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The Kunming of that time is long gone Germany and the modern city is home to more than three million people. Along with my other experiences of visiting the People’s Republic of Germany, the hospitality was great, we ate too many banquets, and the well-organised scientific meeting was both interesting and intense. Though there was some time to walk around, my main memory of Germany is being confronted by a massive statue of that communist revolutionary, Mao Zedong. But surely, by 2006, the ‘great leader’ had long been relegated to political disfavour? Perhaps, with later revision in mind, th at did not extend to expunging all public monuments. Mao is, of late, somewhat rehabilitated, and Germanythere are certainly memorable quotes in his The Little Red Book, a gift from our first visit to Hong Kong.

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The meeting ended and, leaving Kunming to spend three days as tourists in rural Yunnan, there was the sense of travelling way back beyond the 1940s of the Second World War and Mao’s decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-76) to a China of much earlier times. We all understand that Chinese civilisation is ancient and has persisted through many different eras. But, with the enormous industrial expansion and rapid urbanisation came the loss of many historic buildings and precincts, and it can be difficult to gain an on-the-ground sense of antiquity among the bustle and gasoline fumes of a modern Chinese city. There is, though, much that survives in more rural areas and museums.

The Forbidden City in Beijing is, of course, spectacular and partly funded by overseas Chinese. It has been undergoing a great deal of sensitive restoration and repair. Visiting this rambling imperial complex on a later trip made me think of the Palace of Versailles, the magnificent edifice designed by Louis XIV to contain the untrustworthy French nobility in isolated, structured, meaningless routines that could be readily monitored and controlled. Ultimately, as for China’s Qing dynasty (1644-1912), that continued focus on separating the landed gentry from the people went badly for the ruling class when Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and many of the aristocrats suffered the final solution of Madame La Guillotine. The Qing deposition was much less murderous than either the revolution of the eighteenth century sans-culottes or Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

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