Yangzhou, Jiangsu, China: Five Roof Pavilion Wu Ting Bridge on Slender West Lake

This article is a preview from the Winter 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Nobody was there when I arrived. Or rather, lots of people were standing corralled by the tape of the exit cordon, but none of them held up a piece of card saying “SAMPSON”. This is exactly what travel nightmares are made of. You picture falling straight through that net of email arrangements so carefully made before you set out.

In fact, free-fall is quite a pleasant sensation. Suddenly everything is yours to do with as you wish. The Arrivals Hall at Pudong is long, low-ceilinged and built in the usual brown marble communist grand style. At this hour it was pretty much empty. The red-eye from London was clearly the only early flight into Shanghai. Seeing me hesitate, a man in a brown suit approached offering, “Taxi, taxi”: the universal argot of the chancer. I shook him off and rang the number I’d been given. There was a pause, then a woman’s voice said, “Wait please”, and hung up.

I waited. The group around the gate was thinning. Westerners were led away, singly or in twos, to smart cars I imagined but couldn’t see. I waited some more. Finally I phoned again. The airport had none of the stink of poverty I’ve come to associate with international arrivals: railway stations attract the desperate, the dysfunctional and the illegal. Airports are different. They’re situated out of town, for one thing. But still, this was a liminal space, and I wanted out of it. I was tired and hungry. The picture of a hotel room rose up before me: privacy, a hot shower, a clean bed... Suddenly I saw, hurrying towards me, a woman about my own age, smartly dressed in trousers and the buttoned up three-quarter coat I was to find is worn everywhere in the region, as semi-formal work gear.

Lily was a curator at a Yangzhou Museum. Over the coming days I would learn from her just how smiling but steely Chinese peer pressure can be. Now, though, she was shepherding me towards the airport hotel, where I would have a few hours to sleep before we drove down the coast and inland to Yangzhou. But first, she said overriding my protests, I must have some breakfast.

The hotel was situated in a kind of elevated courtyard between the airport’s two terminals. Outdoors was sunny and slightly hazy, just like the day I’d left behind in England. There was none of the cabbage smell of pollution I’d been warned about. And later, as we waited for the mini-bus taking us to Yangzhou, this climatic coincidence kept insinuating itself as if to say, “You see, we aren’t so different.” But of course, it was only April. In Shanghai in winter, a local colleague told us, the smog is so bad everyone has to wear masks outdoors. In summer, the mosquitoes that had yet to work up a presence at the lakes and ponds we visited in Yangzhou’s gardens become heat-seeking monsters.

As it was, the gentle “English” spring kept us comfortable as we circled Shanghai on elevated freeways for almost two hours. Staggeringly tall and slim apartment blocks seemed to be the favoured form of contemporary development. Eventually the road descended to ground level and we made our way through the usual ribbon development of light engineering plant and allotments towards open country. Everywhere, on verges and banks, gangs were unloading and planting young trees, larger than saplings and supported by sturdy wooden tripods. The view beyond them was of a familiar yellow parcelled into neat rectangles by ditches. In this part of China, oilseed rape is grown everywhere – in gardens and allotments as well as fields – to fertilise the soil for the coming year. It is a traditional sign of spring, as it is also becoming in southern England – although I associate its pollen-heavy, urinous scent with hayfever and the June exam season.

Families and couples take trips to the countryside to walk the rape fields. But these trips are a specific custom, not a matter of individual taste or inclination. Like many of the activities we were to observe over the coming week, they have a proper name, Treading the Grass. Yet the families we saw taking photos of each other in front of blossoming almond trees or massed tulips were clearly enjoying themselves. They talked and laughed, and were good-spirited about getting out of shot for each other.

A small group of international poets, and another of Chinese writers, had been invited to the four-kilometre-long Slender West Lake, a park that has become a national monument and is today surrounded by Yangzhou, a low-rise city of more than two million people. This rise is kept low, in fact, by literal measurement from a pavilion in the park. A crane is erected on-site to demonstrate the proposed height of each new building: if it can be seen from the pavilion steps it doesn’t get built. The park itself is partly a monument to the origin of the city’s prosperity. Situated on the old north-south Salt Route, it marks the spot where the Grand Canal meets the even more impressive waterway that is the Yangtze River. Today, tourists to these historic water-courses keep Yangzhou thriving.

But most of the families and school groups squeezing through turnstiles and thronging the paths around us were clearly locals. Their curious relationship to tradition became apparent as we waited in yet another dark-varnished pavilion for a ceremony to mark the first day of the Chinese spring, as measured on the lunar calendar. The first poets’ meeting here was in the third century BC, we were told. After a gap of two millennia, there had been a revival of poetry at Slender West Lake in the 19th century, and now here we were again. There was so much gaping discontinuity in this story that at first I assumed it was a joke, something cooked up for publicity purposes. But the buildings around us told a similar story. Everything was old, and nothing was old. The Five Pavilion Bridge looked as modern as any theme-park replica, yet our guide told us unblinkingly that it had been built in 1757. Everywhere we went, we saw “historic” palaces and pavilions being rebuilt in a muddle of dust and bamboo scaffolding. And, anyway, what had happened to these buildings and their associated traditions – all this Treading the Grass, this apparently genuine public enthusiasm for classical poems more than 2,000 years old – during the Cultural Revolution, something everyone was too polite to mention? I began to see that remembering can be a form of forgetting.

But in China, tradition is also a matter of intention. The reason the Jade Bridge “was” the original was that it continued to occupy the position it always had, not just on the lake but in people’s minds. The schematic and to Western ears rather funny titles of nearby beauty spots – Misty Rain of Four Bridges, Bright Moon of the Crowded Spring Platform – worked in just the same way. Each feature existed to be viewed and understood correctly. Authenticity was a state of mind.

As I admired the koi from Fishing Platform, I reflected that Western art, and indeed its culture with both a big and a small C, prides itself on creating an underdetermined space in which exceptional individual experiences can take place. Even a Hollywood movie pretends not to tell you what to think. Traditionally, Chinese art and culture, on the other hand, over-determines experience. It reaches right into the individual to organise their sensibility and thought.

You couldn’t avoid this over-determination at Ge or Heyuan, classical gardens of the Qing dynasty. At every moment, in every direction, every vista was perfectly composed. Usually, taking holiday snaps requires choice, discrimination. You have to frame your shots. Here, everything was already composed. The writhing lake-rounded limestone of the rockeries, dangling strands of willow and each spray of flowering cherry were all utterly artful. The contortions of the penzai trees on their ceramic pedestals were just the most obvious manifestation of a project to make natural beauty visible by “improving” on it.

All over Europe, the legacy of Capability Brown and his artful landscaping (another oxymoronic concept) is called English Parkland; but those English parks were enclosed spaces designed to allow the kind of privileged, private experiences – sublimity, bliss – that Romanticism would soon celebrate. At Slender West Lake the groups crowding past us were united by their visit to the park. They interacted easily because there simply were no competing intentions – and because of guanxi, fellow-feeling.

Nothing could be further from the energetic and highly differentiated society in which we found ourselves than the Western vision of a population of drones. At one point Lily asked me, “Are you interested in Buddhist ideas, in how nothing is real?” If nothing is real, then the exquisitely controlled gardens, calligraphy and ceramics of classical Chinese tradition are nothing more than a shared dream: not so much the outside world reaching into the individual mind as the human mind projecting its dreams in a collective world. If the material world only exists within the immaterial one, in other words, mind is preeminent. The collective will can, for example, make the modern replica of a monument be the thing itself. By contrast, Western faith in embodiment (think of the disfavour with which Descartes is currently viewed) believes immaterial experience originates in the material. We can’t have an “authentic” experience unless the object we’re viewing is the Real Thing.

In Yangzhou, mornings started with a just-too-early alarm call on the bedroom phone. As the week went on and we Westerners became less tractable, the calls grew earlier, and Lily’s announcements from the front of the bus steelier. The mike she was using had a built-in echo effect, so that you felt she was controlling stadia full of poets. Yet our initial impression had been that our Chinese colleagues were as assertive as us. They were talkative, gregarious, cheerful. Like us, they seemed to loathe being first on the bus on a beautiful spring morning. Only after a while did one notice a rhythm to their talk – and how, suddenly, they would all be in place waiting for us.

After yet another dinner of rice wine, baozi and fish, I realised that the talkativeness I had thought of as self-expression was in fact consensus-building: affirmation rather than discussion. Anglophone women, researchers tell us, are more familiar than their men with the use of language as a non-informative, non-instructional way to sustain and maintain interlocution. I know for myself how certain speech-acts – rhetorical questions, prompts, even chatter about the weather – “hold things together”. Much of what we witnessed so generously and carefully done in Yangzhou and Shanghai seemed designed to sustain a status quo. As a visitor I was unable to work out whether this was a sign of cultural confidence or the lack of it.

What I do know is that April in Yangzhou, apparently so familiar to the English eye and nose with its haze, its tree pollen and its blossom, remained impossible to enter into fully. It slipped through the fingers. So completely itself that it could go on for millennia more, it simply didn’t need us. Not just us Westerners, but any of us – any of the thousands of individuals who each year spill into Yangzhou’s gardens and fields to celebrate the coming of spring.