I was young and China was old. I was in my twenties and China was four thousand and five hundred years old. I measured one meter and sixty-five. China measured around three thousand kilometres from north to south and more than four thousand kilometres from east to west. I was one and China had more than one billion inhabitants.
I was also just another Portuguese soul to come to China and dwell therein, since the times of the Ming Dynasty. My humble adventures in China could not be compared to the adventures of such names as Fernão Mendes Pinto, or the Portuguese Jesuits who held for decades the position of vice-presidents of the Board of Astronomy in Beijing, or the first Portuguese traders to settle in Macau.
The world was different twenty-five years ago. To go to China was still going very far. To tread on Chinese ground was treading on very different ground. I went to Beijing to study Chinese. I could not leave this Earth one day without having understood the most beautiful and mysterious scripture invented by the humans.
Beijing was dry and smelled of coal. A Tatar town swept the desert. Bikes were the Empresses of the avenues. Everything was carried on them: the family baby, the old grandmother, pigs, roosters, a wardrobe. The art of balancing contrasts is a Chinese art. No wonder. It is the country of yin and yang. Unlike Shanghai, the capital was considered tu. Tu means ‘earth’. Beijing was earthy like a peasant. Once in a while, flocks of sheep. Street vendors were many, selling clothes, sweet potatoes, crepes, shish kebab, a thousand and one Chinese delicacies. The architecture was rough, heavy, gray. Many important buildings sported the style of Soviet Socialist architecture. But Beijing also boasted multiple charms. In addition to the friendliness of its inhabitants, there were grandiose gardens full of lakes and hills, peaceful temples, the elegant gates of the ancient wall, robust towers, old pagodas full of magic, stupas camouflaged among factories and the traditional neighbourhoods, the famous hutong. Beijing had mystery. Charisma. The atmosphere was adventurous, surprising.
The Chinese were a complex people under a disguise of simplicity, in order to maximize both the contrast and the complexity. We could talk to anyone on the street. They answered kindly, human being to human being. They prolonged the conversation, curious about the foreigner. When talking to a Chinese, the subjects were mainly food, family and worldly goods. The most learned ones enjoyed talking about Chinese history, its terrific emperors, peasant uprisings, heroes and villains, beauties and eunuchs, wars and betrayals, unimaginable tortures and suffering, great famines and huge floods. A history of rivers of blood and oceans of sweat and tears.
When a Chinese invited someone to their home or to a restaurant he always behaved like an emperor. For the Chinese, a guest was a god, and their magnanimity was moving. Even when they were poor and lived in a single room, we would find a small table filled with colossal amounts of tasty food. They forced us to succumb to endless ganbei! (‘dry cups!’); and they insisted zai chi dianr (‘eat more!’) until we felt on the verge of agony.
They always wanted to pay for everything, no one behaving shabbily.
People were always too many, so leftovers were something scarce in China. To get on the bus was a deadly battle. But once inside it, no one looked angry. The smart guys who could find a seat smiled in delight. What a lucky day! And it was indeed a lucky day, because the Chinese cities are big according to the Chinese scale, i.e., they are gigantic; and long-distance travels are long according to the Chinese scale, i.e, they are endless.
The Chinese are fierce patriots. As early as 1524, Vasco Calvo, a Portuguese merchant who was a captive in Guangzhou, wrote in a letter: “This land’s way is to call their king ‘Son of Heaven’ and their land they call ‘Heavenly land’; and to all the people from outside their land they call ‘barbarians who do not know Heaven nor Earth’, and they say of every ambassador who comes to their land that he comes to obey the ‘son of Heaven’, and other vanities, my Lord, that would be a lot to read.”
Young people showed signs of impatience. China was not occupying its natural place in the world: the Centre. They were looking forward to a new golden era. The China of silk and brocades, of so many inventions, the most august of all ancient human civilizations and the only survivor among them should be again the greatest, the richest, and the most advanced land.
With their black hair and black eyes, golden skin, delicate features, as if eroded by time, lean, upright but relaxed, the Chinese were stiff and flexible like the bamboo. They were carved by centuries of inconceivable suffering. And survived. A Chinese is a survivor. They need little to blossom in profusion. They make much more with much less. And they can never be mediocre, because they have behind them millenniums of civilization, and billions of ancestors, including many men of genius whom they can get advice from and who may come to their rescue. To represent the human race, nothing more sensible than to choose the Chinese people, not only because they are in much greater numbers or because they were able to create a sophisticated civilization, but because they come from a very old lineage.