Helen the kids and I were staying in Shuhe a good 30-45 minutes outside of Lijiang. Lijiang is to China what Colonial Williamsburg is to the United States. It’s a tourist attraction that’s built around vintage buildings, costumes and customs. And by vintage, I don’t mean Cultural Revolution vintage, but centuries old vintage. Many tourists, including the masses of Chinese tourists, travel the region so they can vacation in Lijiang – they stay in Lijang and never leave until it’s time to return home. Helen and I wanted to see the old city, but had no interest in more than a day visit – so we stayed in the much quieter town of Shuhe.
One of the amazing thing about Lijiang is that it exists at all – that this throwback to a more ancient Chinese civilization actually survived Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. For the uninitiated, Mao Zedong ruled China with brute force from 1945 to 1976. Over the course of his rule, Mao went through different phases including the infamous Cultural Revolution during which he and his forces persecuted millions of Chinese people, many simply for being educated. Doctors, lawyers, historians and more – none were spared from being sent to re-education camps where they performed years of hard labor and worse. It’s estimated that 30 million people were killed during that time.
As part of the Cultural Revolution, Mao set out to reinvent China and, as part of that, to re-write Chinese history. Many of China’s historic cities and monuments were destroyed. And all this time anything that was seen as progress in the West such as education, technology and other advancements were frowned upon. China, during the Cultural Revolution, was in its own Dark Ages.
Which is why it’s amazing that Lijiang exists. That its infrastructure of ancient markets, temples and walls survived. And it’s even more odd that facing the main entrance plaza to the old city of Lijiang is nothing short of a rather large statue of the man himself, Mao Zedong.
I realize that the entrance to Old Lijiang isn’t seen here. It’s actually obscured by construction and blocked by construction barriers. But therein lies another fascinating contradiction The obvious contradiction being the construction cranes framing Mao on either side. Everything these cranes represent, from modern infrastructure and engineering to the very basics of capitalism that are behind the remarkable economic boom across China are antithetical to everything Mao believed in. One may as well waive a British flag behind a statue of George Washington or a Communist Soviet flag behind a statue of Ronald Regan to get a sense of the irony.
The folks standing at the curb are showing off various clothing styles and each different from the other. This too was antithetical to Mao’s teachings and the Cultural Revolution during which the Chinese people were encouraged (read: forced) to dress in identical outfits and to value the collective over individualism at all times.
Perhaps the weirdest symbol alongside the Mao statue is the motorcycle in the bottom right corner of the frame. The Suzuki. It’s Japanese. In fact, the Japanese are the long-time foil for the Chinese. Japan and China have been at war several times over the millennia and most recently during WWII. in 1937, during the Nanking Massacre (also known as the rape of Nanking), the Japanese Army reportedly killed as many as 300,000 Japanese civilians. This is the China that Mao Zedong inherited – a China virulently anti-Japanese. Sadly, even today, there is cultural animosity bubbling at the surface between these two countries. That being said, there is the Japanese capitalist logo about to traipse beneath Mao’s gaze.
I am far from an expert on China – and even the most casual observer of that country cannot help but comment on the remarkable changes that this country is undergoing every day and even as I write this. I suppose, for me, the magic of this image is that if you look at it carefully and with an open mind, it captures many of China’s changes and contradictions in one stark moment.