Thursday 19 October 2017

China Again: Two Guys In A TV Studio

So, three weeks later, I'm still brooding on modern China because, let's be candid, the place is as persistent as cheap aftershave in its capacity to keep claiming one's attention. What thought in particular tends to recur? Well, it's an image from a Chinese version of The Shopping Channel or QVC, one of those punishment zones on the TV dial where people scream at you from the corner of a dazzling white studio, urging you to buy things. In this case I was sitting in my hotel room, stupefied after a hard day of cultural encounters, while two hyperactive Chinese guys bounced back and forth across the screen in front of a triptych of bearded faces, nineteenth-century portraits from the look of them, Europeans at that, and shouted tirelessly at the camera that what we, the viewers, most needed right now was a discount case of red wine.

Not having any Chinese beyond Nĭ hăo and Xièxiè, how could I be sure that that was what they were doing? Because it was bleeding obvious: they kept gesturing at ziggurats of wine bottles while numbers and ¥ signs chased across the screen, staggering bargains of only ¥500 for twelve, probably Spanish, hence the beards, accompanied by the sales twins actually crashing deliberately into each other for sheer graphic effect. For a moment I thought they were a Chinese Sediment (Chéndiàn) with a lot of stock to clear; but then, a second later, I found myself asking, Do the Chinese really like wine anyway?

Silly question, surely. Every supermarket and liquor store keeps at least few bottles of red (Merlot, often as not) among the beers, baijius and presentation whiskies; hotels aiming for an international vibe like to put a few wine bottles out on show (full or tragically empty, depends on your budget); the Chinese themselves have taken to wine production with a typical emphasis on scale, coming in as the world's sixth largest wine producer in 2016, building mock châteaux (Changyu winery near Beijing) and Italianate castles (Changyu again, this time near Xi'an) while at the same time buying up French vineyards and vintages as if they were toys. Wine has currency right now.

Except, I don't quite believe it. I'm sure in the faubourgs of Shanghai and the penthouses of Hangzhou (where the Aston Martin dealership abuts a Porsche dealer three times its size and the Ferrari showroom is no more than two hundred metres down the same street) they drink fine wines all the time. Elsewhere, though? Chinese urban society, despite its burgeoning middle class, still has a respectably proletarian feel to it. Most people live in small appartments where they tend not to cook at home - instead eating out at one of their many basic neighbourhood eateries (and some of them are really basic, just a hole in the wall with a middle-aged lady and a two-burner stove), no frills, probably not even a drink: you bring your own bottle of tea or water and simply scarf up the grub, checking the WeChat account on your mobile as you go. Bigger eateries, yes, give you more in the way of tables, chairs and ceiling fans and, yes, whole families will be in there, three generations of Chinese all shouting their heads off as they wrestle with the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table, and, yes, the food can be surprisingly delicious and, no, you don't have to be in Sichuan to get internally broiled by devil spices: we were reliably scorched from Hebei Province all the way down and for that, you, or at least I, need beer and lots of it. So, from the look of it, does everyone else.

Which is as much as to say that neither the cuisine nor the eating culture seems that wine-friendly. You just don't see the stuff being drunk. So why all the fuss about China and wine? I like to think that the very high-end purchases (wines and vineyards) are being made as a bet, a classic investors' bubble, the sort of thing the Chinese love; and that everything else, the hectares of fresh domestic vines (some of which have already been grubbed up in favour of more dependable crops) and the gee-whiz fake châteaux that go with them are part of the greater Chinese experimentation with Western style and taste, a tiny moment in three and a half thousand years of unbroken civilisation, but not much more than that.

Perhaps President Xi Jinping will address the issue at this week's Communist  Party Congress in Beijing; although it may tie in with the larger question, Can a society make genuine progress without liberal democracy? Either way, I think we need guidance from the top on this one.


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