An art historian out and about in China: of visiting Ningbo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen you tell people that you are going to China, most get quite excited and then say- ‘oh, what are you going to see then? Are you going to Beijing /Shanghai/ Hong Kong (delete as appropriate)’. Nobody outside the context of the University of Nottingham has ever volunteered Ningbo as a possible destination, or has even heard of the place. The University of Nottingham has a well-established overseas campus at Ningbo which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, so many Nottingham University staff have  not just heard of Ningbo but have either visited or at the very least can find it on a map of China. So,talking of maps.  it may be time to put Ningbo back on the list of destinations in China for travellers because there is quite a lot to the city, much of it not immediately accessible, but its there nevertheless. Ningbo is in many ways a bit like Nottingham: where Nottingham is overshadowed by its mightier neighbours London, Manchester and Birmingham, Ningbo gets overlooked in favour of Nanjing, Shanghai and Beijing. Comparing them to these centres doesn’t help as you don’t compare like to like, but a bit of willingness to like at a place own terms, goes a long way and reveals a few distinctive treasures, even if they can be a bit hard to spot at first.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANingbo’s reputation in the 21st century rests on its rapid industrial growth and its tussle with Shanghai over which city boasts the busiest deep sea water port (a tussle Ningbo is currently winning, by the way). Its significance as a trade centre though reaches much further back, and as far as nineteenth-century China went, Ningbo, then called Ningpo, was very much in the top five British destinations for China! Nigbo, or Liampo- an even older name also sometimes in use-  was a key trading destination for Portugese traders as far back as the 16th century (well, they got all killed in the 1542 Ningbo Masacre, but that’s for another blog…) The reason? Its superb geographical position at China’s Eastern seabord, just south of Hangzhou Bay, on the Silk Road, with easy access to Hangzhou’s tea trade, and then of course there is Ningbo’s access to the Yangtze River which allows the city to trade both along river and sea, trading routes and also move goods overland along the Yangtze and into the hinterland. Ningbo is- and always has been-  a gateway not just to China’s interior but to overseas locations beyond. Being a gateway though, and a city on a threshold, can bring particular architectural challenges, because where does this city belong and what is this place? I would argue that this is precisely the reason that these days Ningbo is such a hard city to describe. It’s ‘becoming’ something, but hasn’t finished the process yet, and while it is growing at such a furious pace, much of its infrastructure seems in flux, it’s reconfiguring its internal spaces and nothing stands still. Nottingham readers of this blog will know precisely what I mean if I say just two words: tram works… Ningbo looks and feels like University Boulevard: you can see what will be, and it looks good and promising, but in the process of becoming, the space is inhospitable, forbidding, and not one to linger. The space WILL be something, but is not yet. That’s Ningbo in 2014, with a bit of a feel of an ugly duckling about it. But scratch the surface, and there is much to like, even though you have to work at it.

British interest in Ningbo goes back a long way, and certainly precedes the University of Nottingham’s arrival on the scene in the early 2000s; but why the particularly British interest in Ningbo in the 19th century? The reason for that is the 1842 Treaty of Nanking at the conclusion of the First Opium War between China and Great Britain. HongKong became British territory ‘in perpetuity’ (read 1987 for that), and the five treaty ports of Ningbo (Ningpo), Shanghai, Canton, Fuchow and Amoy were given trading privileges that allowed the British to trade directly with trading partners and export Chinese goods without being bound by Chinese middlemen. This massively increased British profit and deepened British trade penetration into China especially given that the Treaty of Nanjing also included a provision for the appointment of a British Consul to each of the treaty ports who had authority over the British residents and could negotiate directly with the Chinese representatives. If you wonder what the Chinese got as part of this treaty the answer is : nothing. The Treaty of Nanjing was a spectacularly one-sided arrangement but again, this may be the topic for another discussion elsewhere. The meteoric rise of Shanghai stems from this treaty and allowed for the establishment of foreign residential concessions, but ultimately each of the treaty ports fared very differently after 1842 and with the fall of the Manchu in 1911, the political situation in China changed so dramatically that foreign investment concentrated ever more markedly on Shanghai and HongKong, leaving the other (less easily held?) ports behind.  Shanghai flourished, whereas Ningbo struggled and became the site of several pitched battles, yet it still  remained a covetable possession because of its dual access to the China East Sea and the southern reaches of the Yangtze river. These days, Ningbo is an industrial power house on the (rapid) rise, and certainly a major location within China for the same reasons still.

IOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAs it an easy city to visit though for a Western tourist? Well, I have to say- no, or possibly, maybe. It sort of depends on what you are looking for! Ninbo, without any question or doubt has plenty of things that could be of interest to a cultural tourist: there are temples, there is the beautiful Moon Lake Garden complex, and of course, it has the Tianyi Pavillion complex, said to be the  oldest private library in China and itself dating back to 1516, with some of its exhibits stemming from the 11th century. The Tianyi Pavillion complex is rightly one of Ningbo’s civic gems (they are so proud of the complex, the city’s main square is named Tianyi Square after it), but it sits like an inward-looking, enclosed oasis within a chaotic district where a major market nestles side by side with large-scale demolition and construction work.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEverything happens at a frenetic pace outside the walls of the Tianyi Pavillion, and you just are not quite sure what to look at. So, for the time being, Ningbo is a city to watch; the energy that pulsates through the city is tangible, but the restlessness that comes with that makes Ningbo as a destination hard to love. What the energy and restlessness of this growing metropolis does though is make you want to come back and see what happens next. And when I come back to look at how Ningbo has changed, I will undoubtedly come back to the Tianyi pavilion as one of the nodes of Ningbo that is calm, unchanging, historic and as such, all the more valuable. I have put some more of my images here on Flickr, in case you want another look too.



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