Jiujiang is a vast conurbation with a prefecture-level population of several million people. The majority of the city is an uninteresting succession of large residential buildings which sprawl for miles in all directions south of the Yangtze (locally known as Chiang Jiang). Just south of the Yangtze is a lake which in a sense constitutes the centre of the city. On the lake there seems to float an old-looking building, which stands out among the modern buildings of the city. I have still failed to find accurate information about the house but it appears to have been turned into a museum which was closed when I visited. The lake is entirely surrounded by shops, including the expensive clothing shop owned by my host parents, selling less day-to-day products than the ones present in the large shopping malls of the suburbs. Between the shops and the lake there is a busy ring-road which entirely surrounds the lake. This is where all the older buildings of Jiujiang are, which in these terms simply means old enough for rust and mould to have formed on the concrete walls. I had the chance to set foot in one of these when taking my host brother to his piano lesson.
Here in Jiujiang there are admittedly very few signs of the party’s presence. If not for the odd poster with a red flag and a shiny sickle and hammer, or Tiananmen Square and Mao, which have to be looked for in order to be seen, one could be in any large East Asian city. There is, however, an enormous poster promoting military enrolment on a side of the crossroads were the big borough supermarket is. The local bookshop is full of small books displaying the usual sickle and hammer. The only book I could identify was Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, which even if entirely in Chinese had the title translated on the front page. In a porcelain shop I saw a portrait of Mao hanging on the wall, which is quite common, and a few very kitsch plates with Mao, Tiananmen Square and Xi Jingping in sale. I’m unsure whether the technocrats at the head of Chinese politics since Mao, would have had such privilege, unlike Xi. Along with Mao&co I found representations of Kong Zi (Confucius) and, unexpectedly, a shiny and badly printed image of Jesus surrounded by sheep.
Many elements which are so deeply rooted in Western or Islamic tradition are simply absent here. It is precisely the case of religion. When visiting a vast religious complex at the bottom of Mount Lu, I noticed my host siblings bowing with their hands clutched in front of a statue. The sanctuary was Buddhist-Taoist. The act however was mechanical and casual; also no one I met had ever referenced religion in anyway. Religion seemed so absent from daily life that I constantly forgot to ask people what they thought of it at all. It’s strange how one of the first buildings I saw after arriving in Jiujiang was a church and how much my host family cared to explain what it was. When eventually I did get round to having my little chat on religion I was told by my host sister that their beliefs were something they just inherited from their ancestors and accepted in a very uninvested way. They didn’t describe themselves as religious. I asked whether they knew Confucius and obviously received a positive reply. They told me they learn about him at school. They said he was a positive figure and, when asked why, they spat out a generic sentence, made more generic by the bad translator they use, which sounded coming straight out of a text book.
And then again Confucianism isn’t a religion in a strict sense. Confucius’ teachings are often very sociological and political, and could be described as classical conservative in today’s terms. Our teacher/guide/tutor was surprised when I expressed interest in the plate with Jesus. He said “You want to buy that” in his lazy English. I asked him if people in China were religious and he said “most people pray to no one”, but there are of course religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims, which are mostly present in the semi-autonomous province of Xinjiang and whose identity is closely linked to that of the Uyghur ethnicity.
Something guides and educated people liked to stress, after distancing themselves from the government’s foreign policy with the typical international-disputes-are-disputes-between-governments-not-peoples attitude, was how much China cared to maintain its religious and ethnic diversity. “Religious freedom is strongly defended”. The fact for example that the one-child policy, when still in place, only applied to Han Chinese was something I was simply unaware of, and I do believe western media is partly to blame for this.