In advance of Graham Earnshaw’s talk at the Beijing Bookworm on Saturday, here’s a chapter from his brand new book, The Great Walk of China. After crossing flat country for most of the distance from Shanghai, Graham finds himself in the Dabie Mountains of rural Anhui Province.
Chapter 2: Drinking Games
The day’s walk was over and I returned to Chashui for dinner. I called Teacher Xu, who asked me to come to the school gates at 5.30pm. Arriving promptly, Teacher Xu led me inside to a conference room where I found a delegation of five men waiting for me, three of them in suits. Leading the delegation was Mr. Cheng Zhihua, secretary of the Qianshan County Communist Youth League, who looked about thirty-five years old. Accompanying him were his assistant, Mr. Huang, Teacher Xu and two vice-headmasters. Headmaster Chen, I was informed, was not available.
“I think it is very beautiful,” I replied.
“We welcome people from all over the world,” he responded, so I asked how many other foreigners had passed this way. “There was an African man from Cameroon a few years ago, but apart from that, you’re the first foreigner to visit the region.” I said it was my honour.
“We are looking for investment – investors – and maybe you would be interested?” he asked.
“I am just walking through,” I replied. “I am not here looking for investments. But I do think the mountains are beautiful and there should be big potential for tourism in the long term.”
“We think so too,” he said. “There are several local hotel projects under construction, but not high class. There is no foreign investment in them.”
I suggested they should be cautious about developing lower level hotel projects to avoid the kind of damage to the scenery and environment inflicted on other places such as the once beautiful town of Guilin.
“Mr. Yan referred to a six-star hotel idea?” prompted Teacher Xu.
“I think such an idea would be great in theory, though in practice it would require a lot of patience and money and support from the local government. Outside investors are convinced about the future of China tourism, but the Dabie Mountains are very remote, and there would be a reluctance to invest.”
“Thank you for your frankness,” Mr. Cheng said. “Now it is time for dinner.”
“My treat,” I said. “Let us go to a local restaurant and have a simple meal.”
“I have arranged dinner at the best restaurant in town, a banquet for two hundred and fifty RMB,” Teacher Xu announced.
“Wow, two hundred and fifty RMB!” I said. “You have a Grand Hyatt here? I had dinner the other night for just forty RMB including beer.”
“Only forty RMB? Impossible,” Teacher Xu said.
“Our treat,” Mr. Cheng pushed.
“No no,” I said.
“Yes yes,” they said.
It was the old Chinese banquet-hosting ploy of push and pull. I decided to cave in, even though it meant no dinner for Xu Bing. I sensed they had expected me to insist but I wasn’t interested in playing their game – there were more people than planned, and two hundred and fifty RMB for a meal in Chashui was outrageous.
We drove off from the school and thirty seconds later we arrived at the local inn at which I had previously eaten for forty RMB and taken a room. We went upstairs and the toasting began. Everyone drank ‘baijiu’ (the Chinese spirit that’s from eighty to one hundred and twenty proof and is usually made from sorghum grain), except for one of the vice-headmasters who gained my respect by bucking convention and drinking beer out of the baijiu shot glasses.
The drinking culture in China is fascinating. All the strengths and genius of Chinese culture are revealed within it, as well as a few of the shortcomings. But it’s the strengths that predominate.
It is social manipulation on a scale and sophistication far beyond anything Western culture has developed. In the West everyone basically drinks alone. When a group of people gathers together and drink alcohol in Europe or the United States, they may clink glasses and say cheers once at the beginning, but after that each person drinks alone, sipping alcohol when they choose with no regard to what is happening around them. In China, no one drinks alone. Every time the glass is raised it is used to manipulate a relationship in some way. The aim is to toast each person around the table in turn, including a special look and a few words, which provides the chance for manipulation. Of course, as in the West, the aim is also to get drunk, but there’s an added layer of social interaction that comes from thousands of years of perfecting the drinking culture. The West has a lot to learn from China in the twenty-first century.
My new friends were toasting each other like mad, and with each salutation a glass was drained. I chose to sip my drink, which drew disapproving glances. Teacher Xu was the worst, making a big point of wanting me to drain the glass each time. On principle I declined, telling him my drinking capacity was clearly no match for his. I can drink large quantities of baijiu when necessary – if it is an important dinner in an outlying province and it is necessary to gain the respect of my dinner companions, but I don’t enjoy it, because a baijiu hangover is about the worst I have ever experienced. Actually, the only good thing that can be said about baijiu is that every glass tastes better than the last.
There was no way I wanted to become baijiu-drunk and have to sweat the stuff out the next day on the road.
“Mr. Yan is a cautious drinker, like myself,” Mr. Cheng said, to head off Teacher Xu. He toasted me and we continued to sip the alcohol.
Still strictly business, Mr. Cheng said investors would be able to enjoy special tax breaks for several years, and tasked his assistant Mr. Huang to visit me in Shanghai to give me materials on investment policy and opportunities in the region but as soon as he realised that I was not going to invest in any of his proposals, he stood up suddenly and said that while it had been an honour to meet me and all that, he had to leave to get back to the county seat about fifty kilometres from Chashui.
“Stay with him for a while,” he said to Teacher Xu as he left.
Teacher Xu, who I now noticed was pudgy and unfit at only twenty-nine years of age, continued to toast me, although he said at one point that he had drunk so much that if he drank much more he would explode. “That would be unfortunate,” I said, but he kept up the toast rate, and began pushing the investment line in a self-serving way. “Your plan of a six-star hotel is excellent, but you will need assistance here, and a lot of help from the local government.”
“I am sure that is true,” I said. “But, remember, I am just walking through.”
He said that being a teacher is very important and that while he’d had opportunities to develop his career outside the mountains, he had decided to work in the Chashui High School in order to help the local people.
“We play an important role, developing the patriotism of the students. Connections with the outside world are important, although I don’t like Japanese people,” he said.
This is a comment that always annoys me. “Why don’t you like Japanese people?” I asked.
“Because of the way they treated China in the war.”
“But it wasn’t the Japanese of today, it was their grandfathers,” I pointed out.
“Nanjing massacre… Yasukuni Shrine…”
“This is all history and government policy,” I said. “The British fought the Opium Wars with China. Do you think I should apologize to you for that?”
“Um, well, the Japanese government won’t admit the errors of the past.”
“That is the government. What has that got to do with the ordinary people? You think I support every policy of the British government because I hold a British passport? Should I blame you personally for the Chinese government’s activities in Sudan?” I was warming to the theme. Bloody baijiu. “Your students deserve a balanced education. To condemn Japanese people in this way is to return to the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution. In those days, as you know Teacher Xu, people were imprisoned and their lives ruined because they had a ’family background problem’, meaning their grandfather had travelled abroad, or something equally irrelevant.”
We eventually ended the impasse by agreeing that everyone in the world is equal.
Xu insisted on opening yet another bottle of beer, even though it was clear I didn’t want it and he couldn’t handle it. We drank half and then he said: “You should now go upstairs to rest.” I insisted on going down to the door with him to see him off. “Really not necessary, you go and rest,” he ordered me. “I am waiting for someone,” I replied.
“Who is it?”
“Someone I met.”
“I had better stay here and see him to make sure it is all right,” he said, playing the role of the nosy official.
“Teacher Xu, I am grateful for your concern and good wishes, but I am an adult and I wish you a good night.” I presented him with my hand to