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Monday, November 1, 2021

The Lure of the Red Dragon by Mark Oulton

The Lure of the Red Dragon: Life and Love for a Foreigner in Modern China by Mark Oulton

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The Lure of the Red Dragon (“...Red Dragon”) is a big and important book. It is encyclopedic in scope, full of well-researched facts, facts that sit comfortably beside keen observation and personal anecdote. It admirable attempts to do the nearly impossible - explain China. It is an up-to-date compendium on the Xi Jinping era.

The recent “great books” by westerners about China often come with a layer of historic dust. They impart the perspective of the classic “China Watcher”, of the post-war “China Hand”, writing before Deng Xiaoping’s reopening, men (for the most part) who could be imagined as the younger adventurous sons of the upper class, versed in Latin as well as Confucius, stuck outside looking in, reading tea-leaves from some kind of self-imposed exile in British Imperial Hong Kong. Contrary to that, Mark Oulton writes from deep on the inside, not living in a Legation, but as a married member of a vibrant Chinese family, completely integrated with Chinese rhythms, even as he acknowledges the difficulties this lifestyle imposes on a westerner. Yet, “...Red Dragon” pays odd homage to the old China Hand’s passing generation. Oulton himself is a Brit whose father worked in international development, and who grew up all over the world, so his story imparts a bit of that older view and style from when the sun never set on the Queen’s empire.

“…Red Dragon” is a book that is aware of the various winds blowing from public discourse about the Middle Kingdom but is not buffeted by them. Oulton is anything but blind to China’s faults and bizarreness. Having lived there long enough, he can clearly see the strange logic that drives Chinese behavior. For all the corruption, and inequities that the Chinese system imposes on its people, (and trading partners) Oulton knows and describes how China (and the Communist party) has recently lifted more people out of poverty in a shorter period of time than any government in human history. Oulton shows the wonderful gracious humanity that Chinese people extend to their friends and family, as well as the seeming hardness and sometimes rudeness that can be shown to those outside that orbit. He clearly explains that in order for westerners to come to grips with this, they have to leave behind preconceived ideas and western assumptions about nearly everything in order to really understand what is going in China. He takes the long view about many of the points of contention between the West and China, best described below.

“The west committed the biggest theft of intellectual property of all time... In 552 A.D, two Christian monks smuggled silkworm larvae hidden in bamboo canes out of China and the Byzantine monopoly in silk sustained that empire for over 500 years. Silk production continues in Greece to this day. In today’s value, this theft would dwarf anything else.”

The book is full of practical hard-headed advice about where and what to eat, about highly detailed strategies for buying vs renting, and about driving, “Chinese are the worst drivers in the world.” (But, IMO, the best drivers in the world at navigating the crazy traffic in China…). He talks at length with wry humor about parking your car, the recent changes in laws and how they often don’t work, how Uber was “run out of town” by a local car-hailing app (Didi), He relates his misadventures trying (and failing) to find somebody, anybody, who he can beat in ping pong.

“Also, never play a Chinese person at ping-pong/ table tennis. I considered myself a more than competent player and had learned the game at school from a pupil from Hong Kong. I had mastered side and top spin and had a mean forehand smash. On my first visit to Beijing, I had a Saturday off and asked the hotel reception where I could play ping pong. They directed me to a local club and I was matched against a player of similar age. Opening game: Mark Oulton (England) 1 Local Beijing Amateur (China) 21.”

He discusses the Chinese “natural” approach to earthquake predictions, which works if the signs are quickly and universally communicated to the affected area. “Observations included pigs running into walls and running around in circles, chickens refusing to stay in their coops, well water inexplicably dropping in temperature and bottles on a shelf rattling; all signs of seismic activity…(he then describes how this was communicated to Qinglong County, near Tangshan). “The death toll in Tangshan City area (in 1976) was around 240,000 with 164,000 seriously injured but other estimates which include surrounding rural areas place the death toll at over 600,000 people. Tangshan was completely flattened. 180,000 buildings were destroyed. In Qinglong County however the direct loss of life was zero, yes, I mean zero, although one person died of a heart attack. Qinglong County was also able to provide some of the first respondents to other areas. The lessons learned were employed in the three earthquakes that struck Yunnan Province in 1995 where the loss of life was 11 people due to timely warnings by public officials.”

Oulton has long discursive sections on the language. His explanation of pinyin, (The Chinese system for transliterating Chinese character pronunciation int the Roman alphabet) and how pinyin works and why it is useful is interesting and engaging. He has a long exposition on how to differentiate the different grades of uniformed organizations. Essentially divided into guards and police, (and the many varieties of each) he explains the differences and the different behaviors to expect. “Don’t ask guards directions but police are ok.”

QUOTE “It’s a sad fact that most foreigners can’t retire in China and those wanting an affordable retirement place in Asia will have to consider other options such as the Philippines and Thailand. You can’t normally become a citizen of the People’s Republic or have dual nationality although there have been a few exceptions as honorary citizens or for bravery or outstanding service. The only realistic options for most are for permanent residency as a route to retirement, through marriage, the use of tourist visas and by keep leaving the country or getting a work permit such as for teaching.”

He discusses activities related to drugs as the penalties are some of the harshest in the world. “In a recent drug raid in my home city, foreigners were asked to carry out a urine test for marijuana and those who failed were sent to “rehabilitation” for three months followed by three months in jail and then deported. That’s just for smoking a joint. Sharing one with a friend would be an even more serious crime.” When I lived in China, in the 80s, the Chinese still related drug use to 19th-century opium addicts, with no awareness of hashish, which was available everywhere from the Muslim traders from Xinjiang. Unfortunately, the Chinese authorities seem to have caught up.

He has some strong opinions about historic figures. He is a big fan of Claire Lee Chennault, the American aviator who led the “Flying Tigers” in World War II. But not so much his nemesis Joe Stilwell. “This unconventional genius (Chennault) was not invited to the Japanese surrender partly because of his career-long battle with higher command and in particular, Joseph “Vinegar” Stillwell, one of the most vainglorious and politically and militarily incompetent commanders in American history.” According to Barbara Tuchman, Stillwell was one of the greatest generals the United States ever produced, who performed brilliantly while constantly being hamstrung by the “vainglorious”, but inferior General Douglas MacArthur.

Barabara Tuchman reviewed by Jonathan Spence on Stilwell

Oulton tells the story of a hero of whom I had never heard. A Chinese diplomat, He (Ho before pinyin) Feng Shan, in Vienna saved 3,000 Jews (more than Schindler) by getting them visas to Shanghai. “It is impossible to compare Schindler and Ho. For one, Schindler, if discovered, would have been tortured and killed. Ho (He) might have escaped but more likely be assassinated. He had already antagonized the Gestapo by threatening them at gunpoint to save some Jewish friends. These are incomparably brave men who acted while most of the world stood by and did little. In November 1986, Ho made a visit to his home country and went to his Changsha middle school ‘s 80th year celebrations, and on his death in 2007 at 96 years his bones were repatriated to China.”

Oulton talks about the strange loneliness a foreigner can feel during Spring Festival.

“Honestly, this is not the time to be in China if you are an unattached foreigner. If you have a Chinese family connection it is magical but if not be prepared for deserted cities, closed restaurants, hotels with skeleton staff or even shut and the larger towns and cities that become almost lifeless. My first Spring Festival in China, I spent in Weihai, Shandong Province. I was mostly alone and lucky that the hotel managers asked me to join them in the festivities as a guest. It was a memorable party. The following morning, I did get a knock on my door at about 11 am and a hotel member of staff had brought me a big jug of water and some headache pills as they had apparently helped me to bed in the early hours after I staggered around from excess consumption of Chinese strong liquor.”

I will just add a personal note. I took a cruise from Shanghai to Hong Kong on the SS Jinjiang, formerly a famous ship (the SS Mariposa) that the Chinese bought from my Dad’s old company Matson Line. We had 12 people, all young Westerners, on board. It actually was one of the best travel adventures (read “party”) I ever had, but I’ll leave the details out. However, the fact that only 12 people were on a luxury ship to Hong Kong illustrated how no one goes to Hong Kong for Spring festival, as it was a city created by the Brits and is the home village to very very few Chinese people.

I could easily go on, but I will leave the rest to the reader. I think “...Red Dragon” is a very good book, one that doesn’t have to be read cover to cover, first to last, but can be dipped into anywhere and it will provide elevated entertainment. I suppose some might say that, in order to make it more commercially accessible, it could have been edited more tightly, taking out or abridging some of the longer sections, but that would have only made it shorter, not better. I hope Mark gives us another book because he is a talented, entertaining writer.

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