China China vs Taiwan China

March 9, 2003


As I closed my last message, the time had almost come for the long-awaited parental visit to see me (and, I suppose, Taiwan and China as well, but I confess that I tend to think of myself as the greatest of these potential attractions for my parents, whatever the wonders of Greater China). Unfortunately, the night before they were scheduled to leave, anticipation seemed to get the better of my dad, and in an attempt to generate a little eleventh-hour drama and excitement, he fell on some ice (with, I’m told, a little help from Pooh Bear, the small but excitable family dog), and broke his leg (not content with one fracture, he managed to work two into a single fall. Having inherited his slightly klutzy tendencies, but without ever breaking bones to prove it – toes don’t count – I admire his thoroughness and efficiency). Even if he had wanted to navigate the Great Wall on crutches, the doctor nixed all travel plans by declaring the risk of blood clots while flying to be too dangerous. So, as soon as we convince the evil dark lords of Northwest Airlines that suffering an injury that could be an in-flight risk to his life is actually a pretty good reason for canceling a reservation less than the preferred 24 hours in advance, we’ll reschedule dad’s visit. Everyone think mean thoughts about Northworst until they come through for us (editor note- in the end the loverly folk at Northworst offered credit for a future trip to Taipei, but charged several hundred dollars additional for the fare; apparently, 3 months advance reservation is not good enough; whatever you do, avoid that airline if you travel to the Far East).

Anyway, the trip was down one parent, but fortunately for me, not out altogether. Sometime in the midst of the x-rays and soft-casting my dad convinced my mom to come without him, and it is a good thing that he did because although I like to think I am capable of garnering disappointment like a grown-up, I am, in all actuality, not quite mature enough to have dealt with a full-blown cancellation.

We had just one day in Taipei after Mom got in but before we took off for Hong Kong. I brought Mom to church, where she got a very enthusiastic round of applause (with a few shouts and gasps thrown in) once I introduced her as my mama (and, as an added bonus, I think I’m held in higher esteem now for having demonstrated an appropriate degree of filial piety). Later in the day, I ignored any fatigue that might have been lingering from her cross-Pacific flight and took her up a mountain to see a rather hazy view of Taipei through an unfortunate curtain of fog, followed by an evening trip to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial to take in the last night of the lantern festival (Mom enjoyed the display and captions as much as I did – see my last mass mailing – but she favored two lanterns in particular, one titled, “Chatting on the Back of a Cow,” and the other, “Star-Plucking Is Not a Dream.” So true, so true). After such high-quality rest, we prepared to get up at 4:30 Monday morning to make an early flight to Hong Kong.

After an extended and completely failed excursion to locate a Citibank we had noticed along Nathan Road on the trip from the airport to the hotel (as we discovered later, we walked right past it, as it was hiding under a large blue sign with the word “Citibank” written on it in white lettering. It could happen to anyone), we took off for the Hong Kong Museum of History. We began our museum adventure with the permanent display on (appropriately) the History of Hong Kong, beginning to present (and they do mean beginning – we walked through a long corridor on plate tectonics and volcanic activity that ended only with the rise of early man). After almost a half an hour of displays of Famous Archeological and Anthropological Finds which Illuminate and Educate the Modern Man on His Early Ancestors, Mom famously declared the display to be “just a bunch of pots.” Because my heart had secretly groaned when I discovered that the next room was also filled with pots (which are no doubt fascinating to the expert on Early Man, but definitely yawn-inspiring to the more average soul who cannot tell a 3,000-year-old single-fired clay bowl from a 2,800-year-old double-fired clay cup), I quickly agreed to speed forward to the later dynasties where more than clay had been found to preserve and capture the nuances of daily life. (On a side note, for anyone who erroneously believes that aesthetics don’t count, just put your standard old clay pot next to a blue and white Ming vase and see which one the people want to see. Maybe they performed the same function, and even tell us the same things about the societies that employed them, but their appearance lent some element of, shall we say, lack of suspense to walking past display after display of, well, pots.

Actually, by the time we completed the first floor of the exhibit (having learned about the ethnic groups forming early Hong Kong societies and speeding forward all the way to the Ming and then Qing Dynasties), we had completely recovered from our initial disappointment to declare the exhibit One Of The Best Ever. The only thing preventing us from lingering in the Colonial Era was an earnest desire to leave time to catch a glimpse of the other (temporary) exhibit currently at the museum. Proving that such marketing schemes really do work, we had no clue what the second exhibit was all about but had paid for a separate admissions ticket to see it, so we just knew it had to be good.

As we walked into the other exhibit (enigmatically titled “War and Peace,” a name which proved to have virtually no connection to the items shown and opened the door to suspicions that the museum was simply saving money by recycling leftover tickets and signage from a past display), I was met by the eerie confirmation of an old concern that I had almost laid to rest: the famous Qin Dynasty terra cotta warriors are stalking me. Some of you might be reading this with a degree of incredulity (thinking, “Really, Mer, stalking you? You do know that they’re 2,000 years old, carefully protected, and, of course, made of terra cotta, don’t you?”), so I feel it is necessary to lay the evidence before you and let you decide for yourselves. The half a dozen or so statues on display at the museum in Hong Kong are the only terra cotta figures to be removed from the original collection of more than 8,000 warriors still on guard in their original home, the tomb of the first Chinese emperor Qinshi Huangdi in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, China. In 1999, these few “sample” statues were released from their posts and began a journey to various museums around the world, so that people who would not be visiting Xi’an anytime soon could admire this piece of world heritage (and the brilliance and creativity of the Chinese people, of course). That winter they were on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, and I popped over one afternoon after class to see them for the first and, I had erroneously thought, the last time. Little did I know….

While I was in Monterey, California studying Chinese in the summer of 2000, they flew in to be on display at the Asian art museum in San Francisco. It struck me at the time as an odd coincidence, but not too concerning. Then, the following winter I arrived in Paris to meet my friend Tyler, and we discovered that the terra cotta warriors were also in town, now on display for admiration by the French. At this juncture, my senses were heightened and my concerns steadily growing, but my nerves had been allowed to settle down again during a terra-cotta-free two years. But now, low and behold, here they are again, just when I was least expecting them (I could have paid the price, you know, for having let down my guard). If they show up in Taipei before I leave, in spite of all the diplomatic issues that make that unlikely, we’ll know they’re ready to make their move. I’ll send a message, using a code like “planters on the prowl,” so you’ll know I need rescuing.

After suspiciously eyeing the terra cotta soldiers and making short work of the rest of the display (“More pots,” Mom noted, with a bit of disappointment in her voice), we ended the visit with a photo session in front of the large (fake) terra cotta soldier out front (in retrospect, the sight of this twelve-foot-tall figure should have tipped me off to the presence of my inanimate opponents inside, but alas, I was either not that bright or not that awake), and took off for an authentic Hong Kong meal at T.G.I. Friday’s (“Welcome to Friday!!!” the staff shouted at each new arrival, unselfconscious about the dropped possessive).

After an unplanned but remarkably successful self-guided tour of Hong Kong island on our second day, followed by an hour’s worth of dodging very earnest attempts to sell us Rolexes and other “genuine” products out of suitcases (“Excuse me, ma’am, but were you looking for a Gucci?”), we spent an uneventful but slightly awkward evening at the hotel with the power going out at irregular intervals (apparently this is construction season the world over), and mentally prepared ourselves to venture into the People’s Republic the next day (okay, we looked at a magazine and drank wine, but perhaps that was the sort of preparation the trip required).

In Shanghai, we found ample evidence that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” just might be related to something the rest of the world commonly refers to as “capitalism.” We stayed two nights in the world-famous Peace Hotel (well, that’s what the literature says, but I’m not afraid to admit to you that in spite of how truly wonderful the place was, I had never heard of it before passing through the revolving doors), conveniently located on the heart of the Bund. As we learned during a visit to the Bund Museum, this riverside strip of nineteenth century buildings stands as a monument to China’s near-colonial past, an emblem of how the city suffered under the influence of Western imperial powers before Liberation in 1949. The exhibit stops short of references to Running Dog Capitalists and other Barbarians, but the sentiment was there. So it was with our hearts filled with understanding for its revolutionary significance that we strolled along the Huangpu River and enjoyed the incongruous view of old Europe on our side of the water and Modern-New-York-meets-Epcot-Center in the highrises and towers of Pudong (a financial and business capital for the New Chinese economy) on the other bank.

A few minutes walk from the Bund was a part of town that our National Geographic guidebook refers to as “Old Chinese City.” After passing through an alley packed with bicycles, laundry, and houses that give the impression that, Marxist theory aside, some worker residents of China have not yet lost their chains, we came to the old City Temple, which dates from the early 20th century and marks the entrance to a labyrinth of shops and department stores in the classical Chinese architectural style. We learned from a friendly shop-owner, however, that the buildings (other than the City Temple) are not actually remnants of “Old China,” but were instead built in the late 1980s for the tourists. We took pictures anyway.

Another major attraction in Shanghai is the Shanghai Museum (other visitors to the city should not make our mistake of confusing this with the Shanghai Art Museum, though the latter is the only one appearing on the “Tourist Map of Shanghai”), which houses a wide variety of classical Chinese art. Close observers discover that the art inside almost uniformly managed to survive the Cultural Revolution (the reign of revolutionary terror sponsored by Mao and, more famously, the Gang of Four – specifically, that’s “Madame Mao and The Other Three,” for those of you interested in the details – during which youthful “Red Guards” waged war in city streets and destroyed thousands of priceless artifacts of Chinese history between 1966 and the early 70s) by being out of China – and, generally, in the hands of collectors in the Overseas Chinese community – until the Museum was built in 1994. Actually, some of the greatest treasures of Chinese art are in Taiwan.

Speaking of the Party Line, the next day’s travels took us to Party Headquarters, Beijing. Our first evening in the capital, we took a short walk over to Tiananmen Square to look around. On the way we were forced to squelch the hopes of several young Chinese art students hoping to sell us their paintings (oh, how we came to dread those two, linked questions: “Are you an American?” and “Are you interested in Chinese art?” By the end of the trip we had become determined to answer the latter, “No, not really,” but never got the chance).

In a later discussion of the Square, our guide explained that it had recently been altered a bit. You see, in the 20th century, years ending in 9 frequently saw disturbances in the square: you know, like 1919 when it was the May Fourth Movement or 1999, when the problem was Falun Gong. Ever so helpful, I added to her list, “And then there’s June 4, 1989.” “Hmm, well,” she said quickly, “the point is there is a pattern.” Struck with this baffling recurrence of difficulties, government officials have, they think, finally hit upon the reason: evil spirits. Basically, the geomancy is all out of whack. This reason led to an application of the most obvious solution: altering the feng shui. By raising the flagpole in the center of the square (so that is now stands taller than the monument to the People’s Heroes, formerly the tallest point) and putting fountains in the water before Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) itself (everyone knows water wards off evil.

That’s right, boys. You have demonstrations every year? An unsettled population? By all means, don’t liberalize the government, change the feng shui.

Actually, perhaps the Chinese Communist Party has hit upon something here. If the UN can’t agree to military action to deal with Iraq, perhaps the Security Council – dare I say even the French – might agree to a special “UN Feng Shui Force.” I can just see them parachuting into Saddam Hussein’s palace, taking immediate action: “Now remember, Marines, your operative words are harmony and balance. We will not withdraw until we’ve changed the energy of the place.” “There’s no time to rebuild the doorways, we’ll have to use screens. Move out.” “Unit Five – potted plants in the east side of every room. Go, Go, GO!” “Get that water to the southwest entrance, NOW!” I’m sure there are those who’d agree that the UN’s chosen baby blue color scheme makes it better suited to interior decorating than military action anyway.

We were very good tourists in Beijing, hitting all the major sights that good tourists do, from the Forbidden City to the Great Wall. (I should have been connecting everything I saw to the histories I’ve read of China, the Revolution, and the CCP, but instead, everything I saw reminded me of classic wisecracks from the mid 1970s Doonesbury series in which Duke was the pre-Leonard Woodcock ambassador to China. All I’ll say, to those of you who know what I mean, is that “It is, indeed, a Great Wall.”) After resisting the pleas of numerous minor entrepreneurs to buy a pair of “I climbed the Great Wall” T-shirts, we had what was perhaps one of the more eventful moments in Beijing when our guide took us to a famous restaurant for Peking Duck. [Sidebar for the uninitiated: Peking is the spelling used in the old system of romanization for the capital of China; Beijing is the same city – same characters – but spelt using the newer Pinyin system of romanization. For whatever reason, a few things are more commonly known using the western pronunciation gleaned from the old spelling system: i.e. Peking Duck. Perhaps this is perpetuated just so that people can crack jokes using some variation of “Peeking Duck” as a punchline; certainly Beijing is harder to pun with.]

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I ate duck, vegetarianism notwithstanding. I have been asked before if being occasionally forced into carnivorous meals in Taiwan in my efforts to be polite and avoid making a scene has lessened my dislike of meat; the question, in fact, was an inquiry as to whether or not I might finally be led to renounce my chosen vegetarian lifestyle upon my return stateside. The answer is no. If anything, my encounters with chicken feet and gizzard, frog joints, beef on the bone, and rubbery pork from God-knows-what part of a pig have encouraged me to never ever again eat meat when I’m back in a world where I can control my own diet more freely. But the bit of duck in Beijing was different: it is a world-famous (and this time I really mean it) dish and I was in a restaurant famous for it (with imperial connections, no less) in Beijing, which is a little different from taking in a random duck for lunch on a quiet Tuesday in Minneapolis (in my mind, anyway). It was good, but I don’t think I’ll ever seek out the dish outside of Beijing; at least now I can say I tried it once, and under the best of all possible circumstances.

In general, I’d say that Mom and I discovered many things on our trip. For example, if you are looking for Chinese red grape wine, the Great Wall brand is much better than Dynasty, and Dragon is about the same but more expensive. We learned a (very) little about how pearls are made and a lot about how government-run pearl factories exist to sell, sell, sell, not educate foreigners about pearls. We learned only a little more about sources and quality of jade, but quite a lot about the similarities between the government-run jade factory/store (with emphasis on the store part) and its pearl counterpart. We learned (from the guide in Beijing again) that in the 1950s, thousands of Chinese “volunteered” to plant pine trees on narrow, dangerous passes on the mountains near the great wall in order to improve the aesthetics of the area and increase wood production. You might say we learned that even though there are signs of burgeoning capitalism, not to mention a Pizza Hut, McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken on every street corner, there’s no mistaking Beijing for Kansas City or the CCP for Democratic Party (or even the Guomindang in Taiwan).

After our experiment in Communism, Mom and I heartily embraced our bourgeois sensibilities when Dragon Air discovered that it could not seat us together in the coach section for our return flight from Hong Kong to Taipei and bumped us both up to business class (I’ve never before heard of an airline with a family unification policy, but it suits the Confucian sensibilities of East Asia). We laughed at the proles back in coach who did not get champagne before take-off and who had to eat with plastic tableware and sans cloth napkins, and poked fun of the haughty businessmen who were too busy being self-important to acknowledge that business class perks are cool. When we got into the hotel in Taipei (why didn’t we stay at my apartment? My landlady-cum-flatmate babysits a noisy four year old boy starting at 7:30 each morning, something we felt would detract from the “vacation atmosphere” for Mom. Originally it was her and Dad in the hotel and me at home, but with Dad in Minnesota I was forced to suffer in the hotel with her, you know, to keep her company), we discovered that it was a all-around upgrade day, as a well-timed Japanese tour group took all the regular hotel rooms, leaving us “stuck” in a suite at no extra charge (more jokes about the “proles” followed, but as they likely do not reflect well on either of us I won’t repeat them). For three days we gloried in our apartment-size suite as I showed Mom around Taipei and generally dreaded her inevitable departure.

Mom, of course, did leave – ultimately I was forced to acknowledge that Dad needs her more than I do at the moment – but we had a great time and lots of fun traveling together. Then came a weekend during which I paid heartily for my two weeks of fun: laundry, taxes, and homework (making up for skipping four of the first five days of the semester to hang out with Mom). It was worth it.

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen