James Ruggia | September 18, 2015 6:58 PM ET
Friday Flashback: Beautiful Costumes, Naked Kung Fu
Editor’s note: TravelPulse features an editorial column from one of our editors on a rotating daily basis. Destinations Editor James Ruggia has traditionally held the Friday spot, making it his own and sharing his views as someone who has seen nearly every point on the globe and has a story to tell about them all. With our friend Jim being under the weather, we wanted to keep his Friday spot warm for him by bringing you this piece on travelers seeing the real China, the land he loves, from Feb. 20, 2015. We wish our friend the best for a speedy recovery and can’t wait to hear the next story from his travels.
This year more than 2 million Chinese tourists are coming to America. I hope that people here get to know them a bit. That might help alleviate all of the stereotyping that goes on. I’m as guilty as anyone. My original teenaged interest in Asia began with that great sage David Carradine of the 1972 TV series "Kung Fu." It was a beginning. Before long I was reading hexagrams out of the Confucian Book of Changes. I had idealized China as a land of sages and mystics, which is to say I was stereotyping.
The "Marco Polo" series on Netflix is getting raves from viewers and hisses from critics. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told the Huffington Post that it’s a huge success. “It’s epic-scale,” he said, “beautiful costumes, naked kung fu.”
I binge watched the first season and thought the series was more accurate in its imitation of the "Game of Thrones" formula than of China and Kublai’s Mongol Empire. Like "Game of Thrones," it combines sinister plotlines plus operatic costumes and sets with five minutes of nudity per episode.
It’s a crowd pleaser, as P.T. Barnum would see it. The show paints Kublai Khan and the pastoral, warrior society he presided over as place that’s a little like the Ponderosa with Kublai as Ben Cartwright. The great Khan of Netflix, that is Kublai, not Reed Hastings, sports an easygoing rapport with his advisors and subjects that I doubt the original Kublai had.
The depiction of the Song Dynasty court isn’t old China; it’s the old Hollywood of Fu Manchu movies. While it’s all very entertaining, it’s about our dream of Chinese history, not how it really was. While the historian in me poo-poohs the naked kung-fu, I do confess that it appeals to a latent adolescent fondness for martial arts. It’s just a TV show.
Another false façade of China, it seems to me, comes with all of the talk of the “New China” as if the country was born again under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. Deng’s legacy deserves respect. He fired up the engines of China’s economy, added limited freedoms (like travel) and gave China a place in the world that is commensurate with its size and its history.
To constantly harp on the New China, somehow, denies the existence of the old China, a country that is and always was a lot more compelling than any of the new shopping malls one finds throughout the country today, because shopping malls are only shopping malls wherever you go.
To experience something of the spirit of the real Song Dynasty you might pay a visit to two popular silk producing towns on the Grand Canal: Hangzhou and Suzhou. In his memoirs, the real Marco Polo said, “Heaven above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below.”
The many canal-crossing bridges of Suzhou give it a look that has often garnered comparisons to Polo’s Venice, but it has much more of an industrial feel today than Venice ever had, and its Song Dynasty spirit really only emerges fully in its 12 Classical Gardens. Chinese gardens took centuries to create. Like Japanese Gardens, they attempt to capture the motion of natural forces and embody the core Chinese truth, that only change is constant.
In Suzhou’s Humble Administrator’s Garden, your visual perspective changes dramatically with each step you take. Years ago, under an enchanting full moon, I sat by a pond in the Master of Nets Garden and listened to a musician play a deep bamboo flute whose bass notes seemed to harmonize with the sounds of the crickets and frogs. It was the China I’d come looking for.
The Song Dynasty in Hangzhou is preserved in the classic pavilions along the shores of West Lake that were built for reciting poetry on moonlit nights. Today West Lake features a fine inventory of five star hotels: Banyan Tree, Hilton, Jumeirah and the Four Seasons with a Fairmont on the way. But the oldest luxury property in Hangzhou today is a Shangri-La. The building that houses the hotel was once a favorite lake resort for the top officials in China’s original communist leadership.
PHOTO: Hangzhou’s West Lake is a place to find the real Song spirit of China. (Courtesy of Hangzhou Tourism)
In 1949, their version of the New China appeared on the world stage when Mao Tze Tung proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Chou En Lai who, like Mao, marched the entire Long March and served as the Chinese Premier, is said to have loved Hangzhou and its classical history. When the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) was destroying temples and historic monuments all over China, it’s said that Chou stepped in to protect Hangzhou from destruction.
A new generation of tour operators is teaching travelers to love a more authentic China. Such companies as Wild China and Destination Asia are using experiential travel to break through to the essential spirit of this complex destination, avoiding the whistle stop circuit of top attractions in the so-called Golden Cities.
There is a famous moment in Chinese philosophy when Chuang Chou (fourth century BCE) dreamt he was a butterfly. When he woke up he wondered if he was really a butterfly now dreaming that he was a man or if he were a man that had been dreaming he was a butterfly. Who is dreaming who?
Hopefully, going forward American dreams of China and Chinese dreams of America will reconcile as we get to know each other better. “Beautiful costumes, naked kung fu” is a P.T. Barnum framing of a powerful vertical culture dating back more than 4,000 years.
We can do better.
More by James Ruggia
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Latest Travel News
Cruise Line & Cruise Ship
Features & Advice
Airlines & Airports
Destination & Tourism
Cruise Line & Cruise Ship
Airlines & Airports