Armitage’s Observations About China

Armitage’s Observations About China

Armitage's Observations About China

Who would have thought that this boy from Montreal would be in The Middle Kingdom? Perhaps through a computer glitch, I was invited to speak at the Dalian International Horticulture Forum in China, and although I was there for a very short duration, what a time I had.


After spending 15 hours in a metal cylinder, I unfolded this old body to meet up with my colleague, Donglin Zhang. Donglin had been a graduate student at the University of Georgia many years ago and is now at the University of Maine. He often travels to China to work with graduate students and on other projects while not doing research and teaching at Maine.

Donglin was indispensable during my visit. I wanted to see how the Chinese viewed their public gardens, so we immediately went to the Beijing Botanical Garden. It was wonderful indeed: an excellent arboretum, spectacular pots of lotus, Victoria lilies and a most special medicinal garden. It was apparent, however, that even in super-populated China, labor–or lack of it–was a problem similar to what we face.

In places the garden was immaculate; in others weeds ruled the day. This was a little surprising in light of the fact that it was almost impossible to move anywhere in Beijing due to the sea of people.

Getting Acclimated

However, the gardens and horticultural venues took a back seat to the blitzkrieg of sights and sounds of China surrounding me. One of the highlights was the wonderful “traditional” hotel in the garden, where the food was wonderful but totally mysterious. We dined with Zhao Shiwei and Zhang Zuoshuang, the director and ex-director of the botanical gardens respectively, along with Lin Guo, Yu Wei and other talented horticulturists.

The food dishes were placed on a Lazy Susan so that plates rotated to each of us in turn. It was all excellent, although my chopstick skills were surely in need of a little improvement. Later that night, I fell exhausted on the bed but yelled out in pain and bounced right back up.This was by far the hardest mattress I had ever laid upon. This mattress made a cement slab feel like cashmere. Now I understood where the “traditional” came from. No wonder the Chinese are never overweight, they move around all night trying to get comfortable.

Off To The Great Wall

After three hours sleep, we explored other parts of this large garden. My primary thought was that I hoped I could back one day to do it justice. But like a young boy going to his first baseball game, I eagerly anticipated my first visit to the Great Wall of China. Can you imagine–the Great Wall! To be able to walk on the famous landmark where the muffled footsteps of millions had walked before me, to stand in wonder at the miles of emptiness ahead of me. What a sight it would be! We jumped in the car and sped off to our drop-off point.

I have heard a good deal about China’s burgeoning middle class. I may have neglected to mention that every one of the 20 million residents of Beijing now has a car, and every car is on the same road at the same time. Add about a dozen old trucks per hundred yards to this mix, and well, things get a little shaky.

You would think the roads would be parking lots, but this is not the case. No driver in Beijing worth his salt will sit still long, and if a square foot of road space becomes visible between vehicles, the driver accelerates to fill that space.

So, with a lurch and a screech, we advanced foot by foot down the road. Finally, I caught my first glimpse of the Great Wall meandering along tall ridges, and I was excited again. My whiplash and throbbing back would all be worth it. I was ready to get to the wall, stroll for a mile or so and watch the landscape unfold below.

Still, I neglected to mention that all those drivers on the Beijing roads were going to the wall. There was a very lengthy line to get to the cable car–a contraption not meant for the faint of heart–and another adventure I had not been aware of until I saw it. The 500-yard queue and the steep ride faded to memory as the wall became more visible. I wondered why there appeared to be so many bubbles on the wall, each moving very slowly along its length.

As I got closer, each bubble turned out to be a person’s head! Hundreds of bubbles! No, thousands of bubbles! Once on the wall, it was soon apparent we were not going to stroll too far. In fact, we were moved along by the crowd, and essentially went the way of the horde.
It also turns out that, like those drivers on the Beijing roads, the mob used the same maneuverability skills on the wall. If there was a 6-inch gap between people, someone slipped in, no, actually bumped in.

Where did they expect to go? It quickly became obvious that my miles of strolling were morphing into a few hundred yards. However, I quickly adapted to the Chinese way, and when I sighted a break ahead, I took charge. On one occasion, my buddies and I came to a sign at a junction in the wall stating, “Do not climb.” We did not. Instead, we did a little jumping and landed in another pack of people. But we did move.

The adventure at the Great Wall of China was not exactly as I anticipated, but I am not complaining. I was in China and I got to the Great Wall. I just happened to share it with 100,000 of my closest friends.

United States vs. China

The Dalian International Horticulture Forum I attended was a first in China. Organized by the Dalian (Northeast China) government and Ball Horticultural Co., the forum included some of the finest experts from the United States and China.

From the economics of flowers, including creativity and trialing, to production and design, there was not an idea unexplored. To be sure, the horticulture market, the city landscape and the Chinese philosophy are very different to that found in America. America is predominantly a consumer market; China is definitely based on landscape sales.

Dalian is positioning itself to be a major horticulture city, and representatives from many other cities were in attendance to explore similar interests. The audience consisted not only of decision makers of various cities, but press and representatives of other companies as well.

They listened to American and Chinese speakers as they shared their knowledge. Everything was simultaneously translated, and if you ever think you are proficient in sowing seed or marketing plants, you have nothing on the translators. They didn’t miss a beat, and even though my bad jokes were only worse in Chinese, the translators were outstanding.


The last observation to share with you was our dinner in Dalian, where all participants dined at a wonderful hotel in town. I knew it was to be a long, food-filled evening when I sat at a hefty round table centered with the largest Lazy Susan I have ever seen. Like a roundabout in a busy city, dish after dish of vegetables, fish of every description (the sea cucumbers were a little difficult to get down), poultry (I think), meats of mystery and shellfish, along with a dozen other things I did not recognize rotated by.

I stopped counting at 32 different dishes, not because that was the end but because I lost track between the dozens of toasts with wine, beer and other drinks. Toasts between tables, toasts between countries, and toasts between new friends.

I must say the Chinese are a happy people–at least those at this dinner. I hope Nixon’s table tennis players enjoyed the same hospitality.

Ball Horticultural Co. has made a serious commitment to being in China, and I applaud their efforts. A number of other operations have also been doing the same, and so this was a perfect time for such a forum. It was an honor to be part of such an accomplished group of participants. Enhancing horticulture in China was the objective, and while I am convinced no one can predict the form of Sino-American relationships in the future, for better or worse, they will evolve.

As for me, I am hoping for an invitation back in February or any other time the Great Wall won’t be full of balloons.