A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

You've read the blog... now get the book. The Blogger's Guide to Beijing is now available in eBook format in five volumes from Amazon. Click here for more details...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Breaking in to Peking Uni Campus

I remember when I “were but a lad” telling my father that I wanted to go to the University of Reading about 40 miles to the west of London. Being the ex-Cambridge man that he was, and having already learned that my twin too was about to go up to Cambridge, his reaction was all too predictable. Bloody red brick university, he said dismissively and hardly spoke to me for what felt like weeks afterwards.

In the event, my time at university literally changed the course of my life – though there is not the time to write my autobiography here, dear blog fans. But one thing I particularly loved about Reading Uni’s campus was its wide open spaces with a lake spread slap bang in the middle right across it.

Maybe that’s one reason I so enjoyed my visit to Tsinghua University all those millennia later. And maybe that’s why I was so keen to explore the campus of Tsinghua’s rival, Peking University this week.

At first glance, stepping out of the subway at East Gate of Peking University station on Line 4 isn’t an earth shattering experience. Row upon row of modern buildings can be seen from the road – OK not particularly ugly, but neither are they that particularly attractive either. The fact that my guide book tells me that Peking University is especially renowned for the beauty of its traditional Chinese architecture on its campus grounds means there has to be something that I haven’t yet seen.

Though its Chinese name is now  北京大学 – or Beijing Daxue - it has kept its earlier transliteration of Peking University and not caved in to the modernists who have changed almost all other references of Peking to Beijing. In Chinese it is colloquially known as Beida (北大).

It was established in 1898 during the Hundred Days Reform and was originally known as the Imperial University of Peking.  In 1920, Peking University became the second Chinese university to accept female students, after Nanjing University.

Today it consists of 30 colleges and 12 departments, with 216 research institutions, including 2 national engineering research centres and 12 national key laboratories. With 4.5 million holdings, the university library is the largest of its kind in Asia. Academic staff number more than 4,200, with over 15,000 undergraduates and a similar number of postgrads.

Peking University has had a number of well known people through its doors in its time. Mao Zedong studied here, as did Lu Xun, Gu Hongming, Hu Shih, Li Dazhao, and Chen Duxiu.

But they are the last thing on my mind as I see people walking through the main gates having their IDs and tickets checked. Naturally I don’t have a university ID, nor a ticket for that matter, so I carry on walking around the perimeter fence wondering what to do.

The campus has an area of 273 hectares, so I have been walking for some five minutes when I see another entrance to the university grounds, this one filled with students and what appear to be parents or friends flocking around.

As luck would have it, it appears that today is graduation day for some of the students, and the razor-sharp brain of your favourite blogger deduces that the tickets must get one into the ceremony itself. Working on the principle that Chinese guards are usually embarrassed to admit that they cannot speak English, and as it is clear these two guards have their hands pretty full, I decide to brazen it out and try my luck getting through.

One of the guards stops me, but full of smiles I tell him in fast, incomprehensible English gobbledegook that I want to take photos, and point to a group of students talking to their parents on the other side of the gate while holding up my camera … and just keep on walking. My strategy works and I find myself in the grounds of Yan Yuan - the gardens of Yan - as the guard turns to deal with something more pressing than an errant foreigner.

Everywhere there are students having their pictures taken by proud parents. A number of them are waiting their turn for group photographs in front of their faculty buildings…

I get a number of strange looks as I make my way through the crowds of revellers, but everyone is pretty good natured and I am left alone to my own devices.

I recall from my guidebooks that the university campus is actually located on the former site of the Qing Dynasty royal gardens and retains much traditional Chinese-style landscaping including traditional houses, gardens, pagodas as well as many notable historical buildings and structures. Yan Yuan is actually situated on the northeastern side of Haidian District in the western suburbs of Beijing near the Yuan Ming Gardens and the Summer Palace.

And as I turn a corner, there in front of me is the well known symbol of Peking University - Boya Pagoda - which was built in 1924 (and was originally used as a water tower). It stands close by the other signature vista of Peking University - Weiming Lake, which is what most people visiting the campus come to see.

The Boya Pagoda, by the way, is an imitation of the original Tongzhou Randeng tower 40 kms east of downtown BJ which was built in 1679. The octagonal, thirteen-eared solid structure, 53 metres high, is typical of the multi-eaved pagodas of the Liao and Kin dynasties.

[And here’s something for you, Trivial Pursuit fanatics: did you know that the Randeng Pagoda was the subject matter for Beijing's oldest photograph still in existence, taken on September 23, 1860, by British army war photographer Felice Beato. It recently failed to be sold at auction with a starting price of RMB80,000 (about £8k).]

As I stop to take photos of the pagoda, it is clear that this is also one of the favourite backdrops for the students to be photographed against, and as it is certainly their day, I move on so as not to be in their way.

From here onwards on the north side of the campus, the park is a mass of winding paths and small gardens, beautifully laid out with ample seating and spectacular views.

Everywhere are little bridges crossing over tributaries from the main lake…

Despite it being an overcast day, Weiming Lake is still pretty spectacular. In Chinese, Weiming means without being named. No one, it seamed, could come up with a suitable name for the lake to reflect its character, so a famous Chinese scholar gave the lake its present moniker. Who said the Chinese aren’t original in their thinking!

Everywhere you go on the north side of the campus you can see the pagoda, and it presents a great landmark for those who don’t have a good sense of direction. 

Unlike at Tsinghua’s campus, Peking University makes practically no effort to cater for its non-Chinese speaking visitors. There are a few English bits on the direction signboards; otherwise almost the only exception is the collection of tree tags that give the Latin names of the genus of plants that surround the lake.

Walking away from the lake itself, however, you get the impression that the university authorities are saving money by leaving vast tracts of land to revert to nature. In a funny kind of way, this too is most attractive, despite the vast array of weeds that grows in dried up former waterways.

Even in this part of the campus there are faculty buildings; and it is this part I think that the guide book refers to when it writes about the “beauty of its traditional Chinese architecture on its campus grounds”. The paths have obviously been laid out for people with smaller legs as, try as I might, each pace from the centre of one paving stone lands me in the grass separating another.

But there is no doubt that the architecture is quite spectacular and I wonder how many students ever think about this as they go in and out of their buildings every day.

Eventually the skies grow ever more dark, and it is clear that if I don’t set off soon I will most likely end up getting drenched. Almost everyone else has a similar idea and there is a mass exodus from the lake towards the main part of the campus once more as one or two diehards use the opportunity for an extra photo or three without being surrounded by the earlier crowds.

It’s been a lovely way to while away a spare morning; but I can’t really make up my mind if I prefer the campus of Peking or Tsinghua. Maybe it doesn’t matter.  They have both now been added to my list of must-see places in Beijing.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

BJ’s University Theme Park?

I don’t know what it is about university campuses, but many of them present an amazing oasis of calm in the middle of what can be a bustling city. Beijing seems to have more than its fair share of universities and technical colleges – 67 by my reckoning – and although some of them are simply buildings situated on main thoroughfares, many have lovely campuses surrounding them.

I had already been to Renmin University (中国人民大学), as well as UIBE (经贸大学) but everyone talks about Tsinghua (清华大学) - Tsinghua University's campus was named one of the most beautiful college campuses in the world by Forbes in 2010 - so I decided it was time to get off my sit-upon and go visit the place… and I’m really glad I did.

The campus of Tsinghua University was established in 1911 in the former Qing Hua Yuan (imperial gardens of the Qing Dynasty) and it’s surrounded by a number of historical sites in the Haidian district of north-west Beijing. It’s only a 10 minute walk from Wudaokou station on line 13.

Following the Boxer Rebellion, the defeated Qing Empire was fined war reparations of around US$333 million with an interest of 4% per year for 39 years, for the loss caused to the Eight-Nation Alliance. But the then-American Secretary of State John Hay suggested that the $30 million paid to the United States was excessive, and in 1909 President Roosevelt obtained congressional approval to reduce the payment by US$10.8 million, on the condition that the said fund was to be used as a scholarship for Chinese students to study in the United States.

The university section of ‘Tsinghua Xuetang’ was founded in 1925 and the name Guoli Tsinghua Daxue (National Tsinghua University) was adopted in 1928. Since then it has developed to the point where it now has 14 schools and 56 departments with faculties in science, engineering, the humanities, law, medicine, history, philosophy, economics, management, education and art.

Tsinghua is generally regarded as one of the top two universities in mainland China and ranks around 71st worldwide.

The campus is absolutely huge - 406 hectares in all - accommodating all 28,000 full time students (from 103 countries), 7 libraries, 6 public teaching buildings, 155 research institutes and many other school and department buildings, as well as supermarkets, bookstores, banks, post offices, a hospital, sports centres, outdoor and indoor swimming pools, restaurants and dining halls… In fact it’s a virtual town in its own right.

Not surprising, therefore, that you could well do with a map when wandering around in order not to miss anything… This fragment of map represents about a third of the whole campus.

I knew I had an affinity for the place the moment I walked into the park. Stuck up on railings near some of the residential areas were large notices banning the entrance of dogs – such a refreshing change from the myriad antisocial poopers, being walked by their just-as-antisocial owners, that one finds everywhere throughout Beijing.

Walking through the main gate is like walking straight into a public park. It takes a good 10 minutes (assuming one is still finding one’s way around campus, like I was) to find what is known as the Main Building, called that presumably, because it is not only so massive, but contains the departments of Architecture, Automation, Computer Science, Mathematics, and Foreign Languages. Beautiful is not an adjective that comes to mind, but impressive it certainly is. Set up over 30 years ago, all in all it has a footprint of over 76,800 square metres.

88 years after the university’s founding, Tsinghua opened its School of Arts and Design by merging with the Central Academy of Arts and Design. As if to ram home the point, the campus has now been turned into a sculpture park, to celebrate its centenary in 2011.

Everywhere you go there are sculptures in the weirdest places, some of which raise a smile, some of which are aesthetically pretty “kool” and some, admittedly few, that leave you cold.

This stone sculpture by Taiwanese artist Wei Yung-hsien is called Breeze and Rain.

while “Nail Serials” by Wang Xiaohui has – to my mind at least – a feel of Delft pottery about it…

Not that the sculptures are all that catch the eye… How about using a redundant Chinese fighter jet as a makeshift car port, for instance?

Undoubtedly, the part of the campus that most people come to visit is the old, original, section of the university. I had been on campus for at least half an hour before I found it, crammed with rubber-kneckers; and at times I had to remind myself that this really is a place of learning, rather than a university theme park.

In 1909, the Qing dynasty government approved the application from the Department of Foreign Affairs to establish a school in the suburbs of Beijing. Tsinghua Garden was chosen as the site for the school, and the heavily guarded Old Gate was the main entrance to the school campus at that time.

A century ago, the lower classes were not allowed to go beyond the gate without express permission and people not on official school business were forbidden to pass through it.

After the residential area was expanded in 1933, the former enclosing wall was moved further out and a new gate, on the west side of the campus, became the new main entrance. Ever since, the original gate has been known as Er Xiao Men ("the second school gate").

The Old Gate was demolished in the 1960s but was rebuilt in 1991, following the original design.

Passing through the gate into the old campus one comes across a park within a park. And at the far end of a stretch of lawn is the Grand Auditorium, a Jeffersonian architectural design built between 1917 and 1920 and now one of the favourite buildings on campus.

Mixing Greek and Roman architectural styles, the 1,200-seat auditorium has a rounded roof, a brass gate, and four large white marble columns. In its day, it was the largest auditorium of its kind at any university in China, and could easily seat the entire faculty, staff and student body for school assemblies.

Down the right hand side of the expanse of lawn one finds Tsinghua School - a two floor German style building, which was one of the main buildings of the school in its day and housed the student dormitories.

The west wing was built between 1909-1911, whilst the east wing was built in 1916. Overall it covers 4,650 square metres. It was later used as a teaching building and classrooms and now it forms the offices of various administration departments.

Round the back of the old school buildings are more administration blocks resembling a scene straight out of a southern German village.

But it’s not all just history in the old section. True to form, the “sculpture park” theme of the main campus spills across here with some stunning pieces…

But if there has to be a “pièce de résistance” of the entire campus, its surely has to be the “Shui Mu Tsinghua”, (literally: "clear water and trees surrounding Tsinghua") which is a park within a park within a park. Shui Mu Tsinghua is often compared to the Garden of Harmonious Interests in Beijing's famed Summer Palace, and not without reason.

Shui Mu Tsinghua has many charms. Unusual rock formations abound, and a variety of trees encircle an expanse of calm, clear water. On the northern bank are two ancient pavilions.

The Shui Mu Tsinghua has to be the best way to end a visit to the university and walking back towards the main entrance, I couldn’t help but think, when looking at “Graduation Moment” by Dong Ke, that I know that feeling!

It’s a feeling of happiness and light headedness and that all is, basically, right with the world. All that was left now was to quench an enormous thirst that had been growing as I had wandered round the campus.

A street vendor selling ice lollies tempted me with a hawthorne-flavoured popsicle – something I had never before tried – and turned out to be the perfect way to end a perfect morning.

Tsinghua University will definitely find its way onto my list of recommended places to visit in Beijing.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Liaoning Cookery: Part 2

If, as a netizen has headed up his blog, “Life is a bowl of spaghetti made with jagged noodles”, then it could be I have found the meaning of life. No, please…hear me out…

Regular readers will remember that a friend of mine – Lixue – came over to my pad not so long ago to show me how to make Liaoning-style jiaozi. Jolly good they were too and I told her she was welcome back anytime to give me another cookery lesson.

Well guess what, dear blog fans…. ’Xue’s culinary yearnings have brought her back to my front door – after yet again sending me a list of ingredients to procure from the local store.

Flour, pork, garlic, eggs, spring onion, green coriander, mushroom, soy…what can it be, I hear you gagging to find out. Patience, dear Wonderboy-fans. Patience!

At the appointed hour I go meet her at the subway station. ’Xue is the only female I have ever met who is always early by some 10 minutes as opposed to 99.99% of the world’s female population who are invariably 10 minutes late. (Not, he adds quickly, that he has worked his way through all 99.99% - yet - but you get my drift.)

It appears she has forgotten a couple of things from the above list, so instead of heading back to your favourite blogger’s pad, we head in the opposite direction to Wumart. A short search along the spice aisle leads her to a packet of bean paste, deep brown and gloopy in its thick plastic wrapping. And after picking up a few other inconsequentials, we are off to start the cooking.

First things first; and after a quick what-can-I-get-you-to-drink opening, ’Xue has already grabbed some flour and with some water is kneading it all into a big ball of dough. It then sits there, “thinking”, while we down a drink or three and plan a campaign of action.

If, regular blog fans, you are already getting a feeling of déjà vu, please hold on in there for a while.

Clearing as best I can the only flat surface I have in my miniscule kitchen, ’Xue then deftly rolls it out into a thin flat disc and lightly folds it onto itself three times over…

…before slicing it into strips…

Aha! Methinks you have worked it out now. Yes – it’s noodle day at Chȃteau Brian!

As usual it all looks so easy when an expert is doing it; and before long the said Liaoning-style noodles are tossing away in a pan of boiling water while we prepare the rest of today’s feast.

Veg all needs chopping – spring onions, green coriander and garlic chives.

Just like last time, the pork is chopped into smithereens, together with the mushrooms that until that moment had been sitting around idly minding their own business.

Greenery, pork and mush are unceremoniously tipped into the frying pan which has been heated with garlic and ginger…

…and this is followed by a good dollop of the pièce de résistance – the bean gloop.

One thing I have learned in Chinese cooking – never be put off by the disgusting look of the stuff until it is all finished. Today is gonna be one of those days where this rule holds true…

’Xue realises that “we” have forgotten to cook the eggs; so we quickly make amends by scrambling them up in a bowl, creating an omelette and then tearing it apart for throwing into the general melée.

A bit more greenery is added, and already the mix is starting to look a bit more palatable.

The noodles are drained, poured into cold water and drained again; and the entire caboodle is dished out into waiting plates while a pot of jasmine tea waits patiently in the background.

“Quick and easy” it may be, but the faces say it all. ’Xue has once again reached the parts other meals don’t always reach. Today, happiness, as they say, is noodle shaped.