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The Middle Kingdom I: East

Posted January 31st, 2011 at 10:25 AM by chas
Updated February 1st, 2011 at 01:35 AM by chas
THE MIDDLE KINGDOM I: EAST (Shanghai-Wuxi-Hangzhou)

The Middle Kingdom: Introduction

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
--Ancient Chinese proverb

As a student of history, I have the greatest reverence for old cultures. If I bowed low enough to put my head through the floor I could not begin to express my awe at Chinese culture. There is a board game called History of the World, based on a book by the Indian scholar Nehru (another culture I revere, but I haven’t been there yet)which covers all of recorded human events. In a very long game, modern Europe, with its superior technology, only comes in briefly for the last turn. Now if I was Chinese, I’d consider European culture to be a modern offshoot of the Indian (Aryan) one. As for the USA; well, it’s really too early to see how such a young offshoot of an offshoot will turn out!

Could you visit the United States in three weeks, and say you’d seen it? China, in its present incarnation as The People’s Republic, is geographically as large as the USA, but home to a cultural diversity equal in complexity and scope. The Yankee clipper ship Peking, on exhibit at New York City’s South Street Seaport, engaged in the China trade a hundred years ago. From May 13 to June 1, 1987 I spent three weeks on my favorite trip of all. I’m going to split this journey into five chapters: East, North, West, South, and British Hong Kong, in the order that I traveled. In those days, an average American or any other kind of tourist could only visit to China in groups, and most Chinese had never seen a live Westerner before. The only major region I totally missed in the Celestial Kingdom was the Far West and Tibet. You can see that in the DVD series The Silk Road, and I highly recommend them to you. Being in China was like visiting another planet. As the old Middle Kingdom, it considered itself the center of the world, and in many ways, this is a reasonable description.

In the late Eighties, China was in transition from its long desecration from a hundred years of Western colonialism, during which it barely escaped partition, Japanese invasion and significant occupation in World War II when horrible atrocities were everyday occurrences, and the excessive purges of the Communist Revolution, to finally taking its place on the world stage as a stable major power. In the cities and the countryside, construction was taking place everywhere. Old people still wore the cheap bland Mao suits in drab solid colors, but the younger generation was in western jeans or business clothing. A tour group in those days had an American guide (Inter Pacific Tours), national guides, and local guides to watch over them. And Hong Kong was still British. Being rare White Foreigners, we were instant celebrities, or at least figures of conversation, where ever we went. Cousin Jim and I were to have our first talk with locals on the Shanghai Bund, (waterfront), with a couple of amazingly American-wise local men, and a few friends of theirs too, who just happened to stop by, in my famous National Geographic moment…

The Middle Kingdom I: East

“The Way, like water, seeks its own level.”
--Tao te ching

The nonstop flight from New York was so long that I remember it only as five meals and three movies. Toward the end the exhausted flight crew announced that the galley was open, and we could take whatever was left by ourselves. After a brief stop at Narita airport in Japan to change planes--Chinese commercial planes had no radar back then, and couldn’t make international flights--we spent a woozy day sleeping off and on to recover from jet lag, in a beautiful green garden setting. You might say we’d been Shanghai’d in a modern way!

Shanghai is the largest city on in the central China coast. Its showpiece buildings along the waterfront were ginourmous municipal mainstays from the Colonial days of the Nineteenth Century. The City had been the center of European settlement and trade, and reflected this history in its European style architecture. Each major European state had its district and horde of servants. But the locals were catching up fast. Along the waterfront, the locals liked to practice their English, and Cousin Jim and I spoke with one older and one younger man, who seemed to know everything about the colleges and universities in the New York City area. Everyone wanted to get to know us, because their dream was to come to the States! They know more about institutes of higher learning back home than I did!

We were busy concentrating on the two men’s speech; their English was passable, but you had to work at understanding it. When I finally looked up for a moment, I realized that in a polite circle around the four of us. There were others listening. Not a few. Not a dozen. Hundreds of them, standing calmly to view and hear the weird aliens from another world. Yikes! It was as if one of those photos in National Geographic had come to life. The ones where the intrepid explorer is surrounded by the entire curious village, who has gathered to eat, I mean, greet them. Look at watch. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you. We’ll be getting back to our bus now…can you see it Jim? Over there, isn’t it?” We’d get used to both the overflowing crowds that made New York City seem tame, and the gentle but quizzical stares, but the first time it’s a shock. And not a guide in sight. Charleton Heston and David Niven had a scene like that in 55 Days In Peking, and it didn’t turn out well for them.

The prose in the snippets of tourist information I saved in my photo albums had a charming mix of poorly translated English, Communist ideology, and a desire to be welcoming. Here is a selection from the one on the Yu Garden, an amazing outdoor park we visited: “The Yu Garden is the cultural relics placed under special protection of the government. these antique constructions of pavilions, grottoes, rocks and ponds crystallize the collective wisdom of the working people of our country.” Hey, their English is much better than my Chinese (of which I have none, except for ‘Ni Hao’ (Hello) and ‘Shay shay’ (Thank you). However, all the postcards were far superior than ours, as they gave the poetic names for everything. Instead of “typical scene of an ornamental fishpond,” you read: “Watching goldfish in a flowery pond.” or on Lake Tai in another district, “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon.”

Like Manhattan’s Central Park or Brooklyn’s Prospect Park back home (both designed by Olmstead), this is a sculpted and landscaped outdoors. But they’ve had centuries to perfect it, and rebuild it after the Taping Revolution (whose Nineteenth Century horrors and casualties made our own Civil War look like a social tea dance) when it had been “seriously destructed in old days.” If you’ve ever seen a lovely Japanese garden or lake, with its calculated simplicity and serenity such as that in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in an adjoining neighborhood back home--you can make an argument that the Chinese is to a degree the mainland parent culture of that small island nation, and manifests in even greater splendor and variety. At the Jade Buddha Temple, we see a fusion of Indian and Chinese styles that showcase the journey to the east of that mature Indian religious faith, a part of the constant cultural interaction between China and her neighbors that, like our Roman Empire, included the best of many nations and peoples. In the Thirteen Century, a much larger empire ruled the world that stretched from China to Russia, and almost conquered that backwater peninsula called Europe as well (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, 2004, ISBN 0-60980964-4). Many respectable people now believe that during the European Renaissance several vast Chinese fleets circumnavigated the world (1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menses, 2002 ISBN 0-06054094-4). The image of China’s being a closed off society, and likewise the poor reputation of its soldiery, is a reflection of very bad times in its history, rather than its essence.

Shanghai acrobats perform skills evolved in a pre-technological era, doing things with their bodies that just should not be possible. And yet you can’t doubt, because it’s done live in front of you. Can seven men balancing in midair upside down on top of seven chairs, each side by side, balance in turn all on one chair? I have a photograph of it happening. Combining circus show display, ballet, and family teamwork, their show is breathtaking and unforgettable. They say that the knowledge of the special effects stagecraft of Shakespeare’s day, which amazed audiences of that time, is now forgotten and lost forever. The techniques of the acrobats live.

To the northwest a bit, Wuxi (Without Tin) used to be called Tin City (Wuhan), but then the Tin ran out. We took our first smooth railroad journey there. Then we took a boat ride gliding down a bit of the Grand Canal (1,794 kilometers long). Tourists travel in a colorful, fancy canal barge, curtained and decorated inside, where you sit at a series of two person tables and have tea. You can look out the wide picture windows at the river traffic passing alongside, above the heads of those opposite you, or turn around to see the view on your own side. Small family motorized barges pass by, floating house boats, as do poled rafts bearing cargo, larger motorized commercial craft, and more, between rows of houses set flush with the water, as in Venice. On Lake Tai, miles around, we take the modern Japanese “fast boat” over a gorgeous lake that only a few feet deep.

Further south, Huangzhou is a tourist mecca for both Chinese and foreigners (the original meaning of the word ‘barbarian’). The postcards here say “Summer Lotus Blossoms of Solitary Hill,” and “Snow Scene On The Broken Bridge. In a land where river flooding meant disaster, nature has been temporarily tamed. There is a large hotel shop, where lovely teen age girls in traditional ao dai dresses slit up the sides will sell you an ink chop with your Western name on it. A matchbox with a picture of the lakeside says, under my magnifying glass: “Listening to Orioles Among Willows: The flowery March is coming. Willow branches are swaying About in the wind without stopping. Like green waves in the sky are rolling On and on with roaring. Yet in the thick of leaves orioles are singing. With a voice so sweet and thrilling!”

At Lingyin Temple, set on wooded grounds “The image of the Goddess of Mercy was made during the closing years of Ching Emperor Kuang hsu’s reign.” Inside mammoth pagoda style buildings, wooden statues are painted in a mandala of color. Outside, a fat Laughing Buddha welcomes us on the path. Here faith and nature are one with the Goddess. On a tea plantation we buy samples of this year’s crop, sweeter and fresher than any tea I’ve ever tasted. Its reflective bonsai garden is in sharp contrast to the endless fields starting just outside its fence. Here on the civilized central coast, gateway of contact with the rest of the world, art and nature are peacefully one.
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