Living History

By Elizabeth Greene


            For years, I've been fascinated with China's imperial past. I have always preferred the ancient to the modern, and throughout my life have fluttered from one historical civilization to another, devouring the violence and romance of their reigns. I flirted with historical China as I had with the Romans and the Aztecs, and the flirtation blossomed into an unexpected infatuation when my father bought me Sun Tzu's Art of War. The historical introduction that took up two-thirds of that edition contained as much drama as it did military history, and I was drawn in by the same mix of violence and romance--augmented, I'll admit, by a stronger flavor of exoticism than I'd found in the Celts or the Greeks.

            I recently visited modern China on a research trip with Dr. Han, one of my college professors. The chance to see relics of the ancient China that I loved was only pointed out to me after we had gotten the grant for our research, when Dr. Han started talking about including some tourism in our itinerary. I had so separated my romanticized imperial China from today's gritty industrial China that it hadn't quite occurred to me that we were going to the same place. Once I had gotten over the shock of Dr. Han's suggestion, though, the idea was tempting--a bonus prize that would make the trip much more fun.


Beijing, our first stop once we arrived in China, still has many reminders of the past in its architecture, intertwined with new and modern touches. In the city, we browsed the shops on a long street flanked on one side by modern glass-and-concrete high-rises and on the other by brightly painted wooden buildings, red with ornate green and blue cornices in the most iconic Chinese style. The massive stone gates to Tiananmen Square were topped with more sloping-roofed, antique wooden towers, and underlain with subway stations that could be reached by stairways sunk under the arches of the gates. We spent four days as tourists, visiting the endless rectangular pavilions of the Forbidden Palace, the circular daises of the Temple of Worshipping Heaven, and a stair-heavy stretch of the Great Wall of China that dove straight down one side of a steep-walled valley and then right back up the other side.

            The parts of Beijing that we saw the most of made up a display city, a place to spend money, thick with tourist shops and tour guides. The shops in these areas were full of souvenirs, which ranged from little five-yuan keychains to jade jewelry so expensive that I boggled at the number of zeroes. I was happy to take pictures of all the old-fashioned, bright red storefronts, with their elaborate painted carvings and long waving banners.

Our hotel was in a less urban section of the city than those shops. It was a little yellow building with a gated courtyard that opened out onto a narrow grey street. The streets around our hotel were walled in by multi-story buildings, most of them grey, concrete, and with open fronts onto the street. The bottom floors were tiny shops selling everything from toilet paper to roasted chicken--the live chickens kept in cages in the doorway of the shop and butchered and roasted fresh while customers waited. Children played just outside doorways, old men sat on stools around the chicken-roasting fire, and people of all ages and genders wound their way through the press of people on the same ubiquitous bicycles that I would sometimes see hung high on the wall by a shop door. Our hotel shared its courtyard with a little cafeteria, and when we went down for breakfast in the mornings, some of the same people that we saw in those back streets would be sitting there eating their dumplings and boiled eggs.

We always overshot the street shops on our group trips, but by the third day I was affectionately thinking of them as my favorite part of the city. The shopkeepers there didn't sell souvenirs and stalk tourists; they sold the necessities of daily life to their neighbors and chatted with the people they recognized on the street. The main streets of Beijing had started to seem like a facade--lovely and historically valuable, but preserved for the benefit of outsiders who needed to be impressed by an ancient and powerful capital. I would never have expected that the back streets that we passed through every day on our way to historic locations would be the more vibrant spots. But nobody in the China I had come to lived in the Forbidden Palace or made sacrifices in the Temple of Worshipping Heaven; the only people we saw in those places were fellow tourists snapping pictures of dead buildings. People lived in these back streets.


            It was hard for me to continue thinking of elegant, exotic imperial China and messy, polluted modern China as two different concepts when evidence of the first coexisted in the shadows of the second. In Liaocheng City, where we began our research, we took a break one day to visit the "Old City." Liaocheng, built along a river, had once had a square moat dug around the entire city, though today the single-story rows of shops and tall clusters of skyscrapers spread out far beyond the embrace of the water. Within the moat, the houses were older and closer together, with enclosed courtyards and little gardens, walls painted peeling white and red and roofs still covered with red clay tile. At the center of the Old City was a massive wooden tower. From its top floor, we could look out and see the remnants of the city wall that had once sat behind the moat, now only surviving at each corner of the water-bound square.

Beyond the walls and the moat, I could also see the skyscraper clusters of the expanded city and the high, bright red, steeply pointed roof of a library. Directly below the tower, I could see the old houses and their green courtyards, but I could also see cars and bicycles in the dusty, narrow streets, and the pedestrians wearing modern clothes and talking into cell phones. Looking down from this historical watchtower, I expected--almost wanted--to be disappointed with the view, to find the charm of the old neighborhoods ruined by the car-littered streets and the obviously modern renovations made on some of the buildings. If I had imagined such a scene before I had come to China, I knew that I would have envisioned it as the sprawl of dirty modern life polluting this bastion of the past. But instead, I had the same feeling as I had walking through the back streets of Beijing two weeks before. The people in the streets and houses of Liaocheng's Old City were moving, living, and thriving there. Forbidding cars one the roads and additions on the houses might have frozen this bastion of the past, but instead, the people of Liaocheng were building on it. They had struck a balance with the city that was respectful of their history--the moat was not filled in to create more land, the old houses had not been bulldozed to build more space-efficient skyscrapers--but neither were they holding it in stasis.


            I didn't realize at that moment that what I had imagined when I immersed myself in imperial China, or rather a version of it that had been sharply cut off at the turn of the 18th century, was a country in stasis. I had set the ancient China I enjoyed reading about at such a remove that it was hardly a thing of the real world at all. I had been thinking of it as another world, almost a fantasy culture. Traveling through China, meeting people whose ancestors had lived in that culture--that very real culture--and whose daily lives still contained threads of it, forced me to relocate it back to the real world in my own head. When I think now of ancient China, I can think of the moats around Liaocheng's Old City, crossed by modern car-bearing bridges, or the old gate I saw at the edge of a countryside village, the stones of its inner arch scraped by the tall vans that had come through, but still standing sentinel over the road.


Elizabeth Greene has lived in both New York and North Carolina, and likes New York better. When she's not writing, she's reading, riding horses, or working on cross-stitch projects.