Fine China

An art­ful per­spec­tive of this ris­ing world in the East

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Contents -

There is a small en­closed gar­den in the north­east cor­ner of the For­bid­den City, Bei­jing’s 80-hectare red-walled, yel­low-roofed, built-to-in­tim­i­date im­men­sity, where be­tween 1420 and 1911 the em­per­ors of China’s last two dy­nas­ties, the Ming and the Qing, lived and ruled. The gar­den was de­signed in the 1770s by the fifth Qing em­peror, Qian­long, for his plea­sure af­ter re­tire­ment. Within it, atop a moun­tain-like rock­ery of fan­tas­ti­cally eroded and pock­marked stones ex­tracted from Lake Taihu—so called schol­ars’ rocks, na­ture el­e­vated to art, found in the gar­dens, mu­se­ums, and grand houses all over China—is the Ter­race for Gath­er­ing Dew. Bronze ves­sels were placed on the lit­tle plat­form to col­lect dew, with which the em­peror’s tea was brewed. Or so the story goes. The ex­quis­ite re­fine­ment of the idea stopped me, and made clear, on my first day in China, that com­ing to terms with the coun­try’s cul­ture, size, and mul­ti­far­i­ous­ness would be as chal­leng­ing, if not as fan­ci­ful, an en­deav­our. We most of­ten see China from a dis­tance and through a scrim of largely neg­a­tive head­lines, painted in broad, som­bre geopo­lit­i­cal strokes: a vast, be­fogged land of au­thor­i­tar­ian rule, crazed ur­ban­i­sa­tion, dis­re­gard for the trea­sures of its past, and ram­pant en­vi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion. As Austin Zhu, Bei­jing di­rec­tor of lux­ury travel bureau Aber­crom­bie & Kent, told me over tea in the lobby of the newly ren­o­vated Penin­sula Bei­jing (vault­ing white mar­ble an­chored by two mas­sive stat­ues of tea drinkers con­tem­plat­ing the tiny cups of na­tional elixir in their hands), “China has bad PR.” I had been here be­fore, on busi­ness. My mis­sion this time: to see the coun­try as a trav­eller would, for the plea­sure of it. Guy Ru­bin of Bei­jing-based Im­pe­rial Tours had told me, “Even peo­ple who come here on hol­i­day tend to just check it off their list. But China should be like Italy—a place you visit again and again.” It seemed a hy­poth­e­sis worth test­ing, es­pe­cially as China has not only an im­mea­sur­ably rich past but some­thing Italy does not: pos­si­bly the keys to our col­lec­tive fu­ture. “China has nearly a quar­ter of the world’s pop­u­la­tion,” Lorenz Hel­bling, owner of Shang­hai’s sem­i­nal ShanghArt Gallery, pointed out, “so, also, a quar­ter of the ta­lent. This is the new world.” He was talk­ing about art—but not only. My game plan: three days each in Bei­jing and Shang­hai, which is still the es­sen­tial travel duo, de­spite the rise of China’s sec­ond ci­ties—Chengdu, for one, where the pan­das are. And two day trips, one to Xi’an, home of the Ter­ra­cotta Army—go­ing to China and not see­ing this ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­ery would be like skip­ping the Val­ley of the Kings in Egypt—and one to Hangzhou, to see the park-like city’s dreamy, clas­si­cal-paint­ing-and-po­etry-en­shrined West Lake. I wouldn’t be do­ing much sleep­ing, but when I did I wanted to tap into the best min­is­tra­tions: the im­pec­ca­ble ser­vice, the glo­ri­ous food, and of course, the in­sider tips for my end­less ex­plo­ration in this hum­bling land.

The For­bid­den City, where be­tween 1420 and 1911 the em­per­ors of China’s last two dy­nas­ties, the Ming and the Qing, lived and ruled

The dis­tinc­tive Ori­en­tal Pearl Tower in Shang­hai’s Pudong

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