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 Flying the (red) flag: Eliza Filby on the Great Wall of China during her stay in the country where she taught a British history class.

On first encounter, Beijing appears rather as one would imagine Victorian London would have looked to the unfamiliar eye — its population bursting at the seams, abject poverty uncomfortably close to excessive wealth and the state-of-the-art squeezing out a bygone age. A dense blanket of smog hovers above, while at street level the city overflows with the mixture of buzz and havoc that comes with fast-paced industrialisation. Welcome to the new "workshop of the world".

Beijing is not a beautiful place. It is a chaotic mess, but a romantic one nonetheless. The immense imperial palace, the Forbidden City, lies in the centre encircled by the labyrinth of overcrowded hutong dwellings that still house Beijing's poor. On the outer ring is 21st-century Beijing: those vast and bloated skyscrapers which make one feel like an ant. They trounce anything in New York in scale, if not in elegance. Beijingers talk of how their city has become a playground for Western architects and it is a fair criticism: some buildings do look as if a child has been let loose with Lego. 

One of the greatest architectural demonstrations of China's rise is the Olympic Park. The hosting of the Games in 2008 was to China what the Great Exhibition was to Victorian Britain in terms of national pride. Five years on, its main function is as a pit-stop for tourists: no talk of legacy here. 

Signs of the new affluence are everywhere. You rarely see a car that is more than a couple of years old. There is nothing quite like a Chinese traffic jam, crawling at a snail's pace in 40-degree heat with no junction turnings. They have been known to last days. 

I arrived last summer to teach at Renmin University with absolutely no knowledge of Chinese. Frankly, I was naive: it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that the furthest east I had ever travelled was Bethnal Green in the East End. I was there for a month to teach a course on British history at the university's summer school. The aim was to trace the evolution of British society from 1850 to the present day, charting its development as the first industrialised nation. 

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sd goh
September 28th, 2013
11:09 AM
Eliza Filby, pardon me for bringing up this point about China being more "a continent than a nation/country." I think it was Bertrand Russell also who mentioned this in his 1922 book 'The Problem of China'. I would like to think that during your time there, albeit a brief one, you most likely would not have encountered this phenomenon which Russell found quite amusing. And that is, at his lectures there, notable Chinese intellectuals would scramble to sit at the back of the hall than in front, to avoid sticking out conspicuously. This low-profile stance could be said to be due to the Taoist teachings in which 'self-effacing' conduct is a marked one .

Ceri Morgan
September 27th, 2013
8:09 AM
Thanks Eliza - this drew a really good picture of the students you taught. I've visited China many times in the last 20 years and have worked for and with Chinese companies, and you'll be pleased to know that the answering of mobiles in meetings is not confined to the young: 40-something business execs do it all the time as well. You quote Martin Jacques, and he is very quotable, but have ever actually learned anything useful from him? His advocacy of China is on the face of it positive, but I do not believe that his big idea, the European Nation State vs. the Chinese Civilisation State, is either accurate or useful, and like badly woven silk it falls to pieces under rigorous examination.

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