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Monday, August 01, 2011

Reflections on a Visit to China, Part 1: Generalities

With my wife, Pat Parker, I recently enjoyed a little under three weeks in the People’s Republic of China. At the invitation of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Institute of Archaeology, I gave a paper in Beijing at the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) “Intercongress” on cultural heritage management in eastern and southeastern Asia, and we visited sites around Beijing, Xi’an and the mausoleum of emperor Qin shi Huangdi, often with the kind and knowledgeable assistance of Institute archaeologist Mr. Wang Renyu. On our own (with guides) we visited Hangzhou, Suzhou, Honcun, Xidi, Tongli, the Yellow Mountain Huangshan, and (briefly) Shanghai. I’m very grateful to Mr. Wang, CASS researcher Li Chunlin, Institute Deputy Director Prof. Chen Xingcan, and all their colleagues, as well as our China Odyssey guides, for making our visit a pleasurable and very educational one.

Three weeks in a country confers no expertise in its character, history, archaeology or culture, but there may be something to be said for first impressions, so I’m going to take this opportunity to offer a few reflections on our visit, for whatever they may be worth.

Environmental Matters

What they say about the air in Beijing is true. Within three days, the Navajo silver bracelet that Pat routinely wears had turned black (it cleaned up, though). Luckily (or maybe due to cloud seeding) there was then a thunderstorm and the sky turned clear and blue. But yes, pollution is a serious issue. However, there is apparently a serious effort underway to reduce emissions. For example, almost every rooftop seemed to sport a solar water heater. I saw few or no photovoltaic arrays, but lots of solar heating was going on. And while there are certainly too many gasoline and diesel vehicles on the (extensive and seemingly well-maintained) expressways, we also saw a vast number of bicycles, scooters, motorcycles and other vehicles driven by electricity, heavy use of public transport, and a lot of cars running on compressed natural gas.

As an inveterate recycler, I was charmed to see recycling bins almost everywhere, side-by-side with containers for non-recyclable trash, clearly labeled but often disguised as architectural forms compatible with historic structures, as rocks, as ancient urns, and in other clever ways. And lots and lots of people collecting discarded trash, moving huge piles of flattened cardboard boxes to collection points, and so on. The big cities we visited (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai) were remarkably clean, as big cities go.

I came away with no clear idea of how environmental impact assessment (EIA) is done. That it is done, somehow or other, was clear from, for example, an interesting paper at the Intercongress on archaeological survey and data recovery along a stretch of the humongous South-to-North Water Transfer Project (where, as here, “avoidance” of archaeological sites is apparently given precedence over excavation/destruction). Clearly studies are done and efforts are made to minimize and otherwise mitigate impacts, but it’s not clear to me how it happens, or what range of environmental variables are addressed. I’d like to know more.

Oh yes – and we rode the bullet train from Hangzhou to Shanghai the day after two similar trains collided not far away in Wenzhou City, and for what it’s worth, it was clean, pleasant, quiet, fully loaded with passengers, and really fast. And on time. I can’t testify to its safety, except to say that we survived, and enjoyed the ride.

Social-Cultural-Political Matters

We saw no particular evidence of oppression or repression (though there was no getting on Facebook, and one of the sites on which I routinely “click-to-donate” was blocked – doubtless because the donations go to Amnesty International). On the contrary, we were impressed at how many people we saw simply enjoying themselves – dancing, singing, and playing traditional instruments in the parks, in one case an apparently impromptu brass band of retirees playing patriotic music while people around them sang with seemingly unrestrained enthusiasm. We found people to be unfailingly gracious, friendly, and seemingly positive in their outlooks. And we were impressed at the volume of internal tourism we saw: thousands upon thousands of Chinese tourists crowding every historic or scenic site we visited, apparently having a good time and appreciating their country’s heritage. And having the disposable income to do so.

But in talking with some ordinary citizens, where language barriers permitted (neither Pat nor I, alas, speak Mandarin or any other Chinese dialect, and Rosetta Stone, while helpful, wasn’t enough), I was interested to encounter a lot of pretty frank expressions of unhappiness with corruption at high levels of government, inefficiencies, restraints on freedom of speech (especially as regards the Internet), and the growing gap between rich and poor. “Communism is dead,” one person volunteered; “all we have left is the Party.” And we crossed paths with one group of high Party officials getting the royal treatment at a couple of hotels where we stayed, to the disgruntlement of some around us. Of course, one could hear similar things expressed, and see similar kowtows to authority, in the U.S.

I couldn’t resist the impression, though – in the context of observing the incredible amounts of money being lavished on historic site development and internal tourism – that the government is pursuing a sort of bread and circuses policy: giving the people enough goodies to keep them off the streets, except when engaged in seemingly innocuous pursuits like tourism.

Cultural Heritage Management

Speaking of which: we were literally agog at the financial resources the PRC and its provincial governments are committing to aspects of cultural heritage/cultural resource management. At Xi’an, for example, the site of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) Daming Palace – leveled hundreds of years ago and built over – has been cleared (relocating 100,000 or so people in the process) and developed as an archaeological park complete with a reconstructed monumental gatehouse, a scale model of the whole palace complex, an interactive archaeological museum (that even tries to explain field methodology!), and an Imax movie house showing relevant 3-D movies.

That’s before you leave town to go visit the first emperor, Qin shi Huangdi (aka Qin shi Huang, Qin Shihuangdi; 259-210 BCE) in his mausoleum, guarded by his terra cotta soldiers and horses. The terra cotta army as excavated so far is actually about a quarter mile from the mausoleum, in a very handsome park/museum complex incorporating the ongoing excavations. There are lots of soldiers, horses, and chariots, apparently, still to be uncovered, and who knows what else?

A quarter-mile away, the protected, still unexcavated mausoleum itself (bigger than the Great Pyramid of Khufu) and its extensive grounds have also become a park, with two museums under construction on the sites of major discoveries of burials, bronze chariots, armor, and other remarkable stuff. There are moves afoot to clear away nearby residential and industrial developments and expand the controlled area. All these developments are relatively recent; Mr. Wang showed me images from the early 20th century showing the whole area under agricultural use.

Xi’an is not unique in its attention to and investment in cultural and natural heritage sites. We saw similar investments being made in the interpretation and development of segments of the Great Wall, the Zhokoudian H. erectus site, river towns on the lower Yangtze, the Bund in Shanghai, and the Yellow Mountain Huangshan. All these places – most of them inscribed in the World Heritage List (and proudly advertised as such) were drawing vast, vast numbers of tourists, all paying fees for the privilege of visiting.

I was very impressed – mostly favorably – by all this investment, and all this interest. But the impression of bread and circuses continued to rattle around in my mind, and it generated another (though related) niggling worry as well. The history of China is characterized by a series of fairly autocratic imperial dynasties punctuated by peasant revolts. The uprising of 1989 that we associate with Tiananmen Square (where now a huge TV screen straddles the space, complicating assembly while inspiring with scenic and patriotic views but, I’m told, playing hell with the place’s feng shui) can be viewed as a recent unsuccessful example of the latter; the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 was, in a twisted way, another such revolt. I had to wonder – viewing the magnificent cultural site developments, many of them seeming to glorify the imperial past (There’s a huge statue of Qin shi Huangdi – by all accounts not a very nice fellow – that greets visitors to the terra cotta army), and hearing people grumble about the rich/poor divide and the power of the Party – is the PRC government setting itself up for another revolt, and is “cultural heritage,” in the form of all these magnificent archaeological parks and similar developments, likely to become a target of revolutionary ire?

As it did, in many ways, during the Cultural Revolution. Countless times we were told: “There used to be a Buddhist shrine here, but during the Cultural Revolution….,” or “There was a handsome tablet here memorializing the ancestors, but during the Cultural Revolution….” I sat one day in the garden of a 19th century Qing Dynasty official, handsomely restored by his son in the early 20th century before he, the son (also a distinguished government official) was denounced and had to flee the country during the Cultural Revolution. The garden was classic – a complex of plantings, elaborate pavings, sculptures and stone constructions providing delightful vistas and enclaves. Many of the trees were marked with old marble slabs on which genus and species were inscribed in Chinese and Latin. I thought, “How beautiful, and erudite, and precious (in both senses of the word),” and – rather to my surprise – found myself kind of sympathizing with the Cultural Revolutionaries. I imagined them wondering, with sneering ire, where this aristocrat got off sitting around contemplating his beautiful garden and pondering the splendors of speciation when The People were suffering? It was an easy jump to imagining contemporary or near-future revolutionaries asking similar questions about massive investments in exhibiting the relics of past emperors.

Only after I’d left China did it occur to me to wonder whether anybody is pursuing the archaeology of the 700,000 workers said to have been involved in building Qin shi Huangdi’s mausoleum – along the lines of the recent exploration of the workers’ town associated with the Giza pyramids. It seems like some serious attention would be in order to the archaeology of the common people on whose labors the emperor (and every emperor) depended – both because it would be fascinating research and because it would convey a more populist, if not precisely communist, message to the visiting public about the glories of China’s past.

-- To be continued --


L Moore said...

Here is a cultural analysis of the PRC; I think they are ready for a purge.

L Moore

L Moore said...

I think China is ready for a purge. Here is a cultural analysis.

L Moore

L Moore said...

here some other China hist preservation thoughts