A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Is Purple the new Black?

The Chinese are a funny lot, I’ve decided. And this past weekend has only underscored that feeling in my mind.
It is 9am and outside it is minus 9 degrees. Looks like winter is on its way now; though with the promise of another sunny day it is too nice to be snuggled up indoors.
I scour the map and discover a park named Zizhuyuan – 紫竹院公園 – slap bang behind the National Library here in Beijing. As I have an appointment at the National Dance Academy at midday, and the Academy is “just around the corner” from the Library, I decide it’s time to take in another of Beijing’s famous parks.
Zizhuyuan translates as Purple Bamboo Garden. The park is renowned for its 50+ species of bamboo, of which by far the most rare is the purple bamboo.
I shiver my way to the subway – normally a 10 minute walk away, but today as I brave an icy northerly wind, I make it in seven minutes. Surely the subway will be empty of people today? But no, it is as crowded as ever with the collective breath of these hardy souls turning to steam as they wait for the train.
I emerge half an hour later from the National Library station on Line 4. According to my map, all I have to do is turn right and right again and I should be there. Alas, Mr Google’s army of map making henchmen take no account of Beijing’s city workers who decide to lock one of the access gates five minutes walk down a pretty road, bordering the Changhe River which itself meanders through the park; and your favourite blogger is forced to make a U-turn and head on to another (main) entrance further to the south.
The blurb written about the park is winsome in its praise. “For visitors who are fond of bamboo and wide waters, Zizhuyuan Park is hard to beat,” they all chorus. “This park is renowned for its bamboo scenery. Three lakes, filled with lotus blossoms, occupy one third of the area. They are connected with two islets by five arch bridges. Pavilions, corridors and bridges hide in the tall bamboo all across the park. It is a veritable oasis of peace and tranquillity in the frenetic heart of Beijing. As well as the liberal use of verdant bamboo groves, the visitor can also enjoy water lilies and lotuses, all landscaped using traditional Chinese techniques.” How could one resist such an entreaty as that?
I arrive a short while later at the main (eastern) entrance and learn straight away that there are at least 20 things I mustn’t even think of doing while I am inside the park. Haha – I see one of them is that no smoking is allowed. OK, in that case we can fairly safely assume that this notice doesn’t count for much since all Chinese know that smoking is one of their inalienable rights.
Once inside I come across a list of nine further admonishments that I attempt to commit to memory, including:

Love motherland, love Beijing, cherish national harmony, and maintain stability
• Love labor, be dedicated to work, be honest and be diligent and thrifty
• Transform undesirable habits and customs, lead to a healthy life, advocate family planning, and be physically strong
OK, I guess I’m a fan of national stability; and as for being honest, diligent and thrifty, then I’m your man! As for transforming my undesirable habits, I fear it may be a bit late for that by now – remembering the old saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And as for advocating family planning and being physically strong, I’m afraid the Mr Wimp inside me may have difficulty coming to terms with this too.
I slope past the notice board wondering if anyone will stop me for not having enough rippling muscles on display. But I have no reason to worry, as everyone is covered up Mr Michelin Man style and no one is inspecting muscles today, rippling or otherwise.
The blurb on the websites helpfully suggests that “The garden has a variety of bamboos on display, and is one of the seven largest parks in Beijing.” Actually once inside there is bamboo everywhere, which I have to admit is rather picturesque – not like the bamboo weeds in my garden back in the UK which are impossible to kill (and believe me I have tried – with flames / chemicals / spade .. but all to no avail.)
I have to admit that though Zizhuyuan may well be one of the seven largest parks in Beijing, (it covers an area of 14 hectares, contains three lakes and two islands, with five bridges connecting the lakes) I had never actually heard of it before. Come to think of it, neither do any of my friends at work – not that that says an awful lot, you understand!
The lakes cover 11 out of those 14 hectares; and earth dredged from the lakes was piled up to form several little hills on the eastern shore to complement the natural hills that line the lakes' western shores. The Park’s authorities are proud to tell you that “The designs and arrangements of all the scenes in this park follow the principle of what is natural is the most beautiful…” before going on to describe how stones and manmade rockeries have been scattered around artistically, thereby somewhat shovelling the ground from beneath their own feet!
The Purple Bamboo Park has a long history. Before the third century it formed the upper reaches of the Gaoliang River, and a famous Gaoliang Bridge stood nearby to the east. A thousand years later, the lakes served as a reservoir providing an important part of Beijing's water supply. In the late Yuan Dynasty, a canal was built along the upper reaches of the Gaoliang River but it fell into neglect and gradually became silted up. During the Republican period it was filled in and rented out as paddy fields.
Of perhaps more historical importance, though, is the fact that the park grew-up around the central Beijing terminal of the canal built to carry the empress dowager Cixi to and from the Summer Palace; and even today in the summer, tour boats still ply the waters carrying tourists to the palace. After 1949, the People's government transformed the fields into a new park.
But what’s this – I hear you eagle eyed blog followers crying out. Could your favourite blogger have been having us on all this time?
Yes. Here it is again! Purple Bamboo Park? Awww come on!
OK, OK! You think this isn’t confusing for me too? 紫竹园 – Zī zhú yuán – literally means Purple Bamboo Garden. The English botanist to first name this species of bamboo called it Phyllostachys nigra (maybe he didn’t know the Latin for purple - so he didn’t call it Phyllostachys blattinus, Phyllostachys blatteus, Phyllostachys puniceus, Phyllostachys ostrinus nor Phyllostachys purpureus). Hence its official English name is Black Bamboo Park, despite every web site and guide book calling it Purple Bamboo Park. (And you think you’re confused!)
Anyway, be it purple, black, pink or even orange with emerald spots; the entire park is given over to bamboo in various colours, including park benches…
…tables and chairs; bamboo waterwheels; even stores along the lake bank (when they are open, rather than in the depths of nearly-winter) also sell fancy bamboo works of “art”. Even the bridges and pavilions are decorated with bamboo motifs.
However, it is not all bamboo – purple, black or otherwise. Apparently in the summer months the lakes are a riot of colour from lotus plants; so it is not surprising that the lotus shares the limelight as far as some of the park’s decorations are concerned.
One of the things that I regularly come across in Beijing’s parks is the sight of – normally – old people practising calligraphy on the sidewalks using water instead of ink. It’s a simple idea, but most effective and I find it always catches my attention whenever I pass by. I am left wondering today if the words will turn into slivers of ice, rather than simply evaporating in the sun.
Other hardy souls are even more adventurous – or balmy, depending on your point of view. I mean, for crying out loud, it can’t be more than minus 5 degrees by now and still these men are sitting around in the cold playing mah jong. Are they mad – or am I missing something?
There’s even an area devoted to Chinese Chess. What look like park benches, but which on closer inspection turn out to be sculptures…
are offset by a gigantic chess sculpture. Quite pretty!
But no one is playing chess today; come to that, not that many people are enjoying the beauties of nature, despite some of the trees displaying some fantastic colours.
The sky has turned overcast – that look it gets when it is thinking of chucking down loads of snow. Already the sides of the lakes are turning to ice; and although it is the middle of the morning, it almost feels like dusk is on its way.
But just then a ray of sun fights its way through the cloud layer revealing a saxophone combo about to warm up for a rehearsal in the protection of a grotto. China’s parks are full of people who want to practise a musical instrument but can’t do so in the apartment blocks in which they live.
Another saxophonist appears, this time in the shade of a pavilion.

The sun peeps out a second time illuminating a call to the weather gods, perhaps?
But it’s too late. Everywhere greens are turning to reds and browns, though I for one am not complaining…
I turn a corner and the sounds of mass choirs fill the air. There must be 70 or 80 people all singing at the tops of their voices. Doesn’t ANYONE have a warm home they’d rather be in? Can you imagine this happening in Europe? Or America? No, neither can I!
Meanwhile, the kiddies’ play area has all but ground to a halt. Maybe the kids themselves have a lot more sense than their parents!
OK, I know what you’re thinking. You’ve sat through all this blurb so far and there’s been practically nothing about the bamboo plants themselves. The web sites blabber on about “Among the diverse bamboo stock, such as mottled bamboos, purple bamboos, and fishpole bamboos, by far the most common in the park is the purple bamboo.”
Really? Well at the top of this blog you will no doubt have recognised the ‘Phyllostachys aureosulcata faureocaulis’ that is much in evidence here. (Come on! You’re allowed to B-S just a little!)
There’s even quite a bit of ‘Phyllostachys propinqua’ – which looks like this >>>
But ‘Phyllostachys nigra’? Well, apart from one largish clump close to the massed choirs, I haven’t actually seen any at all. But I have to say that in the park it looks decidedly black; whilst while writing this blog the photo looks…errr…purple! So what is it dear blog fans? Black? Or Purple? Answers on a postcard….
I round another lake heading in the direction of the southern exit. Already there is ice forming right into the centre of the water and the falling leaves are getting trapped in the ice. It’s pretty now, but I suspect in a couple of weeks it will look rather yucky!
I turn another corner and come face to face with mass tango – Beijing tango, I believe; not the Argentine variety. Again, there must be over 50 couples strutting their stuff in way-below-zero temperatures. It’s a joy to behold; but I still think these Chinese are balmy. I’ve been in the park for just over 45 minutes and I am blue with cold.
As I pass yet another dance class (in Paso Doble, I think – Beijing style, of course!) I head out into the real world once again and make my way rapidly in the direction of a hot cup of tea.