To Climb Pearl Tower?

“The white sun sinking down behind the mountains;
the Yellow River enters the Ocean’s stream.
If you desire a thousand-mile horizon,
then come, you have to climb one story higher.”

Wang Zhi-huan, “Mounting Stork Tower”


Shanghai has an open-ended quality to it, as it seems to grow upward and outward, stretching out to sea. I was first struck by this as the airplane made its descent into Pudong airport. The mouth of the Yangtze River was enormous, so much so that I thought we were flying over the ocean. It was filled by an endless stream of container ships, undoubtedly bringing a large assortment of Chinese goods to America.

Like Beijing and other Chinese cities, Shanghai is marked by continual construction. The pace of building here has been remarkable and our guide Sandy spoke of the continually shifting state of the Shanghai skyline over the past ten to twenty years. Much of this building seems to focus on size and height, as if this in itself will be proof of Shanghai’s power and virility, so to speak. There was talk (although I admit that my memory here is faulty) of another building going up here that will rival if not exceed the tallest buildings in the world.

We of course visited the Oriental Pearl Tower which is the tallest tower (tower mind you, not building) in Asia at 1,535 feet. The most distinctive structure in Shanghai and its most distinctive architectural feature, the Pearl Tower has a certain space-age feel to it and, I must say, a showiness and brashness that seems to fit Shanghai.

We visited the Shanghai history museum in the basement of the Pearl Tower, a display of life-size dioramas that would have seemed a bit corny set in the US but somehow was kind of appropriate in this setting and actually quite informative and engaging.

After the museum, we wondered about going to the top of Pearl Tower. I was uncertain. On the one hand it might be cool. On the other hand, the weather was iffy and the view might be disappointing. Even if the view was good, I still wondered if it was worth it. Distant views are neat but somehow leave one wanting more. They are teasing in the way the pull you to the horizon but then fade away.

I think this is what Wang Zhi-huan is getting at in his poem. I think translator and commentator Stephen Johnson’s words on this poem are worth quoting:

Both scenes portray a sinking into the unseeable distance – the sun into the West, and the Yellow River into the the sea. This is as far as any mortal might ever hope to see. And yet it somehow seems insufficient. The view inspires a ambition. The poet is not yet satisfied and believes that, if one would drink in the ultimate vision, one might rise to a higher level. (p. 16)

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