A land of surprises

Dennis Knight
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Impressions from two enlightening weeks in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai

The Shallaway youth choir in Xi’an, China. — Submitted photo

This summer, I was one of a group accompanying the youth choir Shallaway on a three-city tour of China.

I began the tour with little advance research and only a few general expectations about large- scale economic growth, crowded public spaces and utilitarian (even drab) buildings.

Was I ever in for an awakening.

China was Shallaway’s 17th major tour since 1992 (which has included performances in 12 countries outside Canada, and prestigious awards). As with all the others, the tour was designed to include a series of performances combined with opportunities for cultural learning and exchange.

The tour featured exceptional performances with standing ovations at the China National Convention Centre in Beijing and the Stage of the Americas at World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. We were accompanied by cultural interpreters who were knowledgeable and responded thoroughly to all our questions.

My observations are based on my background in urban planning and as a traveller with an interest in cultural heritage and the arts. They represent a snapshot of the trip, compiled from information gathered on the tour and subsequent reading.

Beijing and Shanghai (each home to about 20 million people) and Xi’an (8 million citizens) are modern cities with upbeat atmospheres. All three have generous parks and public spaces, modern public transit systems and ample walking areas for pedestrians.

Architecturally, they are an interesting mix of the traditional and contemporary, particularly in Beijing and Xi’an. Shanghai is primarily modern; its highrise buildings are a showcase of contemporary design, with a variety of shapes, forms and textures.

Beijing, the modern-day capital, is a city of temples and nation-defining structures, including the Forbidden City, Tian’anmen Square with Mao’s Mausoleum, Great Hall of the People and the Temple of Heaven. It also contains many cultural and arts venues such as museums and opera halls, and has world-class shopping.

China’s cultural landscape has many impressive features, but probably the greatest lies north of Beijing. The Great Wall lives up to its reputation as being an imposing monument to human achievement. Its construction began in the seventh century BC, to protect the northern borders of the empire. In total, 6,400 kilometres of wall were built (with thousands of people dying in the process).

Xi’an was the capital of China during several dynasties over more than 2,000 years. It lies at the eastern end of a caravan trade route to Europe extending back to 100 BC. It is a modern, bustling city with a firm sense of place, and has obviously been sharing in China’s economic revival.

Xi’an’s biggest heritage draw is the Museum of Terra-Cotta Warriors, the 8th Wonder of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The warriors (8,000 found to date) were sculpted from clay after real-life soldiers to guard the tomb of emperor Qin Shi Huang, who is credited with uniting China in 221 BC. The tomb was built between 247 and 208 BC by more than 700,000 conscripts.

We were exposed to Chinese culture in many ways during the tour. In Xi’an, we visited the Tang Dynasty Art Museum, where we viewed Chinese visual art. We were given a demonstration of Chinese character writing and each of us had the opportunity to try our hand.

Shanghai is bursting with activity, and the hundreds of building cranes are evidence of the rapid expansion that it continues to experience, after 20 years of 10 to 15 per cent annual growth.

It lights up like a Christmas tree at night, with hundreds of neon-lit buildings and marquees. It has become one of the world’s great modern cities in just a few decades. Its population is larger than Beijing’s, but it is compressed into a much smaller geographic area.

All cities have a dense core, but here you keep driving through forests of highrise buildings in all directions. The city is obviously more western than Bejing or Xi’an; the British, French and American concessions closed down in the 1940s, but influences remain.

Shanghai has efficient raised expressway and public transit systems. It boggles the mind how servicing the needs of a rapidly growing metropolis of well over 20 million people can be met, but it is obviously being achieved.

From our Shanghai guide, we got a glimpse of the cultural revolution. He was 12 years old in 1966, when the revolution began. His father was a doctor who, along with other intellectuals and professionals, was sent to work on a farm. John lived with his grandmother in the city. He missed out on a formal education, but showed great initiative by learning English in his spare time during several years working in a factory, which led to his employment as a cultural interpreter.

At the Canada Pavilion of the World Expo, we were welcomed by Ottawa native Mark Rowswell, commissioner general of the pavilion, who may be the best-known westerner in China (he hosts a popular Chinese television talk show under the stage name Dashan).

During our tour, we obviously only scratched the surface of an intriguing, ancient nation that has emerged as the world’s fastest-growing major economy in the past 30 years. The country is in the middle of a giant experiment in economic reform, merging socialism with the market economy, which began in the 1980s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping.

Within this process, democratic reforms keep getting introduced in response to changing expectations by the Chinese people and global markets. While much has obviously been done well, there was acknowledgement by people we spoke to that many mistakes have been made — including during the 1989 student uprising — by emperors, Mao and modern-day administrations.

Throughout the tour, the Chinese people were warm and enthusiastic about interacting with us, despite the language barriers. They are extremely hard working, enterprising and family-oriented, with an enormous ability to get on with life. People appear to be content,  although we have heard of the recent worker unrest and know there must be malcontent among the less well-off.

Internet coverage was spotty in our hotels and there are controls on communication tools such as blogs; however, one of our guides emphasized “we know everything,” and to illustrate his point, hundreds of satellite television dishes were in evidence throughout Shanghai.

Living conditions for the average citizen are in a state of change. As an example, we were told housing is not being provided by the government anymore, at least not in Shanghai, but people are given housing subsidies geared to income. There is also a health subsidy system where the user pays a percentage of the cost. Major purchases, such as automobiles, are financed through bank lending.

How does 10 per cent annual growth get squared with environmental concerns such as global warming and the need to reduce consumption of traditional energy sources in an interdependent world? The country’s energy use is growing exponentially, coal is being burned in large quantities and automobiles are being purchased by the millions. But the administration is also getting very heavily involved in alternative energy, particularly wind and solar, and it has been working at population control and slowing economic growth.

There are many chapters yet to be written in this story. When the government takes something on, it does so with a fierce will to succeed — witness the success of the 2008 Olympics, 2010 Expo and the China National Convention Centre, which was developed from early construction to finished state in about a year.

The creative capacity of this nation approaching 1.5 billion people is yet to be fully tapped by the world. Learning more about Chinese language and culture is the place to start.

Newfoundland and Labrador needs to seek out partnering opportunities in business, research and cultural exchange with China. Linking with an existing Canadian initiative should probably be investigated first.

The research, university-based Confucius Institutes, such as have been established in Australia and four Canadian provinces, may be one opportunity.

Our tour was highly informative and inspiring and the choristers of Shallaway were wonderful ambassadors for Newfoundland and Labra­dor and Canada. There are 60 young people in the St. John’s region now more enlightened about Chinese culture, whose vision was broadened and insights sharpened by this extraordinary experience.

Equally important, the tour brought China and the Chinese people a little closer to us all.

Organizations: China National Convention Centre, Museum of Terra-Cotta Warriors, UNESCO Tang Dynasty Art Museum Confucius Institutes

Geographic location: Shanghai, China, Beijing Canada Americas Forbidden Europe Ottawa Newfoundland and Labrador Australia

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