Ten years ago, I marveled at the natural beauty of Stanford University at the heart of Silicon Valley. I wondered, then, why economic progress in China instead comes so often at the cost of nature.
[By Zhou Tao/Shanghai Daily]
Ever since 2003 when I graduated from Stanford - known as the "farm" because it used to be a horse farm set in rolling hills - I have searched for a place in China mirroring the Silicon-Stanford symbiosis of natural and economic growth. In general, my efforts have been in vain - scenery and technology are rarely found together.
Hangzhou is surely one of the most bucolic metropolitan areas in China, but it has yet to acquire the status of being a Silicon Valley as well.
Shanghai is closest to being China's Silicon Valley for its unrivaled technological prowess, but over much of the past three decades, it has planted more high-rises than trees.
That partly explains why there was little space for volunteers to plant trees in downtown Shanghai during the last Arbor Day on March 12.
But every cloud has silver lining. While skyscrapers overshadow downtown Shanghai, a vast green belt has emerged along the outer ring of the city, about an hour's drive or travel by subway from the city center - which isn't far away.
Xinmin Evening News reported on March 26 that a 98-kilometer-long and 500-meter-wide green ring has taken shape, studded with wet lands, forests and rare plant and animal species, with an estimated ecological value of 899 million yuan (US$142.5 million).
If one compares the green belt to Shanghai's necklace, Gucun Park in the northern district of Baoshan is no doubt one of its shining jewels.
My wife and I spent three days in the park from Monday to Wednesday, at first attracted by its 500 mu (33.3 hectares) of sakura (cherry) blossoms, the largest of its kind in Shanghai. The park is the venue of the Shanghai Sakura Festival that ends on April 28. The tender beauty of sakura has attracted more than 100,000 visitors on many days since the festival opened on March 30.
But as we rambled in the 180-hectare park, we found that sakura simply prefaced a deeper beauty - the beauty of everyone being able to play or loll in the arms of nature.
Here you don't appreciate sakura from a distance, as you must in many other city parks across China, where pedestrians are restricted to hard asphalt paths and hence deprived of a chance to sit under a tree on the grass.
In those parks, you can see the beauty of nature, you can't touch it, you can't live in it. That's why I miss the Stanford Oval, where everyone could play ball games or simply lie back on a vast stretch of green grass.
And it so happened that as my wife and I strolled away from the sakura boulevard and deep into Gucun Park on Wednesday, a rolling grassland resembling Stanford Oval popped into our view. Families were camping out, children were running, farmers were weeding, and lovers were murmuring - all on the vast green. All of a sudden, the good memories of my Stanford years flashed back.
Being close to nature is a public right, not a private privilege. But for a long time, most park managers in China have regarded visitors as a threat to natural beauty.
In most Chinese parks, a walk on the grass is defined as jian ta (trample) and touching a tree, especially a rare species of sakura, is called cui can (destroy). That shows park managers' fundamental distrust in visitors to behave themselves before nature. It's understandable that many foreign visitors are dismayed by all the signs that say "Keep off the grass."
There's no such taboo in Gucun Park. Despite the short and tender life of sakura blossoms, visitors are not warned against walking close to them. As if to demonstrate that trust was justified, very few of the 300,000-plus visitors in the three days I was there deliberately destroyed any flowers or plants. Trust begets trust.
Nature: best designer
In a sense, Gucun Park is not just any other city park, where visitors are managed guests, not respected masters of nature. In most other city parks, visitors are taught to behave well. In Gucun Park, visitors are trusted to do good.
As Su Jianjing, a senior manager of the park, puts it: "Nature is the best designer." She refers to the park's landscape style that's largely free of artificial creations. I would hasten to add that nature is also the best designer of character. Give nature back to the people and they will do good to nature.
For the better part of Chinese history, people lived close to nature. It was not just farmers who did so, many famous literary figures and philosophers created poetry and played music in bamboo forests crossed by babbling brooks.
For example, Wang Wei (AD 701-761), a great Confucian scholar versed in Buddhism, wrote a popular poem:
Alone I sit in you huang li,
Plucking the strings of my qin.
In joys and sorrows I sing,
Yet who will understand me,
But the moon clear and clean?
Here, you huang li means a bamboo forest, and qin is a seven-stringed plucked instrument favored by Confucian scholars in the past 3,000 years.
Luckily, I saw people playing qin, practicing tai chi and making tea under blossoming sakura flowers in the park on Tuesday. It was not a show, but an enlightened way of life everyone can live in the heart of nature.
Baoshan District has long been famous for Baosteel Steel Corp, China's largest steel maker.
The creation of Gucun Park marks Baoshan's determination to clean up the enviornment and balance heavy industry with natural reservation. In the humorous words of Su Jianjing, Gucun represents a balance between gang hua (spray of molten steel) and ying hua (sakura).
Construction of the second phase of Gucun Park, which covers 250 hectares, is underway, promising citizens more space to explore the scenery. If you are a bicyclist or otherwise a lover of low-carbon life, why not venture here?