Tuesday, September 16, 2014

CHINA: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow

(Note: This is the final piece in a series of reflections on China, where I spent this past summer).

China is a nation of baffling contrasts. It’s a place that practically defines the notions of culture and permanence: consider the Great Wall, or the ancient garden residences of my adopted home town, Suzhou. And yet today’s China is better known by its mad scramble for status and wealth, its penchant for superficial glitz, and its monumental indifference to quality.

Jichang Garden in Wuxi, not far from my
summer home-away-from home
in Suzhou, China. The garden was designed
and built between 1506 and 1521.
In Nanjing, a glittering new railway station unveiled six years ago is already falling apart, thanks to modern China’s typically hasty workmanship. Another station just recently completed in my adopted hometown of Suzhou no doubt awaits the same fate. The main reason for the dismal quality of China’s built environment is the invariably breakneck construction schedules imposed by local governments, which serves to aggrandize the officials in charge, but at the cost of both careful planning and decent quality. The quality of commercial work is even worse, though in this case it’s because investors want their profits and don’t much care what happens afterward.

Still, a visit to any one of Suzhou’s many ancient garden residences--four of them are World Heritage sites--should convince even a hardened skeptic that China’s current deficiencies are just a momentary blip in its astonishing history (<whc.unesco.org/en/list/813/gallery/>. Most of these gardens date from the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and they exhibit sensibilities so refined that, truth be told, the West has yet to equal them in beauty and livability. Here, landscape and shelter are so artfully joined that it’s often difficult to tell where indoors begins and outdoors ends. 

Shanghai Tower, soon to be China's tallest
building, and the world's second tallest at
121 stories and 2,073 feet. The design
is by American architects Gensler Associates. 
Like most traditional Chinese buildings, these garden residences are designed with fastidious attention to both solar orientation and sensual experience. Often, I’ve visited them on ferociously hot and humid days, only to find myself almost supernaturally transported into a cool realm of shade, fragrance, and beauty the moment I passed through their portals. 

Granted, in ancient China, as in the Old World, only an elite few had the privilege of such gracious living--but that is, alas, how we measure culture’s high water marks. Nevertheless, the elevated living standard of China’s most fortunate ancients makes the lives of their European counterparts, miserably hunkered down in their dank castles, seem downright barbaric.

To keep China’s current situation in perspective, Suzhou has three thousand years of recorded culture. By contrast, a mere six decades have passed since China’s Maoist revolution, and only half that many since China reopened to the world. One can endlessly argue the present government’s strengths and weaknesses, but one thing is certain: China is no worse off under Communism than it was under the humiliating subjugation of its prior colonial masters--a time when the entrance to a public park in Shanghai’s British quarter could freely post the advisory, “NO DOGS OR CHINESE.”

Sixty years is just a heartbeat in the history of such a proud and ancient culture, and it would be a mistake to presume that tomorrow’s China will resemble the peculiar socialist/materialist hybrid we know today. Though we can only infer what lies ahead for China, the brilliance of its past is crystal clear.

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