My wife and I left China a day before the May 12 earthquake hit about 150 miles from a city we had visited a few days earlier. This was Chongqing in Sichuan Province, where the population of the municipality, the city proper, and its large surrounding area is 31 million - five times the population of Massachusetts.
Such density helps explain why more than 70,000 people died in the disaster. In fact, none of the impressions we took away from our 12 days in China was more mind-bending than the sheer numbers of people, their total 1.3 billion compared with the United States' 300 million. And when they die, in the cities at least, they are cremated because of lack of space for burial.
Death was much on our minds after we returned home. While our contact with China and its people was modest, we felt deeply saddened by the toll and devastation of the quake, experiencing it on a far more personal level than we would have before our trip. We thought particularly of the children who greeted and entertained us at an elementary school in the rural village of Yueyang. These children were safe from the quake, but up to 10,000 others were killed when their school buildings collapsed.
We could not hope to gain deep insight into the character, hopes, and concerns of the Chinese people in so short a stay, but the relatively few we met were unfailingly friendly and seemed both confident and energetic in the midst of the country's booming economy.
Our tour began in Shanghai, China's most populous city with some 20 million people in the metropolitan area. Shanghai is so modern and sophisticated that it instantly wiped out any preconceptions we may have had of a backward China.
Our guide, a Communist Party member, reminded us that China is still a developing country, explaining that some 70 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. But a move toward urbanization and its higher wages is filling the cities, among other things creating forests of high-rise apartment buildings.
"We like to say that the Chinese national bird is the crane - the construction crane," our guide said, and indeed they filled the skylines of the cities we visited.
Someone referred to our tour as China 101, an introductory combination of cities and countryside that took in the well-known cultural highlights of a proud and ancient society: the life-size ranks of Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi'an, the Great Wall, and Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in the capital, Beijing. But we also saw a more everyday China as we cruised 150 miles on the Yangtze River, which offered a contrasting riverscape of industrial plants, farms, and communities, along with barges carrying coal and other commodities and, of course, traditional sampans. The broad river, the world's third longest after the Nile and the
The trip gave us kaleidoscopic images, among them: a village market brimming with produce and filled with people, some of them receiving acupuncture from marketplace practitioners; giant panda cubs dining on bamboo at a zoo; ubiquitous street sweepers wielding whisk-like brooms; women at looms meticulously crafting silk carpets at a factory where battered old-style bicycles filled an employee lot instead of cars.
But make no mistake, the cars are coming. One young man complained that he could not find a wife because men so outnumber women in China as a result of the one-child population-control policy and a culture that favors male offspring. But he was pleased to report he had acquired a car, a new hallmark of affluence in China.
Our trip ended in Beijing, impressive in its finery of spring flowers as it awaited the Olympics. And there were reminders in what we read, heard, and saw that this is an authoritarian government.
On the cruise ship, however, we had seen a surprisingly candid documentary on Mao Zedong, the revolutionary communist leader who headed the People's Republic of China from 1949 until his death in 1976. It noted his achievements in raising China to a major power, but also his failed policies that caused widespread hardship, including a famine, and deaths counted in the millions. Still, the Chinese we met held that the good outweighed the bad.
One member of our group summarized his impression of China by saying, "Watch out world, here we come."
Our guide urged us to judge China on its own. "We are not Cuba, we are not North Korea, and we are not Russia," he said. Then he hoped for peaceful relations between China and the United States, telling us, "You know, when I was a child and was digging in the yard, my grandmother would tell me, 'Dig deep enough and you will reach America.' " We could all relate to that.
Charles Ball can be reached at email@example.com.