Fear and Longing in Shanghai

In Books-1, Shanghai, The Art of Travel Fall 2014 by Nicolas LopezLeave a Comment

I carefully reviewed the suggested readings by reading up on their author’s life stories. The type of travel reading I enjoy the most is non-fiction and in this field it is of the upmost importance for me that the author has a life worthy of a good story. I must admit at first glance not one of the authors really caught my attention. That is, until I stumbled on Edwin Dingle.

Mr. Dingle was part of a breed of men hardly existent in the world today. He was an explorer and adventurer. Even further, he was a valiant man who decided to take on the vast Celestial Empire by foot in the early beginning of the 20th century, when doing so was exponentially harder than it was today. As if all of this factors weren’t compelling enough for a good non-fiction travel story, this headline appeared in a newspaper towards the end of his journey:

“All the Legations (at Peking) have received anonymous letters from alleged revolutionaries in Shanghai, containing the warning that an extensive anti-dynastic uprising is imminent. If they do not assist the Manchus, foreigners will not be harmed; otherwise, they will be destroyed in a general massacre.

I then knew for a fact that I had to read his story. Shanghai is a city which deposed of its past (and continues on doing so) with shocking ease. Only in the tourist-infested bund and in areas far away from the city’s inner belt can you see remnants of what the city used to be. This was the cultural liberal hub of China where artists, thinkers and free spirits used to gather (and smoke opium). Little canals separated a perfect mixture of ancient Chinese houses and French Republican buildings. It always upset me how nonchalantly the Shanghainese got rid of their truly unique past. It surprised to find out through the reading that this massive longing-and fear-for a ‘New China’ started almost a 100 years ago, as captured by Dingle’s impressions. Similarly, Shanghai has remained since then as China’s surface; it’s solid ground where it can communicate with foreigners and where foreigner can set base to engage with it.

The revolution Dingle stumbled upon, has provided some interesting parallels with the situation today. Back then there was an incalculable fear to open China to the rest of the world, who thirsty for its resources would go to any extent to access them. Today, China has undoubtedly been open to the world but most importantly the world has been opened to China. The country just yesterday surpassed the US’ economy (measured by Purchasing Power Parity) and by that standard has become the world’s largest. Dingle and his contemporary Chinese counterparts could not have imagined this reality in their wildest dreams. It would have probably shocked the author even more than simultaneously Britain lost its place as the planet’s hegemonic power.

However, many would say China’s newfound success and position in the world has been paid by its selling of its true self, especially in Shanghai. Families have been relocated, disappeared and sometimes perished for progress. The curse of the greater ‘good’. Today, much like Dingle at the beginning of his trek, I stand quiet and observant. The fast pace of China’s growth and the secrecy of its decisions make it difficult to foresee what the future holds. I just hope there is some explorer and adventure to capture it when it happens.


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