[an error occurred while processing this directive]


  Field Notes From
China's Growing Pains

<< Back to Feature Page

China's Growing Pains On AssignmentArrows

View Field Notes
From Author

Jasper Becker

China's Growing Pains On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Bob Sacha

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Bob Sacha (top) and Mark Thiessen


China's Growing Pains

Field Notes From Author
Jasper Becker

Best Worst Quirkiest
    Best of all was perhaps a Tibetan night out. Our hosts in Naren turned out in their finest long-sleeved silk robes at their village hall to perform some graceful dances and deep-throated ballads for us.
    But before they started, we, the visitors, had to do our bit with a speech or a song. All that bashful photographer Bob "Sinatra" Sacha could come up with was a feeble rendering of  "Happy Birthday to You."  But did they boo and pelt him with yak dung? No, they gave him an ovation. What an audience! 

    The peasants were visibly nervous when we arrived at their dusty village in the central China Plain. They feared at any moment that the police would enter the house and catch us discussing their case against the local bigwigs who were getting rich from running dozens of zinc-plating factories.
    The factories were pumping their wastewater underground, polluting the water hundreds of thousands of farmers needed to drink and irrigate their crops. The villagers had been waging a long battle against the authorities to stop the pollution and to win some compensation. They were warned that if they spoke out, things would get much worse.  Since so few foreigners ever go to such places, you have to move quickly before somebody spots you and informs the police. After much debate among themselves, they brought in people who told us horrifying stories of children who died and of miscarried pregnancies.
    As we talked, Bob Sacha hurriedly took photographs of individuals with rashes and skin diseases. At this critical moment, a man wearing a green police uniform walked in. I froze, thinking we were caught. Instead, he just smiled. He was a security guard, not a policeman, and he solemnly asked us to help the villagers.

    Confucius lived more than 2,000 years ago in what is now Shandong Province, and his town of Qufu has become a major tourist destination. Visitors can stroll through the sprawling mansion where his descendants lived for more than 77 generations and see the graveyard where tens of thousands of them are buried.  
    Although nobody in China talks much about Confucius these days, in Qufu you can buy souvenirs with his more anodyne sayings, like, "What a pleasure it is to welcome a guest from afar." In the restaurants you can drink a full-bodied "Confucian" wine, or "Confucius" grain liquor, and eat many dishes he is said to have liked.
    Shandong is an industrial province, and we went to look at the smokestack industries in the countryside around Qufu. A taxi driver took us to see a reservoir that was being badly polluted by a paper mill. Villagers nearby complained bitterly that they were falling sick from having to use the smelly, greenish water. As we interviewed them, they gave the family name, "Kong," which is the same one Confucius himself had. In the midst of China's thoroughly modern problems, I was struck by this link to the nation's ancient past.


© 2004 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe