Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Confucius Temple Tour: a 20 minute stroll to the gift shop

This tour of the Confucius Temple started out as something quite different. I was all set to go on a walking tour through an old neighbourhood of Shanghai with a guide from Shanghai Flaneur, a company who look like they are doing some interesting work around urbanism in Shanghai. Arriving at Laoximen, the nearest subway stop, I witnessed a rain storm of biblical proportions. It was raining so hard the water was bouncing high off the pavement and a growing crowd of us cowered inside the exit hall watching this impressive downpour. After a quarter of an hour its violence abated, it settled into a regular patter and I made a run for it. 

I realised I had forgotten my phone so could neither message the guide nor check a map to see how exactly to get to the Confucius Temple our meeting point. I asked people on the street. The first looked at me like I was from the planet Mars while the second pointed over the road and to the right, setting me on the correct track. I arrived dripping and a little late to see a group of five Westerners standing in a tight circle of umbrellas.

When I stepped forward and joined them, the guide explained that the tour was cancelled due to too many people not showing up. The rain had come, she said, at just the wrong moment and put people off. If I were her I would have gone ahead with the tour, but then again I am from the UK and if we stopped doing things whenever there was a shower we'd never get anything done. Huddling from the drips, she explained a little about the route we would have taken and the content of the tour. It seemed to be essentially a historically themed tour that would have introduced us to a poorer neighbourhood where it was still possible to see some of the older patterns of Shanghai's urban organisation and historical buildings before they either get the Xintiandi treatment or erased completely. In any case, once the rain eased they scattered and I headed into the Confucius Temple. I happened to have a guide to the place on my Kindle so out it came.

I had the place to myself as the rain deterring pretty much all visitors. A young woman emerged from a side building, approached me and said she was a volunteer who'd be happy to show me round. I got to take a tour after all, a private tour at that, and the Kindle went back in the pocket. She was from Guangxi and gave me a pretty standard sleepy sort of tour of the buildings and grounds which was over and done with in 20 minutes flat. The basic message was that Confucius was a great teacher who had 3000 disciples and his writings were, as she put it, "the Chinese bible." The Confucian classroom was striking as its layout was practically identical to the Xiamen University classrooms that I have taught in. From this I had to conclude that this traditional form of education and interactive performance activities have rather different spatial demands. This being China, the tour would not have been complete without a visit to the gift shop where I was introduced to another woman who tried to hard-sell me jade, paintings and antiques. I gave her just enough time to allow her to save face but not a moment more to encourage her, said thank you and bolted. I would not have been able to make so swift and graceful an exit previously, so I must be learning something here in China, though I'm not sure that these lessons are precisely Confucian.

That, I thought, was it but in the afternoon I went to the end-point of the Shanghai Flaneur tour as I was due to start another tour with Shanghai Greeters from there. My guide messaged me to say her road was flooded and she could not get out of her apartment, which seemed strange as it was now just fine where I was but this is a big city so who knows. I instead had a go at threading together the route that I would have been taken on had the morning's tour gone ahead. It was indeed an interesting tumbledown neighbourhood and a very different face of Shanghai. I explored it not through the lens of historical urban development, however, but instead through my pet interest of quick-fixes. This area was a treasure trove of them; I particularly liked the looped washing lines that crossed from one side of the street to the other. Cleary they were not going to be of much use today.

Finding my way back to my start point of the temple, I saw visitors had begun to trickle in and approach the keyhole-esque ticket windows. This place, I felt, was not nearly as prestigious as I had imagined it to be, the glitz is all over at the City God Temple. It really does need some sort of interpretation to bring it to life as there isn't a huge amount to see but, due to the authoritarian culture that presently surrounds Confucian teachings, it is unlikely that anything very radical or interactive will be done anytime soon. Still, I imagine that if you were to delve inside of The Analects, you could probably find justification for presenting its contents in a much more dynamic way. It is good to remember that these teachings were, at one time, a radical break with tradition. If it really is "the Chinese Bible" then interpretation, surely, is key.

1 comment: