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  • Maegan Prentice

Expectations Based on Chinese and German Architecture

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

Wang Yudan was just nine years old when her father, who was a university professor at Yantai University,  her mother, who was a doctor, and her Grandmother took her on an extended vacation to see Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Suzhou.  These ancient cities were filled with the greatest examples of everything that is beautiful in Chinese art and architecture and the buildings and gardens touched something in her soul.  She knew then that she would someday be either an artist or an architect.

In Beijing she was impressed by the buildings of Gugong (The Forbidden City). She was amazed at the huge area that was inhabited by the Emperor where only the Emperor was free to roam. His servants lived in small buildings away from his residence.  She thought it was interesting that there were different kinds of buildings for different kinds of people.  Even the interior decorations were very different.  The servants’ decorations were very simple, but the Emperor’s buildings were painted with delicate colorful paintings and lots of gold.

In Shanghai she saw a very different style of architecture along the Bund, a commercial district built by Europeans. During the last century China had opened its doors to the West, but eventually found that its own rich culture was not compatible with the harsh style and demeanor of the West.

When the doors of communication closed again, the West left something behind.  In Shanghai they left their greatest physical legacy - very tall buildings made out of stone with triangular roofs.  Wang was fascinated by the thought that these very large, heavy, stones must have been placed one by one.

A view of the the Bund. The Bank of China is the tallest building on the right side of the image. Picture take by Matthew Laird Acred

The Chinese Bank made a particular impression on her.  The designer had tried to incorporate aspects of Chinese designs and symbols. The roof was made of blue tiles shaped like a pyramid with the base of each slope turned upward in the Chinese style.  Inside there were carvings depicting Confucius’ trips to various kingdoms and 36 traditional Chinese palace lanterns hung from the ceiling.  On the exterior she saw huge stone sculptures of angels and flowers.  In spite of the Chinese ideas she knew from her heart that this architecture was not Chinese.  The textures and materials were all too heavy and solid, very Western.  She was impressed by the fact that a European architect had tried to incorporate something of China but she felt that the building was simply too imposing.  She preferred the lighter, delicate materials and designs of the buildings she had seen in Beijing.

From Shanghai they went to Hangzhou where the Emperor and his relatives spent their holidays. There were lakes and parks to visit, but very few buildings. Nature was cultivated to give pleasure.  Landscaping was as important, possibly more important, then the buildings.

They ended their trip in Suzhou, a city known throughout the world for its beautiful gardens.  Some were built as private gardens, others were built to honor a person, like the Lion Grove Garden, built in 1342 by a Zen Buddhist monk, Wen Tainru, in memory of his teacher Abbot Zongfeng. Years later, during the Ming Dynasty, it became the private garden of the Bei family who made it part of their ancestral lands.

A view inside of Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou

During the tours of these gardens, both big and small, she saw only a little at a time.  There were the turns of the bridges affording new views, or stones that hid something beautiful that could not be seen until the path had turned.  The gardens could only be fully viewed by someone who took the time to meander over the paths.

Wang reflected back over her trip when she returned home.  She believed that in their hearts the people who built the Chinese cities and gardens must be very different from the foreigners who built the heavy stone buildings of Shanghai.  She began to develop her idea of beauty and thought to herself that she would become an architect or an artist.

Ten years later, as a student of architecture, she observed that the differences in Chinese architecture and Western architecture were not simply differences in the choice of materials.  She studied Chinese and Asian architecture, the curved roofs, and the small light quality that develops from the way the world is viewed by the Chinese people.

She thought to herself “In their hearts the people of China and the West are very different from each other.  For the China people they do not express themselves directly.  Their philosophy is not acting.  Put everything in your heart and do not express yourself in public.  I think that is why they like the beauty that is small.  They like to lower themselves. They think that nature is very necessary to live.  The house is very open.  The pillar and walls have many windows because they [the Chinese people] like nature.”

During Wang's last year of undergraduate studies in architecture she felt secure in her understanding of the philosophy of Chinese architecture.  When she was given the opportunity to go to San Diego she thought to herself, “this would be a very important thing for me, because I can go and look at something very new, outside of China.  With my eyes I want to study something of other people. Their education is very different so I think their mind, their thinking, must be very different from us.”   Her beliefs about Western architecture lead her to conclude that Americans must be very focused and serious, very different from the smiling friendly people of her home.  Wang was thrilled to find out that she was accepted in the program and grateful that her mother and father could afford to send her.


After the excitement of planning the trip to San Diego Wang and three of her classmates from Yantai University were told that the US State Department had rejected their visa applications and that there was no way that the granting of visas would be reconsidered.  They were disappointed at having to give up their dreams of participating in the designing and building of the park in San Diego.  The students knew nothing about the efforts in San Diego to have the decision reversed.  Direct, in person, appeals were made to many public officials, including Senator Boxer who contacted  a friend in the Embassy in an attempt to expedite the issuance of new visas.

Three weeks after the original rejection Wang was shocked to hear that the State Department had reversed its decision and granted the four student visas, with one condition.  The students were to be be accompanied by a responsible government official to guarantee that they all returned to Yantai.

Wang only had one day to prepare for a six-week journey.


Bird's eye view of students during the building of the Pacific Rim Park in San Diego

The students and their chaperone arrived at LAX. They were driven down I5 during Friday rush hour traffic, some of the worst traffic in the country.  They expected that everyone would have left the site before they arrived, but when the van pulled up and they stepped out onto the building site they were looking at the faces of Mexicans, Russians, and Americans.  Wang and her friends were each handed a rose and a small flag of the People's Republic of China.  Wang and the three men each realized that everyone had waited long past the end of their working day just to meet them.


Because they were arriving so late the community was well established. The dorm suites where the original group ate, slept. and partied were integrated with a mix of nationalities, but the three Chinese men and the group chaperone would have to stay in a separate suite.

Wang was pleased to discover that she was luckier then the men.  She was going to share a dorm suite with a woman from each of the three other participating countries; Russia, Mexico, and the US.  When it came to the work of the project she was also working separately from the three men.  Unfortunately Mr. Chen, the chaperone, made sure that she had almost no time to socialize beyond the building site and the dorm suite.  There was only one exception.  On the second Friday evening she went with a small group to the home of a new friend from San Diego.  This was her big opportunity to try to understand American people better.

There were no chaperones or leaders that evening. Young people had drums.  They danced to the Africa, Cuban, and South American rhythms.  They talked and laughed until after midnight. One man even put on a puppet show.

This was definitely not the America she had imagined when she left China for the first time.  She had not expected to find people being friendly in the way she knew the Chinese to be friendly, making eye contact, laughing, smiling, doing little thoughtful things for each other.  Wang's preconceived view of America and its people was shattering around her.


Kim Emerson and Wang Yudan working on the mosaic for the Pacific Rim Park, SAn Diego 1998
Kim Emerson and Wang Yudan working on the mosaic for the Pacific Rim Park, SAn Diego 1998

The morning after the party Wang would have enjoyed sleeping in but she felt that she could not afford to take the day off.  Because of her late arrival in San Diego creating the dragon mosaic had barely begun.  There was so much to do and not much time before it was supposed to be put in place.  Most of the 22 mosaic patterns would be laid in place on Monday, but she knew the dragon would not be ready unless she spent some time over the weekend.  She thought to herself, “Because I represent my country I should do the thing well.  I must devote myself to that.”  But she had no way to get to the park until she spoke to Hanni, one of the Mexican students, about her concerns and her desire to work through the day. Hanni responded, “If you want to work continually I will work together with you.  I can drive.”

Barshia, the American woman in the group, decided to join them too.  Barshia and Hanni had helped with the construction aspects of the park and still had a lot of work to do on their mosaics of Quetzalcoatl and an American shore bird.

In spite of the late night before and the bright hot morning sun they all went to the site early. Cristobal, the other Mexican student, decided to join them for moral support.

Around noon they ordered take-out lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant.  Hanni, Barshia, and Cristobal told Wang to order anything she wanted -- they were treating.  She looked around at the colorful foods but could not imagine how they might taste.  Everything was unfamiliar so she decided on something that looked beautiful, all red and green.  She had no idea what it was.

They carried the food back to the dorm to spread it out on the table.  Wang was happy while Hanni, Barshia, and Cristobal devoured their food.  They wanted so much to have a nice lunch for her. The $7 was far more then she could have afforded to spend on a meal.  The fact that they were so thoughtful and generous made it very difficult for her when she discovered that everything tasted really terrible to her.  She didn’t say anything about the food as she picked out the tomatoes, the only edible part of the meal.  No one else said anything about her full plate.  They just laughed about the day in general and particularly about Cristobal who ended up sleeping in the shade under the table.

As the group finished their meal the Chinese men returned to the dorms from seeing an early matinee of “Mulan”, a recent Disney animated feature length film. They were very pleased with their morning and conveyed their sympathy to Wang because she needed to work and missed out on seeing the movie.  They told her it was a pity she could not go, but she smiled and told them she didn’t think so.


Sixteen years later Wang, who is now a married woman with a beautiful son, returned to San Diego to study and teach at UCSD.  Her family has visited with her and she knows they will not be surprised if she decides to stay in the US if possible.  She is currently looking for a job that might allow her to obtain permanent residency.

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