by Lee Foster
Fascination with China arises partly because the country has so many people, over 1.3 billion, one fourth of the world population. Many travelers want to see how these people live and what they think. Since the “Open Door” policy in China went into effect in 1978, countless North Americans have visited the country.
The Chinese manifest one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet, flourishing for 5,000 years, including over 2,000 years with a written pictoral language universally readable within the country. China has reached peaks of cultural attainment that equal, or surpass, anything that Western European societies or America have achieved. Some of the seminal developments include the creation of paper, gunpowder, and movable type.
The size and diversity of China also allures. Among countries, only Russia and Canada are larger.
The perennial attractions of travel to China and elsewhere have always transcended, for me, the temporary restrictions against travel for political reasons that some critics urged. If the world traveler restricted travel as an expression of political disapproval of current leadership policies, then many countries would be vulnerable, not the least of which would be the United States itself from time to time.
The modern social experiment in Chinese life is an amazing phenomenon to meditate upon. While Chinese society has mobilized in the past to produce goods in substantial quantities for an emperor, now the Chinese focus their energy on their own well-being, attempting to provide adequate housing, universal education, access to medical care, and childcare. The success of these policies, especially wide-scale education, has produced a massive educated elite in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and elsewhere that makes China a formidable force in the modern world. The level of prosperity evident in modern China is astonishing.
My selected route of exploration took me to Beijing, the modern capital; Xian, the ancient capital; and Shanghai, the dynamic port city.
Beijing: The Modern Capital
Beijing struck me, at once, as an imperial city, whose rationale for existence was political rather than commercial. Beijing means, in fact, the “northern capital.” The city lies inland without a large, navigable river. It is strategically valuable rather than commercially advantageous.
The road in from the airport begins the cluster of impressions. Wide avenues spread out in vast, rectangular grids. The city is huge, roughly 40 miles square in only its central part. Getting from one site to the next occupies considerable time. If construction of the modern subway system had not destroyed the ancient city walls, the regal effect would be more complete. A few sections of the city wall remain.
The major sites to see here are the political monuments, especially Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Summer Palace.
As befits a country with the largest population in the world, the focal heart of China, Tian’anmen, is said to be the largest square in the world. The square covers a hundred acres and accommodates a half-million people. I saw many ethnic minority families from China’s outlying provinces posing to have their pictures taken at this major pilgrimage site.
Adjacent to the square is the 9,000-room Forbidden City, used by the Qing dynasty royalty until their overthrow in 1912 and so named because commoners were forbidden to enter the area. From the rostrum at the Forbidden City you can look at Tian’anmen, just as Mao Zedong did on October 1, 1949 when he proclaimed to the multitudes, “The People’s Republic of China has been founded! The Chinese people have now stood up!”
Walk around Tian’anmen and the Forbidden City with a guide, easily obtainable at your hotel, so that you will understand more fully what you see. Tian’anmen, so open to the world and the future, contrasts with the Forbidden City, a monument to the insularity of China’s past. In the Forbidden City, be sure to see some of the museums, such as the Emperor’s Clock Museum or the Qing and Ming Dynasty Art Museum, which includes an exquisite ivory boat presented to the last powerful royal female ruler, Empress Dowager Ci Xi, on her 60th birthday.
You might also experience private revelations here. While I was leaving the Qing and Ming Dynasty Art Museum, out hobbled an elderly and elegant lady in black, whose feet had been bound, as a child, and were now so petite that she appeared to be walking on her toes. The practice has been outlawed since 1949, but was thought to be a mark of beauty in earlier China. Away she walked, an apparition from the past.
The Great Wall, an hour-and-a-half north of Beijing, stuns the imagination because of its massive size. See the Badaling or the Mutianyu sections to have a scenic encounter with this engineering masterpiece, said to be one of the few man-made objects visible to astronauts from outer space.
The wall was built between 476 B.C. and the 14th century A.D. During one particularly vigorous building period, some 300,000 workers labored for a 10-year period in the 3rd century B.C. to build much of the 6,000-kilometer wall, which stands as a symbol of China’s historic efforts to bolster itself against outside attack rather than embark on adventurous conquest. The emperor who organized this great labor force was Qin Shi Huangdi (221-206 B.C.), the first unifier of China.
The Summer Palace is a pleasure house in Beijing adjacent to a lake, built in 1888 by the crafty Empress Dowager Ci Xi. Today the Summer Palace, a park for the people, stands as a monument to imperial excesses. The most blatant of those excesses is a large marble boat commissioned by the Empress Dowager with funds that were supposed to be expended on building a royal Navy. This was another of the mismanaged affairs that left China weak and vulnerable to foreign partitioning in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As a contrast to grand monuments, it is interesting to do a tour of the way all the common people lived until recently. This is possible in the Xuanwu district and is called a “hutong” tour, available through Beijing tour agencies. Some of the 20 million people in Beijing still live in these one story buildings in neighborhoods called hutongs. On such a tour you can see a kindergarden for children, how local food markets work, and even visit private homes. My tour went to the home of a Madame Zuo Shu Xian, an elderly lady living in a cohesive though primitive setting. Gradually, the hutong life is being replaced by tall apartment buildings, but the hutong in the Xuanwu district will be preserved as an historic district.
When selecting monuments to see and tours to do, know that you can visit only two or three in one day. Beijing is so vast that much time goes into commuting between the monuments.
Impressions of Beijing
Among dominant impressions of Beijing (and the rest of China) I would list:
*Safety. Generally, in Beijing (or China) I did not feel concern for my personal safety. As the Chinese sort out their internal matters, foreigners are not a target of hostility. There is a genuine friendliness towards North Americans. Inflation and the large numbers of migrating people seeking work present an underlying stress that could create chaos if the economy ever deteriorated. Theft is not a major concern in China. The level of overall prosperity is rising dramatically. No drug underclass preys on travelers, as in some European and North American cities. I felt safer in Beijing than in many other major cities in my experience.
*The bicycles. There are millions of bicycles, although the automobile now exerts a growing presence. Long bicycle commutes, sometimes an hour’s ride, bring people to their work. Busses and subways supplement the basic bike transport. Bicycle gridlock sometimes occurs at peak hours.
*The construction. Beijing has built thousands of high-rise apartments and office buildings. For the 2008 Olympics, Beijing rebuilt much of its infrastructure to show off its progress to the world.
*The dust. On my most recent Beijing visit, during the rainy month of August, the skies were clean and the city was luxuriant with foliage. However, Beijing is a relatively arid environment, subject to winds from the Gobi Desert blowing in suffocating dust storms. It was dusty on an earlier visit. The massive forestation programs in and around Beijing have lessened the overall dust problem. As the millions of trees planted in Beijing mature, the city assumes a park-like appearance along its handsome boulevards. Still, dust masks are a part of the local apparel in the dry months.
*The prosperity and modernity. The stores and markets of the Chinese cities I visited were full of food and consumer goods. The average Chinese earns enough Yuan, their unit of currency, to cover rent and food. Apartment rental costs are often fairly moderate. Education and medical care are manageable, and child care is affordable for most people. Rice and vegetables, the staple foods, are plentiful. About half of disposable income goes to food. There is money left over for consumer goods because retirement pensions are generous. Citizens feel fairly secure about basic necessities, even though exotic consumer goods, such as cars, are out of reach for most people. The outwardly visible prosperity level is rising. Almost all Beijing households have a color TV, the most prized home appliance after the sewing machine.
One place to see the full range of Chinese consumer goods, including all the arts and crafts of the country, such as carvings, silk, and ceramics, is the huge Friendship Store complex on Chang’An Avenue.
*The educational level and commitment to personal and social betterment. Education is said now to be nearly universal through the 9th grade, with everyone studying some English. About 30 percent of graduates in Beijing, Shanghai, and Wuhan go on to college. Everywhere, one notices efforts to improve the individual and the nation. As an example, I passed a group of school children at the Summer Palace chanting a cheerful song as they marched along. My guide translated the lyrics as, “Love people, love country, study hard, make progress every day.” My guide in Shanghai confided that his favorite recreational activity was watching TV shows about public works programs around the country. There is a genuine excitement about the great progress the country has made.
*Exquisite Chinese food. The range of foods available, the skill with which they are presented, and the use of unusual parts of animals will startle a foreigner. For example, at multi-course banquets, you might encounter duck brain, sparrow, and fish-lips soup.
*The cleanliness. Despite the dustiness and relative primitiveness of China, cleanliness is paramount. In Beijing a small army of street sweepers keeps everything cleaned up. Littering is socially unacceptable. Graffiti on the subway would be unthinkable.
*The masses of people. Walk Wang Fu Jing, the fashionable shopping street, and you will be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of humanity in this billion-person country. Ride a bus or the subway and you will press the flesh of the Chinese. As citizens trade in their bicycles for automobiles, the situation becomes more congested.
To get a feel for the Chinese, here are some activities to pursue in Beijing:
*Walk the mile length of Wang Fu Jing Street to see a broad range of Chinese people. There are interesting stores, such as a shop devoted only to Muslim Chinese. The business was built around the religion, and was a haven where Muslims could feel comfortable trading.
*Pause for a drink at the lobby bar of the grande dame Beijing Hotel. This multi-wing property along Chang’An Avenue was the place to see and be seen before the hotel boom of the recent decades.
*Watch the tai chi practitioners at Purple Bamboo Park. Throughout China you will see thousands of people practicing this martial arts dance as a fitness and self-discipline exercise. The city wall of Xian is another good place to see tai chi. Daily bicycling, tai chi, and a diet of rice and vegetables contribute to Chinese longevity.
Xian: The Ancient Capital
Some 720 air miles southwest of Beijing lies the ancient Chinese capital of Xian.
In 1974 a wonderful event occurred in Xian, which thrust the already-noted archaeological zone to the forefront of world tourism.
In that year some farmers, digging a well in their fields, uncovered a stone terra-cotta figure of a warrior. Chinese archaeologists quickly stepped in and subsequently excavated some 2,000 of these warriors, each showing distinctly different individual features. The models for these 2,000 realistic portrayals were chosen from the ranks of the army throughout China. The stone warriors were evidently guarding the tomb of the great emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the builder of The Great Wall. The tomb itself has been located. Today you can witness this extraordinary discovery under a large hangar-like building that protects the excavated relics.
Qin Shi ruled China over 2,000 years ago. Altogether, Xian is known for 12 dynasties of rulers, five dynasties of which are of major importance. The city enjoyed a 2000-year window of prosperity, 1000 B.C.-1000 A.D., before power finally shifted to Beijing. In the 11th century Xian was the largest city in the world, with over a million residents.
From Xian, in 138 A.D., the first scouts were sent west to the Middle East (and eventually Europe) along a road that became known for its most precious trading commodity–silk. Silk from China was once worth its weight in gold in the streets of ancient Rome. The Silk Road brought China in contact with many countries. Marco Polo became an articulate recorder of the greatness of Xian and China in the 13th Century. The country’s cultural attainments surpassed, in his judgment, anything that Europe offered.
Going to see the terra-cotta warriors is one of the most moving encounters with historic relics a traveler can imagine. The warriors and their horses stand four abreast, in full battle formation. Their wooden arms of bows and arrows, swords, spears, and crossbows have disintegrated with time. Originally brightly painted, the terra-cotta figures now show a uniform red-clay appearance. The horses remain alert, the chariots are ready to roll.
The figures were meant to guard the tomb of the emperor and, presumably, show the emperor’s magnificence. It is said that the craftsmen who made the soldiers were, in the end, sealed into the tomb, alive, probably to keep the entrance secret from looters.
Some other choice artifacts, including a bronze chariot inlaid with gold and silver, have been uncovered and are on display.
The ride out to see the figures gives a traveler a good sense of backroads China–the small brick villages, intensive agriculture, and mountain backdrops to the fertile but dusty valleys. You see many small-scale enterprises, such as single-blade sawmills, that create materials for the villages.
The city of Xian also has much to offer the traveler. At the remarkable Shaanxi Museum you can observe 114 huge stone tablets with ancient Chinese writing carved into them. One tablet, from the 8th century, notes the presence of Christianity in China in the 7th century. The Shaanxi Museum displays one of China’s most important collections of ancient artifacts.
Walking in Xian can be engaging. Xian has preserved its ancient city walls, which add character to the setting. The city market is especially colorful, selling everything from wild mushrooms to eel. The Friendship Store is well stocked with carvings, silk, ceramics such as cloisonne vases, and cotton textiles.
In the evening, attend the Tang Dynasty Show, re-creating the dance, music, and even the musical instruments of the Tang court. This is one of the most entertaining shows in China today.
Shanghai: The Commercial Future
Shanghai amounts to a fascinating must-visit addition to Beijing and Xian on a China trip. For several reasons, Shanghai is special.
First, the city is actually larger than Beijing in population, counting 22 million permanent residents in its boundaries, making it one of the largest cities in the world. Far more lush than Beijing, the fertile land outside Shanghai is farmed with great success by skillful hand cultivation, producing abundant supplies of vegetables in small plots.
Second, Shanghai, although a relatively new city by Chinese standards, possesses a fascinating recent past. Carved into sections by foreign powers in the 19th century, primarily by the French and English, Shanghai assumed a major port status with a European flair. Today you can walk the Bund, the pedestrian strolling area along the Huangpu River, and admire the European-style, granite-stone waterfront buildings along with the new, and towering highrise structures. Shanghai’s importance as a trade center came, in large part, from its position at the mouth of the Yangtze River.
Third, Shanghai embodies much of China’s commercial present and future. Shanghai is the entrepreneurial and business heart of China, just as Beijing is the political, intellectual, and scientific leader. Shanghai’s products have a high reputation for quality in China. The city accounts for a notable percentage of the total economic output of the country. Shanghai has always been a symbol of free enterprise in China, but until 1949 that meant Europeans controlling the area for exploitation rather than Chinese managing their own destiny.
Four cultural experiences in Shanghai are of special interest for every visitor.
The Shanghai Museum, housed in an opulent structure that exhibits its collections to advantage, is one of the best places in China to glimpse the country’s cultural heritage. Not only is the collection impressive, but the English signage on objects is instructive. Here you can see such treasures as a bronze wine vessel from the 18th century B.C. or a bronze music bell from the 13th century B.C. Besides bronze castings, there are galleries devoted to sculptures, ceramics, costumes of Chinese minority people, calligraphy, furniture, and jade, all displayed with ample space and adequate information.
Make your second stop the Yuyuan Garden in the old town area. Engage a Chinese guide to help you understand the complexity of the garden’s layout. The garden began in 1559 as a family garden and was later modified. The garden design concept is that an element suggests something much greater. A rock wall suggests a hill, for example. Elements in a formal Chinese garden, such as rock, water, vegetation, and buildings, are present. Paths are zigzag rather than straight to hint at greater spatial range. The streets around the Yuyuan Garden are dense with shops offering everything from pearls to silk that travelers to China seek. However, most of the shoppers here will be locals.
Take an excursion boat ride on the Huangpu River through the heart of Shanghai, boarding at the ferry terminal. On a river trip you get a sense of the scope and vitality of Shanghai today. The explosive growth of the city in the last decade is almost beyond comprehension. The squalor of lowrise brick slums of the recent past has been replaced with modern living spaces for millions of people. A Golden Prosperity tower rises 88 stories. All these changes occur within a Chinese context, however. The new stock exchange building, for example, has a large hole in its center because the feng shui experts determined that the hole would bring good luck. Freighters move industriously up and down the river. Huge ship drydocks repair and upgrade container ships.
A final fascinating cultural offering in Shanghai is the Temple of the Jade Buddha, where you can see a pure jade Buddha nearly two meters high, carved from a single block of the precious stone. At 4 p.m. each day you can watch robed, shaven-headed monks sing their scriptures. During the disruptive Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976, when many such monasteries around the country were looted and destroyed, this famous temple was boarded up and protected by the Army, suggesting the complexity of politically-atheist China’s relationship with its various religious groups.
Shanghai’s cuisine differs from Beijing’s, emphasizing fish. Indeed, Shanghai means “on the sea.” The well-watered area near Shanghai, known as Suzhou, boasts some of China’s loveliest formal gardens, such as The Lingering Garden. These stylized landscapes were formerly the meditative retreats of powerful families, but they are now open to the public.
A train ride from Shanghai to Suzhou shows you the lush countryside of this southern region. Many of the farmers around Shanghai own their own homes, often handsome two-story brick dwellings.
In Suzhou, be sure to take an excursion Dragon Boat ride on the Grand Canal, a 1794-kilometer project as impressive as the Great Wall, although less well known to travelers.
When China opened its doors to the outside world during the Tang Dynasty, the country flourished, as legendary observers, among them Marco Polo, recorded. As China continues to keep its doors open today, foreign travelers will enjoy many enriching experiences, especially the imperial grandeur of Beijing, the cultural treasure of Xian’s terra-cotta warriors, and the brawny vitality of Shanghai.
China: If You Go
For visas and information on China travel, contact the China National Tourist Office, www.cnto.org. Be sure to get your visa arranged in advance of your trip.
Air carriers serving China include the government airlines and the commercial carriers. Air China has non-stop flights to Beijing from San Francisco.
Shop around for a travel package that includes air, hotels, and touring. Be sure you have a guaranteed reservation for internal flights in China.