Expectations

It’s only six days until we board a train for Paris and begin our outbound trip for China. I continue to experiment with my blog and the possibilities the Arras template (a WordPress template) affords for media integration

Just how does the “Chinese awakening” constitute a “catalogue of new forms by which to measure our own sense of accountability”?

Contemporary Chinese culture is the expression of 4500 years of cultural learning. The virtue of continuity arises, not so much from the continuous occupation of an unusually rich biotope but in sustained interaction with that space and vigorous competition for the honor of ruling with “Heaven’s Mandate”. In this sense, China’s history is a long history of upheaval and renewal.

What is unusual is that the inventive spirit functions so well in this “old nation”.The Chinese are credited with many firsts–paper, gun powder, the compass, iron foundries, the crossbow. One innovation that is sometimes overlooked however, is their grasp of the social narrative as a tool for nation building. It was the Chinese who invented the professionalized civil service, admission to which was by competitive examination. China may be justly recognized as first among bretheren, simply because we could not have invented a narrative of continuity extending over 4000 years, or spatial scales and social organization adapted to a population of 1.3 billion people. These are products of time and cultural learning and cannot be invented.

I look forward to exploring how the Chinese inhabit their landscapes as well as the cities and monuments they have grown out of their rich geography. Our trip will take us from the Ming capital, Beijing, across the northern rim of the Yellow River Valley and through coal mining country to Xi’an on the Wei, a tributary of the Yellow River. It was here that the Qin finallly wrested power to themselves, transforming forever zhongguo (the Middle Kingdom) into China.

From the “uplands” of the Yellow River we will travel across the lower Yangtse to the historic city of Suzhou, the oldest continously inhabited city in the Yangtse Valley (2500 years), home of the Wu clan (one of three kingdoms competing for Heaven’s Mandate) and today, a city of 5.5 million people and an important center for China’s silk industry. Suzhou is located on the Grand Canal, a public works project begun 486 BC.

From Suzhou we will travel the last 100 km to Shanghai, that XIXth century port city whose role in international trade was consecrated by the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. There, of course we will be dazzled by glass and steel skyscrapers, a bustling Bund and the 2010 Shanghai Exposition.

In addition to the “built” environment, I look forward to Chinese railroading and to verifying (however superficially) the credibility of reports that the Chinese are destroying their environment. Such reports are pervasive in the European press even while there is no shortage of bucolic, beautifully lighted photographic cliches of the countryside under snow, of cherry and apple blossoms. How are these facts reconciled?

Finally, of course, I look forward to exploring market places and menus.

I approach this trip with a certain humility. I anticipate problems with language but do not anticipate resolving these simply by opening my wallet. I anticipate a certain amount of physical discomfort due to knees and joints with no obvious relief beyond anti-inflammatory medication. I anticipate self-restraint and an otherwise ascetic experience of an unfamiliar environment. This will be a first.

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