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We should think about the Chinese. We are going to hear more from them.

Several lives ago, after Saigon fell, I was free-lancing around Asia, and went to Taiwan to await the next war, which didn't come. I'd been there before, to visit friends in the military. This time I stayed, signed up for intensive Chinese at Gwo Yu R Bau, actually a newspaper but with a language school attached. My abode was an apartment shared with a tiny Japanese mathematician named Sakai, two Chinese graduate students, and Ding Gwo, a local kid who wanted to be a rock guitarist.

It wasn't the golf tour. In the winding warrens and back alleys, gringos were sparse to none. I struggled for four months against four hours a day of Chinese conversation, and gutted out the written language in off hours. It was work, but soon I spoke a subset of the language, and could plough through a pulp novel with lots of help from the dictionary. This allowed me to acquire a girlfriend, a nurse whose family lived down-island in Pin Tung.

As an introduction to the Chinese, it was nothing if not direct.

These folk can be packaged as exotic. The sounds and smells of those densely peopled labyrinths, the bustle and press, the open-fronted workers restaurants with the flat white sheets of fish and tiny squid like gray vitamin pills with fingers – these carry the credentials of the exotic. And my god, Wan Wha, relic of a far older China, where the snake butchers worked. (The name means "Ten Thousand Glories," definitely a whitewash.) There, snakes hanging in stalls were skinned and the blood squeezed into a glass to be drunk at a high price by superstitious workers. "Dwei shen-ti, hen hau": Good for the body.

But this would be literary fraud. In truth the Chinese were as exotic as potatoes, though not as mysterious. There were agreeable, courteous without being neurotic about it, and concerned with the same things that concern us. The girls were interested in the boys and the boys were interested in the girls, who were not loose but certainly warm-blooded. Children played at soldier and space men. People worried about paychecks, kids, grandma's heart condition. Presbyterians are stranger.

They were smart, though, and studious, and showing marked signs of economic competence. This we need to think about.

Of an evening I'd come home through tortuous alleys, where housing was cramped and intimate and would have appalled an American, There, sitting at crate-desks in the narrow ways to avoid the heat, children did their homework. You don't see this in Brazil. We've all heard about Vietnamese valedictorians in America. The difference between the Vietnamese and the Chinese is about a billion two hundred million.

At the time, every patch of jungle with a colonel and a band of torturers had a Five Year Plan for economic development: Uganda on the march. Taiwan, almost uniquely, had results. I saw the steel mill in Gau Sheng, the Jin Shan reactors. On a story for the Far Eastern Economic Review, I interviewed a few of the directors. Some Harvard, mostly MIT. Taiwan is now a serious high-tech manufacturing power. Russian can't make a decent personal computer.

They have all the pieces for a ferocious competitiveness. Hong Kong is New York with slanted eyes: They can do entrepreneurial cut-throat hardball business. The better American universities are heavily Chinese. These fit naturally into a techno-industrial world.

None of this is true of Arabs, Latinos, Africans.

China is an enormous, old, and talented world that we know little of. When Chiang Kai Shek fled the communists from the mainland, he brought a fabulous amount of art. This was well, as the communists would have destroyed it. I spent days in the museum in Taipei. This isn't the place for a disquisition on Chinese art, but for subtlety, polish and, particularly, a feel for the natural world they can match anything the West has done. Their work is different, but it's very good. Even the writing, while awkward – they missed an important boat by not going with an alphabet – has an odd beauty. Hand-written characters almost wiggle and swim on the page.

They are not a lightweight people.

How the West got the jump on them, I don't know. Modern civilization is a white European invention. Yet until, say, 1700 the Chinese were ahead. If the mainland has in fact found the formula for sustained economic advance, as it seems to have, in fifty years they will be ahead again. Yes, China has a lot of peasant stupidity still, and inefficiency, and it's still a poor country. So, not so very long ago, was Japan. So, not so very long ago, was the US.

We are not going to like their rise. They can be every bit as domineering as Caucasians, and will be. They are racially and nationally arrogant. So is everyone else, but we are not accustomed to being on the receiving end. As a nation they bear no love for us, remembering our participation in their humiliation by the West in the 1800s. Few of us know of the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the legations. The Chinese, I suspect, do.

We would be wise to be circumspect about military confrontation, particularly over Taiwan. By linguistic convention we are a superpower. In reality we are far weaker than most of us realize. The Chinese fought us to a standstill in Korea, and the Vietnamese beat us, when we were militarily paramount. Today we have neither the troops nor the will to fight a land war in Asia.

By sufficient effort, by virtue of better airplanes and the Taiwan Straits, we could hold off China for a while. Once committed, we would have no way of leaving. There are bluffs to call, and bluffs not to call.

Years after my time as a back-alley orientalist, I returned with my then-wife and tow-headed daughter of maybe a year and a half. We stayed at the Grand Hotel, a gaudy and wonderful confection on a hill in Taipei.

The Grand swarmed with pretty Chinese maids, who were smitten by our yellow-haired girl-child. They took her from my wife, not quite asking permission, and for several minutes a golden tassel bobbed up and down on a sea of dark hair. She disappeared into the kitchen, I think it was, reappeared. All the staffs wanted to see this apparition. Finally they returned our golden tassel to us. She was cooing and laughing. One of the girls said, "You have a beautiful daughter."

I said they were intelligent.

We should think about the Chinese. We are going to hear more from them.

Several lives ago, after Saigon fell, I was free-lancing around Asia, and went to Taiwan to await the next war, which didn't come. I'd been there before, to visit friends in the military. This time I stayed, signed up for intensive Chinese at Gwo Yu R Bau, actually a newspaper but with a language school attached. My abode was an apartment shared with a tiny Japanese mathematician named Sakai, two Chinese graduate students, and Ding Gwo, a local kid who wanted to be a rock guitarist.

It wasn't the golf tour. In the winding warrens and back alleys, gringos were sparse to none. I struggled for four months against four hours a day of Chinese conversation, and gutted out the written language in off hours. It was work, but soon I spoke a subset of the language, and could plough through a pulp novel with lots of help from the dictionary. This allowed me to acquire a girlfriend, a nurse whose family lived down-island in Pin Tung.

As an introduction to the Chinese, it was nothing if not direct.

These folk can be packaged as exotic. The sounds and smells of those densely peopled labyrinths, the bustle and press, the open-fronted workers restaurants with the flat white sheets of fish and tiny squid like gray vitamin pills with fingers – these carry the credentials of the exotic. And my god, Wan Wha, relic of a far older China, where the snake butchers worked. (The name means "Ten Thousand Glories," definitely a whitewash.) There, snakes hanging in stalls were skinned and the blood squeezed into a glass to be drunk at a high price by superstitious workers. "Dwei shen-ti, hen hau": Good for the body.

But this would be literary fraud. In truth the Chinese were as exotic as potatoes, though not as mysterious. There were agreeable, courteous without being neurotic about it, and concerned with the same things that concern us. The girls were interested in the boys and the boys were interested in the girls, who were not loose but certainly warm-blooded. Children played at soldier and space men. People worried about paychecks, kids, grandma's heart condition. Presbyterians are stranger.

They were smart, though, and studious, and showing marked signs of economic competence. This we need to think about.

Of an evening I'd come home through tortuous alleys, where housing was cramped and intimate and would have appalled an American, There, sitting at crate-desks in the narrow ways to avoid the heat, children did their homework. You don't see this in Brazil. We've all heard about Vietnamese valedictorians in America. The difference between the Vietnamese and the Chinese is about a billion two hundred million.

At the time, every patch of jungle with a colonel and a band of torturers had a Five Year Plan for economic development: Uganda on the march. Taiwan, almost uniquely, had results. I saw the steel mill in Gau Sheng, the Jin Shan reactors. On a story for the Far Eastern Economic Review, I interviewed a few of the directors. Some Harvard, mostly MIT. Taiwan is now a serious high-tech manufacturing power. Russian can't make a decent personal computer.

They have all the pieces for a ferocious competitiveness. Hong Kong is New York with slanted eyes: They can do entrepreneurial cut-throat hardball business. The better American universities are heavily Chinese. These fit naturally into a techno-industrial world.

None of this is true of Arabs, Latinos, Africans.

China is an enormous, old, and talented world that we know little of. When Chiang Kai Shek fled the communists from the mainland, he brought a fabulous amount of art. This was well, as the communists would have destroyed it. I spent days in the museum in Taipei. This isn't the place for a disquisition on Chinese art, but for subtlety, polish and, particularly, a feel for the natural world they can match anything the West has done. Their work is different, but it's very good. Even the writing, while awkward – they missed an important boat by not going with an alphabet – has an odd beauty. Hand-written characters almost wiggle and swim on the page.

They are not a lightweight people.

How the West got the jump on them, I don't know. Modern civilization is a white European invention. Yet until, say, 1700 the Chinese were ahead. If the mainland has in fact found the formula for sustained economic advance, as it seems to have, in fifty years they will be ahead again. Yes, China has a lot of peasant stupidity still, and inefficiency, and it's still a poor country. So, not so very long ago, was Japan. So, not so very long ago, was the US.

We are not going to like their rise. They can be every bit as domineering as Caucasians, and will be. They are racially and nationally arrogant. So is everyone else, but we are not accustomed to being on the receiving end. As a nation they bear no love for us, remembering our participation in their humiliation by the West in the 1800s. Few of us know of the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the legations. The Chinese, I suspect, do.

We would be wise to be circumspect about military confrontation, particularly over Taiwan. By linguistic convention we are a superpower. In reality we are far weaker than most of us realize. The Chinese fought us to a standstill in Korea, and the Vietnamese beat us, when we were militarily paramount. Today we have neither the troops nor the will to fight a land war in Asia.

By sufficient effort, by virtue of better airplanes and the Taiwan Straits, we could hold off China for a while. Once committed, we would have no way of leaving. There are bluffs to call, and bluffs not to call.

Years after my time as a back-alley orientalist, I returned with my then-wife and tow-headed daughter of maybe a year and a half. We stayed at the Grand Hotel, a gaudy and wonderful confection on a hill in Taipei.

The Grand swarmed with pretty Chinese maids, who were smitten by our yellow-haired girl-child. They took her from my wife, not quite asking permission, and for several minutes a golden tassel bobbed up and down on a sea of dark hair. She disappeared into the kitchen, I think it was, reappeared. All the staffs wanted to see this apparition. Finally they returned our golden tassel to us. She was cooing and laughing. One of the girls said, "You have a beautiful daughter."

I said they were intelligent.