Understanding the Dragon

A carving of a dragon's head decorating Beijing's Lama Temple.

A carving of a dragon’s head decorating Beijing’s Lama Temple.

China defies a pithy explanation. True, it is a country of 1.34 billion people. But beyond the statistics is a cauldron of seething humanity with their individual stories.

After a few days in China, one student on the trip with me came up with the expression: “Hey man, it’s China,” that was used as we encountered surprises and conundrums, echoing the end of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” when a thwarted Jack Nicholson is told: “Forget it Jake—it’s Chinatown.”

Another student spoke of the “magic” of China where anything happens or goes—and he had a point. Despite being a communist country with an authoritarian government, as long as you avoid a few particulars—talk politics, Taiwan, Tibet—often it seems you can do what you like in China, a country with momentum.

“The 19th century was Britain’s, the 20th century was America’s, the 21st century will be China’s,” said British journalist Rob Gifford during a presentation to our group.

The frantic energy invests both city streets and the changing countryside, where billboards abound promoting snazzy property developments and the skyline is sketched with construction cranes at work.

By the end of a hectic four weeks there, I felt pretty frazzled and not much closer to understanding China and its ways—though it had been great fun trying.