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General Impressions: Western Chinese Cities - Kunming, Xi'an, Chongqing and Chengdu

CHINA | Monday, 4 November 2013 | Views [10752]


General Impressions from Western Chinese cities: Kunming, Xi’an, Chongqing and Chengdu


The last couple of weeks in China were a whirlwind of activity between lectures and meeting many wonderful people, so much so that there was no time to make notes or write down my thoughts.  I am now in Kathmandu, and while there is almost too much information to take in here, I do want to catch up on my impressions from China before too much more time elapses.


I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to lecture at two universities in Kunming, Yunnan University and Yunnan Arts University and on each in Xi’an, Shaanxi Normal University, and in Chongqing, at Chongqing University for Post and Telecommunications.  It was simply wonderful to meet with students, faculty and staff and to learn about how the Chinese University system has changed since I was last in Mainland and Central China in 1992.  When I was first in China, I presented at an international conference in Shenyang on Distance Education and lectured in Xi’an at the Medical College.  At that time, to prepare the technology for the ppt and/or overheads (I seem to recall having brought the overheads as a back up in case a computer wasn’t available) for the conference presentation, we had to scramble to find something to act as a projection screen so that the images could be seen on the wall which was covered with faded reddish velvet patterned wallpaper that looked like a bad imitation of a former Soviet residence. After what seemed like a very long time, the conference staff proudly presented me with an ancient discolored frayed bed sheet that they promptly tacked to the wall. It wasn’t great, but the projections could at least be seen.  The Chinese conference participants were almost entirely middle-aged men.  The students at Xi’an Medical College were a fairly even gender mix and I didn’t try to use any technology there, but to get to the room (with broken glass windows) where I lectured, had to bypass stacks of boxes with human bones that were for their anatomy lab. In neither the conference presentation nor during the lecture could I elicit any discussion from the Chinese participants. That was 21 years ago.  Today, things at the universities, as in the cities, are very different. For the most part the technology worked, and when it didn’t it was because we couldn’t locate the right cable to connect the audio from their computer system with my Mac and the technician had already gone home or because I didn’t save a pptx as a ppt. These glitches can happen anywhere.  And the students did ask questions and respond when I asked them some.  While they weren’t as lively exchanges as I would expect in a North American classroom, the students were actively engaged in the discussions.

The buildings were almost all new and the computer systems worked, in both the older and newer campuses.  Many of the universities now have two campuses, the old one in the central part of the city and huge structures outside of the city where the government is building university cities, conglomerates of many universities in one section outside of town.   In Kunming, it took a good hour to get between the Yunnan University campuses, and if we had walked from one end of the new campus to the other it would have taken well over forty-five minutes.  The place is huge, and it is only one of, I believe, eleven campuses in this new “city,” which includes Yunnan Arts University, Yunnan University of Traditional Medicine, a Law College, etc.  In Xi’an it took about 40 minutes via the local bus to get between the two campuses, and, again, the new one is gargantuan.  The library alone was larger than our Student Union, Library and Performing Arts complexes combined and is spectacularly beautifully designed. There is a very large statue of Confucius at the entrance to the library, which nicely connects ancient wisdom with contemporary science and technology. 

This was a theme that I saw throughout my month in China, which was very different from what I had experienced in 1992, when it seemed that anything prior to the Revolution was looked upon only as a tourist attraction for foreigners.  Now Chinese history is glorified, especially the Tang Dynasty in Xi’an, with massive reconstructions and new buildings in the old architectural style.  Yes, this is still for foreign tourists, but even more so for the local populace and the growth in the domestic tourist market. The Taoist and Buddhist monasteries and temples have been renovated, remodeled and reinvigorated with monks living at the sites.  They sometimes have, as in Lhasa, a kind of Disneyland feel to them, and that is initially very disheartening as it feels like disrespecting the tradition.  I struggled with this for awhile and then came to the conclusion that if it is a question of either keeping the tradition somewhat alive, albeit in a somewhat popularized modern form, or having it wiped off the annals of history as the Cultural Revolution tried to do then it is probably better to have a popular entertainment version rather than none. For scholars and adept practitioners the loss is acutely felt, but given the numbers of people at the sites, and the number of people who were sincerely giving offerings, there is an upswing in the numbers of believers.  Unfortunately, the guides explaining the statuary and stories of the figures in the monasteries, were often simply mistaken and their explanations are now taken as gospel.  It was a clear case of how the popularized versions create false histories. 

As with the monasteries and universities, the major cities I visited have undergone dramatic change in the past 21 years.  There are high-rises that would dwarf New York’s skyline in Kunming, Xi’an, Luoyang (to a lesser extent), Chongqing and Chengdu.  These are not isolated buildings, but like with the new campuses mega complexes, with names like “Peaceful Street City.” I couldn’t help but wonder whether they were earthquake resistant and in Chongqing was proudly told that they don’t have earthquakes, so they don’t need to worry about them.  I can only hope they are right, but there is a history earthquakes elsewhere. 


The widely publicized air pollution problems in Beijing, were also apparent in the cities I visited.  Kunming was not as bad as the others, but the smog in all of them was such that I was constantly hacking.  It was virtually impossible to see a blue sky, even on what should have been a clear day, given the gray- yellow gunk in the air. The government has promised to do something about it in Beijing, but I hope they don’t forget the other cities as it is also a problem outside of the capital. While cars are cited as one of the leading problems, and traffic in the cities is a nightmare, there were a lot of battery-operated scooters everywhere, which were fairly inexpensive to buy.  I wish we had them in Flagstaff; it would cut down on our gas costs as well as emissions.


China is moving economically forward at tremendous speed.  Even if the economists say the rate of movement is slowing, it is still increasing at a rate that far outstrips that of the U.S.  The balance of economic power is shifting to this Eastern powerhouse and it would seem that for the people of the country, this may well be a good thing.  How it plays out for the rest of the world is a different story.  Perhaps the most frustrating experience for me personally was the lack of freedom of the press and communications.  I simply could not access many websites, including Facebook, Arizona Power to pay my utility bill as the address is aps.com, which to a Chinese censor looks like the Associated Press Service, or many of the scholarly websites I wanted to use to check facts.  For someone who is accustomed to finding and checking information, this was a real problem. & to top it off I think I got a Chinese computer bug, which I can only hope is now gone.

On the other hand, China’s propaganda machine is alive and well through their censors and what gets reported and shown on t.v.  One of the themes I picked up upon and which may be an indication of developing problems was the number of television shows and movies that were related to the Japanese invasion of the country and the genocide in Nanjing.  Current relations with Japan are not good, and the popularizing of this tragic episode in Chinese history adds fuel to inciting conflict. As world wars happen because of military treatises, (think of both WWI & WWII), if the conflict between Japan and China escalates, many of the Western countries will be brought into a situation that can only create massive devastation across the globe.


China is a fascinating country and one that deserves far more attention in U.S. curricula than it is currently given.  We do need students to study abroad here as whatever happens, China is going to be if not the major, at least one of the few major, economic powerhouses of the 21st C.  Our debt is owned by both China and Japan and their conflict is ours. Understanding the history and cultures of this vast landmass is, I believe, of critical importance to the future of global trade relations.


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