There are also good people in Henan

On May 4, after two days in Guangzhou, I went to Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan. Unlike in Xi’an, where I was introduced to how unlike the rest of China Shenzhen is, in Henan I unexpectedly encountered claims to how traditional Shenzhen might be. Admittedly, the route to Shenzheners’ Chineseness was twisted and ironic. Nevertheless, as my host in Henan said, “Chinese people are all more or less the same (大同小异).” Not a sentiment that my Shenzhen friends usually admit feeling. They do, however, admit that one always returns to one’s roots (落叶回根). What’s at stake then is how those roots get defined and who gets to set the terms. So, a brief story about the traditional Chinese value of hospitality, which begins with a defense of the basic goodness of Henan people, who have a reputation throughout China for being less than honest. Indeed, jokes about Henan people’s lack of education, shiftiness, and general unreliability circulate on cell phones and turn up in movies and mini-series. So prevelant is the Henan stereotype that my first conversation with most of the people I met in Henan was a variation on the following theme:

“You speak Chinese really well.”

“Really?” asked as modestly as possible.

“There are also good people in Henan.”

I laugh and agree that there are good people everywhere.

The pride of being from the birthplace of China’s oldest dynasties only came out in later conversations. Many of the prototypical images that Westerners hold of ancient China are, in fact, photographs taken in Henan, which was the cradle of advances in agricultural technology, copper and ceramic production, and architecture over several millennia. Luoyang and Kaifeng, China’s oldest imperial capitals are both located near Zhengzhou. So are some of the more interesting Buddhist sites from the Tang and Song dynasties. (For that matter, many of China’s most popular historical mini-series are set in Henan, where Wu Zetian established herself as the incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.) The gravitational center of the various silk roads, which stretched from Nara to Rome, was in Henan. Indeed, the Henan Provincial Museum is second only to Beijing in terms of the quality, quantity, and diversity of early imperial artifacts.

Although Henan now has the largest population in China (roughly 100 million or so), it does not boast large cities. Zhengzhou, the provincial capital has a population of only 3 million, give or take. Kaifeng, once the largest city in the world, now has a population of less than one million. (This is not only because Kaifeng lies in the Yellow River floodplain, but also because the Yellow River flows roughly thirteen meters above the city. In Xinxiang the river hangs twenty meters above the city. In the rest of the flood plain, the Yellow River flows five meters above land. Should the dykes break, as they did when Chiang Kai Shek blew them up to prevent the advance of Japanese troupes during WWII, tens of millions might die. For several millennia now, local governments have maintained a system of dykes. At the same time, sedimentation has raised the river bed. Consequently, officials and commoners alike have been afraid to invest in Kaifeng.) In contrast, all of Guangdong’s major cities have populations over eight million, while Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Guangzhou, Zhongshan, Foshan, Zhuhai, and Macau encircle the Pearl River Delta. Thus, unlike Xi’an or other Chinese cities, urban culture in Henan is not so sharply distinguished from peasant culture. Most Henan residents live in tightly knit villages, which may have 20 to 30,000 inhabitants. Yet a friend pointed out that this population distribution means that if Henan’s urbanites seem provincial, then Henan’s peasants seem unexpectedly sophisticated. My host was a village entrepreneur, who had moved his factory from the rural area to Zhengzhou’s growing industrial suburbs. His approach to history was less reverential, than practical, a point of view that clearly disconcerted our guide at the museum.

Museum Guide (MG), looking pointedly at me: This seeder was invented 3,000 years ago, long before Europe had begun to centralize agriculture.

Village Entrepreneur (VE): We still use that in my village.

MAO: I thought agriculture was centralized under Mao.

VE: Yes, but the plots are too small for mechanical tools. So we even have to harvest wheat with a hand-scythe.

The MG continued to talk about advances in agricultural technology as if the VE hadn’t spoken. Important for imagining this dialogue is to remember that the MG spoke in standard Mandarin, while the VE spoke with a heavy Henan accent. This linguistic difference clearly marked the MG as urban and the VE as rural, or sophisticated versus provicial. Indeed, with his wife and close associates, he spoke in his hometown dialect. Yet the VE seemed unimpressed by the MG, who had to work and ultimately failed to establish her cultural authority. A little later, the MG directed us to a stunning display of ceramics, including Junci (钧瓷), a style that began over 1,500 years ago during the Tang Dynasty. The VE interjected that during the Cultural Revolution, villagers stumbled upon artifacts like that all the time, but immediately smashed them, destroying the four olds (四旧).

The MG glared.

And so it went. Site-seeing with a peasant-entrepreneur, I also learned that the Yellow River, national symbol of China was “heartless 无情” because when it flooded people died; that commercialization had ruined most of Henan’s famous monasteries, although it was still worth learning Shaolin style gongfu; and that any of the four olds that had been smashed in his village during the Cultural Revolution would provide a lot of seed money for a factory or new house.

More striking than either the village entrepreneur’s gritty practicality or skeptical pride, however, was his generosity. When he was too busy or unable to take me site seeing, he arranged for his driver to 陪 (péi) me. The driver took me to various landmarks, bought my tickets, made sure I have a guide at every site, and when I was hungry escorted me to restaurants, where he ordered local specialties for me to sample. Though out the day, the village entrepreneur called to confirm that I was enjoying myself and to ask if I needed anything else.

My friends in Shenzhen were unsurprised by such generosity. In fact, they found it to be typical Chinese culture.

“Chinese peasants,” a friend explained, “are still the most warm-hearted and welcoming. If they normally eat on 10 RMB a day, when a guest comes, they’ll spend 100, skimping by on 2 or 3 RMB a day to make up the difference.”

“Isn’t that exhausting?” I asked.

“Of course.”

There was a pause as each of us waited to figure out where the other was heading. A fine line often separates hospitality from questions of face; being exhausted so that one’s friends might be comfortable can be understood as either good or bad, depending on context. Clearly, I did not want to imply any criticism of my host. I finally asked if my friend shared the village entrepreneur’s strong sense of hospitality.

“Of course,” she answered immediately, “even though I’ve lived in Shenzhen for almost twenty years, I’m still a traditional Chinese woman at heart.”

“So there are good people in Henan,” I teased. Before I left, she had one of the many to warn me about Henan people’s shady ethics.

She waved off my teasing. “It’s like this,” she joked, “they’ve just had more time than other places to perfect making fake goods. They even produced fake junci ceramics during the Tang.”

“Ah,” I said, dropping the issue.

Below are pictures of me with my hosts in Henan. We are standing at the site where Chiang Kai Shek blew up the Yellow River Dyke (left). My driver enjoys lunch (right).

I will take up the practice and ethics of 陪 (péi) more systematically in a later entry. In the meantime, please visit some Henan sites and check out Kaifeng’s many and diverse lions.