Friday, May 26, 2017

在北京 - Being in Beijing

Although I always wanted to go to China, I didn’t know much about the country except that it
Bell Tower
had the Great Wall, a Forbidden City, some Terracotta Soldiers, and the ancestors of Charlie Chan. What I found on this trip was a rich history, engaging people, and a much wider variety of foods than I had imagined. Dave and I started our trek in the capital of China, Beijing. With its population of 21.5 million, China’s second largest city has thousands of years of history.

The earliest traces of human habitation in the Beijing were found in the Dragon Bone Hill caves near where Peking Man lived. The Homo erectus fossils from those caves are from 230,000 to 250,000 years ago; the paleolithic Homo sapiens also lived there about 27,000 years ago. Downtown Beijing was the home of neolithic settlements, with the first walled city established between the 11th to 7th centuries BC. This wall is long since gone, but there is still a wall that was built during the Ming dynasty, as well as a clock tower and a bell tower. When you look out of your hotel window, what you see mostly are high-rise apartment buildings that accommodate the growing population. The government was all set to clear parts of the city to make way for more of these immense edifices, but historians and folks concerned with tourism had other ideas. A living arrangement peculiar to China had sprung up during the Yuan dynasty (1206-1341) in Beijing: the hutongs. Hutongs are alleys formed
Left: Entry to a siheyuan (courtyard house)
Right: Model of a siheyuan
by lines of traditional courtyard residences or siheyuan. Many neighborhoods were formed by connecting one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. I’m not quite sure why the neighborhoods are referred to hutongs rather than siyeyuan, but I will state that the alleys are quite narrow. We left our bus and boarded pedicabs (the rickshaws are long gone) for a quick trip through the winding hutong to visit with a resident who has lived in the area for years. Through our guide we found that our host had been with the ministry of tourism before she retired. After traveling extensively, she returned home and decided to open her home to tours. She lives in what we’d call an efficiency apartment that was once a part of a siyeyuan (there’s a whole complicated history of the government taking over these residences then giving them back to the original owners after a lengthy period of time). She has a tiny kitchen but shares a bathroom and shower with others living in the neighborhood; these facilities are somewhere down the alley. During the 2008 Olympics she opened her home to athletes from all over the world; three plaques hanging on the wall display paper money from the countries of these athletes. While we shared tea with her, her niece demonstrated the art of painting inside a small bottle. The niece was written up in one of the books about the Olympics. The remaining part of the original siyeyuan has several families living in it. As we passed these dwellings, we could tell how many families lived in each by counting the number of electric boxes; there were two per family. Because this is such a tightly knit community, there are all sorts of group activities. Most mornings the residents participate in tai chi but one of the gentlemen teaches another sort of group activity. This man practices hacky sack, not with balls but with feathered pucks. He gave us a demonstration and tried to get us to participate, but none of us was good enough to even catch one of the pucks! We left the hutongs with a much better understanding of Chinese culture and living arrangements within the city walls.

Just outside of Beijing, among the hills and mountains is the Great Wall of China. We began seeing parts of it miles before we actually got to the UNESCO site. If you’re thinking a really
Looking out on the Great Wall
tall, wide wall with lots of people from all over the world on it, you’re partly right. My vision was to get onto the top of the wall and stroll from lookout post to lookout post with 1000 of my closest friends – again, partly right. Our tour guide, John, told us that once we got up on top we could either take the steep direction, which would be quieter and less crowded, or the direction officials and honored guests usually took that was more gradual. Had I actually done any kind of physical conditioning for this trip (which I usually do), we’d have gone for the steep side – maybe. Steep and gradual are relative terms. The steep side had folks literally crawling up an incline of 45 degrees or greater, while the gradual side had us going up a 35 to 45 degree ramp. How did the ancient Chinese soldiers carry on battles on such slants? John also told us that there would be many local tourists on the wall who might come from very small villages and might never have seen foreigners. To these people we were oddities because of our round eyes and big noses. While they would be polite, they would want our pictures; these snapshots would be taken home, framed, and proudly displayed on their walls to the delight of their entire village. He encouraged us to interact with folks, taking their pictures and letting them take ours. Dave’s image can now be seen in many villages; we were both posed with a young boy who is probably the envy of the other children in his town. I also asked the indulgence of a group of elderly ladies who were singing and dancing on the wall; they were happy to let me video them. This part of the Great Wall has been restored but it is actually a segment of the series of fortifications made
Playing with a scarf on the Great Wall
of stone, brick, rammed earth, wood, and other materials, generally built along an east-to-west line from Dandong in the east to Dunhuang in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia to protect the Chinese states and empires against the raids and invasions of the various nomadic groups of the Eurasian Steppe. Walls built as early as the 7th century BC were later joined together and made bigger and stronger, with the famous part of the wall built between 220 – 206 BC by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Since then it has been rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced with the majority of the existing wall actually constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). Although initially used for defense, the Great Wall also functioned as border control stations and duty collection points for Silk Road travelers. Along the top of the wall are watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations, signaling capabilities using smoke or fire, and a transportation corridor.

Between the First Emperor and the Ming Dynasty lots of groups lay claim to Beijing. From 206 BC until about 220 AD the city was the capital of the region, but with the beginning of
Wine Museum
the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280 AD) that began to change, demoting the town and moving the seat to Zhuozhou.  Battles, name changes, and a bunch of ruling groups altered the status of the city. Some of the oldest structures still surviving in Beijing, including the Tianning Pagoda, date to the Liao Dynasty that began in 938. Kublai Khan increased construction 1264 to 1293, centering on the Drum Tower. This tower, along with the Clock Tower, still stands out near the city wall.

The mid-14th Century brought the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and ushered in construction that still attracts visitors to Beijing. If you’ve seen the movie The Last Emperor, you’ve seen
Top: Throne room
Bottom: One of he palaces
the Forbidden City. This new imperial residence was under construction from 1406 to 1420. It is made up of an inner and outer court covering over 180 acres. Based on oral tradition, there were 9,999 rooms in the residences (9 is a lucky number, as are multiples); however, archeologists have only been able to account for 8,886 of these. From its overall layout to the smallest detail, the design of the
Forbidden City was precisely planned to mirror philosophical and religious principles, and most importantly to symbolize the illustriousness of Imperial power. Almost all roofs in the Forbidden City are covered in yellow glazed tiles because yellow is the color of the Emperor; no one else was allowed to wear or use this color on penalty of death. There are two exceptions to the roof color. The library at the Pavilion of Literary Profundity has black tiles because black is associated with water; water was the only method of fire-prevention and fire was a danger to the library. The Crown Prince's residences have green tiles because green is associated with wood, and therefore growth. Ridges of roofs are decorated with a line of statuettes led by a man riding a phoenix and followed by an imperial dragon; the more statuettes, the more important the building. Buildings are positioned according to the Classic of Rites. Ancestral temples are in front of the palace, with storage areas placed in the front part of the palace complex, and residences in the back. Since heaven is represented by the shape of the Qian triagram, the main halls of the Outer and Inner courts are all arranged in groups of three. However, the residences of the Inner Court are arranged in groups of six to mimic the shape of the Kun triagram, which
Top: Dragons
Bottom: Imperial Lion
represents the Earth. Along with the yellow roofs, there are more than 13,800 dragon images in the Forbidden City which symbolize excellence, valiancy and boldness, heroism and perseverance, nobility and divinity. When using the dragon to refer to the Emperor it means that he is energetic, decisive, optimistic, intelligent and ambitious. This, like the Great Wall, is a popular place for local tourists as well as those from around the world, so getting close enough to get a good look at the throne was nearly impossible. Dave had the advantage because he’s taller; I’m pretty much the size of everyone so unless I’m in the front, I don’t get a good visual. What I did get to see closely were the Imperial Guardian Lions. These pairs of statues grace the entrances of lots of places, but are definitely in evidence here. Generally the lion on the left (as you face it) is female (yin); she has her paw on a cub which represents the cycle of life and protects those dwelling inside (the living soul within). The male lion (yang) has his paw on a cloth ball that represents the world; he guards the structure (the external material elements). This is a beautiful place that represents an age of opulence that China rarely saw, again.

Across from the Forbidden City and built some time in 1415 is the Tian'anmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) although the square facing it was not cleared until 1651. Tiananmen Square was designed and built in 1651, and has since been enlarged by four times its original size in the 1950s. This area has a sordid history. It was used by the British and French troops during the Second Opium War as a staging area and it was the site of the decision to burn the Old Summer Palace rather than the Forbidden City. The east side of the square became the Legation Quarter, the location of diplomatic missions. This was razed during the Boxer Rebellion and the square eventually became the space for the foreign powers to assemble their military forces. Quite soon after the rebellion ended, students used the square to protest, during the May Fourth Movement, the Chinese government's weak
Top L to R: The square, Elderly couple
Right L to R: Large statue, Mao's mausoleum 
response to the Treaty of Versailles, especially allowing Japan to receive territories in China. Student protest would become common in the years to come. Once Mao Zedong proclaimed that the country was the People's Republic of China, the gave orders to make Tiananmen Square the largest and most spectacular are in the world, holding over 500,000 people; to accomplish this goal large numbers of residential structures were demolished.  The Monument to the People's Heroes, along with the Great Hall of the People and the Revolutionary History Museum (now the National Museum of China) were erected as part of the Ten Great Buildings to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the People's Republic of China. In 1976, the year after Mao’s death, his mausoleum was built and the square was enlarged to a regular rectangle able to accommodate 600,000 persons. Unrest and mass protests began in 1976, after the death of Zhou Enlai, and eventually to the protests of 1989 and the June Fourth Incident that ended with thousands dead from military suppression. Economically and socially, this was a watershed event that set the limits on political expression in China; it is still one of the most sensitive and most widely censored political topics on mainland China. Our guide told us that he would be happy to discuss what happened here, but not while we were on the site. Military in plain clothes listen to what guides are telling tourists and the guides are censored if they are not upholding the government policy information.

Twenty-six miles (42 km) away from Tiananmen Square and back at the time it was being built the third Ming emperor, Yongle Emperor was thinking about eternity and feng shui. He
Left: Government official and child
Center T to B: Elephant and camels, qilin
Right: Xiezhai
selected his burial site and created his own mausoleum on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain (originally Huangtu Mountain). Twelve subsequent emperors placed their tombs in the same valley and are collectively known as the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty. Much like the broad walkways leading to Egyptian tombs, the Sacred Way leads from the city to the Ming Tombs. This walkway represents the path leading to Heaven; the emperor, the Son of Heaven, walked the sacred road to the sacrificial altar to talk with Heaven during his reign. After his death, he would also go through the Sacred Way back to heaven. Lining this walkway are statues of two generals, two civil officials and two “retired” government officials. These are followed by lions, unicorns (xiezhai), camels, elephants, dragon/fish/phoenix (qilin), and horses in both kneeling/sitting and standing positions. The statues symbolize the dignity of the emperor, represent good fortune and ward off evil.

By the 1400s, Beijing had essentially taken its current shape. It has done nothing but expand both outward and upward since then. Catholicism brought Christianity to China in t
One of the many unusually
shaped buildings
he mid-1600s with the building of first the Matteo Ricci Chapel an much later the Nantang Cathedral; few additional Christian churches have been added to the country since. Spiritual beliefs and practices aren’t perceived as a religion, for the most part, so temples and shrines celebrate a particular person and may be visited by people practicing Taoism, Buddhism, or any number of ‘folk religions’. None of these groups has formally taken control of the city as a political power. However, warring groups have used Beijing as their power base from the 1400s through the 1900s. From 1937 through 1939 it was the seat of power for Japan to rule the ethnic-Chinese portions of Japanese-occupied northern China. Even with changes each time the political wind shifted, Beijing continued to grow. By the 1960s the Beijing Subway and the 2nd Ring Road were under construction. Much of the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution had ended by the late 1970s and China cracked its doors to the world. Subsequently the economy improved and by the early 1980s the 6th Ring Road was completed. Success has enhanced the problems with an urbanized city: heavy traffic, poor air quality, the loss of historic neighborhoods, and a significant influx of migrant workers from less-developed rural areas of the country have all had a negative effect. Hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics pointed out these issues, in particular air pollution.

It seems as if everyone in Beijing owns a car and wants to drive it daily. There were also heavy trucks on the highways and coal was used for 25% of heating within Beijing. Added to
Poor air quality around
Olympic sculptures
this is the fact that Beijing sits among mountains and you have a recipe for heavy, thick smog that doesn’t get blown away. Since 2013 the Chinese government has focused on reducing air pollution throughout China, but specifically in Beijing. To do this they have limited how many cars a family may own, how many days it may be driven, and heavily polluting vehicles have been banned. The limitation of when cars may be driven has made traffic actually lighter during the week than on the weekend. The use of coal in Beijing has been reduced to 12% and alternative energy systems are on the rise. Of these alternative systems, the most productive is hydropower followed by thermal (natural gas, biomass), wind, nuclear, and solar.

We left Beijing and headed for more wonderful sites and sights farther into the country. In the next few weeks I’ll blog about Chongqing and the Three Gorges, Jingzhou and Wuhan, Shanghai, and finally the wonderful food, places to stay and cultural programs. 再见

Playing a flute and selling them
©2017 NearNormal Design and Production Studio - All rights including copyright of photographs and designs, as well as intellectual rights are reserved.