Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Of gardens

I’ve become interested in the role of gardens in China. In the rapid development of grand cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an there is always some space for gardens. Often these are quite small spaces squeezed in between freeways, but they are seen as important spaces for older people to gather for impromptu games of cards or mahjong and the early morning practice of tai chi. These gardens, and the plantings along road verges are always trimly cultivated – well-planned with diverse plantings and pruned into neat shapes.

Gardens, the Bund and Pudong, Shanghai
Plantings on the Bund, Shanghai

There’s a very grand tradition of gardens in China. We were told that there are always four necessary elements to a Chinese garden – a pavilion, some water, rocks, and plants. Overall, the garden represents a person – the pavilion is the frame, the rocks are the bones, the water is the blood and the plants are the hair. Gardens are planned in detail and every aspect has a symbolic, poetic significance. 'Nature' is tamed and wrought to a pattern.

We’ve spent time in the grandest of the gardens - the six centuries old Summer Palace outside Beijing, most closely associated with 18th century Emperor Qianlong who marshaled a 100,000 strong labour force to extend and beautify Kunming Lake.

Beijing - the Summer Palace
The Seventeen Arch Bridge

The Summer Palace is also renowned as the residence of reviled Empress Cixi who in the late 1880s diverted the navy budget to beautify the park and build one of the many stone boats scattered throughout China – symbol of the Emperor’s loyalty to his people.

Beijing - the Summer Palace - stone boat
The Marble Boat

Nowadays the Summer Palace and its grounds are thronged with people day-tripping from Beijing - picnickers, three-generation families with their prized one child, young couples and the inevitable tour-groups. There are simple pleasures and attractions - music played on traditional instruments, a man wielding two giant calligraphy brushes to paint poetry with water on the stone pavement, and strolls through the long covered walkways.

Beijing - the Summer Palace - local tourists
The Long Corridor

I've been delighted by the names of some of the gardens. The translation of the Chinese name for the Summer Palace is 'The Garden of Nurtured Harmony'. Perfect, as Chinese gardens are far from natural - they are carefully designed, constructed and nurtured to represent harmony. In the ancient city of Suzhou, whose classical gardens are classified by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage, we visited the small, meticulously planned Master-of-Nets Garden and the much larger Humble Administrator's Garden.

The Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
The Humble Administrator's Garden

I'm not sure if it's true, but we were told that a more accurate translation of the name of this latter garden is 'Incompetent Administrator's Garden'. Either 'humble' or 'incompetent' - both are great names.

Within the gardens, the elements are even more charmingly named. Some of the charm might lie in the translation, but who can resist 'The Moon Comes With Breeze Pavilion' - the small pavilion on the left in the photo below, taken in the Master-of-Nets Garden.

The Master-of-Nets Garden, Suzhou 2

So much in China - both the ancient and modern - is laden with symbolism. I've developed my own not very original explanation. In so many ways China is a pragmatic society. Many matters are decided in eminently practical ways. It is, and has always been, relatively non-religious. The symbolism that is evident in artistic expression, architecture, language, and so obvious in the gardens, is a necessary romantic balance to the practicality of everyday life.

Dragon, Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai
One of the nine dragons, Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai. The dragon is the ubiquitous symbol of power, strength and good luck.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


I always think I’m not interested in animals. But last year’s trip to Borneo showed me I could be interested in – even enthusiastic about – orangutans and proboscis monkeys, and after my recent visit to the Chungdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (that probably sounds better in the original Chinese) I’m more than a little interested in Giant Pandas.

Giant Panda, Chengdu

I’m not sure what it is that makes pandas so appealing. The black spots around their eyes and the black ears are so neat and regular. Their bodies are floppy – spreading softly as they collapse onto their backs or stomachs.
Lolling pandas

An accident seems imminent as they climb trees and comically arrange their big floppy bodies on impossibly small branches.
Balancing panda

Anyway, I’ll stop gushing. If you ever get a chance to go to Chengdu, spend a day with the pandas. If possible, do it on a mild day when the pandas are most active. There are baby pandas arranged on pink blankets,
Baby pandas

adolescent pandas rolling and playing and eating in groups,
Adolescent pandas

and solitary adult pandas doing their own thing.
Giant Panda, Chengdu 2

The large, seemingly natural enclosures enabled us to get unexpectedly close to the animals so there were lots of opportunities for watching their behavior and laughing and exclaiming.

And as a bonus, there are also red pandas – another endangered Chinese species - who are sometimes called firefoxes. The agile red pandas are almost as engaging as the giant pandas, with their cute ringed eyes and brushy raccoon-like ringed tails.

Red panda
Red pandas 2

A victory for the animals.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

China: localities


We’ve had a number of bus trips on our way around China: Wushan to Yichang where we embarked on our Yangze cruise; from mega-city Chongqing, where we left the Yangtze, to Chengdu; and Chengdu to Leshan in Sichuan province. Later in our trip we travelled by bus near beautiful Guilin in the southern, semi-tropical area of China. I’ve enjoyed watching the countryside we’ve passed through.

Countryside outside Wushan

Most of the areas of China we’ve seen are very fertile and have been farmed for centuries. I’ve marveled at the diversity of crops grown on small landholdings. Between Wushan and Yicheng I could identify cotton, rice, corn, sweet potatoes, soyabeans, cabbages and fishponds, as well as other crops beyond my farming knowledge.

Countryside between Wushan and Yicheng

Around Chengdu there are even more fishponds, as well as rice, citrus fruits, grapes, tea, tobacco, many kinds of vegetables and even strawberries. No land is wasted and at least in the areas we’ve visited each farm had a wide variety of crops. In the idyllic landscape of southern Guilin, the rice that’s such a staple in this part of China had just been harvested,

Farm near Guilin

lotus plants were grown for the roots that are a delicacy in Chinese food

Farm near Yangshuo, Guangxi

and farmers were growing ornamental plants for the landscaping that’s so evident along city streets and highways and in parks. In particular, there were plantings of osmanthus, the ubiquitous flower of Guilin that's used to flavour sweets and drinks as well as for decorative street planting.

Farm near Guilin 2

So different from farming in Australia. This kind of farming is one of the few cases in China where the scale of the activity in almost unimaginably small (though more diverse) than its Australian comparison.


Xi'an by night

We visited Xi’an – best known for the nearby Entombed Warriors Museum. I’d been expecting the warriors to be a highlight of the trip - and they were. What I’d not expected and what proved to be delightful was the night lighting in the streets and buildings in Xi’an. Clearly, people are encouraged to use the streets in the evenings as places of enjoyment and relaxation. Monuments marking the city's long and illustrious history are extravagantly flood-lit,

Xi'an City Lights 2

the streets are lined by lamp-posts whose supports are incised with tone poems by famous poets; both private and public buildings are fancifully lit; and the trees in small parks edging the streets are a riot of colourful fairy-lights;

Xi'an - City lights

There’s a block long series of fountains that ‘dance’ to music that we were told was the biggest dancing fountain in the world. The ancient city wall that surrounds the old city centre is edged with lights and on our Saturday night in Xi’an we found a group of people from a surrounding town performing the local dances at one of the gates to the wall.

Xi'an - dancers at the city gate

When space is at such a premium, the public spaces become an extension of people’s living areas.


Fengdu and the afterlife

We'd been informed that one of the onshore trips that was part of our Yangtze cruise was to be to Fengdu Ghost City. Given that the flooding of the Yangtze had depleted many of the old riverside towns and cities of their population and occupations I'd anticipated that the excursion would demonstrate some of the devastation of the Yangtze project.

I was very wrong. The reality was more mundane, more complex and more puzzling. For more than two thousand years (so it is said) a series of temples that reach one above the other on a hill on the northern bank of the Yangtze has been known as the 'Ghost City'.

Fengdu Ghost City 3

The temples, statues and gardens rather confusingly (at least for a Westerner) combine the cultures of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism with the mystique of ghosts. Nowadays, the atmosphere is more reminiscent of a theme park than a place of devotion. Most of the structures are modern, sometimes gaudy rebuildings, and the Ghost City is approached by running the usual gauntlet of tourist shops and hawkers. The complex is meant to illustrate hell with displays of demonic images and torture devices. It reflects the notion that good people will be treated well in the afterlife and bad people will be punished by going to hell - though its major emphasis is on the latter.

There are images of devils and those being tortured - to my Western sensibility many of them were reminiscent of the paintings depicting hell by fifteenth century Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch.

Fengdu Ghost City
Fengdu Ghost City 2

Fengdu Ghost City is now only a tourist attraction - more fun for the locals than for the Westerners who are more likely to be left puzzling out the significance of the site. I guess the attraction of 'hell' as a tourist destination is no more to be wondered at than the current Western fad for movies and books about vampires and the supernatural more generally. Still, Fengdu Ghost City left me wondering.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Three Gorges on the Yangtze River

We cruised along the Yangtze River for three days and about 650 kilometres – from Yichang to Chongqing. I find it so hard to describe most of our experiences in China. Partly this is because of the scale of everything we’ve seen and experienced - as described in the previous post. Time frames in particular are either inconceivably long, across dynasties and centuries, or remarkably short, such as the rapid modernization of cities and the damming and resettlement of the Yangtze valley.

Waking on the first morning of our river cruise to mists and fog and the majestic cliffs and slopes of the first of the three gorges – the Xiling Gorge – was a moment of delight; probably, for me, the most memorable experience of the trip.

Wu Gorge
The Xiling Gorge on the Yangtze River

The cruise ships, barges carrying coal, cars, containers and unidentifiable cargoes, and particularly the small local ferries are dwarfed by the river itself and its cliffs.

Yangtze River traffic

Over the first two days of our trip we also passed through the Wu Gorge and reputably the most beautiful, though least extensive, the Qutang Gorge. We also made a side trip on a smaller ferry and then a wooden sampan along the Daning River - a particularly picturesque tributary of the Yangtze. This area is known as the Lesser Three Gorges and is possibly even more beautiful than the major gorges, though I’m not sure whether you can judge degrees of beauty when everything is so wonderful.

Yangtze tributory - Daning River
Sampans on the Daning River

One can only imagine what the Yangtze must have been before the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and consequent flooding of the gorges and management of the river levels. The walls of the gorges would have been higher and even more impressive, and the dangers and difficulty of navigation along the riverbed exciting and challenging, though clearly less efficient and less economically viable. There are not-so–old photos of ‘trackers’ who worked along the Yangtze pulling on bamboo ropes, with every muscle straining, to enable boats to navigate rapids and rocks along the river. One of the virtues of the controversial damming of the Yangtze has been to facilitate navigation by relatively large ships to and from coastal Shanghai to the inland industrial mega-city of Chongqing (which has a population of around 30 million people and is the site of the recent corruption scandal involving previously much-favoured but now disgraced party official, Bo Xilai).

Chungqing from the Yangtze

We marveled at the scale of the locks at the Three Gorges Dam that enable shipping traffic to negotiate the different water levels above and below the Dam. Our ship progressed at night through five enormous locks, accompanied each time by cargo and other ships within reach of our ship;

Three Gorges Dam - Inside the lock

each time waiting for the locks to fill and the ship to rise and then anticipating the magic moment when the massive lock gates opened for us to progress to the next stage.

Three Gorges Dam - The lock gates open
Three Gorges Dam - the final gate opens

We stopped from time to time for shore excursions. Our guides for these excursions were people from the local area. Invariably they would describe the mixed feelings of people affected by the Dam and its consequences. More than 1.3 million people needed to be relocated when the Yangtze was dammed (again, the scale is almost inconceivable). Some have moved to farms on higher land where there is encouragement for them to experiment with more diversified farming, such as growing citrus crops. Many have relocated to existing or to bran new towns and cities near the locality of their flooded homes.

Yangtze River resettlement

Whole cities have arisen in the last twenty years, such as new Fuling – a city of high-rise buildings with a population of over a million people. Our guides told us that for younger people relocation is often beneficial. They have the opportunity to acquire new, larger homes (mostly apartments) with more convenient facilities, and they have better access to employment. But for older people, the move has meant the loss of community and of the memories and sense of place that comes from generations of inhabiting a particular locale. And there are what look like newly-built ghost towns – collections of buildings where the exterior shell has been provided by the government but where people have either chosen not to live, or have been unable to afford to finish the structures.

By the end of our cruise we'd been well-instructed by our guides that the Dam had three objectives – opening up the navigation of the River, avoiding the horrific loss of life that occurred periodically when the Yangtze flooded, and the generation of hydro-electric power. Initially, in the 1990s, the Dam generated 10% of the nation’s electricity, but as demand for electricity has grown exponentially, the output is now between only 3 to 4% of China’s needs. It will be interesting over the next decades to see further impacts of this massive project in environmental and human, as well as economic terms. One can’t help being impressed; but one also can’t help being fearful.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Beijing is vast

I've been on holiday in China for several weeks. It's been a wonderful trip, but I've felt a bit bereft at my inability to blog as I travelled. Wifi in China is scarce and unpredictable, any Google-based services are unavailable, and blogger is non-existent. So my China posts will be half notes made as I've gone along and half reflections now I'm almost home.

Beijing is vast. As we flew into Beijing from Manila it spread itself beneath us – concentrations of high-rise buildings, clusters of houses, parks, canals. The new world. The capital city of possibly the most influential country in the world. It’s more than thirty years since I first visited China. Then, the people were almost uniformly dressed in what we called ‘Mao suits’ – baggy pants and military style jackets in shades of washed-out indigo and grey. Reform was beginning, and in Beijing a few people wore western-style clothes, but they were rare; remarkable. The broad streets of Beijing were filled with bicycles. Privately-owned cars didn’t seem to exist. Now, the unimaginably broad streets are filled with impeccably maintained cars – with thousands of new cars joining the torrent every year.

All of Beijing is vast. Our tour has, predictably, given us a glimpse of the magnificence of Beijing’s ancient past. The Forbidden City, with its immense courtyards and nine hundred and ninety-nine rooms is a harbinger of the later grand scale of Beijing.

The Forbidden City, Beijing 2

Its palaces and halls have been reshaped and repaired over centuries, but its spaces, now filled with hundreds of thousands of local and international tourists, still evoke the grandeur and hierarchical nature of past dynasties.

The Forbidden City 5
School Group, the Forbidden City, Beijing

On a bright sunny day with rare pollution-free skies we, along with hundreds of local and international tourists, climbed a very small part of the Great Wall, some parts of which were built between 220–206 BC by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang to repel invaders from the north. Much to my astonishment, I managed the climb to the highest turret in the photo below - no mean feat when the steps are high and irregular!

Great Wall 1

The Wall spreads across China for (arguably) five thousand kilometres. It’s one of the many reminders that China has been able to marshal huge numbers of its people and their work for centuries.

Great Wall 2

Much of modern Beijing is built on a similar grand scale. Tiananmen Square covers hectares. It takes forever to cover the distance across the Square to reach the iconic depiction of Chairman Mao above the 'Gate of Heavenly Peace' that's the entrance to the Forbidden City.

Tienamin Square 3

The queue of people waiting to visit Mao’s mausoleum stretched for at least three hundred metres. The Square was filled with tourists. There were guides giving commentaries in many different languages and tourists from many nations. But the large majority of the tourists were local Chinese, clearly interested to experience something of the grandeur of both China’s past and its present.

Tiananman Square  - tourists

As we drove through Beijing to our well-known tourist destinations, frequently stuck in Beijing’s now notorious traffic, we glimpsed the grandeur of its modern buildings. Again, the scale is vast, and many of the designs innovative – to better and worse effect.

Modern Beijing
'The Birdsnest' Olympic Stadium, Beijing

In a few years the population of Beijing will overtake that of the whole of Australia. The populations of the cities of Shanghai and Chungqing already surpass the population of Australia. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale of China’s past and present.