Guangzhou is a puzzle that one cannot quite put together. Different areas of the city resist the construction of a continuous narrative: they do not fit into each other and yet, they follow each other. Hopping on and off the metro and several cabs, today we have experienced its wide range of shapes and aspects.
Entering the beautiful Guangxiao Temple, one is struck by the active social life that this religious shrine hosts. Unlike the sometimes solipsistic and aseptic experience of many museums, the atmosphere in this space was marked by collective pray, wish, and reflection. The temple hosts meetings and discussions, together with more intimate rituals.
The beauty and elegance of this place reflects the way Chinese architecture responds to the needs of social encounters. The wide and opened courtyards of temples and historical houses seem to accomplish that function, as exemplified by the majestic building of the Chen Clan Academy. Built during the Qing dynasty by members of the Chen clan, the building was intended to host their junior members during their preparation for the imperial exams. Later it became the Chen Clan’s Industry College, and it now houses the Guangdong Folk Art Museum. Although restricted only to the members of the Clan, this academy provided the opportunity for young people from different villages to access the city and meet with their peers.
In doing so, it has provided youth and adults with a rhythm and style of life that seems to resist the chaotic, fast and busy timescales of the city outside the temple. One of the curious things about the rise of market capitalism in China as elsewhere is in fact the fetishisation of youth. The young, the new, the fast, are often privileged at the level of everything from aesthetics, to politics, to philosophy. Perhaps this rush for new forms also coincides with the rise of the technological moment, with intelligence in the age of the internet, in which one's success is judged based on how well one can use the latest gadget. China is not exception to this model on a broad scale.
Yet, one might still find a challenge to the rapid speed of neoliberal capitalism and its lust for the new, looking for wisdom, perhaps in the faces of those whose lives carry history. An old woman on the streets of Guangzhou begs for change. She has a face that dances with lines like those on the maps of a nation, routes marked from village to city, lines of hard earned laughter, of precious and increasingly foresaken wisdom.
On the way back from the temple, we felt blessed by a very blue sky and a magnificent sunset over the Pearl River; pink clouds against the ultra modern skyline, and a beautiful orange sun set behind the city bridge. Many people stopped along the pier of the river to quietly watch the sun go down and take pictures.
Inevitably, our thoughts turned to an evening meal. On our third week into our journey, fatigue with a constant fare of Chinese food set in. A craving for hamburgers and pizzas had infiltrated among members of the team. The crucial issue then became ‘What do we do with our freedom to eat what we want?’ We had sushi, Vietnamese and Thai - all easily and superbly provided for in Guangzhou. Perhaps what we craved was not something uniquely western as such. Rather, it was the cosmopolitanism of our everyday lives - something travellers can deny themselves in their earnestness to experience 'local culture.'
- The Oecumene Team, 18 June 2013