Our China Journey, Part II – Shanghai and the Lower Yangtze Region


We next flew to Shanghai, though the largest city in the country it is not in its core area historically Chinese. Shanghai was a small town until 1842, when just north of it two large concession enclaves were carved out; the International [really British] concession, and just south of it, the French concession.  The British Concession portion looks very European on the outside.  The French Concession had trees planted on its streets, and there are still plenty of low rise areas in it, which make it the most desirable and expensive residential area in the city.  [It should be noted that Shanghai is the great exception – I’ll have to hold my judgment till I see Beijing at the end, but most Chinese cities have lots of trees and hedges and are very green despite their verticality – not in the ecological sense necessarily, but literally in the sense of lots of plants.]

In Shanghai we got to visit some houses where Sun Yat-sen and his wife and widow Sung Ching-Ling lived. Sun Yat-sen, known in Mandarin Chinese as Sun Zhongshan, is the hero of the movement to overthrow the Chinese monarchy in 1911, and he died in 1925, and his Three Principles of the People document makes him considered to be one of the founding fathers of both the People’s Republic and the Nationalist government which rules Taiwan.  The Guomindang, which is the Taiwan party, and the Communists split and started to fight each other in 1927, after his death.  When the Communists broke through and conquered the mainland in 1949, Sung Ching-Ling, his widow, elected to remain on the mainland, even though she was none other than the sister-in-law of Jiang Jieshi, ruler of Republican China and Taiwan, known in the West by his non-Mandarin name Chiang Kai-shek.

Incidentally, the status of Taiwan is that of a ‘rebellious province’ within China, and Taiwanese invest and travel freely in the rest of China now, and Beijing is content with this.  The government in Taibei claims to be the true government of all China.  The People’s Republic is fine with this for now, but if Taiwan ever drops its claim to be the true government of all China and declares itself merely the Republic of Taiwan, the People’s Republic will invade in force!  Ah the Chinese mind!

We also went to the Shanghai Museum, which is the best and most important museum of Chinese historical art in the country, and spent a lot of time in front of the Shang bronzes [around 1000 B.C.], and learned what bi and cong [pronounced tzong] were, and learned a little bit about Chinese painting.  [A bi is a disk with a hole in the middle, like the old 45 rpm records.  A cong is a carved tube that is square on the outside but round on the inside, because earth is square and heaven is round, or so they believed at the time.  Both objects had some religious significance and coffins of important people were filled with them.]


Jiangnan is not a province; rather it is a name for the heavily populated and important Lower Yangtze region, which includes parts of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces and the city of Shanghai.  It is estimated at no less than 115 million people, of which 83 million are urban.

For most of our journeys within the region we experimented with taking the Chinese ‘Harmony’ high speed rail system, though because luggage was such an inconvenience to take on a train [especially when you’re traveling for seven weeks] we had a luggage van transport most of our stuff from place to place.

The first high speed rail journey was to Ningbo, a treaty port about two hours away by train.  We got out and for the first time started to feel the real China outside Shanghai; more motorbikes and bicycles and more people selling street food as we walked to a famous historical library and estate put together by a retired scholar-official during the Ming Dynasty period, which is at the same time as Europe’s Renaissance and Reformation.  There aren’t that many books there now, but it was our first exposure to historic Chinese buildings and gardens – I had seen imitations in California of course, but the real thing is beautiful and for some reason closer to my taste than the European counterpart!  After which we went for a couple of nights to a beautiful Hyatt Hotel on a lake east of the city; it was characteristically Chinese, beautiful, but a lot of turns and twists before you got to your room.

That had also been the case in Shanghai and was to be in many of our hotels, and it seems to have something to do with feng shui, that demons can’t navigate twisting corridors and positive energy can’t escape.  The oddity is that Chinese cities, on the other hand, tend to have long straight streets in a grid pattern like Midwestern and Western U.S. cities, not the maze-like layout of European old towns or the pizza-like plan of their metropolitan areas.  I couldn’t help wonder if that is to cause demonic forces to rage straight through town and come out the other side without getting a foothold!

The hotel overlooked a lake, but it was not certain how anyone would actually get out to the lake if they wanted to; it seems Chinese like to contemplate bodies of water, or cruise over them in boats while dry, but not get down into water.  The hotels all seemed to have indoor swimming pools but the lakes were not a recreational asset as we would imagine.

The next day we drove to a place on the other side of Ningbo where there is a park of Neolithic discoveries; there will be a number of Neolithic sites on this trip, because my son is an amateur scholar of Neolithic culture and a fan of writer Marija Gimbutas.  By the way, ‘Neolithic’ is the term for a culture that has agriculture and is organized around it, but does not have organized writing or record keeping, and does not have the technology to make things out of metal.  This site, called Hemudu, is from around 5000 B.C. and it is thought that these people were not Chinese, but Austronesian; a group which settled Taiwan before the Chinese did, [a few Taiwanese ‘aborigines’ still remain] and then eventually settled a stretch of the earth that stretches halfway around the world from Madagascar to Hawaii!  The languages in that stretch are distantly related to each other.

The day after that we put our luggage in the luggage van, got back on the Harmony Train, and backtracked to Hangzhou. [The ‘zhou’ in a lot of these place names just means ‘place’ and is as ubiquitous as our ‘ville’ or ‘burg.’]  Hangzhou was always viewed as a desirable place.  As a matter of fact, from 1127 to 1271 it served as the nation’s capital during the period called the Southern Sung.  The Sung Dynasty had ruled the whole country from 960 to 1127, but in 1127 invaders conquered the Huanghe [Yellow] River area and the country was divided into three; Liao in the northwest, Jin in the north, and the Southern Sung dynasty to the south.  The aesthetic beauty of the city has mainly to do with the so called West Lake, which lies just west of the oldest part of the city at the foot of the mountains; and it is as beautiful as you can imagine.  Our hotel was next to it.  You can take boat rides on part of it, but no swimming; I didn’t have a paddle board with me, but I couldn’t help thinking that if you tried to SUP you were legal, but the moment you fell off you’d be arrested!

There is a part of the lake in which slightly underwater platforms appear to have been built to enable stage performers to walk in the water – and around that whole portion of the lake, the lights are color coordinated and change colors.  We found out all this when we went to a night ballet that was performed in the lake and viewed from a waterfront stage!  The ballet was esthetically beautiful, with a floating Chinese two-story boat and dancers in costumes and electric cranes flying in air like the Disney electrical parade but more beautiful than that.  Didn’t have much of a plot, but Swan Lake doesn’t, either.  I’ll confess the costuming deceived me and I had the boy and the girl reversed!

The next day we drove to the northern outskirts of the city to see another Neolithic site, the Liangzhu site. This one was much later, around 2000 B.C., and clearly Chinese – they had bi‘s and cong’s out of stone, not metal or jade, but clearly early in the tradition.  The discovery of this culture has had a traumatic effect on the knowledge of early Chinese history.  It was always assumed that the Huanghe River belt, to the north, was the center of civilization in early times, and the Yangtze River area was kind of a frontier – but this is less clearly so, now that we know this.

On another day we navigated through an entire Buddhist temple complex nearby.  As usual, the center of it was a little cave with carvings of ‘saints’ in it [most Buddhist iconography, as far as I can tell, is of beings similar to Catholic or Orthodox ‘saints’ though they don’t call them that].  We also climbed to the top of one pagoda that was open.  Each level has a slightly different level of decoration.  I was impressed but spiritually slightly depressed by that experience.

That afternoon we went to the house of a rich merchant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with lots of little open passageways between buildings often with a tree or a little water ditch in it and at one point a much larger garden [still not occupying much more space than the swimming pool area of an American suburban house].  It should be noted that these houses and garden houses are not spectacular from the street, where you see just a wall with a gate.  Evidently the Chinese don’t want to impress you with the ‘face’ or the ‘prestige’ until you get inside.

When we moved on to Suzhou, we went by bus [though, as usual, the luggage went in a different bus] and took the freeway.  Suzhou was never an imperial capital after the formation of the First Empire in 221 B.C.; though parts of it have a skyline, the central portion could well be described as ‘laid back’.  It’s the closest of the major cities in the region to Shanghai, and could be considered an outer suburb of it; though Suzhouites would naturally say that Shanghai, being just a village till the foreigners came, was an outer suburb of Suzhou!  But Suzhou was a major cultural capital for artists and writers; it is laced with canals, like a Chinese Amsterdam [some want to say the Venice of the East, but I think it feels more like Amsterdam because of the automobiles].  We took a canal boat ride, and the next day we went to see the I. M. Pei built museum and some of the large garden estates that are in the middle of the city.  The architect I. M. Pei is from Suzhou, and one of the garden estates belonged to his family!  I loved the gardens; they are mostly strangely shaped rocks and ponds, and close to the aesthetic I grew up with on Harbor Island.


After two nights, we moved on to Nanjing.  Nanjing means ‘southern capital’ and it was the capital during the first part of the Ming dynasty [1368-1421] and also during much of the Republican period from 1927 to 1949, a time when Beijing was renamed Beiping.  This was a nice city and had a little bit of everything.  One of the things we went to see was the museum by the Great Bridge over the Yangtze, the first bridge across that river. It was originally planned with help from the Soviets, but the Soviets were sent packing in 1960, and the Chinese finished the bridge themselves, though it remains a piece of Stalinist architecture, of which there is not a lot in the country.  We went to their regular historical art museum, which befits a former capital; also the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum.  This is a documentation of the slaughter and rape of large numbers of innocent people when the Japanese captured Nanjing in December of 1937, in which 300,000 were killed; one of the many crimes of the mid 20th century.  Some American missionaries who tried to help the people were honored.  We went to the museum commemorating the Taiping Rebellion, which held Nanjing and made it its capital [under the name Tianjing, Heavenly Capital] from 1851 to 1864.

The rebellion was started by a man named Hong Xiuquan, who after contact with missionaries had visions and decided he was the Younger Brother of Jesus.  The Europeans eventually decided to tilt against it and give aid to the Manchu government, and the rebellion was crushed.  Some say that this was a bad decision; if China was to become Christian, this might have been the way forward for it.  But, like many cult leaders, Hong started taking concubines, and the rebellion was crushed.  It was the bloodiest war on earth during the period between 1815 and 1914; the American Civil War was second.

After that we went to a shopping-lifestyle area on the site of a former Confucian temple, and took a ride on some canals that were lined with nice restaurants, most of which were closed.  The reason for this is that the current ruler of China, Xi Jinping, had mounted an anti-corruption drive, and it was the corrupt people who could afford the restaurants!  Oh well.

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