China travel diary 2019
David and Lois Sykes Scholarship to China Travel Report – Sahil Shah
In retrospect it can feel that the thread running through my four months in China was coronavirus. In the end, coronavirus prevented me from visiting one of my planned destinations – Harbin – but I still managed to visit Shanghai, Sichuan, (Hangzhou), and Hong Kong, from Beijing. It is true that I have an eerie sense of escaping the virus in one part of the world only for it follow me back home, but in truth in October no one could have predicted where we would be now.
In the current situation, an understanding of China seems more crucial than ever. While the time I spent at Peking University lay the foundations, I feel that it was the travel to other provinces that helped to colour and add detail to my impression of China, so I’d like to really thank David and Lois Sykes for their support. I can’t imagine what my time would have been like without the forays out of Beijing.
I wrote two blogs during my stay which I have edited for the diary:
First Blog: “Peking Journal” September
I found my prompt to write this “Peking Journal” after attending a gallery opening this weekend dedicated to Korean Ink art at “Ink Studio” – an exhibition space in a relatively hidden corner of Beijing, Caochangdi, still inaccessible with the ever growing metro.
In their work, many of the exhibited artist-calligraphers played with the intersection(s) between narrative, reality and fiction, while emphasising the importance of all three to our experience of selfhood. The tumultuous modern history of the Korean peninsula has given almost all Koreans a stake in (hi-)story, written or unwritten, archived or unarchived, and makes the intersection between narrative/reality and selfhood a natural point of exploration for Korean artists.
We were fortunate enough that one of the exhibited artists, Kim Jong-ku, did a live demonstration for us. His “ink” is in fact iron filings: his skill in controlling the weight of his “strokes” (see image) was mesmerising. His works function on multiple dimensions. Of course you have the canvas on which he spreads his “ink” but the iron filings bring an upper dimension. Kim adds a third by placing a tiny camera on his canvas which transforms the contours of his iron filings into a 2d projection.
The prompt to begin this journal was not his technical skill but a point about two thirds of the way through his performance where its “narrative” became confused and our reality was “destabilised”. In a dramatic gesture he flung a handful of filings from up high onto the canvas… but oh no!… the filings hit the camera, thereby wiping out the third dimension – his projected screen. We the audience were unsure whether it was a premeditated move or not. A slight commotion which followed aimed to convince us that it was anything but premeditated. One of his fellow artist friends shouted from the sidelines, “How can I help?”, the curator pulled an extremely anxious face and Kim claimed to resign himself to the loss of the camera. He carried on with other areas of the canvas until… ten minutes later he miraculously managed to fix the camera and brought all the dimensions back together.
When I spoke to Kim after the performance he insisted nothing had been premeditated. However he kept a cheeky glint in his eye which left me rather unconvinced. And in the context of this exhibition’s exploration of the complexity of “narrativizing” (admittedly often of very serious historical events), it seemed that Kim had simply used his stunt to throw the inseparability of narrative, reality and fiction into relief. The whole exhibition became a demonstration of the fact that we can still transcribe our reality regardless of our ability to determine the exact verity of an event; some reality might be “truthfully” recorded and other parts might end up more narrativised (symbolised perhaps by the piece of art Kim left behind, which continued to exist whether the camera was deliberately, or accidentally, wiped out.)
Nowadays, it sometimes seems that a quest for authenticity is many people’s focus. People are desperate to search out “authentic” travel experiences etc.
Beijing however is immediately an overwhelmingly enigmatic place which resists such simple categorising. My inability in the first few weeks to put my finger on what the “authentic” Beijing was and the “truth” about my own experience of the Beijing, was almost preventing me from recording my experiences.
I guess that the Seon (禪 more commonly known in English as “zen” after its Japanese reading) Buddhist-infused Korean calligraphy made me realise that there was no reason why I shouldn’t embrace the more unresolved nature of some of my experiences here without in any way denigrating the more neatly factual aspects
In fact, for this first post I feel as though I ought to start by addressing quite a factual topic: the food!
I’m not exactly sure how to explain my relationship to the food here. On the one hand, until last Thursday (19th) I had eaten nothing but Chinese food [I broke my fast with pesto pasta!]. On the other hand, I am not about to start raving about the wonders of Chinese food. It feels quite oily to me and often a bit ‘overworked’. And yet it’s all I’m eating. There is of course a convenience aspect – we have dozens of canteens scattered across campus all with different styles of food, heavily subsidised by the Chinese government – but even when we go out, I tend to end up eating Chinese food.
I’ve quickly had to learn that Beijing is Beijing and has to be accepted on its own terms. Maybe this is true for every city but sometimes my experience is that certain cities encourage you to romanticise and idealise them. Beijing on the other hand seems to draw you into its wackiness… and refuses to let you impose your image of what it ought to be on it.
So, the life of endless calligraphy, studying in tea houses and becoming a fengshui master that I may have envisaged has quickly felt like a distant dream. Despite this Beijing still has many sides which strongly appeal to me, brought about perhaps by China’s development. Its diverse art scene is definitely one of these sides which I want to immerse myself in throughout this year. Hopefully Saturday’s opening was the harbinger of exactly that.
Finally a brief note about the contents of my “campus life”: classes take up 16 hours a week and are really useful for language and helping to immerse myself in a Chinese environment. I’ve been particularly enjoying translation and literature class. I’m getting involved in a couple of university societies like Tea Society and Calligraphy Society because making friends with the native Chinese student population is quite hard otherwise. International students live in accommodation across the road from the main campus. The main campus is really beautiful in parts [see photos]. I also have two language partners which is quite common here. Essentially you meet up for a couple of hours and spend half the time speaking Chinese and the other half speaking English. It’s a really lovely way to improve your language skills, make friends but also hear more unfiltered thoughts from the Chinese students about their daily lives and interests etc.
It was quite hard to escape the English bubble in the first few weeks when I was getting set up, but now I’m starting to feel like I’m being exposed to more and more language everyday.
I wanted to add a highlight which I didn’t include in my blog post as I attended the performance after I had written the blog.
It was the traditional kunqu Chinese opera performance I saw at the Chang’an Theatre. While many hear Chinese opera and think of the screeching of Beijing opera, Kunqu is a very different affair, at least to my ears. They had Chinese subtitles to help you understand the story and while it took some getting used to, by the end I was entranced. Everything from the speaking, masks, music to the scenery was stylised to a degree rarely seen even in Western opera. Indeed kunqu’s language is not a local dialect or standard Mandarin, but a special eight-tone stylised vernacular where each word has its own melody. If art should aim to transcend reality, kunqu certainly achieves it. Before coronavirus came, I had planned to make it a habit of going to more shows.
Sichuan Blog : November
I write this sat on a train to Shanghai… Last Friday I was on my way to Chengdu so this will end up being a rather busy ten days.
That trip as well as Alibaba’s “Singles Day” shopping festival – China’s answer to Black Friday known in Chinese as double eleven 双十一 – seem to have marked a watershed in my first term here on exchange at Peking University.
I’m beginning to feel more comfortable in assuming my role as a spectator to all things “China” as I develop more tried and tested criteria to look at the country with. These criteria are of course not those we use to examine the West, but also not the ones I was armed with when I arrived in China. My personal theory now is that China must be seen in the language that its central government promotes.
From the outside, this language seems rather propagandist – and it undoubtedly is – however it has also turned out to ring more true than even the Chinese government itself might realise. That is to say – China is not a “Chinese” country in the image of our Western orientalist fantasies, i.e. a land of dragons, temples and calligraphy with old men whispering “Confucius he say”; nor is it a “Westernised” country, as suggested by the endless images of Chinese cities and their skyscrapers plastered all over our media. Rather, its modernity is exactly what its great leader claims … a modernity of “socialism with Chinese characteristics for the modern age 新时代中国特色社会主义” (quite a mouthful). This does not imply the images of Lenin and Marx that such a term conjures up for many Western ears, and which Chairman Xi might be seeking to convey. In reality it is a byword for unbridled capitalism where the richest are wildly rich by any Western standards but the ordinary (let alone the poorest) live lives far below any developed country’s norm, and are ruled by an iron-fisted, highly centralised government … This phenomenon has been much commented on and I will just add that Beijing has seemed an exceptionally expensive city to me when you factor how much lower the average wage here is compared to places like London and NYC.
Taking the term more at face value hasn’t simply enlightened me to China’s central government’s attempts to use the word “socialism” draw away attention from the effectively “capitalist” exploitation at the heart of its oligarchic system. It has also helped me decode the mores and values of Chinese society. So much that struck me as “odd” during my first few months here no longer seem as inexplicable. I’m no longer trying to explain Chinese society through the lens of “ancient China” we learn all about in Oxford (aka the world of “Confucius he say” – “子曰: zi yu”’ in Classical Chinese), and also certainly not through the lens of a “Western” economically prosperous society. I feel as though there’s a big disconnect between the way much of the Western press report on China, with a focus on economic figures and the supposed challenge many of the country’s industries pose to their Western counterparts, and how China really feels “on the ground”. At least for me, China’s modernity has felt totally in a category of its own.
I hope an example will help to colour what exactly I think a ‘socialist with Chinese characteristics’ modernity looks like. On our trip to Sichuan, which was arranged by Peking University, the hotels they booked were extremely comfortable – spacious bathrooms and soft mattresses where many of us had our best sleep in weeks – however there was also something oppressively tacky about them. (see photo) My interactions with many mainland Chinese make me feel that they in fact find these sorts of glossy spaces rather congenial and precisely what they wish to spend their money on. From their perspective, these hotels provide the perfect backdrop for group meetings and group photos which can be posted straight onto Wechat (one of their social media platforms). The hotel spaces combine supposed “luxury”, blandness and convenience, while facilitating group gatherings. This is surely all a “socialist” society with “Chinese” characteristics needs. As its economic system is capitalist (perhaps one of the aspects giving “socialism” “Chinese’ characteristics…), consumers have money to spend on luxury as well as a need to flaunt their wealth. Crucially however, as it is ‘Chinese’ and “socialist”, the hotels are also very conducive to ‘unpretentious’, forthright gatherings, harking back to the culture of camaraderie from the country’s communist origins – atmospheres evoking the tales of Mao and his comrades camping out in Yan’an imprinted in Communist China’s creation story. This is what I feel makes mainland Chinese mores differ from another country with a nouveau riche stratum like Russia or India.
Hong Kong is a useful counterpoint to show what another ‘Chinese’ modernity, as opposed to a ‘Chinese socialist’ modernity, might look like. In Hong Kong, ‘Chinese’ in the sense of our Western-imagined traditional China seems to have fused with the ‘Modern’ for real. An anecdotal example is the incorporation of the traditional fengshui principles into its skyline – notice the holes in some of its skyline’s skyscrapers. This makes for a big contrast with a ‘Chinese socialist skyline’, for which you ought to look no further than the architectural atrocity that are Beijing’s grey monolithical apartment blocks. I also feel Hong Kong’s atmosphere has more of the decorum I imagine there would be if you dined with Emperor Puyi. Indeed Eileen Chang once remarked about Hong Kong in her novella ‘Aloeswood Incense’ – ‘this was China as Westerners imagined it’. The mainland, on the other hand, has swapped decorum for the rustic camaraderie of Mao.
Aside from this, Sichuan was a wonderful destination I would absolutely recommend. We were lucky enough to visit a Panda Sanctuary where we had the opportunity to feed Yaxing a young panda. I think this is one of the memories I will remember most vividly.
They brought little Yaxing in from his playground for his mealtime and we each got to feed him one bamboo stick and one carrot stick. Face to face, eye to eye they are cuter than you would imagine, and so although some people worry that panda tourism may have become over commercialised, my personal experience was extremely positive and felt ‘unique’.
In Chengdu, we visited Dufu’s old cottage and gardens (a famous 8th Century Chinese poet). In restoring the park they’d landscaped the whole space really beautifully, with tall bamboo and the characteristic circular Chinese windows. A couple of minutes outside the centre of Chengdu, it felt a million miles away from the car filled centre. I would recommend a full afternoon to do it justice and to soak up the calming atmosphere.
One aspect I wouldn’t necessarily recommend were the so called ‘old towns’. I think my experiences in these old towns reinforced my feeling that China really had made a break with its past in the course of its communist era. There was something oddly fake, and eerie, in the two old towns we visited. If you’ve watched the Japanese film ‘Spirited Away’ you’ll know exactly what it felt like to walk around in these towns.
One aspect of our trip that I found interesting was that we were escorted around by a Chinese tour guide in the same way as some groups of Chinese tourists that can be seen in Oxford and London. I enjoyed finding out what this kind of tourism was like although I wouldn’t necessarily repeat it. Our tour guide demanded our complete attention for hour long coach journeys as she spoke about the origins of Daoism, even asking pointedly at one point ‘你们在吗？Are you guys listening?!’ exasperated at the lack of audience engagement.
Shanghai – written after my return:
Before I arrived in China, Shanghai was in fact the city which had most captured my imagination particularly because of Eileen Chang’s short stories set in Shanghai such as ‘The Golden Cangue’ or ‘Love in a Fallen City’ which depict the crumbling decadence of 30s Shanghai and its dissolute aristocratic families fallen on hard times. Her writing captures the essence of the meeting between East and West in early 20th Century and the cosmopolitan sprit that was found particularly in Shanghai. But I was also intrigued by the notion that after a lull in this spirit during the first decades of Communist rule, following the reform of the economy it had been found again in earnest, making Shanghai not Beijing China’s most internationalised city. I wondered how much this was pure marketing and how much of this cosmopolitan spirit could really be felt.
Before and after I went to Shanghai I spoke to my Chinese friends to ask them about how they thought about the differences between Beijing and Shanghai, or more broadly northern China and southern China. It was interesting to find that while many Chinese of course accept that Shanghai is one of the most internationalised Chinese cities, with Shenzhen quickly catching up, many were keen to stress that the differences many Westerners sees in Shanghai compared to Beijing are not purely borne out of the historic European influence but also out of age old cultural differences between the North and South, which existed long before Europeans and Americans came to Shanghai. Time and time again, the same set of adjectives came up to contrast the north and south. Northern Chinese, they said, are ’好爽 forthright’ and ‘粗糙 coarse (although not necessarily spoken in a derogatory way)’ while the Southern Chinese are ‘講究 particular about things’ and ‘精致 refined’. Indeed when I later travelled to Hangzhou – a city also in the south but which was not occupied by Europeans in a major way in the early 20th century, and which to this day is less internationalised than Shanghai – I saw what they meant. Hangzhou too, in its own way, had a ‘refined’ atmosphere which wouldn’t necessarily be quite at home in Beijing.
All this reading and conversation created a great sense of expectation in me before I went to Shanghai. Fortunately I was not in the least disappointed; if anything the city exceed my expectations. We travelled by high-speed rail to Shanghai which took us 4:30h to cover 1300km, over double the length from London to Edinburgh. It was already really quite cold in Beijing when we went and I can still remember our excitement at stepping out of the station in the evening and finding a blue sky and warm weather.
I was immediately struck on our walk from the tube station to our accommodation how present the European architecture was in the city, woven among the trees and newer buildings. It felt a world away from Beijing. In fact we immediately came across one of the art deco buildings I had read about beforehand: the Majestic Theatre.
In the morning when I looked out of our window, my feeling about the dynamic combination of low-rise house-like structures rarely sighted in Beijing, with glassy high-rise buildings was confirmed. We ventured into the French Quarter, travelling with the ‘共享单车 shared-bikes’ that are everywhere in China’s cities. In Beijing most journeys have to made with the underground, but Shanghai felt more compact and a 20-minute bicycle journey made more sense than hopping on the tube.
The French Quarter which now corresponds to a few different districts in modern Shanghai really had a boulevard feel. Before I went I wondered what it would be like to see houses – European-style houses – in China, and if they’d really be there, so when we ended up on streets covered with just that, it was really surprising. I had worried that the atmosphere of Eileen Chang’s time would have been mostly wiped out so had found a walk to follow. In the end it was there right before us but it was extra evocative to visit the very roads and apartment blocks she stayed in.
The French Quarter feels suited to flaneuring and indeed there are boutique shops and cafés galore for all a flaneur’s needs. One aspect that I would like to clear up is the notion that Shanghai is palatable to foreigners only because it is made in their image. While this tends to start off as an orientalist critique of Western attitudes to China, I think it ends up itself betraying a rather Eurocentric perspective. As I discussed above, the South has always had its ‘particular’ ways, and I think the reason a European style and atmosphere flourished long after the end of the semi-colonial period in Shanghai is precisely because it found such fertile ground in the cultural South of China. Indeed evidence for this comes from the ‘Xintiandi’ – literally ‘New Heaven and Earth’ – shopping area. This shopping area is built among renovated Shikumen which is the traditional Shanghainese lane housing. The shopping area is therefore not in a European building, but in the quintessential Shanghainese Chinese-style building, and yet it still has the same laid back subtly elegant atmosphere which pervades the former French Concession. Examples like these, I feel, show that it is an oversimplification to say that Shanghai is the most ‘westernised’ city in China.
The following day combined different aspects of Shanghai in one go and showed the city in all its glory. The first stop was an early morning visit to so-called ‘Starbucks Reserve Roastery’ – the latest concept in the American chain’s quest for global domination. This was the kind of store Starbucks opened in Milan in 2018, in an attempt to successfully launch in Italy despite its strong indigenous coffee-drinking culture. There are only 7 stores of this kind in Tokyo, Seattle, Milan, NYC, Chicago, Seattle and of course Shanghai – which was the first. I wanted to see what the latest frontier in Starbuck’s plans for the world look like with my own eyes and since there is no London store, this was the perfect opportunity. Predictably I opted not to buy anything but it was interesting just to see its scale and how bustling it was. I feel that it represents Shanghai’s international weight, compared to other Chinese cities such as Beijing or Shenzhen, in striking terms.
Later on we visited the Yuyuan gardens which represents the traditionally Chinese side of Shanghainese architecture. It felt like one of the busiest and most touristy areas we visited and proved again that Chinese culture is a thriving part of Shanghai.
The final part of our day was spent along the famous Bund of Shanghai, situated in the former Anglo-American concession. This indeed did have a very different character to the French quarter but, as with the French quarter, felt woven into the city’s fabric. From the Bund there are amazing views of Pudong’s skyline – the area of Shanghai so famous now but which only sprung up in the 90s. I would recommend going up on the Bund to get a better vantage point. We opted to wander slowly back to our accommodation from the Bund which took us back through the French Concession once again. At night the quarter had a new atmosphere. Unlike how one would imagine Paris at night, the streets were mostly empty which almost encourages you to soak in the buildings’ beauty. We encountered, for example, the famous ‘Cathay Theatre’ with its lit up art deco façade. Experiencing such serenity in a city was quite a novel feeling, akin perhaps to what cities across the world have turned into in the wake of coronavirus. I realised that what I’d been searching for – the ‘literally fading Eastern decadence’ so celebrated in Eileen Chang’s work – was there in full force in Shanghai except for the fading. Shanghai has no element of faded glamour about it – it is vibrantly thriving in all its dimensions which makes it such an energising place to visit.
I would like to thank David and Lois Sykes once again – although my time in China was cut short, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been to so many of the places I had planned for such a long time to visit and this was only possible due to their generous support.
In terms of advice for prospective travellers to China, I think the most important would be strict planning. It is such a large place that it would be impossible to cover every province and city. There are also many second-rate tourist destinations that the internet might fool you into visiting, but which a more trusted source will have better information on. I personally recommend the ‘Lonely Planet’ guide as a good starting point. I carried it around with me wherever I went. However, if you have some Chinese ability I would also recommend downloading the ‘大眾點評dazhongdianping’ app – China’s more extensive equivalent to tripadvisor. Particularly for food it has many options and the well rated restaurants seem to be reliable. Similarly, it makes life a lot easier if you can use one of the google maps equivalents – baidu maps, tencent maps etc – but these will require some Chinese. Google maps is of course blocked but for iPhone users Apple Maps does work. Also remember to set up a VPN before you set off as otherwise it will be difficult to communicate with friends and family due to the so-called ‘Great Firewall’. The university’s IT centre provide a very reliable and free service. Finally, if you are in a more polluted city such as Beijing, I would recommend wearing a face mask as it does lessen the strain on your throat.