Merry wives of FORTUNE do Beijing
While senior executives of some of the most powerful companies in the world are having a powwow on how to better tap into China's market, their spouses are busy savouring the best of China's culture.
The spouse programme for the 11th FORTUNE Global Forum, held from Monday to today in Beijing, is a showcase for what China has to offer and a crash course in the appreciation of the country's rich heritage.
"To walk into a place filled with such a long history, to experience what has been written so much about, to appreciate the beauty of an ancient tree or a magnificent ceramic, it was overwhelming," said Gillian Deane, whose husband, Roderick Deane, is chairman of Telecom Corp of New Zealand.
Mrs Deane was describing her walk inside the Forbidden City and watching a Peking Opera performance at Dongyuan Theatre, where emperors and their concubines used to enjoy the show.
"There is so much vitality in the country," she added. "Yet history stands side by side with new things, and they blend so well. The power of tradition is universal. It's like our DNA. It can explain why China in the present is so vibrant."
The spouse programme is a prudent mix of the old and the new. History seeps into every aspect of the tour. For example, the train that took the 129 spouses to the Great Wall was powered by the Mao Zedong locomotive, which usually runs freight trains from Beijing to Kowloon and was specially retrofitted for this occasion.
"I have to pinch myself to realize how breathtaking the scenery is," Caroline Bird, whose husband, Andrew Bird, is the president of Walt Disney International, marvelled while standing on an unrestored section of the Great Wall on Monday.
Nicknamed the "Wild Wall," the remnants not far from the tourist-swarmed Badaling section make up the location where General Li Zicheng led his peasant rebel army in attacking and breaking through in 1644 and eventually ending the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
"It is an honour to be standing on the Wall, which has been kept in its natural state," said Anita Zucker, who had also taken some time to wander on Beijing's streets.
"China is modernizing rapidly, yet its history has been preserved so well," added Jerry Zucker, her husband, who is chairman, president and CEO of The InterTech Group. He is attending the forum but took the first day off for the tour because Monday's sessions were not related to his profession.
Yet, at the foot of the Wall are a commune of villas so artistically audacious that several visitors' jaws dropped upon entering some of the buildings. Not everyone agreed that it would be suitable for living, but it is definitely avant-garde.
Like the avant-garde architecture, the rising young stars of China's diving scene represent the future. The guests applauded heartily when they visited the training pools for some of China's best divers and swimmers.
Li Na, 21, who won the gold medal in the 10-metre platform at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, made a splash. More accurately, barely caused a ripple when she showed a few of her award-winning dives. The spouses asked a hundred questions: They were curious about her background, her training routine and her willpower to win another Olympic medal three years from now.
"If my daughter wanted to get into diving, I would object. This is really hard," said Liangbi Tang, whose husband, James Rice, is vice-president of Tyson Foods, Inc (Greater China).