China is a lot more than just the Great Wall, steamed dumplings, and 1.4 billion citizens. It is a vast, almost endless land of large cities, small towns, farmers’ fields, and 3,000 years of mainly unspoken history. Thousands of years of ruling dynasties, war after war from inside and out, over seven major spoken dialects and thousands of written language characters all have blended into today’s China. Throughout its history, China has invented paper, gunpowder, printing, the magnetic compass, great palaces and pagodas. But it has also created terrible famines, and the destruction of family life and magnificent rivers. Today, China is trying to reclaim some of what it has lost. Progress is being made, but it has not yet found a solution that balances the personal equity of the masses with growth and riches for the wealthy few.
China is emerging from its own dark ages of protectionism and dislike of outsiders. It is growing rapidly by selling cheap labor to the world and applying technology and scientific economics to its present day needs while still keeping itself reasonably controlled from within. The Chinese are trying to avoid what they perceive as the trap of the western economies – expansion by borrowing heavily and becoming a free-market, economically-driven, democratic society like the United States.
China’s expansion requires a great deal of human, mineral, managerial and energy resources. It consumes 40 percent of the world’s coal and cement, 30 percent of the world’s steel and 12 percent of the world’s energy. China has its own future and its own destiny to shape and it does not want to be told what to do and how to do it.
This was my first trip to China and I was not fully prepared for the height and prestige of Hong Kong, the beauty of the caves in Guilin, the awe of the terracotta soldiers in Xi’an, nor the contrasts of wealth and poverty apparent in Beijing. It seemed that everything in China was spectacular, happy, and plentiful – just what the Chinese government would want visitors to see. But this is not the complete story. What we saw on this tour was just one facet of China.
It All Started in Hong Kong
Our plane landed in Hong Kong on a Sunday night. I immediately got the sense of how huge the airport terminal was and realized that we were in for a real “big city” experience. As soon as we hit the streets, I felt as if I was in England. Cars drove on the left side of the road and people spoke English. Our hotel was named “The Kimberly” and there were pubs with names like “Pickled Pelican.” Local markets, stores and tall buildings seemed to be everywhere. At the markets they sold nuts, lizards on sticks, dried octopus, worms, dried snakes, abalone, sharks fin, star fish and turtle shells. Hong Kong combined a European touch for the details with an Asian flare for unique foods and beautifully colored merchandise.
This “western” flare is a result of China’s defeat in the First Opium War when the Qing Dynasty ceded Hong Kong to Britain in 1842. The British used Hong Kong as a safe-harbor to foster the opium trade with China to balance the outflow of silver from Britain. In 1898, Britain received a 99 year lease of Hong Kong. It returned Hong Kong to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. In accordance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the “one country, two systems” approach, Hong Kong will be run separately from mainland China for 50 years.
Much like England, Hong Kong is an island whose strength and riches have come from being a world trade and financial center. It provides its citizens with excellent educational opportunities and reasonably priced health care. Of the approximately seven million people in Hong Kong 46 percent live in housing that is built, owned and controlled by the government. One third of these people eventually buy the houses from the government. Poor people were barely evident in Hong Kong, as the unemployment rate is just around four percent.
The PRC is allowing Hong Kong’s economy to be free running and fully entrepreneurial with no intervention. There is little manufacturing and the service sector dominates, including a large movie making industry, shipping and financial services. Hong Kong is a statement of wealth and progress for the entire world to see. While China would have you believe this wealth is the result of market driven communism, Hong Kong is really an example of Western capitalism and a free market economy.
Our tour guide said Hong Kong citizens need a passport to travel to the mainland and are treated differently than those Chinese who live there. But it seemed that despite those inconveniences the citizens of Hong Kong had far more freedoms than those on the mainland.
Living space in Hong Kong is extremely limited and land prices and the cost of living are high. Our guide explained her flat was smaller than the inside of our mid-sized tour bus. People don’t usually bring friends to their home as custom dictates the house is just for those living there. If someone wants to entertain guests, they meet at a club, a hotel or a local restaurant. Over 45,000 of people have emigrated from mainland China to Hong Kong annually in recent years. Service sector jobs are available and the wages are much better. The skyline is magnificent with more people living above the fourteenth floor than in any other city in the world. High rises are everywhere so that buildings take up less ground space but provide a lot of living quarters. In fact, Hong Kong has twice the number of skyscrapers than New York City.
Hong Kong’s nightly symphony of lights was incredible. Buildings along the entire water front were lighted and in syncopation. Green lasers came off the roofs, strobe lights shone in different directions and neon lights bordered the outline of the buildings. Waterproof speakers blasted music with which the lights corresponded.
It is hard not to be moved by the architectural beauty of Hong Kong that is filled with many incredible structures. The titanium and light weight glass HSBC bank building consists of modules said to be able to be moved to mainland China with helicopters. The “Lippo” building resembles a koala bear hugging a tree. Harbor City’s shopping center is the largest mall in the world with over 3,000 shops.
Old religious elements and customary beliefs, such as Feng Shui, balancing the five elements and yin/yang, are very important to the Chinese, and these beliefs are reflected in some of the buildings. Believing that east is the entrance to life and west the entrance to death, the Chinese want their houses to face south-east. The house shouldn’t be on top of a hill because the dragon lives there; houses or buildings in the middle of a hill may have cut-outs in the center so they don’t obstruct the dragon’s view, which would be bad luck.
Guilin Still Unspoiled After All These Years
Guilin is a flight-hour north-west from Hong Kong. The city was founded during the Han Dynasty around 111 BC and became an area of protection for China’s then southwestern border. The surrounding rivers are connected with the Yangtze River through a series of canals providing for shipments of food and supplies to this southwestern area. The Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat-sen made Guilin one of his headquarters of his Northern Expeditionary Army back in 1921 as the area was well located and afforded many hiding places.
Guilin is one of four areas in China given priority status for the protection of its cultural, historical and natural scenic areas. Around $50 million have been spent cleaning up the River Li on which the city lies. Guilin is a smaller city of about 1.3 million people. While there is some local industry and a fair amount of farming, the city depends mostly on tourism for its economic support. Guilin is the second most popular vacation spot for the mainland Chinese and is very beautiful. The countryside is filled with rolling hills, many with names related to their shape, beautiful rivers and magnificent caves, including the color-illuminated Reed Flute Cave.
The future of Guilin as a preserve of China’s natural beauty will depend on continuing the protection of the rivers and forests and forestalling the industrial greed and carelessness which has polluted and spoiled most of the other rivers in China. While we were solicited by vendors on their small bamboo rafts hooking onto our river tour boat, we didn’t see people living in mud shelters, dependent on subsistence farming, drinking polluted water and dying abnormally young from environmental toxins. That is not what this tour, clearly sanctioned ultimately by the Chinese government, would allow us to see.
Xi’an: An Earlier Capital City
Xi’an marks the eastern end of the Silk Road through which spices, Arabian horses, furs, beautiful textiles and jewels have been traded for over 1,000 years. Its name translates to “Western Peace.” Xi’an was a prominent cultural center as far back as the 11th century BC. Following the unification of China by the Qin dynasty, the capital of the dynasty was established just northwest of Xi’an. It has been the capital of many dynasties starting with the Han dynasty in 202 BC and ending with the Tang dynasty in 904 AD.
Today, there are over 100 universities in the Xi’an area and it is a major center for space and astrophysics, telecommunications, and software and gaming technologies. As a second tier city, its metropolitan area has a population of over seven million people.
Xi’an’s city wall, on which we walked during our tour, took four years to construct beginning in 294 BC. It is over 11 miles long and 37 to 50 feet thick at its base. It was rebuilt during the 14th century. The city has several remarkable pagodas, the largest being the Great Wild Goose Pagoda measuring over 200 feet. It was built to store ancient translations of Buddha’s words and teachings, the basis for the Buddhist religion.
Xi’an is most famously known for the home of the terracotta soldiers, unearthed in 1974. Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, ordered the construction of the Terracotta Army and its mausoleum. It took 720,000 people 38 years to build the terra cotta soldiers within the emperor’s mausoleum. Qin Shi Huangdi gave the order to build when he was 13 and only lived to be 49. He was buried soon after the tomb’s completion and his death marked the beginnings of another revolution and warring period. Qin Shi Huangdi had ordered that there be no one living to reveal the location of his burial place. So, those who built the tomb were locked inside forever as were all of his servants and concubines.
All terracotta soldiers have different combinations of face, clothing, and weaponry; there are generals, officers, foot-soldiers, horses and chariots, a complete army to protect the emperor from invaders. Originally the terracotta soldiers were painted in bright colors with a lacquer coating. After they were unearthed, the paint oxidized and began to fade rapidly. The Chinese stopped the excavations and reburied those soldiers that had not yet lost their color. Excavations are halted until the Chinese find a way to preserve the color. Only one percent of the so far 23 square miles of palaces and walls has been excavated, and more secrets are slowly emerging.
Beijing Shows Its Stuff
Beijing, China’s capital, with a metropolitan population of over 17 million is China’s second largest city after Shanghai. Beijing is the place from where Mao Zedong put his stamp on China after the founding of the PRC in 1949; the place from where the “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” emanated; the city of Tiananmen Square, where in 1989 the Chinese people demanded more freedoms and were forcibly put down by the military; the city where Deng Xiaoping moved China away from communistic sharing of everything to a “market economy” where democratic application of socialist views were brought to bear; the city where entrepreneurship is creating a new wealthy class; the city where just over 100 years ago, the Boxer Rebellion took place, protesting the plight of the poor. Modern Beijing is one of China’s major faces smiling with power to the rest of the world, as evident during the 2008 Olympics.
Our Beijing tour began with morning exercises at the Temple of Heaven, a beautiful set of three structures built in the 1400s. Situated in a large park-like setting, many retired people exercise and socialize there daily. Inside the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests there are four columns, each one symbolizing one of the four seasons. Originally it was not open to the public and only the emperor could pray there for a good harvest season.
Next was the Forbidden City, which was designed on over 200 acres for the emperor to meet with his wife and concubines. It was built by Chengzu, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty. He was concerned an enemy would dig under the wall and come up through the ground inside the Forbidden City. So he ordered the entire city to be lined with bricks 15 layers deep as a barrier of protection.
In Beijing modern architecture mixes with the preservation of older buildings. We witnessed this seeming contradiction when we toured the Olympic Village with the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube before climbing the massive Great Wall. There is a decreasing number of old neighborhoods with alleys remaining, and we had the privilege of cooking dumplings with a local family in one of these homes. It was a small home but somehow there was enough space to provide a wonderful evening for all of us on the tour. The Chinese government is now considering programs to preserve such historical neighborhoods, at least some of them, so that history is not completely paved over by “progress”.
An interesting event we witnessed in Beijing was the face changing, or “Bian Lian” dance, taken from the Sichuan opera. While we were eating dinner one night a man came into the dining room dressed in an Imperial theatrical-opera costume with a large hat. He danced to loud opera music and suddenly his face changed to a differently colored mask. Each mask is said to represent a different emotion. One couldn’t help but associate this is popular dance with China’s ability to change its face quickly both to its people and to the outside world.
There was an apparent lack of infrastructure in several of the areas we visited. Many of the roads were just compacted dirt and many market stands were simply tents with tables alongside the roads. We only saw stores in the cities and shops and living quarters were small. Our tour took us to four-star hotels and restaurants, but even at these establishments water was a precious commodity. Signs in the hotel bathrooms warned not to drink the water and meals came with tea, bottled water or alcoholic beverages. We also noticed that the air quality was very poor and that the cars likely did not have any anti-pollution equipment. Some of the vehicles in the smaller towns were real “works of art”, like a lawnmower motor pulling an enclosed tractor body.
Everywhere we went people, especially the students we met at a local school, were interested in us Americans and sincerely friendly. When I had the chance to discuss modes of transportation with the students I mentioned that I owned a car. The students considered this an almost unbelievable luxury. I felt very humbled by this and many other experiences.
I learned that the space we Americans take for granted – space in our homes, cities and parks – are luxuries elsewhere. So are our freedoms. We don’t have to worry about criticizing a member of the government or a fellow citizen with strange ideas. In China expressing your opinion can get a person in serious, permanent trouble. We also have plentiful, free and clean water as well as reasonably clean air, both of which we take for granted. We have a relatively easy life here in the United States, at least those of us lucky enough to go to College, drive our own cars, and live in a house with large rooms and running, drinkable water. Life was clearly not that way for some of the Chinese students we met and not for the hundreds of millions of workers throughout China that seemed invisible.
Michael Kaplan is a junior at Notre Dame College.