Though COVID-19 has taken a huge toll on lives across the world, yet it is a fact that people have gotten to know each other in a much better way than before. Not only have we come to know the weakness and strong points of the health services of different countries, but also about the food, living and drinking habits and other styles of living.
The country, which is our immediate neighbour, China, was perhaps less known to us before November 2019, that is when Coronavirus first struck the world. There were several reasons for this. Language barrier was of course the foremost reason for this. Censorship of the press, on account of the one-party-rule, that is of the Communist Party of China, was also a major reason. As a result of this, many important bits of information which are raised by an independent press could not come in the public domain.
But the emergence of the Coronavirus has helped us understand China in a somewhat better manner than before. For example, many of us were not well-aware that there is a city named Wuhan, though Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met there in 2017. The term “Wuhan spirit” was also coined after that summit.
But actually, Wuhan came into the limelight only in late 2019 and early 2020 when the epidemic, which later went on to become a pandemic, struck the city. It is claimed that Coronavirus first started from the sea food market of the city. It was here that the first lockdown was imposed between January 23 and April 8 of 2020.
The then US President Donald Trump would mock the Middle Kingdom–a name interchangeably used for China—by calling the pandemic as ‘Wuhan Coronavirus’, ‘China Corona Virus’ etc as his country was till then not much affected by it. It was only a few months later that the United States too was devastated by the pandemic.
In the last few years, China was in the news for several reasons—COVID-19, the subsequent lockdown, and the intrusion of its forces in Ladakh. Lately it has been in the news for developments in Taiwan.
But apart from politics, we have got to know many things about the country such as their consumption of non-vegetarian food which includes apart from the usual chicken, mutton, lamb and fish.
We have also got to know their general practice of using warm water for drinking
purposes even during the pre-COVID years. It is true that the figure of the death-toll of Corona may have been higher and that we will never know the actual figure, yet it is a fact that China in the initial days of the pandemic managed to fight Coronavirus in a much better way than many Western countries.
Unlike in the US and European countries where people would at times defy lockdowns and even the vaccination drive, the existence of a one-party-dictatorship in China was a sort of blessing in disguise. The people had to obey the various rules and regulations associated with the pandemic.
We know very little about the social conditions there, the type of food (or staple diet) taken in different parts of the country, the various dialects of the Mandarin language spoken there and the geographic distribution of the country into mainly two parts—north and south China. We even know very little of the different religious groups living there.
As far as the staple diet is concerned, people in north China mainly take noodles and its various variants (such as mutton noodles, chicken noodles, egg noodles etc.) and those in south China eat rice together with vegetables and/or meat. Unlike in the Western countries, Chinese people use chopsticks instead of spoon and/or fork to eat.
The standard Chinese language is Mandarin known by its official designation Putonghua, which is spoken by more than two-thirds of the population and covers three-fourths of the territory, mainly of the northern part of China, in and around Beijing. But it has many dialects as well so much so that a visitor knowing standard Mandarin can land into a bit of trouble if he/she visits the marketplaces of Guangzhou, which is in the southern part of China!
Though we may be knowing the names of dozens of cities of the US,UK, Australia etc. we often struggle to spell the names of Chinese cities, the possible exception may be Beijing, Shanghai etc.
Beijing in Mandarin means ‘north capital’ and it houses the different government establishments such as the Great Hall of the People and the Tiananmen Square. Shanghai is the commercial capital of the country, and its skyline is no less impressive than that of Manhattan in New York. Shanghai in the Chinese language means ‘on the sea’, as it is a coastal city. Nanjing, Xian, Guangzhou, Shenzhen are other notable cities. Nanjing means ‘south capital’ and it has in the past played this role.
It became the capital in 1927 during the initial years of General Chiang Kai Shek, the
leader of Kuomintang Nationalist Party. Beijing, then known as Peking, once again became the capital after it was snatched back from the warlords.
Xinjiang is the province adjacent to Central Asia and mainly houses the Muslim population of the country, known as Uighurs. Tibet, from where several big rivers of China, India and Pakistan originate, shares a long border with India. This region is historically and religiously closest to India and The Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader, has been living here for the last over six decades.
Xinjiang and Tibet are autonomous regions of the country and have a different culture than that of Mainland China.
China is much more different than India in the sense that the population there is (apart from Tibet and Xinjiang) mainly monolithic, that is of the Han nationality.
The southern province of Yunnan bordering Myanmar is somewhat important for many of the South Asian student communities, particularly those of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as the students find it easy to attend the Universities of the province owing to its geographical closeness.
The capital of Yunnan is Kunming, and it is the birthplace of the famous navigator-cum-explorer of the 14-15th century Zheng He. He was born as Ma He (Mahmud Shams) in a Muslim family and commanded voyages to different parts of the world, notably Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Africa and West Asia.
Panda is an animal which is endemic to China and all the pandas in different zoos of the world have their origin from China, so much so that China uses the animal as a tool for international diplomacy.
It also needs to be mentioned that China was able to organise the Winter Olympics earlier this year even though the country is yet to emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic. Western countries including the US and the UK sought a boycott of the games though Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the event.
Anyway, the emergence of COVID-19 has, by default, led us to know much more about the Middle Kingdom, which aspires to become the superpower of the world after the stature of Uncle Sam (a reference to the United States) diminishes.
(Sarim Ahmed is an independent researcher and has learnt the Chinese language as well.)