China 2012 – Day 16 – Chengdu to Chonqing, River Cruise, Chinese Cultural “Memory,” Population Density

Day 16 was once again a transition/travel day.  We drove to the bullet train station, and Kevin accompanied us right on to the train – an unnecessary but appreciated gesture. Before we bid him goodbye, we had the chance to talk to him about his future plans. While he expressed an interest in travelling some day, he also said he was resolved to remain in China and make the best of it, saying he hoped he would live to see it become a better place. For his sake, and for the sake of everyone else we met there, I certainly hope he’s right.

China has several different kinds of bullet trains. The one from Chengdu to Chonquing was slower than our previous ride, only clicking along at 190 Km/h or so. Once again, though, it was a much more comfortable way to travel than the plane.

When we arrived at Chonqing (pronounced “Chongching”) we were greeted by our guide for the day, Ellie, a middle-aged woman. She took us immediately to a shopping district where we first had lunch and then had some time to explore. I decided to buy some of those weird, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. In the process, I did my best to barter with the shop owner, but I have to admit that turned into an abject failure. As we walked away, Irene said, “You suck at bartering, you know,” and I had to confess, “Yeah, I know.”

Chongqing only made it on our itinerary because it was the embarkation point for the Yangtze River Cruise we had booked, but we weren’t scheduled to board the cruise until supper time or so. As a result, the rest of the afternoon was taken up with “filler” activities. We toured the former residence of General Joseph Stilwell, Chief of Staff of the American Army in the Asian theatre of WWII. His Chonqing home is now a museum dedicated to Sino-American cooperation in fighting the Japanese during the war.

Our tour of the museum reinforced something we’d begun to recognize earlier about the Chinese character: they are long on memory. They never forget their past friends – or their past enemies. For Canadians, this is probably best represented by their veneration of Norman Bethune. Their admiration for Stilwell has a similar tone. In fact, we would later learn, the museum’s representation of “cooperation” between Stilwell and Chiang Kai-Shek and of his ability to broker collaboration between the latter and his rival, Mao Zedong involved a lot of sugar-coating. The historical relationships were far less amicable, with Chiang essentially demanding that Washington recall Stilwell. Perhaps, then, it’s even more remarkable that the Chinese hold him in such high esteem. Or, does that respect have more to do with Stilwell’s willingness to work with Mao and include his revolutionary forces in his strategies? Hard to say.

We had seen this same loyalty earlier in the trip when our Luoyang/Dengfeng guide, Charlie, had spoken with some affection of mid-century cooperation between China and the Soviet Union.  He was conspicuously proud of the huge tractor and ball bearing plants the Soviets had helped build in Luoyang, just as he was conspicuously oblivious to the thick blankets of industrial haze and grime those plants laid on the city.

As I said earlier, though, the Chinese cultural memory is every bit as tenacious when it comes to its enemies, and in this category, no one stands out more prominently than their eastern neighbours, the Japanese. Our visit came on the heels of a tense flare-up over the disputed – and uninhabited – Diaoyu Islands. Then, while we were touring the country, Japanese officials added fuel to that fire by visiting a shrine dedicated – at least in part – to men whom the Chinese view as war Criminals. Charlie, whose personality generally skewed toward the phlegmatic, couldn’t contain his rage at these recent insults. “They’re trying to rewrite history!” he sputtered. Charlie was not the only guide to bring up these slights – both Kevin (Chengdu) and Michael (Shanghai) mentioned them too. The wounds of historical Sino-Japanese conflicts – particularly those of WWII – run deep in the Chinese psyche.

But enough of my superficial attempts to analyse the Chinese character. Suffice to say that, while we hadn’t looked forward to the Stilwell Museum with much anticipation, it did serve to fill in some yawning gaps in our understanding of modern Chinese history.

Before I return to the touring, though, I have one other observation to make. Each time we set out for a new city, we naively assumed that sooner or later we would arrive at a “small” city. We began with Beijing, population 20 million. Xi’an was smaller, but still 8.5 million (larger than the GTA). Luoyang was a bit smaller yet (6.5 million, or the same as the GTA). Dengfeng was the smallest place we ever landed – less than a million, but we didn’t really stay in the city. After that it was on Zhengzhou, the second most densely populated urban area in China (after Shanghai) – population 8.5 million.  From there, our travels took us to Chengdu, 14 million.

And now we were in Chongqing. Quick question: how many of you had previously even heard of Chongqing? I confess we hadn’t before it appeared on our itinerary. So, probably a smaller place, right? WRONG! Population? 30 million, making it the most highly populated urban area in China, and second only to Tokyo in the world. That is, according to the way the Chinese often calculate population, which is by “urban area,” much in the same way we might calculate population of the Greater Toronto Area or the Greater Vancouver Area. Chongqing proper has a mere 9 million. Chonqing is the latest addition to the family of “Direct Controlled Cities” – those which no longer fall within provincial jurisdiction but are overseen directly by the national government. The others in this category are more familiar to most of us: Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. Speaking of Shanghai, Wikipedia lists it as “the largest city proper” in the world, coming in at a hefty 23 million, or 3,600 people packed into every Km2.

I’m not sure there’s a point to all this, other than to say, “Wow!” We all know China is densely populated, but the fact that much of Northern and Western China is rugged, rural, and more sparsely-inhabited territory translates into particularly dense urban concentrations in the South and East.

To visualize this, it may help to do some math. China has a total area of 9,640,821 km2 and a total population of 1,347,350,000. That translates into an overall population density of 139.75/Km2. In contrast, Saskatchewan’s 1,000,000 souls are dispersed over an area of 651,900 Km2, for a population density of a mere 1.59/Km2. If we imagine for a moment that Saskatchewan were occupied as densely as China, our province would have a population of 91,103,025, or roughly 2.5 times the population of our entire country. And if we consider that my home town, Gull Lake, has 1/1000th of the province’s current population, it would be home to 91,000 people in our hypothetical scenario.

But, meanwhile, back at the ranch. We rounded out our afternoon of touring with a visit to yet another “old street.” (Tranlslation: tourist shopping opportunity) Since we were pretty much shopped-out by that time, that didn’t consume enough of the afternoon, so Ellie took us to museum dedicated to the lives of people who had moved to Chongqing during the 19th century to find work (photos). These were folks from another province, so they were considered “foreigners” by the local Sichuanese. (One of the things we found most intriguing about China was the strong sense of provincial identity.) This turned out to be the most interesting part of the afternoon. These transplants established self-contained, self-governing democratic communities within the city. Of course, like all such tours, it ended with one more pass through the gift shop gauntlet.

Just one more curious side note, and then I promise to get back to the story at hand. Many of the gift shops we wandered through were selling authenticated (i.e. provenance included) Chinese antiques. But the Chinese have very clear rules about what can and cannot be sold. Anything under 200 years in age can be sold and exported; older items are considered antiquities and cannot be sold. As Canadians it amused us that 195-year-old items were not considered antiquities worth preserving. Can you imagine what we’d have left of our brief history if we adopted a similar policy?

From the museum, we finally travelled on to the cruise ship. There we were treated to one of the most pleasant surprises of our entire trip. The ship had overbooked standard rooms, so we were being upgraded to a suite – not just any suite, mind you, but the most expensive suite on the ship (photos).  Whereas normal rooms were a tad on the cramped side and only had a 2′ x 6′ side deck, this room had two side decks, a huge private front deck overlooking the bow of the boat, a large living area, a separate bedroom with a king-size bed, and a full-sized bathroom with whirlpool tub. Actually the front deck was meant to be shared with the adjacent suite, but since that suite was the only unoccupied room on the ship, we had the entire deck to ourselves (photo).  See what I mean about luck?

We went down to the dining room for some supper, then returned to our room to watch some TV. Since the only English-language stations were news networks, that translated into catching up on the latest U.S. election malarkey.

By the time we headed for bed, the ship had “set sail,” so we slept to the hum of its engines.

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