It has been several years since I last visited China and seemed as long since my [in actuality] recent Singapore vacation. I wasn’t sure what to expect for the trip: was the pollution and smog really as bad as Western media reported? How much Mandarin had I forgotten? After visiting Singapore twice, would I find China revoltingly backwards? Would the Chinese recognize me as one of their own or as an outsider?
I braced myself for a frantic two weeks, but amid the fervor I found unexpected calm.
The first stop was to Xiamen for a family visit, followed by stops in Nanjing, Yangzhou, Hangzhou, Qian Dao Hu, and Shanghai. I spent three days in Singapore and barely got familiar with it; rushing around the Chinese tourist locales was a welcome reprieve from work but an insufficient re-immersion in Chinese culture.
Yangzhou’s 瘦西湖 (Shou Xi Hu, or Slender West Lake) was named for its similarity to Xi Hu (West Lake) in Hangzhou. It was the hottest day of my trip, and the gentle breeze barely disturbed the lake surface. Said to be a mellow city, Shou Xi Hu of Yangzhou on this day was a far cry from the bustling Nanjing streets from which I had arrived.
A famous landmark on Shou Xi Hu is the 五亭桥, Wu Ting Qiao (literally: Five Pavilion Bridge). Much of the Shou Xi Hu area was constructed to impress the emperor, and this bridge was no exception. A salt merchant built the bridge in 1757 for Emperor Qian Long, and though renovated at least twice since, the bridge still stands majestically over the water. Coupled with the breeze, the shade offered by the pavilions was a pleasant break from the scorching sun and stifling humidity.
Not far from the lake is 大明寺 (Da Ming Si), which initially attracted Emperor Qian Long during an inspection tour in the mid 1700s. As he continued to visit Yangzhou, the temple continued to expand until it was among the “Big Eight” temples of Yangzhou. The temple was hardly a sanctuary from the midday sun, but we arrived to find the courtyard largely empty — a rare but welcome sight for a tourist attraction in China.
The final tour of Yangzhou was 个园 (Ge Yuan), so named for the similarity of the Mandarin character 个 (Gè) to a cluster of three bamboo leaves. There’s no plural for this character — nor is there a character that looks like lots of bamboo leave clusters.
Inside the garden walls, we went on a tour within a tour: we were provided a tour guide who led us quickly through the garden, only to stop at an air-conditioned building with walls of calligraphy. Had I something to have the professor write, I would have asked it, but in my lack of familiarity with wise Mandarin sayings, I decided to let native Mandarin speakers make their requests and relish the air-conditioning.
(I was also told after taking this photo that photos were not allowed in the professor’s room. Other countries have developed signs that show this, but I guess it’s more practical in a country of 1.3 billion people to have designated “no photo taking, please” commentators!)
The next day, the trip continued to Hangzhou, site of the 西湖 (Xi Hu) that lent its name to Shou Xi Hu in Yangzhou. The local tour guides wouldn’t stop talking about the allegedly glowing accolades of Bill Gates about this lake. It was indeed pretty, but the organized tour put us on a boat as we crossed the lake and listened to its ten attractions. I would have liked to take the time to see them on foot; in a pinch this was a pleasant way to spend the morning.
The day in Hangzhou ended with a trip to 黄龙洞, Huang Long Dong (Yellow Dragon Cave). We didn’t have time to go into the caves so were treated instead to wonderfully warm sunlight as the sun set. Glowing behind bamboo, the setting sun looked yellow instead of the red-orange brush it was actually painting the sky with.
There were no pandas here.
The final stop in the tour route was 千島湖 (Qian Dao Hu, which has the literal translation, “Thousand Islands Lake”), whose name I didn’t really consider until the hotel we stayed at in Shanghai served “Thousand Island dressing.” I’m not familiar with the stuff in the US so wasn’t sure if this had the same taste. In any case, the lake was pristine and nestled among small mountains. The main attraction is to island hop, though it was difficult not to see the boats zipping from island to island as a reminder of the massive tourism industry here!
The western media has made no secret of the increasing number of wealthy Chinese, and Qian Dao Hu has become a retreat. Mountain views, fresh air, and access to water are all abundant. In a few years, I expect private docks to be the next big thing on the lake.
Although the lakes were peaceful and the various attractions beautiful, these photos hardly portray the deeper themes that comprise the Chinese culture. If language can be considered a key element of defining a social fabric, there’s in fact no way to showcase the over one hundred dialects around the country — few dialects have written characters different from Mandarin. In addition, this is not simply an accent; there is no way to understand most dialects if one doesn’t already speak them. Nor does it consider the socio-economic impacts of the booming development that is frequently used to describe Chinese growth. The concept of 脸 (“face”, but as an idiom more accurately translated into dignity, prestige, or personal credibility) isn’t conveyed here at all. Admittedly, in the time I had to get to know strangers, I’m not sure my descriptions could do the culture justice, either.
In summary, then, my vacation simply didn’t explore the people of China; I’m not sure that a two-week trip can ever be considered exhaustive in this regard. But this is where the interesting, rather than cosmetic, study of China emerges, in my opinion. I’m generalizing with this statement, too, but the media typically showcases China in one of a few ways: as a growing region, full of career, business, or resource potential; as an environmentally unfriendly middle-finger; or as some oddball country with unacceptable human rights and harsh government regulations. While I can understand these descriptions, cogent explanations for why certain practices exist are rare.
The size of the population is naturally one hypothesis. How does one manage a country with four times the population of the US and a historical and cultural diversity approaching or exceeding that of the US? What priorities become relegated to the back burner, and what resources are taken for granted in the smaller rich countries that cannot be afforded such nonchalance when shared with so many more people?
China may be relaxing, but don’t let the seemingly low number of people in these photos fool you: the definition of “relaxation” simply expands at times to tolerate increased crowding, poorer views, and hundreds instead of dozens of the same photos posted to the internet!