Shanghai: 21st Century Metropolis
Our hotel in Shanghai faced the Bund overlooking Yang Tse River and the mesmerizing mega tall skyscrapers of its famous skyline. What a view! Many of these structures rank among the tallest in the world: Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center (with an observation deck 1,555 feet above ground level), The Shanghai Tower (second tallest in the world at 2, 073 ft. like tail of a dragon touching the sky) and Jin Mao Tower (literally ‘Golden Prosperity Building)’ with its tiered pagoda like structure.
Our guide, Tao Lin (Tracey) said Shanghai was the most populous city in the world but it didn’t feel that crowded. It was hard to believe that some fifty years ego the Pudong area, on which the city is build, was mostly populated with fish farms and cluster of villages. That night it was a delight to watch Shanghai Acrobatic Show and enjoy a sumptuous dinner in the hotel.
The next morning we were guided through extensive Yu or Yuyuan Garden meaning Garden of Happiness. Four elements of Chinese gardens, Tao Lin explained, are water, rock, greenery and buildings. Influenced by Ming and Qing dynasties architectural style, Yu garden is divided into six sections such as Listening to Billows Bridge, Nine Lion Study, Crooked Bridge, Round Gate, Gold Fish Pond and Dragon Wall Gate.
Viewing the centerpiece of the garden, the porous 5-ton Jade Rock, was as heart warming as the other elements of the garden. With it’s ponds and pavilions, lotus gardens (with leaves so large that water surface is hardly visible), fountains and swans, goldfish swimming and ducks swaddling underneath crooked bridges that seemed to connect everything and yet signified the uniqueness of each. I felt peaceful, one with the natural surroundings.
In the afternoon we went to White Jade Buddha Temple founded in 1882. As in most Mahayana Chinese temples the color red and gold were prominent and contrasted with the white jade images. The temple enshrines two images of the Buddha brought to Shanghai from Burma, one reclining and the other seated. The central image, in the reclining posture, is a recent copy made out of marble. The two original images are displayed prominently on the side.
In the afternoon we went to another market and feasted on Chinese crafts and food. As we walked through the market (and this happened so many times during our trip) we felt our senses sensitized. Sensations awakened by 30 varieties of tea, Jade ornaments and statues of the colors we had not seen before, unusual shades of pearls and so on.
On the morning of our last day we walked through the business district on Nanjing Road bursting with visitors, local and foreign. There were equal number of stores selling western merchandize and Chinese goods. We were searching for a T-Shirt with some Chinese image: dragon, pagoda or ‘I love Shanghai’ logo. We must have looked lost because a Chinese man asked what we wanted. We told him. After taking us to the right shop he asked where we were from. “Pittsburgh? I know Pittsburgh! I watch Steelers and Penguins games on television.” Traveling shrinks the wide wild world into my world.
The last post of my trip to China will be about Tibet. But my three days in that city, situated at the highest elevation in the world, was so remarkable that I want to write a separate post for that enchanting valley. For the rest of this post I’d like to jot down my final thoughts about China.
What I experienced in China made me realize no revolution however brutal, destructive and horrifying can wipe out people’s ethos, their deep-seated values, beliefs and traditions. Their books, artworks and monuments can be razed to the ground, individual lives can be eliminated, new governing body can force people to follow a new ideology but nothing and no one has the power to destroy what is uniquely human in people’s collective ethos. Deeply felt beliefs and values survive and are safe in individual hearts and minds.
The strength and power of a culture is not in a nation but in each and every one of its inhabitants. It is expressed in their poetry, songs and literature, in dance and theatre, and in their speech and conversations. Ultimately it is the people who color a culture’s environment. Outsider, travelers sense it right away as soon as they step on a foreign soil.
For me, the Chinese-ness of China reflected not in their red flags, Tiananmen Square, rebuilt or refurbished monuments after cultural revolution but in gently floating lotus gardens, sploshing ducks and swimming fish, in the palatable cuisine exquisitely served, in the verbal and non-verbal conversations and exchange with our guides and locals. After all, they are the descendants of Lao-Tzu who taught the world, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step,” of Confucius who said wisdom could be learnt by imitation, reflection and experience, and Chuang Tzu who believed, “Happiness is the absence of striving to be happy.”