My “interview” started with a four-hour tour at the Panda Base in Chengdu, Sichuan, to location of China’s largest panda breeding program. My tour guide, Sherry*, picked me up at my hotel and surprised me with her nearly perfect American accent. I could not help but ask where she had studied. Sherry reveals that, in fact, she is self-taught and learned English by watching and re-watching Gossip Girl and The Big Bang Theory episodes.
I was incredibly lucky that tourists were rare this week in Chengdu – normally we would have been accompanied by at least four other tourists. On this tour Sherry and I are alone, free to punctuate talk about the panda breeding program with tactful personal questions. I am incredibly lucky to have been paired with my Chinese counterpart: mid-thirties, five years youthful, and university educated.
As we spoke for hours, the conversation progresses into a heart-to-heart on the car ride home, as we are accompanied only by a non-English speaking driver. Sherry opened up about her private troubles: her mother’s nagging and disappointment in her choice of university major, husband (not rich enough) and children (two boys – the second one her mother considers an unnecessary burden due to expensive private school tuition). My singledom and child-free lifestyle left me feeling unqualified to advise her, so I offer cliched advice to “follow your heart and do what you know is right.” Still, the advice is well-received, bringing tears to her eyes.
I had already scheduled a hiking tour for the next day, and luckily the tour company assigns Sherry to again be my guide. As before, it will be a private tour. We have eight hours to see the Dujiangyan irrigation system and hike up Mount Qingcheng, passing one Daoist temple on our way to a second one located at the peak. Tomorrow will begin with my pickup at eight o’clock.
It was an hour-and-a-half trip to Dujiangyan. Walking past the gates to the top-tier UNESCO World Heritage site, it is obvious that Sherry is proud of her country’s history. “Do you know who Li Bing is?” she asks, clearly optimistic that I know of the Qin governor who designed the irrigation project approximately 2200 years ago. I confess that I do not, but she is not dismayed. Instead, she excitedly tells me about his skill and determination in building an irrigation system that would save lives and help guarantee a food supply for generations of Chinese people.
Sherry takes my picture at the main site, and I comment on Li Bing’s ingenuity, noting how many Western people fail to regard China as a civilization that was, when compared to ancient Greek civilization, also quite advanced. The Greeks built water supply systems and the Chinese constructed Dujiangyan’s irrigation system. The latter is still as operational as it was back then.
Sherry proudly accepts my praise on behalf of her countrymen. She notes that for Chinese people a great leader is someone who builds for future generations – Li Bing was a great leader. We walked toward a bridge and viewing point, and I take the opportunity to ask if Chinese people think Xi Jinping fits the bill of a “great leader”.
“I’m a Party member,” she immediately replies, proceeding to tell me of Xi’s accomplishments, including his rooting out corruption so that China can become stronger and more united. Xi Jinping, in her eyes, is a great leader. She continues to tell me that as the son of a famous Communist official, he is qualified by his family history and, moreover, his career serving several provinces becoming vice-president is her assurance of his abilities. Sherry adds that Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, is beloved by all Chinese for her flawless, soprano voice and uplifting contemporary folk singing. “She doesn’t sing in performances anymore, so the whole country misses her singing on the New Year’s TV special,” she laments. Unable to wait for later to show me, we stand in the middle of the road watching Peng’s patriotic performance of My Motherland on my cell phone.
We cross a bridge decorated for Chinese Lunar New Year with fat red bows. I press Sherry about her Party membership. “In the West,” I said, “anyone can join a political party, but in China I hear people volunteer this information as if it’s a special privilege.” I mention that earlier in my trip, a professor had stated his Party membership as a qualification.
“Not everyone can become a Party member,” she proudly explains. Her teacher in high school had hand-selected her and only one other student out of the entire class for recommendation to the Party based on their academics, good citizenship, and desire to promote socialism. The recommendation was accepted and she became a Party member. “But what does it mean to have the privilege?” I press, curious about perks. Sherry informs me that she receives special Party news updates and attends meetings, and so within her community her fellow citizens trust her to be their first source for answers to their political questions. When disasters strike, she must be willing to assist her country. Unconvinced by the appeal of those “privileges,” I ask directly about personal benefits. Sherry replies: “It’s sometimes easier to get promoted in a company if you have Party membership because you’ve already proven your discipline and ability.”
As the day continues, I became Sherry’s confidant for her personal worries and business aspirations – too shameful to divulge to her Chinese friends. The reward in the relationship is her honest description of social pressures and fierce competition facing young Chinese people, and a glimpse into underlying desires for personal prosperity within the limitations of a socialist country.
Build happiness for ten thousand generations.Deng Xiaoping
Sherry relaxed in my genuine interest in China, reading and translating at my request the words of Li Bing and the other inscriptions on the walls of Erwang Temple. We walk through a gate and began descending a long flight of stairs that would take us toward the exit. As we descend the stairs, treated to a view of the Dujianyan irrigation project far below, an enormous white wall with four Chinese characters awaits us. This quote is larger than any others in the temple and the only one emphasized by a white background and heavy brown border. I recognize the name of 20th century Chinese politician, Deng Xiao Ping – known as “the architect of China” for his economic reforms. Zao fu wan dai (造福万代), the quote read, translatable as Build happiness for ten thousand generations.
I remember Sherry’s earlier words about great leaders and understood her unwaveringly positive perspective of Xi Jinping. No doubt many workers were injured and suffered for the production of governor Li Bing’s engineering miracle in 200 BCE, but the Chinese people still benefit from it today.
A tour that I thought would introduce me to an ancient engineering miracle in fact introduced me to the Chinese perspective that backs their political unity. In China, the question, “What makes a Great Leader?” can be answered with the quote, “造福万代”, someone who builds happiness for ten thousand generations.