Sunday, July 18, 2010

By Book to Guangzhou

[This was (allegedly) published in Guangzhou's English-language newspaper. I never actually saw it myself, so I cannot confirm this.]
By Book to Guangzhou by Alan Borer

It is very appropriate that Guangzhou has an English language newspaper, partly because the city has been an international hub for centuries. For hundreds of years the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties and even the Republic of China used Guangzhou, which the “foreign devils” called Canton, as the one place that foreigners were allowed to trade with, and thus encounter, China and the Chinese people. More concisely, if you wanted to go to China, you had to pass through Guangzhou.

Time has left a wealth of diaries, journals, and travel accounts of foreigners visiting Guangzhou. Newly literate Europeans, and later Americans, had a taste for travelers’ tales and adventure stories of going to exotic places. Just as the British explorer Henry Stanley gave westerners written accounts of “darkest Africa,” any number of writers wrote books about their travels to mysterious, distant China. And as Guangzhou was the only formal entry port, those travelers often had to rely on mysterious Canton, plus Hong Kong, Macau, and some other Chinese areas which had been leased to European governments under less than honorable circumstances.

Readers were offered a host of travel narratives with old-fashioned sounding titles, like Description of a View of Canton (1838), or Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China (1818). The travel narrative that includes Guangzhou is therefore, a venerable literary tradition. That tradition is kept alive in the pages of this newspaper. And this seems a fitting place to mention a relatively new book by Valery Garrett entitled Heaven is High, the Emperor Far Away: Merchants and Mandarins in Old Canton, published by Oxford University Press (2002). It is a marvelous account of the Guangzhou that greeted some of those early foreign visitors, and thus greets more recent visitors who want to understand not only the what of Guangzhou but the why as well.

Garrett begins her account with a description of her own first trip to Guangzhou in 1975:

“the city beckoned...A taxi, hired from the few waiting at the hotel gates, took me to the Pearl River, through quiet streets with an occasional truck and numerous bicycles, waiting for rations of rice and charcoal.” (p. xii)

How different from when I saw the city earlier this year. If you live in Guangzhou now, or have visited recently like I have, you may be surprised to hear the city described as ‘quiet.’ And while there are still many bicycles, thousands of cars now mingle with the ‘occasional truck,’ which is not occasional any more.

As Garrett says in the book’s first sentence, “Canton has always attracted opportunists.” Arab traders brought their religion and culture to Guangzhou, and in AD 626, built China’s first mosque. In the eighteenth century, French, English, and Portuguese established trade footholds in Guangzhou. Trading tea, porcelain, and, sadly, opium, led these “fankwaes” to establish “factories” (the old definition of the word meant something more like “trading post”). Later, on, Christian churches and social services came with the European merchants, doing varying degrees of good or ill to Guangzhou natives. For example, the chapter on Shamien Island, which was a foreign concession until 1949, brings the reader to this strange place, where extravagant European consulates and their accompanying lifestyles mingled with Chinese urban life.

I wish I had read this book before visiting, or somehow found it while in Guangzhou. It starts with a marvelous account of Imperial Canton. Visitors who have gone sightseeing in Guangzhou will find the origins of many familiar sights they saw. I was fascinated that the Guangdong Provincial Museum, which I visited, is built on the site where Qing students took the interminable examinations that were the key to high ranking (and well paying) government positions in Imperial China. Or that the “Five Story Pagoda,” which I saw in its new guise as the Guangzhou Municipal Museum in Yuexiu Park, was once just within the city wall.

Ms. Garrett tells this story, filled with pathos and comedy, with clarity and ease. Her descriptions of Qing Guangzhou, for example, are detailed, but not to the point of burdening the casual reader. Quotes for the letters and diaries of earlier travelers are included, but do not run on at such length that they make reading a chore. And there are numerous, and gorgeous, illustrations. A surprising amount of the city was photographed in the second half of the nineteenth century. This means that Imperial Canton, with its narrow streets, crowds, and seemingly random buildings, can not only be read about, but viewed by the 21st century. The book is fun to look through as a sort of scrapbook, if only for its illustrations.

Cultural intermingling is rarely accomplished without friction. Europeans were eager to establish their varying brands of Christianity, and the Anglican, Catholic, and Protestant churches that can be seen to this day in Guangzhou are legacies, for better or worse, of the West trying to introduce their thinking to China. One of their converts, Hong Xiuquan, proclaimed himself Christ’s Chinese brother, after hearing Christian missionaries preach in Guangzhou. The resulting Taiping Rebellion against the Qing took a nearly unbelievable twenty million lives. In 1911, the weakened Qing dynasty collapsed in the wake of the revolutionary activities of Dr. Sun Yatsen in Canton. Even the great revolutionary leader Mao Zedong spent some time in Canton staring in 1924, teaching and guiding peasants who aimed to bring revolution to Canton.

I paid a visit to the carefully preserved buildings of Chairman Mao’s Peasant Movement Institute when I visited Guangzhou this year. They preserved one kind of revolutionary foment coming out of Guangzhou. Along the Shangxiajiu Road in modern Guangzhou I also saw a series of statues that depict early foreign visitors to the city meeting with or observing Chinese natives. The Europeans’ expressions are various; a mixture of surprise, amusement, condescension, and bafflement. Modern western visitors may experience some of the same emotions. But the statues, and Valery Garrett’s book, help the muddled visitor realize that they are not the first. Guangzhou, sometimes hospitably and sometimes not, has a long, long history of being the first stop on a visit to China. The culture mix has not always been productive, but it has certainly had a long and interesting story.

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