Beijing Diary

Beijing is a monumental city, not just because of its immense size but because of the symbolism so strongly stamped on and by its most prominent buildings.

While its history is longer and more complex than any simple schema, three different layers or kinds of symbolism seem very evident.

First there is the remarkable set of ancient buildings and complexes that have survived a tumultuous history. The Forbidden City - technically the Palace Museum - is a sprawling but highly-ordered complex of buildings and spaces that assert the power of its ruler by strong statements of control over access. For those few who entered, a seemingly endless succession of gates, courts and pavilions reflected and reinforced the gradations of knowledge and power.

The nearby Temple of Heaven complex is of similar age but presents a more subtle interaction of the powers of heaven and earth. Its own walled spaces and pavilions are more clearly interdependent for their significance with the surrounding park and the sky itself, and seem to invite the natural elements into a dialogue with rulers and people.

Visitors and more distant onlookers have long been familiar with the statements made by a second set of buildings and spaces, the great Tiananmen Square and the related structures which reflect the period since the revolution and the leadership of Mao Zedong. These are somewhat ambiguous for westerners since the events of 1989, if not otherwise.

Tiananmen Square is named for the great southern gate of the Forbidden City which it faces, and is the largest such space in the world. Its vast expanse is framed with the imposing but still somewhat uninspiring Great Hall of the People and by Mao's mausoleum, among other massive institutional statements in stone. These reflect another kind of order and power, literally adjunct to the Forbidden City and which refer to it, but which intriguingly left the old palace complex to continue to make its own mute historic statements.

The third layer is that of the new China, so energetically displayed during the 2008 Olympics. In fact the first and most potent expression seen by many visitors is the new Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital Airport, a stunning statement in glass and steel. This has a counterpoint close to Tiananmen in the new Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts, known (not necessarily fondly) as "The Egg". The Theatre is the work of French architect Paul Andreu. Although its low curves are intended to work with the similar heights of the ancient gate and modern halls nearby, it has drawn criticism for the contrasting form of its design, and its western origin.

The better-known images of the Olympic Stadium and Water Sports Centre also belong with these icons of China's contemporary quest for openness and economic development.

Like successive layers, these architectural statements add to one another, each modifying but not erasing the earlier. Each speaks unmistakeably of power, as well as of its respective quest for engagement with the wider world, conveying the changing and expanding aspirations of the Chinese people.


Shanghai Diary

In 1872, thirty Chinese schoolboys sailed to the United States to commence university education.

This first organized foray into international education on the part of China was the fulfilment of a long and hard-fought dream on the part of Yung Wing, a southern Chinese official who had been educated at Yale through the support of an American missionary teacher. Yung's motives were more or less "liberal"; a convert to Christianity as well as to other aspects of western culture, Yung saw the prospect of a more open and modern China depending on the experience and knowledge that such a group might gain in the USA.

Others who supported or acquiesced to the mission were more suspicious or at least circumspect, hoping that the boys would acquire knowledge that might help guard China against the West. Their concerns were not unreasonable; this was in the immediate aftermath of the Opium Wars, when western engagement was an obviously malign force in China, not unreasonably feared and rejected.

The experiment was relatively short-lived, and the mission that had sent these "China Boys" (as they were known among their associates in Connecticut) was recalled in 1881, after it was perceived that its participants were adopting western customs and losing their Chinese identity and loyalty.

This piece of history has a variety of sequels, as successive groups of Chinese students have travelled to the West. In each period there has been an inevitable relationship between the policies and hopes on the part of the state that have allowed, impeded or driven students, and the realities of China's relationships with the rest of the world.

There have been other instances of withdrawal, such as the Cultural Revolution, when those who has studied overseas, or otherwise participated in higher education, were stigmatized and often severely punished.

There have also been other instances of state-driven engagement, as at present. Today many students from China are traveling abroad - including to Melbourne, in increasing numbers - carrying ambitions fostered by recent decades of liberalization and economic development. Such projects are again viewed with hope, but also imbued with a new confidence, given China's emergence as an unquestioned world power.