Epilogue on returning home

June 1st, 2012 by

I arrived in Bloomington 24 hours ago, happily (using air miles) via First Class on American.  It seemed a fitting way to end a First Class journey around the world—after a 6 hour train from Datong to Beijing.

There were two newsworthy articles this morning in the Wall Street Journal relevant to the trip.  One was the slowdown in India (based partly on the slowdown elsewhere in the world), and the slowdown in China.  You definitely have to read the non-Chinese press in particular to get that impression, though between the lines, you can tell there are some cracks in the picture of progress China presents.

The Chinese government vocabulary emphasizes the need for social stability; its contract is continued power in return for generating continued prosperity—even if that means stimulating the economy through an economic package that tends to favor domestic consumption.

The emphasis on social stability was visible in at least two places where one might not have expected it. In the Confucian temple in Beijing, we got there in time to see a dance performance based on the teachings of Confucius.  Part of it was “social stability.”  The Chinese phrase was, “Tian xia wei gong,” one of the teachings of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, roughly translated as “The Earth Belongs to the People.”  You can find that on the gateway to almost every Chinatown in the United States (see Chicago’s, if you doubt me).  That Confucius is revered today is a remarkable change from the Mao past, when the “New China” meant demolishing the old.

The second clue is the “Beijing Spirit” motto: “Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness, and Virtue.”  The last named is also part of the Confucian ethic.

The “New New China” with its emphasis on the “New Old” indicates to me that Mao in remaking China missed some of the good in the old.  What sounds like thunder in China, in other words, is really Mao turning in his grave.

And so the adventure ends–and I’m ready for the next one!

Photos from Pingyao, Datong, Hengshan …

May 29th, 2012 by

Tourism in Datong — of all places

May 29th, 2012 by

Guess what?

On the way in to Datong, my guide pointed out the new buildings on the far side of the river, which included the government center, apartment buildings, and so forth.  She noted that the government decided to move away from the older area of the city to foster tourism, and prepare for the day when the coal mines, the   backbone of the local economy,  give out. Somebody must be reading my blog!  The question I had, however, was—what does Datong have that would attract tourists.  Of course, it has (like everywhere in China), at least 2,000 years of history, but what’s left?  And what will attract people to come here?  That was the quest for today.

My conclusion is that if it’s your first trip to China, and you have two or three weeks, Datong is not likely to be on your list.  But in the name of fairness, let me tell you about the attractions of the city and area, which, if it doesn’t sway you to put Datong on that first trip list, might encourage a visit sometime (bear in mind, it took 22 years of China visits before I found my way here.  After all, it has a well known coal mine museum (which I skipped), and used to build locomotives (and thus had a locomotive museum for a long time—it’s now in Beijing.)

Datong historically has had two brief flirtations with fame, both involving dynasties beyond the wall.  The first was the Northern Wei dynasty, which for nearly a hundred years made Datong its capital.  (notice, the brief flirtation can last 100 years).  Part of that imperial presence led to probably Datong’s greatest attraction (unless you’re a  coal mine devotee) are the Yungang caves. With about 51,000 statues in 49 grottoes, the sheer number alone should be reason to visit this world heritage site.  In addition, the statues were carved in sandstone, so erosion has been a problem that the Chinese government has addressed partly by enclosing the most attractive treasures (and that not so coincidentally keeps the coal smoke out).  The big statues (some are 60 feet high) are stunning, some of them with the original colors. My guide pointed out that in this early period the Buddhas still had Indian characteristics, though some of the “two Buddha caves” had Buddha heads that looked suspiciously like the Northern Wei emperor and his mom, under whose sponsorship the caves were built; one large statue was carved honoring one of the Wei emperors who tried to eradicate Buddhism—posthumously, of course. With the move to Luoyang in 492, the cave carving petered out, and eventually stopped.  We visited 20 of the 49 grottoes; I went on to another 19, and there was only one where I stopped to take a picture.

From the sublime to “over the top”. In line with the “creation” of a tourist base, the Datong government has recreated a “Northern Wei” palace on the way in that has buildings and figures resembling those in the caves, and a “new old” city on the way out, full of merchants offering mostly the same merchandise you see everywhere in China. It is becoming a pattern in China.  Get em in and keep em shopping.  I was the only westerner there this morning.

The second flirtation with fame that redounds to Datong’s fame was the Liao period, the 12th century, when Datong was a first tier second tier city, below the capital.  It enjoyed imperial blessing again, which led to serious temple building, with a very distinctive art form.  Many of the buildings have been destroyed over the years, but a restoration under the Ming/Qing rulers kept some of them intact—and since the 1990s, many more have been reconstructed.  Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between the old and the “new old”.

The third claim to fame is based on its location.  As my guide proudly stated, Datong is the only major Chinese city between the Great Wall to keep the northern barbarians out and the inner wall to keep the Chinese in.  As a border station, it was important in the Han dynasty (there is a portion of the Han great

wall here) and the Ming Great Wall (which is in the process of being rebuilt).  In fact, there is a major effort by the new mayor to create a new old city, which is already underway.  There is a nine-dragon wall that used to be in front of the Ming governor’s palace in the early Ming period.  The governor could have a dragon wall because he was the thirteen son of the Emperor.  The wall was moved to a former temple when the palace was torn down years ago, but the wooden frame of its replacement is underway, in a swath of buildings cleared to make the “new old” city.

The new mayor might not have said, “If you build it, they will come,” but he is banking Datong’s future on its past.

Have you moved it higher on your bucket list?

Better than Magnificent

May 28th, 2012 by

Words failed Li Bing when he saw the last temple I saw today.  The famous Tang poet could only inscribe “magnificent” on a rock, but added a dot after zhuang guan, an exclamation point in a language that has none.

He might have been thinking about the kind of day I had, which began when we left Pingyao for the 250 or so mile trip to Datong, one that was literally a high (8,000 feet).  The first stop should have been the clue—one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains, Wutaishan rises to 2100 meters and has five peaks (hence the name; wu means five).  Here’s what I remember:

-The first temple (we visited it) began shortly after the introduction of Buddhism into China from India, around 70 A.D.  Subsequent temples pushed the total up into the hundreds, though today there are only 47.  To see them all, my guide suggested, would take half a month.

-“base camp” is over a  mile high, providing a cool environment in the summer.

-one of the temples has a white dagoba, an Indian shaped pagoda that looks something like a bowling pin.  Reputedly, it is the largest in China.  The signpost said that it was originally built with the help of the great Indian King, Asoka, but I don’t think the timing works.  It was enlarged later, and is reputed to hold relics of the Lord Buddha.

-a temple built in 1921 has the largest marble arch in China.  (everything is largest something or another)

-with the eminent Buddhists of the Qing dynasty claiming to have been descended from the Buddha disciple Manjuri (based on the similarity in the pronunciation of the Manchus), they took a fondness to the site because the temples are dedicated to Manjuri (from what my guide said, each of the famous Buddhist mountains is dedicated to one of the major Bodhisatvas).   And given the fondness of the Qing for the Tibetan Lama Buddhism, it is no surprise that the temples have a lama orientation, some markedly so.  The one we visited had been sequestered by Kangxi, who came five times, and because he turned it into a royal temple, it has a gold roof, and the largest wooden archway in Wutaishan.  It also has 108 stairs, which is a solemn number in Buddhism, and a good number for me, because we were going down it.  There were a number of steles with poetry or inscriptions by Kangxi and Qianlong, who seemed to have visited a lot of places in their 120 years of rule, and left lots of stone steles.

Our next stop on the ride to Datong was a wooden pagoda, but not just a wooden pagoda—the tallest in China.   It dates from the short-lived Liao dynasty (somewhere in the 1100s), and also contains relics (I.e., body pieces) from the Lord Buddha.  The Buddha is Liao style—with a green beard and moustache (since the Liao, a people from north of the wall—i.e., barbarians) had mustaches, and, therefore, the Buddha would have to as well.  Furthermore, the moustache beard was green because the Liao believed green was a sacred color.  I told you Buddhism allowed local adaptations!

That the pagoda was in the small town it was because the emperor’s mother came from there,and she was a devout Buddhist.  That the pagoda exists is due to its ability to survive two catastrophes in China:

1)      An earthquake in the late Qing dynasty leveled the rest of the temple, but the tower survived because, being made of wood, it was flexible.  As might be expected, a reconstruction of the temple is underway in the name of tourism.

2)      The Cultural Revolution.  Parts of the Buddha were hacked, and some documents which had been hidden in it were destroyed, including much of the history of the temple,

The last stop was the one Li Bing, a thousand years ago, called “magnificent “—the hanging temple on Hengshan, another sacred mountain, this one to Daoism.  Begun in the Song dynasty (or earlier), the temple looks like it ought to have a frame around it, and be sold as a 3 D insert; it literally clings to the side of a mountain  It was built by monks who perched down from the top, put in beams, carved the caves, etc.  It is a Daoist temple—but at least one room helps explain why it (and not much else on Henghsan) survived the Cultural (and other) revolution.  One multicultural (my word, not the guide’s) room has: the Buddha in the center, one of the Daoist immortals on one side, and Confucius himself on the other .  Rumor has it that one tablet was added during the Cultural Revolution—“Long Live Chairman Mao”.  And that may well be why the Hanging Temple (truly magnificent, and fortunately, we do have an exclamation point in English!) exists today.

As I said, a magnificent day.

Pingyao 2

May 28th, 2012 by

If you were looking for a city built to be a caricature of a  Chinese city, you wouldn’t have to look far, at least not if you were in Pingyao, a world heritage Unesco city of nearly 50,000 people In Shanxi province. Unlike the similarly positioned Lijiang, in Yunnan, far from here, which had to be partially reconstructed after an earthquake, Pingyao, for all practical purposes, looks rather like the city it has been since 1370, when the Ming moved it a few kilometers and enclosed the city in a stately wall that still surrounds the “ancient” city.

It has what you’d need to make it into a tourist destination: quaint Ming and Qing dynasty houses easily turned into ambient guest houses and restaurants and small shops.  Our day began with a made-for-tourist celebration that consisted of young ladies on parade dressed in Qing costumes, imitating women with bound feet (some emperor liked it, so for centuries rich women broke the toes of their daughters to make them more attractive—only peasant women had regular sized feet.  The practice was not banned until the 20th century.  The ladies were followed by jugglers, and the festivities culminated in a processional for the governor and his entourage.

We then walked along the wall, originally built in 1372, and relatively intact since then.  It is about 6 miles long, but nowhere near as wide as the one in Xi’an.  Most of the buildings in it are Ming/Qing, with some more recently built.  There was one factory which the government evicted, and as our guide noted, some of the land was given to developers for hotels, etc.  Tourism, as I have been saying this whole trip, is the world’s biggest business, and China has some of the best infrastructure in the world for the business.  It is a big revenue generator.  Ticket prices for attractions have gone up greatly; the city tour package is over 30$ US. The government is developing the tourist trade for domestic Chinese.  I am one of the few non-backpacking Americans here, and there was a BIG crowd this weekend.  The guides have taken to using megaphones, even for groups of 3 or 4, which makes some places impossibly noisy.

Among other visits in the city was one to China’s first bank, here In Pingyao in 1823. It handled bank transfers in over 20 cities, including Calcutta in India and Kowloon in Hong Kong, and lasted until the 1930s or so.  It sounded like the Hanseatic League, with “internships” for young Chinese more interested in commerce (and wealth) than in government and Chinese classics. At one time,  90% of China’s banking service was done by Shanxi financiers, and much of that in Pingyao,

If you were looking for temples, this had some 4 star attractions.  One, close to the city, and named for an episode in the life of the Buddha, had some statues that date back to the Song dynasty, or almost 1000 years ago.  Some of the statues retained their original colors, and the 1000 armed Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy (who in the process of moving from India to China became more feminine than masculine) is particularly striking.  In addition to the Buddhist temples, there was a city god temple, a Daoist celebration reconstructed during the reign of Qianlong, with a statue to the Guan Gong, my candidate to replace Tommy Titan.  The Guan Gong is celebrated as the God of Wealth and the God of War, the former of which puts him pretty high in today’s Chinese pantheon (socialism with Daoist characteristics?).  Across from that, there is a Confucian temple that purports to be one of the best still extant in China (Confucius came in for a battering during the Cultural Revolution, as one of the “olds”, but I’ll have more to say about its revival before I leave China).  There are some nice exhibits on the Confucian exams in the temple, which was one of the most serene places in the city.  There are even two Christian churches from the early 20th century, one Catholic, one Protestant, which I understand are packed on Sundays.

The other striking public building is the home of the governor, which is residence, administrative offices, and jail—all in one place.  The striking thing was the jail and prison, partly because in criminal court cases, the plaintiff and defendants both knelt down in a specific spot before the judge, who could use torture (the tools of the trade were there, including knuckle busters) to extract confessions. A red colored piece of wood signified death, and we saw, in the prison, the various forms of punishment, which ranged from public humiliation to beheading, to the “death by 1000 cuts,” which consisted of having your body wrapped in a fishnet, squeezed, and the skin that protruded sliced.

I said this is the ideal model for what foreigners (and Chinese) think is a model Ming/Qing city.  I’ve been to others which have rebuilt areas like this—I think it was Kaifeng or Luoyang, former capitals. I know Xi’an has an area near the south wall that has a reconstructed “antique street” that is no more antique than the last four or five years.   The difference is that Pingyao has an antique street that is an antique, and limits cars to the edges of the old walled city. It is a model—but it is an original, not a copy

My adventure begins in Pingyao

May 26th, 2012 by

In effect, the class ended when we arrived back in Beijing on Friday. We all had a free afternoon and evening to do last minute things—whether it was visit the zoo to see pandas, the pearl market to buy copies or real pearls, or to sample the night life (my recommendation was the Banana club. “did you like it Hoyt?” “No, but that means you will.”

I did a few things I wanted to do. I went out for lunch with our guide, who asked whether I had ever eaten donkey, which he said was a Beijing specialty. Check that off my list of things to do. He said he’d had only one other tour leader sample the dish, and that person was lukewarm. I’d do it again—especially if any of those burros at Philmont give me a hard time. We were near Liulizhang, which used to be the scholar/artist street. It’s still quaint, but in the current effort to build tourism, is a mix of older buildings built to look old, and older buildings that are. I stopped in to the tea shop I’ve frequented for seven years, the owner reminded me, and asked about my former student, JR Glenn, who has been there with me several times. I couldn’t leave without buying my favorite tea, liqi hong, a black tea flavored with lichee. I have never found it in the United States.

There was one other place on my itinerary—the summer palace built by Qianlong that was destroyed in 1860; I had only been there once. It’s on the outskirts of the city, but Beijing is fairly easy to navigate (thank you 2008 Olympics!) with 14 lines and a 30 cent fee for busses or subways. The buildings were mostly European style, and made of stone. The rubble remains as a haunting reminder of what happened to China during its century of humiliation. There were lakes as well, a legacy of Kangxi’s trips to the South, and especially the storied gardens of Suzhou and Hangzhou, which shaped the construction of the summer villa we saw at Chengde.

For a last meal with my colleague Ruth Ann, we went to nearby Wanfujing street, the “Michigan Avenue” of China. Passing through food street with its vendors selling everything from scorpion on a stick to dumplings, passing the old Catholic church, rebuilt after being destroyed by the Boxers (where a large crowd had gathered doing line dancing on Friday night), we went to Quanjude, the largest roast duck chain in the city. The hotel recommended it, and responded in the positive when I asked whether Chinese ate there (or whether it was primarily a tourist attraction. Beijing does attract tourists, Chinese and foreign, but we were the only Westerners in the restaurant.

At 4:30 am, I bade farewell to my 14 traveling companions, as they boarded the bus to the airport.

And my adventure alone began. I got a bullet train to Taiyuan. It’s around 300 miles southwest of Beijing—and it took 4 hours to get there. For those of you who have been on Chinese trains, you should be astonished—the ordinary train takes 8 hours. The cost was around $25!

Taiyuan is not a tourist destination, being an old city that has more history than historical artifacts, and is currently a center of heavy industry. We did see two interesting sites, nonetheless. One was a temple dedicated to a general, which had a 3200 year old tree, and some unusual construction including a cross bridge, with a Daoist half and a Buddhist half. The other was the home of a rich family that had business scruples (Confucian in origin, like treating people fairly) and moral scruples (no concubines), and lasted as a wealthy family for five generations. The compounds (two generations added to the construction, and included a stage for performing Shanxi opera) have been turned into a museum to showcase local customs and art, as well as to tell the story of the Qiao family. The wealth initially came from making bean curd (tofu), and wound up as banking/trading operation with locations all over China (except Gansu and Yunnan, I believe). The family housed Cixi when she fled Beijing after the 8 armies suppressed the Boxers, and she gave them presents in return, including the right to call the house the best courtyard in China (sounds like something the Chamber of Commerce would designate); they gave her a month lodging, 300000 tales of silver, and apparently greased the wheels of the successors, which kept the house intact until the family fled the Japanese in 1937.

Rather than stay in Taiyuan, my guide took me to Pingyao for two evenings, and that’s a different blog and a very different experience. I’ll send this when I can. Pingyao is an “ancient city” surrounded by a Ming dynasty wall, and minimum amenities. I’d say it’s like Lijiang in Yunnan, but none of you have been there, so I’ll tell you about it after I’ve toured it.

Photos of the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and More

May 24th, 2012 by

From Ming to Qing

May 24th, 2012 by

We were in Chengde, 130 miles or so north of Beijing.  It’s about 15 degrees cooler, 1500 feet higher, and has about 23 million fewer inhabitants.  We’ve gone back to China about 10 years ago, maybe more, but it does boast a McDonalds and a KFC franchise. It is pleasant to visit a smaller city, if only for the slower pace and the smaller crowds!

Having spent yesterday in the Yongle mode of the 15th century, we’ve gone ahead in some ways into Qing period, from 1644 till 1911.  The last stop we had in Beijing belonged to that period—the famous summer palace built by the infamous Empress Dowager, CiQi, who was the mastermind behind China from 1861 until her death in 1908. She kept her  position mostly through guile, with a dash of poison—several emperors for whom she served as regent died mysteriously.

The 1881 Summer Palace, one of the must sees in Beijing is her legacy.  She constructed it northwest of Beijing (which has grown to absorb it) to replace the Yuan Ming Yuan, a summer palace reputedly one of the wonders of the world, which the allied armies who torched Beijing in 1860, left in ruins.  Those ruins today rest nearby, and if I have time on our return to Beijing, I hope to get out there.  They are hauntingly part of the “road to rejuvenation,” the exhibit I saw this morning at the National Museum of China, a stupendous building that is so big it seems relatively empty of artefacts, although I suspect there were thousands.  A separate exhibit that is difficult to find deals with the road to rejuvenation, the route the Communist Party traveled in undoing the century of humiliation.  Some of the pictures in that exhibit (the captions were mostly in Chinese, but it’s the Chinese vocabulary I learned In the early 1970s of revolution and imperialism; my favorite was a pamphlet by renown missionary Young J. Allen extolling British imperialism in India) showed foreign troops ransacking that palace and sitting on the imperial throne.  And they got a medal for it!

The new summer palace demonstrated that the Qings could spend money on themselves, building halls, lakes, islands, Buddhist temples, and what the Guinness Book of Records says is the largest painted corridor In the world, with hand painted illustrations from Chinese literature on the arches the support this covered walkway.  The courtyard in front of the Empress Dowager’s bedroom contains the phoenix (symbol of the Empress) in the place of honor, exchanging places with the dragon (symbol of the Emperor), more accurately reflecting power in Ci Qi’s empire than the titles.  It also contains the largest single rock in China used for display.

The route to Chengde, a superhighway with relatively little traffic, and a view and access to still another reconstructed section of the Great Wall, one where you can do a five-mile hike!, demonstrates epigrammatically the difference between the infrastructure in China and India; we arrived quickly, and not having felt we’d spent the ride in a washing machine.

Chengde’s reputation and attraction as a tourist site (the province is striving to make it an international tourist city) rests on the legacy of two Qing emperors—Kangxi and Qianlong.  Imagine if US history had been dominated for 120 years by two presidents, and you get an idea of what those two men meant to China from the late 1600s until almost the 18th century.  Kangxi ruled for 61 years as emperor, and according to a show (more about that) we saw tonight, helped transform the Manchus from north of the Great Wall barbarians into—what else—civilized Chinese, scholars respectful of Chinese language, history, traditions, and the religions (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism).  Both had an understandable orientation to the north, being related to the Tibetans and Mongolians, and being wary of the other barbarians north of the wall.

Partly to keep those barbarians in check, and partly because the temperature in Chengde is more temperate, and partly because the north afforded the grasslands that warriors on horseback needed to hone their skills, Kangxi established the mountain summer villa here, a predecessor to the summer palace we saw in Beijing, and five times as large as the Forbidden City.  It contains three artificial lakes,  bedrooms and meeting rooms (the ruling family moved here for six months a year and conducted the affairs of state here; probably the most famous encounter was with the English emissary, Lord McCartney, who sought to open relations with China in 1793; Qianlong essentially told the Englishman that China had everything it needed, thank you; and McCartney refused to bow to the Emperor and perform the rituals that the Asian states had done with China.  China’s relations with the rest of Asia had been as a superior  to vassals, and the attitude of superiority still colors China’s view of the world). It is a striking place that reflects the power and wealth of the Manchus. As I pointed out to my class, the combination of overwhelming ego and overwhelming wealth and overwhelming power were overwhelming.  (One of my students noted that if that was what was required to be an emperor, I had at least one of those attributes).

The area is dotted with temples built by the royal family, and we visited two of them, both built by the reverent Buddhist, Qianlong.  One was to make his northern guests feel at home, and looks rather like the Potala Palace in Lhasa, which would make the Dalai Lama, the head of Tibetan Buddhism feel  comfortable, but as our guide pointed out, there were subtle hints that while the Dalai Lama was a friend, the Emperor was still the boss.  Some of the hints were not so subtle, as the Chinese style roofs atop the Tibetan style buildings, but then, in Lhasa, there’s a plaque to one of the first treaties signed with Tibet, in which the Chinese stated they were the “big brother”; that’s been the attitude toward Tibet ever since.

This evening we visited the new new China’s view of the Kangxi period—a show developed by the film studio that developed the Olympic opening show. It was another over-the-top tourist attraction (exceeding, by far, the sedan chairs that tourists can now ride!), with 300 horses and 600 actors, and animation you would not believe.  Having been here, though, I can believe it. One of the messages in it was that Kangxi recovered Taiwan, which held out against the Qing until the 1680.  On the other hand, Qing fortune in the 1680s also brushed up against the aggressive Russian state, then moving into Asia.  The Treaty of Nerchinsk, between the Qing and the Romanovs was one of the first modern treaties, an opening step that would eventually help make the Ming and Qing part of what the Chinese like to call their “feudal past.”

In the World Yongle Created

May 22nd, 2012 by

Another long day in the world Yongle created.

One way to look at Beijing is from the perspective of its builders, beginning with Yongle.  The third Ming emperor, Yongle moved his capital from Nanking to Beijing, partly to be in a better position to combat the ambitions of the barbarians from the North; ultimately, he was right—it was the Manchus from north of the Great Wall that replaced the Ming in 1644. I think there were other reasons, involving family intrigue, that prompted the decision, but Beijing has never been the same.

Yongle built three of the memorable constructs that have defined Beijing since.  We’ve already mentioned two—the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City, early in the 15th century.  Just in case I don’t get another opportunity to visit the Forbidden City, when I got up this morning I took a walk to my favorite morning park in Beijing—Coal Hill.  It’s typical of the Beijing parks, being full of youngsters my age doing stretching, and younger Beijingers doing everything from taiqi to calligraphy to line dancing.  And since it was once part of the Forbidden City, it was a playground for the emperor, and that’s what differentiates it from many other parks.  It was the beneficiary of the Emperor’s desire to have a nearby mountain other than the rock pile from Tai Hu.  As a consequence, the million workers who built the forbidden city for Yongle saved the dirt from the moat and piled it up into Coal Hill, a 300 foot mountain at the north end of the forbidden city.  If you’ve seen pictures of that palace, looking down on the 9999 rooms, you probably know the view from Coal Hill.  I had it this hazy morning (most mornings in Beijing are hazy).  From the top, you can also see nearby Beihai, remnants of the Mongol rule from Beijing, the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, that once welcomed the day and signaled the night and the closing of the gates, and the original location of Beijing University, from which angry students marched on May 4,  1919 when they learned that the powers at Versailles had given Japan rights in China.  That uprising provided the climate in which the seeds of communism were planted, making it one of the signal events in modern Chinese history.  Every major Chinese city has a Wusi (5/4 or May 4) street in commemoration).

The other standard Yongle established was the building of tombs.  He chose a site near  Beijing with good feng shui, mountains at the back, river at the front, and planned his tomb with the thoroughness he planned the Forbidden City. He laid out the Sacred Way, the stone figures that lined the path that the burial procession trod, with the servants and animals guarding the Emperor’s journey into the nether world—then proceeded to set the standard for the subsequent tombs of his successors.  This being a Confucian society, the emperor considered it disrespectful to be more outlandish than his father.  In Yongle’s case, the result was the largest extant wood structure (no nails, the guide stressed) in China. The building, which once housed relics of the one tomb excavated (the result of which was the oxidization and disappearance of fabrics and other things in the tombs, prompting a decision not to open any more tombs until the technology improves), now also contains a history of the life of Yongle. Among other things, he sent the famous expeditions of Zheng Ho, which established China as a seapower.

Yongle was not responsible for the Great Wall, but the great wall we have come to know was a product of the Ming dynasty, which, as I said, lived in fear of invasion from the north. The Ming resurrected a defense system that predated even Qin Shi-huang, the first emperor, who consolidated the wall his predecessors had built.  The Ming wall ran over 4,000 miles, from Shanhaikuan, where it met the sea to Jiayuguan, where it extends into the desert.  The stretch we climbed was within 30 miles of Beijing (if you think about the possibility of invasion from the north, bear in mind the distance from Seoul to the 38th parallel in Korea), the product, I think of the post-Mao dynasty, which has been building tourist attractions like crazy.  The section we visited was reputedly the steepest reconstruction, and it elevates about 700 feet in less than a mile—someone said a 45 degree angle, and having done it, I’m inclined (there’s a pun here) to agree. In places it’s three people wide at most, and as crowded as Beijing highways  (even with the banning of 1/5 of the cars each day, driving in Beijing is a challenge!  The Beijing government has restricted the purchase of new cars to 20,000 a month, with a lottery auction that sometimes reaches $20,000 US for the right to buy a car!  Public transportation is numerous, with 20000 natural gas busses, and 13 metro lines, with a fee of roughly 30 cents!) Half the population of China was on our section, and I wonder how horses and warriors could have gotten up the stairs.  In any case, in 1644, when peasants rose in rebellion in response to famine (the Emperor was supposed to provide social stability, even then—defined as prosperity at home and prestige  abroad, then and now!), the Manchus bribed one of the gatekeepers at the wall to open the gates, and the rest was history—Manchu history.

One the way home, we visited the Olympic village, an area cleared (the Dao temple was left, but unfortunately was closed), and then lavished with public funds for China’s coming out party (the party for the Party) in 2008.  I’d been by it before, but had never walked around.  It’s situated in the center of the city—exactly north of the Forbidden City, with a plaza that rivals Tiananmen square, and buildings that are so much the modern equivalent of the Yongle architecture, especially the Bird’s Nest and the Water  Cube that I asked our guide if the old palace is GuGong (old palace) is the Olympic Village the XinGong (new palace).  Yongle would be proud of this new addition to the city of Beijing.

It is one of the great ironies (and you know I love ironies) that having built the buildings, the Chinese government is trying to figure out what to do with them. For its  debutante role, the government spent extravagantly; the Zhang Yi-mou opening number cost more than was spent on education in the entire country in 2008! The story is that the Bird’s Nest will be converted into a shopping mall, though the outside will remain as it is.  That’s so New New China. After all, the man who launched it in the 1980s is Deng Xiaoping, sometimes pronounced done shopping.

A (long) day in Old and New Beijing

May 21st, 2012 by

Mao Tse-tung announced to the world the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, less than two blocks from our hotel, and that’s where our day began—at sunrise, when most of us joined the crowds (mostly Chinese from out of town) who gathered in Tiananmen Square to watch the hoisting of the Chinese flag over the largest square in the world.  The army team of something like 400 soldiers are part of a crack unit that is quartered in the Forbidden City, just as the soldiers were under the Emperor.  The troop marches out at sunset, stands at attention, the colors are raised, and the loudspeakers blare Qilai, the Chinese national anthem.  You may have heard it at the Olympics when China swept to so many medals.  Oh, did I mention that sunrise is at 4:55—which explains why most of the thousands who attend are not foreigners; many are just getting back from the night life in this capital city at that time. When I asked the students who went what they’d seen, the best answer was, “The Chinese Superbowl.”  It’s a real indicator of the patriotism the Government embraces as part of its effort to promote social stability and remain in power.

Most of those students who came to the ceremony returned to sleep, but 5 in the morning is a great time in Beijing; it is cool, not many people crowd the streets, and there’s always, at least in our area, fascinating places to explore.  For example,  most of the Forbidden City is still forbidden, or at least parceled off into parks that require more time and a separate admission.  The one I visited this am is in the Southeast corner of the grounds, and houses the Imperial Ancestral tablets.  In a society where ancestor worship was part and parcel of the fabric of society, this was an important place.  And in a palace that was forbidden to ordinary people (and parts to anyone other than the imperial family), this was  an even more still area.  It had the main temple, the red buildings with the blue borders and yellow roofs, typical of the rest of the Forbidden City,  some interesting features like a rockery (mountains are an important part of the Chinese feng shui, the forces that determine fate, and so the emperors hauled rocks from Tai Hu, Lake Tai, near Shanghai, nearly 800 miles to be piled up to make “mountains” for their viewing pleasure.  As Deng Xiaoping put it, ”To be rich is glorious.”

When we went to Tiananmen later in the day, the square was already mobbed with the tourists we were going to jostle for the next three hours for views of the Palace Museum.  Built in 1402 and completed in 1420, the Forbidden city was the home of the  and Qing dynasties until 1924, when a warlord removed Pu Yi, the last Qing Emperor, who began the descent chronicled in The Last Emperor, winding up as a gardener in Beijing (after being puppet emperor of Manchukuo under the Japanese from 1932 until 1945)  It has been a public museum since.

Going from South to North, one goes from the public to the private quarters, which is typical of traditional Chinese houses.  In the case of the Emperor, that transition takes one through the public halls to the throne room, where, I have long theorized, the failure of Westerners to do the 9 prostrations to the Emperor led to the conflicts which began the century of humiliation. Our guide assured us that the Palace is being renovated, but until the treasures that went with the Kuomintang to Taiwan (which the mainlanders view as a province of mainland China, not a country), it will remain as “one palace, two museums”.

What remains (our guide said Chiang Kai shek took 3000 items with him to Taiwan, leaving 1 million in the palace) is imperial.  One can only be impressed and awed—as one was supposed to be, by the wealth and power of the royal family, even if the actual count of rooms is only around 8500, rather than the 9999 (there’s a lot of nines in the palace; it’s the “lucky” number for the emperor.

Three hours later, having passed through the private quarters of the emperor and his concubines, including the shadow of the palace area being renovated for Qianlong’s private residence—whose contents were in Milwaukee last year!—we were out.

Our next stop was a tour of the traditional Manchu area of the city (Beijing was actually several forbidden cities.  Part was forbidden to anyone but Manchus.  Part was forbidden to non westerners—after the Boxer Uprising in 1900, the Legation quarter was also sealed off.  When I first came to China, there were a lot of hutongs.  Gradually, many of these houses-a four or five room apartment, centered around a courtyard, were torn down and replaced with high rises.  Those that remain have been refurbished to provide water, electricity, and in many cases, toilets. Someone asked me why there were so many public toilets in Beijing, and the answer is that there are so few private ones.

The hutong tour has become a big business, as Chinese on bicycles pedal foreigners around, especially the lovely area that fronts on Beihai Park and the lakes created for the royal family north west of the forbidden city.  I’ve wandered there by day, because many famous officials (the Soong sister who married Sun Yat-sen, and became part of the communist party lived there; her sister, Meiling married Chiang Kai-shek) had homes which have become museums.  At night, the area becomes alive with bars and night clubs, being at least one of the places in Beijing that prevents tourists from making the flag raising in the morning.

One other aspect of the royal families was the temple of heaven, which we visited yesterday when we got into Beijing.  Probably as well known as any building in Beijing, the Temple of Heaven was an important place for an emperor, whose right to rule depended on providing prosperity at home and peace abroad.  Thus, the praying for good harvests was a form of election protection. So important that when Korea threw off its vassalage to China in 1905, and established itself as a Kingdom in a vain attempt to fend off the Japanese, one of the first things the Koreans did was build a temple of heavan for the King.

The first was the Confucian temple and the Imperial College.  These buildings were the “university” system in traditional China, were passing the exams were even more important than the college boards today.  From the Mongols in the 14th century until 1908 or so, those exams allowed upward mobility.  If you were successful, you became an official, and if you became an official, you became rich (I’m not sure if that’s changed, since the topic of corruption is alive and well in China today

As I explained, education today in the Asian colleges, even more than in the United States, is still important.  I cited the case of a Korean president of Motorola University in Beijing.  I asked her at the end of her presentation whether she had graduated from Seoul National or Yonsei Universities.  She looked surprised, and answered, Seoul National.  I knew that Motorola hired only from those two schools, the Illinois Wesleyan Universities of Korea, a country which borrowed a lot, culturally, from China.


Our final stop was at the Lama Temple.  The temple was the birthplace of the Qianlong emperor (I bet there will be more to say about him from Chengde; he was emperor for 1732 until 1791). He and his grandfather, Kangsi, who was emperor for the longest time in China (dutiful grandson, Qianlong stepped down as emperor so as not to serve longer than Kangsi), ad indeed the Qing dynasty generally, had a warm spot for the Mongols and the Tibetans—the writings were in four languages—Chinese, Manchurian, Mongolian, and Tibetan—and turned the palace into a monastery for the Tibetan Yellow hat sect.  It is the most unusual Buddhist Temple in Beijing, because Tibetan Buddhism incorporated the animistic religion preexisting in Tibet, with blue demon headed Buddhas found nowhere else.  At one time, obviously, the relations between the Tibetans and the Qing dynasty were amicable—which is quite a change in the new China.

Long and satisfying day.

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