Memoirs from a unique trip to China: “my new old dragon” (Part I)

China Unlimited Trip

China Unlimited competition winners at Ningxia Zhenbeibu Film Town (Claudia Ribeiro, 2016)

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Ms Claudia Ribeiro, PhD in History and Philosophy of Sciences (University of Lisbon) and one of the winners of the China Unlimited competition/trip to China in 2016. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect The European Sting’s view on the topic.

It all started when I read an announcement on my Facebook pages feed:  the Mission of China to the European Union was organizing a creative contest to commemorate forty years of EU-China relations, and the prize would be a ten days trip to China. I immediately decided to participate. That one simple decision got me into an unforgettable trip to China.

The accommodation was excellent, the meals were absolutely sumptuous, and we were driven everywhere – I mean, dozens of places and events – like babies in a pram. I am well aware of the fact that what I received was much more than what I gave. That is called Magnanimity.

I wonder: does Europe do the same for the Chinese? Does it launch contests where Chinese of all ages and from all walks of life can participate with photos, videos, short essays or an art work, and are they rewarded with top class tours in Europe as a prize?

What did we, the winners, see? Well, amongst other things, we strolled in the distinctive Dashanzi Art District where art and fun mix together; we looked at contemporary architecture, like Herzog & De Meuron’s, plus Ai Weiwei’s “Bird’s Nest”; we wandered in the new museums and old hutong, and watched acrobatic and kungfu shows at night. In Ningxia province we went to the majestic Helan Mountains to contemplate its rock carvings; we saw a dream of green and blue, the Yingning Najiahu Mosque, and climbed to the top of the amazingly steep Gaomiao temple. In Shapotou, we crossed the Yellow River, i.e., we crossed the mythical birthplace of Chinese civilization but also China’s Sorrow. Not only that, we crossed it on a sheepskin raft with a history of more than 2000 years. Not only that, the rowers graciously sang for us traditional folk songs all our way into the bank side… All that has been well documented in photographs and videos that you can look at and listen to in order to get a good idea of where we wandered. That is the reason why I am going to focus on things that cannot be captured by photographs.

We stepped out of the air-con environment of the airport and it immediately felt like another planet. The weather was so strikingly hot and humid, so heavy on our bodies that it was like penetrating the oppressive atmosphere of Venus. We had arrived during the dog days of the Beijing summer.

We then headed for the Chaoyang district. The largest one in the megapolis, Chaoyang means business: it is the Central Business area, boasting gleaming shopping malls, tall towers and the CCTV building, as well as Sanlitun net of foreign embassies. However, how lucky we were! The area around the university campus we stayed in made me feel transported to the past, a past I shared with China in the late eighties, early nineties. The persistent smell of coal was gone; people did not wear those iconic blue or green so-called ‘Mao suits’ any longer; bicycles had been replaced by cars; and there were modern versions of buses and taxis. But China old men in shorts and open shirts sitting on small stools were still playing xiangqi (Chinese chess) in the streets; there were still tiny booths where aged women in white caps sold traditional dianxin (snacks); people still had meals or took a nap just about everywhere. Life was still much done outdoors. And China is, of course, still full of babies and children embellishing its streets, and supremely adorable ones.

Some men who looked newly arrived from the countryside even stared at us foreigners in astonishment. Astonishment at the sight of foreigners is now seldom expressed. Launched especially for the 2008 Olympics, there was an incredibly successful campaign in the media to implement what I would call some international good manners amongst the Chinese, like not starring at people and not spitting on the ground.

Moreover, the feeling of the big scale of things was exactly the same as before. Beijing is enormous. Its avenues are gigantic. People are many. Even short distances are unbelievably long. In a word, I felt I had returned to a place I once belonged to.

I have to say that I still love my China of the eighties and nineties. Yet I recognize that China could not be cloistered in a capsule of time forever. Today’s China is cleaner and far more comfortable than before; travelling in its roads is far less dangerous. China is blossoming in synchronicity with the ways of the world. But, in spite of all the scarf-skin changes, the big and modern architecture, the shopping malls selling all conceivable trademarks, the traffic jams and renowned pollution – those changes that the Western media insist on emphasize – I did not feel I was in a new place at all. It was my old, old China. Wearing a fashionable new overcoat, perhaps; but still my old, old China, with many of its old, old habits and manias and sporting the same old mentality.

I will give you some examples. We were fortunate enough to be given a lesson about the etymology of Chinese characters by a brilliant Professor named Fu Qiang. Still in his thirties, his eyes shone with intelligence. His entire attitude was vibrant and engaging. He was a modern man in all the sense of the word ‘modern’. He spoke fluent English and German, was well travelled and well read in both Chinese and Western traditions, with a wide-range of knowledge concerning both sides of the world. Yet the passion of his life were the venerable art of calligraphy and the venerable Chinese characters, in particular the most ancient forms which were once written on bones, turtle shells and bamboo strips. He informed us about his remarkable theory whereby he compares the Chinese characters with the Mendeleyev system of classifying chemical elements. Characters too are composites of a certain number of different smaller elements. This is the reason why it is humanly possible to learn thousands of characters at a relatively high speed; actually, the more you learn them the easier it gets.

The Professor also taught the class how to sit and hold the brush properly for the practice of calligraphy. But then he added that people actually did not have to stick to those rules and should be creative in their way of writing. But how did he justify this point of view? Stating that we should ‘ring out the old and ring in the new’? Stating that we had the right to shun from tradition and change things? No, he justified it in the most Chinese way possible. He said that the first calligraphers, the ones who did not yet have paper to write on, could not have followed such rules to write. Those rules did not exist since the most ancient times but were adopted later. Therefore, by not sticking to traditional rules we were actually following the oldest masters of all. Chinese mentality at its purest: always the old to justify and validate the new!

Part II of this article can be found here.

About the author

Cláudia Ribeiro 轲龙, PhD in History and Philosophy of Sciences (University of Lisbon), studied Chinese Language and Culture in Beijing (BFSU) and briefly in Taiwan (NCCU). She translated several classical Chinese texts into Portuguese. She is also the author of a book about her life and travels in China. She has been teaching Mandarin to Portuguese students and Portuguese to Chinese. In September 2015 she was one of the winners of a trip to China (2016) as a result of her submission to the China Unlimited competition, sponsored by the Mission of China to the EU and Atlas International Culture.

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