Alice O’Mahony reflects on her Heritage Placement in China
China is a vast, expansive country, from the sea in the east and south, to the desert in the northwest, and the mountains in the southwest. China encompasses nearly every type of climate, as well as landscape. It has over 40 different ethnicities with Han Chinese dominating. Though the cultural and language differences are numerous, the welcoming and caring nature of the people here shines through. Sichuan is a hot, spicy province, which borders seven different Chinese provinces including the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) to the west. Chengdu is a green city, in the provincial capital, with rivers winding their way through the west and south of the city. One river passes the campus of Sichuan University that houses the Tibetan Cultural studies Centre, at which I was based. Everywhere in Chengdu, inside and out, are plants, this green is ever present in the city, which is noted to have lower pollution levels than many of the other large cities in China. The weather was an interesting subject, as it is often cloudy and frequently rains. I currently live in Manchester so it is only the change in temperature that is different. The grey and the rain made me feel at home, just as much as the kindness of the people.
During my visit to China I was fortunate enough to attend two conferences. One took place in Alashan, Inner Mongolia. This rock art conference afforded the chance to leave Sichuan Province and visit a completely different area of China. The desert of Inner Mongolia stretched from horizon to horizon, in a never ending blur of English mustard yellow, dotted with green plants and wild camels. The visit to the petroglyphs in the mountain ranges was truly a once in a life time experience. I have never seen petroglyphs with my own eyes, and those that are in the UK are very different to the ones in China. The second conference was in Guiyang (Gui’an), warmer and more temperate than Inner Mongolia this area of China is ful of rocky outcrops covered in green plants. We visited cave sites that had been excavated as well as historic towns and new areas that were being developed for tourism and the local economy.
Whilst I was in China I was able to take part in the mid-autumn or moon festival, which is a national holiday and celebrated with moon cakes and lanterns. I took part in making moon cakes, and lanterns at the hostel. The moon cakes are only made for this particular festival. The lanterns were made from bamboo, with flowers and a candle, you float them down the river and send well wishes to family and friends that are not with you at the time. Two weeks after the moon festival was Golden Week, a week-long national holiday. This is also the busiest time for Chinese travel and tourism, with millions of Chinese people either travelling back to their family homes and/or visiting heritage sites. The Chinese news and media warns people not to travel at this time unless it is absolutely necessary due to the amount of people who will be using public transport. Queues to get into popular attractions (Leshan Buddha and Mount Emei to name two within Sichuan province) can often mean a three hour wait or more.
I felt extremely privileged to be able to undertake this placement and journey to China. Heritage is an important part of any country and China has a rich cultural heritage. China has undergone much development, but this has not stopped the inclusion of communities through their heritage, as well as promoting heritage. This has enabled development and economic growth, whilst retaining important cultural heritage. The engagement projects that have taken place have increased the economy and cultural well-being within communities that have been involved. This not only strengthens communities, it strengthens the economy, creating a more stable country. The involvement of the public and communities in projects is an important part of educating and empowering people.