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Vast. Ancient. Imperturbable. China.
By Simon Winchester, Special to the Times
Published December 18, 2007
Time and again these three words would present themselves to me whenever I wandered across China - and they did so no matter how infuriatingly difficult or appalling the conditions of my journeying.
From the moment I first arrived, back on a cold and dusty Beijing dawn 30 years ago, to the day that I am writing this, leaving on a jet plane from the now-glittering Armani-and-Coke metropolis of Changsha, it was those three words, those three concepts, that underwrote all that I have come to know and feel and love about the place.
And it was that first morning cold - bitter and harsh, with the fine windblown sand of Mongolia stinging the air, and Chinese soldiers huddled in great green padded coats at every airport gate.
Drab first impressions
The city people, all in jackets of blue drab, walked or cycled in a kind of silent languor; a few black cars moved slowly along Changan Avenue beneath the immense portrait of Chairman Mao. The hotel was gray and gaunt and deathly quiet, and there was only hot water and green tea and cheap Shandong beer to drink with our noodles.
What a sorry place, I think we all felt. A sad, shabby, ruined place, a fallen giant, an experiment all gone wrong.
And yet, I thought, and yet . . .
The telling moment came the following morning, half an hour before dawn, when everything changed. This was the moment for which an old British diplomat had made me wake so early.
"Watch them when they raise their flag," he had said to me, conspiratorially, at lunch one day before I left London. "Watch - and see!"
That bitter dark morning, the eastern sky showing just a hint of lightening gray, opened with the crash of the unlocking of the vast gates, and a sudden synchronized clatter as the honor guard swept out from the main south gate of the Forbidden City.
The unfurled spirit
Forty identically tall soldiers goose-stepped across the avenue, white belts shining, bayonets glinting in the floodlights, and they wheeled up toward the huge flagpole at the northern side of Tiananmen Square.
As a military band surged its way through The March of the Volunteers, the great red flag was slowly hoisted until, when a soldier held it head-high, he tossed it violently out into the biting wind so that it caught and flew, streaming into the breeze for every one of the seconds it took to reach the top.
And then, as the last strains of the anthem died away, and there was silence once again, I looked about me into the slowly illuminating square.
There gazing in rapture up at the flag - and with reverence toward the picture of Mao, too, it has to be said - were hundreds upon hundreds of silent watchers, their faces and eyes and colors displaying the rich complexity of a mighty nation.
There were Uighurs who had come here after six days of rail travel from the far northwest; there were tall Manchus from up by the Russian frontier; there were small Burmese-looking women from Yunnan, Tujia tribesmen from Hunan, dark-skinned Cantonese from the Pearl River delta and scores of ordinary Han Chinese, too.
And yet here they seemed annealed into one mass of pride and defiance - each for perhaps the only time in their lives in Beijing, the central city of the nation they knew as the Middle Kingdom, playing their small appointed parts in the daily official celebration of their enormous republic.
Yes, enormous - vast seemed almost too modest a word. The distances they had come were prodigious - Kashgar was almost in Europe, Hainan was in the tropics, the Black Dragon River was frozen for much of the year.
The rulers who lived in such secret seclusion behind the high red walls of the Forbidden City commanded, as they had commanded in some form or other for 2,000 uninterrupted years, a truly great nation.
History in perspective
So its extent was vast; its rule was ancient; and from the look of the people and the soldiers and the institutions and habits and writings and all the inventions of China that presented themselves, there was a stolid, uncaring, take-the-long-view disdainful imperturbability about them, too.
So yes, even on that long-ago morning, the three words held true:
The place is Vast; the culture is Ancient; the people utterly Imperturbable.
And today, three decades later, the same holds true, no matter the scale, no matter the circumstance.
I am writing this flying down from Changsha, a city of which most in the West have never heard - and yet it has a population estimated at 6-million people. Its university, at which Mao was once a student, is without contest the second-oldest in the world.
And its people have no interest in the waywardness of the West or the trivia of outside institutions: They are themselves aloof and sure, stolid and eternal.
Yes, whether it is Changsha or China, the trinity of adjectives remains for me a touchstone that reminds me just why I love the Middle Kingdom, have from the very start, and always, always will.
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About the author
Simon Winchester's books include A Crack in the Edge of the World and The Map That Changed the World. He has lived in Africa, India and Hong Kong, and is currently writing a book about China. This article originally appeared on an online travel site. For more information on Simon Winchester and his oeuvre of some 20 books, visit simonwinchester.com.
If you're interested in visiting the Middle Kingdom, check out GeoEx's varied roster of China tours and private journeys.