Notes from the Field: Lenses on China
From June 3 to 22, 2017, thirteen students traveled in the People’s Republic of China to engage in meaningful cultural exchange and experiential learning. Students also explored changes and transitions in modern China in the context of Chinese history through interdisciplinary lenses: socio-political, historical, environmental, economic, and cultural, among others. The program, Lenses on China, was a new addition to LITW this summer, building upon the work of the former BASK program in China. Following are “Notes from the Field” written by participating students.
After a long day of traveling through airports and sitting through plane rides, the Lenses on China group finally arrived in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. To beat our jet lag, we visited the Wuhou Temple, a monument to the prominent men who lived during the era of the Shu Kingdom. The hidden symbolism behind every decorative fixture and intricately carved statue in the Temple stood as testament to the complicated narratives unified through traditional Chinese architecture. Following our visit to the temple, we had a group hot-pot dinner. We prepared our food by boiling selections of meat and vegetables in the “hot pots” provided, with the option to use either the spicy or not-spicy broth. For many of us, it was our first time trying meats like duck tongue!
Our last stop of the day was an evening market to immerse ourselves in Chengdu’s bustling nightlife and marketplace scene. We had a great time going on a scavenger hunt to explore further what the shops and stalls had to offer, and to interact with Chengdu locals. Overall, Chengdu is remarkable for its ability to embrace its rich cultural traditions while also rapidly modernizing to support an IT industry and the increasing population that its industrial growth is creating. We had a great first day, and can’t wait to see what the future holds for us tomorrow—stay tuned!
Our second day was exciting. We started the morning by visiting the park at Du Fu’s thatched cottage. A section of the park is devoted to an excavation site, where archeologists have discovered some buildings from the Tang dynasty. The rest of the park is mostly gardens. These gardens are more intricate than the Wu Han temple gardens—maze-like in nature, the twisting pathways brought us around rock formations, waterfalls, bonsai trees, and a vast variety of vegetation. Many small streams run through the gardens, giving the park a connected feeling.
After we visited the gardens, we went to a Chengdu public school for children with intense special needs. At the school we got a tour of the grounds; the school is equipped with a vast array of facilities, including a roof garden, a mushroom hut, a makerspace (with saws and hammers though, not laser cutters and 3D printers), a small library, a track and field, and many classrooms. After our tour, we each got paired with a buddy and went to art class with our buddy. My buddy was a little girl, who, it turns out, is very good at painting crabs. After art class, we did a gift exchange and said goodbye.
Later in the evening, we had dinner with a special guest. An interpreter from Chengdu, he provided insight into what being an interpreter is like, as well as what China is like as a citizen. At one point toward the end of dinner, I got the opportunity to ask him about his opinion on Donald Trump, and how that compares with the majority opinion in China. His answer was clear and concise: nobody in China cares about what Trump is doing, just like how nobody in China cared about Obama or Bush. This seems on par with how most Americans feel about President Xi; most Americans do not care what President Xi does, because usually it does not impact our lives.
When dinner was over, we went to a tea house and saw a performance of various arts. There was a short Chinese opera, some shadow puppets, and some singing and instrument playing. The entertaining performance was a solid end to a busy day.
We woke up early this morning to pack up and eat a quick breakfast before leaving the hotel. After several days of jet lag, it was exciting to see that many of us were finally feeling refreshed and energized for the full day ahead.
We spent the morning at Blue Sheep, which is a local shop in Chengdu that sells crafts and handmade products from local and international artisans from regions all around China. This shop is particularly interesting however, because all of the products were made by either disabled persons or ethnic minorities in impoverished regions. We were able to speak to the founder and shopkeeper and discuss her experiences working with impoverished families in regions like Nepal and Tibet. We helped her set up a company Instagram to promote her store and photographed many of her products for the site. We were also very fortunate to get to meet a man named Mr. Cheng, who is one of the disabled craftsmen for Blue Sheep. We discussed his craftwork and his experiences with discrimination and poverty as a man with physical disabilities trying to make a livelihood in the city.
After a full morning at Blue Sheep, Rachel took us to a local Tibetan restaurant and we got to sample authentic Tibetan cuisine. We enjoyed a variety of different dishes like Tibetan bread, stir-fry with yak, yak dumplings, and, of course, yak butter tea.
Once we were stuffed with yak, we headed off to an archeology museum and park. We were able to separate and explore the park on our own. The site included two museums: one archeology site and one museum filled with many artifacts. There were various winding paths that led through both dense and sparse forests as well as a deer farm. The freedom to explore was fun, and the experience overall was amazing.
This was the last activity in Chengdu, and then we took an hour and a half long bus ride to Du Jiang Yan. After arriving and settling into our rooms, we once again split up in the city to find dinner for ourselves. We had a great time venturing into the depths of the shops and stands to find ourselves a fulfilling dinner. Our one task was to order our meals in Chinese, and although many of us lack the skill, we were able to find wonderful dinners and have an amazing evening. We all reunited back at the hotel, and now energized and past our jet lag, we were able to bond over a rousing game of “Mafia.” What a day it has been!
Today was an awesome day. I picked up panda poop, smashed some bamboo, and was more than a little startled when a terrifying-looking centipede landed on my foot—in addition to pandas, there were a lot of bugs at the Panda Center! We set out on the bus this morning on our journey into the cloudy, majestic mountains near Dujiangyan. Picture the mountains in Kung Fu Panda, because the movie was actually based upon the Panda Research Base. Upon arrival, we suited up and were put to work cleaning up after the pandas. We put on some awesome matching green polos, scooped poop, and picked up bamboo leaves in the panda enclosure. Even though we were picking up feces, I think the tourists there were a bit jealous because we were just that much closer to the pandas. There seems to be a bit of a religion around pandas here, in China and within the group. They are considered the spirit of China, according to the documentary we watched. After cleaning up after the pandas, we got to make their food a bit easier to chew by “cracking” the bamboo stalks against the ground. It was insanely fun. There was no better way to relieve any stress than by obliterating a bamboo stalk on the sidewalk.
We each got to feed the pandas after they ate 60 pounds (!) of bamboo. We had some fantastic photo ops with these beautiful animals. There is something so peaceful (almost spiritual) about being around pandas. They sleep around 20 hours each day; for the four hours they are awake, they consume 60 pounds of bamboo, play, poop, and climb trees. What a life.
That night we were able to check out more of the markets around the hotel. We found a spectacular pastry stall, and a lot of the group was able to order some bubble tea. It was a hit. That night we met as a group to reflect upon and check on the progress of our research projects. Each night we tell the rest of the group several things: First, our highs for the day; second, our lows for the day; and third, a shoutout to someone or something from the day. It’s a great way to reflect and bond at the end of the day. Tomorrow we will be visiting a World Heritage Site and hiking up “The Kung Fu Panda Mountain” (Mount Qingchang!). I can’t wait for more adventures to come!
Hello, everyone! The fifth day of our journey involved learning about some fascinating Chinese engineering and hiking up and down one of China’s most famous Daoist Mountains.
The first thing we did was visit the Dujianyan, the ancient irrigation system that gives Dujianyan City its name. The system was created during the Qin Dynasty in 256 BC to help farmers. It runs on the Minjiang, the longest tributary of the Yangtze. Initially, the Minjiang came down from the Min mountains, making nearby farmlands vulnerable to flooding. In order to harness the power of the river, Li Bing—the governor of Shu during the Qin Dynasty—developed a method of channeling and dividing the water rather than simply creating a dam.
We walked around the Dujiangyan, exploring the three main constructions that work together for maximum efficiency. These constructions are the Yuzui, the Feishayan, and the Baopingkou. The Yuzui is an artificial levee that divides the water into inner and outer streams. The inner stream is deep and narrow so that it carries around 60% of the river’s flow into irrigation systems during the dry seasons. The Feishayan is an opening that connects the two streams for protection against flooding. It allows the natural swirling of the water to drain out excess water from the inner stream into the outer stream. The Baopinkou distributes the water from the system into the farmlands of the Chengdu plain through the mountain.
We ended our exploring at the Yuzui (we started backwards) and had a lot of time to look around—a grand total of 10 minutes. Still, in that time, we were able to take some fine pictures and buy a couple of fresh cucumbers, which were surprisingly refreshing.
Afterward, we took a quick bus ride to the entrance of Qingcheng Mountain (青城山), one of China’s most important Daoist centers. Daoism, also known as Taoism, is a religious or philosophical tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Dao (道, literally “Way”). Although the Dao is a fundamental idea in most Chinese schools of philosophy, in Daoism, it denotes the principle that is simultaneously the source, pattern, and substance of everything that exists. While Daoist ethics vary depending on the particular school, all forms of Daoism tend to emphasize wu wei (无为 — no unnatural action), naturalness, simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures: ci (慈 — “compassion”), jian (俭 — “moderation”), and bugan wei tianxia xian (不敢为天下先 — literally “not daring to act as first under the heavens,” but usually translated as “humility”).
“To get to the top of the mountain, we did a combination of walking, taking shuttle cars, and riding a cable car. Along the way, we saw many smaller shrines and temples dedicated to various Daoist figures, particularly Lao Zi, an ancient philosopher and the founder of Daoism.”
“There were also people selling various snacks and drinks (we found ice cream on the way down!), and one particular item that caught our attention was cucumber; people would peel off the skin and just eat a whole cucumber. It was surprisingly very refreshing and tasty. “
Today was pretty much dedicated to travel—after breakfast, we got onto the bus and drove back to Chengdu (specifically the eastern train station). We were about an hour and a half early, so we explored the station and grabbed some snacks—including our first Western food since getting to China: KFC! It apparently tasted different than the KFC in America, even though I hadn’t ever had it before (Kishan has had it before, and he agrees).
The train, once we embarked, was incredibly fast, probably at least a hundred-something miles per hour. It only took a few hours to get to Chongqing from Chengdu. Along the way we were able to see some of the Chinese countryside (as well as cities and towns). There was a good amount of farmland and some traditional rural houses that were far from anything we had seen so far in the urban centers we’ve visited, as well as a decent amount of overgrown infrastructure—we saw a lot of simple concrete walls or three-wall-cubicles that were abandoned and overgrown with vines and other plants. Often the reclaimed and abandoned sections were placed right next to brand new apartment buildings or houses. It seemed like developers just build new things instead of renovating the old.
After the train ride, we boarded another bus, this one with a different guide, named Richard. We went to a museum dedicated to the Three Gorges and the dam built between them, where we were given time to explore. When we finished at the museum, we bussed to Chiang Kai-shek’s villa that he owned in the heights of Chongqing. (For those who don’t know, Chiang Kai-shek was the generalissimo of the provisional republic government that fought in the civil war against Mao after he deposed Sun Yat-sen, the previous leader of the republic after the Qing dynasty.) His house was quite small, but the grounds around it were nice: there was a pagoda with an excellent view of the whole city and a man had set up his cart where he was painting people’s names, both in English and in Chinese, in a stylized fashion with dragons and bamboo trees and other various animals representing different strokes and letters. Many of us bought our Chinese names in the style.
We then went to a local grocery store where we bought snacks, before driving on the bus again to dinner. The food was less spicy than in Chengdu and there weren’t the classic staples of Mapo doufu and twice-cooked pork that we had come to expect, but it was good nonetheless. When dinner was over, we walked across the street to the boat docks, where we checked into our rooms, unloaded a bit of our luggage into the fairly small space we had (but really, it’s a boat, what are you expecting?) and met up on the top deck. We talked for a bit, discussed our plans for the next day, and watched as we set off from port out onto the river. When we exited the city, we decided it was time to sleep.
Today we went on a small ferry ride around the area of the Three Gorges featuring the mountains that surrounded us on all sides. It was a rainy day, and mist lightly shrouded the tips of the mountains, with rocky cliffs that jutted into the river at irregular angles. The raindrops made little spiraled dimples on the river’s surface. We rolled down the window to look at the sights our guide described. Our guide was a local from a Three Gorges Dam resettlement, and she talked about how her new apartment was better than the old house her family of four used to live in. She was kind enough to give some students in our group interviews concerning communism and gender roles in Chinese education. She also advertised some trip-related merchandise, which made it clear that the ferry was for tourism and not necessarily cultural education. I still can’t get over how green the Chinese mountainsides are compared to the brown California mountains I’ve seen all my life. It’s interesting that there are markings along the sides of the mountains indicating how deep the water would be if it reached the markings. You can see an almost perfectly horizontal waterline separating the trees and plant life from the bare rock of the cliff. The bare rock walls form a band around these mountains, hinting at the flooding they must have endured to create the landscape we see today. Although much of our readings on the Yangtze River have dealt with flooding, it’s hard to imagine flooding of such catastrophic proportions when our cruise ship rides the waters so smoothly.
After the memorable excursion, we came back to the cruise and had dinner, which then was followed by a crew cabaret. The show started with traditional dancing, but then a small girl took away the show by dancing to Shakira’s “Waka Waka.” We performed M.A.M. Slam’s routine wearing our Lenses on China shirts—we started on stage in a circle, where we then counted down from ten in Chinese. The audience definitely found it humorous, but it sounded really cool. Our performance was followed by a series of traditional and modern dances by the crew; however, they took a slight turn and started to invite guests on stage, and started the Hugging Game, which was similar to musical chairs, but we had to huddle in a specific number of people in each group. The most memorable part was when Jelani went up to a group of four five-year-olds and embraced the kids in order to make a group of five. After this hilarious game, the crew invited us once again to dance “YMCA” and “Cha Cha Slide” on stage, which was really fun. The night ended with a lot of fun and laughter, and it was truly one of the most memorable days of the trip so far.
Today was an amazing day—the first full day in Shanghai!
To start the day off, we had a breakfast in the hotel then set out for the subway. instead of using the buses that we used to have, we traveled by subway to get to the school. It was a great experience, and because I was only used to the Boston and New York subway stations, this station seemed extremely clean. The whole setup of the station was so nice and I was very impressed. After walking from the station to the school after we rode the subway, we were welcomed by the assistant principal. It was an amazing school, and it seemed as if they offered a lot of great classes. After a tour of the school, were able to take some sample classes ourselves. We were taught calligraphy, which was extremely challenging. After that, we learned how to make a little paper lantern that we could fill with different scents. After that, we took a martial arts class. My favorite was the martial arts class because we were able to move around, and as a dancer who has never done martial arts, it was a really cool thing to learn.
After visiting the school, we took the subway to a mall where we were able to get dinner. We found a great noodle place, as well as a very satisfying bubble tea place. Altogether it was a successful dinner.
After dinner, we headed over to The Bund, where we planned to see the night skyline from a small ferry. We had some free time before dusk, and we explored The Bund. The Bund is a really cool place with an amazing view of the skyline. I took a lot of pictures, and it was a really nice walk. On the boat, we were able to get a fantastic view of all the lit-up buildings. It was truly amazing, especially the big spike. Then, we walked back to our hotel, and even though we were all very tired from a long day, it was still a fun walk.
We woke up early this morning to gather our luggage and have our final breakfast on the Victoria Sophia before our departure. After leaving the ship, we set off immediately on a tour bus to see the Three Gorges Dam. We arrived at the dam in the early morning, and got a comprehensive look at the dam, both up-close and from afar. It was especially fascinating to see the dam in person, because we have spent so much time learning about the complicated and controversial history of its construction. We have watched documentaries, read articles, and had thorough discussions about the importance of the Yangtze, and the significance of the Three Gorges Dam for the Chinese people. Moreover, our experience at the dam seemed especially significant because we’ve been able to engage with local people who have been directly affected by the dam, both negatively and positively.
After a few hours viewing the dam, we headed to Yichang and ate lunch in a restaurant at a local hotel. After a hearty meal, we all got to try a new type of native Chinese fruit that is currently in-season. We’ve seen street vendors selling these fruits throughout our trip, and it was exciting to finally get to try some.
After lunch, we went to a history museum. The museum was home to artifacts collected at the site of the now underwater island near the Three Gorges Dam. The artifacts were sorted by time period, the oldest being thousands of years old, the newest less than 80 years. The museum was preparing to build a new exhibit, and in order to raise money, they were selling some of their less significant artifacts. After some of our group made purchases, we left for the airport. On the way to the airport, we stopped at a mall to get Starbucks, and take a break from driving. Most of us got some sort of green tea related drink, and then we spent the next 45 minutes exploring the mall and shopping.
The airport was tiny, but we weren’t there for long. After checking in, we had a small dinner, and then went through security. We made it from the airport in Shanghai to our hotel without much hassle, and after a long travel day, we are excited to experience Shanghai tomorrow.
Today was our third full day in Shanghai. The first thing we did was visit the students at the Shanghai school for the last time. When we arrived at the school, the students were still in classes, so we played some table tennis. We then ate lunch and interviewed the students afterward. Our interviews were one-on-one, so we got to know the people we were each interviewing very well. This interview session was very beneficial to all of our research projects, as all of the students could answer any questions about China and offered unique perspectives on each of our project topics. Afterward, we took a picture with the students of the school and said goodbye to them.
After we left the school, we visited the headquarters of one of the most popular newspaper companies in all of Shanghai: The Shanghai Daily. The Shanghai Daily is unique in that it is written entirely in English and caters to a western readership. Because the newspaper is owned by Shanghai United Media Group, however, the government does provide feedback on what The Shanghai Daily publishes. For example, the government sent the newspaper a note about today’s front page headline. While we were at the newspaper, the people working at the company gave us a presentation and told us about the company and the newspaper. After they informed us, they answered our questions. We asked a wide variety of questions regarding the central government’s involvement in the publishing of the newspapers, the impact of the current public opinion of the media on the newspaper’s position as a distributor of news, and the intricacies of producing a daily paper.
The last thing we did was go to a dinner hosted by Mr. Tan, whose son graduated this year. We then rode on a subway through eleven stops to a place close to our hotel and then walked to our hotel.
Thanks for reading, and take care.
Today was another travel day. We started with an early morning in Shanghai, waking up at 5:30. From there we took a high speed train to the airport, only taking about 10 minutes of travel. The train, like before, was smooth and comfortable. After getting to the airport, we made our way through the various layers of security to our gate. After getting to the gate, we found out that our flight was delayed, which gave us ample time to go find breakfast; I had a chocolate muffin and some bubble tea.
The plane ride itself was quick, only lasting about two hours. At the airport, everyone made it through customs without a hitch, and we got on our bus to go to our hotel. The bus ride after the flight was tiring but scenic—mountains covered in greenery pushed right up to the ocean, and everything covered in a misty haze. The road slowly wound its way through the hills, and eventually to a denser city area. We checked into the hotel, dropped off our belongings, and went straight to dinner.
The food at dinner was some of the best we have had so far; the restaurant served many different types of dumplings and steamed buns, all of which were delicious. We had fun trying all the different types of buns, and we were all completely filled by the meal. After dinner, we explored the mall that the restaurant was in, and then we went back to our hotel. The travel day was long, as the days before have been, and we were all ready for a few hours of free time, and then sleep.