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Peking. Day 10

A tale of two cranes. OUR English-speaking guides like to make English-speaking jokes, so today I try to join in. The bus is tooling past one of many construction sites, with building equipment looming against the sky. ``The crane is the symbol of Peking,'' says the guide with a melodious laugh.

``Then Peking buildings must last forever,'' I venture. You see, another kind of crane, the long-billed bird, is a Chinese symbol of longevity. We have been shown a bronze one at the Palace of Heavenly Purity in the Forbidden City. Oh, well.

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In the midst of the up-to-date construction machinery, I think of the farmer we saw in his cornfield, spraying the stalks one by one with what we used to call a Flit gun. We keep hearing of China's challenge of emerging from the past and improving the housing of a billion people.

Yet those cranes on the skyline seem to be a mixed symbol to some Chinese we meet.

They worry about high-rise apartments putting people in comfortable isolation, taking them out of the families and neighborhoods where everyone cares for everyone else.

Can Chinese individuals develop productive competition in construction and other business while maintaining a caring attitude?

The question bothers a young professional man we first knew some years ago when he visited the United States. Now he says this caring attitude has already begun to be lost.

In the traditional way, he still lives with his parents, and bicycles to work. He says his parents have one room, he and his wife and child have another, and -- sign of the times -- he keeps his computer in the third. With job and government subsidies, he saves money on a salary of $30 a month.

We also talk with a young working mother. She lives in a high rise with her husband and four-year-old daughter. The daughter is away at kindergarten during the week. There are parental visiting hours on Wednesdays.

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From now on we'll think not only of China's new construction but of the people inside -- or outside -- it.

As for China's old construction, the part of the Great Wall we visit goes back four centuries. It's overrun with tourists, even the so-called ``hard'' incline that rises opposite the ``easy'' one. But most of them today seem to be Chinese, as at so many of the public places we visit. In these family and other groups, I see or imagine something I like: the words, touches, gestures, smiles suggesting that the caring attitude mentioned by our friend is still heartwarmingly there.

Roderick Nordell is the Monitor's feature editor. Tomorrow he at last talks about the weather and boards the railway for Siberia.

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