Sometimes in China, I can sympathize with that apocryphal quote from Dan Quayle about wishing he had paid more attention in Latin class so that, traveling as vice president, he could converse with the Latin Americans. Specifically, I now wish I’d paid more attention to Walton J. Lord.
Lord was the absolute crazy man who taught Art History 310, “Chinese Art,” at Penn State. His wild hair stuck straight out at the sides like Larry’s in “The Three Stooges.” On weekends he was known to ride his motorcycle to New York, five hours each way, to appear as a supernumerary on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. (Nowadays this seems less crazy to me, except for the motorcycle part.) His lectures, and exams, were torturous marathon sessions, minutely detailed, ranging through seemingly hundreds of ancient three-legged bronze pots, scrolled paintings and other art forms, each to be memorized. To undergraduates who had barely been out of Pennsylvania, they seemed utterly irrelevant. I’m not sure why I signed up for the course in the first place; maybe I thought Chinese art was something I should know a little bit about.
Fast-forward 35 years or so, and here I am, spending the Labor Day holiday weekend (May 1 to 3) in Shanghai. First stop, on my free day before the opening of Expo 2010, was the Shanghai Museum, repository of relics spanning China’s 5,000-year history: bronzes, ceramics, calligraphy, paintings, jades, textiles, even masks. Its collections are truly stunning. The museum building itself is modeled on one of those bronze pots: circular, without the three legs but with curved “handles” decorating the roofline. The first-floor galleries house the bronzes, and there they are, those pots – fewer than Lord would have raced through in a single class period, but fine examples nevertheless. I was rescued from my ignorance by the fact the much of the gallery was closed off for a V.I.P. delegation; I fled upstairs to the ceramics gallery, where my longtime addiction stood me in good stead. (Invitation to view photos available upon request.)
Lord had, incidentally, made one previous appearance in my consciousness, during the April holiday weekend: Tomb Sweeping, which coincided with Easter this year. The Chinese name is Qing Ming. Ah! “The Qing Ming Spring Festival on the River”! (A 100-meter enlargement is on display in China’s pavilion at Expo, but who can get in?) Lord had given a detailed lecture on a horizontal scroll painting of the festival, dating from I don’t know what century. Slide after slide showed the progress of the narrative as the scroll unfurled and the viewer read the painting like a book. “Why didn’t they just make a painting they could frame and hang on the wall?” I grumbled. That’s the kind of thing you don’t understand when you have no experience of life outside Pennsylvania.
I’ve often said that the two best days of my childhood were spent in Flushing Meadow, Queens – namely, at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, one day each year. As it was for so many Americans, it was my first glimpse of the outside world, and it opened my eyes in ways I would understand only decades later. There I tasted my first Belgian waffle (who knew you could have strawberries and whipped cream on a waffle?), rode robotically steered cars through futuristic cityscapes and sang along with “It’s a Small World, After All.” I spent the year between our first visit and the second studying the guidebook my Aunt Lillie had bought, plotting the course of our second visit. I’ve been attracted to world’s fair lore and relics ever since, even the legendary 1939-40 New York fair that took place before I was born. No fair since has been as good as the first; I remember being mildly disappointed by Expo 67 in Montreal, when the critical sense of my much more sophisticated 12-year-old self was beginning to kick in, and the 1984 New Orleans fair was an absolutely disaster.
So it should come as no surprise that here I am, in Shanghai for the opening weekend of Expo 2010, which I’m writing about for The National in Abu Dhabi. Does this Expo live up to memory? Of course not. The site is huge and spread out, with ground transportation not very clear; the lines to enter pavilions, almost any pavilion I might actually want to see, stretch beyond my patience; the food is fast, if you don’t count the time spent waiting in line. (American cuisine is represented by Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut and Papa John’s, with large bottles of Coca-Cola and its offshoots the beverages of choice. I favor its label of ning meng shui, or lemon water.) But all over the grounds, between stops to plot my next move on the official map, I see Chinese families with grandmothers not unlike my own mother (could she really have been only 47?), who took her turn pushing my nieces in their stroller and carried a plastic bag with a wet washcloth in her purse, just in case. Now it’s their turn to get a glimpse of that tantalizing outside world.
My full report is now online at http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100510/ART/705099971/1223#.