Whispers from China's past

Sunday Times
Published: 10th October 2004

In the still humid evening, little kids (only ever one with each couple) are led by doting parents. Everything is different here — the chef in white uniform sitting on a step in the shadows, eating a white ice lolly, the restaurant where a pampered child is choosing a fish to eat as if choosing a pet, the sex shop with the careful Chinese writing that makes it look charmingly decorative rather than seedy. Then there are sellers of meat, makers of food, everything piled high, everything out in the street.

Arriving in China, I felt I was in the most foreign place I’d ever visited, and that was just the airport. The water-dispenser machines had square cups you had to make up yourselves, the girls all had porcelain- perfect doll’s faces, and the spoken language didn’t sound like anything created on my planet. But we began to enjoy being interlopers in this other dimension.

The first morning I woke to dawn over the Huangpu River, drank green tea and ate a mooncake as I looked out over the grey landscape of cargo boats sliding through the still water. Shanghai was beginning to wake up, the towers of the skyscrapers muted in the slow morning air.

These gleaming, glittering monsters march through the city as if invaders from the western world. But beneath them the old Shanghai still survives, with its delicate people crouched grasshopper-like in the streets as they wait for a bus or spoon noodles into their mouths. The beautiful old city still has its pagoda roofs, and restaurants with fine plump dumplings. Soon you begin to learn to watch for the detail and listen to the history, to make the journey towards understanding this complex, claustrophobic country.

Fighting through the bicycles, which come at you from all sides and never brake, we walked to the riverside area called the Bund, where the red flags flickering outside the grand old European buildings look more like decorative features than patriotic statements. Those suffering from culture shock can take refuge in the sassy restaurant M on the Bund, with a fountain and floodlit trees on its Florentine terrace, high up above the river. Here they’ll eat goats’ cheese and aubergine mousse, and have waiters actually acknowledge their existence — not the case at the renowned Peace Hotel down the road, where dishes such as stewed lily with pumpkin in candy were divine, but the service made you feel you must be dead.

For a taste of the ether of the new China, that fast-lane fusion of east and west, we crossed the river into the new Pudong business area, where the buildings flicker and flash like teenagers at a party. And they are indeed youthful — this cityscape has been summoned up in the past 14 years, as communism hurtles into consumerism. We drank Shanghai Sunsets at the Hyatt Hotel’s Cloud 9 bar on the 87th floor of the Jin Mao Tower, the sweeping windows overlooking the posturing new buildings.

All the same, I was pleased to visit the mid-lake tea pavilion in the old city’s Yuyuan gardens, across the zigzag bridge, and drink jasmine tea from a glass teapot; and to travel out to Suzhou, some two hours away, to see classical gardens, to begin to anchor myself in China rather than a westernised version of China.

Slowly but surely, the nation’s past, not the communist past but the past of dragons and emperors and the lotus- blossomed gardens of scholars, begins to catch you, to offer you snatches of magic, so you fall asleep dreaming of China’s only ruling empress, Wu, who introduced poetry to the civil-service exams and had her granddaughter killed for gossiping about her grandmother’s toy boys. After all, if emperors could have 3,000 concubines ...
China’s emperors and empresses knew what they wanted. Talk about extravagance that knows no bounds. The 13-year-old future emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first to unite China, in 221BC, commissioned a life-size personal army, the famous Terracotta Warriors. We travelled through the pome-granate fields near Xian to see them — and what determined archers, what grandly moustachioed generals, what fine horses. There are 7,000 warriors in all, housed in a colossal hangar of a museum — wild fantasies, beautifully executed, each figure combining loyalty with strength, each with a different purposeful face, as if waiting for someone to say a word so that they can come back to life.

From Xian, we travelled by sleeper train through a China made of rubble and coal; my eyes stung from the coal and the taste of the dust was in my mouth and chest. The view was of dispiriting factories and broken building after broken building. But then we stepped out at Pingyao, a perfect walled city where the little wooden shops have red lanterns hanging from them, and shoemakers sit making satin slippers until 10 or 11 at night.

In this beautifully intact town, which somehow seems to have ducked the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, the narrow, shadowy streets are darkened with soot, their timber cracked with time. Here there are courtyard houses and the first Chinese bank, and in our guesthouse, De Ju Yuan, we breakfasted on apple pancakes and later feasted on heavenly dumplings while listening to plaintive, echoing music. Outside, through the open door, ghostly fleets of bicycles glided past.

Shanghai is a teenage city — vibrant with new money, new restaurants and hotels, but still uncertain of itself. Beijing, however, is all grown up. Here there are real treasures, as befits such an imperial city. In Shanghai, the place to pick up bargains is the tacky Xiang Yang market, but Beijing has the vast Panjiayuan, which beggars description.

In Beijing, we stayed at the China Club, a former Qing dynasty palace, and for the first time heard Chinese birdsong, in the peach trees in the courtyard. There seems little room for birds or animals in a country struggling to house a fifth of the world’s population.
Beijing’s sights — the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven — are all tributes to the fairy-tale imaginations of their ruthless rulers. This is a country of dragons: golden dragons on ceilings; walkways shaped like dragon tails; the dragon throne of the emperor. Even the Great Wall is a kind of dragon, its great flaying back sweeping across the rims of mountains, sketching out a message to the stars.

The Summer Palace, with its lakes and pagodas and marble boat, was chiefly built by the grim-faced empress dowager Cixi as the world’s most spectacular retirement home. Now all these forbidden places are packed with what our guides called “the common people”, jostling and pushing and taking photographs. There was almost a riot outside the emperor’s throne in the Forbidden City: none of the elderly Chinese tourists wanted to miss the chance of feasting their eyes on that lavish golden sight.

Shanghai has its bohemian, almost Parisian street, the pedestrianised Duo Lin Lu, and here you can teahouse-crawl, weaving around giant sculptures and between bookstalls, ambling into antique shops and art galleries where drawing classes are gathered — and, for once, you don’t feel a stranger. Here you can find old copies of Mao’s Little Red Book side by side with Bill Clinton’s My Life.

There’s a similar atmosphere in Beijing, but with more of a buzz — in the bar and restaurant quarter north of the Forbidden City, around Houhai Lake and in the shops of the strange little Smoking Pipe Street, curved in the shape of an opium pipe. Here, once again, I found that it’s the details that make China so beguiling.

At night in Smoking Pipe Street, farmers sold misshapen pears from a cart, a woman offered us sunflower seeds plucked from a single dried bloom and, through a window, we watched a tiny child eating her birthday cake with chopsticks. Her hair was in little ponytails, her beautiful little mouth was covered in cream and her elder brother speared his cake like a dagger.

Like the Bonsai trees in the classical gardens of Suzhou, it’s China in miniature that captures the imagination, every bit as much as its grand monumental flourishes.

Need to Know

Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of Audley Travel.

Audley Travel (01869 276217 www.audleytravel.com) can tailor-make itineraries throughout China. A two-week tour, with four nights in Beijing, two in Pingyao, two in Xian, two in Guilin and three in Shanghai, starts at £2,195pp, B&B, including flights from Heathrow to Beijing with Air China, domestic flights and transfers. Connections from Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and other UK regional airports start at £95pp.

Or try CTS Horizons (020 7836 9911, www.ctshorizons.com), Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk), Western & Oriental (0870 499 1111, www.westernoriental.com), China Holidays (020 7487 2999, www.chinaholidays.co.uk) or Imaginative Traveller (01473 667337, www.imaginative-traveller.com).