Postcard from China, 9

28th July 2013

Stupidly, I seem to hurt the a tendon in my left leg, and this has meant that I have been hobbling around Shanghai for these final two days of our holiday. We have nonetheless been up a very tall building, visited a famous ‘fakes’ market, seen a lot of skyscrapers, marvelled at the Pudong business district across the river from the Bund, and generally lived much closer to European life than anywhere we have been for the past three weeks. We can have a croissant for breakfast and hear as much English spoken in the street as Chinese. It’s all a bit like a cultural airlock preparing us for an easy re-entry into London.

The daytime highlight has been the Shanghai Museum, which on the basis of my brief acquaintance today I am happy to acknowledge as one of the world’s great art museums. Its striking building was completed in 1996 and the collection brings together bronzes, sculptures, calligraphy, jades, coins and more from the earliest times though to 1911. Entry is free and limited to 8,000 each day, but on Friday morning it was far less crowded than the Shaanxi Museum in Xi’an that we visited ten days back. The wall texts in English have been properly translated, the display cases are clear of smears, and the lay-out and lighting is immaculate throughout. I don’t really understand why there are no postcards on sale, but that has been a common complaint of ours right across China.

We spent some time with the collection of exquisite sculptures, many of which were displayed outside of a glass case and we just a relatively discreet notice telling people not to touch. The calligraphy was comparably compelling, although this is an art form about which I know next-to-nothing. The scrolls are presented in darkened cases which, as you approach, light up internally to reveal their treasures. As you walk away the lights dim, and the effect is to give the gallery as a whole a sense of softly pulsating life. Similar display techniques are also employed in the paintings galleries.

Finally, we took a look at the spectacular ceramics, but again I had neither the knowledge nor the energy to do more than marvel at a few highlights. There are times when I think the China galleries of The British Museum are among the most stimulating displays in London, and I have no doubt that this trip will send me back there with a sense of renewed interest and pleasure.

Across Renmin Square is a very different form of display in the Shanghai City Planning Exhibition, the highlight of which is a vast model of the vision of the city in 2020. Alongside this is a 360 degree computer simulation of flights over parts of Shanghai as it is envisaged to be in the near future. The graphics and the gently burbling music offer a beguiling vision of an ultra-modern city for the twenty-first century. Outside, the dense traffic, the obvious poverty of many of the inhabitants, and the decayed nature of many of the smaller, older buildings have a different tale to tell.

In the evening, as our final treat, we went to the Shanghai World Circus, a permanent showcase for traditional acrobatic skills. The marketing for the show, which is called ERA – Interaction of Time, seemed to threaten something in the Cirque du Soleil mould, but the showbiz trappings were modest and the performers just ASTOUNDING. Here were jugglers, plate-spinners, gymnasts and aerialists of amazing athleticism and skill. Again and again, we were left open-mouthed in amazement, at a jump through a hoop fully ten feet off the ground, at bodies manipulated into entirely impossible shapes, at feats of flying and strength and balance that seemed simply superhuman. It really was that good, and more than worth the £20 that each of our tickets cost.

The finale was a large sphere made of a metallic mesh with a door at the bottom through which a motorcyclist could ride in. We were impressed enough that he could achieve sufficient speed to do wall-of-death tricks and loop the loop, but the. He was joined by another bikeand rider, and then a third, and a fourth! They drove round and round the inside of the sphere at what seemed like an impossible speed, crossing over each other’s tracks and switching from horizontal circles to vertical ones and back. Finally, three more bikes and rides went into the sphere so that there were two levels of bike, a group of four and one of three speeding round and round and round…

On the plane into Beijing three weeks ago I watched The Place Beyond the Pines which begins with Ryan Gosling as a motorbike rider working in a travelling circus. His act involves driving at high speed around the inside of a metal-mesh sphere with two other riders. How strange are the coincidences of travel. Clare and Kate and I, and our boys Nick and Ben, have had a surprising and remarkable and puzzling and thrilling and enlightening and, yes, at times, a strange three weeks. We wouldn’t have missed this time for the world.

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