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Traipsing Through the Middle Kingdom; Or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation


In recent years, I have been conscious of time passing. One moment, I was safely ensconced in high school, and the next I was galloping through middle age.

It is time to get to my “bucket list” trips while I am still young enough to walk without fear of injury or excessive fatigue.

I have always been fascinated with China, the slumbering giant that seems to have awakened from a centuries-long sleep with a voracious appetite for resources that can wreak havoc on the world economy. Thus, I decided to start my bucket list adventures with a trip to China.

Forgive the “look-what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation” aspects of this posting. Sometimes it pays to step away from the writing life and experience a small part of the outside world. Writing is such a lonely, isolating endeavor that it helps to reacquaint oneself with other people and places upon occasion.

From July 1-12, 2012, my old law school friend Keith Smith and I visited three major Chinese cities—Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai.

Let me say up front that no one can claim even a smidgeon of expertise on the so-called Middle Kingdom on the basis of a quick jaunt past major tourist attractions in big cities. The equivalent effort would be someone from another country visiting New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and saying, “Well, that’s it. I have visited the United States and have seen and learned all there is about the nation and the culture.”

Not so fast.

Okay, so I’m no expert on Chinese life, culture, art, government, history—or anything, for that matter. But given my limited time and finances, I saw and learned as much as I could.

The natural starting place was Beijing, the capital city and home to numerous people (more than 20 million) and artifacts. During my brief journey, I managed to see the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the hornet’s nest (site of the 2008 Olympic Games), and the pandas in the Beijing zoo. It was a whirlwind trip.

Mike in Tiananmen Square, July 4, 2012

Visiting Tiananmen Square, of course, was a highlight owing to its fame as the place where pro-democracy forces confronted their aging, stolid, authoritarian leaders back in 1989.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDKVEprC948&feature=related

There is something magical about standing in a place where history was made. This is a reason I have always enjoyed traveling to Civil War battlefields, Elvis’s Graceland mansion, and Ground Zero in New York: It allows one to reflect on, and ponder, the significance of past events and their effect on the present and the future.

Although China remains a Communist, authoritarian state, it is not the monolithic regime suggested by folklore. I am thinking here of the xenophobic television advertisement produced by Citizens Against Government Waste a few years ago. The advertisement was designed as a criticism of liberal tax-and-spend policies, but it played on stereotypes of Chinese ascendancy and malevolence.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pr3WE6iAhHg

I must admit that I knew the commercial was inaccurate and offensive when I first saw it, but it struck a nerve. Tucked somewhere deep inside my psyche, I envisioned more than a billion Chinese gunning for the United States. This latent fear explains why such advertising generally is so successful—it reinforces the stereotypes that most people harbor even if they don’t give voice to them.

I saw a few Chinese soldiers on duty marching around Tiananmen Square as I passed through. They all appeared to be in their early twenties and no more menacing than any other pimply-faced young adults I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. I am not naïve, though; I know that the People’s Republic of China has perpetrated numerous atrocities against other countries and even its own citizens. Nonetheless, China and its people are no more inherently evil than any other nation and its people throughout history.

This observation reminds me of an amusing anecdote. Back in the 1990s, I taught an undergraduate course on political ideologies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. When we discussed the rise of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party as well as the advent of the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s, I explained that tens of millions of people perished. We do not have reliable numbers. I also read passages from Mao’s poetry as well as selections from his book of quotations, the infamous Little Red Book. On a subsequent examination, a student wrote that “Mao killed perhaps as many as 50 million people. Even worse, he wrote bad poetry.” I can only hope the student was being deliberately facetious. Writing bad poetry is terrible, but mass murder is at least marginally worse.

Aside from visiting Tiananmen Square, I was anxious to see the Great Wall of China, another iconic site near Beijing. Having heard so much about it in my life, I was interested in seeing the edifice for myself, climbing its walls, and reflecting on its history.

The Great Wall did not disappoint. It lived up to its name.

Let’s dispel a myth right here and now: The wall cannot be seen from outer space. Astronauts have tried, but it simply is not large enough to see. In addition, the wall is a neutral-colored man-made structure, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish from the surrounding countryside with the naked eye.

The age and length of the wall are matters of some dispute. It was built at different times and under different conditions. Some of the earliest construction may have occurred during the Shang Dynasty, which lasted from 1600 BCE through 1050 BCE. Some scholars argue that the Shang wall project technically was not part of what became known as the Great Wall of China.

In fact, most reputable historians date the wall from the Warring States Period, which commenced in the fifth century BCE. The concept of a “great wall’ was not articulated until the third century BCE, when the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, unified China in 221 BCE. Six years later, he began the construction project that evolved into the Great Wall.

Undoubtedly, the most impressive construction took place during the Ming Dynasty in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries CE. The tourist-friendly sections of the wall near Beijing—the ones most often visited and photographed—date from the Ming Period. The wall in the Beijing area stands about 25 feet tall and is wide enough so that 10 soldiers (or five horses) can advance side-by-side. To my knowledge, the Great Wall has not been used for this purpose in a long while.

In many places, sections of the wall between the guard towers wind up and down mountainsides, making some portions incredibly steep and difficult to navigate for all but the most intrepid, physically-fit souls.

Because the wall was built in stages over centuries, because parts have crumbled and been repaired, and because the wall is not one long connected edifice, determining the length is controversial. As recently as 2002, sections of the wall were discovered in northwestern China. Parts were more than 2,000 years old.

Thus, estimates of the length range from between 2,000 miles and 5,500 miles. The Guinness Book of World Records once reported the length as 2,150 miles because the authors discounted sections that could not definitively be linked to known construction periods. China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping used advanced GPS technology and infrared range-finding equipment to arrive at the “official” answer—8,851.1 kilometers, which translates to slightly under 5,500 miles.

Whatever the “real” answer, it is a long frigging wall. Imagine a wall extending from the east coast of the United States to the west coast and most of the way back. That puts the Great Wall into some perspective.

Anyway, during my trip, Keith and I visited the wall to see it for ourselves. We immediately started up the steep incline. As if I needed another reminder of my rapidly approaching old age, this was it. I found the trail far more arduous and challenging than I had anticipated. It was a hot, muggy day, which did not help matters, but we still attacked the wall as well as any middle-aged men could. With each step, my heart rebelled, slamming against its cage.

Mike Martinez and Keith Smith climbing the Great Wall of China, July 5, 2012

I eventually made it to the top of the first section. The wall continues for thousands of miles, and I had no intention of continuing on to the western lands, so I turned back. Coming down was not as hard on the lungs, but it was hell on the knees. Keith and I carefully gripped the handrail and descended slowly lest we injure ourselves and have to explore the Chinese health care system.

It was no country for old men (with apologies to Cormac McCarthy), but we survived the experience.

We saw many sites during our Chinese adventure, including a terrific visit to the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai, but the only other attractions I’ll discuss here are the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. They were discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974. Archaeologists have unearthed between 7,000 and 8,000 of the life-sized statues of Chinese soldiers, some with horses, since that time. Excavations continue. No one knows how much is left to find, although scholars estimate that the site could extend for a 20-mile radius when all is said and done. Incredibly, each warrior sports unique weapons, clothing, facial features, and poses.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang—he of Great Wall of China fame—apparently commissioned the replica soldiers to be built so they could guard his tomb after his death. It took more than 700,000 workers 40 years to construct the figures. As a reward for their diligence, the laborers were buried alive. This heinous act prevented anyone from disclosing the location of the tomb to grave robbers, which has always been a large problem at necropolises throughout history.

Terracotta Warriors, Xi'an, China

I could go on and on ad infinitum and ad nauseam about travels to China. Suffice it to say that a trip to the Middle Kingdom is well worth the time and expense.


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