Capturing the change in China


Forty years ago, a few months af­ter Mao Ze­dong’s death, I stood in the vast­ness of Tianan­men Square in Bei­jing. There were army ve­hi­cles, Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army sol­diers and a few groups of for­eign­ers, like us, on po­lit­i­cal study tours. Mao’s Mau­soleum had not been built; the dom­i­nant build­ing was the Great Hall of the Peo­ple. In the dis­tance was the steady, whoosh­ing sound of many bi­cy­cles pass­ing by.

To­day, the square is full of hol­i­day­ing Chi­nese in bright colours, and for­eign­ers, like us, on tourist vis­its. PLA sol­diers are still there, in smaller num­bers. A soldier turns up to ob­serve as we are in­vited into a lo­cal fam­ily group photo. And, in the dis­tance, there are still bi­cy­cles; this time brightly coloured, made by Gi­ant.

Then, the For­bid­den City was a chance for a po­lit­i­cal les­son. Along­side thou­sands of peo­ple in blue padded Mao suits, we were herded through the com­plex. Our trans­la­tors, their suits dis­tin­guish­able by fine cloth and tai­lor­ing, ed­u­cated us in the prof­li­gate ways of the em­per­ors and their re­tain­ers. The dis­plays of jade bowls, gold chop­sticks, porce­lain water jars and silk hang­ings were kept well for this pur­pose.

This time, in our thou­sands, we are herded through the For­bid­den City, the commentary neu­tral, the dis­plays of im­pe­rial ex­cess dusty and un­cared for.

Some things are the same — the happy, cu­ri­ous chil­dren, the multi-gen­er­a­tional fam­ily groups de­light­ing in their com­mu­nal visit to the po­lit­i­cal heart of their coun­try, and our cour­te­ous, friendly in­ter­ac­tions with them.

In Shang­hai, our guide brushes us past the now less sig­nif­i­cant West­ern Bund. The pur­posely kept sign, “No dogs or Chi­nese al­lowed’’, has gone from the Bund Park. The Peace Ho­tel is still there, no longer the run­down art deco place for for­eign­ers, but very up­mar­ket. China is rush­ing out of the past and into the wealthy mid­dle class at the speed of light. Across the Huangpu River, mod­ern Pudong, 27 years old, is all glit­ter­ing, high-rise tow­ers.

From the ter­race of The House of Roo­sevelt, the orig­i­nal head­quar­ters of the Jar­dine Mathe­son & Co. trad­ing com­pany, I look at Pudong, cap­tured by the stun­ning view of the river loop­ing from north­east to south­east. For a brief mo­ment, it seems, I am stand­ing in the 19th cen­tury look­ing far into the 21st; at the China in all our lives. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion, with full postal ad­dress, to: travel@theaus­ Colum­nists will re­ceive a se­lec­tion from Aus­tralian sta­tioner Notemaker that in­cludes a MiGoals pass­port wal­let ($29.95), Del­fon­ics can­vas pen­cil case ($16.95) and a cloth­bound Mole­sk­ine Voyageur notebook ($44.95). More:

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