Russian eye on the Chinese

Tatiana Shcherbina
6 February 2009

It's the Chinese and the Russians that take their holidays on the island of Hainan- no one else. The terror of finding yourself in an impenetrable world of characters and language where you can't understand a sound gives way to a terror of foreign Russian things. Everywhere you go the menus are in Russian, shop signs are in Russian, sometimes only in Russian, without a single Chinese sign; the hotels buzz with Russian-speaking guides.  In the city of Sanya, the local centre, if the Chinese know any foreign words, then they know them in Russian, but the pronunciation, writing and script are all Chinese. Yes, even the script - always the same specific one with a Chinese accent. What is written is comprehensible, but it is also clear that the writers didn't understand what they were writing. Words break off in the middle or are run together, and the letters "r" and "l" are mutually interchangeable in both speech and writing. Some of the guides who have studied in Russian pronounce this intermediary sound simply as "l", while others get mixed up: they say "kulitsa" (kuritsa, chicken, a word that is frequently encountered on menus), or "khorodno" (kholodno, cold). "R" is on the whole a mysterious letter.  Different peoples pronounce it differently. Arabs and Russians are usually unable to master the French guttural r, while Russian children often take a long time to say the Russian "r" correctly.

In the hotel park by a small pool of the Jacuzzi type there is a sign advertising ‘healing fish'.  When you take a closer look, you see that there are indeed numerous small fish swimming in the pool. These are no ordinary fish - they eat people, and that's why people come here.  You lie down and the fish eat the dead layer of skin off you, starting with your heels. If you lie there for two hours, your heels will be as smooth as a baby's.

The Chinese attitude to nature is different from the Europeans'. We are disgusted by spiders and don't look death (a viper, for instance) in the eye, but the Chinese accept all challenges.  The children of the Miao people, the native inhabitants of the island of Hainan, like to play with snakes: they put the snake in their nostrils and pull it out of their mouths. Adult Miao people have invented an antidote to the bite of the most poisonous snake in the world - the royal cobra. I was given a demonstration: a girl rubbed antidote on her arm, then took a cobra out of the terrarium and let it bite her. Of course, this may be just an "anti-snake ointment": a cobra won't bite a spot that has been rubbed with antidote.  In China you never know: everything is a fake and a forgery.  When someone tries to sell you something (and they try to sell you everything - from extract of shark fat to medicinal tea or a infusion of snake poison), they will praise the article in identical terms, assuring you that it will cure arthritis, cholesterol, high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer and heart attacks.

In the past, the island of Hainan was a prison for the whole of China, like Siberia for us. But unlike Siberia, this prison is in the south. Until recently there was nothing here but jungles, the tribes of the Miao and Li peoples and the South China Sea. The island teemed with snakes, mosquitoes and wild monkeys, but they have all vanished.  Some were eaten, others were packed off to the circus, and yet others were used to make infusions, ointments and powders to cure all ailments. And to lose weight, of course. The Miao and Li tribes also went into business: they had a folklore village built for them, where they show off their skills, and themselves. Girls are prepared to give themselves to any tourist. Not for real, of course, only pretend, as a way to demonstrate their traditional way of life. When a Li girl turns 13, her parents build a separate house next to their own, where she can receive young men. The most enviable bride is a pregnant one. It doesn't matter who the father is, the main thing is that there are children. If the bride is not pregnant, it may turn out that she or her future husband are infertile, and divorce is forbidden.  As soon as a girl marries, her face and body is thickly covered in black tattoos, to disfigure her.  No one will be interested in her anymore, and her husband has seen her in her former state, which is enough to imprint her "untarnished" image in his memory for the rest of his days. 

Virginity, however, is also valued, but for quite different reasons: only undefiled maidens aged between 13 and 16 can gather pu-er tea that grows on the Five Fingers mountain. This expensive tea (which, naturally, cures all illnesses) is sold at a tea factory for 10 times more than in the supermarkets. "Why?" I asked. "Because the tea in the supermarkets is fake". "Why is it fake?" "So poor people can buy it too." It's different tea, but that doesn't matter  - people buy it for the name. Although if a person whose rank means he should give his guests expensive tea, gives them the cheap tea, there will be some discomfiture. The Chinese take the same attitude to tea as the French do to wine. But with wine, everything is written on the label, while the Chinese are guided by the price. How do real brands differ from the fake western brands, which the Chinese manufacture in enormous quantities and Russian tourists fill their suitcases with?  Price. The Chinese don't see the real difference in quality, just as they don't hear the sound "r". For them, any old thing will do.

Hainan has been built up rapidly over the last decade: they have a Capitol building just like the other one, but smaller.  They have 19th century style European mansions, slums, and Stalinist gothic - all mixed up together and all hung with enormous multicoloured characters that light up at night.  It all looks rather garish to me.  The Chinese like everything to be bright, multicoloured, lit up and shining with gold. In Thailand and Vietnam, unlike China, there are lots of slums, and a great deal of poverty (although it's a happy, non-oppressive sort of poverty).  Where they choose to make an effort, however, things are done with taste. However, I haven't been to mainland China, so I can't judge.

On Hainan, the restaurants are like train stations - large and uncomfortable. I was disappointed by Chinese food, of which I am quite a fan.  It's not like Chinese cooking in Europe, there is no cuisine here as such: just a heap of prawns, a lump of meat and a dish of rice. I went to the two most expensive restaurants on Hainan and to some very cheap restaurants.  I preferred the cheap ones. At least the portions are large there, whereas I left the expensive restaurants hungry, and the imitation of gastronomic dishes - with a sprig of parsley and preserves - were a waste of effort. At the expensive restaurants I earned the tips myself: I cleared away the dirty dishes, poured the tea and went to look for the menu to order dessert. The guides all said: "It's the south, what can you do? Things are different in the north."

The guides are all from the north, from Harbin. It was they who took us to the incredibly expensive restaurants.  They shrugged their shoulders and said that if this was the way things were in the expensive restaurants, then we could imagine what the cheap ones were like. This was not true, but after three days you get used to the fact that everyone is trying to rip you off.   Everything on the island is more expensive than in Vietnam and Thailand, with prices for "Chinese things", which are the symbol of shoddy goods, hiked quite high.  In one of the expensive restaurants I found myself in the company of two tourists from Yakutia and an elderly woman who was the director of an institute in Khabarovsk. All the Chinese guides study under an exchange programme in her institute.  The Russians who go to China, according to the director, try to stay there any way they can: the standard of living in Harbin is much higher. "China's right next door, and Moscow's far away. Now the Chinese are building a new city right on the border, and Khabarovsk residents dream of moving there".  Half the population of Khabarovsk is Chinese and they are gradually integrating with the locals.  The Chinese are conquering the territory, but with their bodies rather than with tanks.  According to the director, girls in the Far East dream of marrying Chinese men.  They are good husbands, and hard workers.

Compared with Russians, the Chinese are indeed very industrious, but it's the Japanese that are the model of hard workers for them. Japan is the only country that they hate and respect at the same time for its hard-working population. Though hard-working is not the right word.  I saw a car in Sanya: it was the copy of a Nissan Note, but with Chinese insignia and I'm sure that it hadn't been manufactured under licence.  It's the same with everything:  the Chinese can reproduce the appearance of something and imitate it, but are quite incapable of inventing or developing anything themselves, and manufacturing is always sloppy. They can't tell the difference, just like the letter „r", and that's fine for them. It's very like Russia, where the level of sloppiness is even lower.

The Chinese consider the Koreans to be their brothers, both from South and North Korea, („what's wrong with Juche?"). I was able to get them to admit what they thought about the Russians. „Russians are noisy, they talk loudly," said the guide who was the best at pronouncing the letter „r".  (I would say the same thing about the Chinese. In Thailand, for example, they are easily identifiable because they are noisy and pushy). "Russians are mean, they like to fight and to kill". It's hard to disagree. Russians are either sacrificed by their fierce Tsars, or wipe each other off the face of the earth.

Yura from Mirny in Yakutia who has a small business and works at Alrosa says: „In Russia the officials are all-powerful and unpunished and corruption has reached such a level that bribes form the main part of every price.  The mayoral elections are also corrupt - we elected someone that the bosses didn't want, and the results were faked the next day, quite shamelessly. You can't get to the bottom of it either. We did have one seeker after truth - he had drugs planted on him and was thrown in prison. No one else is stupid enough to try." Living in Russia is not the same as living in Moscow. In order to travel abroad, you need to get to the capital, apply for a visa, and then stay somewhere while you're waiting.  This is why residents of Yakutia who can afford to travel only go to countries where they don't need a visa. But it costs them three times as much as the Muscovites.

Socialism and totalitarianism, I thought to myself on the island of Hainan, are a punishment for bad nations. People who are incapable of self-organisation or self-control, and lack any stimulus to improve themselves. These systems stop them from constantly fighting and stealing everything, so they at least get something done. "Socialism is accountability and control" - the formula went, but that is not the point.  In France regulation is 100 times stricter than it is in China, but the French have an inborn idea of perfection (and hence the taste, beauty, elegance and creative energy that gave the world vaccinations, photography, cinema and fashion).  For the Chinese this concept wore very thin at some point, because they rejected modernisation.

Of course they did: China is the home of ceremony, patriarchy and martial arts. You can still feel this in every Chinese person.  The smiles of charming girls mask a harshness, as if they were all masters of Kung Fu and Wu Shu. When they talk their hands don't fly through the air, they chop it as if they were writing characters. China, like Russia, proved powerless in the face of the qualitative leap required by the 20th century. Or rather, Russia made its leap - into space, but the population remained a "mass". And Russia got bogged down in the mass, while China began preparing for its leap later, and is now overtaking Russia. In China all the best things are state-owned, while private business is all rather shady. Perhaps the only private business is making fake shell jewellery and selling mangos on the street - this sort of private business also existed in Soviet seaside towns. There are no shells or stones on the beach - as soon as the sea washes anything up, the Chinese take it: it may come in useful. This is the main power of the Chinese: the ability to turn everything to their advantage. From rattlesnakes to the financial crisis: there is no crisis in China, they have never played at agreeing prices with the rest of the world, so they can steal other brands and technology unpunished. The Yuan is strengthening everyday against international currencies. Perhaps the Russians and the Chinese really will become brothers forever.


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