Saturday, June 14, 2008

China 2008

There are times when it is appropriate to repeat oneself. This is one of those times. China is a place of amazing contradiction. There is state of the art technology and the average family income is something south of $2000 per year. There is gentleness, strength, and generosity of spirit and a cutthroat, deceptive, and aggressive set of business “ethics.” It is a nation with cities orders of magnitude larger than New York City and yet there is a smallness and something resembling an inferiority complex that drives the intensity. There is great attention to form, less to function. For example, in the late early Ming Dynasty, the Chinese Navy was among the greatest in the world. Within 20 years, it was reduced to a bare police force. There was first a move to be a world power; then a retrenching toward extreme isolationism. This back and forth continued until the Opium Wars in the 19th century.

I could go on and on about Chinese history, but rather I will do what I made the students do – list the three most impressive things that I saw on my journey. What’s amazing is that the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City (second on last year’s list) don’t make the top three. So, here we go – from three to one. However, let’s begin with the honorable mention – first, the sites that I want to see in future (apart from the top three, to which I would gladly return). The Memorial of Sun Yat-Sen. Sun Yat-Sen was born just as the War of Northern Aggression (aka, the American Civil War) was ending. Intriguingly enough, it would be Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and Yuan Shi-kai who would lead the overthrow of the Qin dynasty and depose the last emperor, Pu Yi, in 1911. The memorial to Sun Yat-Sen is in Guangzhou is Southeastern China. His is an amazing story and one I would love to explore further.

In Guangzhou, also, is the tomb of the Southern Kings. The tomb, rediscovered in 1983, dates to at least two hundred years BCE. The tomb is the final resting place of King Wu of the Southern Han dynasty. The king was buried in a suit of jade armor. The suit is comprised of thousands of squares of jade, sown together with silk thread. It weighs literally thousands of pounds. It’s quite an impressive sight.

So, in Guangzhou, there is an interesting juxtaposition on ancient and contemporary – the city was the ancient capital of part of China roughly contemporary to the rise of Julius Caesar and was the modern seat of the end of the Chinese dynastic period just under a hundred years ago. That the tomb of the King Wu went undiscovered for two millennia is absolutely breathtaking. With this discover along with one in the top three, we can begin to conclude that we know (and are learning) more about ancient Chinese history than any of our ancestors from that day to this. That’s rather a mindboggling thing to grasp.

The other honorable mention has to be the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City. The Temple of Heaven is the place where the Emperor would come each year to pray for good harvest. As China was nearly an entirely agrarian economy in the early 1400s, it could have been quite unfortunate for the Emperor should the harvests turn out poorly for more than a couple of years at a time. The complex is laid out in such a way that there is a single avenue that runs from the Forbidden City through the Temple of Heaven and Hall of Good Harvest to the Center of the World. The Forbidden City complex was constructed beginning around 1406 and was completed nearly three decades later. All of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty occupied the Forbidden City until 1911. It was the center of power and the center of Imperial religion, a mixture of Confucian, Buddhism, and ancient nature religions. As we discovered again this year, one must “walk with purpose” to get from the southern gate all the way to the northern gate of the complex.

When one enters the complex, one notes that the wall is square – this signifies earth and the world. It is a foundation upon which all the world is built. Thus, the center of the earth (a complex in three rings with a slightly raised place in the exact center signifying the center of the world) is close to the southern gate. Each of the three rings symbolizes a different ring of reality. The bottom ring is the underworld, the middle ring is the ring of earth, and the final ring is the ring of heaven. Passing through the center of the earth, the walls become a bit more rounded. One is moving from earth to heaven and the entirety of the architecture conveys that physical and metaphysical journey.

After a brief detour to the Pearl Market and a bite of lunch at a noodle shop – amazing food again this year (another blog will deal with the culinary delights) – we began our journey to Tiannamen Square and the Forbidden City.
Back to the Top Three list. The Honorable Mention list is complete – The Tomb of the Southern Kings; The Sun Yat-Sen Memorial and Museum; The Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City. Any trip that included only those would be sufficient and breathtaking and enough to tell everybody back home that they need to see. However, they only make the HM list. On to the top.

May we have a drum roll, please? Okay, that’s unnecessary. Let’s start with number 3. Number 3 was number 1 last year. And, what’s even more impressive is that this year, the haze was gone – it was a beautiful, sunny day. We rode the cable car up to the top (I walked it last year and I figured that I didn’t get to see enough of the expanse of the Great Wall because it took so long to walk up and down). From the cable car to the toboggan slide down the wall (that was a blast, too), was about a mile and a half. We covered that mile and a half in a little over an hour – but, that’s quite impressive. In parts, it goes straight up and straight down; the stairs are uneven – some about two inches high and maybe six inches out followed by a step that’s about two feet high and 18 inches out followed by another short one, etc. But, the view is amazing. It is truly impossible to capture the scope with a two-dimensional photograph, but I’ve given it a whirl.

The Great Wall is an amazing failure and an equally amazing success. In all of the ways it was intended, militarily speaking, it failed. As you can see from the pictures, it is totally unassailable by contemporary 15th century (and maybe even modern) forces as it snakes through the mountains. Indeed, the Mutanyiu section never fell. Nor did the mountain passes at Badaling (the other major tourist site of the Wall just outside of Beijing). But, part of the reason they didn’t fall is that they didn’t come under assault. Would you try to climb thousands of feet to assault a well defended wall? Or would you bribe the guards in the valley and enter there? If you picked the latter, then perhaps there is a job in the armies of the north for you… The wall never succeeded in halting the invaders. Much like the Maginot Line, Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall, and every other major “we’re gonna keep them out by building a wall” wall in history, the Great Wall (or the Long Wall) failed miserably. However, the Long Wall did something most successfully that no other wall has done. It unified a nation of feudal kingdoms into a single nation and it continues to be one of the most unifying symbols of modern China. Even the latest Chinese national soccer team has the Great Wall stylized into their red and yellow jerseys. It is the single most identifiable feature of the nation. The history of the Great Wall is one of arrogance and pride (again the odd juxtapositions). It is both the longest cemetery in the world and the one structure most intimately tied to a nation’s identity imaginable. It’s construction was borne of the arrogance of power; it’s building is a symbol of national power, unity, and pride.

It is interesting, I suppose, that the Great Wall (last year’s number 1) is this year’s number 3. That’s because the top two are so breathtaking that it is hard to even begin to express their magnificence. Let’s go to #2.

Inside the outer limits of the quake zone in central China is the ancient city of Xi’an. In ancient times, the city was known as Chang’an and it was the capital of the first emperor of a unified China, and the beginning of the Qin dynasty. The Qin dynasty, initiated by the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, unified China in the third century BCE and began the most impressive funerary project perhaps ever. However, soon after Qin’s death (within a couple of months), the huge burial complex was raided and buried and for the most part, forgotten. In 1974, a farmer was digging a well and stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time. The terra cotta warrior army of Emperor Qin have captured the world’s imagination ever since. Xi’an went from a sleepy city in central China with vague memories of the emperor and the successive Tang Dynasty to one of the central tourist cities in the world.

The warriors are life size (and some life-size plus). There are literally thousands and the site is a life archaeological site. Tourists come in to see it from about 8 a.m. through 5 p.m., and then the archaeologists descend upon the site to continue unearthing and piecing back together the warriors. There are at least 500 pits, but only three have been excavated – and these, only partly. The main tomb has not been excavated, but reports have it that a fiber optic cable has been used to assess its state and found it pristine. Given that it is completely sealed (and has been for two millennia), the work of excavating it is extremely delicate – having been sealed for so long, the remains and relics would be most sensitive to the atmospheric makeup of today’s air. If you’ve seen the latest Indiana Jones movie, when he opens the conquistador’s wrappings, the conquistador is brilliantly preserved – and then nearly melts and crumbles before their eyes. Such would happen to the tomb of Qin Shi Huang upon its opening if the most stringent precautions are not taken. Thus, the work continues on the terra cotta warriors – and the tomb remains undisturbed.

Which brings me to Number 1. The trip this year went to Hong Kong. I was looking over the map and realized that we were not going to the Tian Tan Buddha on Lan Tau Island (where the Hong Kong airport is). I really wanted to. Thus, a small expedition – me, Mary, James, Michael, and Daphne – braved the Hong Kong subway (and, sidebar – I have ridden subways across the world and I must say, the Hong Kong subway is the quickest, most efficient, and simply best I’ve ever seen). After a 30 minute ride to the island, we found the cable car up to the Po Lin Monastery.

The cable car was, at points, nearly 800 meters above the bay. Yes, that’s the airport off to the left in the second picture. It’s amazing to watch the planes start to reduce their ascent and still be below you. At one point, we were watching the hawks circle – BELOW our car… Those afraid of heights would have a bit of difficulty – but it was completely worth it.

The Tian Tan Buddha is massive. That’s not even close to accurate. There’s one picture here for perspective – notice relative to the size of a person. And, of course, since the picture is taken from below, it makes the Buddha looks smaller than it is. Breathtaking.

The Po Lin Monastery, then a symbolic center of the world both lay in the gaze of the beatific Buddha. Honestly, I don’t really have words to describe this experience. I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves (the picture of the Po Lin Monastery is taken from the feet of the Buddha with a zoom lens – so, too, is the center of the world).