1994 China Trip by Carol Rist

China Trip
Carol Rist, 1994
Quite early on Sunday morning, June 26, we gathered at the Miami airport along with Bob Merkel, Debbie Safford and the rest of the Florida International Art Exchange Group and embarked on our three week visit to the People’s Republic of China, led by David Chang, native of Shanghai, artist, and professor at FIU.
After a 27-hour trip we arrived in Beijing. Luckily it was time to go to bed in Beijing – we would have gone to bed whatever time it was in China! By morning we were ready to begin our great adventure. It began in great style at the Forbidden City, which for more than 500 years was the residence of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Our next stop was Tiananmen Square, which brought us memories of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations. There was no trace of that episode to be seen. The few military people on the square were guards of honor at the Monument to the People’s Heroes. They were joined by proud Young Pioneers who stood smartly at attention. Behind the Monument to the People’s Heroes is the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. It was not open to the public during our visit.
On the north side of the square is the Tiananmen Gate, which leads to the Forbidden City. On it is the only massive picture of Chairman Mao which we saw during our three-week stay.
The Temple of Heaven is where the emperor would go once a year to pray for a good harvest. On the Round Altar the emperor would make a sacrifice to heaven, accompanied by the chanting of priests, burning of incense, banging of gongs and the performance of ritual music. Every tourist, Chinese or foreign, felt obliged to say a prayer on the Round Altar, accompanied only by the shouts of encouragement from the other tourists awaiting their turn.
By Tuesday night we were becoming accustomed to the meal routine. The restaurants where we ate were mostly just for tourists. We entered and left through a gift shop. Meals were served at a round table which accommodated eight or ten diners. Food was brought to the table in serving bowls which were placed on a lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Usually the only spoons on the table were our soup spoons, so David taught us to serve ourselves with the ends of the chopsticks which we didn’t place in our mouths. Those of us who hadn’t previously been proficient with chopsticks soon learned to cope, although Karsten called eating rice, peas, noodles, etc. with chopsticks “the Chinese diet plan.”
Wednesday morning we headed out early for the Mitianyu section of the Great Wall, which is farther from Beijing than the most heavily visited section of the Wall. We were rewarded by having the Wall almost to ourselves. Of course one reason no one joined us on the wall was that shortly after we took the cable car up to the wall, the cable car was shut down because of a ferocious thunderstorm. Despite rain pelting down on us and lightning striking all around us, most of us proceeded to hike as far as we could on the Wall.Wednesday evening we went to a performance of the Peking Opera, where the audience was composed mostly of tourists. The stylized singing and acting of Peking Opera must be an acquired taste, but the costumes, masks and acrobatics were very enjoyable.
On Thursday we visited the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts. The students there are studying commercial arts such as fashion design and interior design.
The site of the Summer Palace has been used by the Chinese court as a summer retreat since the twelth century. In 1860, an Anglo-French force burned down the palaces and pavilions, and the place fell into ruins. Then in 1888, the Empress Dowager Ci Xi had it rebuilt with large sums of money earmarked for expanding the Chinese navy. The marble boat is the only boat China got for this money.
A trip to China isn’t complete without seeing pandas, so our tour bus dropped us off at the gate next to the panda exhibit and we were told we had twenty minutes. Luckily the pandas were quite active and we thoroughly enjoyed watching them during our brief visit.
Our Chinese Travel Agency, (a government agency, of course) provided us with a national guide, who stayed with us during our entire trip, and a local guide in each town. They were all bright young people, mostly with a degree in English (although their spoken English often left something to be desired). Some of them had left teaching positions to become guides. We were surprised to learn that being a tourist guide is considered better (i.e. pays better) than being a teacher. Even our bus drivers made better money than school teachers! Our guides seemed relatively open in their conversations with us. But it was always clear that their job included steering us to jade, cloisonne and jewelry factories, gift shops and art galleries where we were encouraged to “help the Chinese economy.”
As our group was composed mainly of teachers, we never hesitated to correct the English of our tour guides. we would have liked to have corrected the English on many of the signs we saw, which were a constant amusement to us. At the Great Wall, the sign which said “No Firing” meant “No Fires.” “Do Not Stride the Railing” was, however, probably more polite than “Keep Out.” A sign in the Guangzhou train station would have been appropriate in Miami: “No Permission, Please No Shooting, No Camera.”
The Bei Hai Park has a lovely lake where Beijing residents can rent boats and go for a ride. It is crowned by the White Dagoba (Buddhist shrine). To get to the White Dagoba we had to walk through the Temple of Everlasting Peace. By now we had begun to realize that our Communist hosts were determined to take us to every Buddhist and Taoist temple in China. Bei Hai Park also is the site of the Nine Dragon Screen, a wall covered with glazed tiles depicting nine dragons playing in the waves.
Our guides explained to us that the two major problems in Beijing and in other cities in China are traffic and housing. In Beijing there are no private automobiles. Citizens must travel about by public transit or by bike. Bicyclists fight for their space on the streets along with trucks, buses, official cars and pedestrians. The most interesting vehicles are the tricycles with a flat bed which carry almost any load. Some freeways have been built, and more road construction is taking place, but with a population of 8 million, Beijing’s roads will experience gridlock if the people do not continue to move about by public transportation or bicycle.
Perhaps because of all the bicycling, the Chinese people appeared to be in good condition. We did not see a single overweight person in China. People also looked well clothed. Most people were dressed in western style clothing. The big surprise was the amount of clothing which had American themes and English writing on it. The only clothes that were really different were the split pants which some children wore. If the child has to go potty, he or she just squats down and voila. One member of our group asked to hold a child who was about a year old. When she realized that a bare bottom was resting on her arm, she returned the child quickly to its mother. People must learn quick evasive action.
The second big problem, housing, is being attacked by a massive construction program. (Much of the construction may also be related to the capitalism which is rushing into China.) It seemed that there was construction everywhere in China. The most interesting feature of Chinese construction to us was that where we would use steel scaffolding, the Chinese use bamboo. It seems to work just fine. Also, their construction techniques require much more human labor. Once we watched men emptying barges full of rocks, gravel and sand. The men were carrying their heavy load in woven baskets hanging from a pole balanced on their shoulders.
We flew from Beijing to Xian and arrived just in time for a wonderful banquet of dumplings. We really stuffed ourselves that night. As usual, soup was the next to last dish, the last dish being watermelon. The watermelon was always delicious. We don’t know how the Chinese end their meals when it isn’t watermelon season.
The area around Xian is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. We visited the Banpo archeological site, discovered in 1953. The villages excavated here were inhabited from 6080 to 5600 BC.
The Terra Cotta Warriors were discovered in 1974, after having been buried under the fields east of Xian for over 2000 years. They are in the funeral vault of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Over 7,000 life-size figures, grouped in battle order, rank by rank, some mounted on horsedrawn chariots, others in infantry groups armed with spears, swords, and crossbows have been uncovered. The artists who modeled the warriors made realistic portraits of each horseman, foot soldier, and servant in the emperor’s guard-of-honor. Archeologists are still uncovering the warriors and restoring them piece by piece.
We ended our day at a dinner-theater watching a performance of Tang Dynasty songs and dances. Our guide admitted that young people don’t go in for this kind of entertainment these days but said that he was beginning to appreciate the performances. Actually the entertainment the Chinese seem wild about is karaoke. Wherever we went there seemed to be karaoke bars everywhere. One day we ate in a restaurant where a wedding reception was being held, and most of the wedding party took the microphone at one time or another and belted out (with prompting from the TV set) what seemed to be sentimental Chinese songs.
On July 3 we flew to Shanghai and found it to be much more cosmopolitan than Beijing. But much of the housing is still woefully inadequate. Bob, Debbie, Karsten and I took a walk in the neighborhood across the street from our modern high rise hotel and found people sleeping, washing clothes and themselves and playing cards in the little alleyways on which they lived. There could be as many as five families living in space meant for one family, without running water. It makes you understand why the “one family, one child” policy is necessary. The government has a massive construction project and predicts that this inadequate housing will be replaced by mid rise and high rise apartment houses within twenty years.
David, our tour leader is a graduate of the Shanghai University School of Fine Arts, and arranged for us to go there for a workshop on basic Chinese art lead by Professor Chen Jialing, a well-known artist in China. As most of our tour members were art teachers, they eagerly followed his instruction and pitched right in to draw bamboo. A student noticed me standing as far away from the table as I could and insisted that I take a stab at painting bamboo. When I absolutely refused, she grabbed my hand, shoved a brush into it, and guided my hand over the page. Wow. We made a beautiful picture. Karsten, meanwhile, was trying his best to draw bamboo all by himself. His effort looked like Curtis’ first “pinewood derby car” when he was a cub scout, and mine looked like subsequent derby cars of our offspring after we learned that cub scouts don’t make pinewood derby cars, they watch their fathers make pinewood derby cars.
Shanghai is on the Huangpu River, which serves as its port. As we stood in the Huangpu Park, looking out over the harbor, we were surprised that we didn’t find a single sea gull. In fact, we didn’t see a single sea gull during our whole trip, not even in Hong Kong. The street which looks out over the Huangpu River is the Bund. It was the center of foreign commerce when European powers controlled most of Shanghai. Each European power had its own “concession” where people were subject not to the Chinese government, but to the European government. In the “French concession” the buildings look like French buildings, and in the “English concession” they look like English buildings. It is not hard to see why the Chinese came to hate the Europeans who lived so well when most of the Chinese were living in incredible poverty.
We were surprised at how friendly the Chinese people were. After all of the anti-American propaganda they had heard until quite recently, I expected them to be quite standoffish at best. But they were quite friendly. They seem to like everything American. We went into an upscale department store and everything in the store looked American (although like half the things we buy in this country, probably made in China). Several times Karsten or Bob were asked to pose with a group of Chinese tourists, accompanied with much smiling and handshaking. One morning when Karsten and I were out trying to get a good photo of the traffic, a man stopped and engaged us in conversation, probably just to use his English. He seemed proud to be able to converse with us. Soon we had a crowd standing around us listening – although I’m sure no one understood what we were saying.
A children’s palace is a special school for talented children. We were fortunate to visit the children’s palace which David had attended as a child. The little children learning to play a keyboard instrument serenaded us with “jingle bells.” The little dancers were too supple and graceful to believe.
The Yu Yuan, or “Yu the Mandarin’s Garden,” located in Shanghai’s Old Town, was built in the 16th Century for an official of the Ming Dynasty. It is very small but is designed to create the impression of much more space.
We traveled from Shanghai to Hangzhou by train, a very pleasant ride in an air conditioned coach with reserved seats. We enjoyed watching the farmers, especially the ones tending their rice paddies. There was no “picturesque” housing for the rural population. Since the government’s policy has been to emphasize agriculture so that the population can be fed, substandard housing has been eliminated in much of China and has been replaced by new urban looking apartment blocks
Hangzhou has been known for its beauty for a long time. Marco Polo called it “without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world.” Xi Hu, or West Lake, is a favorite of Chinese tourists. At the popular Three Pools Mirroring the Moon island, we were elbow to elbow with our fellow tourists, especially on the zig-zag bridge (an important bridge to cross when the spirit world is hounding you, because spirits can’t maneuver a zig-zag).
The leading agricultural product of Hangzhou is tea. We visited the tea plantation where Dragon Well, a very famous tea, is produced. We were given a cup of Dragon Well tea and told that if we purchased a can, we could stuff it as full as possible. Even though Dragon Well tastes like spinach, everybody bought a can and packed away with a vengeance.
We had very hot weather during our first two weeks in China. But when we arrived in the city of Kunming (elevation 6,200 feet), we were rewarded with very pleasant temperatures. Kunming was the Chinese terminus of the Burma Road, built during World War II. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan Province, where about one fourth of the population is comprised of 23 minority groups. These people reportedly still wear nationality costumes, but aside from a small boy at the airport, the only national costumes we saw were on souvenir vendors, guides eager to sell their services and ethnic dancers performing for tourists.
Seventy-five miles southeast of Kunming is a rock formation known as the Stone Forest of Lunan. On the bus trip to the Stone Forest we got a taste of the Yunnan countryside and were charmed. At the stop programmed for us to buy souvenirs, Karsten and Bob found two baby warblers. This was a real find, as birds are rare in China. We had seen flocks of pigeons in Beijing, but were told they were probably kept for food. We had also seen house sparrows, lucky survivors of the time when Chairman Mao had ordered all sparrows be killed to keep them from eating precious grain. The most birds we saw were at a bird market in Hong Kong. Bob and Karsten kept a list of all of the bird species they identified during our trip, and the grand total was 20.
The Stone Forest is an impressive formation but unfortunately it is such a popular tourist destination that we often had to defend ourselves from Chinese tourists who push ahead of one another in a line just as they do in traffic. The vendors were especially aggressive around the park. But they were selling beautiful embroidery.
Kunming’s Western Hills rise dramatically above the city and its large lake. A steep path up, sometimes clinging to the cliff, sometimes through a tunnel, led us to a Taoist shrine and a superb view of Kunming and Lake Dianchi.
From Kunming, we flew to Guilin. As our plane descended we could see the strange mountain formations which make Guilin famous. Did you ever see a Chinese painting of mountains that look like the Alps or the Rockies? No. Chinese mountains always look like cypress knees! But those mountains in Chinese paintings aren’t stylized, after all. The next day we took the Li River boat cruise down the river to Yangshuo. Every turn in the river brought a new inspiring view, with water buffalos, men poling rafts and piloting barges, picturesque villages and farms, and looming over it all those unbelievable mountains.
Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton), is known, even in China, as the place where people eat everything with legs except the table, and everything which flies except an airplane. When the guide volunteered to take us to the street market where people buy food, Bob Merkle and I were the only volunteers. (Debbie had intestinal problems and Karsten was off looking for a mold maker). Cantonese people want fresh food, so very few of the animals in the market had been slaughtered. We did see an anteater, snakes, rabbits, rice rats and cats for sale, but no dog. I was told later that the reason there were no dogs is probably that dogs are very expensive. We also learned that poisonous snakes are more expensive than non-poisonous snakes. Despite the fact that these exotic items were on display, most of what was sold at the market was fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood and poultry.
The Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall in Guangzhou is interesting in that Sun Yatsen is honored by both the Communists and the Taiwan government as the father of modern China.
Hong Kong is a short train ride from Guangzhou. We stayed at a hotel in Kowloon, near the cultural center which overlooks Hong Kong Harbor. The view of Hong Kong Island and its harbor was beautiful day and night. I didn’t expect one of the most densely populated places on earth to be so lovely.
Our last day in Hong Kong was designed to determine if, after three weeks of having every minute scheduled by tour guides, we were capable of planning our own day. Bob, Debbie, Karsten and I chose to take a ferry to Lamma Island, described by the guide book as “one of Hong Kong’s more bizarre outer islands, a mixed bag of fishing villages, rice paddies and mother nature, elderly Chinese residents and young Western bohemians who think of Lamma as their hidden tropical island paradise on the South China Sea”. We took a ferry to Yung Shue Wan village and walked across the island on the footpath to the village of Sok Kwu Wan. We encountered a half dozen violent rain showers during our walk but were lucky to have cover nearby each time. Sok Kwu Wan is a charming little harbor where local villagers tend fish farms. You can look across the water to the skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island. On weekends Sok Kwu Wan is jammed with people who come over from Hong Kong Island to eat in the restaurants which look over the little harbor. Fish are kept live in acquariums and diners are welcome to chose a fish which is then cooked especially for them. The fish looked very appetizing, but Debbie had just read that Hong Kong was having a cholera scare. It seems that the water the fish are kept in is sometimes polluted with cholera bacteria. So we were cautious and ate beef and chicken.
Hong Kong is a very prosperous place and democracy is very much alive there (When we arrived on Lamma Island petitioners were gathering signatures asking for better medical service on the island). Our guide told us that most of the people are hopeful that when China takes over Hong Kong in 1997 it will continue to allow political and economic freedom. Maybe so. But during the long flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco I sat beside a young Hong Kong resident with her one year old daughter. They were on their way to Toronto to join her husband. They are so afraid of the Communists that they plan to make a new life in Canada.
We feel very privileged to have seen some of the most interesting places in China and to have had a brief glimpse of the Chinese people. We saw a hard working, ambitious people who are proud that they are able to feed a billion inhabitants and continuously improve their standard of living. We saw sharp contrasts between the ostentatious hotels and the crowded residences of the old neighborhoods, between the laborer struggling with the load of gravel he was carrying on baskets hung from a pole balanced on his shoulder and the businessman in the fashionable suit talking on his celular phone. We saw people, people everywhere, but we saw only three pregnant women in three weeks in China. We have great hopes for the Chinese people – how could we not have hopes for those adorable Chinese children who stole our hearts?

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