By Lau­rence Coul­ton

Beijing Review - - Expat’s Eye - Copy­edited by Re­beca Toledo Com­ments to dingy­ing@bjre­

The cir­cum­stances which brought me to Guangzhou, cap­i­tal of south China’s Guang­dong Prov­ince, in 2013 on my first visit to China be­gan thousands of years be­fore. As a stu­dent of his­tory at a Bri­tish univer­sity, I had be­gun to grow weary of the usual fur­nish­ings of tra­di­tional his­tor­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion in the West. The Bat­tle of Salamis, the Fall of Rome, the French Rev­o­lu­tion, all hold great im­port in the nar­ra­tive un­der­pin­ning Western civ­i­liza­tion, but they all seemed blandly fa­mil­iar, the voices of their wit­nesses and nar­ra­tors ba­nally like my own.

It was then that my mind be­gan to wan­der east, dis­cov­ered China and never looked back. With no prior un­der­stand­ing of the coun­try be­yond a fleet­ing knowl­edge of the menu at a Chi­nese res­tau­rant in the vil­lage where I grew up, I en­rolled in a course at an­other univer­sity to study the Qing Dy­nasty’s (1644-1911) mer­can­tile in­ter­ac­tions with Europe, and so be­gan a love af­fair with Chi­nese his­tory which has lasted to the present day. The ar­cane prac­tices of div­ina­tion in the Shang Dy­nasty (1600-1100 B.C.), transcon­ti­nen­tal trade in the Tang Dy­nasty (618907), the sui­cide of the last Ming Em­peror in the gar­dens be­hind the For­bid­den City in 1644—at last I had found the kind of his­tory to get ex­cited about!

Once I moved to China, I set out at once to try to dis­cover ex­tant traces of this thrilling past. Dur­ing my ini­tial ex­cur­sions, I was sur­prised to dis­cover the pris­tine con­di­tion of the coun­try’s her­itage sights, but I soon learned that most had been re­con­structed in very re­cent years or months. In the West, we see our past as pre­served in ru­ined build­ings and bro­ken walls, to al­ter them in any way be­yond what is nec­es­sary for their preser­va­tion is to be guilty of some blas­phe­mous crime against his­tory. To my knowl­edge, in China no such con­cept ex­ists, and a lick of paint can vastly im­prove a thou­sand-yearold tem­ple, just as re­grout­ing will ben­e­fit not only the struc­tural in­tegrity, but also the aes­thet­ics of a five cen­tury-old wall. Stuck in my Euro­pean ways, I found it hard to sat­isfy my crav­ing for China’s past in these ren­o­vated struc­tures, and so I had to look else­where to get my fill.

My first ex­pe­ri­ence with a Chi­nese an­tique mar­ket was in the twist­ing lanes and al­ley­ways of Guangzhou’s Li­wan District. Flanked by stalls on ei­ther side, the streets were glo­ri­ously cramped as the cries of hawk­ers nois­ily ped­dling their wares ric­o­cheted off the walls. An­cient swords crum­bling with rust lined one stand, a se­lec­tion of coins were laid out on an­other, and in one store a brass tele­scope bear­ing an in­scrip­tion signed by an em­ployee of the Bri­tish East In­dia Com­pany was dis­played. From my days study­ing the Can­ton Trade in the UK, it was easy to imag­ine this valu­able ar­ti­cle be­ing seized in some quar­rel or skir­mish as ten­sions ran high be­tween the Bri­tish and the Chi­nese in the 19th cen­tury. Yet for all the sup­pos­edly his­tor­i­cal items, it was not the ob­jects them­selves which so ig­nited my ex­cite­ment. Com­ing from a coun­try where the pur­chase of any­thing in­vari­ably takes the pro­saically mod­ern form of fixed prices and ubiq­ui­tous brands, to one where ap­par­ently ev­ery­thing out­side of the shop­ping malls could be ne­go­ti­ated, I was amazed by the mar­ket it­self.

I have since vis­ited many such mar­kets across China, and make it my first or­der of busi­ness when ar­riv­ing in a new place to re­search their ex­is­tence and lo­ca­tion. They come in a fas­ci­nat­ing ar­ray of styles and lay­outs, trin­ket-laden rugs tes­sel­lat­ing across car parks, un­der bridges and over old city walls, with oth­ers for­mal­ized in large mul­ti­story, air-con­di­tioned malls. I sel­dom buy any­thing, prin­ci­pally be­cause I’m well aware that most of the items for sale are fake, es­pe­cially those with prices low enough for me to af­ford, but also be­cause it is the com­po­si­tion of the scene it­self which I so en­joy, its char­ac­ters and dra­mas, rather than the things them­selves.

Yet that is not to say that the stuff it­self does not have its own par­tic­u­lar charm. Vin­tage cam­eras of un­fa­mil­iar ori­gin with hazy viewfind­ers through which some­one once cap­tured snap­shots of a world vastly dif­fer­ent from that of to­day; rit­ual ob­jects of bronze and jade telling minia­ture sto­ries of a past so­ci­ety; oth­ers uniden­ti­fi­able and enig­matic; oth­ers sim­ply beau­ti­fully de­signed. While the coun­try’s palaces and tem­ples, walls and parks re­main an im­pres­sive and in­dis­pens­able means through which to ac­cess its long his­tory, for those look­ing to step into the mys­te­ri­ous and thrilling world of China’s past, a walk through an an­tique mar­ket is a good place to start.

A man pe­ruses the ob­jects for sale at an an­tique mar­ket in Guangzhou, south China’s Guang­dong Prov­ince

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