Our fourth day in China is strongly marked by the journey from Beijing and Shanghai. The best way to describe this change is through using the image of the speed train that literally and symbolically took us from Beijing, the administrative center of the country, to the business and cosmopolitan futuristic city of Shanghai.
Beijing South Train Station was the China we had expected – vast modern structures swept over and enclosed a shopping mall: designer clothes, fans, coffee and muffins, tea and noodles, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King were all on display. Yet, the size and spotlessness of the station, together with the speed and elegance of the train suggested this was not simply westernization. Given that the train-track we travelled on was not built when our guidebook was published, this is clearly something more dynamic. The encounter with the dynamicity and speed of the Beijing South Train Station was only a glimpse into what we were to see when arriving later on the day in Shanghai.
China's bullet train took us from Beijing to Shanghai (about 1,500km) in just under than 5 hours. China has the longest and busiest high-speed rail network in the world. Passengers enjoy comfortable seating, electric plug sockets and hot water fountains as well as continuous information about speed and outside temperature. Thus, we boarded our train today in Beijing (21 degrees Celsius). At 42 km/h we passed the suburbs of the Chinese capital and yet more construction sites; at 198 km/h, clusters of trees become more frequent (22 degrees). At 301 km/h, fields appear arranged in patches, between them tree-lined irrigation canals (24 degrees). Every now and then one can make out a village hidden behind woods, more fields again, we pass marsh land, dramatically shaped mountain ranges; from our window we see a river so big it looks like the sea (29 degrees). As we approach the city of Nanjing, the buildings around us begin to rise from the ground once more (31 degrees). Our train arrives 10 minutes ahead of schedule in Shanghai. The travel time literally flew by leaving us with fragments of images of the land and all that is in-between the enormous cities of Beijing and Shanghai.
Literally meaning ‘upon-the-sea’, Shanghai realises the destiny that is somehow inscribed in its name, sharing with the sea a certain sense of magnitude and infinity in front of which contemplation, suspension and perhaps the sublime arise. What is the sublime if not the sense of immeasurability that we experience in front of raging waves or a massive mountain, an immeasurability that humiliates the ever pretentious scales of reason? …an immeasurability that breaks the narrative of a stable subject, for whom imagination beyond linear coordinates of space and time is not conceivable. This is what we experienced today as pseudo-western travellers walking in the streets of Shanghai, hijacked by the immensity of its towers and multi-form peaks, and compelled, as we were, to assume the sky as the horizon of our wondering navigation: a sense of temporal and spatial immeasurability in front of which East and West, traditional and hypermodern – these ever sanctified ‘cardinal’ points imagined by linear cartographies – lose any meaning, and invite the rational being to adopt the fantasy of the explorer for whom space is yet to be invented.
Closing another day we remembered Beijing that we left this morning. Beijing and Shanghai, can we avoid comparisons? Even when wishing to escape the impulse to categorise, there is an affective reaction to a city that you cannot escape. Shanghai with its festival of lights, shop fronts, neon signs and bill boards, is friendly, even comfortable, for people coming from London or NY. Is this why most of us preferred it to the displacement of Beijing? How difficult is it to appreciate what is really different from ‘our’ world and from us? Can one learn how to find a place in being 'left out'?
- The Oecumene Team, 5 June 2013