Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tourist, know thyself

I am not entirely unfamiliar with Chinese culture. True, I don't understand even the basics of the language and know only tidbits of history, but I've read a classic Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢), for my Master's exam -- at least three of the five volumes. And in high school, we'd studied the history of the Chinese revolution. At that time in the evolution of USSR-PRC relations, my teachers were a lot more sympathetic to Chiang Kai-Shek's cause then they were to Mao. Oh, of course, I've seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- who hasn't?

This doesn't add up to much, but it turns out to be a decent jumping-off platform. For example, The Dream of the Red Chamber, written in 1759, gives a very detailed account of the philosophy and aesthetics behind the construction of the traditional Chinese garden. So when yesterday I found myself getting lost in the vistas and nooks of Yu Garden in the Old Shanghai, I felt like I was revisiting something very familiar. In the last few years, I've visited Chinese gardens in Portland and Vancouver, but the scale here is completely different. And size matters: Yu Garden is much more than a garden, it features, for example, a classic theatre ("Ancient Opera Stage") with a live music show of traditional china instruments ("china music is a great invention of China"). And that was just one of the two dozen pavilions and attractions.

I got a very good tour of the Yu Garden by inadvertently eavesdropping on guides speaking to German, Russian, and British and American tourist groups. Of the languages I didn't understand, I heard Chinese, French, Spanish, and Italian. It was very amusing to compare the different spins each guide put on the stories they told. For example, one American English-speaking guide pointed to a two-storied building and said: "This is called the Heavenly tower. In China, young women of noble families were not allowed to step out of the garden until they were married. And when they were married, they left the garden and went out into the world. So to prepare themselves for it, they climbed to the second floor of this tower to look over the wall into the world outside: and so this is called 'Heavenly Tower.'" The German speaking guide pointed to the same building and said (I'm paraphrasing): "Metaphorically, the second floor is 'above the clouds,' thus, the name of the tower, Heavenly." (I am unable to confirm either story on Google -- I'm finding only very bare-bones descriptions of the garden. And very basic, inaccurate maps.)

All the pavilions were very well marked in English with a few words describing their history and purpose. Since the pavilions frequently served purely contemplative, aesthetic purposes (to enjoy this view or that), the descriptions require a poetic interpretation: "Viewing the scenery of the big rockery by the wooden rails one feels carefree and joyous." Indeed, one does.

I've stuck to my decision to focus my explorations of Shanghai around literature and literary figures. One of the streets near my hotel, Fuzhou Lu, is apparently known as the Book Street. My friend Yvette has told me that most bookstores in China are owned by the publishers, and so I'm guessing that all the different bookstores on Fuzhou Lu are owned by competing publishers. One of Dave's coworkers said that the bookstores in Shanghai are having a hard time staying in business these days because most people buy books online. In any case, I've walked by several multi-storied bookstores on Fuzhou Lu, and spent time in one called "Foreign Language Bookstore" that had plenty of books in English, from popular paperbacks to textbooks for people studying Chinese to novels and nonfiction books about China in general and Shanghai in particular. I picked up and started reading Chuang Hua's "Crossings" -- it was very hard to put down, but I decided to check it out of the library back in San Francisco. English books are ridiculously expensive here, probably because they have to be imported. This little paperback cost more than $20.

And the day before yesterday, I visited a museum dedicated to Lu Xun, one of the founders of the modern Chinese literature at the beginning of the 20th Century. He is one of the rare writers who is well known (and well loved) in both US and China. I've read several of his stories before (although I'm yet to read his most famous one in English, A Madman's Diary). Lu Xun never joined the Communist party himself, but he was very much a Socialist and was friendly with many of the Communist leaders. He died in 1936, before Mao came to power, and so in a way this helped to preserve his legacy in both worlds. This museum, located in the middle of the park bearing Lu Xun's name, was a big, modern building, featuring a lot of interactive exhibits and clay models depicting scenes from Lu Xun's life. The focus of many of the exhibits was on the development of Lu Xun's political education and ideas, suggesting perhaps that had he lived a little longer, he would've become a member of the party. As it was, "He became the most loyal comrade-in-arms of the communists."

Political pathos aside, it was very touching to see some of his personal items on display: a pair of black socks, a watch, a purple woolen sweater, his cup and saucer, a graph that monitored his body temperature for several days before his death, an umbrella "with which Lu Xun attended in spite of rain the memorial meeting for Xang Quan at the International Funeral Directorate." It's been a long time since I've been to a museum dedicated to a writer; last time Dave and I tried to go to Moika 12, where Pushkin died, it was closed for a holiday.

Lu Xun died in Shanghai, a few blocks away from the memorial museum. His flat -- which is also open to tourists for a nominal fee -- is located in a very typical Shanghainese building block, it's end wall facing the street and long narrow alleys in front and back separating it from the other blocks in the development. This was a great opportunity to take a closer look at the way this system works: even if Lu Xun's place is a museum, all the other apartments in his and surrounding blocks are still very much occupied. The apartment itself consisted of three floors: living and dining room on the first floor, a bath and a toilet on the half floor between first and second, master bedroom and his study (a bed and a desk next to each other) on the second floor, and his son's bedroom on the third floor. There was also a room for visitors next door to the master bedroom, and plenty of closets on the half floors. The view was not much: all the hustle and bustle of the alleys, but as one of the stands at the memorial museum implied, this kind of setting was exactly what he needed for inspiration. In any case, I had an impression, that this was a rather upscale lodging.

Oh, another cool thing about the Lu Xun museum. The alley leading up to it was decorated with stone plaques inscribed with short quotations from love poetry by poets from all around the world (and maybe also Chinese poets, although those weren't translated to English, so I'm just guessing): Plato, Goethe, Sándor Petőfi (Hungarian revolutionary poet), Rabindranath Tagore, Omar Khayyam, Alexander Pushkin (oh that Pushkin, he gets around!), Percy Bysshe Shelly, William Butler Yeats, Pablo Neruda ("I like for you to be still"). And one of the exhibits at the memorial museum highlighted this idea: "Li Xun had an extensive access to Western Literature and foreign friends in his earlier years. ... Meanwhile, the foreign works he read could not be numbered. Therefore, his ability of critical thinking had been improved."

Anyway, this post is hugely long and rambling, and I didn't even mention half of the things I've seen in the last two days. I've visited two museums of contemporary art -- one featuring contemporary art from Saudi Arabia, the other from Hong Kong; accidentally stumbled into a fashion show of Italian designers (catwalk and all!) on the third floor of MoCA--the Museum of Contemporary Art; two temples, one Taoist and another Buddhist (the Taoist temple featured Gods of Literature and Wealth sitting right across the courtyard from one another, God of Literature with a wily smile on his face, and God of Wealth with a stern scary look); tried lots of street foods and pastries (OMG, pastries -- delicious) and walked through all kinds of neighborhoods. More on all that in the days to come.

Keep up with Dave's work adventures in Shanghai here.

1 comment:

  1. I like the literary bend of your explorations. When faced with so much you almost have to narrow the field to glean anything of substance. Good on you!