By Yenching Scholar Mary Schulman
Zhejiang Province has long held a special place in classical Chinese culture. Its spectacular natural beauty—emerald green forests and mountains shrouded in mist—has inspired poets and artists for hundreds of years. Zhejiang has been home to a unique artistic sensibility since Neolithic times, when artisans of the Liangzhu culture produced lacquerware and ornaments made of jade; later on, the region became particularly famous for its exquisite, locally produced silks. Additionally, it has long been one of the most prosperous and economically developed areas in China. Marco Polo believed its capital city, Hangzhou, to be among the finest cities in the world.
From May 20-25, 2016, eighteen Yenching Scholars had the privilege of visiting Zhejiang for our spring semester field study trip. We began our journey in Tonglu County near Hangzhou. The county’s motto, “Free-spirited Tonglu” (Xiaosa Tonglu潇洒桐庐), is taken from an eleventh-century classical poem. We found that Tonglu did indeed possess a special spirit and atmosphere all its own.
On our first day in Tonglu, we visited the villages of Huanxi and Dipu. These charming rural towns have been able to preserve their traditional way of life while taking advantage of China’s economic development. They are “Taobao villages,” which provide services for the massive online retailer; at the same time, they remain home to traditional ancestral shrines, schoolhouses, lotus gardens, and, in Huanxi, a local brewery. That afternoon, Professor Tang Ya of the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University lectured about Zhejiang’s and China’s economic development, and officials from the local government of Tonglu told us about their development goals and their vision for the county’s future. Later that evening, the Yenching Scholars saw a Zhejiang-style opera called A Night of Flowers and Moonlight by the Spring River, which portrayed scenes from the traditional way of life in Tonglu.
The next day, we visited another town in Tonglu County, Fenshui, which specializes in the production of ballpoint pens. We toured the town’s International Museum of Ballpoint Pens, where we learned how the town’s factories produce pens for export worldwide, and we visited two ballpoint pen factories, where we observed the machinery used to manufacture the pens and the workers who tested them for quality control.
After enjoying some local dishes by a small lakefront restaurant, we visited a museum dedicated to calligraphy and papercutting produced by local Tonglu artists. Papercutting is a traditional Chinese folk art in which the artist creates designs by cutting patterns out of a sheet of (usually red) paper. Tonglu artists are particularly skilled at this art form, and many of their works were extraordinarily intricate and took several months to create. Some of the artists stopped by that afternoon to teach us their craft.
We spent the last two days of our trip in the city of Hangzhou. We found that much of the city was under construction in preparation for the G20 summit, which will be held there in September. We learned about the city’s artistic heritage at the Wensli Silk Museum, which showcases the city’s most beautiful silk products (including books whose pages are made entirely of silk), and the Zhejiang Provincial Museum, which houses colorful porcelains and lacquerware produced in Hangzhou from the Neolithic Liangzhu culture through the Qing Dynasty.
Given some free time afterward, we explored everything that this remarkable city had to offer. While Hangzhou is a fully developed and modern city, it has preserved aspects of its traditional culture, most notably a relatively slow and easygoing approach to life. The city’s most valuable treasure is West Lake, whose dreamy and poetic beauty recalls a scene from a watercolor painting or a classical poem. We observed the rowboats drifting across the misty lake and explored the gardens and pavilions that grace the area around it.
During our four days in Zhejiang, we were able to see classical Chinese culture come to life, in all its exquisite and refined beauty. The region’s rich history left a deep impression on us, and we were charmed by its unique sense of elegance and sophistication.