My visit to China

Editors Note: This past June, ISBA Women in the Law Committee member Ann Conroy visited China with other ISBA members. In the narrative below, entitled Backward Up: The Great Wall, she shares her trip and overall China experience with us.


We got up at o-dark-thirty to get to O'Hare on June 24th. The traveling time was supposed to be about 14 hours. After being emplaned for a seemingly endless period and being fed rather continuously, we finally arrived in Shanghai. By then it was evening of the next day. That international date line thing and layovers in Minneapolis and Tokyo and changing time zones, too, thoroughly confused me, timewise. Our hotel in Shanghai was beautiful, but most of us didn't notice until the following day when we were sensate again.

Shanghai is a very modern and attractive city. In the morning of whatever day it turned out to be, we went to the Old Quarter for a visit to the Yu Gardens. The Gardens are a highlight of the Old Quarter, built about 700 years ago, now surrounded by narrow streets, tiny sidewalk shops selling every conceivable article, close living quarters and, behold, a Starbucks Coffee Shop. It is a delight to go through the Gardens. As it was a Saturday, the Gardens were crowded, mostly with local people, their weekends free. There was a healthy sprinkling of foreign tourists. Our 53 towered over the locals, and jostled politely (Pretty much everyone is polite in China) with them and the other foreigners to see all the nooks and crannies. Ancient and extensive, the Gardens have lovely little rooms and corridors, lagoons, ponds, floral and treed areas. To reach the more secluded spots, one follows a bridge across a lotus-filled lagoon with fountains and sculpture at every turn. And there are nine turns on the bridge-this to preclude evil spirits, which can only travel in straight lines. (!)

The Jade Temple, a Buddhist shrine in the busy business area, and the delightful Shanghai Museum, filled most of the remainder of the day. The temple sees a constant flow of worshipers coming to pray briefly and be on their way. Buddhism has enjoyed a resurgence in the present day. The Cultural Revolution is largely behind the people in the cities and they are returning to former religious practices. (To foil evil spirits at the temple, the door thresholds are about 9 inches high-a circumstance we encountered throughout our trip). Evil spirits have such a tough time getting into any place, it is surprising that good does not predominate throughout the country; but maybe it does. The Chinese have no word for bad.

The Shanghai Museum is not only a modern architectural wonder, but also, of course, a storehouse of Chinese history. It features many of the ethnic minorities of the country in costume and mores. There are 53 recognized ethnic minorities. Many maintain their traditional dress and language. One dramatic display was a gorgeous collection of jade, both functional and ornamental, from many centuries past into the modern era.

It must be mentioned that tourists do not go quietly from place to place in China. There are ever present the independent vendors of postcards, hats, fans, kites, trinkets and "Rolex" watches. Some of our group bought what we came to call "Lolexes" whenever proffered-returning home with enough to fill both arms to the shoulder. A number had ceased to function by the end of the day of purchase. But a great story for your friends…. Shopping and bargaining with the street and other vendors at outlet shops and regular stores was a constant.

That evening, we had a lovely Chinese dinner. Most of our food was Chinese, except that Western food was offered at breakfast, as well as Chinese. Almost to a person, our group ate Western at breakfast. (We're such food snobs). After dinner, we were bused to an auditorium in downtown Shanghai for an outstanding and sometimes scary acrobatic performance by children (These were children, seven to 17) of the Shanghai Acrobatic School-remarkable feats of strength, stamina and ability. Kids compete from all over China for entry into the school.

It was June 27 already. Before leaving for Yichang, we visited the river front of Shanghai, a local and tourist draw, with a broad promenade, views of ocean-going vessels in the harbor (the sea is six km. down river), the restored and preserved buildings of the "British Concession" behind us and the new Shanghai of the financial quarter across the river, now accessible by several bridges, once only by ferry. Formerly the area across the river, now dominated by colorful and fanciful modern skyscrapers, was home to many middle class residents, now sheltering elsewhere in a city growing by hundreds, perhaps thousands, daily. It is certainly not the largest city in China-only 20 million people, at last count. Chongqing purportedly has 30 to 33 million. A city of only six or seven million is considered middle-sized. One must recall that the Chinese, in addition to being small people in general, who, let's face it, do not take up as much space as we do, are traditionally accustomed to close living quarters. A density of 5,000 people per square kilometer, while awesome to us, was not looked upon by our national and local guides as oppressive or even surprising. It is a huge country, but most of its people are living in enormous, crowded urban centers, and most of them are glad to be there, where opportunity beckons.

We flew from Shanghai to Yichang, the city close to the Three Gorges Dam Project. There we were to board a really very nice river boat (probably double the size of the largest river boats we are used to seeing on the Mississippi). Our cruise up the Yangtze River was a three-day, four-night excursion. First we went to the dam site. Breathtakingly large, even as dams go, the Project is only two-thirds finished now. Building proceeds on the remaining third. Many, many square kilometers of the land are devoted to the overall project. I was impressed with the still vibrant discussion of the pros and cons of building the dam at all. The degree of freedom with which people seem to address the issue is refreshing in a country where the national government is very much in charge. Of course, the project goes along despite discussion, so the mootness of the matter may lend a freer nature to such arguments.

The dam features a five-lock passage (separate locks for going up and coming down). Large ships (those over 3,000 tons) must use the lock system. Smaller craft may use the ship elevator, but at a fee. The locks are free-slower, but free. The elevator is an ingenious arrangement of transporting "pieces" of the river in super large boxes, with boats in them, up, and off-loading them at the top of the dam. It sounded like lots of fun, but our boat being too large, we were confined to the series of locks, a very interesting passage of itself.

The river cruise took us through beautiful, steep gorges, amazing to me for their seeming familiarity. Then I realized that the classic Chinese river and mountain prints and woodcuts are not fantastical, but true to life, with steep, lush, green hillsides, almost perpendicular to the river, the occasional small junk-like boat and craggy outcrops here and there.

One of my favorite side trips on the river was up the Shenong Stream, a tributary of the Yangtze, flowing through lovely gorges. We transferred to "peapod" boats, aptly named for their shape, for a further venture upstream. The water, unlike the silt- and often garbage- filled Yangtze, was clear and cold, coming from mountain snows and springs. The boatmen who rowed the peapods got out and hauled the boats through shallows. The captain sang to us, so we sang to him. You guessed it, "Row, Row, Row Your "Boat." This area is home to the Tuija (spelling?) People, a small minority maintaining their own language and traditions. Their name for foreigners, which is to say, Westerners, is "big noses." It sounds much nicer in their language, and, indeed, their own noses are tiny and cute. Ours all seemed big by comparison. But they are charming and friendly and live in an idyllic country.

A stop at the Red Pagoda, along with the omnipresent vendors, promised final arrival at Super Heaven for those hardy enough to brave the steep stairway to the twelfth floor. I, personally, am doomed, as my time was spent in the relatively cool waiting area adjacent to the shops. Most of the cruise participants, however, are bound for halos.

The cruise itself featured entertainments, lectures, Chinese language lessons, demonstrations of classic painting and kite making and Tai Chi exercises (at 6:00 a.m. Needless to say, perhaps, I was not one of the Tai Chi enthusiasts). We even had a brass band which for played us on and off the boat, to bid us farewell when we reached Chongqing and the end of the river passage.

Chongqing, a huge river city, was capital of the country during the Nationalist period. The Joe Stilwell Museum recalls the dark days of World War II, when the city was essentially leveled by bombing and necessities were flown "over the hump" of the Himalayas to supply the people. Most supplies had come upriver, but the enemy controlled the river as far as Yichang and no supplies could be brought through. The loss of 50,000 residents in the bombings is remembered with bitterness 60 years later. But gratitude for support by the Americans and admiration for the strength and resiliency of the people is a commonplace sentiment still. In a monument at the Museum, a quotation by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 sums up the proper view of Chongqing's people, and rings true across the world today: "They proved gloriously that terrorism cannot destroy the spirit of a people determined to be free."

The state of Chinese plumbing was a frequent conversational topic among the women on the trip. Western commodes were sought out, but not always in prime condition. I recall at one point, waiting in line, being told by a previous user, sotto voce, "Pull the pink string." I briefly thought it might be some sort of weird incantation, but gamely entered the stall anyway, to discover that the handle of the waterbox had disappeared. Sure enough, a pink string dangled from a hole in the porcelain side. Surprisingly it was a very adequate substitute for the modern chrome equivalent.

Another routine discussion involved the destruction, by the rising waters behind the dam, of ancient towns and villages, temples and burial grounds, of people who have lived and worked along the Yangtze since time began here. Already well begun, the rising water level in the river above the Three Gorges Dam will eventually reach 175 meters above sea level. At least one million people have been displaced or soon will be. Some are happy with their new, modern homes above the eventual level of the river and with the electrification made possible. Many are not. But there are no holdouts. The national government owns all land in the country, so if an eviction notice arrives, there is no recourse but to leave.

The cities of China are surprisingly low in smog pollution. Soft coal is being replaced as a fuel by natural gas and water-generated electricity. The government has moved many heavy industries to the countryside to lower the emissions in urban regions, and buses in some cities, and taxis, already run on natural gas. The river boats, however, are still largely diesel-powered.

Chongqing is home to the Giant Panda Zoo. They are darling, very large, but cuddly-looking. We arrived at feeding time and very likely witnessed the greatest level of activity by the pandas in any given day. The so-called Red Pandas (named panda because they eat the same bamboo as the big guys-go figure), are arboreal and look like large raccoons, to whom they may be related. At the zoo, we could observe families with children, all of whom are so cute I wanted to smuggle them home with me. The one child policy of the government permits a couple to try again if the first child is a girl. If the second is also a girl, they're out of luck. But children seem to be genuinely cherished, whatever their gender. When questioned as to what became of children born to single parents, the guides indicated that they went to orphanages-and, presumably are not "counted" with respect to the one child policy.

Seeing the terra cotta army at Xian just might be worth the trip to China. Xian is home, if you will, to the tomb of the First Emperor of China, a man of many accomplishments, who lived about 2,000 years ago. He unified the country into what we pretty much know as China today, by conquering adjacent provinces; he created a nationwide monetary system; he was responsible for what came to be the Great Wall of China; he organized the basic language (Mandarin) of the country; he founded the dynasty from which every subsequent emperor of China came; he oversaw the building of the Forbidden City in Beijing and he required the building of a 6,000-7,000 man terra cotta army, aimed at scaring the wits out of any likely enemies. It is a wonder to behold what has been uncovered of this remarkable collection.

In 1973, three or four guys trying to dig a well accidentally brought to the surface the torso of a clay soldier, fired and painted. They were smart enough to go to the local powers, who decided that this was a part of the fabled army of the First Emperor. (All the emperors were from the Han people, the largest ethnic group in China. Ninety-three percent of the people of China today are descended from Han ancestors). At this point there began, despite the Cultural Revolution, a full-blown effort to save and reconstruct the terra cotta army. This was and is now a laborious undertaking of unearthing all the clay figures of men and horses. The wooden parts of vehicles and weapons are long gone, either burned in various early actions against the army or destroyed by 20 centuries of soil depositing over them. Many of the figures were damaged by these or other processes and are being painstakingly restored.

The size and lifelike appearance of the soldiers and horses is startling. The site, now covered by three separate, huge buildings, in addition to the usual shops, a museum and assorted other constructions necessary to tourism, covers many acres. Each soldier's face is unique, modeled after an actual person and, reportedly, made by local people at the emperor's command. There were, we believe, some rather stringent sanctions for those who failed to live up to this artistic necessity. The soldiers stand in ranks today, less formidable than was hoped and believed by the emperor, but fabulous and wonderful to view, nonetheless. The entire dig and reconstruction are ongoing.

The emperor's tomb is nearby, complete with bronze carts to carry his soul to the afterlife. Numerous people died in the course of his "public" works and stories abound regarding the cost in human life of this army, the Great Wall, his own tomb and the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Our evening's entertainment in Xian at the hotel was a beautiful blend of ancient and modern music and dance, with costumes to rival a Broadway show.

The Wild Goose Pagoda, a local attraction in Xian, is a former Buddhist monastery. There are wide, lovely grounds and numerous places of interest. Because our guide told the attendant that we were "very important visitors" from America, we got to ring the huge temple bell without paying a fee.

Last stop of the tour was Beijing, the capital. Somehow, I had thought that Beijing would be grubby and dull, home to the Maoist government, devoted to maintaining an inillustrious front. Wrong. Beijing is a lovely city. It has broad avenues, with trees planted everywhere. It is, certainly, trying to spruce up for the Olympics in 2008. You can buy a hat to commemorate the upcoming event on any street corner. There were flowers all around and colorful trees in bloom. The city is less crowded, because it has open space surrounding it, unlike Shanghai and, to a lesser extent, Chongqing. The downtown area has buildings less imposing in size, but as decorative as those of Shanghai.

We traveled by pedicab to the Hutong, reported to be a middle-class neighborhood, but in the old quarter of the city, which is undergoing substantial reconstruction (destruction and new construction). There we were guests of a retired archeologist, Mr. Li, who answered any questions we asked. His answers were typically Chinese in that he did not wish to say anything adverse. As mentioned, the Chinese have no word for bad. Their effort is to be circumspect with anything which could be negative.

The housing in the Hutong is crowded, but pleasant, with the same amenities one would find in an American home-TV, microwave, refrigerator-freezer, telephone, laundry facilities, etc. We enjoyed talking with Mr. Li and seeing his home. It was air-conditioned and it was a hot day.

The Fourth of July in Tiananmen Square meant a lot to us as Americans. My husband wore his American flag printed tee shirt, emblazoned with the words, "American and Proud." Most of the Chinese (and there were a bejillion of them there-it was a weekend) we saw had no clue what our reference point was. The Chinese in China never saw the pictures from the uprising in Tiananmen Square that we saw on television, most pointedly not the one of the young man facing down the tank. But we knew.

Tiananmen Square contains a large building in which reposes the body of Chairman Mao. A huge portrait of the Chairman dominates one end of the Square. When we arrived on that Sunday, a line five people abreast extended entirely around what would be a full city block, waiting to enter that big building and view the body, whether out of devotion, duty or reassurance, we could not divine. We proceeded to the other end of the Square to visit the Forbidden City.

That First Emperor was busy. From the surrounding large moat through several courtyards and many buildings with yellow roofs (only the emperor could use yellow), the Emperor built with luxury to match his exalted position. Materials from all over China were brought to Beijing by God knows what manner, to enhance the official meeting halls, the halls for signing documents, the halls for robing and disrobing from official garments, the halls for meeting foreign dignitaries, and the actual living areas for the emperor, his wives, concubines, children and retainers. It is the sort of place which makes you wonder why anyone would require such elaborate arrangements. A tiring but fascinating visit.

The piece de resistance for most of us came on our last day-The Great Wall of China. This magnificent structure, made and remade over centuries, is a cultural icon. At Ba-Da-Ling, the area we visited, we began ascent of the portion of the Wall available for tourists. The Wall is 3,600 kilometers in length, give or take a kilometer. It is situated in a mountainous part of the country, in land very beautiful in itself. Those visitors are national heroes who climb to the highest battlements of the Wall at that place. Many Americans you know are national Chinese heroes today. Alas, I am not. My husband and I chose to climb on the other side of the entry area, where there were slopes more than steps, to accommodate my bum ankle, which works better on slopes and those going up backward, hence the name of this article. I was pleased, though, while walking backward up the sloped area, to see a Chinese man, whose foot problems must mirror mine, walking backward down the Wall.

The whole trip was wonderful. Kudos to Loren Golden for his foresight in working out this trip with ISBA. Everyone seemed to enjoy greatly the whole thing, even if there were some longings for pizza by the fourth or fifth day of Chinese food. Some of us will never again have such a journey, but the memories from this one will last a lifetime.

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October 2004Volume 10Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)