China's bizarre new world opens up
July 2, 2004
Perusal of a Chinese newspaper shows that the old saying "only in America" needs revision, writes Steve Packer.
Page four of the English-language China Daily is the kind of page a visitor might expect to turn to for insight into a bewildering, large and rapidly changing country.
Headed "China Scene", with the banner "From the most influential and widely read Chinese media", it presents a daily cross-section of reports that the newspaper culls from publications in regions north, south, east, west and central.
There are few reasons to buy the government-owned China Daily with any enthusiasm, but page four never fails to justify the one-yuan (about 20c) outlay. It is arguably the most extraordinary page of journalism found in any national newspaper in the world.
It is difficult to indicate the range of oddities on a page that, day after day, makes the "It only happens in America" concept seem well out of date. Forged in remarkable cultural and political circumstances, it's the real deal, as unencumbered by cynicism as it is constipated with earnestness.
As one representative example is impossible to choose, we'll begin with this recent story from the eastern region, "Bird shuts up when taking bath". I was on a plane when I read it, returning to Sydney after four weeks of travel in China.
According to the Jianghuai Morning Post, "a smart myna bird in Fuyang, Anhui Province, which can sing and recite poetry, refuses to speak a word during bath time. It will only start talking again after its feathers have dried."
Admittedly, this is one of China Scene's less important animal stories, although recent headings such as "Dog fasts after loss of feathered friends", "Officers tend to lost cow in owner's absence" and "Old pine outraces time but not moths" require little amplification. The police officers did have to contend with the birth of a calf.
The animal stories can get strange. "Talented horse capable of shelling eggs" told of a beast that can also peel lychees and mangoes with its mouth. "It enjoys eggs and beer. Sometimes it will go to temples."
Then there was the news that an elephant at Fuzhou Zoo had kidney failure and the zoo was "calling for help from the public", its nature unspecified. "The elephant broke one of its tusks 11 years ago, causing a serious infection. Although the infection was later cured, its kidney was damaged. Unless the elephant is cured in the near future, it risks being unable to have babies."
"Boa becomes another family member", about a family that found an injured boa in 1996 and cared for it, seemed to be telling too much, then left readers wanting more. "The boa became a member of the family, and even stayed in the family bed during the honeymoon night," the Hainan Special Zone Daily reported. "The boa, who had caught thieves for [its owner] Huang in the past, would play with him, and it even once saved a boy's life in a river."
Unusual human misfortune and freakish death are other China Scene favourites. The myna bird story was followed by "Teahouse partner steps into the air", about a businessman in Shangrao, Jiangxi Province, who didn't realise the lift had stalled during a power cut and died falling four floors down the shaft. Across the page was "Toll collectors bothered by bees" and "Compensation for poor false teeth" (they were so bad, the woman couldn't close her mouth). In a nation of 1.3 billion people, the "almost" was the most surprising thing about "Plastic bag almost suffocates baby".
Sexual matters are handled with voyeuristic delicacy. Consider "Father to sue store for selling breast products to son" and "Lingerie obsession proves costly for Taiwan woman".
In the first story, a 15-year-old boy in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region stole money from his family to buy breast-enlargement ointment: "Guo, who used to dress like a woman, used the ointment."
The Taiwanese woman, Lin, was spending up to $US5000 (00) - almost all her income - on lingerie every month. "She said she does not wear the expensive underwear, but just takes it out to look at."
The family sagas can be quite poignant, even if they do read like John Updike parodies. One item reports: "A septuagenarian couple who had different living habits recently got divorced in Beijing. The old man, surnamed Yang, is from North China, where people are generally more happy-go-lucky than those in South China, where the woman comes from.
"The man likes to wake up early but his former wife likes to get up at about 9am. It was their daughter who first suggested the divorce. They promise to visit each other often."
Shortly after I stepped off the plane in Sydney, the new Chinese ambassador to Canberra, Fu Ying, told the Herald: "Australia can help China to understand the world better, and help the world understand China." Diplomatic flattery aside, it means Australia needs to understand China. It's hard to know if China Scene is revealing more or revealing less than intended.