Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Travels in China

Second journey to China, from June 9-30. This time, Beijing was the first leg of the journey, and so I saw it with fresher eyes and spirit. Again, I like visiting the Temple of Heaven most, for its atmosphere of worship, not completely disappeared from the remaining structures. Square Earth, Round Sky. Basic shapes and symmetries. As other tourists left the compound towards the end of the afternoon, the place became ever more quiet, and so recovered its sacrosanct nature. The Summer Palace, which I visited for the first time, was truly impressive, especially for the temple built on a tremendous rectangular rock base, but the Temple of Heaven was much, much older. It was an ancient place of sacrifice.

Returning to Kunming felt, to some degree, like returning home, if I could ever feel at home in China. I changed the program so that we would practice tai chi with enthusiasts at Green Lake Park on a Sunday morning. So glad I did. Tai chi was the combination of strength and gentleness that I have been looking for. Within ten minutes of the exercise, I was sweating pots. Yi rou chi kang, or, to conquer what is hard with what is soft. I was re-reading the Zhuangzi throughout the trip. The Taoist philosopher was as subversive of the ideas of his day as Nietzsche was, but without the German's egotism. The philosophy and the martial art seemed to go hand in hand.

YS and I visited the Military Academy, and found ourselves enjoying a tea-tasting session in the gift shop. Red tea, black tea, rosehip tea, pu-er tea. A good tea is always refreshing, to the mouth and to the spirit. Impurities in ingredient, preparation or brewing rob a tea of its rejuvenating powers.

We traveled from Kunming to Dali in fourteen-seater van. I was looking forward to seeing Dali again, for it was my favorite city on the previous trip. It did not disappoint. Old Dali was proudly but serenely immaculate. The Cang Mountains towered behind the city, while in front the Erhai Lake shimmered at all times. We stayed in Sam's Hotel again, a traditional family-owned establishment. This trip, we took the cable car up the Cang Mountains, and then walked along the Jade Belt Road that encircled the waist of the mountains. In Dali ancient city, I found a small bookshop selling secondhand English and Chinese books. I had a coffee there and read Carson McCullers's "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe." A well-written melodrama. You can see the ending coming a mile away, but that is the doomed feeling of love. Despite its troubles, to love is better, more tolerable, than to be loved. To be loved fills one with such resentment.

From Dali we drove again to Shaxi for the homestay portion of the trip. The chaperones stayed in the guesthouse of the Ouyang family, a prominent family in the area. The patriarch of the family served at the imperial court, before moving with his three sons to Yunnan Province. One son stayed in Kunming,  another in Dali. The youngest came with his father to Shaxi where they could live a secluded rural life. YS and I found a lovely cafe called Early Summer, owned by an ageless woman, hair bundled up by a kerchief. Her four-year-old son might suggest her age, but she was indeterminable in her appearance. She looked both young and old.

On the shelves in the cafe were Chinese translations of Marguerite Duras, Roland Barthes, Robert Bolano and other writers. Were they her books? The few English books by the drinks counter were less likely hers, George Orwell's Burmese Days, Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I read V.S. Naipaul's letters to his father over the course of two mornings. The ambitious but dislocated post-colonial writer in England and at Oxford. The father's literary prospects dimmed as the son's brightened. Besides the cafe, the ancient town square made a deep impression on me. The ground was covered with red tiles. The opera stage faced the village temple so that the Buddha could watch the performance with the people.

The last leg of the journey was Shanghai, the biggest and most populous Chinese city, bigger than Beijing. I enjoyed the Shanghai museum very much. It had a good collection of paintings and calligraphy arranged chronologically and explained in English. The Urban Planning Center showcased the plans for Shanghai's future development. It played a 360-degree film of Shanghai made for the 2010 World Expo. Our stay in Shanghai climaxed in a visit to the top of the World Financial Center. We walked on the 94th floor first, before going further up to the 100th, where we saw the city twinkling in the fog below us.

I remembered reading Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz's book Globalization and Its Discontents at Kunming. Stiglitz contrasted the ways in which Russia and China made the transition from communism to capitalism. Whereas Russia took the advice of IMF to privatize immediately, the so-called "shock therapy" school of thought, China shifted to markets more gradually. As a result, Russia's state monopolies went into the hands of mafia-like oligarchs, while China was able to spread the gains from the shift more evenly among its population, and so won popular support for the policy change. I wonder what Stiglitz would make of the labor unrest now prevalent in China. Has China arrived at a point at which greater democratization is necessary for both stability and growth?

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