China, Old and New

Last summer, my wife and I went back to China to visit family and to see a few places we hadn’t been to before.  Our trip itinerary was mostly played by ear.  However, by chance, we ended up following a theme as we traveled from the coast inland.  Though we hadn’t planned it, our trip followed a journey back through time from the 21st century to the reign of China’s first emperor.

Upon arriving at Pudong airport in Shanghai, we definitely felt the twenty-first century.  We decided to take the maglev train into the city.  “Maglev” is short for “magnetic levitation”, a technology that the United States has yet to build.  It’s a high speed train that floats over its track, suspended by powerful magnets.  Since it literally flies a few inches above its tracks, it creates no friction and can move much faster than a normal train.  The train’s interior has a sleek lounge like the first-class cabin on an airplane—very different from the trains I rode sixteen years ago in Sichuan.  Back then, those were steam engines pulling carriages with dirty passenger benches, scattered with chicken bones and farmers curled up asleep on the floor beneath the seats.

On the maglev, a monitor displayed our speed as we accelerated across the highways and rice fields towards the city.  Our speed surpassed 400 kph.  I tried to do the mental calculations and realized we were racing at over 250 mph.  I’d hate to think what would happen if the magnets failed and we went flying off the track.  Although the maglev is a technological marvel, it still had a couple of practical issues to work out.  The line ended on the outskirts of the city, so we still had to take a taxi to go to our hotel.  Also, the only access to the platform was either by stairs or escalator, so passengers to and from the airport had to lug their bags up and down or balance them carefully on the escalator so they didn’t fall on the heads of the people below.  And if someone was in a wheelchair, well, they were out of luck.

Shanghai was hot, humid and crowded as it usually was in the summer.  Construction was still going on non-stop as the city sprouted more skyscrapers and slowly spread up and down the coast of China.  There were lots of signs of prosperity with all the new homes and businesses growing, but also signs of downside.  We actually saw a billboard advertising Weight Watchers in Shanghai.

The big event in Shanghai this summer was the Shanghai World Expo.  This was a theme park where nearly every country on Earth sponsored a pavilion to introduce themselves to the people of China.  All around the country, there were ads for the Expo, featuring its strange cartoon mascot—a blue-colored booger that looked like a melted Spongebob.  So, we joined the masses and took the bus to the Expo site across the river from downtown.

The Expo site was vast—sprawling for several miles beneath and beside one of the high suspension bridges that that span the Huangpu River.  The biggest pavilion was, of course, China’s, which looked like a temple built for giant monks.  It was a huge, red upside-down pyramid that was made to look like it was assembled from beams of lacquered wood cut from some magical thousand-foot tall trees.  Unfortunately, there was no chance of getting inside China’s pavilion that day.  Even though we had arrived in the morning, we were told that the number of people already waiting in line to enter the Chinese pavilion was more than what could be accommodated in a single day.

Luckily, there were nearly two hundred other nations to visit at the Expo.  We went to see Ireland’s pavilion first, since my ancestors come from there (and the line was short…)  It was a disappointing affair that really didn’t give the Chinese visitors much of an idea of what Ireland was like—just a few wall-sized murals of places in Dublin and a collage of pictures that showed off famous Irish actors and pop stars like Colin Farrell and Bono.  France was much more impressive.  Their pavilion showed off the style and glamour of French products and even had a few paintings on loan from Paris museums.  We tried to get into the English pavilion but gave up after we were told that the wait would be two hours.  Other countries seemed to have struggled to pull anything together at all.  Cambodia, for instance had a tiny building with just some pictures and a model of Ankor Wat with a small gift shop.

I was very impressed by USA’s pavilion, however.  I’ve found in the past that the American government is often very bad at selling itself abroad.  When I lived in China in the early 1990s, I would often listen to the Voice of America broadcasts.  Their “editorials” (basically propaganda) managed to make freedom and democracy sound as unpleasant as a visit to the dentist.  But apparently, they hired some decent PR folks for their pavilion at the Shanghai expo.  The USA exhibit was the most unique of all the ones we visited.  It consisted of three short movies in three different theaters.  One was an introduction where pedestrians were interviewed on the Brooklyn Bridge and asked to try to speak a greeting in Chinese for the expo.  The second film was a more conventional “This is our country”-type advertisement where Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke a few words in Chinese and gave short speeches about how well America gets along with China (subtitled in Chinese, of course).  The USA pavilion was the only one we saw that actually portrayed its leaders.  For some reason, no other pavilion made a mention of their government.  The third film really had nothing to do with American directly.  It was a near-silent film of a community coming together to try to build an urban garden.  I suspect the Chinese audience might have been puzzled by the last film, but I thought it was clever and original and far better than the stern lectures on freedom and democracy from the Voice of America.

Although there was a great variety in style and architecture, the themes of each country’s pavilion could be distilled down to three concepts:

1.  Our country is cool

2.  We’re China’s friend

3.  Buy our stuff

Though each country tended to emphasize one theme above the other, USA was very big on “we’re China’s friend”, while France was a combination of “we’re cool” and “buy our (high-end luxury) stuff”.  New Zealand and Indonesia both really emphasized the theme of “our country is cool”.  New Zealand recreated a hillside temperate rainforest and had Maori drummers entertaining the people waiting in line.

But I think Indonesia had the best pavilion of all.  They created a multi-story museum which showcased the cultures of the many ethnic groups in the Indonesian archipelago.  If this were the only one we saw all day, it would have still been worth it.  We were lucky that we got to see seven countries’ pavilions.  Many foreigners we spoke to later told us they only got to see three pavilions in a day.  All of their time was taken up waiting in lines.

*  *  *

Most of the time, my wife and I travel by ourselves, but this trip we decided to go with a tour group with several other foreigners on a day trip to Suzhou.  Suzhou in centuries past had the reputation as the most beautiful city in China.  But you wouldn’t have guessed it from its twenty-first century state.

The bus ride to Suzhou was short—both the cities of Shanghai and Suzhou are growing to the point where they are merging into a singly megalopolis.  There were still farmlands and rice fields to be seen from the super highways, but more and more, they were being replaced by vast housing complexes that were built one after another—each identical—stretching for miles.

While it is easy criticize the miles of dull monotonous apartment blocks, I was reminded of why they exist when I looked at the side of the highways and saw the shacks of families and workers who labored on the surrounding construction sites.  For them, an apartment in one of those anonymous developments would be a huge leap in quality of life.  This reminded me of one of the big differences I notice between Chinese society and American society.  The poorest towns and neighborhoods in China never feel as grim and desperate as poor neighborhoods in America.  This is probably because the poor neighborhoods in America are frequently places that were once well-off and have since been declining.  In China, the poorest areas have a vibrant energy because the locals have the notion they are rising up from poverty to something better.  We could see this in the roadside shacks on the highway to Suzhou—every shack, no exception, no matter if it looked like the most primitive homeless encampment, had a TV satellite dish mounted on its roof.

The wonders of Suzhou turned out to be disappointing.  The parts of the thousand-year old Grand Canal were nice, but the canal was still used as a dumping ground for industrial waste.  We visited one of the famous gardens of Suzhou, but it was no more spectacular than other places in we’ve seen in China.  Our tour guide apologized that we didn’t have time to see the best garden in Suzhou.

More interesting was the stop at a silk factory, which had a museum which showed the silk production process from the silkworm caterpillars to the boiling of the cocoons to the computerized weaving of the final silk fabric.  We even got to pet the silkworms as they were munching on their beds of mulberry leaves.  Although they look like slimy gray worms, they actually feel like silk.

After buying loads of silk items in the factory store, we were content to write off our day in Suzhou as a shopping trip.  But we had one more stop before returning home where we would see the water villages.  Our bus traveled outside the city to an area of lakes and canals, passing more housing developments.  We arrived at a big parking lot where lots of other tourist buses were parked.  This place was the Zhouzhuang water village.  The old towns and villages all around Suzhou were crisscrossed with canals.  These were the main highways of centuries past where goods and people traveled the region.  Nowadays, of course, trucks and trains have made the canals obsolete, causing some of the towns to be abandoned or turned into housing developments.  But some of the canal towns have turned to tourism to preserve their canals and traditional architecture.

Leaving the parking lot, we entered a different world.  The main street of the town was flanked by shops, restaurants and temples of Qing Dynasty buildings with curving tiled roofs.  The street led to a narrow canal crossed by many high-arched stone bridges where crowds of people watched the small boats of tourists being rowed by women through the center of town.  A narrow stone path ran between the canal and the old traditional-style shops that now sold tourist trinkets, live clams and turtles.  Hundreds of mostly Chinese tourists filled the town make the paths, alleyways and tiny stone bridges all the more difficult to navigate.

We threaded our way to a house that opened onto the canal where we could board a boat for a ride along the canal.  The town looked even more beautiful from the water as the line of boats zig-zagged their way through the maze of water ways that crossed all over the town.  As our boat drifted past an old building that was being repaired, some of our fellow foreigners were surprised to see that all of the construction workers were women.  It hadn’t occurred to me until then how often I had seen women construction workers in China and how uncommon that was in the West.

As our boat docked and we wandered through the alleyways and canal paths back to our bus, I realized that not everything in Suzhou has been wiped out by industry and cheap real estate.  There are other canal towns like Zhouzhuang that have managed to turn what was once an obsolete way of life into something worth preserving—and more important in the new capitalist China—something profitable for its residents.

*  *  *

We wanted to see Huangshan Mountain in Anhui province, one of China’s famous scenic spots, so we bought tickets on a sleeper train for the overnight journey there.  It had been several years since I had traveled in a sleeper train.  They are becoming less popular now in China with the increase in air travel and the introduction of superhighways and high-speed rail lines.  We had berths in a “soft sleeper”, which had four beds per cabin.  (The cheaper and more crowded “hard sleepers” have six smaller bunks per cabin.)  We shared the cabin with another foreigner—a Swiss-Australian man who was traveling around China on his own.

Inevitably, when two foreigners meet in China, they always trade their armchair analyses of the changes they’ve seen in China and prognostications on China’s future.  Foreign opinions on China often cluster around two extremes.  On one hand are the Sinophobes who fear that China will be the next superpower and will eclipse the West, while at the other extreme are those who think it’s awesome that China will be the next superpower and the West should copy China’s methods of success.  (The fearful ones are usually the ones who have never set foot in China, while China’s fans are usually those who’ve only visited a short time.  Those who’ve visited China long enough usually conclude that it’s impossible to predict the future of such a huge and complex country.)

Our roommate on the train was one of China’s fans.  He was greatly impressed by China’s transformation in the past few decades.  His opinion was that China’s success has been due to its centralized decision-making.  As he said, “China has one decision-maker, so things get done quickly and efficiently.  In the West, there are too many groups that have to agree in order to get things done.”  I pointed out that a single decision-maker is fine as long as he’s making the right decisions, but when he makes the wrong ones, you can end up with Cultural Revolution.

When we arrived at Huangshan station the next morning, we hired a taxi to take us to our hotel.  Our driver was curious at seeing a foreign man married to a Chinese woman.  We asked him if local people ever married foreigners and he said such a thing would be very unusual.  The local people tend to be very insular about such things.  He mentioned a family he knew was opposed to their daughter’s marriage because she wanted to marry someone from a different province.

Since we wanted to see the sights for a day before climbing Huangshan Mountain, we hired our taxi driver for the entire day.  We’ve found we often get to see a lot more interesting things in China when we hire a local person to show us around as a guide.  We first went to visit several traditional Huizhou-style villages.  “Huizhou” is the name of this region of Anhui province and it has a distinct style of architecture.  If you have ever visited the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, you might have seen the “Yin Yu Tang” house they have on exhibit there.  That house came from the Huizhou area and was transported piece by piece to Salem.  The homes in the real villages of Huizhou are of course much larger and the wealthiest ones are very elaborate with pools, fountains, courtyards and even theaters for plays and operas.

The first village we went to was surrounded by a high wall.  This is a common feature of many traditional villages in the area.  Huizhou has always been a poor area, and in the past, every boy upon reaching age fifteen, has to leave home with the other men of the family to work outside the province and send money back home.  The village was inhabited most of the year by women, children and the elderly, so the walls were necessary to protect them from bandits.  Our village guide pointed out that the village was built roughly in the shape of a yin-yang symbol: [  The S-curve in the middle was the river flowing through the village (which actually narrowed to ditch along the lanes in places in the village center) and the two dots were the village’s two temples.

At another village was a big display of ancient calligraphy carved in stone slabs.  China has long found a simple solution for preserving examples of calligraphy for over a thousand years when paper and silk would just wither or decay.  The finest calligraphy is traced onto stone and then carved out.  This way, we can see the actual handwriting of poets and writers from centuries ago in detail better than a photograph.  But even solid stone is no guarantee of preservation.  The guide at the village told us that the stones were almost destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.  Red Guards had come to the village to destroy any relics of “old China” but someone in the village convinced them that the inscriptions were worthless paving stones.  The villagers then used the stones as paving stones with the carvings put face down so the Red Guards couldn’t see them.  Years later they were dug up again and now they are on display protected from the elements under glass.  The carvings themselves are only a century or two old, but their sources were original Song Dynasty calligraphy from the eleventh or twelfth century.  We purchased some rubbings of the stones to bring home.  It’s a shame that Shakespeare, Julius Caesar or Plato never thought of this method to preserve copies of their handwriting.

The Huizhou region also has its own style of food, which I have never tried before.  It’s quite different than other regional Chinese cuisines.  The keyword for Huizhou food is “pungent”.  That night, we went to a restaurant that specialized in local cuisine.  Their most famous dish is “stinky doufu”—fermented bean curd that smells like vomit but tastes absolutely delicious.  Its flavor is a bit like blue cheese, but it doesn’t taste as heavy or pungent as real cheese does.  The smell and flavor were so at odds, I wondered how the chefs could manage such a trick.  Another local dish was “hairy doufu”.  It looks like a mass of gray, rotten, moldy spider webs, and if I was served this in Boston, I’d have called the health inspector.  But like the stinky doufu, it had a delicious flavor, again a bit like cheese, yet without a dairy flavor.  Our dining was adventuresome that night, but we decided to skip the stir-fried silkworms.  There is only so much adventure one can handle in a day.

Our visit to Huangshan Mountain the next day was almost anticlimactic after our travels through the village mansions of Huizhou.  There were thousands of people visiting the mountain and it was crowded, top to bottom.  We wisely took the cable car up to the summit, and even then, we were exhausted after wandering around all day.  Huangshan is not terribly tall.  It’s maybe a little higher than the White Mountains in New Hampshire.  But unlike Mount Washington with its gentle slope, Huangshan is extremely steep.  Much of it rises near-vertically and most of the paths along the mountain have had to be chiseled out of the rock.  Huangshan will look familiar to anyone who has seen Chinese brush painting before.  The steep weathered cliffs and twisted pine trees that are typical of traditional Chinese paintings are perfect renditions of the peaks of Huangshan.

*  *  *

One city in China that I had never been to was Xi’an.  This is the site of the first emperor’s tomb and the terracotta soldiers that are seen in every tourist guide to China.  Xi’an is one of China’s oldest cities and has gone through many ups and downs over the ages.  It was the capital during the reign of the first emperor, Qin Shihuang, over two thousand years ago and was the capital and eastern most point of the Silk Road during the Tang dynasty a thousand years later.  But after the Tang dynasty, Xi’an declined in size and influence as the Silk Road trade dried up and China’s center of power moved to the eastern cities nearer the coast.  In the last thirty years, Xi’an’s fortunes have risen again as it has become a popular destination for both Chinese and foreign tourists.

Surrounding the city center is a thirty foot-high stone wall.  Xi’an is the only city in China to have preserved all of its ancient city walls.  Other Chinese cities had their ancient walls torn down in the name of progress during the early years of Communist rule, but Xi’an, being a backwater town, managed to preserve its walls and many of its ancient structures.  The wall, itself, is huge—on top it is as wide as a two-lane highway and visitors can rent bicycles to pedal its entire circuit.

There are a great many historic sites and monuments within the city.  At the center, where the main east-west and north-south boulevards intersect, are the giant Drum Tower and Bell Tower.  Both of these are large pagoda-like buildings atop tall stone foundations with the upward-curling tiled roofs decorated with ceramic animals on each corner.  The Drum Tower served as a public timekeeper in previous dynasties; now, both towers are museums where musical demonstrations are held for drums and bells.

But Xi’an’s most famous site is the terracotta warriors.  We took the bus to the site which is several miles outside the city.  The statues get a lot of hype in tourist advertisements and on TV, but they really do live up to their reputation.  The entire area of the terracotta soldiers has been enclosed within a giant roof—it is an archaeological site the size of a football field placed indoors.  The statues had been buried underground in roof-covered halls that have since collapsed.  Only about half have been uncovered so far and restored.  These are the ones you see as you enter the building in the pit below the visitors’ walkway.  Column after column of soldiers and their horses stretched for what seemed to be a quarter mile back to the still-unexcavated sections—and each soldier different in dress and facial expressions.  As we walked to the rear of the building we could see the more recent excavations where the statues were all smashed together after their underground halls collapsed.  The archaeologists carefully piece each one back together and return them to their place in the long columns of soldiers.  Several other sites with smaller collections of terracotta soldiers have been found nearby and roofs have been built over these to protect them as well.

The terracotta warriors were buried here as guardians of the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of a united China who reigned over two thousand years ago.  But the reason why this site is so spectacular is that it was completely unknown for all of history.  Even though hundreds or thousands of people must have been needed to create all this, there is no historical record at all mentioning it.  It was never plundered by grave-robbers or looters because no one knew such a thing existed.  It would still be unknown today if a farmer hadn’t accidently dug up one of the statue’s heads in the 1970s when he was digging a well.

While the terracotta warriors were a secret only recently discovered, the actual tomb of the first emperor has been known for ages.  This, however, has not been excavated yet.  It is believed to be under a hill near the terracotta warriors.  There is an exhibition nearby which we visited that creates a room-sized model of what the tomb is believed to look like from historical descriptions.  But we didn’t get much of an idea of what it was like as the whole exhibit was very dark and murky (they were trying to create a night-time scene indoors for some reason).  The exhibit says that the tomb of Qin Shihuang will not be excavated yet because presently, archaeologists lack the technology to preserve all the items they might find.  There is also the danger of toxins since the historical descriptions of his tomb mention that liquid mercury was used to create rivers and pools that would never dry up.  There are also legends of booby-traps all over his tomb, but after seeing the state of the terracotta warriors when they are first dug up, it’s likely any underground traps are smashed to pieces under the weight of two thousand years of hillside.  But the most likely reason archaeologists are not in a hurry to excavate the tomb is that there may be nothing left there.  Qin Shihuang’s tomb was supposedly looted after his death (he was not a popular man in his day).  And two thousand years of treasure seekers have been poking around ever since.  It’s ironic that the things he tried to keep most secret are the ones we know most about today.

We soon left the world of the first emperor and found ourselves back in the twenty-first century, making our way through airports and subways back to Shanghai and then home to Boston.  I saw several new cities and provinces I had never been to before and discovered new cuisines.  There are many more places to see in China (and many more styles of Chinese cooking to taste!) so I plan to return again soon.

Alan Phillips is the technology coordinator and ASECENT instructor at the Asian American Civic Association.

Riverboat on the water in the Zhouzhuang canal town. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

The Chinese Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

Traditional Huizhou-style architecture near Huangshan, Anhui province. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

Courtyard of a wealthy Qing Dynasty mansion in Huizhou. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

The peaks of Huangshan Mountain. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

The Terracotta Warriors of Emperor Qin Shihuang in Xi'an. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

Covered site of the Terracotta Warriors. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

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