China revisit offers glimpses into past, present

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By Victor Block

CHINA —

Automobiles clog city streets that were built for pedestrians and bicycles. Billboards that recently touted the benefits of socialism now advertise designer clothes and the latest electronic gadgets. Vendors sell dumplings, noodles and unidentifiable body parts of animals off wooden carts parked in front of KFC, McDonald’s and other American-based fast food restaurants.

A recent return trip to China, more than 20 years after my first visit, resembled a back-to-the-future experience. Like the rest of the country, Shandong Province southeast of Beijing offers a study in contrasts. In cities, modern skyscrapers stretch as far as the eye can see. Members of the “millennial” generation sporting the latest fashions are glued to their cell phones.

A short distance away the setting is very different. Farm fields surround small villages where tiny houses line narrow dirt streets. People strain beneath heavy shoulder yokes as their forebears did. Men and women till the soil with implements not much different from those used centuries ago.

The natural place to begin a tour is Jinan (pronounced Dze-nahn), Shandong’s capital. It is known as the “City of Springs,” because more than 100 natural pools gush from the ground.

In Qufu (Chew-foo), the birthplace of Confucius, sites associated with the life of the venerated philosopher and teacher serve as a magnet for tourists. The Temple of Confucius, originally built a year before his death in 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 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 gravesite.

Another popular destination is Mount Tai. For at least 3,000 years, it has been a place of worship in both the Taoist and Buddhist religions. Ancient emperors traveled there to offer sacrifices. Elaborate pavilions, towers and inscriptions carved on cliffs cover the 5,069-foot high mountain.

Other cities also have their unique claims to fame. Qingdao (Ching-dow) is home to the best-known Chinese beer, sold as Tsingtao in the United States and throughout the world. Qingdao also was the site of sailing events during the 2008 Olympics held in China and a museum recalls that proud moment.

Wine rather than beer is the focus of Yantai (Yan-tie), known as “the city of grape wine.” Archaeological findings indicate that wine was used for sacrificial ceremonies in China 9,000 years ago. Modern production began in 1892, when the Changyu Pioneer Wine Company was established in Yantai. Today about 140 of the estimated 500 wineries in the country are located in Shandong Province.

Not far from Yantai, my wife Fyllis and I delved into village life — and the past. We strolled into the tiny hamlet of Hanqioa (Han-kwee-au), smiling at villagers who stared at us with curiosity. Men and women of all ages were preparing corn to be ground into meal, and breaking tree branches to serve as fuel during winter.

In villages like Hanqiao, life has changed little from decades ago. Introductions to intriguing historical tidbits stretching much further back in time are available at worthwhile museums in Shandong Province and throughout China.

With an 8,000-year history of pottery making, it’s natural that Shandong Province is home to a Museum of Pottery and Porcelain. Displays include fine chinaware that is as much art as it is functional.

Equally appealing was a whimsical collection of over 3,000 clay pieces depicting people engaged in every aspect of pottery making a century ago.

Another museum is as interesting for its location as its contents. Workmen constructing a highway uncovered the underground burial place of a dignitary. He was laid to rest some 2,600 years ago with chariots and horses, which were buried to transport him to the next life. The carts and horse skeletons were left intact and the highway was completed overhead. The collection also includes chariots from throughout history that were used in more ways than I could have imagined.

Given the increased popularity of wine in China, the Changyu Wine Culture Museum in Yantai is another popular stop. Never before had Fyllis and I visited a wine cellar over 100 years old, or seen such an extensive display of primitive vessels used in ancient wine making.

Wine production in China, spanning some 9,000 years, is but one of countless activities and attractions that serve as bridges between the past and present. Exploring that country’s history and experiencing current developments provides a fascinating contrast. Shandong Province offers much that the country has to offer in a compact area.

If you go …

The best way to visit China is on a group or individual guided tour that includes travel, English-speaking guides, accommodations and other arrangements. For more information or help planning a trip, go to travelshandong.com or call Night Hawk Travel, which specializes in tourism to Shandong Province, at 800-420-8858.