Excerpt from upcoming book . . . .
D e l e g a t i o n
Our host was the city of Anshan, in northeast China. I was with a small group, four other Americans, schlepping about China as part of a small trade delegation from Birmingham, Alabama. After several days touring about Beijing, our delegation had taken a plane north, then a couple-hour van ride, to Anshan, where we were greeted warmly by the Mayor and several other Very Important Officials. Around three-and-a-half million souls populate Anshan and its outskirts. It’s larger than Chicago and Dallas combined and sprawls and sprawls. About 150 miles separate Birmingham from Atlanta. Multiply that by two and you’ve got the distance between Tokyo and Osaka. Or, take fifty miles off the space between Birmingham and Atlanta and you’ll have the distance between Anshan and the Yalu River, which separates China from North Korea.
Not many Americans have heard of Anshan. Its traditional industry was steel and at one point hundreds of thousands of its residents worked in its many square miles of gray and brown foundries and mills. Now only tens of thousands work in the steel plants as Anshan’s government works to gradually shift the city’s economy to more clean and green and research and service-oriented sectors. Plus tourism.
In the late 1990s, Anshan’s city government had built a brand spanking new Buddhist Temple on a picturesque rise not far from downtown. Our hosts arranged a tour for our group as the center piece of our first full day in Anshan. Our principle guide was an affable city employee who spoke English well. He asked us to call him “Tim”. Since we had just come from staying several days at a high-end Beijing hotel whose staff wore gold tags sporting names like “Cleopatra” and “Titan”, then at least by comparison, a northern China mid-level government official named Tim struck us as quite normal.
Tim rode in the front passenger seat of the small van that was carrying our delegation around that day. Another city employee, presumably not bi-lingual, but one could never tell, drove. Tim twisted round to face the rest of us and tell us about Anshan’s history and answer our routine questions about the city’s population, industry and changing economy. The shiny, new temple glistens with reds and yellows and oranges of the Temple came into view as we topped a hill. It was so new it seemed like the paint was still wet. It had that “new temple smell.” It’s home to the world’s largest jade Buddha image carved from a single massive hunk of this semiprecious stone. The Buddha’s a couple of stories tall and weighs many tons. The raw, pre-sculpted jade that was found in and dragged out of a nearby river in 1960, later to be carved into the final image by the hands of dozens of skilled dedicated artisans. I didn’t ask Tim what had happened to any previous temples. We were taken to a nearby, and also brand spanking new, mall of jade shops. I bought some local jade for my mom, my sister and my then-wife.
The new temple, the Jade Buddha, the new jade mall, none of this was bad. But the whole scene had a decidedly contrived, Epcot-esque feel to it. I halfway expected to find a log flume ride behind the temple’s main hall. Yet the locals were trying. And jade had, indeed, been an important and venerated area resource and commodity since time out of mind. Credit should be given where it’s due. The Very Important Officials, these people who shepherded us to the temple and who proudly showed off their Jade Buddha and who took us to the nearby jade mall, were kind-hearted and enthused about the new leaf their hands were collectively turning over. They wanted us to feel welcome and to return home and say nice things about their city. And I was happy to oblige. They also wanted Chinese tourists, who would certainly make up the vast majority of visitors browsing through all of jade jewelry, boxes, bowls, 3-D landscapes, dragons, Guanyins, Hoteis and various other figures from history and legend and Faith; carvings large and small, bulky and delicate, made to impress visitors, to intrigue and entice them, and, ultimately, to turn them into buyers. . . .