A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Monday, February 20, 2012

The Unkindest Snip of All - Beijing's Eunuch Museum

I appear to be getting myself a reputation. Whenever I meet anyone in the lift or entrance hall to my apartment block nowadays, it’s no longer "how ya doing man", pronounced in an American drawl by venturers from Her Majesty’s former colonies, but "been to any good museums lately?"

My foray this last weekend will surely supply a load of good party stories, much like my "last time I was arrested in Saudi Arabia" opening gambit I have been using for (probably) far too long.

Regular readers of this column will know that I am slowly working my way around Beijing’s 130+ museums, searching out the unusual; but this time I hit gold - the world’s only Eunuch Museum (or so the Chinese would have you believe).

I had casually dropped my plans into a conversation I was having with a work colleague, who immediately wanted to know if she could come along too. I had already discovered that there were precious few signs there in English, and of course told her that I would be delighted to have her along for company.

So 16 years after the death of the last eunuch in China, this intrepid duo set out for the very outskirts of Beijing in search of one of its most isolated museums. I gather from the web that visitors are so rare here that with its 8 yuan entrance fee the museum doesn’t even make enough to cover its electricity bill. Yes, we were the only visitors, which was certainly a welcome contrast to the armada of tour buses in the likes of Tiananmen Square (hmmm – can one have an armada of buses? Well, you know what I mean!).

Eunuchs have existed in civilizations across the world, most especially in Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia, Turkey and India. Even 18th century Europe had eunuchs - the castrati who were emasculated as children in order to preserve their male soprano voices. In fact, eunuchs sang in the Vatican choir up until they were banned in 1878.

But it is China where eunuchs have held the greatest historical significance. In ancient China, castration was used both as a punishment as well as a way to work for the emperor. It was believed that since eunuchs were unable to have children they would not be tempted to seize power and start their own dynasties.

Some eunuchs rose to great heights in the Imperial courts, with some even more powerful than ministers, so they probably posed quite a threat to the bureaucrats of their day. It is said that towards the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) there were some 70,000 eunuchs employed by the emperor. By 1912, however, the number had dwindled to just 470. China’s last eunuch, Sun Yaoting, was 93 years old when he died in 1996 at his home in Beijing. He had served as a eunuch for Pu Yi, China’s Last Emperor, as well as in the troubled puppet court run by the Japanese in the 1930s.

It is clear, when browsing the web for interesting eunuch facts, that many of them could have done with a good dollop of PR to improve their image. Take Li Lianying for example. He was a Qing Dynasty eunuch who persuaded Empress Cixi to divert funds meant for modernizing China’s navy to build the Summer Palace. No doubt today’s tourists are pretty thankful that he did. But when they dug up Li Lianying’s grave, his head was missing. Whether he was buried without his head or whether it was removed by those who hated him, we’ll probably never know.

Anyway, one of the good guys in the eunuch hall of fame was a certain Tian Yi - a Ming Dynasty eunuch who lived from 1534 to 1605. Although his tomb has been looted of all its treasures, his remains still lie here. The cemetery faces south and is encircled by a stone wall and contains stone carvings and sculptures. Tian Yi’s tomb is said to be the best-preserved eunuch mausoleum in China.

Tian Yi served under three emperors and it is said that when he died at the age of 72 in 1605, Emperor Wanli was so heart broken that the imperial court was suspended for three days and the emperor built this place to honour him. The cemetery occupies 6,000 square metres and contains five tombs of Tian Yi and four other eunuchs. These were the eunuchs who guarded the tomb of Tian Yi, and the tombs of these other four stand to the left and right of Tian Yi’s tomb.

The museum sits on the site of what was once Cixiang Nunnery. Nuns and monks once lived in this Buddhist temple, and interestingly, eunuchs once resided in Cixiang Nunnery too.

Anyway, any thoughts that we might have had that the location would be at a pretty little spot on BJ’s outskirts (since Pingguoyuan 苹果园 – the name of the last station** at the western end of Beijing’s Line 1 subway - means Apple Orchard) were cruelly dashed. The suburb of Shijingshan is more like an industrial waste land, with tall factory chimneys dominating the skyline. Still, it gave us the chance to walk through a small part of ramshackle old Beijing that is normally off the tourist beat.

Twenty minutes walking from the station, using the sun for direction finding and a Samsung Galaxy for more precise directions, got us to Moshikou Avenue which meandered its way to the west past endless street-side stalls. On asking directions from a local it was clear that a eunuch museum was not on her list of much visited attractions, though she thought that it might well be a little way further up the street. And so it turned out to be.

I particularly liked a sign on the back of a parked car near our destination whose meaning had quite obviously not been fully grasped by its owner. It was certainly a different take on the "Baby on Board" signs you see on so many European cars. Well, the majority of the letters were there, so who is complaining?

When we got to the museum there was no one to be seen. We wandered along a little lane until we found a man who walked us back to the ticket office, carefully unlocking the door and inviting us in to relieve us of 16 kwai before carefully locking up the office again and disappearing once more, leaving the place to ourselves.

We started off with the cemetery itself, which we discovered was divided into three sections. On either side of the entrance was a 3m tall statue of Tian Yi – one dressed as a warrior and the other a scholar.

It was quite clear that this Tian Yi was definitely one of the "good guys“. Apparently, 259 eunuchs came to pay tribute to him at his tomb after his death; and the names of all these eunuchs are inscribed on a stone column that stands close by.

Tian Yi was born in Shanxi and was just 9 years old when he was castrated and sent to wait on the emperor and his entourage. He served three Ming Dynasty Emperors – Jiajing, Longqing and Wanli – during 63 years of service. His mausoleum has all the features of an imperial mausoleum, the only difference being that it is smaller than the mausoleum of a member of the Imperial Family.

Moving in to the middle section, there are three pavilions, each of which has a stone tablet on which is recorded Tian Yi’s achievements. The pavilion in the middle stands out from the other two, having a round shaped dome and motifs of lions, reflecting a mix of east and west.

Putting the pavilions behind us, we arrive at the "Shouyu Gate“, once believed to be the dividing line between this world and the netherworld. In ancient times, this gate was never opened and sacrificial rituals were performed in the memorial hall outside it. Today, though, we can just walk straight through and into an area with the tomb mounds of Tian Yi and his four fellow eunuchs.

The stone carvings are pretty neat and are one of the most striking features of Tian Yi’s mausoleum. There are dragons, lions, deer and plants, all in pretty good condition, as well as carvings of eunuchs serving the emperor. The tomb mounds and most of the sacrificial altars are carved from marble

You can even go down some steps to visit the actual crypt of Tian Yi. It’s pretty dark down here, and you feel pretty thankful for a banister rail to hang onto for dear life as you descend the steps...

... though even with the VERY low wattage light bulbs they have installed (still trying to cut down their electricity bill, no doubt) you find yourself stumbling forward with your hands stretched out feeling for a wall that may or may not be there. I get the feeling this is how Indiana Jones might have felt on some of his forays.

Tian Yi’s tomb is totally empty, though. It was raided long ago and its treasures stolen to raise troop funds during the early years of the Republic of China.

There’s also another tomb which is darker and murkier than the first. We peered into the gloom, using the screen of a mobile phone to add some precious lumens, without much success. Next time, if ever there is a next time, I must remember to bring a torch with me!

Close to the entrance of the cemetery, hidden away down a side passage, is the actual museum part of this site. Not "one room“ as has been reported on a couple of other web sites I came across, but five, all bristling with every possible piece of information you might care to learn about the life and times of eunuchs. This is where having a Chinese speaker with you is a definite advantage, though there are some notices in English as well; and some displays you frankly don’t need any written explanation for...

Not only are there graphical renditions of the operation itself – performed without anaesthetic with the boy tied down to stop him struggling – but also a copy of what the knife itself would have looked like. It reminded me of the coverage given to a "Mrs Bobbit crime“ that had been written up in the UAE newspapers with artists’ impressions of the knife used by an Ethiopian servant who had emasculated her employer.

Apparently some castration businesses held a monopoly in their particular localities and it does make you wonder about some of the more unusual professions that some people get themselves into. (Many years ago on British television there was a game show called "What’s My Line“ in which a panel of four would have to try to guess the profession of a contestant just by asking ten questions. It would start off with the contestant miming something he did in his actual job. One doesn’t need much imagination to wonder what one of these guys would have done for their mime!)

Unlike the kind Turks, who "only“ chopped off the poor guys’ balls, they didn’t believe in doing things by half here in China. Makes you wonder whether said eunuchs went into the Gents or Ladies when on an evening out!

Of course, there were a number of reasons why a guy might get elected to have his manhood removed. Many of the eunuchs came from very poor places like Hebei and Shanxi province where becoming a eunuch was one of the only ways out of poverty then. They were virtually dying of starvation so the family might decide to give up one of its lads to become a eunuch in the hope that they would reap handsome rewards.

And amazingly some of these palace eunuchs actually married in later life, coupling up with serving wenches who, of course, had to make do without certain benefits in the marriage bed. No matter. They were able to make do with dildos – which are also on display here.

The five-room museum contains a varied assortment of mementoes. In one glass case, for instance, is a chair and walking stick of the last eunuch, Sun Yaoting. There are also a couple of his calligraphy paintings.

Another glass case displays a wooden model of a ship captained by Zheng He - China’s famous 15th century mariner, explorer and diplomat who was castrated at the age of 11 and sent to the Imperial Court after the Ming army crushed a Mongolian rebellion in the Yunnan region where he lived. Once at court, he was named San Bao, meaning Three Jewels (hahaha - oh you really do have to admire the Chinese sense of humour!)

He went on to become a trusted adviser of the Yongle Emperor, assisting him in toppling his predecessor. In return for his services, he received the name Zheng He and set sail on an expedition that would reach Africa.

Around the walls of one of the rooms you can see the faces of some other famous eunuchs, as well as read about them. Did you know for instance that Cai Lun, the inventor of paper, was also a eunuch? Born in 50 AD Cai Lun invented the composition of what we recognize today as paper at the age of 55, and he also invented the papermaking process. Before that, writing was generally made on tablets of bamboo or special silks, all of which were very heavy to carry and difficult to store. Cai Lun’s invention was therefore a significant turning point for Chinese civilization.

The technology we use today still utilizes his papermaking process. But it would take many more centuries before paper was introduced to Europe. It was only after Chinese papermakers were captured by Arabs in the 8th century Battle of the Talas that papermaking knowledge started to spread westwards. Paper was first introduced to Europe in the 12th century, and so we have a eunuch to thank for one of the world’s most important inventions.

One of the more surprising displays in the museum that you may not be expecting to come across is a well preserved mummified corpse lying in a glass cabinet that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in over 20 years (the glass case, that is; not the corpse!). Depending on whose web site you believe he is either not a eunuch, but a high ranking officer whose body was found in the surrounding area. Or else he was a eunuch from the 17th century in the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi. (As my companion was suffering from shock at this point, a corpse being the last thing she had expected to see, I never did find out what the Chinese explanatory panels said.) Either way, the mummy was found in West Shijingshan in 2006.

By the way, in the suburb of Shijingshan there are also other buildings built by eunuchs during the Ming dynasty, including an unusual fortified temple, as well as the Fahai Temple (法海寺) – a 15 minute walk away from the cemetery at the foot of Cuiwei Mountain – renowned for its magnificent Buddhist wall paintings.

Construction of the Fahai Temple started in the 4th year of the reign of the Ming Emperor Zhengtong (1439 A.D.) and was completed four years later. It is built on three terraces - the first being the Hall of Gateway; the second is the Hall of Four Gods, and on the third is the Grand Hall of Buddha, around which is the Hall of Masters.

Fahai Temple is noted for its 240 sq m of murals, which adopt the traditional Chinese realistic painting method characterized by fine brush work and close attention in detail (it says on an official web site). Fine, delicate strokes, meticulous painting and exquisite colouring have made the murals distinguished among murals found in Beijing, it adds as an afterthought.
According to historical records, the paintings were executed by famous artisans recruited from all over China under the supervision of renowned court painters. It is said that the murals rival Western masterpieces.

What the web sites don’t tell you is that your 20 kwai entrance fee only gets you into the grounds of the temple and allows you to see reproductions of the murals (though if I hadn’t been told that I would never have been any the wiser). You have to fork out 100 kwai if you want to be shown the real things. For that each visitor is given a flash light to inspect them in a darkened room.
I have to say that philistine me was perfectly happy to see a reproduction of the murals and would rather not have been told that they weren’t the real thing. I guess sometimes it’s better to be left in the dark, so to speak!

** For the purists among you, or for those who dabble in Trivial Pursuit, Pingguoyuan is not actually the last station on Line 1, which extends further west into a military base where there are three more stations that are not open for public use.

Old subway maps actually include Fushouling Station which was initially planned as the terminus and is located near the Metro Drivers' Vocational School. Line 1 trains stop by this station a few times per day to allow students of the Vocational School and workers to alight.

Gaojing Station and Heishitou Station are in the military area and according to Wikipedia there is a secret bunker-like facility used as an underground command centre by the Chinese military dating back to the 1950s (similar to the Pentagon), thus rendering this part of the Western Hills inaccessible to the public.

Beyond Heishitou Station the line then connects through to two other Chinese railway lines - Sanjiadian Jingmen Railway and Sanjiadian Fengsha Railway.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Star Gazing in Beijing

The walls at Jianguomen subway station on Line 2 are a dead give away. In common with one or two other Line 2 and 4 stations, you get a pretty good idea what famous monuments are close by looking at the tiles or mosaics that decorate the platforms.

A passer-by strolling to the east of Tiananmen Square might be surprised to see an ancient observatory high up on the top of a fort-like building at Jianguo Gate with some of the archaic instruments clearly visible on the skyline. The Beijing Ancient Observatory (北京古观象台) is a pre-telescopic observatory located just round the corner from exit C of the station.

In 1421 the Ming Dynasty moved its capital to Beijing and the observatory was built along the city wall the following year. (The Forbidden City was also built at this time.) As the Emperor was considered to be the Son of Heaven, the movements of the heavenly bodies were a tad significant, so the Observatory served the Ming and Qing astronomers in their star-gazing reports for the Emperor.

Another of its functions was to assist with sea navigation, and apparently Muslim scholars were recruited for their expertise. However, in the mid 17th century, after winning an astronomy contest, the Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest was awarded complete charge of the astronomy observatory by the emperor. In 1673, he supervised the rebuilding of some of the instruments; and he and other Jesuits helped to further develop the observations of the stars and the planets.

The observatory is the only surviving example of several constructed during the Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The observatory itself is located on a 15 metre high brick platform of about 40 x 40 square metres, that is one of the few surviving portions of the old Ming Dynasty era city wall that once encircled Beijing. Several of the ancient bronze astronomical instruments are on the platform, while others are located at ground level

After handing over 20 of the readies to the girl in the ticket office, your first port of call is almost certainly going to be a climb up to the roof to see that array of Jesuit-designed astronomical instruments, embellished with sculptured bronze dragons and other Chinese flourishes.

Despite the warning signs, the climb is pretty easy going. I wondered why you only had to mind the step on your way up (and anyway, which step?) but I was suitably relieved to see another notice at the top which read ‘Downstairs Mind the Step’.

Eight huge but ornately carved bronze astronomical instruments are up here and all have been well preserved since the time of the Qing Dynasty. You can clearly see the meeting of cultures of oriental craftsmanship and European Renaissance in the design of these instruments, which include such classy items as a celestial globe, a dragon quadrant, an ecliptical armilla and an azimuth theodolite.

Just in case it has escaped your memory, an Armillary Sphere is an instrument used to measure the coordinates of celestial bodies. It is constructed of two bronze disks — one being known as an ecliptic armillary (for tracking the sun), and the other the equatorial armillary (which tracks other bodies that are not the sun).

The Quadrant (this one built in 1673) was used to measure the altitudes and zenith of celestial bodies.

The Theodolite (built in 1715) was used for measuring both altitude and azimuth coordinates of celestial bodies; whilst the azimuth theodolite similar but lacks the ability to record altitude.

The Astronomical Sextant (made in 1673) measures the angular distance between any two stars less than 60° apart, and is also used for measuring the angular diameter of the moon and sun.

The Celestial Globe (built in 1673) was used to determine the time in which the celestial bodies would rise and set, as well as the altitude and azimuth of the bodies at any given time.

The Equatorial Armilla was made in 1673 for determining true solar time as well as the right ascension difference and declination of celestial bodies

The Altazimuth was made in 1673 for determining the azimuth of celestial bodies.

However, for ignoramuses such as your favourite blogger, who couldn’t tell one end of an armillary sphere from an altazimuth, abridged or otherwise, there are plenty of good explanatory notices explaining all. This, I have to say, is one thing that stands this museum out from all the other 130+ museums in Beijing. The powers that be have gone to a lot of trouble to make things crystal clear, not just for Chinese visitors, but to foreign visitors alike. 

As one of the oldest observatories in the world, the Beijing Ancient Observatory grounds cover an area of 10,000 square metres. Below the stairway to the observation deck stand two magnificent Pi Xiu guarding a former entrance into the grounds.

They stare out over an attractive garden to the rear which has sundials and armillary spheres and other contraptions which I feel would grace any lawn.

Well, perhaps not ANY lawn as they’re pretty large it has to be said. But they’re rather cute don’t you think?

Actually the original name of this place was the Administration of Heaven Observatory. It was changed to Constellation Observatory (or literally 'Platform of Star Watching') in 1442 by Emperor Zhentong of the Ming dynasty and known simply as the Observatory in the Qing dynasty. The name was further changed to 'Central Observatory' after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911.

Two of Beijing’s famous astronomers - Wang Xun and Guo Shoujing, have their busts proudly on display in the garden. Guo Shoujing (1231-1316), below, worked on establishing several astronomical observatories and also devised a number of instruments including an adapted version of the armillary and an improved version of the gnomon and the hemispherium sundial. He also formulated the Shoushi calendar which calculated the year to be 365.2425 days. Clever chap!

One of the prettiest of the instruments on display (hey, it would look great in my garden… I wonder if they’d miss it…..) is a sundial which is a copy made in 1955 of an original which you can see on the left side of the Taihedian Hall in the Imperial Palace. Four lost pillars were also installed when it was renovated in 1991 in order to restore it to its original appearance. It mainly determines the local true solar time by the direction of the solar shadow, of course.

There’s also a rather splendid gnomon (come on you ignorami! - γνώμων is an ancient Greek word meaning "indicator", "one who discerns," or "that which reveals." Hence a gnomon is that part of a sundial that casts the shadow. Hah!) which is a 1983 copy of one made by our friend Guo Shoujing that we met earlier.

By measuring the length of the solar shadow projected on the gnomon at high noon, using pin hole imaging, it determined the winter and summer solstice and the length of a tropical year.

Just around the corner is a Moondial and a Stardial – used to determine time by observing fixed stars or directional changes of the moon. They look very similar … two concentric disks with a vernier in the centre. If it wasn’t for the notice underneath I’d think they were the same.

Actually the Chinese were dead clever at this astronomy lark. Apparently from the Yin dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty more than 4000 observations of comets were made, 90 novas and supernovas were spotted, more than 200 sunspots and more than 1000 solar eclipses.

It must be true. It says so inside one of the gallery museums. And jolly good these galleries are too. Loads of well written explanations, with models and posters rubbing shoulders with some well tended pot plants.

It’s here, too, that you can learn about those naughty French and Germans who looted some of the Observatory’s instruments during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

The Frogs took five - the Abridged Armilla, Equatorial Armilla, Ecliptic Armilla, Azimuth Theodolite, and Quadrant – and hauled them back to their embassy; but they probably found it difficult to read the instruction manuals as they returned them all in 1902.

The Krauts, however, took the other five (Armillary sphere, celestial globe, New Armilla, Altazimuth and sextant) back to their country and put them on display in Potsdam Hall. Following a persistent outcry by the Chinese, they were returned to China after the Great War in 1921.

In 1931, some of the more ancient instruments were sent to Nanjing to evade the invading Japanese army, which is why Beijing now has copies rather than the originals. Those in Nanjing can be found at the Purple Mountain Observatory Museum and the Nanjing Museum. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

China through a lens: The National Film Museum

It took a bit of getting there, but after a pretty unexciting bus ride and a five minute walk after that, we pitched up at China’s National Film Museum (中国电影博物馆)  located in one of Beijing’s least accessible sections in the north east of the city. You’d think that for something as “important” as this they might possibly have arranged for a bus to go all the way there?

But whinging apart, the museum is actually an amazing place, in an amazing building with an amazing collection – not that it has much English explanatory text, but don’t let that little detail put you off going…

The CNFM is actually the largest professional cinema museum in the world. It was opened in 2005 in celebration of 100 years of Chinese cinema, and designed to showcase the history of Chinese cinema, to host film technology expos, and many academic exchanges and research in order to advance cinema culture both in China and around the globe.

The outside of the building is designed to look like a giant cinema screen with slanted serial structures resembling the effect of a clipboard (or so the blurb would have you believe).

 The first basic test, though, is how actually to get into the complex itself. Entrance is free… but you still have to go into a ticket office about 50 metres from the actual entrance to get yourself an entrance ticket. For that you need to show your ID (or passport) – though the girl behind the desk, having asked to see my ID, then didn’t even bother looking at it!

After that you go out the same way you went in, turn right, turn right after another 50 metres and show your ticket to a bored looking entry guard before wandering into an almost empty building (well, it was when I went) where you wander past a number of famous Chinese film posters…

The entrance to the museum also features autographs of famous film stars and directors from all over the world, who attended the museum's opening.

The blurb also boasts a number of superlatives: for instance the CNFM occupies an area of 65 acres, with an architectural space of 38,000 square metres. If you want to walk through all the exhibition halls in the museum (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?), you have to walk almost 3kms.

Its 20 exhibition halls tell the story of 100+ years of the Chinese Film industry and its collection houses 1500 films, and 4300 stills from works of 450 filmmakers. As you walk into a massive circular atrium you are hit by a sea of red or green or blue as the light walls that flank a spiral staircase change colour, whilst a giant screen plays movie clips.

The 20 exhibition halls are organized chronologically in order to explain the various periods of Chinese cinema, starting with pre-movie times when light shows of shadow puppetry were all the rage.

Models and posters then move on to some of the gadgets used to display moving pictures, so that the visitor understands the principles of image retention on the retina, before addressing film making itself.

The Frenchman Louis Lumière is often credited as inventing the first motion picture camera in 1895. But in truth, several others had made similar inventions around the same time as him. What he did invent was a portable motion-picture camera, film processing unit and projector called the Cinématographe, three functions covered in one invention.

The world of cinema debuted on 28th December 1895 when the Brothers Lumière showed a 50 second motion picture of workers leaving their factory, along with seven other ‘shorts’, at the Grand Café in Paris.

China first experimented with movie-making ten years later with the production of a 3-minute Peking Opera short, "Ding Jun Shan," or "Conquering Jun Mountain" which is recreated in a model set. China’s first sound-movie was made in 1930.

Overall, half of the 20 halls are devoted to the art of films, naturally focusing their main attention on the history of Chinese cinema and the achievements of individual filmmakers. Two of these halls are all about films from Hong Kong and Macao and also Taiwan. Anyone who thought that Chinese films were simply kungfu and period dramas will have to think again when they see the wide selection of films that were made.

Naturally there is a section on the use of film made by the emerging Communist Party of China for early propaganda purposes and for inspiring the toiling masses.

Followers of this column will know that your favourite blogger takes a delight in many of Beijing’s sometimes-nonsensical signs; and true to form, the signmakers of this museum have apparently been relying on Google Translate once again. Whoever heard of a museum, for instance, that instructs people not to loiter as they go past the exhibits? (Apparently in this case what they actually wanted to make sure of was that visitors didn’t actually sit down on the display!)

 Schizophrenia also rears its head here, since you are instructed that you must handle items with care – just so long as you don’t actually touch them!

The remaining 10 halls of the museum, which are located on the fourth floor, deal with the actual mechanics of film production, from shooting and editing, music composition, special effects and animation. Models show various early cinema camera tricks, such as reverse-action shots and using graphics on a piece of glass to simulate difficult to build sets.

There’s even a section entitled The Future of Film – which is a bit ironic given that in the past few weeks it has been announced that film is to be phased out of cinemas around the world entirely within the next two years and only digital movies will be produced.

Without a doubt, my favourite sections dealt with some of the equipment used in cinematography, comprising a vast array of movie cameras, projectors, lighting, editing machines, special effects, recording, developing and printing.

There was even a glass cabinet containing Nagra sound recording machines – which I had used in my early BBC days. And joy-of-joys, a Studer tape machine like we also used at the Beeb – though I somehow suspect the person who set this one up had never operated such a machine himself! (Hint: a full 7” tape reel feeding an open reel on the right? I think not! hahaha!)

No film museum would be complete without a theatre, and the China National Film Museum is no exception.  It has an IMAX theatre, a digital projection theatre, and three 35mm projection theatres. (Fact for followers of Trivial Pursuit: the first Chinese IMAX film was “Chang Jiang, The Great River Of China” made in 1999.)

The IMAX screen is 27 metres wide and 21 metres high and, of course, uses 65mm film, which is transferred to an even bigger 70mm for projection. Films are screened Tuesday-Sunday, and tend to attract large audiences. It is said that when Avatar debuted in IMAX, the theatre managed to serve about 10,000 people in back-to-back showings.

Of course, now that film is fast being phased out, and with digital technology very much the wave of the future, it will be interesting to see what becomes of IMAX. The museum doesn’t (yet) have anything to say on this point; but over in the US, IMAX and Kodak are hoping by 2013 to bring digital theatrical projection to the next level using laser technology.  Those in the know reckon that 3D film projected using this laser technology is the next “big thing” to hit the industry.
Only time, as they say, will tell.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A new marketing ploy for KFC?

Has that fast food giant KFC come up with a novel way of marketing itself in China, one wonders?

Branches in the People’s Republic made a public announcement this week on Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like microblog site, denying stories that customers could specially request handsome boys to deliver their food for them, stressing that KFC only runs a "normal delivery service," and calling on their customers to be kind to the hard-working delivery staff.

It followed a posting on Weibo from a girl who claimed she had ordered a home delivery and wrote down that she wanted a handsome man to deliver the food to her. Later she reported that a "rangy handsome delivery boy with big eyes and white skin" had delivered her order. Furthermore, the blogger, who included a picture of her receipt on which her requirement of a handsome delivery boy had been printed, claimed that the branch called her 10 minutes after his arrival, "confirming 'is the delivery boy pretty, heh?'"

"The boy covered his face with his hands out of shyness and stammered, 'Am... I... satisfying?'," the girl wrote. "I laughed so much I nearly died. I was only making a joke with KFC."

Joke or not, the microblog entry has gone viral and quickly picked up over 5,000 comments, most of which described KFC's act as "interesting" and "lovable."

Some other bloggers were obviously disappointed, claiming they hadn’t had the opportunity to try out KFC’s “service”.  Many took photos with their delivery boys and posted them online, accompanied by snaps of their receipts, to prove their demands were met.

There were, of course, the killjoys such as one who posted “These Chinese girls must have poor taste! KFC delivery boys are far from being handsome; have seen many of them on their rounds; doing a fine job perhaps, but certainly don't have the ideal looks!”

And another: “Chinese girls are desperate for men, even just a look at them is good for the girls, what's going on in their minds? Next, they would invite the deliverymen in for a chat? Population imbalance, more girls than men!”
Then there were, too, those who rose above it all: “You people are sick! So materialistic! Who cares if the boy or girl is handsome or not? Isn't the quality of the food you are paying for more important? Grab a brain.”

To which I can only wonder if that last person has ever tried a Chinese KFC home delivery? Quality of food? Oh please!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Beijing's Museum of Tap Water

Reverse psychology is a wonderful thing. It’s a well known fact that if you want a child not to do something, the very last thing you should say is “don’t do it”.

I well remember trying out reverse psychology on my son when he was around 10-or-so years old. “Try a cigarette”, I said, proffering a packet, hoping he would try one, and end up coughing and spluttering and then swear off them for life. “No way, dad! Don’t you know they’re bad for you?” said my little goody-goody. So much for reverse psychology!

An American called Catherine Price has written a book entitled “101 Places Not To Visit Before You Die”. In it you can read about such must-avoid places as The Seattle Gum Wall, the Montana ‘Testicle Festival’ and Beijing’s Museum of Tap Water. The sales pitch appears to be that Price has taken it upon herself to go to truly awful tourist destinations ... so you don't have to.

The book tells you that in 2001 it was decided that 150 new museums should be opened in Beijing in time for the 2008 Olympics. ‘Hence a museum devoted to the fascinating history of ... tap water. The irony of the whole museum,’ adds Price, ‘is that Beijing's water is not safe to drink from the tap.’

I had to go there. I guess I’m just a big kid at heart. But once I had arrived I had to wonder if Ms Price had ever visited the establishment herself, or had simply read up little fragments on the internet and written her scathing comments accordingly.

The museum is across the street from the Russian Embassy and stands unobtrusively in the middle of the Qingshui Yuan apartment complex. For a start, the Museum of Tap Water is not its actual name in English (it’s called the Water Supply Museum, though on the ticket it is called Waterworks Museum). The Museum of Tap Water is a literal translation from the Chinese. But I guess something called a Water Supply Museum doesn’t have that same humorous ring to it, does it?

 I have to admit to spending over an hour here, which for RMB5 (about £0.50) isn’t bad value. Mind you, I spent a worrisome few moments at the entrance after seeing a notice advising “Alcoholics, disheveled and incapacity or limit the capacity of those without a chaperone decline into museum”. But I hadn’t touched a drop all day, my hair wasn’t that untidy, I was still able to walk, and although I didn’t have a chaperone with me I decided to bluster my way in.

The notice also warned visitors “Please do not climb and lying”; but I really did have no intention of climbing anything and I doubt if anyone there would have known if I was bullshitting or not as no one, of course, spoke a word of English.

The history of Beijing's piped water supply began in 1908, with the founding of the Jingshi Tap Water Co. A year earlier a fire broke out at the Empress Dowager Cixi’s palace and because of a lack of water, the fire got out of control and destroyed many valuable items. Cixi ordered the construction of a water plant to create a more effective way to fight fires that plagued Beijing. A handful of businessmen set up a water purification and pumping station which used a steam engine to circulate the water around the perimeter of the imperial city’s walls.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men can so easily come to naught when something like a revolution gets in the way.  The enterprise lasted for only three years, after which time the Qing dynasty was kicked out and everyone had to take a reality check.  But during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II the water plant was revived.

The grounds of the museum, containing the original engine room, are made up of landscaped gardens planted with raspberry trees. A large lawn area, which looks like the grass died a very long time ago, is surrounded by local apartment blocks looking down onto the remnants of what was a revolutionary idea for its day.

The museum itself, reflecting the influence of western architecture with its principal arch and round stone columns, was originally the steam engine room. It was built of red bricks which were fired in kilns in Germany, and stands as a testament to the country’s early efforts at modernization and collaboration with the West.

This steam engine room entered service in 1910. With a height of 12 metres it was equipped with two sets of horizontal double-acting plunger steam engines producing 441KW to drive two pumps which in turn distributed 18,700 cubic metres of water per day. Disinfected water was pumped into a water tower and then distributed to the water supply network by gravity.

The museum boasts 130 “real objects” (whatever that means), as well as 110 pictures, 40 models, and a miniature tap water filtration system. The exhibits outside all have English captions; but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the inside of the museum. But then, do you really need a caption to tell you that you are looking at a water meter or a bucket?

Mind you, without the English-friendly notice by this steam storage vessel, I would never have known that it had been put into service in 1910 and only withdrawn from service after electrification in 1931. How much the poorer for that lack of information would I have been then, I ask myself.

 Stepping through the hallowed portal, I am greeted by a second museum guard who insists on stamping my entrance ticket – presumably in case I get the urge to revisit this building while still in the grounds of the museum? Ahead of me lie a series of rooms through which I can wander at will. Amazingly I don’t have to push my way through the milling crowds. In fact, apart from me and him, the building is eerily empty.

On one wall there is a photo of an early president of the company, though I have to say he has more of the looks of a second hand car salesman that a captain of industry.

To his left is a photo of some employees of the company in 1948, to which again I can only wonder what they all did all day long. Could we have witnessed a little bit of over-manning then, I wonder?

There’s also a photograph on the wall of the giant spittoon-looking vessels that adorn the outside of so many of Beijing’s historic monuments. They, of course, were used to store water in case of fire – old fashioned fire extinguishers, if you like. 

The museum also displays some of the correspondence and official seals relating to the start-up, as well as items marking key moments in the history of the capital’s piped water system, including architectural models tracing its development.

Some replicas of historically significant items were made especially for the museum’s opening in 2003, including an ornate wrought iron water tower which had been built by German craftsmen. Unfortunately the original tower had been dismantled in the 1950s when Mao Zedong wanted to turn the country’s scrap iron into steel to fuel the growth of his new society.

There’s also a display showing buckets of water standing next to a public water tap, which had been stationed at the end of a hutong, or alleyway. By 1910, outdoors taps had been installed all around Beijing, supplying clean chlorinated water. Residents could buy tickets and draw water straight from the taps, or have the water delivered to their homes in wooden buckets on carts.

It is said that when chlorine was introduced to the water, many Chinese were against the idea. The water plant had been developed with European technology, those self-same people who had burned and pillaged the capital just a few years earlier. Unsurprisingly, their product was not too popular to begin with. So the company owners took out ads in papers promoting their “healthy” water saying it was much safer than the well water that had been used till then. Some of those advertisements and some of the water tickets, printed on rice paper and stamped with bright red ink, are on display.

Worried that I might overdose on my education, I mosey outside once again for a walk around the gardens. Ahead of me is the chimney to the steam engine room, which was built in the 1920s.  It is 20 meters high and has eight sides; but what I didn’t know until reading the helpful English signs is that it was built using the traditional Chinese construction method of grouting using sticky rice.

All kinds of jokes spring to mind, but the fact remains that it appears as solid as the day it was built. In 1931 the Beijing water works started to use electric power and the operation of the boiler room and chimney came to an end.

A little bit away from the tower, around the dead lawn, is a replica of the watchmen’s tower, where the night watchmen would pass away their idle hours probably wishing they had something as riveting as CCTV to amuse them. Unfortunately the original was demolished, but this being a museum, anything is possible, so it was rebuilt – though you are not allowed inside.

A little bit further on still and you come across the remnants of a water collection pool where water was sent after disinfection. Looking over it is the original intake pavilion built in 1908, still in good condition. One of its main features is a circular pillared temple built as a shrine to the Buddhist goddess Guanyin. Inside the pavilion is a disinfection tank with a white marble Guan yin Bodhisattva standing on a lotus flower. There is also a carved tortoise and snake sitting on either side of the Bodhisattva, though you have to peak through a gap in the padlocked doors to catch a glimpse of them.

As ever, the museum authorities worry about your safety and throughout the park are advisory notices urging you to be careful. (Mind you, I practically tripped over some rough ground as I came in close to take a picture of the sign for you, my dear blog readers!)

There are also prohibition signs around the place, presumably to keep the McDonalds and KFC crowd under control when the place becomes a heaving mass of bodies in the summer months … or not.

In summary I would have to say that Beijing’s Museum of Tap Water is one of the more unusual tourist attractions gracing the city, assuming, that is, that tourists have either heard of it, or can actually find the place. Certainly I would take issue with Ms Catherine Price. It will surely now find a place on your favourite blogger’s list of places to see in Beijing...before you die.