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Lecture: China trip held surprises

Published (Volume 75, No. 20)

Last year, when a former UTM student asked Geography professor Helmut Wenz if he wanted to take a tour of China, Wenz said yes.

This trip was the subject of Friday’s Geology, Geography and Physics Journal Club lecture, “A Geographer’s View of China.”

The former student, Tadasuku Fukatsu, attended UTM for several years until poor health forced him to leave school. He inherited his father’s business, and, when he had to take a trip to China, asked Wenz if he wanted to come along. Wenz agreed, interested in visiting a place where he hadn’t been on something other than a “canned tour.”

They visited four different areas in China. They visited the quickly growing cities of Shanghai and Beijing, saw Xi’an’s famous terra cotta “army,” and toured some of Guilin’s sacred mountains.

They started their tour of China with Shanghai, China’s most populous city. China has undergone a massive economic boom, and nowhere is it more noticeable than Shanghai. The Pu Dong business district has grown up from what was a swamp. Wenz was surprised at the futuristic look of the city.
“From the moment I stepped out of the plane, I was in another world,” he said.

In Shanghai, they toured the Pearl Tower (Shanghai’s “Eiffel Tower”), and the Jin Mao building, the fourth tallest building in the world. He also showed pictures of the European-style Bund section, the “old” part of town.

They then flew to Beijing, China’s capital. There, they visited landmarks such as Tienanmen Square. Wenz called visiting the square “a magnificent experience” because of the history attached to the place. Communist leader Mao Tse-Tung’s tomb is just a few hundred feet away from where protester Wang Weilin stopped a line of tanks during the 1989 government massacre of student demonstrators. Wenz had pictures of both locations.

Next, they went to Xi’an, where they toured the Qin mausoleum. The mausoleum consists of three different pits, each filled with life-sized terra cotta figures of soldiers. While the soldiers had been painted in bright colors, Wenz said that the soil had leached the colors off of them.

Finally, they toured Guilin, an area of China famous for its mountains. The mountains are an example of karstic topography, which is formed when soluble rock is slowly weathered by rain and groundwater circulation. Over 27 million tourists visit the area each year. The primary draw is the sacred mountains, where small villages and mountains combine to form the shapes of holy symbols, such as tigers.

Throughout the lecture, Wenz discussed how surprised he was with the social atmosphere of the country. However, he took care to point out that his view was from a middle-class traveler’s point of view.

First, he was surprised at how few signs of communism were still left in the country. He saw communist icons in only a few places, such as a group of national flags near the mausoleum. In fact, Wenz said that he saw more soldiers when he visited Honduras than he ever did in China. He also said that the one-child-per-family policy (which primarily affected the more populated sections of the country) seemed to be relaxed somewhat. Wenz said that “communism is dead” in China.

Secondly, he was surprised at how capitalistic the country is. For example, he said that Shanghai alone has 500 McDonald’s, 792 Starbucks and 431 Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. He said that there were shops everywhere, such as the tourist shops nearby the Qin mausoleum.

He also said that he saw a lot of cars while he was there, though most working class people still use bicycles.

Finally, he was surprised at how friendly the people were. He said that he didn’t have any trouble getting a visa, and, when he got there, he felt no anti-Americanism from the people. When they went out into the country, he said, the people were friendly and open. He said, however, that manufacturing plants seemed to be off limits to visitors.

Wenz wound up the lecture with a busy question- and-answer period.

Andre Williams, a junior PR major from Memphis, said that he learned a lot from the lecture.  “It was interesting to learn about a different culture,” Williams said.