In Search of the Yellow Dragon

Will an ancient civilization rise to the occasion and help show us a path forward?

“In times of great winds, some build bunkers, others build windmills.” — Chinese proverb

I met An Qi aboard the Victoria Jenna during a three-day river cruise along the Yangtze River. Qi is a master snuff bottle artist who has been practicing his craft for over twenty-five years and had set up his shop on the same floor as my cabin was located. I had the opportunity to observe him work and have a series of concise yet meaningful conversations with him, using a voice translation app on his smartphone. With his steady hand, quiet modesty, refined genius and creative abundance, Qi seemed to exemplify the Chinese idiom ‘crouching tiger hidden dragon’ (wuo hu zhan long).

Originally intended to contain powdered tobacco, snuff bottles became popular in China during the Qing Dynasty, also called Manchu Dynasty (1644–1912 CE) as people would commonly offer a pinch of snuff as a way to greet friends and relatives. Small enough to fit in one’s palm, the bottles were made of various materials including porcelain, jade, amber, rhinoceros horn, ivory, wood, tortoiseshell and metal, though crystal became the raw material of choice. They were typically decorated with paintings or carvings, which distinguished their quality and value, thus turning them into delightful small art objects and a way to represent status and wealth.

In due course artistic quality prevailed over functionality, and inside painted bottles began to spread as decorative artifacts. Their production, however, remains very time-consuming, as each bottle is meticulously cut and hollowed out, impeccably polished on the outside for a smooth feel and gently roughened on the inside for paint adherence. Nowadays the variety of sizes and shapes in bottles is accompanied by a vast range of embellishing motifs and symbols. The miniature scenes depicted in them (often including calligraphy elements) are painted in reverse while manipulating a tiny custom-made brush through the neck of the bottle. A prolific artist such as Qi may complete a simple bottle in a few days but may take weeks on a more complex one. Some of them can be incredibly ornate and become collectors’ items.

Qi’s bottles aren’t inexpensive, but the more I appreciate their beauty and elegance the more I find them to be bitterly underpriced. He has made a good living through his work nonetheless and, with a spark of ecstasy in his eyes, he reveals to me that both of his daughters got to study in Xi’an, a three-thousand year old city that has re-emerged as an important cultural, industrial and educational hub in the central-northwest region, and has come to symbolize the economic revival of inland China.

An evolving skyline in Xi’an

I found myself one day cycling above Xi’an’s City Wall, an astonishing 40-foot tall, 50-foot wide, 9-mile long fortification that wraps itself in the shape of a rectangle around the urban core. Unless one is completely absorbed by the sights and sounds of the city below, not to mention the multitude of tourists, school groups, wedding photoshoots, fellow bike riders and joggers, it is hard not to notice the decorative sign posts lining up the entire perimeter, and that they’re crowned with a different animal — or mythological creature — on each side of the rectangle.

Facing East is the Azure Dragon (Qīnglóng). It represents spring and wood. Facing South is the Vermilion Sparrow (Zhūquè) It represents summer and fire. Facing West is the White Tiger (Báihǔ). It represents autumn and metal. Facing North is the Black Tortoise (Xuánwǔ), known as the turtle-snake. It represents winter and water. The Four Heavenly Beasts, also known as the Four Celestial Emblems or the Four Symbols (Sì Xiàng), hold great significance in Chinese cosmology, with each creature symbolizing a cardinal direction, a season and a natural element. Each symbol corresponds to a quadrant in the sky, with each quadrant guarding a direction on the compass, and each one containing seven star constellations (also called the 28 lunar lodges).

There is a fifth direction, embodied in the Yellow Dragon (Huánglóng). Considered the guardian of the element earth and a symbol of the changing seasons, it is without star houses of its own. Rather, Huánglóng is the master of all dragons, the god of the center, carrying the power of transformation. It is said to be synonymous with China itself, and because Chinese emperors were considered terrestrial representatives of Huánglóng, the use of this figure was reserved to them alone.

Silk workshop — how many cocoons (pupae) are used to make an imperial robe?

The Five Elements Theory, which has been one of the most influential ideas in Chinese philosophical and scientific thought, was developed at first by Tsou Yen (350–270 BC). According to this theory, the five elements are fundamental energies, or agents, which operate in a “mutually arising” natural order/cycle (or will of the universe): wood, which as fuel gives rise to fire, which creates ash and gives rise to earth, which in its mines contains metal, which (as on the surface of a metal mirror) attracts dew and so gives rise to water, and this in turn nourishes wood. Yen conceived of the five agents as historical forces that governed the creation and the destruction of dynasties. He believed that each dynasty was ruled by a particular agent, which eventually would be replaced by another agent, thus creating another dynasty (this cycle was further reinforced by the Mandate of Heaven, a political and religious doctrine championed by Yen’s contemporaneous, Mencius). Grounded in the changing combinations of elements, the nature of all things (and beings) was thought to be more broadly governed by the polarity principle of Yin and Yang, the central pillar of Chinese philosophy and our ultimate guide towards balance and harmony.

Noticing that Qi doesn’t use any visual aid or stimuli while he paints, I feel tempted to ask him where he draws inspiration from. He looks at me as if perplexed by the question, so I rephrase, hoping to make myself understood: “Given the prevalence of animals, flowers, trees and landscapes in your art, I was curious to know how much time you spend observing your subjects in the wilderness and the countryside, or perhaps even zoos …”. Now he seems even more puzzled and patiently types a reply into his phone. He explains to me that he has studied with great masters who taught him everything he needed to know about structure, technique, discipline, hierarchy and harmony of elements.

Exploring a tributary of the Yangtze river

As I look closely at half a dozen of his bottles side by side, all of which have tigers painted on them, I’m struck by how each tiger is notably different from the other in posture, attitude and expression. For someone who claims to rely on a learned set of patterns and guidelines, Qi seems to feel very comfortable in twisting and bending the rules, ultimately infusing his artwork with just as much vigor as rigor. I fixate my critical eye on the various tigers, trying to find imperfections, a minor flaw in body proportions or even a crooked whisker somewhere. To my total amazement, I can’t find any. I then ask Qi how he goes about correcting for mistakes, to which he simply says: “it is rare”.

My encounter with this master artist came to epitomize my encounter with China, at a time when the nation attempts to secure a foothold at the turbulent yet potentially creative intersection between practicality and mysticism, stability and resolve, dignity and hyperbole, prosperity and restraint, equality and consumerism, unity and transformation. What drove me to visit this part of the world in October of 2018 was outright curiosity. I wanted to see with my own eyes what the Chinese are up to, hoping to catch a glimpse of what our global landscape might look like down the road if they manage to keep up the rhythm of the past couple of decades. As far as I can tell, they are in fact picking up the pace.

I remember being half asleep watching the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing ten years ago. When I say ‘half asleep’ I mean it literally and figuratively. Literally because I got up around four o’clock that morning to catch the live coverage, and figuratively because I was wildly unaware of the sensational comeback China was in the midst of making on the international stage. To be honest, I was much more interested in the sporting event than the host country. But I was awake enough to feel the goosebumps in my entire body during the thunderous performance of 2,008 perfectly synchronized drummers on the Bird’s Nest arena.

Looking back at that moment, I can’t help but speculate to what extent any of the world’s superpowers had realized that a colossus had awakened. I recall economists lumping China together with three more countries into what they referred to as BRIC. A cute-sounding acronym, but it didn’t seem to even acknowledge the fact that this ancient civilization was in the process of rising from obscurity to not only face the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century head on, but regain its stature as the de facto center of global trade, technological development, ideological debate and geopolitical influence. If one had been truly paying attention ten years ago, the full might of such awakening would have been apparent in the sheer deliberateness of every drumbeat, just as it is vivid today in every heartbeat of China’s 1.4 billion citizens.

My mother was born in Shanghai during a period that was far less glorious. In the mid 1930’s the Chinese identity was being disputed between Nationalists and Communists while at the same time large chunks of territory were claimed by the Japanese, in a conflict that would end the lives of more than twenty million civilians. Sadly, the end of World War II and Japan’s surrender would give the China little room to catch its breath, unite and rebuild. Instead, Chiang Kai-sheck was forced into exile in Taiwan and Mao Zedong established a single-party state, waging hostile campaigns against dissenters. Credited for being the founding father of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mao was also responsible for launching the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, both of them conduits to the deadliest famine in history, widespread destruction, mass repression and global isolation.

Flower decoration in Tiananmen Square

In the present era, however, it is difficult to spot any trace of Mao’s gross miscalculations (or “setbacks”, as they’re officially called), which were responsible for adding another twenty to forty million to China’s death toll in the 20th century. Any evidence of past economic catastrophes, political shakeups or social outbursts has been carefully edited out from the cultural narrative; and people will readily evade, ignore or dismiss any questions that might stir controversy. The student protests and subsequent bloodshed of 1989, for instance, may as well have never happened in the minds of many Chinese. Tiananmen Square is routinely adorned with flowers and, when I visited, the centerpiece was a huge and very colorful basket-type arrangement about sixty feet high and one hundred feet across, right next to the dramatic Monument to the People’s Heroes obelisk. Like every place I visited with my travel group, the square pulsates with the presence of thousands of residents and tourists from all over the country, pushing baby strollers and celebrating the end of imperialism a century ago.

Tiananmen is also packed with surveillance cameras, all of which are connected to an extensive behind-the-scenes security apparatus (including facial recognition and identity tracking), the eeriness and sophistication of which is anyone’s guess. Walking the streets of the Tibetan capital, Lhasa — later in the trip — I was surprised to see so many people wearing medical face masks, considering how much cleaner the air seemed compared to the heavily polluted cities of eastern China. One of the locals told me that face masks serve multiple purposes. “Staying healthy is surely one of them …”, but another reason, he told me, is making it more difficult for closed-circuit tv cameras “to identify you at every street corner or read your lips when you’re having a conversation in public”.

Surveillance cameras at Jokhang Temple Square, Lhasa

Any foreign visitor who is accustomed to a life with fewer guardrails and controls may inevitably suspect that Chinese society’s moral equilibrium rests in part on a tacit agreement with the ruling party: don’t make trouble, study and work hard, and the state will continue to provide basic welfare; you may apply to join the Communist Party, but otherwise avoid asking questions and happily accept the propaganda on giant electronic screens; private enterprise is welcome as long as entrepreneurs operate within the parameters of nationalism and contribute to restoring Chinese greatness; home ownership is allowed but the house can only be passed on to the next generation, not sold for the highest bidder; you are free to practice any religion but in turn stay out of politics and don’t seek employment with the government (this last point presents a unique challenge given the high number of state-backed companies).

I lost count of how many times my picture was taken when I entered a building, whether a hotel, museum, temple, train station or airport terminal. It was also common to see strangers snap pictures of me in open spaces, for no apparent reason and mostly without asking for my permission whatsoever. I never quite figured out their motives, nor was I particularly bothered by the phenomenon, until the moment I saw an undercover agent holding his i-Phone to my face at the entrance of the Three Gorges Dam security checkpoint; he immediately turned around and acted as if he was sending my portrait to a remote dark room for instant analysis. Sensing that someone was keeping tabs on me was a bit unnerving, I’ll say. The running joke, of course, was that I was one step away from landing inside one of the so-called ‘patriotic education’ or ‘vocational’ camps in northwestern China.

Law enforcement at work in Shanghai

It is frequently said that no one gets to the top by playing nice. Whether or not this is a principle by which we should abide is subject to debate, but it is easy to grasp why someone would take such tenet to heart just by looking at a random sample of worldwide headlines concerning China over the past fifty years or so. Take the extreme family planning measures, which were in place for more than three decades and consisted of state-imposed use of contraception, sterilizations and abortions. Among other unintended consequences, Chinese society is now dealing with a surplus of bachelors (due to families favoring baby boys over baby girls) and a 50% rise in median age. In an attempt to reverse the demographic crisis, the CCP shifted to a population-growth agenda since 2016, granting subsidies for the first two children born in the household and overtly encouraging women to make the most of their ‘golden period’, or best childbearing age (before turning 30).

Guardian lions of the Forbidden City: Nurture & Supremacy

As I toured the Forbidden City, I found it quite remarkable to learn that statues of guardian lions (traditionally placed at the entrance of imperial palaces, tombs and temples; nowadays common decorative elements in front of restaurants, hotels and grocery stores) are usually depicted in pairs consisting of a male leaning his paw on an embroidered ball (representing supremacy) and a female sheltering a playful cub (representing nurture). Taking into account the well-documented differences in the types of interests to which boys and girls tend to be biologically inclined (men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people), it will be fascinating to track how the current gender imbalance influences the overall social mindset in up-coming years, especially as the information age and S.T.E.M. careers take to new heights.

In the realm of contentious issues, however, one that has consistently stood out for decades is the occupation and incorporation of Tibet (celebrated by the PRC as “peaceful liberation”), a long and painful process marked by human rights abuses, including crackdowns on religious expression, arbitrary arrests and detentions, disappearances, torture, the denial of a fair public trial and deprivation of life, not to mention the destruction of hundreds of monasteries. Since 2008, more than one hundred and fifty Tibetans — most of them monks and nuns — have self-immolated (lit themselves on fire) as means of protesting the Chinese treatment of Tibet and showcasing their despair to the rest of the world.

The subject remains a very touchy one, so much so that I was emphatically told by tour organizers to avoid mentioning Tibet when applying for my visa at the embassy in Houston. I begrudgingly twisted the rules of transparency by presenting documentation that flagrantly omitted a significant portion of the itinerary, trusting that I’d still be able to obtain the special permit to visit the “autonomous region” upon arriving in mainland China.

As I finally boarded the Tibet Airlines flight at Xi’an Xianyang International Airport, I felt somewhat incredulous. I was ecstatic to finally have the opportunity to set foot in a land with such far-reaching natural splendor, spiritual richness and mystic tradition. I was euphoric about coming face-to-face with temples covered in gilded bronze tiles, the likes of which I’d only seen on National Geographic. I was eager to be once again in the vicinity of the Himalayas. I was hoping to see contemplative sages in monastic training, and pastoral nomads tending to their yaks. But I was also apprehensive about the odds of feeling utterly disillusioned once I got there.

Aboard Tibet Airlines

Lhasa is a sprawling, bubbly city situated at twelve thousand feet above sea level, its economy propelled by street commerce and regional trade, service and hospitality, agriculture and animal husbandry, metal and mineral mining, as well as a growing range of industries such as breweries, rug manufacturing plants and electric power stations. I’m convinced that it must also have one of the highest concentrations of mopeds on the planet. Lhasa has grown from 20,000 to 600,000 inhabitants since the 1950’s, and it finds itself in the thick of an arduous metamorphosis today. The ancient architectural style, still prevalent in the Barkhor area (where my hotel was located), displays a blend of Indian, Nepalese and Chinese influence, using an array of bright colors to accentuate home entrances, courtyards and buildings in general. This contrasts sharply with more modern urban landmarks, such as the city center’s New Times Square, the solar-powered Airport Expressway, and the Tibetan Railway, considered a “miracle” in engineering that extends almost 2,000 kilometers over high-altitude topography.

Along with gigantic investments in developing new business and residential districts, authorities envision tourism being a crucial component to the region’s economic future and, if they could have it their way, the Potala Palace would welcome as many visitors in a year as the Eiffel Tower. This immense and magnificent complex, rightfully recognized as a World Heritage Site, once functioned as military fortress and served as headquarters for Tibetan political and spiritual leadership. It is still a major magnet for Buddhist pilgrimages, and it houses the tombs of eight Dalai Lamas, several chapels, meditation halls and shrines, as well as thousands of sacred statues and cultural relics of all possible sizes dispersed throughout hundreds of rooms and chambers.

The magnificent Potala Palace

Covering the slopes of Red Mountain and rising thirteen stories high (with a very noticeable Chinese national flag planted on the highest point), the palace stands head and shoulders above any other man-made structure in the valley, at least for now. As it’s happening in the rest of China, construction cranes are reshaping the skyline fast. In the meantime, though, rooftops in the old part of Lhasa are practically wrapped in traditional prayer flags honoring the five natural elements: blue symbolizes the sky, white symbolizes the air, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. The flags’ ultimate purpose is to help spread good will, compassion, health and positivity far and wide, and together they represent balance.

There is no limit to how many prayer flags you can display, but don’t even think of hoisting or waving the state flag anywhere in Tibet. The “free Tibet flag” (two snow lions holding a yin-yang symbol on a white mountain with a gold sun rising over it) has been banned by the Chinese government since the military assaults of 1959. Because it is so closely associated with the Tibetan pro-independence movement and its sympathizers worldwide, displaying it in public is considered an act of deliberate provocation. Likewise, any gesture that signals worship of the 14th Dalai Lama can be met with harsh punishment. His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, who has been living as a refugee in India for the past sixty years, is persona non grata in China (a “separatist”), and he would immediately be arrested if he were to set foot in his homeland.

This is one of the shiniest examples of the Chinese-Tibetan paradox and transmutation, but not the only one. While exploring the square at Jokhang temple (dating from the 7th century), one can spot monks wearing Nike sneakers and taking selfies on iPhones, tourists from all walks of life passing by, soldiers guarding every access point and pilgrims performing prostrations — every rep involves dropping the body forward on the floor, with arms outstretched, then standing back up, bringing the hands together, placing them on the crown of the head, then to the mouth and the heart. Many practitioners will keep repeating the movement for as long as their stamina holds, sometimes for days on end. And all of this is occurring across from a Burger King, where diners can enjoy succulent yak burgers.

I have to admit that my own understanding of Buddhism, at least so far, had centered on its philosophical, scientific, ethical and spiritual teachings. Pilgrimages, prostrations and compulsive worshipping of statues were definitely not part of my repertoire. Neither did I anticipate what the temples and monasteries would be like on the inside. Some of these sanctuaries seem partially staged as museums, but they function simultaneously as residences, vaults and places of prayer. Just try to picture touring the Louvre, except that the layout resembles a multi-level labyrinth, most of which is in semidarkness, enveloped in a mixed scent of incense, mold and sweat; and the Mona Lisa is sitting on a pile of unnamed treasures, locked away in a glass armoire on the eleventh floor (there are no elevators, by the way).

As I had somewhat suspected, my three-day stay in Lhasa ended with a bittersweet aftertaste. However, the question that remained with me is this: what destiny awaits Tibetan culture, and Chinese culture for that matter?

One possible way of looking at the autonomous region today is as if it were a colony being devoured in slow motion. The colonizer is there to conquer the land, extract the gold, divert the water supply and convert natives to its credo. As the legend goes, Po (the panda) defeated Tai Lung (the snow lion) for the greater good. Or did he? The history between China and Tibet is extremely convoluted and can be traced back as far as the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). Their relationship has been shaped by reconciliation just as much as it has been stained by aggression. Should we otherwise think that both sides placing so much trust on the same philosophical foundation of the five elements is pure serendipity? Conversely, should we actually worry about such meaningful symbolism being relegated to restaurant wallpapers, decorative ribbons and bedtime stories?

Trying to look at the bright side of things

Some people accuse the Chinese of “Disney-fying” Lhasa and exploiting the centuries-old Tibetan culture for profit. From what I could see, if that were true they would’ve prioritized making public restrooms more welcoming to travelers. So no, I don’t buy so easily into such simplistic criticism. True, the plan is to draw more tourists to this region, but by and large a domestic crowd, which seems aligned with the long-term strategy of national unification.

I would like to entertain the possibility that the Tibetan metamorphosis may offer us a glimpse of what China’s future — and perhaps the entire world’s — could in fact look like in the near future: an ethnically diverse and integrated population, well versed in at least two languages and multiple cultures, with access to rising incomes, private enterprise, social mobility, and modern transportation, living in homes powered by renewable energy, and enjoying a picture-perfect blue sky. The Tibetan Railway, it should be noted, travels in both directions.

That said, I’m still trying to figure out why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is increasingly bent on discrediting the Dalai Lama while simultaneously indicating that it will appoint a successor when he passes away. After all, wasn’t the entire scuffle with His Holiness based on not mixing politics and religion? What would Confucius say to all this?

The 600-year old Bell Tower of Xi’an

The thing I find most impressive about China is that it is not just the oldest but the only ancient civilization to have regained its confidence, vitality and dynamism after centuries of brutal territorial disputes and unspeakable atrocities, numerous civil wars and rebellions, relentless western exploitation and international humiliation, recurring natural disasters and episodes of mass starvation. The Sumerians didn’t quite make it; neither did the Greeks; nor the Romans or the Egyptians. In November of 2018, The New York Times published a special editorial under the title China Rules, naming the first chapter, quite fittingly, The Land that Failed to Fail. Through many ups and downs over at least three thousand years, industriousness, thoroughness and firmness have always been traits that distinguished Chinese culture. But the emboldened China that has emerged in recent years is one that thinks big and radiates a long-term vision, more so than any other nation in the first quarter of the 21st century. Its presence is being felt all over the world, whether in a subtle or at times forceful manner. Just like the Olympic drummers.

The cosmopolitan facet of China

In 1990, Deng Xiaoping famously summed up China’s foreign policy as “hide your strength and bide your time”. By contrast, Xi Jinping has recently been very vocal about his intent on departing from the decades-long low-profile approach. He has declared the dawn of “a new era”, one in which China pursues a larger role in the world, at the same time as America seeks to reduce its commitments abroad. “As the U.S. retreats globally, China shows up”, said Major General Jin Yinan, a strategist at China’s National Defense University. For better or worse, this is a historic moment for all of us.

The U.S. government’s narrative today tries to paint a picture of China’s success as if it were a result of trading unfairly, stealing intellectual property, and claiming ownership of real estate on international waters, among other things. But to the same extent to which these items merit examination (just as they require a resolution), they offer little insight into China’s self-sufficiency and what it is genuinely capable of achieving. It’d be a huge mistake to conclude that China is trying to become more westernized simply because many Chinese use an English alias (my artist friend An Qi introduced himself to me as Andy). Shanghai being home to Starbucks’ largest store and Volkswagen being the best-selling carmaker in the country are indicators of how indispensable it has become for most global companies to gain access to the massive Chinese middle class, but this happens more and more on China’s own terms. Moreover, China now has the bargaining power to extend its footprint well beyond national boundaries, and it is taking full advantage of that.

Exotic food street in Muslim Quarter, Xi’an

Chinese have a reputation for being superb opportunists, tenacious entrepreneurs and fearless negotiators. And just as importantly, history offers us a sobering reminder that they have been first to innovate on many fronts, from the mass production of tea, rice, silk and cross bows, to the invention of paper money, gun powder, noodles, acupuncture, kung fu and the compass. As outsiders, we may struggle to wrap our heads around how much this entrepreneurial spirit can accomplish with an increasingly robust government-backed infrastructure. And it’s easy to miss that, in a GAFAM-dominated world wide web, nine out of the twenty top tech companies in the world today are Chinese. They are taking the lead on artificial intelligence and machine learning, and at the pace they’re going they might as well be the first ones to land a crewed spacecraft on Mars (even if they have to use Russian equipment and American know how!). Ultimately, I suppose, trying to apply the rules of Checkers when following a game of Go is not very helpful. We should know by now that China is developing a new playbook altogether.

A street vendor’s van filled with merchandise outside Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu

Amid this atmosphere of patriotism and productivity, one of the questions that I haven’t been able to shake off since I returned from China is: What makes the average Chinese today happy?

In one of my exchanges with An Qi, he lamented that Chinese art and culture had reached its peak during the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE), and that the younger generations seem to be increasingly disconnected from their roots. As unstoppable as the colossus may seem, it appears vulnerable to the philosophical and spiritual vacuum created by the demise of imperialism and a moribund communist ideology. Furthermore, Xi Jinping and the CCP seem to have realized that deploying cuddly Giant Pandas overseas is no longer enough to garner the world’s benevolence nor to inspire a sense of fulfillment at home. So it is hardly a coincidence that over-the-top campaigns highlighting Chinese triumph and grandeur are accompanied by a softer, more subtle yet equally zealous undercurrent to revive the nation’s cultural legacy and historic patrimony.

With an eventful timeline that spans thousands of years, few things seem more effective for boosting China’s self-image than to dig into its past, and quite literally so. The famous terra cotta soldiers, all buried with China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang (259–210 BC) as part of an elaborate necropolis designed to protect him in the afterlife, represent one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in the world. Experts estimate that the pits may contain as many as 8,000 life-size figures (along with horses, chariots and weapons), each with a unique facial expression and positioned according to rank. Arguably the most noteworthy aspect about this site is that more than 2,200 years of exposure to weather, soil erosion, fires, and repeated looting, virtually all sculptures were shattered by the time they were initially located, but thousands of people have been working diligently over forty-five years (and counting) to excavate and restore them to their original shape — one by one.

The “hospital” for Terra Cotta Warriors

For a country that holds the highest percentage of atheists in the world and takes pride in caring for the common people, China surely seems to have a penchant for treating its leaders as god-like figures. Chairman Mao has his own mausoleum, erected on the previous site of the Gate of China, a historical southern gateway to the Imperial City in Beijing. His embalmed body has remained on display for public viewing (in a crystal coffin) more than four decades after his death. Could it be that Xi Jinping is now pursuing his own vision of immortality by declaring himself president-for-life? Or is he just another example of how important the image of a mighty powerful boss is for sustaining a unified China?

It may seem as if Chinese rulers, to this day, consider themselves in fact terrestrial representatives of Huánglóng. The Yellow Dragon is, according to Chinese theology, the master of dragons, the center of the cosmos, the zoomorphic incarnation of the element earth, the very gist of what makes China, well, China. However, for all the emphasis placed on longevity and magnanimity, the political narrative also seems to evoke an intuitive understanding of the mutability and ephemerality of everything. At the crux of this paradox lies the idea of martyrdom, which the Chinese regard as one of the greatest acts of virtue, and therefore worthy of eternal admiration. It is, in its own strange way, the elixir of life which the first emperor Qin searched for so passionately.

Shadow puppetry

But what will happen when the memory of China’s martyrs fades into oblivion? Can 1.4 billion people escape from under the emperor’s shadow and not plunge into chaos and despair?

At the very start of my journey in China, I paid a visit to the Great Wall in the outskirts of Beijing and, needless to say, it was flocked with visitors. There are 23 watchtowers distributed at close intervals along the Mutianyu section, of which towers 21 through 23 are officially off limits. Luckily for me, however, once I made it to number 20, I noticed that the remaining segment, still well-preserved but not renovated, was relatively easy to access. It was drizzling and getting late in the day, so there were very few people left that far up on the wall. I looked around me a couple of times and didn’t see any cameras nor guards, so I took a small leap of faith.

A couple of minutes later, I was walking entirely by myself on the Great Wall of China, one of the most iconic ancient structures that mankind has ever built. Even if just for a brief instant, I had found a place in the world’s most populous country where I could enjoy a little solitude. As I contemplated the ruins, partially covered by vegetation, I pondered how much pain and suffering was employed to build that wall, and how much blood had been spilled on both sides of it. And then I pondered whether the same structure that had served as a barrier for contention and separation could now serve as a platform for adjusting our sense of direction and connection.

Alone on the ‘Great Wall’ of China

I’m cautiously optimistic, of course. One could argue that the Great Wall is obsolete today only because it has been replaced by the Great Firewall, a nickname given to China’s strictly regulated and heavily patrolled internet. The PRC may have opened up to the West but it’s still not willing to open the floodgates of information, so the central government is adamant about keeping the likes of Facebook and Twitter out. Likewise, it will do all the necessary cyber-snooping, blocking and tackling to delete any online activity deemed to work against the nation’s aspirational image of peace, prosperity and perfection.

Should we be thinking of China as the center of anything? I’m not sure. We once thought planet Earth was the center, then we thought the Sun was the center, and now everyone seems to believe they are the center of the universe. Heck, as I was standing alone on top of the monumental pile of slabs of granite I did fantasize about being the one who had discovered Machu Picchu, when in reality I was just a fly on the wall, surveying the green hills around me and witnessing the timelessness of it all.

Maybe it is time to let go of our obsession for finding the center, and focus instead on understanding the cycle of life and how we can continue to evolve as a species, beyond ideas of conquest, domination and opulence. And so the search for the Yellow Dragon continues.

One of the many representations of Shou, a symbol of happiness and longevity

People around the globe may have very different notions of what the Chinese are up to or what makes them tick. Some of us may like China, others may like it less. Some of us may want to visit, others would rather go somewhere else. But what none of us has the luxury of doing anymore is to remain indifferent to it. What happens in China today and over the next several years will no longer stay in China. It will have a direct impact on our wallets, our ethics, and our well being. It will impact future generations in multiple ways.

Our Chinese neighbors are traveling around the world more than we are. They are dreaming bigger than we are. They are learning faster than we are. They are investing smarter than we are. They are working harder than we are. What’s even more striking, though, is that they seem to know a lot more about us than we know about them. In sum, how they fare will reflect on all of humanity, and their perspectives and contributions might be our best hope of defining a better system of global governance moving forward.

Snuff bottle painting

Visiting China stretched my own perspective and forced me out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t ask for directions nor read food menus. I was constantly surrounded by crowds of people who looked and behaved very differently than I do. But visiting China was also the privilege of a lifetime. I hope to return one day and when I do, I hope to see a China that continues to seek meaning and beauty in poetry, calligraphy, shadow puppetry, music, painting, cosmology and athletics, just as much as it values science, math, engineering, finance and materialism. I also hope to see a China that continues to cherish its artisans, healers, entertainers, architects and environmentalists just as much as it venerates its war heroes, intellectual gurus, social reformers, bureaucratic wizards and historical monuments.

I am truly rooting for China to succeed in its quest for stability, unity and harmony. Because we must ask ourselves what destiny awaits us all if it doesn’t.

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Photos by Christian Filli

Christian specializes in understanding patterns of human motivation, decoding cultural narratives, and examining how these might affect individuals, organizations, brands, and society at large. First and foremost, he applies his diverse background, cultural insight and endless curiosity to broadening his own perspective and guiding others, as they navigate an ever more complex global landscape. Christian is an Integral Coach®, Associate Certified Coach (ACC) by the International Coach Federation (ICF), and holder of a B.A. in Social Communications. For more information visit http://www.scyrocco.com/