Forgetting the past?

My education about Ningbo and China in general has continued this week through different sources. Our second seminar trip was to the City Library, up in the north west part of the city on the Yuyao River front. Ningbo is built at the confluence of two rivers – the Yong and the Yuyao – and there are still many interconnecting waterways and lakes. Old photos show how local transportation until comparatively recently was water based – before the car took over. To the north east, just a few miles away on the coast is Beilun, where you can find a huge container port, amongst the two or three largest in the world. Access to the deep and sheltered harbour is the reason why Ningbo (then Ningpo) was one of the first five Treaty Ports to be opened up to the west in 1842. With its rivers and proximity to the famous tea-growing area of Hangzhou, Ningbo was an ideal trading spot. The British brought in opium from India and exchanged it for tea and silk to sell back in England.

Before we went into the City Library, we walked along the riverside to the site of Ningbo Hospital Number 2, which I’d learned about last week. To my surprise, the current building is a reconstruction of the late 19th century missionary one – a cross between a fortress and a traditional Chinese temple, complete with curly eaves and carvings. Indeed, the city council is waking up to the commercial potential of reconstructing traditional buildings. One of the favoured night spots in the city is Laowaitan – literally ‘outsiders’ area’. This sits exactly where the two rivers join, and has lowrise buildings, cobbled streets, cafes, pubs, a church, and many restaurants – mostly non-Chinese.

There is great ambivalence about the past here. Many old villages and small towns are being obliterated by the drive for urbanisation, while people are reluctant to talk about their own heritage. In class our tutor asked the six Chinese students to find out how their grandparents had been categorised in 1949 and report back. Most said that the grandparents were ‘middle’ or ‘poor’ peasants. This was a safe label, as far as the Communists were concerned – being a ‘rich’ peasant was dangerous as it had connotations of land-owning. It was important to have ‘lost’ land by this stage. Many people from Ningbo apparently moved back and forth between Shanghai at salient points to avoid falling foul of the authorities. Moving to Shanghai is now the recognised route to greater opportunity, although Ningbo people maintain a reputation for being good at making money.

The City Library boasts a collection of a Shanghai newspaper – Shenbao – set up in the 1890s, and this was what we looked at during the visit. There was no officious security and in the tradition of public libraries we were left in peace to browse the dusty, bound volumes of back numbers. I was hunting for advertisements from the 1920s and 30s, with the help of a Chinese PhD student. These showed the overwhelming dominance of western products, especially cigarettes, toiletries and electrical goods, all then new to China but finding a ready market. Many were made by companies still familiar today – Everyready, Palmolive, Philips. But every so often we came across an ad for a Chinese-made product – all part of the National Products Movement which aimed to persuade people to buy products made in China, of Chinese materials, by Chinese people, with Chinese capital. This was motivated by a desire to repel the foreign imperialists and build the Chinese economy. Ironically, many of these capitalists suffered after 1949. Of course one can’t help but contrast this with today’s world, where the foreign imperialists are now overwhelmed by cheap Chinese imports of every conceivable type – probably mostly shipped through Ningbo’s massive port.

Last week I consulted another Ningbo resident about some planned trips to various places within China. He is a UNNC graduate who we met in Beijing last November. He has set up as a travel agent specialising in bespoke travel. As I’ve now learned a bit about tourism in China I was interested to chat to him and he was very generous with his time and advice. We looked at internal flights and innumerable hotels in Guilin, Yangshou and Xi’an. I asked him about what I should be doing in these places, but as time went on I realised I knew rather more than him. I had studied my Lonely Planet guidebook carefully. When we were discussing how to get out of Xi’an to see the terracotta army he admitted to me he had never been there and had no interest in doing so. Heritage was not for him. He liked action-packed holidays – bungee jumping for example. Yes, he had had a go at it, and the thrill was indescribeable. He thought it so important to do these things when you were young. I didn’t attempt to explain my excitement at looking at old documents about Ningbo history. I don’t think we shared the same view of the past.


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