When I was young, I can remember my local park featuring several small signs bearing the legend “keep off the grass”, but when I went to a big city for the first time I found that open expanses of grass were somewhere to sit and bask in the sun, on the rare occasions when that busy old fool bothered to put in a reluctant appearance. In Beijing, things are rather different.
In the small park that I mentioned in my previous post, we had noticed a number of discreet signs, an approximate translation of which was “this is a beautiful area of grass; do you really want to spoil it by stepping on it?” Fair enough; this is no more than a subtle change of emphasis and not worth further comment. Until, that is, I stepped on the grass to take the following photograph:
I was subjected to a prolonged harangue by a metallic, disembodied voice: however, as this was in Putonghua, I cannot offer a full translation, although it was along the lines of “get off the grass”, and the tone was peremptory and distinctly unfriendly. We quickly discovered that a small speaker was embedded in the warning sign, and I wondered whether I had triggered some kind of hidden motion sensor. Naturally, I tested this hypothesis by stepping on the grass close to other signs, but nothing happened each time. I therefore reached the conclusion that I’d been subject to video surveillance by someone whose job it was to ensure that nobody walked on the grass.
I was not perturbed by any of this, but the incident did bring into sharp focus the difference between the Chinese view of neatly mown grass in a city park and how this same grass is viewed in a park in the West. In the latter case, it is a practical facility, to be enjoyed by being walked or sat on; in China, the grass is a purely visual amenity, to be appreciated only from a safe distance.