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Sunday, August 31, 2014

An Exemplar Of What Some Museums Can Be

I’ve talked before about how Beijing is stuffed full of museums – over 150 by my reckoning. And though I am trying slowly to work my way around them all, somehow I have never got that excited about visiting some of the museums devoted to China’s many revolutionary martyrs, communist thinkers and other local worthies.
But all that may be about to change, following my visit this last weekend to a museum dedicated to the writer Lu Xun; for not only is it well laid out, stuffed full of interesting photographs and artefacts, but it also has fulsome descriptions and narratives in English about the life of this leading figure of modern Chinese literature. {Mind you, having said that, every one of my Chinese friends to whom I have mentioned this say that they find his writing somewhat heavy going to plough through. But hey, let’s not worry about that right now eh?} In short, it’s a model for what many of Beijing’s other museums should be striving for.
Lu Xun was the pen name of Zhou Shuren – a novelist, editor, translator, literary critic, essayist, and poet. He chose his pseudonym when his fiction was first published in 1918. His works exerted a substantial influence and he was highly acclaimed by the Communist regime after 1949, with Mao Zedong himself being said to be a lifelong admirer.
Though sympathetic to communist ideas, Lu Xun never actually joined the Chinese Communist Party – until after his death, that is! He was primarily a leftist whose work promoted radical change through criticism of antiquated cultural values and repressive social customs.
I set off for Fuchengmen station on Line 2 and find the north east exit. Making an immediate left turn (instead of walking down to the main road) brings you almost to the entrance of the museum (北京鲁迅博物馆). The buildings, in which the museum is situated, were Lu Xun's former Beijing residence and the museum itself was established in 1956.
I smile at the lady in the ticket office. She smiles back. I ask how much to get in (a number of web sites say it is 10 kuai, but I have learned never to trust what these web sites tell you). An even bigger smile. It’s free! Welcome. Come in! Come in! I do as I am bid.
Inside is a massive courtyard that looks well cared for. And clean! And ahead of me is the main residence.
At first glance it looks like I have come on a wild goose chase. Nothing to see apart from a picture stuck half heartedly onto the wall in the entrance hall. But an arrow points the way downstairs, and suddenly one finds oneself in an Aladdin’s Cave of Lu Xun memorabilia.
Lu Xun was born in Shaoxing, Zhejiang in September 1881. His family had been prosperous for centuries, but by the time he was born, his family's prosperity was already in decline. His father, Zhou Boyi, had been successful at passing the lowest, county-level imperial examinations (the route to wealth and social success in imperial China), but in 1893 he was discovered attempting to bribe an examination official to get through the next round. Lu Xun's grandfather was arrested and sentenced to beheading for his son's crime. Hmmm. Strange kind of justice they administered in those days!
Every year the family had to send money to the Ministry of Punishment to ensure that the grandfather’s sentence would be commuted for another 12 months; and it is said that this overt corruption influenced Lu Xun's contempt for the traditional system of government. Although grandpa was released eight years later, daddy Zhou engaged in heavy drinking and opium use and finally died of an asthma attack in 1896.
This pic shows Lu’s grandfather, grandmother and step-grandmother in ‘happier times’.
As a result, the young Lu’s family was living in straightened circumstances; but the previous year, aged 12 years, Lu Xun had begun his study of the Confucian classics at a private school house known as the Three Flavours Studio – which they just happen to have a photograph of!
In 1892, Lu Xun left Shaoxing for Nanjing to begin a study of modern engineering and science; and after a short spell at the Jiangnan Naval Academy, he finally entered the School of Mines and Railroads where he got free tuition, thanks to a scholarship (as opposed to the official museum version which tells us that he entered the School of Mines and Railroads ‘free of tuition’ – which rather begs the question of why he would bother going there in the first place, I think!)
This all happened in the wake of China's defeat by Japan in 1894-5 and the suppression by the conservative Empress Dowager of the Hundred Day's Reform backed by the young Guanxu Emperor. This further heightened Lu's concern for China's fate in a world of competing imperial powers.
The school was Lu's first exposure to Western literature, philosophy, history, and science, and he studied English and German. He did pretty well at the school and after graduating he planned to become a Western doctor.
The picture below shows the Nanjing section of his life as depicted by the museum. As you can see there is no shortage of material here.
In 1902 he travelled to Japan on a Qing government scholarship to study Japanese and medical science for seven years. He first had to attend the Kobun Institute, a preparatory language school for Chinese students attending Japanese universities. Below is a diploma issued by Kobun.
While there he became a supporter of the Chinese revolutionaries who also gathered in Japan. In 1903 he began to write articles for radical magazines edited by Chinese students in Japan.
After encouragement from a classmate, he even cut off his queue (which all Han Chinese were legally forced to wear in China) but it is said he had an ambiguous attitude towards Chinese revolutionary politics during this period.
In 1904 Lu began studying at the Sendai Medical Academy (now the medical school of Tohoku University), in northern Honshu, but remained there for less than two years. He generally found his studies at the school tedious and difficult, partially due to his imperfect Japanese.
While Lu Xun was attending medical school, the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) broke out. It became common for lecturers to show slides of pictures from the war to their students after their classes had ended. After one of his biology classes, Lu was shown a scene in which a Japanese soldier was about to behead a Chinese man who had allegedly spied for the Russians, surrounded by Chinese who looked somewhat apathetic. In his preface to his first collection of short stories, Lu explained how viewing this scene influenced him to quit studying Western medicine, and instead to become a ‘literary physician’ to what he perceived to be China's spiritual problems.
In June 1906 Lu's mother feigned illness as a pretext to ask Lu to return home, where she then forced him to take part in an arranged marriage she had agreed to several years before. Puh! Mothers! Who needs them?
Lu Xun married the girl, Zhu An, but never had a romantic relationship with her. Well can you blame him? I mean, look at her! Fancy waking up to see that face on the pillow beside you every morning! Scary! Although he took care of her material needs for the rest of his life, four days after the ceremony Lu sailed back to Japan with his younger brother, Zuoren, and left her behind.
Lu Xun returned to Tokyo in 1906, and decided to devote himself to education and literature rather than medicine. But in 1909 he had to return to China because of financial problems in his home. (What’s the betting his wife was getting her own back on him for deserting her!). At first he taught in Zhejiang Normal School in Hangzhou and then served as headmaster of another school in Shaoxing.
In February 1912, shortly after the Xinhai Revolution that ended the Qing dynasty and nominally founded the Republic of China, Lu gained a position at the national Ministry of Education. He was hired in Nanjing, but then moved with the ministry to Beijing, where he lived from 1912-1926.
Two of his major accomplishments in office were the renovation and expansion of the Beijing Library, the establishment of the Natural History Museum, and the establishment of the Library of Popular Literature.
In 1917 an old friend of Lu's, Qian Xuantong, invited him to write for a radical populist literary magazine that had recently been founded, called New Youth. At first Lu was sceptical, but in 1918 he wrote his first short story, Diary of a Madman, for the magazine, and the story was praised for its anti-traditionalism, its synthesis of Chinese and foreign conventions and ideas, and its skilful narration. As a result, Lu himself was recognized as one of the leading writers of the New Culture Movement. Lu continued writing for the magazine, and produced his most famous stories for New Youth between 1917-1921. These stories were collected and re-published in Nahan (‘Outcry’) in 1923.
In 1919 Lu moved his family to a large compound in Beijing, where he lived with his mother (oh, so he’s still talking to her?), his two brothers, and their Japanese wives (no mention of his own wife here though). This living arrangement lasted until 1923, when Lu had a falling out with his brother, Zuoren, after Zuoren's wife accused Lu of making sexual advances towards her.
In 1923 he lost his front teeth in a rickshaw accident (yeah, yeah… that’s the official story, but who knows if Zuoren had something to do with it? LOL! ). In 1924 he developed the first symptoms of tuberculosis. And the next year, Lu began an affair with one of his students at the Beijing Women's College, a girl called Xu Guanping.
In March 1926 there was a mass student protest against the warlord Feng Yuxiang's collaboration with the Japanese. The protests degenerated into a massacre, in which two of Lu's students were killed. His public support for the protesters forced him to flee from the local authorities and he went to Xiamen, where he started teaching at Xiamen University, though he did at least have the good grace to send Xu Guanping this postcard of the university.
In January 1927 he and Xu moved to Guangzhou, where he was hired as the head of the Zhongshan University Chinese literature department. His first act in his position was to hire her as his 'personal assistant', and to hire one of his old classmates from Japan, Xu Shoushang, as a lecturer. So I guess he was obviously well into nepotism.
While in Guangzhou, he edited numerous poems and books and made contacts within the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party through his students. Later that year he left for Shanghai, widely regarded as one of the most famous intellectuals in China.
For the first time was able to make a living solely as a professional writer, with a monthly income of roughly 500 yuan. He was also appointed as a "specially appointed writer" by the national Ministry of Higher Education, which brought him an additional 300 yuan a month. He began to live with Xu Guangping, and she got pregnant. They had a son in 1929 whom they called Haiying.
Lu Xun stopped writing fiction and devoted himself to writing satiric critical essays, which he used as a form of political protest. In 1930 he became the nominal leader of the League of Left-Wing Writers. Although he himself refused to join the Chinese Communist Party, he recruited many writers and countrymen to the communist cause through his Chinese translations of Marxist literary theories, as well as through his own political writing.
He sent a telegram congratulating the CCP on their completion of the Long March in February 1936. But his health continued to deteriorate throughout that year, due to his chronic tuberculosis. He died on October 19, aged 56, and his remains were interred in a mausoleum within what is now Lu Xun Park in Shanghai. Mao Zedong made the calligraphic inscription above his tomb; and he was posthumously made a member of the Communist Party for his contributions to the May Fourth Movement.
This is his death mask that was made by a Japanese dentist, though the museum is pretty unforthcoming with any more details…

During the last years of Lu Xun’s life, the government had prohibited the publication of most of his work, so he was forced to publish the majority of his new articles under various pseudonyms. He criticized the Shanghai communist literary circles for their embrace of propaganda, and he was politically attacked by many of their members.
But in true hypocritical fashion, the Chinese communist movement adopted Lu Xun posthumously as an exemplar of Socialist Realism, with much of his work incorporated into school textbooks. It was probably because he died relatively early in the Communist movement that he was not criticized for making the kinds of political ‘errors’ for which his colleagues suffered.
According to Wikipedia, shortly after Lu Xun's death, Mao Zedong called him ‘the saint of modern China’, but used his legacy selectively to promote his own political goals. After the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, Communist Party literary theorists portrayed his work as orthodox examples of communist literature, yet every one of Lu's close disciples from the 1930s was purged. Apparently Mao admitted that, had Lu survived until the 1950s, he would ‘either have gone silent or gone to prison’.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party both hailed Lu Xun as one of the fathers of communism in China, yet ironically suppressed the very intellectual culture and style of writing that he represented. Some of his essays and writings, however, are now part of the primary school and middle school compulsory curriculum in China.
In 1956, Premier Chou EnLai attended the memorial conference of the 20th anniversary of his death.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How Come This Temple Is Not On Everyone's List?

I never cease to be surprised that even during my third year here in Beijing there is still no shortage of things to visit and explore in this most fascinating of cities. Never could I have predicted when I first came here that I would still be discovering hidden gems that begged the question of why it took so long for me to discover them in the first place!
The Lidai Diwang Miao temple is one such example. IMHO it certainly rivals that must-see tourist attraction known as the Yonghegong Lama Temple that is always filled to capacity with tourists. But this temple is virtually empty – and so much the better for that!
I make my way to Fuchengmen station on Line 2 in Xicheng District and leave from the northeast exit, heading in an easterly direction along Fuchengmennei. It’s not far to go, but before getting there I pass another temple complex which is heavily closed off to the public with the most amazing White Pagoda covered in scaffolding.
This is the Miaoying Temple (妙应寺), whose famous white stupa dates back to 1271 in the Yuan Dynasty. At 50.9 meters high, it is the largest and one of the oldest ‘dagobas’ of its kind extant in China. (It is one of two famous white ‘dagobas’ in Beijing, the other one standing in Beihai Park.)
"Miaoying Si", which means "Temple of Marvellous Response", was seriously damaged by the Tangshan earthquake in 1976. Fifteen years earlier, Premier Zhou En-lai had signed a proclamation stating that the temple was to be protected as a National Treasure, and it was this proclamation which kept the White Stupa safe during the Cultural Revolution.
In 1978, the Beijing Department of Cultural Relics undertook the task of repairing and renovating the temple complex; but again, since 2010, the Stupa complex has been undergoing yet another renovation; hence the closure. (Despite the fact it has been closed for four years, this doesn’t stop travelchinaguide.com from informing us that admission hours are from 9am to 4.30pm with an admission fee of 20 RMB. At least they managed to update their web page to show that their copyright runs from 1998-2014, even if they couldn’t manage something as basic as a total closure of the featured site, four years after the gates had been locked shut to visitors!)
But as I say, I haven’t come here for this. Instead I head on a further 200 metres to the Lidai Diwang Miao – a royal temple used to worship past emperors. Built in the 16th century in the place of a former Buddhist temple, it served as a place where reigning emperors could visit and pay homage to previous emperors.
Actually, it was more usually their representatives who diligently carried out sacrifices in spring and autumn, although Emperor Yongzheng, who killed his brother in order to grab the throne for himself, made five appearances here during his short tenure in power.
On both sides of the main entrance there are memorial steles, written in Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan, which read "Officials must dismount here."
Lidai Diwang Miao was built on the grounds of a former Buddhist temple (Bao'an Si), some 485 years ago. The emperor worship came to an end with the fall of the Qing dynasty, when the complex was used for school buildings before it opened to the public in 2004 after undergoing a $36 million restoration.
I pay my 20 kuai …
and step through the portal into an amazing courtyard.
Everywhere – with one major exception … see below – there are explanatory notices in both Chinese and English. An excellent job has been done in explaining what the curious visitor might want to know.
Apart from the main map, there is also a simple model showing the layout of the complex for those who can only think in 3D.
Within the first courtyard is the very impressive Jing De Gate, originally built in 1530 (not 1350, as rmhb.com.cn so helpfully informs its German readers!). It is 26.6m wide and 14.8m high and is surrounded by a white marble guardrail. Three flights of steps lead up to it with a railed-off path on which there is a design of clouds and hills.
Another gorgeous yard lies ahead, with pride of place going to the Jing De Chong Sheng Palace, which was also built in 1530, but rebuilt during the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods when the golden dragons were repainted and the yellow coloured glazed tile roof was replaced. The inside is nine rooms wide (51m) and five rooms deep (27m) and here are located 188 tablets of the emperors who were worshipped in the hall.
The original wooden tablets of the past emperors were smashed during the Cultural Revolution – something that has not been translated into English. Heaven forbid that foreigners might learn that the Chinese – so good at complaining about the damage that foreign troops inflicted on the likes of the YuanMingYuan – were just as good at inflicting mindless destruction on themselves! Their replacements look anything but authentic. Perhaps this is why photography is forbidden in this hall?
Oops – must have pressed the shutter key by mistake...
One of the most impressive features of this place is the stone steles that are positioned to the east and west of the main hall. The one to the east, for instance, was first erected in 1733 in the Yongzheng period of the Qing Dynasty. On one side it has inscriptions in both Manchu and Chinese (Yongzheng period), whilst on the other side is an inscription in just Chinese, which was added 52 years later in Emperor Qianlong’s rule. Hence this stele is referred to as the Father and Son.
At 7.53m high it’s quite some beast and you can imagine the poor peasants who had to move the bloody thing wishing the emperors didn’t have such incredible egos!
The stele itself stands on the usual turtle which represents longevity. I guess it worked in this particular case!
Outside, bits of restoration continue at a desultory pace. Well, it is a hot day, I suppose. I’m not sure I would be busting a gut if I was in this poor guy’s position either.
Close to where he is working is the East Liao Lu furnace, which again was originally built in 1530. It is made up of green glaze and was used to burn the paper or silk prayers which were offered for sacrifice to the old emperors whose tablets appear in the Imperial Temple. The furnace was rebuilt in 2004.
There’s also something called the Well Pavilion, which was used to make sacrificial soup and to clean up after the animals were slaughtered for sacrifice. According to the notice board there, the roof has a round hole in its centre facing the mouth of the well, symbolizing that heaven and earth are linked together.
I wander over to have a look… and wonder if there is confusion in translation of the word ‘round’? Or perhaps the hole has just squared off over the years. Hmmmm…
In keeping with all the other buildings, the bell tower – also built in 1530 – was where the sacrificial bell was hung. Well, I guess that makes sense. It’s all very picturesque.
Less picturesque, though, is a collection of notice boards stuck up against the eastern wall. These only have Chinese text – almost as if they are embarrassed to let foreigners know how badly the Chinese treated their own heritage.
One poster summed it all up for me. Outside the main entrance, there were originally three marble bridges and a spectacular pailou – or wooden memorial gate. You can see from the pictures that it was quite something! But the city planners (did they have planners in those days, I wonder) decided that the pailou got in the way of the traffic, so in 1953 and 1954 they were demolished. And so ended 450 years of history at a stroke.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Not a single red scarf in sight

When I first arrived in Beijing, I did some moonlighting for an abysmal TV station called BON (Blue Ocean Network) TV. If I had ever thought that Saudi TV had pretty low standards, I rapidly changed my views after stepping through the portals of BON. LOL!
Their studios were located in a part of Beijing called Shilipu which was one of those places seemingly bereft of anything nice to say about it. However, with the opening up of Subway Line 6, I’m glad to say the whole area has been picking itself up by its own shoelaces and this past weekend I decided to do a little bit of exploring in an area I really knew little about.
Honglingjin Park (红领巾公园) is located five minutes walk to the west of Shilipu station. It lies at the junction of Chaoyang North Road and East 4th Ring Road and boasts, if that is the right word, that it is the only theme park for children named "Red scarf" in the country. The Red Scarf is, of course, a symbol of the young pioneers and a large notice proclaims that this place is a “patriotic education base for young people, consisting of multiple functional areas and three squares providing scientific education, entertainment, revolutionary education, botanic appreciation and aquatic programs”.
It was built in 1958, and according to visitbeijing.com.cn it now covers an area of 389 km, of which 160 km is covered by water. Undaunted by nonsense of this kind, at least Wikipedia puts us straight on the fact that the area is actually 0.389 square kilometres (96 acres), of which 0.160 square kilometres (40 acres) are covered by water, before then spoiling it all by adding that it has a 96% greenery coverage rate, which it palpably does not!
Apparently the park holds a scientific garden party on June 1 every year, while on National Day – October 1 – there is a cultural festival for twins.
beijingimpression.cn tells us that the park has become one of the most suitable destinations for educational trips of students as well as to ensure that visitors can be recharged through their visit to this park. But despite that I note that, unlike many parks in BJ, entrance here is free (For some of my non-English blog fans, I should perhaps explain that this is an example of British humour. But please don’t write in to me asking me to elucidate!).
Entering through the southern gate, I find myself in Ginkgo Square – a 5,000-square-metre plaza which boasts 27 large ginkgo trees. Ahead of me is what I guess is meant to represent a pearl inside an oyster. I feel suitably educated. Beyond that is a huge expanse of water which positively invites one to explore further.
I head in a westerly direction and see a section barricaded off, but with the temporary fencing forced open and with various families wandering aimlessly inside. This is the "Song of the Red Scarf" theme square – a 3,000-square-metre area (or Song of the Red Necktie square with a 2,000 sq m area, depending on which web site you decide to place your faith in), which at its northern end has a themed sculpture of five radial steel columns topped by a golden torch with a semicircle relief sculpture as its backdrop.
On both sides of the square stand the statues of young revolutionary martyrs such as Lei Feng, Liu Hulan, Liu Wenxue, and 'Little Carrot' (no, really! This surely must be true as it has been copied and pasted into virtually every website that describes this park!)
Bordering the lake is a 1,920-square-metre tiered flower bed that runs 240 metres along the eastern bank. Maybe it’s the time of year, but it is hardly eye catching, and one feels that someone, somewhere, could perhaps have made a little more effort in planting something a bit more spectacular.
On the lake itself are strange little UFOs that go gurgle-gurgle every so often and shoot out a spout of water. They must have seemed like a great idea to someone in the park’s purchasing department, but not a single kid looks at them with the slightest bit of interest.
There are also some “worthy” sculptures dotted around which once again elicit zero interest from the visitors.
According to Wikipedia, there are 18 groups of “artistic and educational sculptures” scattered in the park, which are referred to as ‘Steps in the Sun’. I quite like this stone mouse trap – if indeed that is what it is meant to represent.
Someone, too it seems, has a fetish for sheep …
and I particularly like a series of ‘split rock’ sculptures that purport to show some petrified animal or plant that has been trapped inside a boulder since the dawn of time.
Every so often there are swing seats for relaxing on – a nice touch, even if they are in desperate need of a drop of oil on their bearings.
Located over on the eastern side of the lake is a ‘Plants Observing Area’ that apparently shows off rare species of pine, ginkgo, begonia and lagerstroemia. The ginkgo trees are much in evidence, but the real colour comes from pelargonium and a type of lavender bush.
A white lily is also much in evidence throughout the park, which brightens the drab surrounding walls somewhat …
And some of the more mature shrubbery is pleasing on the eye, especially when set off by a bit of “modern art” such as this lump of wood propped up against a steel shoot…
Someone with a sense of humour has also had a hand in the design of some of the sculptures, as represented here by this family of cute hippopotamus …
There’s also some guy seemingly having a meaningful conversation with some monkeys …
… and some kids having a tussle over a ball; **
{** I'm indebted to my friend Meng who tells me that this actually refers to a famous kids' story about a boy who fell into a water jar and the only way his friend could get him out was to throw stones at the jar until it broke}
though I prefer this wolf-like dog snarling at a jumped up official.
Cute, though admittedly not particularly memorable, bridges connect the sides of the lake with islands here and there;
such as the bridge which connects to the ‘Practical Road Safety Education Base for Minor Citizens’. There’s a lovely assault course for kids, which looks a lot of fun – but no one seems the slightest bit interested in it.
Kids can also learn the barest of essentials about China’s space programme, while also learning about traffic laws and regulations by driving electric cars on a simulated highway.
beijingimpression.cn talks about this being “a paradise for kids”, which I suspect either means the web site is out of touch with reality, or that Beijing’s kids have very low expectations.
I am particularly drawn to a “Friendly Remainder” notice which appears to have worked out a new way of telling the time, with ‘19.30 am’ equivalent to ‘7.30 pm’. Don’t you just love it! This must be what they mean by education!
Dotted around the park are loads of old and rusting red-star frames, each of which features one or two countries of the world and talks a little about their national plants.
And taking the education theme yet further, there are anti-smoking posters dotted around the north western sector, adding educational appeal to those studying English as a second language. “Care yourself,” they read. “Do a healthy person”.
Honglingjin Park meanders under the 4th Ring Road, in its north western end – somewhere for the boats to get a bit of shade as they make their way under the traffic overpass – and here it would appear that the park’s planners were totally at a loss as to what to do with this little outcrop of land.
There’s a weird sculpture of something which I think is meant to represent waves and clouds, and which is desperately in need of a coat of paint. There is also an area of grass land where people are allowed to pitch tents; and an area of stagnant water at the very end of the lake system where loads of losers who obviously have too much time on their hands have thrown in fishing lines hoping to catch some poor defenceless fish for “sport”.
The entire visit has taken me an hour to cover the whole park. And though I certainly wouldn’t recommend making a special trip all the way out to see Honglingjin Park, I would suggest that if you are there in that area anyway (perhaps you, too, have taken on some moonlighting at BON TV?) you could do worse than to kill an hour or so in this oasis – or at the very least take a walk along its perimeter wall…