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Reflections on Visiting China

Robert A. Scott, president of Adelphi University
Robert A. Scott, president of Adelphi University
What is socialism if the poor have no health insurance? What is communism if the populace is made up of entrepreneurs?

During a two-week visit to China, I gained a new appreciation for, and posed many new questions about, socialism, communism, democracy and capitalism, and the relation of individuals to the state.

My wife and I visited Shanghai and Beijing, where I gave presentations sponsored by ELS, a division of Berlitz, about Adelphi and American higher education. My audiences were registered agents who advise students and families about colleges in the U.S., and prospective Adelphi students and their parents as well as the parents of currently enrolled Adelphi students.

We also visited major cultural sites, such as the Bund and the Urban Museum in Shanghai; the Terracotta Warriors in Xi-An; the Great Wall; and Mao’s Tomb; Tiananmen Square – the main gate to the Old Imperial City; the famous flea market; and the 498 Factory District now occupied by artists and art dealers, all in and around Beijing.

We visited Buddhist Temples where religious expression was visible – in an atheist country.

I passed a Rolls Royce dealership and a major department store near the tall towers of corporate headquarters and the fanciest of hotels – all within walking distance of the remaining Hutongs and homes without plumbing.

We asked our guides in each city about healthcare and pensions, expecting to hear the benefits of socialism – but learned that each person is on his or her own.

Savoring the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of China was exhilarating, with fresh fish caught in a parking lot “pond;” colorful paintings; graceful calligraphy; smoked meat and Bing bread; the rhythm of gongs in a courtyard; and entrepreneurs everywhere selling everything imaginable.

As rich as these scenes were, I became fascinated by the faces of elderly Chinese women and then the faces of women of all ages, young children, and mature men.

We saw affection wherever we looked: old with young, lovers holding hands, families gathering being photographed in front of shrines.

In these gatherings and crowds, I saw faces: a beggar woman, a cleaning lady, an elegant grandmother, a young woman with children, a boy sleeping against a political poster, and a tourist from outside the city resting his feet, with shoes put to the side.

During our stay, as I pondered the pictures I had taken and the ones I wanted, I began to question my motives. Why did faces hold such fascination?

The answer, I realized, was already known. The face both reveals and conceals. It bears one’s essential vulnerabilities. We gain trust by showing our face. Older faces are marked by character: images of tragedy, courage and depth of soul. “A face, in the end, is the place where the … mind becomes an image,” said Elkins.  We know that it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown, but difficulty uses the face, and we see the results, whether in a mirror or another.

On our last morning, we visited Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum, something we had wanted to do earlier in our visit to Beijing, but were dissuaded from doing by the long lines of visitors. On this day, we arrived at 8:15 a.m., and the line was already winding around the plaza and several buildings. Two and one-half hours later, we emerged from our visit.

In the meantime, we walked and walked - at a very slow pace. As is usually the custom in a long line, we were with the same small group of people each step of the way. Our immediate neighbors in line, I ascertained, because we do not speak Chinese and no one around us spoke English, were a grandmother, her daughter and a small boy. No cameras were allowed or I would have recorded this trio and the many other sights we witnessed.

After about 90 minutes or so, we were screened at a security booth, and emerged onto a plaza where vendors were selling flowers. Our elderly “neighbor” in line bought some, and we continued our march to Mao.

In the first room we entered, we found a large marble statue of Mao, sitting with one leg crossed over the other, almost Lincoln-like in his pose. People placed flowers at the foot of this tableau, in a prayerful motion. These included our neighbor in line who was wearing a sweatshirt with a Playboy logo on its chest and PLAYBOY in block letters on the back. Oh, for my camera: Playboy bowing before Mao; Hugh Hefner, a symbol of Western decadence, bent before the father of Chinese Communism.

We then entered another room where, for only a few minutes, we saw what looked like the body of the Chairman entombed in a glass enclosure, and then we were out on the street, searching for our guide.

The long line was worth the effort for cultural and historical reasons, but it only added to certain confusions that still bothered me about China, about prayers, pensions, tycoons and peddlers before us each day, portraying individual features but provoking universal themes.

Story by Robert A. Scott, president of Adelphi University


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