Made it to Pingyao

Sorry for the long silence. I’ve been traveling and dealing with VPN issues all along the way. Even using Witopia, Twitter and Facebook have been mainly inaccessible no matter where I go, using Chrome or Firefox. Sometimes Facebook will partly open, leaving me with an odd page that’s more like a list, with no graphics, and then I can’t navigate anywhere. So I have several Scrabble games in limbo and lots of unanswered messages and requests. You just deal with it. (And yes, I made the DNS fixes, to no avail. Maybe an issue with my MacBook?)

pingyao_wall

Pingyao is gorgeous and has all sorts of treasures that gave me deeper insight into life in ancient China. The Ming architecture is breathtaking. On the other hand, the city has been so touristified that a lot of the charm is diminished. So many hawkers and cheap shops selling cheap lacquer boxes and the same tired scrolls and Mao statues. My friend Ben, who went with me and who took the photo, said it just right: “When you’re in Dali, you want to stay. You feel like you can stay a long time. In Pingyao, you want to see the buildings and then you just want to leave.” I couldn’t have said it better. I can’t pinpoint exactly why Dali is such an inviting and charming experience while Pingyao is more of a lets-see-the-sights-and-get-out-of-here kind of place.

I most enjoyed what I would have thought would be relatively dull, namely the government administration buildings and the banks. And the wall, of course. You have to marvel as you step through this time warp and see how China administered far-away cities so many centuries ago. It’s most magical when you can get away from the tourist coaches and vendors. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the administrative buildings and the banks, where I felt immersed in what life was actually like in China in centuries past. [Corrected my historical error - thank Billy.]

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

I think Dali, for all its touristy aspects, has other things going on as well. There’s an interesting international culture, all those great restaurants and the natural setting is so stunning–you really do just want to pull up a chair and stay awhile. Pingyao seems to solely exist as a “sightseeing spot,” which is sad. It was going in that direction when I visited in 2004 (I think?) but maybe not as extreme. Also I visited in the dead of winter, which kept the hordes down.

All the same, I also found Pingyao worth visiting, for all the reasons you mention. Walking around the wall is an awesome way to get a feel for the old city.

September 19, 2010 @ 2:33 am | Comment

Hi–All is well here–Happy u r enjoying your trip–Mom and Dad

September 19, 2010 @ 4:02 am | Comment

The comparison with Dali was pretty arbitrary, and they are such different experiences they can’t really be compared. One’s an ancient city with no foreign commercial presence (no European coffee shops or Western restaurants), the other is a backpacker hangout that many foreigners have made their home for reasons I totally understand. What prompted the comparison was the heavily commercial street with all the junk shops and restaurants claiming to have “Western food.” You have the same type of thing in Dali, but there it’s beautiful, relaxed and hospitable. In Pingyao the commercial area is simply tedious and obnoxious.

September 19, 2010 @ 2:58 pm | Comment

Pingyao’s awesome. It has cool noodles that are rolled up and bunched together like a beehive that you put tomato sauce on. There’s a great international photo show in October (or there used to be), with artwork hung in interesting settings–an old factory, along the city wall, etc. And the history is pretty neat, especially the government and bank buildings, like you mentioned.

Besides, the trip out there is worthwhile. You get to see the Shanxi countryside in all its dust and bustle and beauty.

At least, that’s my take on it…

September 22, 2010 @ 8:52 am | Comment

On Concepts of Erect Societies and Flaccid Societies.

Rightists and democracy-lovers always love to divide societies into “Democratic” and “Dictatorial”, and use this a moral standard to judge every society. This is their magic formula. But as a independent intellectual, I think societies can be divided in many other ways, and as an engineering mindset, I would like to divide societies into erect societies and flaccid societies.

How do you define erect and flaccid societies? It’s this society’s ability to resist external threats, such as invasion or natural disasters. The higher such ability, the more erect the society. The lower such ability, the more flaccid.

Now, some people will yell “erect societies are immoral!”. “flaccid societies are more moral, more humanitarian, more democratic, more universal values, blah blah blah”. Maybe this is right, but this is only from a morality standpoint. I’m an engineering mindset, I don’t care about morality in this discussion.

From an engineering mindset, we must think about the survivability of the human race. As our productivity force grows, our population grows, our energy depletes, human societies may be heading towards huge explosive conflicts, or the world may soon end like in the movie 2012. So, if such days arrive, which part of the human race is more likely to survive? The erect ones or the flaccid ones? I believe they are the erect ones. In fact, I believe at the end, the ones with the strongest military will survive, and actually you may not even fight, you can just watch the poor and flaccid societies’ citizens die of hunger and disease, and just defend your border and you’ll win.

In other words, the erectness of a society is basically its military power. The higher its military power, the more erect. The lower, the more flaccid. The military power is not just applied to fighting another country, but could be applied for disaster recovery, etc. From the post-disaster effectiveness of China’s Wenchuan earthquake and Haiti’s earthquake, it is not hard to deduce that China is a more much erect country than Haiti.

But erectness is not only tied to military power. It is also tied to the morale of its people. If a society’s people have low morale, where the military has trouble recruiting without offering incentives like free college tuition, green card, then this society cannot be called an erect society.

Some someone asks me :”What is your ideal society?”. My answer would of course be :”My ideal society is an erect society.” I have only one variable that I care about for a society, and that is, the society’s combat skills. That’s all I care about, nothing else. All the other stuff like human rights, elections, education, healthcare, art, humanitarianism, etc. I don’t care about any of it. Now, of course, if stuff like healthcare, art, human rights can help improve the combat skills of a society, then I may care about it at all. In other words, all other variables serve the purpose of raising the combat skill index of the society.

Now, you may say “you just need a dictator to have an erect society!”. THat’s not true at all. Not all dictators are the same. The society under Chiang Kai-shek is a flaccid society. The society under Stalin is an erect society.

Before WW2, Hitler helped build Germany into an erect society. France was a flaccid society. Spain, poland, and most other European countries were flaccid societies. In Asia, China was a flaccid society, Japan was an erect society. America under Roosevelt was a semi-erect society. Britain under Churchill was also a semi-erect society.

Now, let’s talk about the Russia. Under the Tsar, Russia was absolutely a flaccid society, to the point it rarely won a single battle against any foreign force. Without the October Revolution, without Stalin, Russia would remain a flaccid society, and would be completely defeated by the erect Germany in World War 2. Therefore, it is no accident that Stalin is still admired by the majority of Russians’ today, and Russia restored the old anthem of the USSR under Putin. Today, Putin is trying very hard to turn Russia back into an erect society after a decade of flaccidness after the USSR disintegrated.

Under an erect society, there would more discipline and less freedom. This is inevitable. For example, steel is more erect than water, because the molecules in the steels are more tightly bound and have less freedom to move around. Water’s molecules can move much more fluidly. An erect society makes people feel uncomfortable, because everyone, like the molecules of steel, must stay in his station and not move, and form the steel that’s necessary to overcome threats and disasters. A flaccid society has no such ability, because the molecules would move around as they please, so when a flaccid society like Poland or pre-1949 China faced a erect society like Germany or Japan, the results were clear.

Engineers think like playing chess, they understand the importance of sacrificing certain pieces for bigger gains. In chess lingo, it’s called Gambit. Now, imagine humanity major is playing chess, he would never play any gambit moves, because he would think it’s inhumane to let go of your pawn for control of the center, its cruel to sacrifice a knight to gain a positional advantage. So if an engineer is playing chess and wants to play a gambit, the humanitarian major would cry “Crime! Human Rights violation! No ethics! Not humanitarian! You cannot play this move!” That’s why humanitarian majors are never good at chess.

Now, you may say “But look at the number of people Stalin or Mao killed!”. What’s your point? As long as it helps raising the combat skills and erectness of the society, who cares how many they killed? I don’t care.

September 22, 2010 @ 8:57 am | Comment

Gotta love your logic, Math. You admire Hitler for creating an “erect” society and say an erect society is necessary for man’s preservation. Did anyone ever tell you that Hitler brought Germany down to its knees and nearly wiped out the entire country? Erect Nazi Germany lasted a whole 12 years and then spent many more years trying to recover. Since then, a flaccid Germany with tight restrictions on its military has, like Japan, flourished as never before.

September 22, 2010 @ 9:50 am | Comment

It always comes down to erections, doesn’t it.

September 22, 2010 @ 11:31 am | Comment

Good one, Lisa. It’ll go right over Math’s head, no matter how erect he’s standing.

September 22, 2010 @ 12:04 pm | Comment

Actually, I think Math is doing a funny here. Come on. “Erect” and “flaccid”?

Good one, Math!

September 22, 2010 @ 2:54 pm | Comment

Sounds like Math has been answering one too many of his spam Viagra emails.

A couple of choice quotes:
“I don’t care about morality in this discussion.”
—I guess those things are too complicated for one-track-minded engineering simpletons.

“Under an erect society, there would more discipline and less freedom. This is inevitable.”
—how does that have anything to do with his initial “definition” of “erect and flaccid societies…(where) society’s ability to resist external threats, such as invasion or natural disasters” serves to define its ‘erect-ness’ or ‘flaccidity’? Why would you need less freedom in order to resist invasion or cope with natural disasters? Sounds like Math’s left nut doesn’t know what his right nut is talking about.

“As long as it helps raising the combat skills and erectness of the society, who cares how many they killed? I don’t care.”
—I’m not surprised, since Math wasn’t one of the “many”. You’d think engineers would know to consider different permutations of any given scenario, including the one where he would be one of the “many”, before making those grand declarations. On the other hand, it’s also entirely consistent with Math’s mode of thinking wrt how Chinese society is governed, since that doesn’t affect him either.

September 24, 2010 @ 2:29 pm | Comment

OMG, this must be one of the craziest things I’ve ever read in a blog comment, and it’s certainly not from a lack of experience.

September 25, 2010 @ 10:50 am | Comment

http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/09/22/opinion/22friedman.html?sort=recommended

In China, there are dozens of protests and even riots on a regular basis
which are not covered in the press. Manifestations of unrest like this
frighten the Communist Party, and seem to convince it that to remain in
power, it must promote economic prosperity for the broad majority of Chinese
. In other words, in China, the people do make themselves heard, to a degree
, and the government does listen, although it’s not done through any formal
structures like elections.

In the U.S., our two-party government faces elections, but elections where
incumbents are almost always reelected and any candidate from a third party
or without large amounts of money from wealthy donors is functionally
excluded. The political class hence feels that it has little to fear from
acting against the interests of the broad majority, but much to gain from
favoring the interests of a wealthy minority.

America has elections but China does not – yet China pursues economic
policies which benefit a majority while the U.S. does not. This is because
elections are not democracy – they are a tool which can help achieve
democracy, in the same way that a hammer can help build a house. But owning
a hammer does mean a house has been created or still stands, and likewise U.
S. elections are no evidence of a realized democracy. A Congress with a 20%
approval rating is in no way “representative.”

So, what exactly is it that makes the U.S. “non-authoritarian?” The only
real difference from where I sit between the U.S. and Chinese governments is
the relative malign or benign qualities of both nations authoritarian
systems.

September 28, 2010 @ 12:10 pm | Comment

American Ruling Elite: “The only real difference from where I sit between the U.S. and Chinese governments is the relative malign or benign qualities of both nations authoritarian systems.”

What’s your point? Everything is relative. No one with a brain in his head has ever argued any differently.

September 29, 2010 @ 3:35 pm | Comment

Gan-Lu: “What is your point?….”
Isn’t it the point that one should not without questioning praise The US for it noble ideals and denigrate China for it repressions. They both have their uses and shortcomings.

October 1, 2010 @ 12:17 pm | Comment

Made it to Pingyao…and then disappeared! Wherefore art thou, Richard?

October 2, 2010 @ 8:32 am | Comment

I’m dealing with personal/business issues at the moment. Can’t say when I’ll be back to blogging. Sometimes we just need a break.

October 2, 2010 @ 8:41 am | Comment

Hi Richard
Was talking to my wife the other day whilst walking through another beautiful site here in southern Bavaria, telling her that if it were in China it would have been taken over by hordes of tourists and overdevelopment and rampant pollution etc. I’ve finally been able to get out of China!!! Meanwhile she’s lonely and bored but at least has found a Chinese company in Hamburg that ships Chinese products within 24 hours.
My God. That idiot Math is STILL trolling on this site?! Goodbye to all that….

October 11, 2010 @ 3:09 am | Comment

Keir, good to hear from you. I have to say, Pingyao is not (yet) over-developed or polluted; neither are Yangshuo or Dali or many other beautiful places in China. So what you told your wife isn’t necessarily true across the board. Dali in particulart is a wonderful exception, a very hospitable tourist attraction.

Is that your new site, on Nazi Germany? Quite interesting.

October 11, 2010 @ 3:33 am | Comment

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