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Culture Meets Commerce in China

It pays to do the numbers in China. Although the world’s most populous country is changing at warp speed, I found during my recent visit that numerology and customs still influence many decisions.

For instance, it’s no coincidence that China hosted the Summer Olympics beginning on August 8, 2008. In China, numbers mean something — and nothing beats an “eight” That’s why the largest athletic event in the world was scheduled to begin on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008.

There’s more. In China, the number four is abominable. The number six, like eight, is good but apparently not good enough for the Olympics. Nine means royalty.

Customs dictate everyday life as well. Many men still meet in parks to negotiate their children’s marriages. It is men who become responsible for their aging parents. A Chinese woman expects the man to provide a car and an apartment when they marry — and her wedding dress.

For a first-time traveler to China like me, it was the collision of customs with cutting-edge commerce that created a fascinating trip.

Shimmering Shanghai

In Shanghai, where my trip with Wendy Wu Tours began, we stood on the Bund riverfront amazed at architecture on the opposite shore that had barely broken ground when Bill Clinton became president. Once referred to as the Paris of the Orient, Shanghai is a city of 24 million with a history of international intrigue, opium wars and military occupation. Today, it is a capitalist colossus under Communist rule.

My hotel room overlooked a tree-lined park on Nanjing Road, the city’s glittering avenue of nightlife. Each morning, I’d watch as men and women gathered for sessions of ancient tai chi. Dressed in ceremonial garb, they moved in unison, in an absolute economy of motion.

At night, that same street teemed with stylish shoppers, diners and travelers. One evening, I walked up Fuzhou Road to the Shanghai Museum and then over to Nanjing Road before heading back. The atmosphere was electric.

A century ago, the Bund district was this city’s financial center. Today, ornate 19th century hotels, like the Fairmont Peace and the Peninsula, line one side of the Huangpu River while incandescent skyscrapers spring from the other. Many travelers do evening cruises as we did to marvel at laser light shows those buildings serve up at astronomical expense.

“In 1991, nothing existed over there,” said Troy, our local guide for Shanghai. “It was farmland. We have built a new city in 23 years. That’s the CBC Building, the world’s second tallest, which is adding a floor a day. That’s the Oriental Pearl Tower, a landmark featuring 11 globes. The World Financial Center is the one that resembles a bottle opener at the top.”

All our guides with Wendy Wu used one English name instead of their Chinese name. Our national guide for the entire trip was Leo. The company provides a second local guide in each city, many of whom are educated in Xi’an at a school that trains tour guides.

I slept with my windows open, and I could hear the din of jackhammers and construction throughout the night. I could hear the voices of night workers echoing in the streets.

“I’ve seen many changes in Shanghai in my lifetime,” said Troy. “Shanghai is China’s window to the world. Over the past 30 years, we’ve used it to show our achievements. It’s ever bright — a party city.”

The nearby ancient city of Wuzhen is the “un-Shanghai.” A historic center for silk production and indigo fabrics, its quiet canals are still used for transporting goods bound for the Yangtze River. We toured its Ming-era –1368 to 1643 – Bed Museum that spreads across a nobleman’s house and watched as dozens of freshly hung indigo cloths rustled in windy courtyards.

Today, Wuzhen is more popular with tourists than with its youth.

“It’s mostly elderly people in Wuzhen now,” said Leo. “Young people say this life is no longer cool. They’re moving to the city.”

Before leaving Shanghai, Leo made arrangements for us to ride its high-speed Maglev train to the airport and back. Each 19-km trip took seven minutes and 20 seconds, and it was a great add-on. The train runs on magnetic rails and travels 160 mph, just faster than Japan’s trains.

“Whatever the Japanese can do, we can do better,” said Leo with nationalist pride.


Armed for the Afterlife

From Shanghai, we took a plane to Xi’an, home to China’s greatest archaeological treasure, the Terracotta Warriors and Horses.

“The Silk Road started here,” said our local guide, Aaron. “It was a trade route with the Roman Empire that existed for centuries. There is a large Muslim population here, descendants of Persians who came on the Silk Road. You’ll see burial mounds from 2,000 years ago that were fortified by slaves.”

Across the landscape, mounds protruded upward 30 or 40 feet. Most were raided years ago, but one remains protected by the government: that of self-proclaimed Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who built the Terracotta Warriors for protection in the afterlife.

We enjoyed a memorable meal in Xi’an when we visited an ornate theater for a Shui Jiao dumpling dinner. Like all our meals, the dishes were served on a lazy Susan we spun to one another constantly. A dumpling dinner in China expresses friendship. We enjoyed assorted steamed dumplings filled with lily root and mushroom, sweet walnuts, pork, and sesame duck. Our entertainment was centuries-old dances by delightful young performers.

The following day we visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Terracotta Army. For anyone from a Judeo-Christian heritage, it’s remarkable to consider that these figures were being built during Jesus’ lifetime.

Discovered by farmers 40 years ago, thousands of these warriors are aligned in trenches, with generals leading columns of infantry. Archers, foot soldiers, chariots and horses stand guard, most painstakingly reconstructed after centuries beneath the earth.

“Qin overthrew his mother’s government and started building the warriors when he was 21 years old,” said Aaron. “His workers built them continuously for 29 years. In all, there are an estimated 7,000 warriors and horses here.

“Each warrior was modeled after a different person,” said Aaron. “Their bodies are hollow with a hole in the neck where heat escaped during firing. Qin was buried 1.5 kilometers away, and his tomb is undisturbed. The government is being cautious that oxidation does not diminish the relics there.”

We visited Xi’an’s Muslim Street, which dates to the Silk Road 1,000 years ago. It is 1,100 meters long and features the Hanguang Gate on one end and the Xicheng Tower on the other. Today, Muslim Street maintains its Old World feel as crowds of locals haggle with street vendors for foods and wares.