China assaults the senses with a cacophony of sounds and colorful sights amid its teeming masses. As we arrived for a month’s trip in October the noxious smog of vehicle-packed Beijing assailed our nostrils. But the past still dwells in the shadows of the modernized capital. At dusk a row of elderly stooped men shuffled along the road beneath our apartment in Mao-style uniforms. We would see the same gray men plodding by in the morning.
The contrast between affluence and poverty was very striking. The opulent Prince Gong Mansion adjoins the Hutong area of Beijing, where life is still primitive without indoor plumbing. Our guide, David, grew up here in a one-room hut, but his family was later relocated. As for changing times, the steep demands of a future wife would likely comprise an apartment, a vehicle and expensive jewelry, he told us.
At an upscale mall with fountains, we shunned the crowd thronging the iPhone store to buy salad vegetables in a small supermarket. One department store had rows of stylish vaporizers steaming away — a necessary device considering the air quality. When I absentmindedly dropped my shawl on the mall plaza a policewoman was beside me in a flash to return it. Big Sister was watching over us. We had similar eureka moments elsewhere in China. When we bargained with a self-styled porter at a railway station, a security man appeared out of nowhere and violently shoved the coarse-faced fellow outdoors. The TV and Internet censors were brutally efficient as well. As a CNN news bulletin mentioned the imprisonment of a Nobel prizewinner in China, the screen promptly blacked out. Similarly, a nature program about crocodiles disappeared forever after mildly disparaging Chinese conservation efforts and the local yen for crocodile skin. The Chinese we met seemed stoic about their restricted freedom. “We can do as we like,” one told me, “as long as we don’t speak about it in public.”
Shopping is a strenuous activity. In an indoor Beijing market two diminutive teenage girls attached themselves like limpets to my husband, pulling him along, “Hey Mister, Mister. Come over here. You gotta see this.” Bargaining, which is done on small calculators, requires stamina and endurance.
Tantalizing glimpses of traditional China sometimes filter through. In a Beijing park we listened, spellbound, as a dignified trio of seniors gathered under the trees to sing haunting melodies, accompanied by the time-honored two-stringed erhu. During a daytrip to Souzhou near Shanghai we visited classic landscaped Chinese gardens with aristocratically furnished pavilions and toured a factory with an exhibit of manual silk production.
The magnificent art treasures of northern China fascinated us so much that we spent eight hours inside the vast Forbidden City of Beijing. Its architectural features include raised entries to ward off the evil eye, the emperor dragon symbol and the phoenix for the empress. Calligraphy exhibits were on handmade paper or silk, sometimes with minute lettering. One humorous painting showed a group of jolly fishermen at work. Some of the intricate craftsmanship was inspired by plum blossom, orchids, fruit and vegetables. We admired porcelain vessels, gold artifacts, lacquered wood and jewelry.
Alone that day, we developed a technique to navigate the throng heading to the subway. It helped to follow closely on the heels of the most aggressive pushers as they elbowed their way through. The next day we headed north for a day of intensive touring to the Great Wall, the Summer Palace and the Ming Tombs. Outside the town were piles of dried maize for the animals, roadside fruit stands and tall chestnut trees. One restaurant was packed as it offered a special delicacy — donkey meat, David said. After a short cable car ascent we hiked energetically around the Great Wall, clambering up and down its uneven stone steps and towers, then careening down to the bottom on an alpine slide.
At the Summer Palace of the emperors we admired the marble boat once revamped by Dowager Empress Cixi from naval funds. Cixi’s life story features her remarkable transformation from a minor concubine of Emperor Xianfeng to the de facto ruler of China for half a century. What triggered her sudden ascent was presenting the emperor with his only son in 1856. Despite her utter ruthlessness and talent for political intrigue, Cixi’s shortcomings as national ruler ultimately led to China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), to the decline of the Qing dynasty and the 1911 revolution.