Reasons to go to — or revisit — China

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Victor Block

Throughout the city of Qufu (pronounced Chew-foo), China, numerous statues and posters depicting Confucius gaze out at the scene. If those portrayals were to come to life, they might frown at what is taking place in the birthplace of the venerated philosopher and teacher.

Brought up in poverty some 2,500 years ago, Kong Fuzi — the Chinese name which from “Confucius” evolved — stressed that no laws or moral guidelines should be broken in the quest for wealth. Based on that counsel, some of his followers came to regard profit itself as immoral.

Given current developments, that certainly isn’t true of most Chinese people today. As the nation evolved over the past 30 years from a state-controlled socialist economy to a partly capitalistic one — or, as the Chinese government puts it, “a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics” — a dash for cash has become the goal of many, especially the younger generation.

Automobiles now clog the streets of cities that were built when bicycles were the primary mode of transportation. Signs lining highways that once touted the benefits of socialism have been replaced by advertisements for designer clothes, luxury condominiums and the latest electronic gadgets.

Vendors sell dumplings, noodles and other traditional street food off rickety wooden carts parked in front of KFC, McDonald’s and other imported fast food restaurants.

A land of contrasts

Even in the face of these and other changes, the “old” China lies beneath the veneer of rapidly expanding cities, and continues to keep many smaller towns and villages in the countryside firmly in its grasp. After all, it’s not easy to erase 5,000 years of history in a few decades.

To my wife Fyllis and me, it is largely these and countless other contrasts that keep drawing us back to China, most recently for our ninth visit over the past 23 years. Anyone planning a trip to that fascinating country should consider including Shandong Province in their itinerary.

Shandong, a coastal province, lies between Beijing (342 miles north of Qufu) and Shanghai (492 miles south of Qufu).

Innumerable vestiges of China’s long history, which make Shandong Province a virtual museum of the country’s past, mingle with evidence of its frenzied transformation into a modern society. Some of Mother Nature’s most magnificent accomplishments compete for attention with myriad man-made treasures.

In an area not much larger than Maryland, D.C. and Virginia combined, visitors may enjoy much of what China has to offer, including attractions that should be included on any “must-see” list.

Confucius’ home town

The life and teachings of Confucius serve as a magnet for tourists from all of China and the world. Americans whose familiarity with him is confined to sayings in fortune cookies may be surprised to learn that he was the author of what today is known as the Golden Rule. Among teachings he shared with his students was the admonition, “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”

Exploring the city of Qufu immerses visitors in the life of the sage. The Temple of Confucius, originally built about the time of Kong Fuzi’s death, which most sources date to 479 B.C., occupies the site of the modest three-room home where his family lived. It has been expanded over hundreds of years to include 466 rooms and pavilions that sprawl over 46 acres.

The adjacent Confucian Family Mansion, begun in 1038 A.D., is almost as vast. Now comprising 152 buildings, it has served as home to senior male heirs.

The third major Confucian site is the largest family cemetery in the world, where the tombs of more than 100,000 descendants of Confucius surround his simple grave site. Thousands of ancient trees give the site a forest-like appearance.

As the capital and transportation hub of Shandong Province, Jinan (Dze-nahn) is one logical starting point for a tour.  Overseas visitors to this part of China usually fly to the capital city Beijing, then take one of the frequent domestic flights or high-speed trains to Jinan.

Jinan is a large, bustling city perched in a valley near the Yellow Sea. Its major claim to fame is its reputation as a “City of Springs,” with more than 100 natural pools, many embellished with gardens and pavilions. In keeping with the Chinese propensity for colorful names, they include Five Dragon, Black Tiger and Racing Horses springs.

A few hours outside Jinan is Mount Tai, a major destination for Chinese visitors as well as those from abroad. For at least 3,000 years, it has been a place of worship in both the Taoist and Buddhist religions.

Many ancient emperors came to offer sacrifices at the mountain’s Jade Emperor Peak and Sun Viewing Peak. The latter, as its name implies, is a popular spot from which to watch the first rays of the morning sun. A treasure-trove of elaborate ancient pavilions, towers and stone inscriptions carved on cliffs cover the 5,069-foot high mountain.

In my opinion, a number of other cities throughout Shandong Province have more to offer. For example, in addition to the famous beer that is produced in Qingdao (Ching-dow) and sold as Tsingtao, that city is known for an unexpected collection of buildings in German-style architecture.

The bright red tiled roofs and half-timbered exteriors stand out from the surrounding Chinese-style structures. That juxtaposition resulted from 15 years of occupation of the port city by Germany beginning in 1898, not long after which (1903) the uninvited guests established the brewery.

Given its location overlooking the Yellow Sea, Qingdao was the site of the sailing events during the 2008 Olympics held in China. The Olympic Sailing Center includes a museum devoted to that occasion.

Wine, rather than beer, is the focus in and around Yantai (Yan-tie), known as “the city of grape wine.” While archaeological findings indicate that wine was used for sacrificial ceremonies in China as long as 9,000 years ago, modern production began in 1892, when the Changyu Pioneer Wine Company was established in Yantai.

During the past 30 years, a number of other wine makers have found conditions for growing grapes around Yantai, and elsewhere in Shandong Province, to be beneficial.

The growth of China’s middle class during the past three decades has provided a domestic market for locally made wine. Of approximately 500 wineries in the country, about 140 are located in Shandong Province. A number of them offer opportunities for tours and tastings.

 

The Changyu Wine Culture Museum in Yantai is one popular stop. Even after taking more than our share of winery tours over the years, Fyllis and I found much of interest there.

Never before had we descended to a wine cellar that was constructed more than 100 years ago, seen such an extensive display of primitive vessels used in ancient wine making, or observed almost eerily lifelike dioramas portraying such wine production activities as making aging oak barrels and cutting bark from cork trees to seal the bottles.

Village life

As elsewhere in China, evidence of the nation’s split personality is everywhere throughout Shandong Province. In cities, modern office and condominium skyscrapers stretch as far as the eye can see.

Members of the “millennial generation” sporting the latest fashions in trendy clothing are as glued to their cell phones as their counterparts in the United St

ates.

Yet, travel just a short distance outside any metropolitan area, and you also travel back in time. In many villages, tiny houses line narrow, labyrinthine dirt streets, and people carry heavy loads on shoulder yokes as generations of their forebears did. In nearby farm fields, men and women till the soil with basic implements not very different from those used centuries ago.

It was not far from Yantai that Fyllis and I delved into a sampling of such village life. Speeding over a six-lane divided highway toward our next destination, we spotted a tiny hamlet not far off the road and asked our guide if we could go there.

Soon we were strolling through the narrow lanes of Hanqiao (Han-kwee-au), snapping pictures and nodding to villagers who stared at us with curiosity.

Men and women of all ages were working in the streets, preparing corn to be made into meal for bread. Several people were bre

aking up tree branches that would become fuel during winter. A teenage boy tended a cabbage patch planted in a narrow strip of soil beside his modest house.

Throughout China, in villages like Hanqiao, life is little changed from decades ago and sometimes longer. Introductions to intriguing historical tidbits stretching much further back in time are available at a number of outstanding museums that proliferate in cities, towns and more isolated venues.

We came upon one museum that is as interesting for its location as for what’s on display. The collection at the Museum of Ancient Chariots between Qufu and Yantai includes replicas of ancient horse-drawn carts that were used for tasks ranging from hauling crops and fighting wars to transporting emperors and other dignitaries.

We found intriguing a camel-driving chariot of the type used in the Liao Dynasty (907-1125 A.D.), and oversize carts that were pulled by elephants brought from India.

The star of the collection is a line of half-buried chariots, each attached to the skeleton of a horse by a harness. We learned that the chariots and horses, which had been drugged and buried alive, were placed there some 2,600 years ago to transport a deceased dignitary to the next world.

When workers constructing a highway dug into the burial chamber, the archaeological discovery was left intact and the road was completed above it. The loud rumble of cars and trucks passing overhead was a bit unnerving, until I was assured that the ceiling of the underground museum was adequately reinforced.

With a history of pottery making dating back 8,000 years, it’s fitting that Shandong Province is home to a Museum of Pottery and Porcelain. Highlights include displays of very fine chinaware pieces that are as much works of art as functional items.

Even more appealing to Fyllis and me was a whimsical collection of more than 3,000 clay pieces, stretching over 90 feet in length, depicting people engaged in every aspect of pottery making as it was done a century ago. The display also included jugglers, a barber shaving a customer’s head, and a man riding a single-wheel bike.

A more open culture

American tourists are welcome in China, and those who have been there before are likely to experience a new openness on the part of many people.

While expressing love for their country and the same sense of patriotism common in the Unites States, several of the men and women whom we met felt free to voice some criticism of their government. We even heard some gentle jokes about their nation’s leaders.

In addition, some newspapers and magazines now print stories about protests throughout the country, as well as government officials who have been caught and punished for corruption — a freedom in journalism that was unheard of only a few years ago.

The best way to visit China is on a group or individual guided tour, with English-speaking guides, accommodations and other arrangements provided.

For more information or help planning a trip, log onto www.travelshandong.com, or call Night Hawk Travel, which specializes in tourism to Shandong Province, at (800) 420-8858.

Victor Block is a Washington, D.C.-based travel writer.