I’ve been trying to clear my plate of all of my freelance gigs and other obligations as I prepare to take on a new job next month, so over the past couple of weeks I’ve pulled more than a few all-nighters on things. All-nighters tend to be easy for me; in part because my body’s circadian rhythms seem to default to vampire mode, but also because I’ve got a few 24-hour restaurants in my neighborhood where I can go for sustenance when necessary.
Picking the right restaurant can be a tricky affair. Northeastern-style places serve large portions, so they’re not a great bet if you’re eating alone. There’s a great Northwestern-style Shaanxi noodle place about 20 minutes’ walk from my apartment, but I’ve been eating too much of their 油泼扯面 rough-cut noodles drizzled in chili oil lately, and their hours are unpredictable anyway. A 煎饼 Beijing-style omelet would be an option, but the vendors usually aren’t out on the street before 6 or 7, and I start jonesing for food around 3, and the 24-hour dimsum joint at Yonghegong is just a bit too far out of the way for me to go there in the middle of an all-nighter. 簋街 Gui Jie, the street lined with 24-hour Sichuan places, is just ten minutes away on foot, but previous experience has taught me that it isn’t the best of ideas to go for Sichuan food when you’re trying to stay awake: the huajiao insanity peppers will snap you awake, all right, but then you’ll need a beer to cool down, resulting in no net gain – and perhaps even a net loss – in wakefulness. Fortunately there’s a cheap ‘n’ cheerful 24-hour 锅贴 potsticker joint right around the corner from me. Potstickers make great all-nighter fuel: two large plates of beef and jalapeno potstickers and a bottle of green tea will set you back about 25 kuai and leave you with enough left-overs to take home for breakfast.
So I’ve been going there a lot. I was there a couple of nights ago after deciding that it was time, really time, to take a break from the sample chapter I was doing of a fairly dire Chinese horror novel. It was about 1:30 in the morning – earlier than my wonted hour – and there were still plenty of people in there: a couple of regulars at the back of the place, two middle-aged guys who had just gotten off the late shift at work, and a couple of young toughs and their slattern girlfriends.
I ordered and sat down, half reading the copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz that I’d brought in my pocket, half eavesdropping on the people sitting around me, in case anybody was saying anything interesting. No such luck: the two guys sitting next to me who’d just gotten off work were talking job politics, and though they had apparently not been planning on getting drunk – as evinced by their choice to drink beer rather than baijiu – the two of them were fairly stocious, slurring and red-faced. “Y’ can’ jus’ go an’ tell’m,” one said to the other. “‘S, ‘s jus’ gonn’ getcha in trouble. You don’ wann’ sinkta his level, ‘m I righ’?”
Behind them, the would-be gangbangers were doing the usual loud posturing in self-consciously low-class accents. I don’t remember much about their conversation other than the preponderance of the words “fuckin'” and “stupid cunt.”
At the back, the regulars sat there silently, eating or watching the period drama playing on the TV behind the counter.
Since there didn’t seem to be anything interesting going on, I turned to my book. A few minutes later, the drunken guys next to me — I’d guessed that they were cabbies, though the shift time didn’t really match up — got up and put on their coats. One of them walked to the back of the place to pick up the check; the other one stood next to my table for a moment before asking, very politely, “Do you speak Chinese?”
“A bit,” I said.
“What are you reading? Is it the Bible?”
For a moment, I panicked, thinking that he might have recently found Jesus. I’ve had a few conversations with recent converts about their newly found faith – I guess since everyone knows that foreigners are religious – and have always found it difficult to pretend that I believe their conversion to be a good thing.
“No,” I said. “It’s a science-fiction novel.”
“So,” he asked, in a hello-I-will-be-your-cheerful-drunk- for-the-evening voice, “you ever hear of Confucius?”
“Confucius was a sage. He was a great sage.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“He had six books– I readd’m all.”
“The, the Book of Odes, the Book of Changes, the Book of Spring and Autumn, the Book of Rites, the Book of Records, and the Book of Music. But then the Book of Music was lost. But I read the other five.”
He beamed at me, and I decided that smiling and nodding would be better than pointing out that no serious modern textual scholar would attribute authorship of those books to Confucius.
“If you really wann’ unnerstan’ China, you gotta read Confucius,” he added.
“That’s very true,” I said.
“He had six books, you know.”
“Six, not five. But one uvvem got lost. Are you reading the Bible?”
At this point, his friend came in and charitably dragged him out by the elbow. As he stumbled out the door, he turned back to me: “I wish you th’ verr’ best luck in China,” he said. “Remember — read Confucius!”
Oddly enough, people hardly ever start conversations with me on the topic of classical literature. More often it’s the standard litany that any foreigner who’s been in these parts for more than five minutes will know by heart. How long have you been here. Oh, your Chinese is very good. Where are you from. Are you used to Chinese food.
One of the things that I always really liked about Beijing is that for the most part, people here are not all that impressed by Chinese-speaking foreigners, reasoning quite rightly that anyone can speak Chinese. You’ll get the obligatory “oh, your Chinese is very good” thing, sure — but then from there you can usually have a real conversation.
This used to be particularly true of your average cab driver, that tireless ferrier of the middle classes, profanity tutor for wide-eyed foreign students, and friend to lazy journalists everywhere, but recent relaxations on hukou ID policy have meant that while cabbies used to have to come from Beijing proper — which is to say that they were practically guaranteed to have leaden feet, fast mouths, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the city — they now only have to come from Beijing municipality, meaning that residents of Miyun, Pinggu, and Yanqing can work in town too. The net result is that a majority of cabbies these days are scared country kids who drive slowly, never talk, and live in constant fear of police harassment, to the point where they will actually wear their seat belts to avoid a fine.
The full extent of the damage became clear to me last summer, when Beijing vice-mayor 刘志华 Liu Zhihua got his ass thrown out of power for, quote, ”生活腐化堕落,” i.e, “leading a corrupt and dissolute lifestyle.” The domestic newspapers gave no further detail, which meant that you knew there was going to be a good story behind it, and sure enough, Hong Kong media elaborated somewhat on the reasons behind the official Party judgement: Liu had been keeping a massive villa out in the suburbs of Beijing stocked with nubile young girls, and frequently spent his weekends there, ripped to the tits on Viagra and amphetamines and having himself a rare old time.
Now, I usually walk or take the train home from my office, but this was such an awesome piece of news that I decided to take a cab, just to see what the grapevine take on the matter was. I flagged a guy down, sounded him out — he had no obvious rural accent, so I figured he’d be in on the story — and I said, cleverly, “So — didja hear about Liu Zhihua?”
“You know — vice-mayor? He just got kicked out for having, what did they call it in the Hong Kong press, a ‘pleasure palace.’ Girls, drugs, the works.”
“…You hadn’t heard?”
The cabbie kept his eyes straight ahead on the road, his face immobile. “We ordinary people don’t need to know about that kind of thing,” he said piously. “As long as the government gives us some good laws to follow, that’s enough for us.”
Back in 2005, before I moved to my current wonderful neighborhood, I lived out near Guomao, the miserable, soulless “business district” of Beijing. For reasons I’m still unable to reconstruct, I’d rented a large, expensive apartment in a new development surrounded by building sites on all four sides, meaning that the apartment was assaulted by dust, noise, and flashes from welding torches 24/7. It was connected to the outside world (or at least the East Third Ring Road) by a long road that took a good twenty minutes to walk, and was flanked on either side by high-rises in varying degrees of construction.
Taxis and mototrikes used to congregate at the entrance to the development. I took mototrikes — cardboard-walled little deathtraps mounted on motorized scooters – to the subway most mornings, and would either walk or cab otherwise. One evening, not long after I moved into the area, I needed to get out to Wudaokou to meet my friend Joel, so I hopped in one of the cabs. The standard protocol followed: I said where I wanted to go, and then he complimented me on my Chinese and asked where I was from, and I said I was from the States. He said that the US was a good place to be from, and I gave my standard answer about how disappointed the country had made me over the last couple of years.
“Oh,” he said. “An idealist.”
Wham! Massive breach of protocol!
“Sure,” he continued, “your government sucks. But you can at least get rid of them in 2008. At least somebody somewhere wanted them — though I guess that’s disappointing for you too. But look around you here — ” he gestured to the skyscrapers and highrises of Beijing’s Central Business District as they flashed by us.
“This stuff? It’s all crap. The real buildings, the real money, all goes to Shanghai. And why? Because of that cuntrag Jiang Zemin! Every time I see that frog-faced motherfucker I just want to punch the wall! All he knows is how to make rich people richer, and none of us ever sees a goddamn cent of it. You ever study classical Chinese?”
A little, I said, but nothing much more complicated than the Zhuangzi.
“Zhuangzi’s good all right, but he’s a romantic. If you’re interested in politics, you’ve got to read Guanzi. It’s still true today –” and then he started quoting the 4th century BCE Legalist text Guanzi at me:
凡治國之道，必先富民。民富則易治也，民貧則難治也。奚以知其然也？ 民富則安鄉重家，安鄉重家則敬上畏罪，敬上畏罪則易治也。民貧則危鄉輕家，危鄉輕家 則敢凌上犯禁，凌上犯禁則難治也。故治國常富，而亂國常貧。是以善為國者，必先富民，然後治之。
In the governing of a kingdom, one must first enrich the people. The people, being enriched, will thus be easy to govern. Being poor, they will be difficult to govern. Wherefore should this be so? When people are well-off, they will be secure in their villages and devoted to their homes. When they are secure in their villages and devoted to their homes, they will respect their superiors and fear transgression. Being respectful of their superiors and fearful of transgression, they will thus be easy to govern. When people are poor, they will be insecure in their villages and unmindful of their homes. Being insecure in their villages and unmindful of their homes, they will dare to defy their rulers and flout the law. Daring to defy their rulers and flout the law, they will thus be difficult to govern. So it is that a governed kingdom is constantly wealthy, while a chaotic kingdom is constantly poor. Therefore, those who are good at governing first enrich the people, and then govern them.
“Um,” I said.
We chatted more, and as we got towards Wudaokou he asked one of the other litany questions.
“Philadelphia,” I said as I got out of the cab.
“Philadelphia!” he said. “Ben Franklin! Now there was a man!”
And he sped off into the night.