The Quality of China
“Remember that it was not too long ago when the paper, the silk, the ceramics that came from China were considered the best in the world.” Professor Edoardo Currà from the Sapienza University of Rome told me, as I shared with him a simple but inspiring dream a long time friend have had years ago. The dream was that one day “Made in China” would have the same prestige as “Made in Italy”.
This fall weekend in October I was invited to speak at a conference at Nanjing University, and this opportunity took me to this city for the first time in my life. My impression of the city as I was traveling from the airport to my hotel: “What a green city!” The trees that lined the streets were dense and broad, their roots going deep; The building walls and highway columns were coated with green healthy ivies, the developments were spaced by spans of greens; the experiments in flood resilience infrastructure are broad and deep, the prevalence of IoT applications is all-around. None of these fit the description of chaotic growth; None of these matched the image of a polluted, smoggy, scrappy, low-grade concrete-filled Chinese urbanism.
To be sure, such concepts of Chinese urbanism is bound to fail as quickly as the reality is varied and ephemeral. China is a massive, clocked up machine. It is a vessel of a people so eager to prove the world wrong. To prove to the world that it is not poor, it is not dirty, it is not rude, it is not tacky, it is not superficial, it is not behind. And to anyone who would’ve gotten those impressions from interactions with the culture not too long ago, these people will prove you wrong, if not today, then certainly tomorrow.
But a country cannot become truly strong if its strength stems from vengeance. In a city as burdened with the history of conflicts as Nanjing, I was eager to search for a hint of our grace. At the Nanjing Massacre Victims Memorial, morbid as the topic was, I found the message echoing throughout.
“These pictures have been taken with no thought of stirring up a spirit of revenge against the Japanese, but with a desire to make all people, Japanese included, realize how horrible this war has been.” — John Mage
“This is a wonderful testimony to the horrors of war and to the need for peace in all nations.”
— Jimmy Carter
Narrating those hopeful messages, however, was the impeccable burden of cruelty, and the reinforcing guidance of an old man to his (I suppose) grandson, as they scanned the photographs together, “See all these dead people? See how bad the Japanese are? They are just a bad people! Remember! Japanese are bad people!” the old man insisted. “No!” I thought, “that was not the message…” I was saddened. I was awakened, to the undeniable atrocities depicted by the images one after another. It is obvious that many of them were infused with the intent to ‘prove’ with evidence that the Japanese Army has done these people wrong.
But just as obvious, the exhibit did not fail to represent the many attempts by Japanese public and private groups to pay their respect and offer their apology, for what had happened in what is beyond doubt a tragedy of all humanity.
From despair to remembrance, to reflection, the concluding atmosphere of the memorial was not one of hatred, but one of hope. Not one of vengeance but one of peace.
I may not be in any relevant position, to even pretend, to understand the pain and despair experienced by those who lived through the darkest hour of humanity. But witnessing the growth and transformation in the city, the diligence, and perseverance of the people, here is my imagination: The agility of the economy is like a snake; the might of the army, a lion; the depth of wisdom, a deer; The speed of execution, an eagle. That creature which has a body of a snake, the head of a lion, the antler of a deer, and the claws of an eagle, is none other than a dragon. When the dragon soars, it will not be seeking revenge. It shall soar, with its confident power, to observe peace on earth.