Saturday, November 22, 2008

CHINA: ON THE SILK ROAD TO UNDERSTANDING


Silk Factory Number 1 has operated inside a non-descript building in a Suzhou neighborhood since the 1920's. Inside the entrance from the street, visitors can tour a small museum telling the history of the silk trade and the process of silk making. Live silkworms methodically eat mulberry leaves on an open tray, and real historic looms and other equipment are displayed in a museum setting. Visitors can then wander through the factory, peeking over the shoulders of workers - mostly women - and poking cameras at and around them as they sort cocoons, cook them in warm water to kill the pupae and loosen the strands, and deftly coax silk strands from cocoons in warm water as machines that look like they just leaped of the page of a history book about the industrial revolution spool the silk. After additional processing, the silk is woven into cloth on several old card looms. The final stop on the tour is the sales room, where purchases can be carried with or shipped to your home.

The remarkable thing about our visit to Silk Factory Number 1 was how unremarkable it seemed within the context of China. Now, at the end of a three week trip, I'm trying to sort out the complex threads of our experiences, like finding the one loose end of silk strand in a cocoon and carefully unraveling it to make whole cloth.

The People's Republic of China is at once fascinating and overwhelming, charming and intimidating, enigmatic and complex and yet simple. It has to be seen, felt, heard, smelled and tasted in order to have any chance of being understood. As visitors, we realized that understanding could only be gained by meeting and building friendships with people - certainly not a new concept, but an essential one.

The following China posts will not be written during our visit as I had planned. My trusty pocket PC was mostly useless as an internet reporter's device because I rarely found wifi access (2 Starbucks stores allowed brief interludes of connectivity - all praise globalization). The very modern American-owned hotels in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the older Chinese hotel in Xian all had internet access, but only wired - doesn't work with a wireless device. A few hours before leaving China from Shanghai, Hotel Manager Kim explained that China is still catching up, and wifi would probably be very common within a year or so. China is, after all, a developing nation.

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