Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Dear Readers: Thanks to the Chinese government's feud with Google, I was unable to post my  Architext blogs during my two-month stay in China (Google is blocked there, and therefore so is Thank you all for your patience in awaiting my return. I'll be including a few observations on China, my second home, in the blog over the course of the next few weeks.

China is a nation that’s never less than fascinating. I first came here in 1994, and have spent my summers here more or less yearly since 2000, when my wife and I bought a house in Suzhou, the region where she grew up.

The view from my office window in Suzhou, China. The
city is crisscrossed with canals, which long ago
earned it the nickname "Venice of the East".
In the ensuing fourteen years, I’ve written many, many thousands of words about China, whether for newspapers, for my syndicated column, or for my blog. Yet each time I return to the People’s Republic, I find a whole new China to talk about.

If there’s one thing that’s stood out in my last few visits—since America’s Great Recession, perhaps not coincidentally—is that the Chinese no longer view the West as its smarter big brother. After a century of humiliation at the hands of the West, after enduring Second World War atrocities by the Japanese, China closed its doors and turned its back on the world. Communism salvaged the nation’s sense of sovereignty, but ironically, it also further afflicted China by unnaturally suppressing the nation’s ancient mercantile instincts for thirty years.

At 2073 feet tall, Shanghai Tower by Gensler Associates
is Asia's tallest building. It dwarfs SOM's Jin Mao Tower,
 formerly the world's tallest building, as well as
Kohn Pederson Fox's Shanghai World Financial Center
(a.k.a. "the bottle opener".)

Only after the Opening in 1978 was the genie once again released from the bottle. In the scant thirty-eight years since—a mere heartbeat in the long history of this culture—China has regained its confidence, and perhaps, its sense of innate cultural superiority. 
This wouldn’t trouble me in the least if China was not such a profoundly homogeneous nation, and also one that has not lost its equally ancient xenophobia, nor its incredible tenacity in holding a grudge. I’m speaking, of course, about China’s relationship with Japan—a nation that undeniably inflicted grievous and unjust suffering on the Chinese people. 

Yet China had no monopoly on suffering during the Second World War. The United States was not occupied by Imperial Japan as China was, but given the course of the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans certainly had reason to hold a grudge. Yet within five years of the war’s end, Japan was under reconstruction, and within ten the antagonism of the war years was largely behind us.

Not so China. Every Chinese grade school history book from the immediate postwar era to this very moment makes certain to instill in young Chinese students a hatred of the Japanese. This, not surprisingly, explains the instant indignation of young Chinese in the ongoing skirmish over a number of seemingly worthless islands in the South China Sea. As of this writing, that conflict has once again flared up, as a recent arbitration by the International Tribunal of The Hague has dealt China a humiliating repudiation of its sweeping claims to that area. 

Wang Shi Yuan ("Master of the Nets Garden"),
a World Heritage Site a few miles from my home.
This is the other China—the one we hardly
hear about anymore. The garden was
constructed in 1140, and restored in 1785.
As a frequent visitor to the People’s Republic, one thing that’s always in the back of my mind is the speed at which things can change here. While I’ve seldom met a Chinese person who has been less than generous and hospitable—it’s an innate cultural trait—it’s also true that it would only take a single edict from Beijing to change this benevolent attitude toward foreigners, much as Mao’s bizarre initiation of the Cultural Revolution sparked mayhem against China’s own most learned people.

In view of the near-certainty that China will draw abreast of the United States as a world superpower in the near future, one can only hope that the Buddhist cultural traits of kindness and generosity will continue to outweigh the fevers of nationalism that periodically wreak such destruction here, as they have everywhere else on earth.

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