Hanging around the smokehouse Photo from Kurt Mitenbuler

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By Kurt Mitenbuler

The days drag on. Quarantine protocols remain in place, but it is clear folks are bored. The gate monitors, who at one time documented my departures and reentries with multiple notes and temperatures logged into databases, now look up, see its me, and wave me through. Everyone is tired of this. Everyone just wants to get back to work.

I read the New York Times articles who have reporters on the ground in Wuhan documenting the real story” with amusement. First, I dont know a single Chinese citizen who will talk to a stranger, let alone a laowai [an informal term or slang for “foreigner” and/or non-Chinese national] taking notes.

In America, it would be akin to walking up to a delirious stranger babbling on the sidewalk and asking them what they thought of the current political situation in America. Yes, an opinion would be presented, representative of nothing.

Second, the story in Wuhan, or even Shanghai, Beijing, or other golden cities on the dream coast, is not the story. Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen and similar modern cities are literally decades removed from whats its like in the interior.

Wuhan is a city of villages, its residents almost all first generation off the farm, or at most, two generations. A huge percentage of the Wuhan population is peasants who left the countryside to try their luck in the Emerald City of the interior.

The story of China is where the mass of people still reside, and that is in the countryside. Countryside” is the term that anyone outside a major population center uses to describe the small (population one million or less) cities and towns that still make up the vast majority of the population. How does one determine the thoughts of those in the countryside? There is a single way. One must be part of a family.

Family is a different situation in China from what it is in America. I read a piece recently in an American publication about two types of families. There are families where, even after marriage, family events still focus around one or the other partner’s families. The other type of family joyfully brings together both sides for family gatherings. Chinese families are of the latter.

When I describe the former to my Chinese family, it is incomprehensible. To Chinese, this is not even a family; it is something they dont have a word for.

Chinese families can be traced back thousands of years, and records are maintained in ancestor halls, where one can scan down lists of characters and see where they came from.

When I describe my family in America, where we only have a rough idea of where we are from – and that a place called Ellis Island confused all lineage – and that after that its all conjecture, I see a look of utter confusion. After confusion, something else: the assertion that I am now part of their family, and that everything is OK. I can relax. I know what I am part of.

Ive heard of other loawai, after marrying into a family, got the opposite. In fact, these friends faced demands that they pony up tens of thousands of American dollars to be able to marry their daughter. When the payment was not made, these people were essentially cast out of the clan. As near as I can determine, both wife and husband were fine with that. Its good for some traditions to fall under the weight of love. Its another notch in my belief that love, does in fact, conquer all.

Even within family, determining the opinions of Chinese is something that takes years of association to develop a trust where one might confide their actual thoughts. Only a couple of my family will talk with me fairly. Heres what Ive learned about the current epidemic conundrum.

It is another situation in a long sequence of situations. It is special to the extent that it is happening now, but in the inescapable weight of the long history of a civilization, it is only one more situation.

Study Chinese history, and one finds a finely documented record of more than 360 deadly plagues going back thousands of years, right down to specific statistics of number of cases, treatment methods, success rates and deaths. There are already logs for the entire city of Wuhan citing statistics. This is just one more story to be logged into the record. 

I have heard some acknowledgement that yes, the government fumbled the ball on this, but those acknowledgements and accusations go as high as the local officials, who are clearly being set up by the Emperor and his minions to be the fall guys. The Emperor cannot be wrong.

That the Emperor cannot be wrong is an idea ingrained in ways that are antithetical to an American. There is no way to explain it. Different histories create different ways of perceiving ones position in society. Dont waste precious fuel trying to understand it beyond this simple observation. It is just another characteristic of Chinese society that one has to accept if we are to exist together on this little blue marble spinning through the cosmos.

What about all those dynasties that fell?” an American will ask. There are a multitude of answers. In some few cases, it was due to the population’s being so beaten upon that peasant uprisings (remember,the countryside is where most people live) brought down a government. The Ming and the 1911 Wuchang uprising are examples.

The Ming is interesting, as there were both severe environmental catastrophes (the Little Ice Age of the 16th and early 17th centuries, essentially climate change) causing failed harvests, accompanying plagues, and an aristocracy devoted entirely to its own pursuit of luxury, which eventually broke the dam holding back discontent. The confusions of pleasure of a vast aristocracy were too much for starving peasants to accept.

The Wuchang uprising, which toppled the last dynasty was similar. The form of government had hit the end of the road. Vast wealth and accompanying aristocracies concerned only with their own pleasure were too much for a beaten population to accept. 

The rest of the failed dynasties were simple stories of conquest. Some group within China (the majority) or without (Yuan and Qing) were the usual story of someone wanting to take over. The story of dynastic change is one of ceaseless and horrific civil wars, very often accompanied by climate change affecting harvests. Modern science has been able to track these environmental cataclysms, and its remarkable how often civil war and governments being toppled is inextricably tied to changes in our environment.

It might be something for us to all consider. We have, in the finely tuned documentation of Chinese history, the story we are ourselves now living.