Sunday, January 15, 2012


When we first planned our trip to China we knew we would see son Matt and his family only briefly during our cruise ship's 5-hour stop in Dalian.  We figured we would return by train to Dalian.  Then Akiko and Tyler had to leave for Japan just when we would have headed back to see them, so we scrapped the plan to go all the way back to Dalian.  But in that planning we had learned about Shenyang, where we thought we'd break up the 8-hour train trip to Dalian by spending a few nights.  We now decided to go out-and-back from Beijing.  Our Beijing hotel agreed to hold our suitcases, so we travelled lightly with just a backpack each.  It turned out to be a great destination.
The train wasn't the highest category of fast train, but it was plenty fast, covering the 440 miles in just under 5 hours, averaging 88 mph, including 3 stops.  We whizzed smoothly along the coastal plain past fields that had recently been harvested or were about to be, as this was mid-October.  We were surprised by how much corn was being grown, much of it shucked and drying on rooftops.  As we passed through the city of Shanhaiguan we could see the Great Wall of China descending to the Pacific!

This was our first time using to find a room, and the $70/night lodgings they found for us were quite pleasant, if you overlooked the overly-firm mattress that every hotel in China offers.  The hotel occupied a dozen floors above a six-story department store that looked exactly like a Macy's.  There was a 7th floor restaurant where we had one dinner, but we skipped the expensive breakfast buffet and had Egg McMuffins each morning at a Mickey D's a block away.  One day we came by the banquet hall in time to see a wedding with a rather impressive army of food servers waiting for the signal to march in.  By the way, there was one of those electronic picture frames in the lobby showing a continuous loop of 40 or 50 photos of the bride and groom, quite a few of which showed them all dressed up in front of a church somewhere, notwithstanding the fact that the wedding itself was here in the hotel, not at a church.

Shenyang is the main city in what the Chinese now call Dongbei, "the Northeast."  It is one of China's ten largest cities with almost 5 million in the city and another 2-3 million in surrounding areas.  It has some interesting century-old Western buildings (the street is currently torn up as they finish building Shenyang's subway line), some old Chinese architecture, a few remaining gates from the mostly-gone city walls, and several strikingly modern skyscrapers.

However, there were three main things we came to see in Shenyang, and we saw two of them the first full day there, the Imperial Palace and the home of warlords Zhang Zuolin and his son Zhang Xueliang.

The scale model shows that it is quite a bit smaller than the Imperial Palace aka Forbidden City in Beijing, but still quite impressively huge.  The Forbidden City was built by the third of China's Ming emperors from 1406-1420, when he moved the capital to Beijing.  Nurhaci (that's him to the left) was a warlord in what was then called Manchuria.  He was duly impressed by accounts of the Forbidden City, and started his own imperial palace in Shenyang in 1625.  His grandson conquered the rest of China upon the downfall of the Mings in 1644, starting the Qing (pronounced 'ching') dynasty that ruled until 1911.  Even though the Qing acquired the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and other extremely nice real estate, they continued to add to the Shenyang Imperial Palace for occasional visits back to what they thought of as their 'homeland.'  It's a pretty impressive place.  We'll start with the emperor's own home sweet home, and the doorway to his favorite concubine's quarters.  Close by is a plaza ringed by lodgings for his various generals.  That's the inside of one of them, spartan in more ways than one.  Those large urns, which you may have noticed also in photos of the Forbidden City, are not ceremonial.  They are for fire control, and were always kept topped up with water.

The Qing emperors kept adding to the palace over the years, such as this courtyard where Chinese opera was performed.  A wall hanging helped us imagine what the spectacle of the court might have looked like.  Although some of the glory (and paint) is a bit faded, there's a lot of decorative beauty here.  There were even some locals who had paid a few yuan to dress up as Qing aristocracy who agreed to let us take their photo.

The most interesting thing that happened there, however, is that we became part of the attraction for a number of the Chinese visitors.  Apparently very few Westerners make it up to this part of China.  Not once, not twice, but eight times as Jeff was taking a picture of something, he looked up from his camera to see someone else taking a picture of him or of Louise!  Then, as he headed across one courtyard, a family of four approached him: a grandmother, mom and dad, and child.  Before he fully realized what was happening, the mom thrust the boy into Jeff's hands as the grandma pointed to the camera in the dad's hands -- they wanted a picture of Jeff holding the grandson!  Unfortunately, grandson seemed to be saying the Chinese equivalent of WTF, quite emphatically, so Louise stepped in and her calm grandmotherly ways calmed him down long enough for Jeff and the boy's dad to get some photos.  Afterwards we pulled out our iPad and showed them a photo of Louise with her son Brian and our grandson Cedro.  We then pointed at Louise and the grandma, Brian and the dad, then Cedro and their child.  They smiled as they understood our sign language analogy, and the grandson warmed up enough to wave bye-bye and to throw us some kisses as we left!

After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 it looked briefly like China might become a republic under Sun Yat-sen, but Sun had only political power, not military, and China soon descended into a medieval patchwork of more-or-less independent areas, each under the control of a local military figure called a "warlord."  Manchuria came under the power of General Zhang Zuolin, and it was his house we visited for our second destination.  It was quite an impressive place.  To get to the house we first had to go past the military command center, which would have relieved us of any weapons in Zhang's day, then passed the accounting office and the formal meeting room.  This house was in a real sense the "government" of Manchuria for about twenty years.

At last we made it to the home itself, and it is a very impressive place, though the decorating scheme in the living room, aka  the Tiger Room, was not all that 'homey.'  Besides affecting your decorative style, being a warlord has other downsides, and Zhang's came on June 4, 1928 when the Japanese blew up his private rail car, with him in it.  They were hoping that someone more amenable to Japanese imperialist desires in Manchuria would take over, but instead the army came under the control of Zhang Zuolin's son, Zhang Xueliang.  Despite a quite understandable dislike for the Japanese, he did nothing to punish his father's executioners since he doubted his army was ready for full-scale war with the nation of Japan.  Little did he know what was yet to come from the Japanese in Manchuria, or for himself when he clashed with Chiang Kai-shek later in the 1930s.

Before we move on to the next day's adventure, when we learned much more about Japan's subsequent misdeeds in Manchuria, we'll take a quick look at an unexpected part of the Zhang mansion tour, a visit to the Shenyang Money Museum. The younger Zhang founded the Frontier Bank next door to the mansion he inherited from his dad, and it has been converted to a museum that was wonderfully peopled with wax customers and employees giving a lifelike view of banking in the 1930s. There were also extensive exhibits of Chinese money over the years and a little about the modern economy, including an explanation of bull markets and bear markets. We don't know quite what it says, but the fact that there was even a sign explaining bull markets and bear markets says a lot about how far from its proletarian roots modern China has come.

Seventy years before September 11, 2001, China had a similar event.  Our destination for our second day in Shenyang was the September 18 Museum.  Even the entrance to the building itself with its simulated cannonball damage was a reminder of the events that took place on this spot eighty years ago.  The museum told that story with no attempt to softpedal the anger many Chinese still feel about it.

Several railroads ran through Shenyang in the 1930s.  They carried tons of Manchuria's agricultural and mineral wealth to Dalian for shipment overseas, primarily to Japan.  The South Manchuria Railway was owned by Japan, and China had been forced by Japan to allow Japanese soldiers to protect it.

That wasn't enough for a radical group in the Japanese Army.  Without approval from their superiors, they placed a small bomb alongside the tracks close to a Chinese army camp.  The museum is built on the very site itself, and this diorama shows the scene the night of September 18, 1931 when the bomb exploded.  The bomb was so small the Chinese army didn't even react to it, but the Japanese nonetheless launched an attack on the Chinese, claiming "self-defense." 
Since Shenyang was then called "Mukden," the Japanese press called this the "Mukden Incident," the name that has stuck.  Within days the Japanese had not only routed the unprepared Chinese in Mukden, they started conquering all of Manchuria.  They eventually installed the pathetic character Pu Yi, who had been deposed as the last emperor of the Qing dynasty in 1911, as the puppet "Emperor" of what they now called the nation of Manchukuo.
Warlord Zhang Xueliang wanted to fight back, but he knew he needed help.  The largest army likely to offer it was that of Chiang Kai-shek, but Chiang also feared the power of the Japanese Army so he trusted the League of Nations to do the right thing.  Meantime he held Zhang back from fighting the Japanese.  The League eventually sided with China, but did nothing at all to punish Japan or to force it to give Manchuria back.  China and Japan moved closer and closer to total war over the next six years.  By 1937, they were fully engaged in a war that would last 8 years, over twice as long as the U.S. was involved in WWII.
Before total war broke out, Zhang pressured Chiang to cooperate more with the Communist Party in fighting a guerilla war against the Japanese.  When Chiang refused, Zhang kidnapped him!  Chiang finally agreed to Zhang's terms, a promise he did not keep for long, but the incident made Zhang Xueliang a hero to the Communist Party, even though he had no sympathy for their political aims.   For obvious reasons, the museum commemorated the Communist resistance to the Japanese with several dioramas and with an oversized painting showing the celebrations in Shenyang when the Japanese Army surrendered at the end of WWII.  It was a positive way of ending our journey through this part of Chinese history, a partial antidote to the brutality that the museum otherwise overflowed with.  Like the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, it has a difficult story to tell, and seemed to do so effectively.

While touring the museum, we kept running into an American visitor, Krystal.  By the time we all finished, we had agreed to head out together for some lunch and a visit to a park a short taxi ride away.  We learned that Krystal is a U.S. Army veteran and a student of languages who has been studying in Harbin, another few hundred miles north of Shenyang.  She lost her passport and was now in Shenyang because that's the nearest place she could come to to get the problem fixed.  We learned later that it took over a week, but all eventually worked out for her.  While visiting that park, we tried out a four-wheeled bicycle-like contraption that was a few sizes too small for Jeff, but somehow we managed to pedal it a few kilometers around the mostly-flat landscape.

We'll close out Shenyang with a collection of tricycles that astonished and amazed us.  Why don't we see things like this in the U.S.?

From Shenyang we returned to Beijing, a part of the trip we detailed in our last blog.  So our next entry will be about the small but fascinating city of Pingyao.  See you there!

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