Don's Diary

November 10, 1995

FRIDAY. I had been told that the Chinese do not queue but there was a very long and orderly queue for the taxis when I arrived outside the airport in Beijing. Today, only taxis with odd number-plates were allowed on the roads; tomorrow it will be the ones with even numbers. I am here as an honorary visiting research fellow to meet colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who are collaborating with me on a cross-cultural project on the psychology of children's drawing.

SATURDAY. Today's highlight was breakfast, not so much for the food but the livestock in the glass tank which line one whole wall of the hotel dining room. There are various sorts of fish and eels, some crabs, two very long and beautifully patterned snakes coiled up together, a small turtle and eight enormous toads each of which would be far too large to sit on my outstretched hand.

A colleague arrived early to discuss our research project. It is considered discourteous to be late and a compliment to be early. I ask how strict the one-child policy is in China. The answer is "very strict". My colleague would lose her job if she had a second child and would also forfeit health and education benefits.

In the afternoon a student took me to the Forbidden City, the old emperor's palace. The area is huge, with monumental walls and gates, pavilions and halls, and ceremonial spaces and terraces. One of the courtyards can hold 90,000 people. Most of the visitors are Chinese and many are curious and laughingly seize my arms and drag me into the centre of their snapshots.

Outside we climb into one of the very cheap yellow taxis which seem to have no suspension and are in imminent danger of falling to pieces. We go through the hutongs, the squalid narrow alleyways and hovels once occupied by the imperial soldiers, now homes for ordinary Chinese. The government is gradually tearing down the hutongs and rehousing people in soulless high-rise flats. We arrive in Tiananmen Square where my student friend points out the exact place where she sat during the 1989 demonstration. When I try to find out more she says she cannot speak about the "incident".

That evening I go late to the restaurant. I decide against "steamed whole live eel like dragon", "steamed cow frog on lotus leaves", "fried duck's feet with balsam pear" and "broth of snake meat". Instead I have some steamed dumplings stuffed with sweet lotus pieces. The green tea is not too bad; the Coca-Cola is bliss.

SUNDAY. Spend the morning at the Guang Ming Art School which occupies a normal primary school building at weekends. Children can choose to do a half-day session. The teachers believe that art helps one become more intelligent. Parents also believe that art will help their children get better jobs. The government pays artists a salary.

MONDAY. I visit an artist at her flat; she is also a teacher at the teachers' college and gives private tuition. She has a special way of teaching children to draw and, with the help of some psychologists, has also carried out a properly controlled evaluation study of her method. While we talk we sip jasmine tea and eat sliced apples and peaches. Next come slices of melon, a glass of Coca-Cola and finally some "moon" cakes, a special treat for the Festival of the Moon.

TUESDAY. I arrive at the Institute of Psychology. There is a staff of 153, covering 12 main areas of psychology. The building is rather bleak but spacious. Unfortunately the lights do not seem to work in many of the stairwells. I give a lecture to staff, research students and some local teachers; a member of staff acts an interpreter. The discussion is very lively.

WEDNESDAY. At 6.30am I take a Chinese minibus tour to the Great Wall. The bus is full and I have to sit on a backwards-facing seat behind the driver with my knees squashed up against the knees opposite me. We go to the Badaling section in a French-built cable car and then climb the steps to see the wall zigzagging and snaking its way up and down the mountain peaks way into the distance.

THURSDAY. I spend the day in a primary school. School starts at 8am and finishes at 4pm although most children stay an extra hour to do homework. Each lesson lasts 40 minutes with a ten-minute break. The children tend to stay in their own classrooms and teachers come to them. Between 11.30am and 1.30pm most children go home for lunch.

The seven- to eight-year-olds in Grade 2 have an art lesson about swimming. There is a lot of talk and action from the teacher and then six children draw on the blackboard. The rest draw at their desks. After a while the teacher shows them pictures drawn by another class. These are discussed and treated with gasps of admiration or shrieks of derision. The children are generally very quiet and polite. They put up their hands and then stand up if asked to speak. Often they do not sit down until the teacher says so.

I head back by taxi to my hotel through the Beijing rush hour. There seem to be few traffic lights or rules about right of way. The thing you have to watch out for is spitting. Both men and women do it and taxi drivers are probably the worst.

Maureen Cox is reader in psychology, University of York.

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