Monday, June 18 , 2018, 3:50 am | Fair 52º


Frank McGinity: Exploring the Four Great Wonders of China

The Great Wall, Xi'an warriors, Humble Administrator's Garden and the Three Gorges leave a lasting impression

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On a recent, 17-day excursion through China, our random group of 12 tourists encountered what I call "The Four Great Wonders of China." I'm writing on what I experienced and observed during our trip.

China is the third largest country in the world by area, after Russia and Canada. It has the world's largest population, topping out at 1.35 billion people. Its economy is the second biggest in the world and is expected to exceed the United States' by 2030. But we didn't come to China to review the economy; we came to see four great wonders.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall of China was started in the fourth century B.C. to protect China's northeastern border and from nomadic invaders from the north, including Mongolia. It covers an area of 5,500 miles from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert. I've seen estimates as short as 3,700 miles but I'll take the opinion of The New York Times. I believe the difference may be due to the configuration of the wall and its many curves.

It is a remarkable piece of engineering and is the most famous symbol of China. It's not just an ordinary wall since parts of it are more than 13 feet wide. The height ranges from 15 feet to 30 feet. It was started in 475 B.C. but expanded substantially under Emperor Qin around 221 B.C. and was consolidated and reinforced under the Ming Dynasty from 1368 to 1644.

Remember in those days, we did not have cranes and earth-moving machines. They had hand labor, sometimes numbering more than 300,000 men. A system of beacons lit from tower to tower ensured that enemy troop movements were relayed to headquarters.

As we climbed a small part of the wall, we marveled at its depth, stability and grandeur even to this day. You could take several different paths with different levels of skill required. And you have to be in pretty good shape to walk even small sections of the walls.

The construction of the wall lasted more than 2,000 years, with more than 20 dynasties contributing to its construction. As the brochures would say, the Great Wall has become a symbol of the Chinese nation, representing its persistence and bravery. Obviously, the Chinese took protecting their borders very seriously. It is the most common emblem of China to the western world. It portrays China's policies over the centuries of repelling foreign influence and controlling its citizens.

It certainly qualifies as one of our great wonders since it is recognized as the most impressive architectural feat in history. In 1987, the Great Wall was put on UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage List. In my opinion, this massive public works project is being replaced by the thousands of high-rise apartments under construction in China.

Xi'an and the Terracotta Soldiers

In addition to the Great Wall, Emperor Qin was responsible for the famous Xi'an warrior soldiers. The buried terracotta solders, numbering about 6,000, were discovered only in 1974. Yet they dated back to the Qin Dynasty from the years 247-210 B.C. The discovery could be compared to the Tutankhamun discovery in Egypt when Emperor Tutankhamun's crypt was uncovered by the archaeologist Howard Carter in 1921. They now call the exhibit of the terracotta soldiers the "Eighth Wonder of the World" and the cradle of Chinese culture.

The Chinese government constructed a very attractive park and buildings around the exhibit of the Xi'an soldiers. The first building is called Pit 1 and it contains the majority of the renovated soldiers. In addition, the restoration goes on as you see employees in white coats reassembling the statues. Probably, about 1,500 out of the 6,000 soldiers, horses and carriages have been restored. So the work is ongoing.

The tomb of Emperor Qin is nearby but has not yet been opened. The concern is, that when the tomb is opened, all the figures will lose their color (which happened when they opened Pit 1). There is also Pit 2 and Pit 3 and a museum in this well-manicured park.

The discovery of the soldiers occurred in 1974 when local  farmers were drilling a water well. They weren't aware of what they had found until an archivist happened to hear about the discovery. Now, more than 2 million tourists a year visit the site. We were fortunate to have our picture taken with one of the farmers who had participated in the discovery.

The soldiers are more than 2,200 years old. Emperor Qin had an obsession with death and the afterlife. He spent years preparing his tomb, called Qin Mausoleum, which covered 56 square kilometers. And the tomb had to be protected by his soldiers. Some say the location of the soldiers, about two miles from the tomb, was meant to distract those who robbed and destroyed the tomb later on. It is also said that all the peasants who worked on the tomb were buried alive there. It is estimated that more than 750,000 people worked on this project and the building of the Great Wall during this period. This is perhaps the largest public works program in the history of the world.

Currently, the Nederlander Organization is working on a $ 65 million production called "The Legend of Emperor Qin," which they hope will tour around the world. This is an example of how important Emperor Qin was to the history of China.

The emperor was only in power for 15 years but accomplished much before his death. He conquered and consolidated surrounding kingdoms, developed a centralized government and laid a foundation for future dynasties. Emperor Qin was a phenomenal but ruthless leader, building not only the Great Wall but roads and canals. He standardized the written language and money; he abolished feudalism and set up the provinces to be run by governors.

The nearby city of Xi'an was the capital for 12 dynasties and the starting point for the Silk Road. It has a population today of about 1 million people.

Our visit was extraordinary, and we look forward to more discoveries there. We thank the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which brought an exhibition of some of the terracotta soldiers to Santa Barbara in 1998. That piqued our interest.

The Humble Administrator's Garden

Next, we took a plane to Suzhou and the Humble Administrator's Garden. We pick this as our third wonder. Dating back to 1509, it also is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and represents the soul of China in the early days. This is where the Chinese could shut out the world and devote themselves to study and contemplation. These gardens were places to worship and find inspiration. I wish there was room for more of these gardens in China today.

This garden area is 60 percent water and has an extensive network of paths, streams, rocks and bridges. At one end of the garden is one of the finest collections of bonsai. The total garden is spread across 13 acres with 48 different buildings. The most scenic building is the "Wafting Fragrance Hall" with scenery in all directions.

When we go to Europe today, we visit cathedrals and churches from the 15th to the 18th centuries. It's my opinion that old gardens in China are their "cathedrals." Gardens are to China what churches were to Europe.

The Three Gorges

After all the crowds and hustle and bustle, it was time for a peaceful cruise on the Yangtze River. The fourth great wonder of China during our trip was our visit to the Three Gorges. Located along the Yangtze River, this project was a massive redevelopment of the river through the installation of a dam. The dam created many picturesque tributary rivers and gorges, and provided an enormous amount of energy. It is the largest dam in the world, providing close to 8 percent of China's energy needs through 26 generator plants.

The Chinese government regards the project as a historic engineering, social and economic success. It became operational in July 2012.

Unfortunately, more than 1.3 million Chinese had to be moved from their homes and resettled — mostly in government owned apartments. The project was justified for a number of reasons. It protected the lower areas of the Yangtze River from devastating floods, it provided an enormous amount of clean energy and it substantially improved the navigation along the Yangtze, a major waterway for commerce. It took our ship about four hours to go through the locks. However, a system of ship elevators is in development that will reduce the transit time to a half-hour.

We would move on to other interesting areas of China including Shanghai and Hong Kong, all with their interesting tourist attractions. But it was these four  wonders of China that will provide the most lasting memories None of these have ever been duplicated anywhere in the world.

China Today

I would be remiss if I didn't pass on my impressions of China during this relatively brief, 17-day trip. And many might have a different perspective from their trip to this very important country. But what I saw and experienced gives me cause for concern.

In a recent New York Times article, the author said that the most sought-after import items for travelers to Beijing were milk powder and air filters. Other headlines in The Times and The Wall Street Journal were "Chinese Hit Pitfalls Pushing Millions off Farms," "Life in a Toxic Country," "China Is Embarking on a Vast Program of Urbanization," "China Weighs Environmental Costs" and "Air Travelers in China Seeing Red."

During our trip to Beijing and Shanghai, we only experienced a moderate degree of smog and foggy days. However, the Ministry of Environmental Protection revealed that the air quality in Beijing was deemed unsafe for more than 60 percent of the days in the first half of 2013.

But traffic we did experience and it was somewhat unbelievable, particularly in Beijing and Shanghai. Since I go to Los Angeles every week, I would say the traffic was far worse. To ameliorate the situation, new regulations are being put in place. For example, in Shanghai, you cannot visit the city during the week unless you have a Shanghai license plate. And the cost of a license has now risen to $18,000 at recent sales.

We were also struck with the overwhelming number of high-rise apartment buildings, either built or under construction. They were between 30 and 40 stories high. It is all part of China's  urbanization program. China expects to move another 250 million people into the cities by the year 2025. Our guide joked that the national flower was a crane.

I had a conversation with our tour guide regarding her living conditions. She said she lived in a 600-square-foot apartment with her parents, sister and another relative, and the apartment cost $ 4,000 a month. She was assigned the bathroom from 6 to 6:40 a.m. each day. Only one person could be in the kitchen at a time.

While the lifestyle in China may not be appealing, no one can deny the enormous progress this country has made in a relatively short time. After the disastrous policies of Mao Zedong, the country has been rebuilt and obviously suffers from growing pains. But, if we are talking about China becoming the largest economy in the world, they must be doing something right. The people are certainly industrious and the intellectual capital is growing each day.

While we were there, 8 million students were taking the annual test to get into the universities. Only the brightest will run China in the future. Their program of moving farmers to the cities for better jobs and consumerism may pay off. Certainly the standard of living for most Chinese has risen significantly and will do so in the future.

China. Land of the future but suffering from growing pains.

— Frank McGinity is a Santa Barbara resident. The opinions expressed are his own.

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