Harvard in China: A Blog by Editor John Rosenberg

Harvard Magazine editor John Rosenberg is reporting from China, covering President Drew Faust's trip and other University projects in that country...

Harvard Magazine editor John Rosenberg is reporting from China, covering President Drew Faust's trip and other University projects in that country. See "Connecting with China" , Rosenberg's article in the May-June issue.

3/24, Beijing, 2:55 p.m.

It is sharply cool and windy in Beijing today—to the good. That has kept the air clear, so one can see to the surrounding mountains that frame the endless expanse and remarkable busy-ness of this city; a golden moonset this morning was a bonus. On Friday, when I arrived, it was so damp and foggy (and probably polluted) that one saw nothing upon landing; on Saturday, after four superb hours walking the Forbidden City, when we climbed through Jingshan Park, on the hill just to the north of the Forbidden City, one could not even see the southernmost gate, perhaps a mile away, never mind the gate just beyond, at the northern end of Tiananmen Square.

The city's scale is beyond belief. For the most part, it is not as tall as Manhattan-tall apartments are 20 stories or so; the offices housing Microsoft, Sun, and Google in the Tsinghua Science Park down the street and near the Tsinghua University campus top out at about 25 stories. But unlike Manhattan, bounded by its rivers, the city here is hundreds of square miles in every direction, ALL of it developed and developing. En route to the Great Wall at Simatai yesterday (about 120 kilometers northwest, the most remote nearby site), the new Jingcheng superhighway we rode part-way out on cut through two rising complexes of—guessing 20,000 or 30,000 or 50,000?—apartments each. Taxiing from place to place is like seeing a thousand Co-op Cities in New York.

Even on Sunday morning early, or in the afternoon, Ring Road 4, one of the circular arterials, is gridlocked. How will it be, then, as the city adds 400,000 more cars per year? That road bisects the Olympic site, a construction madhouse. From the road the "bird's nest" stadium is spectacular, a world piece of new architecture. The swimming center, with walls like metal bubbles, is something to behold, too. But they will have to shut the city down for anyone to get to the venues—and they probably will. No comment was offered on the nearby institute of Tibetology studies.

Old and new are great as they conjoin: our location, 8 to 10 kilometers from the city center (an hour if the cab is unlucky, as it often is), is obviously global and high-tech (you can get designer LensCrafters frames down the block, or Starbucks at U.S. prices the other direction). But in front of those towers, at night, vendors sell roasted yams (also available in malls in vending machines, rotisserie-style), fresh swirl-cut pineapple on a stick, sugar cane, or coconuts (bang one open and stick in a straw). I lunched on honey-cured dried dark plums, rice wafers, and water, but passed on the Wrigley's coffee chewing gum (“cappuccino flavor").

It is spring. Willows are greening. Cherries, magnolias, forsythia are in bloom. In the Forbidden City, swarms of visitors posed by dwarf potted cherries, forced into bloom, to have their photographs snapped. (Even more beautiful: in the small ceramics exhibition hall, a Song dynasty flat-bottomed dish, with a wide brim, blue, with an achingly perfect cloud-shaped swirl of purple; startlingly "modern.") But the countryside, out to Simatai, is ALL brown: soil; sere leaves; and dry hillsides. Until the growth begins, the landscape, all man-made (and growing FAST), is a monotone. High-speed drivers pass groaning lorries and buses on either side, steering by horn. Venders sell bottled drinks, dried flat fish, walnuts. It is everything jumbling together all at once, at breakneck speed, a bewildering wonder to behold, if not to comprehend.

3/25, Beijing, 9:10 p.m.

Two quick points today.

First, a great benefit of immersion, however brief, in another culture is remembering what it feels like to feel FOREIGN. Sunday, returning from the Great Wall at Simatai, we stopped for lunch. We insisted that our guide and driver dine with us. They declined. We were seated at a table for two. We insisted again-U.S. casual vs. Chinese formal. We prevailed, and had a convivial meal, ordered by our guides, including a special Beijing dish we would never have tried. We conversed, relaxed, and had a fine time. The next morning, a taxi driver had to ask for directions to my somewhat remote appointment; once there, the building lobby was empty, devoid of signs, and I had no cell phone. The first open door I came to was a waiting room for drivers: thick with smoke, littered with sunflower-seed shells, and surrounded by enormous thermos bottles for tea. I beseeched help, and the largest driver grabbed his cell phone and cap, dialed the numbers I had, and finally found my contact, a few floors away. She met me, he retreated gratefully down the hall, declining my offer of a throat lozenge for thanks—and then returned to his colleagues and a huge roar of laughter. I was glad to be the comic relief.

Second, Harvard's academic ties are extraordinarily deep. At Tsinghua's public-policy school, the case teaching reflects the Kennedy School curriculum. Harvard's Engineering and Applied Sciences-led work on air pollution and analysis of remedies was the subject of a two-hour presentation and vigorous questioning and debate before Tsinghua's economics and management faculty. And a project at Beijing University, digitizing tens of thousands of Chinese historical records in concert with Harvard faculty members and a third institute, in Taiwan, will literally change the conduct of historical scholarship. President Drew Faust discusses those engagements in appearances at Beijing and Tsinghua Universities tomorrow, while we are en route to Shanghai. It is exciting to learn about, and an immense challenge to describe for readers on my return next week.

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