After wrapping up my study abroad, I met up with my family, who had all come to China around the end of my program, and we set out for further adventures. The last leg of my trip to China began with a return to Beijing. I know I already did an entry about Beijing, but I won’t be recapitulating anything – I’ll gloss over the stuff I already covered and focus on the new. I’ll start by saying that the haze was not nearly as strong as on my previous visit. Still there, but you could actually see into the distance now, and the sky was mostly visible.
After meeting our tour guide for Beijing, we got right down to business by visiting the Lama Temple, a big Buddhist temple in the city. We saw several robed monks milling about and many citizens burning incense and praying at small altars featuring the Buddha. We learned that people bow three times before and after placing the incense – one to honor the Buddha, one for the monks, and one for Buddhism.
Our guide was full of fun facts, and if I wrote down everything he told us I could probably fill a small book, so I’ll limit myself to a few I found particularly interesting. One was an explanation for all the high thresholds I had seen on my last trip to Beijing, which are at every door in the temples and palaces and other traditional buildings. The thresholds are raised high to prevent zombie attacks. No, really. In the Chinese culture, zombies were believed to hop – so the high threshold stops the zombie from hopping inside.
Another neat fact had to do with the dragons that were featured on many walls in the temple and are a traditional Chinese symbol. The first emperor who united China around 4000 years ago, called the Yellow Emperor, helped ease the transition into unity by taking the animals worshipped by the various tribes and putting them together to create the dragon as an animal for all to revere. These dragons are not like the ones fought by armored knights in European fairy tales – they had the face of a camel, antlers of a deer, hooves of a bull, claws of an eagle, scales of a fish, tail of a lion, and the body of a serpent. And instead of breathing fire, they were believed to spurt water and had the power to make it rain. Chinese dragons being associated with water, the ancient structures, which are entirely wooden, are adorned with dragons to bless them with protection against fire.
We also saw the Confucius Temple, where for many centuries students would gather every few years to take the grueling exams needed to become a civil servant and enter work as a minister in the government. The cushy positions were highly desired, but the extremely difficult exams made sure only China’s brightest entered government work.
We saw Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City again, but it’s nothing I haven’t already talked about. After those we went to the Panjiayuan Flea Market. While there I had my name translated into Chinese and had the calligraphy scribed on a scroll. The characters that make up the Chinese version of my name mean “lucky” and “peaceful.” Sounded pretty good to me!
The Wall’s End
I already went on at length about the Great Wall’s majesty, so I refer you to my earlier entry for that. But my second trip was certainly different! The biggest difference was the weather – it was MUCH clearer this time around. It really made the view even more majestic since you could see more of the Wall rolling away along the hillside. But the lifted fog also let me see something that was obscured before – giant characters on the side of a large hill. Our guide said farmers had made them, and they read “be loyal to Chairman Mao.” Quick side note, Mao’s face is plastered everywhere in this country, and on every object imaginable.
As for our hike along the Wall itself, I was determined to surpass what I had climbed before. I went up the same huge hill and gigantic staircase as before, to the same tower I had stopped at last time. But the Wall went on from there. Feeling stronger than the last time I’d made it this far, I marched on. It turned out I had already conquered the hardest staircase on this part of the wall, so it got a little easier as I went further up, higher than even the huge characters. Eventually, I noticed I had risen so high, I was above the haze, and the air was crystal clear.
This let me properly appreciate the new side of the Wall I was seeing. I had passed the point where most tourists stop, so beyond that the Wall was less maintained, letting me see the truly original stones. It was a little rougher, but really just as sturdy. The naked stones on the path gave it a new sense of character.
Eventually, I found something surprising: the end of the Great Wall. Well, this section of it anyway – it’s not continuous, it breaks at mountains and rivers since those are natural defenses that don’t need a wall. Still, I didn’t expect to reach the end of this potion. The stone structure literally just stopped, and all there was in front of me was a dirt path that went a few feet into some trees and then ended. It felt like reaching the edge of the world. I also noticed that other than someone selling water, I was practically alone on this part of the Wall – hardly anyone bothered coming this far. The quiet solitude let me really appreciate the wall and the beautiful mountains around it that I couldn’t see from below. It was wonderful all over again. The Great Wall really just doesn’t cease to amaze.
After climbing all the way back down and scarfing down lunch, we spent the afternoon at Beijing’s 798 art district, a pretty big area that used to be a factory (numbered 798, hence the area’s name) where many artists live today.
The place was all galleries and art shops, with sculptures all over the place outside. The styles covered just about everything I could think of, and some were pretty bizarre and interesting. To pick one, we found a wall with metal attached in the shape of a stick figure man and woman like you see on bathroom signs. They were empty and a sign invited you to stand in them and send a picture to the artist to be used in a huge digital collage.
Tai Chi at the Temple of Heaven
The next day began with an activity I had been looking forward to. We went over to the Temple of Heaven and took stock. There were many people hanging around using it as a park – playing hacky sack and other games, or practicing dances, martial arts, and calligraphy. It’s an area four times larger than the Forbidden City, but it’s mostly trees, there are only 3 buildings, all temples or altars. But we’ll get to that.
First was a special activity – a private tai chi lesson. We met our instructor and went into a clearing amidst some trees for our lesson. He began by teaching us some of the theory behind tai chi (full name taijiquan/tai chi chuan, meaning “supreme ultimate fist”). Unlike many martial arts, tai chi uses very slow, circular movements. This is because the philosophy of the martial art is one that strives for harmony with nature, and the view is that all things in nature flow and have curves or are spherical, that nothing is naturally totally straight – be it Heaven, stars, or the universe itself. He challenged us to name something that naturally exists in a completely arrow-straight form. We suggested a couple things, but he pointed out that those objects, like everything that exists, are made from atoms – which are spherical. They originally believed the Earth was square, but when they learned it was a sphere, that just reinforced the idea.
After the theory lesson we learned some movements. There are five main styles of tai chi, each with many moves. We would be learning from the Yang style, one of the most popular. He taught us the basic stance – legs spread apart, knees slightly bent, hands and arms held out in front of you so your hands are in front of your belly, as if you were floating in water. It was actually quite comfortable, and felt pretty natural. Our teacher said out of curiosity after learning this, he let himself completely relax in a pool to see how his body would act – and it took on almost this exact form.
He then showed us some basic movements, the opening and closing forms. Each move was very slow and relaxed, and he told us to take our time performing them, and as we did so, to let everything out of our minds about the world around us and focus entirely on the movements to clear our minds. He also showed us a move called “hands flowing like clouds,” which was my favorite. We moved our hands in wide arcs around ourselves, our palms passing in front of our faces, the paths overlapping and switching. It seemed a little complex when he did it, but we all picked up the movements quickly and it was easy to do. To help us remember it, he told us to just think of John Travolta’s dance in Pulp Fiction! He finished up by showing us what he could really do – a long move where he moved around with much poise and incredible balance as he slowly made large sweeping motions with his limbs and often stood on one leg. It was simply a beautiful set of movements.
After the very fun lesson we toured the Temple. We saw the temples and altars, formerly the tallest buildings in Beijing, where the emperor used to come to pray for a good harvest and offer thanks and reverence to the Heavenly King. The altars were all up three sets of nine steps – the three sets representing, from bottom to top, Hell, Earth, and Heaven. The nine steps in each set were due to the belief that each of those three planes of existence had nine segments. Furthermore, the character for nine in Chinese is pronounced the same as the symbol for “eternity.” Atop the 9th layer of Heaven resided the Heavenly King, so the emperor had to ascend all the layers of existence to meet with him. The Temple of Heaven is also the only place in the city the emperor was not allowed to be carried on a palanquin – though the world had to show him respect, here he had to humble himself before the Heavenly King who had sent him to rule over the Middle Kingdom (something China called itself as they believed China was the center of the universe).
We went up one altar, called the Circular Mound Altar. Atop the 27 steps was a circular stone surrounded by 9 concentric circles, each one composed of nine more stones than the previous – the innermost having 9 stones, the outermost having 81 stones. The stone in the very center was the Heart of Heaven. In the Chinese belief, Heaven is circular, and is actually smaller than the Earth. The Heart of Heaven (also called the Heavenly Center Stone) was believed to be the spot directly under the very center of Heaven, and so prayers said upon it would be heard loud and clear in Heaven. Following the lead of other tourists (and centuries of emperors), we stood on the stone, looked up into the sky with the wind on our faces, and made a wish.
Family Life in a Hutong
We then went by the Pearl Market, and checked out the shops featuring an endless amount of shiny pearls for sale. After that and some food, we went over to visit a hutong. In Chinese, hutong roughly translates to “community” or “neighborhood.” It came from a Mongolian term that means “water well.” This was because Beijing lacks a river or ocean for water, so people’s homes congregated around wells and formed neighborhoods. Living in hutongs goes back to around the 13th century.
We were extremely fortunate to be invited into the home of a family living in the hutong. The home was small and cramped, but packed with great character. Stylized Chinese characters were printed on many things, even the ceiling. In the small living room was a great number of old-looking weapons, and in the dining room/kitchen we saw the lady of the house doing some cooking with dough with some other Western visitors.
We met the man living here, and he told us (through the translation of our guide) about the little house. It has been in his family for over 150 years! Although the government owns most land in the country now, and only lets you own land for about 70 years before they have the right to drive you off, the man’s family had owned this house before the Communist government came, and they were allowed to keep it. They said it is convenient and very cheap to live in, as the community has most stores and things they need to go to right nearby, they don’t need to pay any rent, and the government subsidizes 70% of their air conditioning and heating, which was installed for free when the Olympics came to Beijing as the government wanted to show off the traditional hutongs to the outside world.
Despite their small size, houses in a hutong are extremely valuable as the number of them is shrinking. The man’s house is worth over a million US dollars. But he said even if he was offered that, he would never move – when a house has been in your family for a century and a half, it means so much to the people in it.
The man also told us that his family has a tradition of being martial artists (explaining the collection of weapons in the living room). He himself was instructed in martial arts in the same class as Jet Li and has worked as an instructor for many years. His oldest son actually works in Texas, at a gym in Houston coaching wushu, a Chinese exhibition/full-contact sport that involves swords and a lot of cool-looking flips and action (Google a video of a wushu match from the 2008 Olympics, they’re really cool to watch!).
I told him that I knew a little bit about wushu and had watched videos of matches. He told me that unfortunately, I was a little too tall to be suited to doing wushu myself, as my height would make it hard for me to do all the flips as quickly and smoothly as the shorter Chinese. Though on the other hand, he said being taller would make my moves more intimidating and impressive. He then handed me a typical wushu sword, mid-length with a slightly curved thin metal blade (but not sharp), and helped me get into a basic stance, which was really interesting to learn!
We also met his wife and younger son, who live there with him along with his father-in-law. We were surprised that the tiny home supported so many people. After getting to meet the man’s wife and younger son (and getting his older son’s business card if we ever wanted wushu lessons in Texas), we thanked them for showing us their home by giving them some small gifts – coasters with images of things representing our home city of Atlanta.
We concluded our visit to the hutong by riding around the neighborhood in a rickshaw, a cart that holds one or two people and is pulled along by someone on foot or a bicycle (we were on the bicycle kind). As we went by we watched all the members of neighborhood as many of them congregated outside to chat and play games together. It was clear that the families living in hutongs have a very strong sense of community.