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A modern China faces changes and challenges

A century ago, a young Englishman walked across a nation on the brink of chaos. Today, many of the societal divides remain.

November 18, 2007|Evan Osnos | Chicago Tribune

YIBIN, CHINA — Kindergartners in in-line skates wobbled along the concrete edge of the Yangtze.

Well-dressed parents fussed behind them, within sight of but decades away from the docks and squalor where their forebears toiled.

Today, only the river matches the description given a century ago by Edwin Dingle after he splashed ashore "stiff and hungry, and mad with rage."

He was no famous explorer or scientist, just a young Englishman naive enough to think he could cross half of China on foot, with revolution brewing and warlords fighting for control of an uncertain nation. He succeeded.

To retrace 200 miles of his route today is to traverse a landscape roiling again, as change catapults some into a promising future and maroons others in enduring hardship.

The social and economic rules imposed by communism have been overturned, leaving a nation of radical contrasts: upbeat entrepreneurs and embittered farmers, those who have benefited from new freedoms and those who suffer under persistent corruption.

In the century since Dingle walked here, China has weathered war, upheaval, political mania and mind-boggling growth. Yet, China in the 21st century faces pressures similar to those it confronted 100 years ago: to employ, control and satisfy the world's largest population.

The parents enjoying a day at the river's edge know they are fortunate.

"My grandmother had 10 children and worked on the docks carrying sacks of rice," said Li Jing, 32, a stay-at-home mom. "Her life was bitter."

As she spoke, she watched her young daughter, in an oversized red helmet and kneepads, skate effortless curves across the concrete, insulated from such hardships.

Edwin John Dingle was a 28-year-old journalist in Singapore in 1909 when he got the urge to see China in as much detail as possible. He resolved to walk.

He had never visited China. He spoke not a word of any of its languages. Nevertheless, he planned a route through China's heartland, from Chongqing to the border with Burma (now also known as Myanmar), 1,000 miles to the southwest. He estimated it would take six months. It took nearly two years.

Today, his yellowing, leather-bound volume, "Across China on Foot," is among the only outside accounts of China's interior in the moments that gave birth to modern China.

Trailed by three porters and an assistant carrying his typewriter, Dingle found a China on the brink of chaos. The nation of 430 million people was awash in cries of "China for the Chinese," as popular movements struggled to expel colonial powers and topple the imperial regime.

He had entered a nation divided by privilege and decayed to the breaking point. On the road, he passed silk-clad Mandarins riding in sedan chairs on the shoulders of their countrymen, while the masses faced "the same life of disease, distress and dirt, of official, social, and moral degradation as they lived when the Westerner remained still in the primeval forest stage."

Dingle soon reached Luzhou, a hardscrabble port on the Yangtze. The city, like others across the region, was already fated for revolution. Two years earlier, Sun Yat-sen, who would become the father of modern China, had dispatched agents and bomb makers to Luzhou to foment insurrection.

By 1912, revolutionaries had overthrown the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China. But political change alone did little to end poverty.

Poor was all that Xiao Zezhen ever expected to be.

"I was the youngest of 10 children, only five of whom survived," said Xiao, who has lived in Luzhou all of her 50 years.

She was raised by a single mother who earned less than $3 a week peddling soy sauce and vinegar.

Xiao grew up, left home and, by the grim standards of the 1980s, found a plum job: making fake leather in a factory where employees were permitted to gather the discarded scraps of hog fat and bring them home for dinner.

"It made you very popular in the neighborhood," she recalled.

By 1990, Xiao saw her opening. She quit the job that was the envy of her neighbors and took a chance on running one of the city's first karaoke clubs. Today she is an entertainment tycoon, clad in designer jeans and a T-shirt with a Warhol-style print.

"At the time, my neighbors could not imagine that I was breaking the 'iron rice bowl,' " she said of her decision to quit her state job. "But it was the beginning of my new life."

Along Dingle's route lie stories that convey the breadth of China's transformation. He followed an ancient caravan route tiled in flagstones. Today, most of it has been replaced by vast rivers of asphalt, part of a massive road-building spree that has helped open up China's interior.

Those roads and the growth they symbolize have brought new strains. Village after village is hollowing out, as workers seek city jobs and leave aging grandparents to care for school-age children.

Of course, there is continuity as well.

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