We think we know China. The world's most venerable and self-confident civilisation, home to the largest unified race of people on the planet, China manufactures the objects that fill our lives, from the humble iPod to the cars on our roads. We see a country peopled by docile and determined factory workers, domineering 'Tiger Mothers' obsessed with education and achievement, and a society that has put the accumulation of wealth above political freedom. Above all, we see a superpower on the rise, destined to overtake the West and to dominate the 21st century.
My recent visit to China took me rapidly through my preconceptions; dismantled them, challenged, confirmed and left me wanting to learn more about the people, its rich culture and chequered history.
I was fortunate to be invited by the Somerset-Yueyangpartnership to visit China with a group of SomersetHeadteachers to experience first-hand this misunderstood place – I had never travelled to either Hong Kong or Chinabefore (only as far as India and Nepal) and I only had my preconceptions about the place to guide me. I was truly surprised by China – its astonishing growth, the hospitality and generosity of its people and its vision. Mr Osborne, who visited China only a week before we did, is right – we either watch China usurp the West or be a part of it.
Having arrived in Changsha in Hunan Province from Hong Kong we had a two hour coach trip to Yueyang. The trip through the Chinese countryside gave me the opportunity to witness just how much development is going on in this vast country. There was hardly a kilometre that went by that there was not a new building going up or an engineering construction project underway. Thousands of coal trucks up and down the motorway were transporting energy all over the country. When we finally arrived at Yueyang the story was unchanged. This may be a “small” city in the depths of south China, living in the shadows of Beijing and Shanghai but it was also a beautiful and modern city with all the trappings of a Western one with a population of 800,000 - the whole of Somerset only has a population of 920,000! The tall skyscrapers, vast shopping malls, theatres, libraries and hotelssuggest a city that is going places.
Our plush hotel by Lake Nanhu which was a hotel primarily for state officials provided us with the comforts of home overthe next week and we were greeted with a huge sign welcoming us. We immediately felt at home and following avery short rest to shower and change we attended the meeting with the local Education Bureau who hosted a presentation by both Yueyang and Somerset about their hopes for the partnership work at school level. It was also an opportunity for us to experience Chinese culture through a range of musical performances by teachers and students from variousschools, including the university, in the district. Theenthusiasm, skill and confidence exhibited by the childrenwas simply breath taking and the range of activities was impressive - from traditional Chinese music played on thegaohu to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5. The talent on display was inspiring and it was evident that the children were enjoying themselves and were really proud to be representing their schools. After the formalities of the opening Ceremony and meeting the various dignitaries of the Education Bureau we were then treated to a Chinese banquet in a private dining room in one of Yueyang’s top seafood restaurants – the Chinese certainly know how to cook and to entertain.Delicacies such as crab, turtle and eel were on offer as were other more traditional dishes such as prawn, sea bass and lobster. The evening was also an opportunity to meet theHeadteachers of our partner schools and it was a real pleasureto finally meet Mr Cheng Hao who spoke very highly of Ray McGovern and Sexey’s School. He had visited the school last October and was overwhelmed by our kindness and generosity – I have a lot to live up to! The evening ended with numerous toasts being made in honour of the schoolpartnerships, with fortified Chinese wine – 47% abc!
The next day I visited Yueyang Middle School for the first time and really didn’t know what to expect. I was given a warm reception by the staff and I was asked if I could give an assembly to 2000 children! So some quick thinking needed to take place – I did find that you were thinking quite a lot on your feet in China and this was both exciting and quitedaunting! I managed to deliver my assembly (some of it inMandarin!) and once I was finished I was mobbed by the students – I now know what Justin Bieber must feel like – it was very surreal and the staff had to hold the children back while I walked through the playground for my next engagement. Once lessons had started, I was given a tour of the school and its facilities. The students conducting the tour were dressed in school uniform which was a two tone track suit (blue and white) with a special red sash (instead of our prefect tie) which signified that the student is the student leader for that particular year group and was selected to hostthe visitor. Each of the students took turns to show me one significant and interesting aspect of their school – the history room, the laboratories, library, ICT suite, Dining Hall etc and did so in very good English – I was impressed with both their fluency and vocabulary. Like Sexey's students they wereimmensely proud of their school and keen to impress and they were excellent ambassadors for their school.
Throughout the course of the week I observed lessons (up to 17 other teachers would observe another colleagues’ lesson – talk about pressure!) in art, music, mandarin, history, English and chemistry; gave an impromptu Chemistry lesson on water and the elements to 65 students; was asked to prepare an English lesson to 75 children (class sizes are on average 65!)but was then told with 5 minutes to go that it would be 150 – quick thinking on one’s feet again; ate with the children in their KDR – the food was delicious and they were impressed that I could use chopsticks (the operation of feeding 2000 children in an hour was slick and very impressive indeed) andI was guest of honour at their Sports Day – which quite frankly resembled the Olympic Games – organising 2000children is no mean feat and I was taken aback by the quality of the opening ceremony and the games that followed – truly remarkable. It’s no wonder they do so well at the Olympics – sport is a major aspect of a child’s education in China and a lot of investment has been made to realise this. And yes, I was asked to speak again at the ceremony, but this time in Mandarin….
Miss Zhang, who was at Sexey’s last year teaching Mandarin to our students, was my translator for the week and I was given a driver, Mr Peng, who took me around Yueyangvisiting colleagues and taking in the impressive sites. Driving in China for a foreigner must be a scary experience as is being the poor passenger – wearing a seat belt is essential! There is a kind of ordered chaos on the roads, with considerably more chaos than order, with horns appearing to be the preferred means of communication. The cars on the roads are all very modern and I am astonished not to see more with damaged front wings or rear ends. At junctions which we would consider to be major junctions, traffic management appears to be based on the assumption that you simply squeeze through regardless of how big the vehicle next to you might be. I'm sure there is a system but I couldn’t quite work it out. The car industry is booming here and a million cars are produced eachmonth which will use up precious fuel and produce greenhouse gases that will effect the entire plant. The future of the Chinese car market could be one of the most important issues facing the world. And Mr Peng still manages to miss that pedestrian and coal truck while driving on the wrong side of the road and answering his iPhone 5.
Capitalism, rampant consumerism and incredible wealth is something I didn’t expect to see on my visit – the orange Lamborghini outside the Sheraton Hotel in Changsha; £8 for a cup of coffee and the lavish banquets we were treated to spoke volumes about the place. Every single person I spoke to from the current generation to those who grew up under the Maoist regime have said that their lives have got better. Despite the greatest economic boom in history, China is still a developing country and it is home to a fifth of the planet’s population. Remarkably, it is poorer by person than countries like Costa Rica and Bulgaria. But it is a country that has developed rapidly, under the economic reforms implemented by Premier Wei Jengbao, raising millions out of poverty, but which faces important challenges: a lack of healthcare and support for the vulnerable, heavy pollution, and growing inequality. There is a lot more change to come.
I do hope that both Yueyang Middle School and Sexey’s learn from one another over the coming years to help strengthen this very special and important relationship and that we both strive to provide valuable educational opportunities for our students which will enrich their international perspective and provide a cultural dimension to their learning.
I look forward to welcoming Mr Cheng Hao and his students to Sexey’s in due course and me returning to Yueyang with a group of Sexeians to experience what live is actually like in the Far East.
I H Latif