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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Saturday, December 24, 2005

A world of small Christmas tales: Chinese man


Shanghai, 1985

In 1985 China was starting to step more lightly, moving out from the lumbering gait that Chairman Mao had insisted it keep. We traveled on bicycles for three months, from south to north. People were almost always smiling and friendly and helpful, despite enormous communication problems. In only one town, in western Hunan province, did we see people in the old Mao blue work clothes. Their garments were worn and faded, the people thin and unsmiling. What an apparition we pink-skinned, wellfed cyclists must have seemed.

There was little to buy in the way of souvenirs and China was exporting few consumer goods. Stores had few things on their shelves. The one exception was the Friendship stores in Shanghai and Beijing, where we found this man, one of six wooden figurines designed for Westerners' Christmas trees. Did the maker know how they would be used? Did he or she wonder at the strangeness of that?

No one seems to have advised the painter that people in Europe, at Christmas, expect to see smiles, not frowns. Maybe the painter lived in western Hunan province, where famine was not yet entirely a thing of the past.

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