A Student's Perspective: CIEE Beijing's Excursion to Dalian: "Urbanization and Dream for Modernity"
Sean Largey is a junior from Georgetown University majoring in International Politics. This fall he is a student in the CIEE Beijing Intensive Chinese Language program. Every semester, students have a choice to participate in different excursions around China focusing on a certain theme. He chose to participate on the excursion titled, "Urbanization and Dream for Modernity/城市化与中国现代梦". CIEE Resident Director KuoRay Mao, whose research includes globalization and sustainability in China, designed and led this excursion. Sean agreed to write a blog describing not only what fun activities they did as a group, but also what meaningful things he took away from the experience.
Historically significant port. Scenic views of the Pacific Ocean. Old-style trolley cars plying the streets. Infamous prison now preserved as a museum. Large Chinese population. San Francisco? Wrong! The city of Dalian in China.
Today the fourth-largest port in China, Dalian (大连) has one of the shortest, yet most colorful histories of any major Chinese city. Sitting above China’s northernmost warm water port in Liaoning province, the area that is now Dalian drew the attention of the Russian Empire, which in 1898 leased the port from Qing-dynasty China to serve as a naval base. Not long after, the Japanese wrested Dalian from the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. From then until the end of World War II, the Japanese expanded Dalian into an administrative center for their imperialism in Northeast Asia. The Japanese defeat in 1945 restored Dalian to China, though true control of the city fell to the Soviet Union, which demanded a lease of the port and built up heavy industry in the region. Only after the gradual souring of Sino-Soviet relations did China reassume full sovereignty over the city.
Having exchanged hands so often, Dalian witnessed and was transformed by several competing visions of modernization. Over the National Day holiday, I was among the group of students that participated in the CIEE-led excursion to Dalian, to explore this theme. Under the leadership of Dr. KuoRay Mao, a CIEE Resident Director in Beijing, students spent three days exploring the city, and exploring the theme of our excursion: “Urbanization and Dream for Modernity.” CIEE arranged a variety of activities – visiting sites that ranged from over a century in age to just a few years – to let our group see first-hand the different development paths Dalian has followed over its history.
On Wednesday, October 2, we departed from Beijing for Dalian by overnight train. (For those who have never traveled by train in China before, the first night in hard sleeper class is always an interesting experience.) We arrived in Dalian at around 7:30 the following morning and drove to our hotel by van. The Russian goal in designing Dalian was to construct a “Paris of the East.” As such, the street grid resembled the Parisian model: many boulevards crisscrossing and intersecting at roundabouts. My own first impression of the city on that first drive was to note that it is certainly built-up, if perhaps lacking some of the glitz one finds in the architecture of Beijing and Shanghai.
After checking into the hotel, our first destination was Dalian’s old harbor. By the harbor there is an old building in the Western Neoclassical style. In fact, it was constructed by the Japanese, who in the heyday of their empire equated “Western” with “modern.” This building once served as Dalian’s customs office, yet the world has changed around it. Shipping has moved up the coast to the new harbor, and developers have filled in much of the old harbor in order to put up more apartment high-rises. This is indicative of an economic shift in the region: though Dalian is still a large and critical port, as Dr. Mao explained, much of its economy is based upon seaside real estate.
The next stop revealed as much. We drove to an overlook in the Dongshan Scenic Area that afforded us not only great vistas of the Pacific Ocean, but also a panoramic view of Dalian itself. From there we saw street upon street of new apartments (like the picture above) and still more sprouting up. Dr. Mao shared the fact that only around thirty percent of those apartments are occupied, meaning that much of the city stretched out before us was essentially a mirage. The Chinese real estate bubble is much discussed in the Western media nowadays, yet here that abstraction was made manifest before our very eyes.
We left Dongshan to eat lunch and then proceeded to Xinghai Square (星海广场), the largest city square in the world. Greatly inflating the prices of the surrounding real estate, the square is the brainchild of a recently imprisoned Chinese politician, who got his political start as mayor of Dalian. At one end of the square is a procession of bronze footprints leading to the sea, terminating atop a large structure resembling both and open book and a pair of wings—metaphors for Dalian’s glorious future. The footprints were cast from Dalian residents aged one to over one hundred. A pair of the imprisoned mayor’s own footprints march along with the rest, and had been gilded before his fall from grace. Yet to those who know where to look, other symbols of his challenge to Beijing’s authority remain: the square itself dwarfs Tiananmen and at its center is a huabiao (华表) in mimicry of those found at the Forbidden City. This same man was also the one responsible for the glittering convention center we saw from the old harbor earlier in the morning.
Just off Xinghai Square is a museum devoted to the history of Dalian. The exhibit housed artifacts dating from Dalian’s genesis as a fishing village, through the periods of Russian, Japanese, and Chinese rule down to the modern day. Afterwards we made a final stop at the circle that has historically been Dalian’s central business district. This was ringed by more Japanese-built, Neoclassical buildings, nearly all of which have become branches of major Chinese and international banks. Done for the day, students were then free to get dinner and explore the city on their own.
On Friday, our group met for breakfast, then set off to drive Binhai Rd. (滨海路). This scenic coastal drive runs atop cliffs overlooking the Pacific. At one point along the road, we left our van to walk around and enjoy the cool sea breeze, a refreshing respite from the air of inland Beijing! From there, we continued our drive all the way down to the southernmost tip of the Liaodong peninsula. The British had constructed a lighthouse here at the point where the Bay of Bohai meets the Yellow Sea. Walking down a long flight of stairs, we descended the cliffs to stand amidst the salt and spray and look out on the imaginary boundary.
The afternoon we spent touring Lüshun (旅顺), better known in the West as Port Arthur. Once a separate city, Lüshun was the military port of the old Russian leasehold, before the Chinese subsequently merged its administration with that of Dalian, the civilian port. After a hearty lunch at a local restaurant, we visited the first item on our Lüshun itinerary: the Russo-Japanese prison.
Originally constructed by the Russians, this prison essentially developed into a concentration camp under Japanese rule. Within these walls, the Japanese colonizers abused and executed many Chinese and Koreans, as well as Japanese political dissidents. The prison contained all of the unsavory elements one would expect: dark cells, a torture chamber, medical wards for experimentation on human subjects, and a gallows. The complex stands as testimony to another kind of modernization—the mechanical, social Darwinist modernization of the early 20th Century. Most interesting from my perspective was how the CCP has attempted to co-opt the suffering of the Chinese at this place. As Dr. Mao pointed out, although the mistreatment of prisoners is a historical fact, the prison was never known for having jailed Communists. Nevertheless, the prison museum contains many poems allegedly written by “party members” who suffered there at the hands of the Japanese.
The next stop was the top of Baiyu Shan (白玉山). Atop this hill the Japanese constructed a monument commemorating their conquest of Dalian/Lüshun during the Russo-Japanese War. Looking out from the hill, we could see the entirety of Lüshun and imagine the course of the siege that raged there for months. Below the hill is the harbor, and from such a vantage point it is easy to see why so many imperial powers would have coveted it. Yet where Russian and Japanese warships once fought for regional dominance, the Chinese North Sea fleet now lay quietly at anchor. As the sun set, we made a final stop at the terminus of the South Manchuria Railway, one of the first in China, then returned to Dalian.
The group enjoyed a delicious dinner together that featured fresh seafood jiaozi (dumplings). After dinner, students were once again free to explore on their own and the majority of us chose to return to Xinghai Square. We enjoyed ourselves at the small amusement park near the square, which in my opinion had educational value to it—everyone left knowing the Mandarin for “bumper cars” and “let’s go again!”
CIEE scheduled the final day in Dalian as a free day for students to explore as they wish. Possible activities included visiting the zoo, watching dolphins perform at the aquarium, and eating in a revolving restaurant. I personally went with a group of fellow students to explore more of old Dalian. After a breakfast at a quaint café we had discovered the previous night, we went down to the Russian part of the city. This part of the city retains many old buildings constructed in an imperial Russian style and is now the site of a large street market. While similar to many markets found elsewhere in China, this street is unique for featuring quintessentially Russian products: matryoshka dolls, ushankas, and even Vladimir Putin playing cards.
Dalian’s proximity to Korea contributes to its large Korean population, and we found a Korean barbecue restaurant at which to have lunch. Afterwards, we took a ride on the city’s streetcar system. The Russians laid down the first streetcar tracks at the turn of the century, and they have been in continuous operation in Dalian ever since. There are modern streetcars that ply the lines, but many of the original 20th Century cars are still in service, retrofitted to meet the demands of a 21st Century city.
Everyone reassembled in the afternoon for departure. We ate dinner of seafood noodles at a restaurant near the train station and then boarded the train for Beijing, soft sleeper class this time. By 7:00 the following morning, we were all back at the campus of Peking University.
Dalian offers something for everyone: modern landscaping for the architect, Great Power battlefields for the historian, scenic views and fresh air for the naturalist. Yet at all sites, the one constant is how profoundly Dalian has been shaped by competing visions of what a modern city and a modern society should be. The Russians, the Japanese, and politicians on the wrong side of the law have all left their marks on this unique city. As Chinese leaders seek to articulate a new path for their country, Dalian will continue to evolve along with this next phase of modernization.