Reading Jane Austen in the Middle Kingdom

Mary Hrabik Samal teaches in the Center for International Programs at Oakland University in Rochester, MI.  A political scientist who specializes in Czech and Slovak studies, her publications include K úloze a významu agrárního hnutí v českých a československých dějinách (Prague: Karolinum–Nakladatelství Univerzity Karlovy, 2001), which she edited with Jiří Šouša and Daniel E. Miller and to which she contributed a chapter; “Organization as a Crucial Variable in the Growth or Loss of Supporters: The Case of the Republican Party in the Inter-War Period,” Bohemia: Jahrbuch des Collegium Carolinum, 20 (1979); and “The Czechoslovak Republican Party of the Smallholders and Peasants and the German Minority, 1918-1939,” in The Peasantry of Eastern Europe, vol 1: Roots of Rural Transformation, Ivan Volgyes, ed. (Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press, 1978).  In the summer of 2011, she and her daughter, Paula, who at the time was instructing Chinese English-language teachers, were in China.  The picture essay Mary Hrabik Samal assembled not only presents a glimpse of China but offers observations of the country, one of the last under communist rule, from the perspective of someone who spent a major part of her life studying communist regimes in what scholars once referred to as Eastern Europe.  Mary Hrabik Samal wrote the essay, and Paula Samal was the photographer.  Click on each image for a larger view.

Last year my brothers gave me a kindle for my birthday so that I would stop traveling with a library in tow.  I took the Kindle to China and read Sense and Sensibility there.  Although different in scale and setting, the novel and the country share a theme: the difficulty of satisfying the desires of the human heart within the framework of a society’s strictures and demands.


China’s head-on rush to modernity in building and infrastructure surprised me the most.  Shanghai skyline seemed more breathtaking than that of New York even before the Twin Towers’ destruction.


The “Bird’s Nest” pavilion from the Beijing Olympics (left) and the Opera House in Chongxing (below) stand out as triumphs of modern architecture.


The night view of Chongxing from our cruise ship (above, left, and below) seemed like smears of gaudy florescent make-up on a black cloth. Vegas, here comes Chongxing!


The cities that we visited–Beijing, Xian, Chongxing, and Shanghai–resembled newly sprouted forests of skyscrapers. Cranes, not the two-legged kind, were everywhere. Paula, who knows my incompetence with all things technological all too well, did not trust me with a camera, took these pictures from our hotel window in Xian. As a matter of fact, she was the official (and sole) photographer of the trip.

Three Gorges Dam

A life-long study of East European communist regimes, I thought, had inoculated me against admiring gigantism, but I must admit that I was impressed by the dam at the Three Gorges.  As our guides were fond of repeating, the dam serves three purposes:  to provide hydro-electric power, to prevent flooding of the Yangtze River and to make this river more navigable.  It is mammoth plant! The Chinese claim that it is the largest of structure of this kind in the world.

Shanghai Art Museum

All this modernity seems to imply globalism; nevertheless, underneath it all (and not far from the surface) there is a particular and unique Chinese culture–self-contained and referential, as well as ancient.  A visit to the Shanghai Art Museum documented not only this culture’s deep roots but also its sophistication, refinement, and richness. To think that the Chinese were producing these masterpieces when my ancestors were wearing animal pelts, fishing in the Pripet Marshes, had no written language, and used very primitive tools.

The following vessels were produced from the fifteenth to the eleventh century before Christ.

Chinese history makes its presence felt in multiple ways. In the middle of the 1970s in Xian, a terra cotta army was unearthed.  The country’s first emperor, Qui Shi Huan, had it cast so that it would accompany him to the afterlife. Qui Shi Huan, who declared himself emperor in 221 BC, conquered and united China. The terra cotta warriors are the same size as the two invaders below.

Here are some of the real terra cotta warriors.  This army consists of infantry, archers, cavalry, and generals.

The Great Wall

To protect his empire, Qui Shi Huan built the Great Wall.  Other emperors, especially those from the Ming dynasty, extended and improved it.  The wall extends over 5,500 miles although presently it has not been reconstructed fully.  It protected China for many years, but it was breached in the thirteenth century by the Mongols and in the seventeenth century by the Manchus.  The Wall, where we climbed it, was steep, and it was hot that day, too—in the mid 90s.