No, I haven't had tree bark

I recently had a rather large project at the factory.  The factory is located in Shenzhen, a mere stone’s throw from the airport.  It has 3 sites, and is 6000 people strong.  I’ve worked with the owner of this factory for nearly a decade.  A modest enough fellow, he has several kids, all girls.  He’s given up on trying to have a son.   His sales are nearly 200 million, and he directly supports the likes of Apple, Samsung, etc. 

I’ve brought a lot of business his way, and this recent project with yet another high profile customer was keeping me rather busy.   The leader of this particular project, the project manager, was a scrawny 30 something fellow, dark, with thinning hair, turning white.   Let’s call him Wang.  While his technical skills were not lacking though, I found his leadership skills were, and I eventually moved him somewhat aside, so a stronger personality could be brought in to control the external supply chain of this particular customer.  At the same time I kept him in control of our projects internal factory operations. 

A few people close to the project realized what I was doing, and what my thinking was.  I simply explained while no fault of his own, he simply lacked the strong personality I needed to keep the overall project on schedule.   Especially in China, skills and knowledge are not enough.    One needs both intangible leadership skills and the personality to get people to bend to your will.    To his misfortune, Wang simply lacked both. 

However, the more I worked with Wang the more I got to know him, and therefore, like him.  It had struck me strange that of the over 50 projects I had brought to this company, that I had never worked with him previously.  After all, he’d been there as long as I’d been.   With his strong technical background, ( Apple’s engineers would infamously come to him frequently for technical advice. ) it was strange we’d never previously met.

Wang was a bachelor.  Wang was the only bachelor at his age I’d come across in Shenzhen.  That is, the only one to never marry.  No he was not gay.  In fact, he loved flirting in his own dorky way, with the waitresses during lunch.    Wang’s problem was he was ugly.   And shy.  An introvert.  It’s hard to lead with such a passive personality, let alone find a wife in Shenzhen.    His problem wasn’t money.   He travelled a lot, though always alone.    

Inevitably he and I were able to both find common ground;  we both liked history.  We’d frequently talk about Chinese History.  We’d discuss everything.  He’d let me guide the conversation, then I’d sit back with my bowl of rice while he filled in the gaps, and offered his own point of view.  He impressed me with his knowledge of Lushan(one of the very few Chinese I’ve come across that know the true story.  Of course I do live in Shenzhen, where half the population is probably under 20!)

Than one time he asked me while we ordering lunch if I’d ever had 树皮shupi He caught me off guard with this question, and had me glancing at the menu.  

No, I had to admit….I hadn’t.  (Chinese were often testing my knowledge of Chinese cuisine.  I’d stopped being curious long ago).  Finally, I realized he wasn’t talking about the menu at all, but about TREE BARK.

Coming from somebody else, I would’ve thought they were referring to an actual dish.  Coming from Wang however, I soon knew he was giving me yet another history lesson.    Wang was from a small village in Zhejiang.   So I found it strange he’d only been to Hangzhou only once or twice.   (I wondered  how he and my wife would get along, both being from Zhejiang, yet from a notoriously class society.)

It took me a moment to register his point on tree bark.  After we’d ordered he told me frankly that his parents and grandparents both had to eat 树皮 in order to survive.  While he himself had never had it, and probably would never have to, it was clear to me the stories of his family were very indelibly etched into his consciousness.  Soon as he’d brought up his family’s experience with tree bark, a sudden consensus of opinion around the table reinforced his words.  I was quick to remember that there were other people at the table as well.  The fellow next to me, a young lad not yet 30, mentioned his family had the same experience.  

The time Wang was referring to is well known within China, and well documented by many a laowai. It is best known as the 三年  打饥荒,or the 3 Year Great Famine.   

While I was no stranger to the fact Chinese had eaten bark when times were rough, having it confirmed to me in real time was still a bit of a surprise.   I knew then these were stories, like fables and legends, that would be passed down for generations to come.  (obviously this was neither)Stories one would never see in a Chinese history text, would still be stories that all Chinese would remember and live by. 

So why is Fletcher now talking about Famines?
Famines are the greatest reason why it took China 200 years to nearly double it’s population, from the time of the American Revolution to approximately 1949. 

Famines are so numerous and regular during Chinese History that historians have lost count.   

Famines are one reason why Chinese are so sensitive about food, and why a common greeting is still 吃饭了没有?

While perhaps not indelibly printed on the minds of it’s urban population, let us not forget China is still very much a rural country.   A peasant in the city still has a peasant mentality.   And it’s the peasants that  must carry the burden of history on their shoulders.

One can argue that since 1960 no known major famine in China has taken place.   50 years.  This is arguably the longest time China has gone in it’s recorded history without a famine.   The CCP will without question want to take the credit for this.  ( There are 2 schools of thought on why China has prospered so quickly over the past 20 years.  The other being that the Chinese gov’t just got the hell out of the way and unleashed the entrepreneurial skill of it’s people.  I tend to believe the latter.)

Still, for all the righteous hatred of the Japanese(and the justifiable naming of a new holiday as regards the Nanjing Massacre), one must not forget the Great Famine of 1958-61 killed as many if not more Chinese than the Japanese ever did.

So the next time we judge China, let us not wonder so much where China is headed, but remember what it is running from.  It’s running from it’s own past.  


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