Yesterday, I was in Shanghai, and this morning I’m back home in Atlanta, Georgia. The transition couldn’t be more abrupt. 24 million to 5 million. In fact, the whole trip was a study in contrasts.
I wanted to blog during my trip but the great firewall of China blocks most blog sites, Twitter, YouTube, even Google. Actually, Google is opened sporadically even though quintessentially Western sites like the New York Times are still blocked. However, I was visiting shortly after the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, so it was on lockdown.
The trip was 10 days (June 23 – July 2) and three cities (Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai). I was fortunate to receive a professional development scholarship from EF Education First, and was accompanied by 24 other educators across the United States, although I was the only one representing a private school. Our tour guide John accompanied us throughout the whole trip, but another guide met us in each city. These four men gave us an extraordinarily intimate and event packed tour. I can’t say enough good things about the professionalism and good humor of EF. If you’re considered a tour, this company is top-notch!
We flew into Beijing, the capital city. Its population is roughly 22 million, up from a little over 14 million in 2000. All Chinese cities are enduring this population explosion as people flock to urban locations for more opportunities or are relocated from individual farms now operated on a larger scale by the government.
Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, 109 acres visited by a million people daily. We Americans know the name because of the government massacre of university students on June 4, 1989 when they occupied the square to protest corruption and to call for democratic reforms. Our tour guide, John, a college educated man, knew that the massacre had occurred but nothing more. He had never seen the quintessential picture of the young man standing in front of the tanks. Most young Chinese have little knowledge of what happened that day. One of the buildings holds the embalmed body of Chairman Mao Zedong. Visitors flock to see his body daily, waiting in line for hours. Mao wished to be cremated, but now lies for view in glass. Even the leader of communism in China enjoys little freedom.
Moving in synchronicity, guards monitor the square. Fire extinguishers are neatly arranged everywhere, apparently to help put out fires potentially started by protestors. We did not see any behavior remotely anti-government. In fact, the square was orderly and mostly occupied by tourists. Although we didn’t visit Mao’s tomb, his portrait is visible everywhere.
Flanking the square is the Forbidden City. Built during the Ming Dynasty over the course of fourteen years (1406 – 1420), the city is huge and surrounded by high city walls. The floor of the city is covered with bricks seven deep in order to prevent invaders tunneling into the city walls.
Official buildings of the empire are decorated by roof figures. The more figures, the more important the building. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has the highest status with the imperial dragon leading mythical creatures. The dragon and the color yellow represent the emperor.
At the Forbidden City, I used my first Chinese public restroom referred to by the guides at the “happy room.” A happy room may have one Western style toilet, but for the most part only flushing, squatting stalls are available. If you ever have the chance to visit a happy room, you’ll need to bring your own tissue or toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and, well, a sense of humor.
At the Forbidden City, I took my first T’ai chi class. The instructor has written his own book on the martial arts practice. Following his movements was much harder than I expected. People all over China practice T’ai chi in the public parks to improve strength, agility, and mental clarity.
Afterward, we visited the Beijing National Stadium, the central site for the 2008 Olympics. Referred to as the “bird’s nest,” the stadium sits largely unused now. Although it’s only six years old, it shows unusual wear.
Maybe it’s the constant smog pollution that’s wearing its finish. In the ten days I spent in China, I only saw blue sky on one of those days. Nevertheless, I was told that the smog wasn’t that bad and that was why few people were wearing masks. In fact, masks were rare, worn occasionally by bikers although I never saw a helmet.
That night for dinner, we visited a hutong neighborhood and ate dinner at a family’s home. Hutong neighborhoods have narrow alleyways and one-story traditional courtyard houses. Most have been torn down to make room for high rises. Rickshaw drivers take you through the narrow streets although most of the locals ride bikes. As we entered the small house, I couldn’t imagine it would accommodate all of us since it only held a small kitchen, a living/dining room, and two bedrooms. But the Chinese are accustomed to small spaces. The dinner was delicious, and the father and his son were generous hosts.
The next day, we visited the Temple of Heaven, built at the same time as the Forbidden City, to pray for a good harvest.
The temple is surrounded by a park frequented mainly by retirees. Generally, Chinese women retire at 55 and men at 60. However, their level of fitness is phenomenal. Although so many people smoke and endure pollution at its worst, they are generally pretty thin and very active.
I loved watching and interacting with retirees at the park. They gather regularly in small groups to play badminton, hacky sack, cards, and chess. They also practice t’ai chi, knit, and exercise on “play grounds” built for the elderly, although that last word doesn’t fit them very well. They don’t live in nursing homes, abandoned and alone. Americans, take note!
The next day, my favorite, we traveled to the Great Wall of China! Prior to 221 BC, China had been divided into different warring regions. Each of these regions had actually built walls as dividing fortifications. In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang conquered all of these opposing states and unified China, establishing the Qin dynasty. Even though there are three feudal dynasties (the Xia, Shang and Zhou) that predate this dynasty, the Qin is considered the first because he declared himself emperor. Intent on imposing central rule, he destroyed the walls built by the feudal lords and ordered the construction of one main wall. In addition, he unified China with standardized currency, weights, measurements, language, and roads. 2200 years ago! Most of the portion of the wall that he had built has largely fallen into complete disrepair. To ward off invasion by the Mongols, the rest of the wall was built during the Ming Dynasty primarily during the 15th and 16th centuries. Its full length is 5500 miles.
We traveled a largely quiet portion of the wall for an hour, enjoyed a beer at the height of our walk, and then found ourselves trapped in a watch tour during a hailstorm. Afterward, blue skies appeared for the only time during my ten-day visit.
The next morning before our afternoon flight to Xi’an, we visited a top-performing middle school in Beijing.
We sat with administrators for an hour as they fielded countless questions from our group. The students themselves were preparing for their final exam, which would determine which high school they would attend. These tests are high-stakes for students. The school’s testing scores from 2008 – 2013 are posted in the hallways, and photos of top students line the walls. The halls boast screens highlighting events and performances at the school, but the classrooms still use chalkboards. Students are in rows, and the teacher commands the front.
Students arrive early, stay in the same classroom for four classes with teachers of separate disciplines rotating in and out. They break for lunch for two hours to eat, play, and socialize. The lunchroom feeds 2000 students efficiently. I actually admired the seating; the chairs allowed for movement and easy access to mop the floors. I need to find the distributor for my school!
The teacher lounge is well appointed with leather sofas, a big screen tv, multiple games, work out equipment, and surprisingly a bar although to be honest it looked rarely used!
The principal has visited American schools and wishes to emulate our emphasis on creativity and independent thinking, but even she acknowledged that it’s like turning a battleship. Much of the system is still designed to create compliant, conformist workers – not her words. It seems ironic to me that China wants to move toward a Western style education, and America is emphasizing standardized testing, the signature of Chinese education. Crazy!
In the afternoon, we traveled to Xi’an, the ancient capital of China and the starting point of the Silk Road. Everywhere your eyes looked, you saw empty skyscrapers. These “ghost cities” or “concrete jungles,” as the Chinese call them, represent the unbridled urbanization of China’s cities. As our local guide explained, these apartments in Xi’an are all sold out but still remain unpopulated. They are simply concrete with absolutely no interior modeling at all. Apparently, the government built these for peasants forcibly relocated so that a large area of farmland could be flooded. It’s frankly depressing to hear the Chinese say their national bird is now the “crane.”
On the bright side, the hotels throughout China attempt to ecologize. When you enter your hotel room, you place your room card in a slot that provides energy. When you remove it, the electricity goes out within two minutes.
On the flip side, the water is not potable in China. Everyone drinks bottled water in plastic 16 oz containers. The hotel provides two in each room daily. The city is awash in recyclable bins. But is this sustainable?
The next day, we traveled to visit the famous Terra Cotta warriors. Emperor Qin, the same man who authorized the building of the Great Wall, also demanded the building of a community of warrior statues to protect him in the afterlife. Discovered in 1974 by farmers digging to build a well, the Terra Cotta army includes over 8000 soldiers, chariots, and horses. 2200 years ago, the artisans constructed the soldiers in an assembly line fashion. Heads, arms, and legs were built separately using molds, but individual, unique features were added to each face so that no two warriors look alike. Workers dug pits, placed the warriors and horses in formation, and then covered them with wooden slats, and mounds of dirt.
When Emperor Qin died, most of the workers still working on the tomb were buried alive to serve him in the afterlife. They weren’t alone. His concubines, servants, and court officials were buried alive with him. Once the tomb was sealed, it was booby trapped with crossbows to deter robbers. That proved ineffective since a few short years later, invaders entered the tomb and removed many of the weapons held by the warrior figures. Amazingly, the bronze swords and weapons that were recovered are not corroded because they were coated with chromium. The modern chrome-plating technology appeared in Western countries in the 1920s, but it had been developed by the Chinese 2200 years ago!
The reconstruction work, which occurs after museum hours, is painstaking. No warrior was discovered intact, so each must been excavated and pieced together, a process that can take a month. Although our guide did not mention this and probably does not know the history, a National Geographic article mentioned that a worker had stolen a warrior head in 1985 from pit 1 and was summarily executed. As the article stated, “a head for a head.” Only 1% of the entire tomb has been excavated thus far, and there are no plans to ever open the actual mausoleum that holds the emperor’s body and the massive wealth that must be interred with him.
That afternoon, we went to the Xian City Wall built in 1370 AD during the Ming Dynasty as a military fortification for the emperor. 40 feet tall, 46 feet wide, and 60 feet thick at the bottom, the wall is roughly 9 miles in length. We biked the whole thing.
Although it was drizzling that night, we walked to the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the oldest, most renowned mosques in China, dating back to 742 AD. Daily prayer service still occurs there as there is a large contingency of Chinese Muslim in the area. They are of Chinese descent and fully respected and integrated into the community, assuming the parents send them to the government schools according to our guide.
On the walk back, we all enjoyed the food vendors along the way! It was a Saturday night, but it was rainy so not that crowded. Can’t imagine what it’s like with clear skies.
Dinner that night was noodle pot. You threw in whatever caught your fancy.
Followed by a little too much Chinese fire water. Ouch.
Early the next morning, we flew to Shanghai. I could have used a few hours in the airport sleep box!
That day, we visited the Shanghai Financial Center, currently the second tallest building in the world although the tallest point where humans can stand. The tallest building in the world is currently the Burj Khalifa in Dubai although not for long. The Shanghai Financial Center is owned by the Japanese. The Chinese, intent on outdoing their Asian competitors, especially on their own turf, are building Sky City, a building which will tower Dubai’s by 10 meters when it’s completed in 2015. You can see its grey ghost-like presence to the right of the Financial Center in blue.
Our riverboat cruise that night offered a beautiful panorama of the Shanghai skyline.
The next day, we visited the Jade Buddha Temple. Built in 1882, the temple is still very much in use. Monks chanted, and incense burned everywhere.
The temple houses two large Buddha statues carved completely of white jade.
Numerous other gold Buddha statues line the halls inside. Seeing a swastika one the chest of one of the buddhas, I was reminded that the Nazis co-opted the symbol to represent the Aryan race, turning it clockwise. The ancient symbol stands for prosperity, good fortune, and longevity. Unfortunately, it’s now tarred with infamy.
During China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, soldiers destroyed many traditional symbols in China. Knowing that the jade sculptures of Buddha would be targeted, a savvy monk placed posters of Chairman Mao on the doors of the temple. Unwilling to split Mao’s head on the poster to open the door, the soldiers left the temple in peace.
In one particularly unsettling story, we learned of the goddess of motherhood. As the story goes, every day she ate a child, leaving its parents heartbroken. Hearing their lament, the great Buddha came and took her child when she was on one of her killing sprees. The goddess returned to an empty house and beseeched the Buddha to return her child. He did once she acknowledged the tremendous pain she was causing. From that day forward, she became the great protector of children, beloved by all. Kind of a strange do unto others as you would like them to do unto you story.
The following day, we visited the silk factory. China is known for its silk, tea, and pearls. However, it’s hard to know the quality of any of the three since vendors exist everywhere claiming to offer them in good quality. The only way to know for certain exactly what you’re buying is to purchase it from stores vouchsafed by the government. But you’re going to pay for that certainty.
The silk factory we visited offered high-quality, government-backed silk products. We learned that a single silkworm produces 1500 meters of silk when building its cocoon, which takes roughly 25 days. The silk is bound onto a threading machine to make silk fabric or simply stretched to make comforters.
Later, we visited a Shanghai teahouse dating back to the late 1700s, where we sampled a variety of different teas.
Despite the presence of Starbucks on many street corners, the Chinese prefer tea to coffee. They drink different teas for their distinct medicinal properties.
I purchased the ginseng oolong, which apparently helps mental clarity, but in my mind has the best flavor. The view from outside the teahouse captured the distinct difference between the old and the new Shanghai.
While the skyline of Shanghai is extraordinarily beautiful, it’s mind boggling to recognize that all of those enormously tall buildings were built in the last 25 years. Again, I wonder about sustainability.
For that reason, it was a nice break to visit the old city of Shanghai and in particular the Yu Garden, built in 1599 by Pan Yunduan as a comfort for his father, who unfortunately died before it was complete.
The garden has dragon walls throughout, which inflamed the Emperor since they were to be reserved only for his buildings. However, the owner of the garden claimed that these were not dragons since they only have four claws and dragons have five. Pretty impressive that he kept his head.
That afternoon we ate lunch at a local noodle shop and roamed the streets for an hour. I was particularly struck by the high heels that Chinese woman wear everywhere – even on cobbled streets. Is the inability to walk well a cultural reminiscence to the days of bound feet?
We spent the last night enjoying each other’s company at an ex-pat bar. The owner even offered us Chairman Mao shots, which were red and slightly spicy!
It was an amazing trip that opened my eyes to modern China. Yes, it’s a communist country that censors its citizens, but it also enjoys a robust market economy. Personally, I felt stifled because I was unable to Google information as I traveled. Nor could I tweet or blog; essentially sharing information was limited. I was also struck by the lack of Chinese innovation. Yes, you can find “knock offs” of Japanese, German, and American products, but how many people can name a Chinese product widely used in the world? They are master imitators but poor creators.
On the other hand, it’s a misconception to think that they all conform to ideology and spout communist rhetoric. The people we met – the administrators at the schools, our tour guides, people on planes – all were transparent about the problems in their country and the need for change. But how do you move a country of 1.3 billion people in a new direction, especially a country that provides answers but frowns on questions?
In my literature classes, I ask my students to think often about the unintended consequences of theirs and others’ actions. China is rife with unintended consequences. In 1979, the one child policy was instituted to manage overpopulation. A long history of son preference has always prevailed in China. Because ultrasound is cheaply and widely available, many women have resorted to abortion when they discover they are carrying a daughter. Our tour guide told us that midwifes who perform abortions are prevalent, citing this statistic: 65 million children are aborted annually in China. As a result, China now has an imbalance between men and women in its population. Many men who cannot find wives will never marry, and hence never have children to care for them, a tradition that has ruled China for thousands of years. So, the government, recognizing this unintended consequence, is now relaxing the rule, allowing families to have two children. Our tour guide explained that many couples now hope for a daughter because they want to have someone who will care for them in their old age.
I’ll end this post and my reflection on my visit with a 3-2-1 Visible Thinking exercise.
3 Thoughts/ Ideas
- Cultural prejudice and misconceptions are overcome by interaction. I have heard Americans comment that the Chinese are rude, often pushing their way ahead in lines and brushing up against others without apology. But in China, people move like fish. They fill vacuums – in traffic, in waiting lines, in shops. It’s how you operate in a country of 1.3 billion people. It’s not rude. It’s survival.
- Americans (and I count myself in this lot) know very little about China. We are wary of its government, considering it repressive and antiquated. But I learned that the people believe they are moving in a progressive direction. The market economy has allowed the streets to rival that of Manhattan’s busiest and most expensive shopping districts. The schools hope to mimic aspects of American education. Our schools, however, need to modernize our conception of this country. We’ve got to stop limiting our students’ understanding to Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and the history of The Red Scare.
- Our country needs to pride itself more on taking care of ALL of its people. I visited three very populated cities in China, whose sum population is 1/6th of America’s. Yet, I only saw a handful (perhaps five) beggars. Each was either without a limb or terribly burned. If you visit any city in America, you will see many homeless people, destitute on the streets. What does patriotism mean when we don’t care for our own people?
- How long can China keep its great firewall of censorship intact? Isn’t it just a matter of time before its people demand access to all the information that other countries have available? How will it ever be able to transform/modernize its educational system and build creativity into the process if it doesn’t allow its students to pursue inquiry?
- What is the long-term sustainability outlook for China? It’s a huge country, but many of its citizens are flocking to urban areas. Can a country that cannot provide access to clean water thrive or even survive for long?
- America is to China as Independence is to Conformity. So what does that mean? Tomorrow is the 4th of July, our national day of independence. And God knows, we Americans love our liberty. We don’t want anyone to tell us where we can take a gun, how big of a car we can drive, how much food we should consume. Our national preoccupation with freedom has a dark side that we often fail to acknowledge. Unintended consequences: violence, unsustainability, obesity. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country. When I saw t-shirts with President Obama in a Chairman Mao green army, red star cap, I was not amused, despite the vendor saying, “Funny, funny,” apparently hoping I was a Tea Party member. Honestly, I think everyone in America would benefit from a visit to China. On the flip side though, conformity makes me sad. Yes, guns are prohibited in China, and the population is for the most part lean and strong. But there’s something inherently human about seeking answers to life’s questions without any obstacles. That, in a nutshell, is my definition of freedom.
Thanks for reading if in fact anyone did. I wrote this primarily for myself to chronicle my own experience since I know memory fades and time creates distance.