Ancient Dynasties in Ultramodern China

When western tourists visit China, the first thing they notice, wherever they enter this country of 1,4 Billion inhabitants, is modern America, towering skyscrapers and blocked motorways.

Landing in Beijing the tourist finds a spoke and wheel road structure with 5 ringroads to serve the over 20 million population. Among the city of the future, there are many treasures but three are justly famous treasures of recent and ancient dynasties, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Ming Tombs.

The city fathers and government have mounted a major effort in the past 20 years to promote and protect these treasures after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, which left the white of the Ming Tombs overpainted in red. Since I first visited Beijing in 1998 there have been major changes not just in the cityscape but also in the ancient tourist sites to cater for the million or so citizens and tourists who seek to visit each day.

When I first visited the Great Wall on a cold winter’s day with ice and snow creating a skating rink of the walkway, there were less than 100 tourists braving that ice on the Wall at Badaling, and there were few tourist amenities.

Today, arriving at 0930, we are directed to the parking lot 3 km away and are bussed to the start point maybe 400 metres from a cable car to take us further up the wall. On alighting we are met with a bi-directional crush and it is nearly impossible to either climb or start to walk down the promenade on top of the wall. Yet, patience rewards and we are able to block a site or two at the wall edge and for some reason copy the thousands of Great Wall photos already on the web by dumping vista after vista onto the Gb storage of our IPhones.

Maybe two hours later on arriving back at Badaling, just 1 km below, we are in a tourist township without guides. We find a sign to the Great Wall Museum and follow generic directions to a building that according to the ticket desk, seems to be permanently closed, then walk a further few hundred metres up to the relay point past dozens of tourist shops to pass our baton to the next busload disgorging.

While, on arrival we were quickly bussed away, on return, we are fed into a maze of a game park and food station, offering in Chinese script just about every takeaway food that a Chinese boy could imagine and games ranging from indoor archery to classical theme park pinball machines. For me it is a shame that the Chinese tourist industry has copied the worst of American culture. Nevertheless, it is well worth the visit to this wonder of the ancient dynasties, the magnificence of which blocks out or at least dims the gauche entertainment.

The Forbidden City created in the Ming Dynasty, of nearly 1,000 buildings, whose entrance sits alongside the security driven mostly deserted Tiananmen Square, informs the visitor through a giant picture over the entrance that this Chinese dynasty was founded by Mao. His legacy is protected because his Red Guards, pursuing too literally the sayings of Mao on culture and art, were warned off destruction by the wisdom of Premier Zhou Enlai and his loyal army battalion.

My first visit some in 1998, 10 years after the reopening, was on a cold February day when we strolled alone through the halls without awareness of the massive artistic and artisanal treasures stored there. Now, returning, with many of those treasures on display in museums of every possible art form, we are soon saturated with the grandeur of what is now known as the Palace Museum.

Today, as every day in the year, only 80,000 visitors are allowed to enter what is the most popular museum in the world and a must for every Chinese in Beijing. For many, the magnificent ceramics and porcelains of ancient dynasties create strongest memories. For horologists, particularly from the west, the collection of grandiose clocks reminds us that clock-making was brought to China by the British and French traders in the 1700s. The survival of religion is heart-warming with particular attention to Buddhism and gold Buddhas.

The renovation and reconstruction of the special museums will draw on the skills of Chinese craftsmen for many years yet, and it is easy to imagine visiting the Forbidden City nearly every day to admire a gallery and witness the respect that the Chinese have for maintaining the cleanliness and spirit of this place.

Yet, in these two visits we have found examples of the greatness in engineering and art of the ancient dynasties of China, but what remains of the culture of the people, of village life from say, the Ming Dynasty. We go in search of Chinese culture in the countryside.