Archive for March, 2016

Engineering tourist

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

My family (& especially my daughters) tend to give me a hard time about my predilection for visiting various infrastructure sites (e.g., power plants, trash incinerators, etc.) on my travels. The recent posting with pictures of a Maglev train station in Shanghai was merely the latest indication….. but what can I say? — I guess all that early engineering training left its mark!

So they were not at all surprised when I told them that we recently arranged – with our good friend and JHU colleague Dr. Yu Ningping — to visit a bridge here in Nanjing. But oh!!…. what a bridge! The Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge was built by Chinese engineers beginning in 1960 after the country kicked out its Soviet Union advisors – who unfortunately took all of the bridge’s plans & drawings with them. It took a full eight years to complete it (solely based upon Chinese designs) — and was thus finished & opened in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. It’s the longest bridge in the world handling both rail and vehicle traffic, and has ten-meter-high statues (symbolizing labor, peasants, soldiers, etc.) representing that era at both ends. The bridge’s towers are 70 meters (230 feet) tall, & we took the elevator in the south side down to check out the looming statue of Mao in its base.

Unfortunately, this remarkable landmark has a negative side as well. It is so famous that it has now surpassed the Golden Gate Bridge to become the number one location in the world for suicides. Luckily we did not see anyone in distress — but later did watch the award-winning documentary Angel of Nanjing describing the efforts of Chen Si, a local volunteer who patrols the bridge and who has saved or rescued more than 300 persons over the past dozen years.

Yet another infrastructure tourist site in Nanjing contains what CNN calls “China’s most beautiful bookshop” – but it is located in an underground parking garage (formerly a government parking site and bomb shelter)! The ‘Librairie Avant-Garde’ certainly has a unique style…. along with a great shop for postcards, drawings, knickknacks and sundry other gifts & souvenirs – as well as books! And so of course we took the visiting Raufer clan (see posting below) to help support the local Nanjing economy…. and to help fill the eleven pieces of luggage they somehow managed to carry home.

Librairie Avant-Garde


Thursday, March 31st, 2016

Raufers in Datong

Four Raufer siblings – yes, four of them! – recently made the trip to Nanjing to visit their older brother…. and it was really wonderful having them here at HNC! Of course they took in many Nanjing sites – but also took the opportunity to travel around China for several weeks, heading to Shanghai, Suzhou, Xi’an and Beijing amongst other cities. I managed to join them on a part of their journey, arriving in Hohhot in Inner Mongolia & taking the train down to Datong in Shanxi Province.

Those of you who know China know that Shanxi is a coal-mining area, undergoing tremendous change as the country tries to shift from that polluting fuel to something offering a brighter & cleaner future. Datong in particular has attempted something quite radical, trying to shift from a fossil-fuel-based supplier to a “cultural city” – relying on its 5th Century history as capital of the Northern Wei dynasty and nearby Buddhist attractions built at that time. A key development, however, was the displacement of hundreds of thousands of city residents so that a new, reconstructed city wall could be built – reminiscent of a long-ago Ming dynasty era in the city’s past, when threats of invasion from the north were a constant worry.

The mayor who brought about this reconstruction, Geng Yanbo, is the subject of a fascinating film, The Chinese Mayor. That film, which won an award at the Sundance Film Festival, begins with a seemingly harsh view of Geng…. but by the end, as you watch him try to revitalize a city that otherwise faces severe economic hardship, the lesson is less clear. Even so, there were problems: he was promoted (to the provincial capital of Taiyuan) half-way through the project – leaving behind a city with billions of dollars of debt. The city’s Party chief was also investigated on corruption charges, indicted for bribery, and expelled from the CCP.

We had a chance to see it all – paying particular attention to the 45 caves in the Yungang Grottoes, and the incredible Buddhist carvings and statues found there. My brother Mark also somehow managed to find Datong’s only churrascaria (i.e., Brazilian grilled meat restaurant) – reminiscent of the family’s days living in Sao Paulo — & so he treated us to a very fine Brazilian feast! This was not your normal Chinese tourist fare… but it was a wonderful chance to re-connect with family, and we certainly miss them all – and look forward to seeing everyone again this summer.

1980’s Nanjing Students

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

I’ve been teaching for a bit more than three decades now, and while the students seem to be getting younger & younger [while I, of course, don’t change!], my appointment as Resident Professor in Nanjing has introduced a whole new – and quite fascinating – window on a very different learning experience. So you can imagine my interest in a couple of books I’ve read recently that describe student experiences here in Nanjing back in the 1980’s… when China’s world looked considerably different.

John Pomfret is a journalist who was kicked out of China in 1989 after reporting about Tiananmen Square. Earlier in that decade, however, he had been one of the very first Western students to study at Nanjing University after the country had opened up. He studied Chinese History, and then — more than twenty years later – returned to find out what had happened to his fellow classmates. The result was a well-received 2006 book, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.

What comes through most clearly in the book is the sheer resilience of his fellow students – young people who had lived through the chaos and painful disorder of the Cultural Revolution. One particularly harrowing case included a classmate whose parents were both prominent educators in Jiangsu Province – but in 1966 they had been paraded onto the central field at Nanjing Normal University (the former Ginling College, noted in the May 2015 posting, and located only a few blocks away). Locked into wooden yokes, they were heckled as “black gang” members, and were subsequently beaten to death. Somehow the student managed to put this all behind, even writing a criticism of their activities in order to become a Party member. The past was gone…. and on all accounts best left well behind; the future was the only thing that mattered.

The other book, Daughter of China: A True Story of Love and Betrayal, had been published a few years earlier, in 1999 — and was of special interest because its authors, Xu Meihong and Larry Engelmann, had been a student and professor, respectively, at HNC in the late 1980’s. Xu was a member of an elite People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit that focused on intelligence matters, and while enrolled as a student was reporting HNC activities to both the PLA and the Ministry of State Security. She unfortunately became rather close to Prof. Engelmann…. and then became embroiled in complicated in-fighting amongst PLA factions; was quickly removed from the Center & kicked out of the PLA; and ultimately ended up in a job doing cooking and household chores, & selling instant noodles on the street. The book covers that story, as well as her later re-emergence from such a low point… to an eventual role as Prof. Engelmann’s wife in California. The book ends on a less-than-heartening note, however, given that the marriage there only lasted a few short years.

It was certainly interesting to read about conditions in HNC’s early years. The book suggests that American professors at that time never fully understood the pressures under which their Chinese students labored – and often mistook cautious responses as indicative of lack of thought & imagination (“…a mistake most foreigners make in China”). Another fascinating topic was the evident interest in Chinese intelligence circles about goings-on within the Center. We’re now coming up on HNC’s 30th year celebrations – and an intriguing question, of course, is exactly how much things have changed in China during those three decades…. and how much the past matters for the future.

[Note: Prof. Engelmann was an author as well as a professor; he wrote other books about Vietnam, China’s Cultural Revolution, and a N.Y. Times ‘Notable Book of the Year’ about female tennis stars of the 1920/30’s. You can see him interviewed about his writing on YouTube – wearing a Johns Hopkins sweatshirt, & with comments about ‘Daughter of China’ starting at 14:30. He passed away just last year.]