China, Home of Wikkipedia


Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series)


Understanding China is much easier if one remembers that the Chinese character for China symbolises the idea that it is the ‘middle kingdom’, at the centre of the universe. Hubris has been the downfall of many a great civilization, and China’s eclipse over the last few hundred years or so, and its dramatic rise over the last 20 years has to do with changing the attitude that it has nothing to learn from anywhere else. All good things are already there. In fact, one myth is that the Great Wall of China was built as much to keep out foreigners, as much as to keep all good things Chinese from seeping out. In a word: an important source of isolation.


My recent trip to Beijing, some 15 years on from the previous one, took me aback as to how much things can change in such a short time. To be sure, Beijing is the capital of the middle kingdom; it is a show piece, and is currently being spruced up for the 2008 Olympics.


Having returned this morning, I have concluded that I like this new China, flipping between over-confidence, openness and optimism, and uncertainty about its place in the world.


I plan to invest my money in China, furthermore, having come across an investment firm called ‘Promise-keeping investment company’, as opposed to the scoundrels in the west who do not keep their promises.  


Money and technology seem to be rife. I had the privilege of using the toilets in an up-market restaurant, where every urinal had a flat screen TV. It does raise questions, does it not, on the size of Chinese men’s bladders, their attention spans, or their addiction to TV


One common characteristic of having made most of my trips alone (whether Manchester, Kampala or Beijing) is that when sitting in a bar it is generally assumed that i am either gay or desperate, and thus get propositioned quite often. Beijing is no different in this regard, although the sophistication with which I am propositioned has certainly improved. Before I would be approached in quite a direct and somewhat crude way; now they engage in quite intelligent banter. The new approach involves compliments about my youthful appearance, and an invitation to drink 'tea'. One thing has not changed: for some reason my ability to raise one eyebrow at will (a la Roger Moore) always leads to hysterical giggling among Chinese women.


The rising income levels have changed a number of things. 15 years ago, cars were the exception on the roads, now 4.5 million cars plough the roads. Gone are the Mao suits and the polyester dresses that came in just three patterns. People are taller, heavier, and Chinese TV has lots of infomercials and stories about the growing challenges of obesity.


Popular myth has it that the Chinese invented the first toilet some 2000 years ago, and a 1000 years later, toilet paper. However, they have yet - I regret to report - discovered the need to clean their toilets, nor to make toilet paper available in public facilities, you must still bring your own. Where paper is available (say in your hotel room), the simple facility of making perforations to tear the appropriate number of sheets is still, it seems, a technological breakthrough that has yet to penetrate the high tech world of Chinese toilet paper factories.


The Chinese have become seasoned travellers. A Hong Kong joke popular two decades ago was that most airlines allowed one item of hand baggage, with the exception of Air China where two chickens and a basket of fish were acceptable. And it was not too far away from the truth. I am happy to report that this time i had no fish-like fluids dripping on me from the overhead luggage compartments. Chinese passengers on Air China clap and used to scream with happiness when the plane touched down;, they have now become quite urbane in their flying habits: no longer is general cheering and clapping a feature of landings: this may have to with the declining use of somewhat dubious Chinese aircraft designs, in favour of Airbuses and Boeings.



My favourite moment was booking my trip to Tibet (more on this in next essay) at the state-run travel agency. One is obliged when travelling to Tibet to have a guide, and the young lady was trying her very best to translate my itinerary into English. I went out for a walk so she might ponder over the possible English names for places, and returned to find that my agenda for Tuesday included a trip to the Sala Monastery and Wikkipedia. Wikkipedia? I asked the woman, are you sure?! She insisted this was the right translation, because when she type the Chinese name into Google, this was the response. she was emphatic. Wikkipedia was what my Tuesday afternoon would be. So now you know, Wikkipedia is alive and well in the middle kingdom, located not so far away from Shangri-la, and not, as some of you may think, a fixture of the virtual world.


China has much to teach the world!