AT NIGHT, WHEN the sun finally, reluctantly, sets in the stifling Beijing summer, the view from the apartment window takes on another form; layered silhouettes of tall buildings frame a sign that glows rich and red in the velvety poison of the polluted night air. ‘Beijing Youth Daily’ it reads, both in characters and English, and because I’d been here a few weeks, I read it as an instruction.
China seems full of instructions – moral and ethical directions about how to experience the world. Even the limitless, otherworldly expanses of the Tibetan plateau were punctuated by roadside eulogies reminding us to ‘cherish nature’, ‘protect nature’, ‘enjoy nature’. All justifiably laudable. It was just that any irony seemed to hover ever so slightly out of reach. Or maybe it was just that these signs made you feel that someone else – older, wiser, more experienced – had been there before. Even the pathways of the Beijing Summer Palace were lined with little just-short-of-discreet signs exhorting you to ‘Mind the Steep Path’. It could have seemed caring, it could have seemed quaint, but there was also an infantilising undertone to all this instruction. Someone else always knew best, and you could only ever be obedient and mindful of the instructions.
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