At the Great Wall: Cynthia Barmor (left) and Carol Lipman
China is a riot of color and a cacophony of sounds. The colors are vivid – vermillion, as red represents happiness – with vibrant borders of salvias, traditional scarlet tassels and huge rounded lanterns. Gold abounds too, since it is the color representative of the Emperor. Sometimes there are splashes of bright yellow, as in marigolds, ribbons and borders of material. The China that we saw during a two-week tour in October 2013 was vibrant, bustling and often sensational.
The highlights were frequently unexpected. Beijing, with “The Forbidden City” at its heart, so-called because ordinary people were excluded from it until 1921, is dominated by palaces and courtyards, its geography reflecting a strict hierarchy with separate paths for the Emperor, the Empress, members of the royal household and so on.
But now at its entrance in Tiananmen Square, hangs a massive portrait of Mao Zedong, former Communist leader, , still apparently revered officially with his image on all banknotes. He may have led a revolution but he also killed millions, among them some 400 unarmed protesters in 1989, an incident explained by our Chinese guides as an “error” by poorly trained soldiers. Perhaps this acknowledgement is in itself an indication of change, though the obvious military presence in the Square and the prominence of Mao’s portrait underscore current reality – the total state control of politics, if not economics.
In common with many other Chinese cities, Beijing also has a less serious side. , with exercise areas for adults replete with parallel bars and swings . Add to that the intriguing custom of social dancing on street corners, in parks or along pedestrian paths with tai chi and exercise classes and in the corner of one park, a massed choir singing, and you begin to understand the distinctiveness that is part of China.
The steep curve of the Great Wall and Beijing’s upwardly sloping traditional roofs shaped to stop evil spirits from landing, gave way to Xian (pronounced “Shee-An”), home to the spectacular sight of the 8000 or so clay warriors of the Terracotta Army, each with its own facial expression and positioned in precise order of rank. Here, the dominant color was a faded grey, the brightly colored patches of paint found during initial excavations having long since oxidized.
Some of the 8,000 clay warriors that make up the Terracota Army
A thrilling 300-kph ride on the bullet train brought us to Luoyong and to the ancient Longmen Grottos with huge Buddhas and other menacing figures, beautifully carved into the face of the limestone cliffs.
Kaifeng, the site of magnificent seasonal displays of maroon and purple chrysanthemums in its Millennium Park, is home to a respectable exhibition on aspects of local Jewish life. A Jewish community existed in Kaifeng from the time of the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127), when a small number of Jews, probably from Persia and India, migrated to Kaifeng (then China’s capital) and built a synagogue in 1163.
Sign of the times ... the site of the Kaifeng Synagogue, which was built in 1163
The community reached its peak in the mid-17th century with about 5000 Jews. They have since intermarried and assimilated and all Jewish life pretty much ended when the last rabbi died in the mid-19th century. The community is now trying hard to re-establish its identity although gatherings of more than ten people are banned and while five official religions are recognized, Judaism is not among them.
Magical Guilin is famed for its series of rounded conical hills, thickly forested in different shades of green hinting at the fine rain which the Irish describe as “soft”. There were some heavier downpours, including one at night during a remarkable outdoor show where the local population provided a cast of hundreds, while the hills and lake served as the “scenery”. Artful types of lighting conveyed life in China, illuminating the shiny metal of soldiers marching, the gentle contours of peasants harvesting and the fishermen bringing in their catches. All was enhanced by the collective pleasure of numerous grandparents, both local and visiting, chattering away in the audience, especially when a spirited smiling group of school girls singing, resplendent in yellow and black and relishing their turn in the spotlight, waved to the audience.
From the discipline of Kung Fu to the seemingly impossible contortions of various gymnasts, among them seven motorcyclists so precisely co-ordinated that they were able to speed around a transparent circular wire cage as just a blur, a range of performers provided fresh, often mesmerising, evidence of cultural diversity.
Shanghai reinforced the sheer size of the country as well as its rapid development. Here, the skyline is dominated by shiny new skyscrapers (or “skypers” as our guide described). Their number, height and indeed audacity was breath-taking, especially when seen at night. Five levels of inter-city highways underscored brilliant Chinese engineering capability that serve the city’s population of 23 million.
Aspects of village life have been preserved at Wu Zhen, just two hours drive away. Here, traditionally dyed cloths of blue and white were almost a shock after the predominance of red and gold elsewhere. Just half an hour away from Shanghai, a throbbing ultra-modern city often choked with traffic, there were rice fields tended by workers still wearing traditional rounded hats, crouching as they tended their fields, sometimes struggling under the weight of two buckets slung across their shoulders, their lives apparently unchanged by the economic development which has seen China overtake Japan as the world’s second largest producer of goods and services.
Many of the urban population may now own cars, but bicycles still prevail, weaving in and out, sometimes in dedicated traffic lanes but often not. Scooters are the other main means of transport, often with drivers holding babies in arms or with a child held between the handlebars. While the almost total lack of helmets may not have been a complete shock, their total disregard for using headlights - even in the dark - certainly was. The cyclists and riders are everywhere, their impatient ringing adding to the prevailing din of the crowded cities.
The wheel may be an essential part of transport in China but not, it seems, when applied to babies. Strollers or push chairs were extremely rare – either a child walks or is carried. The one-child policy has been superseded by a two-child policy, but only children are still the norm. Our five different Chinese guides were all only children and of those who had their own children, only one had more than one, and they were twins.
Massive high rise developments which can be privately owned, though only for a maximum of seventy years, provide housing for the burgeoning population of 1.35 billion. Ornate buildings for royalty and the aristocracy have given way to modern blocks. In the words of Pete Seeger’s famous song, they resemble little boxes, little boxes and they’re all made of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same”.
Many aspects of Chinese life were unexpected, such as the vigorous bargaining over every item irrespective of initial claims of “best price”. Day and night, uncovered, unrefrigerated, and at times unrecognizable food was available in street markets. Sales techniques took on a whole different meaning after encountering the enthusiastic, not to say aggressive, ladies of Yao, who were only too happy to sell their handicrafts, but not the sticky rice mixture which is claimed to be the secret of their extraordinarily thick and beautiful hair which never loses its pitch black color or luster.
China may be an icon of development in many ways, but its skills, at least to Western eyes, have not yet been demonstrated in its public facilities.Other than in hotels, toilets were usually “squatters” - holes in the ground, which invariably gave rise to excited cries of “seat”, “seat”, for exceptions. Toilet-training in China too is as unique as it is amazing. Babies appeared to wear diapers or nappies only for the first few months. After that a long opening in the crotch of their trousers enables mothers to hold their children over open ground when needed, little bottoms poking out into the cold air.
And in the midst of the different and the unfamiliar, the shining example of the compassion and generosity of the Chinese people towards Jews is commemorated in the Jewish Museum in Shanghai. Some 30,000 refugees from Nazi persecution were given shelter during World War II, the local population sharing its own meagre supplies. The museum abuts the refurbished Ohel Moshe Synagogue, visited recently by PM Binyamin Netanyahu.
From a celebration of Chinese altruism to wonder at Chinese athleticism, our trip was an extraordinary introduction to a country whose impact can only grow.
We were incredibly fortunate in having ESRA members Rona and Aaron Michelson of Modiin as our highly experienced tour leaders. Our grateful thanks go to them and to Shai Bar Ilan Tours which organized this unforgettable, enchanting and captivating journey.
PS. Thought for the Day seen in a coffee shop: “A mind is like a parachute; it doesn’t work if it is not open”.