A Cultural Backbone

The lights have bewitched some in Shanghai. Those who are between the wealthy and the poor flaunt their knowledge about the city’s growing prosperity. They point out the magnificent glass department stores filled with designer brands, describe the new communities possessing utopian names, and compare the optimistic environment with America. It can’t compare, they say. All our friends who come from overseas to visit don’t want to leave. But the glint in the eyes of the speaker appears to be of one in a trance. When the spell breaks they will be left in a city just as difficult as any other.

European buildings from the 19th century illuminate the Bund (外滩) at night. (Evelyn Cheng)

As the glamour of modern Shanghai dazzles residents and visitors, China’s innate strength remains in the scholar. Sometimes poor, sometimes rich, but always a deep thinker immersed in classic Chinese literature, the Chinese scholar has no equivalent in Western civilization. For the philosophies and histories that the Chinese study require a more introspective, passive approach than Western classics.

Cyclists wait at the traffic light by the side of the Shanghai Library (上海图书馆). (Evelyn Cheng)

The Chinese scholar is a philosopher, a poet, a writer, and sometimes an artist. The words he writes with the brush are of equal value as the words he pens in a book. He is concerned for his country, especially for the people’s moral standards and the passing down of cultural values. Although the scholar appears overly quiet and demure in a society of charismatic pop singers, television show hosts, and business tycoons, he knows his worth lies in his great storehouse of wisdom and knowledge.

For from Confucius to Zhuangzi to today’s poets, artists, and scholars, academic study has been China’s cultural backbone for centuries. Thus the roots of modern, flamboyant cities lie in a tradition quite distant from America’s recent Western beginnings. As an American Born Chinese I do not claim to understand fully the intricacies of Chinese academic history. But to me the majestic architecture, the glittering skyline, the sleek subway system, the multitude of shops, and the resilient people speak to a different heritage than the West may assume. Human nature may be the same across the world, and consumerism may bring the same stores to every nation, but in Shanghai the atmosphere is a complex mixture of imperial Europe and a changing China.

The shops surrounding YuYuan Gardens (豫园)in Shanghai.

Shanghai’s People’s Square (人民广场) is surrounded by massive buildings, including the government seat, above. (Evelyn Cheng)

The scale model of Shanghai at the city’s urban planning exhibition hall simulates daylight and nightfall with regulated lighting. (Evelyn Cheng)

To truly understand and appreciate China one must personally experience the country and her people.


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