The first time I was in China, two years ago, I was surprised to see that it was much different than I had expected it to be. Much more modern, much less “oriental”, much easier to adjust to… One year earlier I had been in Japan and, somehow, I was expecting China to be as different as Japan is when you compare it to the Western world. I was therefore surprised not to be “lost in translation”… When I returned there, one week ago, I therefore thought that I have already had my share of Chinese surprises. Yet, it turned out that I was wrong… and China surprised me again!
In 2005 I visited Beijing and Tianjin. This time I repeated Beijing and added Shanghai.
In Beijing, I didn’t return back to the Forbidden City; instead, I went for the first time to the Temple of Heaven. On the other hand, I went back to the Great Wall: in 2005, I visited it at Badaling; now I saw it at Juyongguan. The days spent in Beijing confirmed the deep changes that the city is going through in view of next year’s Olympics: the “northern capital” is a lively metropolis, where the traditional architecture of imperial China blends with boxy, bland sino-soviet buildings and much more modern architectural forms. The heavenly harmony between old and new is a constant in the city, and something to admire. But the biggest surprise awaited me in Shanghai…
Situated on the banks of the Yangtze River delta, Shanghai, with its 19 million inhabitants, is the largest city in China. Originally a fishing town, it became important in the 19th century only, when its strategic location attracted foreign nations interested in trade. Until 1949, when the People’s Liberation Army took control, Shanghai was indeed an international settlement ruled by almost all nations but China. Shanghai then became an industrial centre and, even during the Cultural Revolution period, was able to maintain high economic productivity; in fact, the city has experienced, for the last 15 years, a continuous economic growth of between 9 and 15% per year! The result of all this is a modern city which represents at its best the economic success of modern China. The lovely “bourgeois” 19th and early-20th century elements blend with the leftovers of the 1949’s communist take-over, but all of them are totally overshadowed by Shanghai’s futuristic skyscrapers and modern lifestyle. Xintiandi, literally the “new heaven on earth”, is probably the best example of this complex blending: an area where traditional stone gate houses on narrow alleys, near the site of the First Conference of the Communist Party of China, were restored and now house art galleries, cafes, restaurants and luxury shops. Final result: a charming neighbourhood, a romantic ambiance, and high prices, even by international standards. Gorgeous!
China still has huge challenges to face, especially when it comes to democracy and respect for the human rights; but it is also fair to say that important steps have been taken in the right directions. Unique for its dimensions, but also for its old history and rich civilisation, China is not comparable to any other nation in the world; but the world needs to start looking at China and try to understand it, for the future will make obvious its strategic importance in every sphere of the world’s life, be it economy, politics, sports or culture at large. Socialism with Chinese characteristics might be sometimes difficult to understand, but it exists, and it seems to work!