Before my husband and I left for China, a friend described Shanghai as "Manhattan on speed," and looking out over this home of 33 million people from atop the 88-story Jin Mao Tower, we could see exactly what he meant. In the past 14 years, 285 new high-rises have gone up in an already cram-packed city. Its busy skyline is made even more dramatic by the colorful, futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower on the waterfront, which is called the Bund.
In many places, the city's rich history bumps up against modern industry and technology. Austere Stalinist architecture reminiscent of China's close ties with Russia during the Communist Revolution is rivaled by such ultra-modern edifices as the Shanghai Science and Technology Exhibition, where 18 different areas teach visitors about the natural sciences and technology.
Because of the vast and ever-growing population, a magnetic levitation rail system is under construction that will alleviate the gridlock expected in 2010. Home of NBA star Yao Ming, the city boasts 500 basketball courts and 280 soccer fields. Life expectancy has reached that of fully developed countries, and drinkable tap water - today unavailable anywhere in China - will become a reality by 2008. This is truly a city on the move.
To get a feel for the city's past as well as its present, we began with the Shanghai Museum, one of the biggest art museums in China. Its 120,000 pieces are housed in a square building with a round top to represent the confluence of heaven and Earth. The four floors of galleries contain paintings, ceramics, bronzes, sculpture, calligraphy, jade, coins and furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasties. State-of-the-art lighting turns on only when it senses a viewer is approaching, thus protecting centuries-old artifacts. One multipart exhibit explains from start to finish how porcelain is made.
The museum isn't the only building in Shanghai to employ the principles of Chinese geomancy in its architecture. The Hongkou Soccer Stadium is built to resemble a Chinese money-saving box with an opening in the roof to allow good health to come in from heaven. The sword-shaped Jin Mao Tower is surrounded by round buildings to mitigate its sharp edges. When I asked a local if architects were influenced by feng shui, she explained that the communist government frowns on superstition and religion. Then, her voice lowered, she said, "Having said that, we ARE Chinese."
The fact is, however, that several religious faiths do thrive in Shanghai. Xujiahui Catholic Cathedral, the biggest Catholic church in China, was built in 1904 and survived the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards wanted to destroy it in line with Karl Marx's dictum that "Religion is the opiate of the people." During World War II, Shanghai welcomed Jewish refugees from Europe, and Buddhist and Islamic faiths are also represented.
As Beijing is known for its cloisonne and Xi'an for its pottery, Shanghai is famous for its silk, so any attempt to know the city must include a visit to a silk factory. My tour included a stop at the Tian Hou Silk Co. and a real education about how silk is made. We began by watching how silk is extracted from the cocoons of silkworms and spun into threads. Then we progressed to a room where groups of four workers stretched wads of silk into large filmy squares that would eventually become clothing, comforters and other household items. Naturally there was a showroom filled with silk items for visitors to purchase and take home.
Another stop took us to the Jin Xiu Carpet Factory. In one area we saw how the patterns, which take about 12 days to create, are designed. A factory representative explained that the most popular ones are the peony, which represents health and wealth, the phoenix for kindness and the dragon for power. Some depict arts. One called "the four gentlemen" depicts plants that flourish in adversity.
In another area of the factory, workers wove the silk threads into rugs by hand. Our guide explained that small fingers and good eyesight are qualifications for the job, with most workers being women between the ages of 18 and 45. An intricate design can take up to 18 months to complete, and the rugs are said to last at least 75 years.
"People want to know that when they're reincarnated, the rugs will still be there," said Zheng Wan Ming, who was escorting our group, with a laugh.
Shanghai is also the largest center for Chinese acrobats. At the Shanghai Center Theater, we saw a show that would rival any Western production. Teenagers and young adults performed backbends and contortionist maneuvers that seemed physically impossible. In one display a young woman balanced a crystal chandelier on her midriff while doing her act. In another several acrobats stood on their hands atop a precariously balanced stack of chairs.
Cultural training begins early in Shanghai.
"Chinese want children to develop morally, intellectually and physically," Zheng said.
To that end, many attend the Children's Palace, an after-school enrichment facility founded after the Cultural Revolution in 1953 by Soong Ching Ling, the wife of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Several times a week, gifted children between the ages of 7 and 15 take part in extracurricular activities that include literature, science, sports and music. They also work on language so that each child can speak at least seven dialects. Especially talented children are groomed here for attending university later on. The children sometimes put on performances to which the public is welcome. The day we were there we watched a class read with their teacher and sat in on the piano lesson of a 6-year-old who played like a pro and wasn't in the least rattled by having an audience.
On our last day in Shanghai, we took a walk through the Jing An Park near our hotel. Even this serene, manicured green space was alive with activity. Large groups of men and women practiced tai chi and qi gong. Others walked, jogged and bicycled.
Later that day, en route to the airport, I asked Zheng how he would characterize the people of this modern, energetic metropolis.
"They're open-minded and well-educated," he said. "They do it. They achieve."
IF YOU GO
We traveled with Pacific Delight Tours ( www.pacificdelighttours.com or 800-221-7179). They were one of the first groups to provide tours of China, and their guides are among the most knowledgeable.
Glenda Winders is the editorial director for Copley News Service.
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