China’s amazing history

One of the things I find fascinating about our new home, is that it has more than 5,000 years of sophisticated history. This was evident three weekends ago when we visited Chéngdū museum, and two weekends ago when we joined our kiwi friends Paul and Diana in Hángzhōu.

Chéngdū has several museums. Our local hostess recommended this one. It has only opened this year, has lots of descriptions in English, and has more floors than we could cover in a morning, before our hostesses took us out for lunch. (As an aside, because this is not about food, this was one of the best meals we have enjoyed since being here. We took photos of the food with the menu showing the Chinese characters, so that we can repeat the process another time.)

We did the first two floors, starting with the oldest history, and will go back another time to do the rest which also looked fascinating – one of the pluses of living here. Things that struck me from the museum are:

  • Chéngdū is old! It has been inhabited for over 4,000 years (four times as long as New Zealand). And, those who lived here before us have left fascinating relics. This is a mixture of having a sophisticated culture for a long time, and emperors with massive egos tending to create large mausoleums in which they buried a large number of things to help them in the next life – not so much fun for those alive at the same time, but very thoughtful for later archaeologists.
  • Chéngdū has been an important agricultural and commercial centre for all of this time. The river and climate mean that it has always been a “heavenly province’ or ‘land of plenty’, two translations of Tiānfŭ (as in Tiānfŭ Square which is at the centre of town and where the museum is, and Tiānfŭ Ave which is the main road heading south to our place).
  • This very old history is still being discovered. In this region, there are two relatively recently discovered archaeological sites from the bronze age which indicate the culture was different to other parts of China. But, archaeologists struggle to find all the clues because the ground has been regularly disturbed from agricultural activity for so long – down side to being a food basket.
  • Because of its ‘abundance’, Chéngdū and the broader Sìchuān region was the first place that the Qin dynasty took over in the third century BC. This meant they could feed the army that then conquered, and first unified, the regions of modern China. This was the short-lived (15 years) dynasty that built the Great Wall, standardised measures, currency and writing style across China, and produced the terracotta soldiers.
  • I am blown away by what people were making 1500 – 2000 years ago that would look beautiful in a home today. The original pieces of Chinese lacquerware looked a bit used, but were still very attractive. The pieces of china (oh, is that why we call it china?!) on display were still beautiful. The colours were limited to green, orange and cream, because of the minerals available, but apart from that, they looked like you might choose to buy them in a shop today. Relatively recent innovation enabled production of blue china.
  • We had heard that Chéngdū was the first place to use paper money, and saw it on display.
  • And, the medical history. The museum has a 2,000 year old small lacquer figure with acupuncture points on it, and bamboo sticks with writing on, which are medical ‘books’.

Then Hángzhōu blew me away some more. We had three lovely days being hosted by our kiwi friends Paul and Diana. Our first day we visited the lake which is stunningly beautiful, and looks like it has been for centuries, and the National Silk Museum. Here we learned that Chinese people have been making silk for over 5,000 years. We saw fragments of silk recovered from tombs that are over 2,000 years old. There were 1500-year-old silk garments that looked at first glance like they might have been bought from a shop the day before. And, thanks to the kids display, I finally understand how silk worms, mulberry bushes and people produce silk. I wonder who worked it out way back, and how China guarded this secret for so long. Apparently, the Romans called China “Seres”, meaning “silk”.

Our second day, we four, and Paul’s teaching colleagues, caught a boat up the longest canal (1,780 km) in the world.

The first parts were built in 500BC, although the full length was connected a mere 1,600 years ago. In the tenth century, a Chinese engineer invented the pound lock, so this canal could go the necessary 42m uphill and reach all the way to Beijing.At Gōngchén Bridge where the boat stops, is a charming collection of traditional looking streets, shops, a Japanese restaurant we can recommend (but this is not about food), and various museums.

We had time to fit in the Fan and Umbrella Museums, again impressed by the amazing culture stretching way back, and the age and quality of the artifacts on display. We also saw umbrellas being made the traditional way and bought one from the man who had made it. And I bought a tea set that is both beautiful and functional, so now we can drink barley tea, a wonderful discovery here.

On our third day we tried to visit the National Tea Museum, but failed, due to our imperfect bus phone app, and then, once we decided to get a taxi,  road blockades that had our driver bursting into a chorus of ‘no, no, no, no’ – a bit of a surprise the first time given that this was the full extent of his English. So, instead we all enjoyed a relaxed lunch by West Lake.

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It certainly is an unexpected bonus of living here that we are growing in our understanding of, and respect for, this long, rich culture. It is right on New Zealand’s doorstep, but we kiwis tend to be ignorant of, and uninterested in, China. We used to be like that ourselves, and I have been reflecting on why. My theories are that we tend to be anti the big players (when I visited the US , I remember being pleasantly surprised that it was not as bad as I expected), and still align with Europe (those of us with European ancestry anyway). And, we think, without really thinking, that grey communism is China (those of us growing up through the 70s anyway).  However, as my friend’s Think like Chinese book explains, if you take the contents of a salt shaker to represent China’s 5,000-year history, spill the contents out on the table, and then pick up one grain of salt and flick it away – that represents communism in China. And modern Chéngdū is definitely not grey – but that needs to be the subject of another blog.

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