On the last family holiday I took with my husband and children we went to Shanghai and the Yellow Mountains. It was a lovely trip involving cities, historical villages and what purported to be nature walks, but which felt much more like an amusement park given the fact that there were so many people! Despite this, it was an important trip for us, as we experienced a side of China beyond what you read in the news or what is often part of preconception.
Our journey started in Shanghai, were pre-cultural revolution and post-Mao China are visually juxtaposed in the physical landscape. Across the river from the Bund, the old face of concession China, is the Pudong. Where the Bund is European grandeur, the Pudong is futuristic ambition. Both offer a form of cosmopolitanism that sits elsewhere in time and space and which, while exciting leave one feeling as though one has not quite been or seen a real face of a human China.
After a couple of days we left Shanghai and travelled by high speed train into Anhui provence. Where we met our guide, Mr. Li. While his Chinese language skills were necessary as I am sure we could not have managed the logistics on our own, what was most interesting was what he old us about growing up and his desires for his life. Mr. Li was probably in his late 20’s and had an absolute thirst for education. His English was completely understandable, and as is the case for many Chinese people I’ve met who come from rural places, entirely self taught. Mr. Li’s ambition was to go to university. This is almost an impossible dream for him as he is now married with a small child, has elderly parents to care for and is from a rural place. In China, wealth divisions map fairly closely to urban-rural distinctions because of the home registration system (Hukou) that was designed to control urbanization. Mr. Li’s best chance for gaining a university place is for him to go to the US or Hong Kong. But that is expensive. So, like Thomas Hardy‘s Jude he tries to learn where he can. He pours through the Internet, trying to breach the great firewall, just as Jude tried to breach class divides, in order to find things to read to expand his understanding. He must be cleaver. He must find proxy servers. It is not easy. We could not even send him a Drop Box or Flickr link of our trip photos as those sites are blocked.
Mr. Li also told us about his parents and how they were tea farmers. The countryside in Anhui Provence is beautiful, dotted with tea bushes as France is lavender. Interspersed are also fields of chrysanthemums, as the flowers are also infused and have an effect similar to that of chamomile. Mr. Li told us that in the period of the cultural revolution his parents were starving and had to eat tree bark to live. They are lucky to be alive today as many millions –about 30 million– died from hunger as a result of Mao’s policy and a desire by city leaders look more productive than they really were.
On the last day of our trip with this new understanding of life in China, we came across this couple in a park in Shanghai. As the woman carefully trims her companion’s hair, I wondered what troubles they had seen. I wondered if they were from Shanghai or if they, like so many Chinese have chosen a life of urban poverty over the much worse poverty of the rural. I wondered mostly, however at the care that had so clearly kept them together through all of this.
This post is part of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge. The theme this week is companionable. You can find the challenge here.
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