There are times, it has to be admitted, when common sense isn’t always high on your favourite blogger’s list of obvious attributes – for how else can you explain the sudden desire one day to go see an open air museum, when the mercury outside is hitting minus 16 degrees?
I had passed the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park (中华民族园), located just to the west of the Olympic Green, on many occasions and had, it must be admitted, been intrigued by an oddly shaped totem pole stuck up on the corner of a not-so-busy interchange. From my bedroom window, it looks a glorious day outside and I determine there and then to go and explore…
The 50 hectare park isn't normally overflowing with tourists, even in the summer. But on a day like today I am not really surprised that at 9.30 in the morning, I am the only visitor. I even have to knock loudly on the ticket booth window to wake up the girl inside to ask for my ticket – special price today of just 60 kwai instead of the normal 90 one is charged in the summer months.
The blurb is enthusiastic in its descriptions. “In Ethnic Culture Park Beijing, tourists not only can enjoy the traditional constructions, appreciate the amorous feelings, watch song and dance, buy the national arts crafts, but also can have a taste of national cate personally. The Ethnic Culture Park Beijing covers 450 thousand aquare meters, which include South Park and North Park. There are the biggest cast iron sculpture, simulated tropical banian forest, karst cave in water, panlong waterfall, painting on rock, karisuma of Ali mountain in Ethnic Culture Park Beijing.” (sic)
Unfortunately it fails to mention, except in the small print, that the South Park is open from April to November only. Hence the price reduction. But there are still 16 national villages in the north side and “tourists can enjoy and participate in the dance, celebration, production, habitude when they are visiting the national villages. They can achieve the unique enjoyment of culture and art.” So let’s take a look!
The entrance of the north park looks enticing enough, though as I walk through into the park itself, no one asks to see my ticket; until, that is, a rather chubby guy starts to run after me, having obviously been disturbed from doing whatever it is that chubby Chinese guys do when they are expecting a morning of sitting contemplating life’s mysteries. He tears my ticket and goes back to contemplating life’s mysteries once again.
According to the China Ethnic Park’s website, the museum's goals are to demonstrate ethnic architecture, preserve ethnic relics, spread ethnic knowledge, study ethnic heritage, enhance ethnic culture and promote unity of all Chinese ethnic groups. You notice the key word there, no doubt?
Construction began in October 1992. The North Section was opened to the public in June, 1994, and the South Section was opened seven years later. The park covers some 50 hectares and all the buildings are constructed to a ratio of 1:1. It appears to have taken the idea from Jakarta’s famous Taman Mini Indonesia Indah and attempted to create a Chinese equivalent.
The web site continues: There are many attractive scenic spots in the park. The big banyan tree symbolizes the 56 ethnic groups banding together. The Ethnic Bridge which connects the north and south park adopts the architectural styles of Bai, Dong and Zang People. The Tenggeli Waterfall which falls from 161-feet high is the biggest man-made waterfall in China. Many typical ethnic architectural styles are available for viewing. Examples include the Tujia People's stilt-house, Mosuo People's wooden house, Hui People's cave house and Li People's ship-shaped house. Hundreds of young men from a range of ethnic groups gather together and proudly be the guide to introduce their own culture. The park also holds ethnic groups' festivals and invites visitors to join in. The Water-Splashing Festival of the Dai People, the Mongolian's Nadam Fair, the Lisu People's Knife-Pole Festival, Miao People's Sister Festival and Yugur's Harvest Festival win much applause from visitors. At the museum, several ethnic groups grow traditional crops such as paddy rice or buckwheat, and each day Tibetan lamas from the Tar Monastery of Qinghai chant Buddhist sutras.
Well, perhaps in the summer months that might apply, but today it appears that half the buildings in the north section of the park are also locked well and truly shut.
But it would surely be churlish to complain. Who, in their right minds, after all, is going to want to visit today when it’s -16 Celsius? I even wonder if the fire hydrants scattered around the park, are likely to work in such cold weather.
It’s all so different from some of the more fanciful descriptions I have read on the net: “A brook murmurs through little bridges, flowers bloom in the sun, birds sing on the trees while rice and wheat send out fresh fragrance. Strolling in the park you can feel the strong flavor of the Chinese ethnic groups. It is really a good place to refresh your mind and relax. Staff members decked in colorful traditional costumes stroll around each village, offering information on each nationality's culture, while various small shops sell ethnic-themed souvenirs and handicrafts. Many of the sites also hold performances and events at regular intervals.”
But not today. Instead I come across one of the many museums-within-a-museum. Here is the Salar Museum, where a noticeboard tells me that the Salar nation has a population of 100,000 - mostly Moslem - and they mostly live in Xunhua Autonomous county in Qinghai Province. This particular Salar building, together with a minaret and mosque which are all about 500 years old, were removed from Xunhua in 2003 and rebuilt here. All the objects on display are original and arranged according to the local customs.
I’m just reading up on how the main products of the region are chili and pepper, when a red faced girl, who is surprised to see anyone at all in her particular “museum”, rushes up to me gesticulating wildly. Bu hanyu I tell her; but she prattles on, oblivious of the fact that I understand not a single word of what she is talking about; and taking my arm and all but shoving me out of her museum door she points frantically at the “Seaweed House” a few metres away.
It is clear, even to this befuddled blogger, that something is going on there. So with a smile and a XieXie, I stroll over to see what is afoot.
The seaweed stone house of the Han (Han Chinese constitute about 92% of the population) has walls built of stone and a roof covered with seaweed. The style of building is representative of the area along the Jiaodong coast in Shandong Province. After it rains, the seaweed apparently becomes sticky from the glutinous stuff inside, and this protects the building from heat, corrosion and combustion. Typically a roof lasts for up to 80 years without going rotten. In addition, the blurb tells us, the seaweeds near the gables will increase in thickness like the camel humps sticking up elegantly!
I wander inside where it is totally silent, save for a faint noise coming from the back of the building. As I wander down the passageway, the noise gets louder until, as I open a door I see inside a room where a group of students are playing indoor-badminton while others are knocking a ping pong ball around the place.
Silence falls, and then a plethora of voices all jabbering away in Chinese bid me welcome and I am all but marched to one of the seats facing an empty stage and told in no uncertain terms to park my bottom, as someone rushes over to an amplifier bay and turns on some “ethnic” music.
Bu hanyu, I once again tell my newfound friends; but this doesn’t stop them using that old trick we Brits have mastered over the years… if a foreigner doesn’t understand a word you are saying, you simply RAISE YOUR VOICE!
Any thoughts of being able to slip silently away are totally out of the question, of course; though I have to admit that after only 10 minutes in the open air, I am quite glad to warm up inside.
A girl walks up onto the stage, having forgotten to take off her cardigan in all the excitement of having someone to perform to! And then she proceeds to explain for five minutes in fluent Chinese what pleasures await. I smile, wishing all the time she would get the message that I haven’t a clue what she is talking about. But this is a well rehearsed performance, and nothing is going to stop her in her moment of glory!
I remember that in the summer months at least there are numerous performances throughout every day, including a flag ceremony, stunt performances, a water splashing carnival, and of course various ethnic dances. (The official web site asks that one respects Dai People's Custom by waiting for Dai People to splash the first bowl of water before you splash or touch the water. Please … splash water in the specified place!) But in the winter, this seems to be the best they can muster.
Soon enough a group of students, who have by this time donned colourful costumes, emerge from behind a curtain to perform for your favourite blogger’s delight.
One of the girls comes up to me and gestures that I should join them in their dancing; but I politely decline. In my vast experience of such things, it is nothing short of embarrassing to see foreigners “going native” and making absolute fools of themselves. Is it my imagination, or does the girl look slightly relieved?
No sooner have they shuffled off the stage than a guy, who obviously seems to fancy himself somewhat, jumps up and starts a rendition of some patriotic number that would have them all standing in the aisles at a karaoke bar. But this is not karaoke, and instead he moves on to performing what appears to be a take off of Gangnam Style – minus the Korean lyrics!
Next up, the failed PSY-lookalike joins in the antics as a group of guys shove one another with a pole – a bit like a tug-of-war, but in the opposite direction if you get my drift. Once again I am asked if I would like a go; but I fear it would not be fair to subject these guys to the effects of my rippling muscles and once again I politely decline.
Eventually, all good things must come to an end, and with tears in their eyes the students bid me all a fond farewell as I prepare once again to face the outside world.
A few metres up the path I come to a Gaoshan village, situated on a hilltop near a brook, recreating the mountain landscape typically inhabited by the Gaoshan people on Taiwan Island. The path is guarded over by two more totems. Now, have you noticed that whenever someone wants to push forward the idea of ethnicity that you invariably get a quaint looking ethnic statue that has an ethnic penis dangling from somewhere in the vicinity of its ethnic legs?
Well here they go one better. Not just two totems with attached penises, but two totems with three penises between them. I look around to see if there is an appropriately super-endowed female totem to be able to take advantage of what’s on offer (I’m beginning to understand the expression “a double whammy”!) but alas for these two totems proudly displaying their stuff, it is not to be.
A notice board tells anyone interested enough to stop for a while that, with a population of 400,000, the Gaoshan live mainly in Taiwan, though there are 4,461 who live on the mainland (how often is that updated, I wonder). They are good - we are told - at carving and drawing; and Gaoshan people believe in a primitive religion. (ah, then they are definitely ethnic, I suspect).
As I walk through the Gaoshan village, I come across yet another ethnic, penis-obsessed piece of art. Talk about one-track-minded! How come the Gaoshans haven’t outnumbered the Hans by now?
From the top of this eerie, one can perch over into the abyss below and see two ice-bound canoes in what presumably passes for a river at other times of the year.
While, turning to the left is a model of the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture's Manfeilong Pagoda – the original of which has been left behind in south western China.
Totally oblivious to this all, however, are three local residents wrapped up sensibly in fur coats.
I pass yet another ethnically-painted wall – this one featuring no-doubt-meaningful ethnic serpents surrounding a-supposedly ethnic woman and hardly notice directions to the Xibe Museum, Man Museum, Oroqen Musem, Salar Museum, Buyei Museum, Daur Museum, Mongolian Museum, Tujia Museum, Bai Museum, Naxi Museum, Dai Museum, Tu Museum, Miao Museum, Qiang Museum, Wa Museum, Zang Museum or any other blessed museum for that matter. I have more pressing thoughts on my mind and hurry on to the loo, the cold weather playing havoc with your favourite blogger’s bladder!
Inside it is spotless and in addition there is a working hand dryer (somewhat of a rarity in Beijing, I have found) and from then on I amble my way around the park stopping at every public convenience I pass in order to bask in a blast of hot air from the aforementioned dryers. Ahhhhh….. bliss!!!!
Before very long I have arrived at “A glimpse of the Dong Landscape”. This area is dominated by a stunning pagoda and a sign explains that with a population of around 3 million, the Dong live mainly in Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi.
Their language belongs to the Tibetan group of dialects; and the Dong traditionally dwell in two storey houses built on stilts. “Their embroidery is full of characteristics,” the blurb continues; “and the Dong homophonic singing style enjoys a long time fame. Dong people worship ghosts and gods,” it adds rather lamely, as if to stress their ethnic credentials.
Along the bank of the lake are three waterwheels, though the official Dong blurb makes no mention of these (or else my brain is too numb to take it in).
And crossing the Dragon Lake, joining the Dong to the Blang and Miao villages (ah – now I see where those three fur coated individuals came from!) is a pretty bridge, which actually looks better from further away than actually walking over it.
Over in the Dai area, is a rather splendid little tower known as the “Water Splashing Dragon Pavilion”. It’s a metal hexagon with five layered aluminium carvings. A dragon's head stretches upwards into the pavilion and when it rains, water comes out of its mouth. The pavilion is used for Buddha's birthday ceremonies and it was donated by Dehong prefecture in 1999.
But, oh dear. Whose idea was it to have this ghastly multicoloured Pi Xiu installed here. I have to say that of all the Pi Xiu I have seen in China, this one must be the most awful I have ever come across. Yuk!!!
One of the largest areas of the park – on the northern side at any rate – represents Tibet. Well, I guess it is one of the largest ethnic groupings isn’t it. To get to it you have first to climb up a trail through a rocky mountain “inspired by the Tibetan plateau". At the end of the mountain trail, a mini-Potala palace awaits, followed by a “stroll through a colourful village” along "Bajiao Street," modelled after its namesake in Lhasa.
A sign says, rather deprecatingly, I think, that “Tibetans have made great contributions to human civilisation by engaging in animal husbandry and raising yaks”. I guess that must be one of the things that makes them ethnic!
Just to underscore the ethnicity of the Tibetans, as if that is needed, are some rock doodles – no doubt copies of graffiti found in downtown Lhasa…
What? No penises or serpents? How un-ethnic!
But to make up for that, it appears the Ethnic Museum’s Tibetan Museum is stuffed full of museums in its own right
For instance there is a museum of Gau boxes (in which the Tibetans keep Caca, or religious clay models, Buddha figures or amulets), usually worn around the neck. Apparently they are cherished and admired by the wearers.
There’s also a frizzen museum.
A frizzen is a Tibetan type of tinderbox, used to start fires. It works on the age old principle of striking iron against flint and creating sparks.
A frizzen is a Tibetan type of tinderbox, used to start fires. It works on the age old principle of striking iron against flint and creating sparks.
And we mustn’t forget the plait adornment museum…
In the summer of 2001 when a professional inspection team led by Wang Ping, director of this ethnic museum, arrived in the Tibetan area of Qinghai, they rather fancied the plait adornments embroidered with flower motifs hung on the backs of the Tibetan girls.
According to local tradition, when a girl is about 13 years old, the elders will hold for her a ceremony called dai dun. (Dai dun means wearing beautiful headdresses.) When a girl wears such a plait adornment for the first time it shows she has grown up.
They brought a number of these adornments (minus the girls!) back to the museum and put them on display here.
And lest you should think for one moment that I have not as yet mentioned what Tibet is most famous for, I should add without further ado that there is a whole row of prayer wheels that the idle visitor can spin, leading up to a large prayer wheel at the end of the street.
The big prayer wheel is another means of chanting a mantra. The metal covers are inscribed with six-character words and the entire scriptures from the Taer Temple are found inside. Revolving it for one cycle in a clockwise direction has the same power as tens of thousands of mantra being chanted. (I would think that the guy who discovered this must have won first prize in the annual time and motion study awards that year!)
Having spun my wheel and fully now expecting tens of thousands of mantras-worth of good luck to come my way, your favourite blogger steps out once more into the real world.
But it is not long before I make my way to one final rest-room stop before heading for the subway station. Arranged at strategic intervals round the walls and over the urinals are multiple copies of these notices…
Literally translated they say love (or protect) public property; you are the most beautiful. Now, how on earth could they possibly have known your favourite blogger would be coming here?