imagine such a thing before it was built? And clearly this has not diminished in modern China. Beijing is one center of new wealth, and possibly not the most extravagant. But last week a Fulbright orientation day culminated with a family outing to “The Place,” a pedestrian shopping street in Beijing. On both sides of this broad avenue are upscale malls of Manhattan brands. Between the facades, about five stories above the plaza, where the sky used to be, hangs a digital screen that is probably a thousand feet long. It’s called the largest screen in Asia, but I wonder where to find a bigger one. The big woofers rumble and the sky itself moves. The swooping images provide all the outdoor light, making the windows flash and the pavement glow. I’d been thinking of Beijing as Manhattan on steroids, but after this I would throw in a dash of Vegas — on LSD.

“Contemporary Chinese fiction writers have all experienced the colossal urbanization process and witnessed the great changes in people’s lives and inner beings,” says the introduction to the volume that includes “Traffic Jam.” The editor continues:

They are trying to tell people’s stories in such a world, wherein everything is changing and all established assumptions about people are being tested, where everyone becomes a stranger and people’s stories wait in silence for concrete expression.

The Western narrative about China these days is ominous: the global train wreck will begin here. Maybe. There may be no single perspective on China. (“Perspective” is itself a Western notion.) The road is just one concrete expression. In a tight race with the ultimate traffic jam is a spectacular push for transportation infrastructure. (Fifteen years ago Shanghai had no subway at all; by 2020 it will have more rapid transit tracks than all of Japan.) Perhaps the wackiest idea I’ve heard is the “straddle bus,” a two story street roaming train, a giant New Year’s parade dragon, that cars can drive under, in effect creating a double layer of traffic. Someone was looking to the sky! (If you’re intrigued, this Chinese video shows the bus in action.) The prototype will enter service in Beijing in December. Zaijian!


About lloyddan

Professor, Trinity College, Connecticut, but living in Tianjin, China, until July 2011
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One Response to

  1. Anita says:

    It’s all continuous gorgeousness. Your descriptions, and Cheryl’s, make me feel like I’m walking alongside you (free transportation and little exertion); it’s all so beautifully narrated.
    We’ll talk very soon!
    Love and miss you

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