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March 13-19: Between Tradition and Modernity 

While it has a history dating back more than 3000 years, Beijing took center stage in the early 1400s when the Ming Dynasty established its capital there, building the Forbidden City to serve as its imperial palace. Beijing, already impressive, was endowed with many of its most famous structures during this period, including its dramatic city walls, major gates, and the Temple of Heaven. The oldest neighborhoods surviving today date to the Ming Dynasty as well, though many are from the succeeding Qing Dynasty.

In 1800, roughly one million people lived in Beijing. At the time, the West was knocking more insistently on China's doors. Trading was permitted in the country's southeast corner, known at the time as Canton and today as Guangzhou, but banned everywhere else. The dynastic powers wished to limit the potential influence of these oversea barbarians. This first engagement between Chinese tradition and Western modernism ended in violence, as China clung firmly to a system badly in need of change, while the European powers used their military might to take what the Chinese government would not give.

By 1950, in the early days of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule, Beijing's population had grown to four million. As Mao established power in the capital city, he sought to impose his own vision of the modern world. He ordered the city's walls to be destroyed, torn to the ground, in order to accommodate the construction of ring roads. He pushed for industrialization, swift and pervasive, building factories in the heart of the compact, crowded, historic town. Temples were repurposed, towards more utilitarian aims. In this second engagement between tradition and modern, tradition was thrown to the wolves.

Today, only 60 years later, the population has swelled to 20 million people. The rigid ideology of Maoist China has been rejected and replaced by more free market principles. People are increasingly free to practice (approved) religions. At the heart of this new China, though, is the same dilemma that has faced this country for centuries. How can it preserve its identity, the cultural hallmarks that have allowed it to survive for millennia, while making the necessary adjustments to deal with the demographic, economic, and environmental challenges of the present? What parts of its identity, of its past, can be compromised in pursuit of a better future?

Our visit to Beijing will examine four specific manifestations of this tension between tradition and modernism:

The Urban Environment: How can a city accommodate a population of 20 million people? That's a difficult question in its own right. But, it is made more challenging when the heart of that city is one kilometer after another of historic structures, defended by many as cherished symbols of Chinese history. Beijing's hutongs are traditional neighborhoods, made of single-story housing complexes organized around private courtyards. They are accessed by narrow streets and alleys, allowing for a measure of peace and privacy in a congested city. Many preserve artistic flourishes dating to the Ming and Qing dynasties. Of course, single-story structures are not the most efficient form of housing, a special concern when population numbers soar. And, many hutongs lack critical services, like bathrooms and central heating. Already, many hutong neighborhoods have been wiped out by the government, cleared in order to build new high-rise apartment buildings. Families have been forcibly relocated. We plan to meet with Beijing's urban planning commission and groups devoted to the historic preservation of Beijing.

Population Growth: Much has been made of China's "one-child policy," a blunt measure taken to curb the country's soaring population. One unintended consequence of this policy is the rise of female orphans. Many families seek a son for economic reasons, as well as to carry on the family name. As a result, many infant girls are abandoned (or worse). We will spend two days volunteering at the China Care orphanage, playing with the children and speaking with the care providers about their work.

Belief: What do people in Modern China believe? It's a more difficult question than you might imagine. Mao spent the better part of 30 years eradicating China's traditional belief systems, banning religious practice outright. When the laws were relaxed in the 1980s, many were left in an ideological void. Their traditions had been shattered (and many had never lived during a time when those were practiced). Religion had long been condemned. But now, Maoist thought too had been largely discredited. What was left? Over the last two decades, two trends have developed. One is the emergence of Western-influenced materialism as a dominant ideology. When there's nothing left to believe in, believe in Gucci. The other trend, though, is a massive resurgence of religion--many, many different religions. China's traditional beliefs--Daoism and Buddhism in particular--are emerging once again, but so is Islam, Catholicism, and many other branches of Christianity. Some are approved, some are tolerated, and some beliefs, like Falun Gong, are brutally persecuted. We will visit Beijing's historical places of worship--The Temple of Heaven, the Lama Temple, the Niujie Mosque, and the Nantang Cathedral, to see the new face of belief in Modern China.

Governance: Stand in Tiananmen Square and you can see the last 600 years of Chinese politics. In front of you is the Forbidden City, home to the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Above the front gate is a portrait of Mao; behind you is Mao's mausoleum. (For whatever reason, one of the defining elements of 20th century communist rule has been the preservation and public display of its greatest leaders.) To your left is the Great Hall of the People, where the Chinese Legislature meets. And, of course, the square itself is the symbolic center of protest against the failure of government to be responsive to the needs of its people. Much has been written about the shaky status of China's CCP. What does the future hold? Increased democratization? A doubling-down of central authority?

But that's not all: This is an academic trip with a particular focus, but have no fear. Of course we're going to walk on the Great Wall of China! Of course we'll find the time to stroll along Houhai Lake and take in a night of Peking Opera. Beijing is a spectacular place and there will be opportunities to explore markets, visit temples, and maybe even check out some Olympic buildings.

Accommodation in Beijing: We will stay at 9 Dragons House, a hostel situated in a traditional hutong neighborhood.roughly 1km northeast of the Forbidden City. It's a great opportunity to experience old Beijing while having immediate access to the city metro system.