A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Catching up on Y2K

 Questions: What were you doing / where were you / who were you with at the turn of the millennium over a decade ago? I’m sure that at the time most of us told ourselves that this was a point in our lives we would never forget, it being such a milestone in the history of the world.

But apart from the Millennium Bug that wasn’t, I’m blowed if I can remember that much about it. I vaguely remember the thought going through my “brain”: now what? … as if anything was really going to change.

So I was intrigued recently when I discovered the existence of a Millennium Monument in Beijing – how I could have missed it I have no idea; but I determined to put that omission to rights pretty quickly.

中华世纪坛 (Zhonghua Shijitan = China Millennium Monument) was constructed to celebrate the arrival of the 21st Century. It’s located in Haidian District immediately to the west of the Military Museum, immediately to the east of the old CCTV building, and immediately to the south of Yuyuantan Park, occupying an area of 4.5 hectares and a total floor space of about 42,000 square metres.

The day is bright and clear and once again your favourite blogger heaves himself out from beneath the duvet, foregoing a lovely lie in for the benefit of his adoring fans. It’s an hour in the subway to the Military Museum station, and from there a four minute walk to the monument.

As I turn the corner there in front of me is a huge marble slab – or stele, to use its proper term – a full 9 meters long, 1.05 meters high and weighing 34.6 tons. One of my guide books claims it is the world’s largest, though it fails to say the largest what. The inscription - 中华世纪坛 – is meant to be in the handwriting of former president Jiang Zeming.

Immediately inside the southern entrance is the grandly sounding Plaza of Holy Fire. It stands in an area of 960 square metres, paved by 960 granite bricks, representing China's territory of 9,600,000 square kilometres. The flame is said to have originated at the site of Peking man at Zhoukoudian, and is fed on natural gas. (I have to wonder, though, if instead someone really just flicked his cigarette lighter on when the gas started to flow. But hey, why spoil a good story!)

The ever-burning flame, one is told, rises some 45 centimetres high, and is a token of the “unceasing creativity of Chinese civilization”.

On either side of this plaza is a steady dribble of water – sorry, cascade of water – running down the steps, “reminding the visitor of the mother rivers of the Chinese nation: the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers”. Hmmm – if that’s really the case I don’t think I’ll bother making a special trip to go see them.

To get to the main section of the monument – the building itself – one now has to walk along a “bronze corridor” which reflects the history of the Chinese nation, “with its splendid civilization of 5000 years”. Every few inches there is a reminder of what happened at that moment in history.

Actually, looking at the archive pictures of the coming of the new century in Beijing, it must have been a fabulous sight with the celebrations centring on the monument itself.

The blurb tells you that the main architecture of the monument is comprised of two underground storeys and three above ground. It is 39 metres high and 85 metres in diameter. Right in the middle, the structure revolves; all 3,200 tons of it, making it the world’s largest and heaviest revolving building – though when I am there, nothing appears to be moving, save for a gentle breeze.

I decide to go inside – naturally – but am stopped by a security guard who tells me I will need to get a ticket from a little glass booth 100 metres away. (Well, he utters something incomprehensible and points at the glass box, so my superfast brain interprets this along the lines of “oh no ... not until you have got yourself a ticket, my good man”.)

Duo shao? [how much?] I ask the very bored looking girl dozing off in her square goldfish bowl. She wakes with a start, a big grin spreading over her face, and starts to practise her English on me. It flee. No sharge. Here tikkit. And I am suddenly the proud recipient of a piece of paper to get me through Check Point Charlie.

I walk back the 100 metres the way I had come and hand my new ticket over to the security guard who accepts it with a blank look on his face – the irony of the situation being totally lost on him.

Up a flight of stairs and I find myself at the entrance of the Millennium Sculpture Gallery.

Here there are 40 bronze statues of Chinese cultural celebrities, reminding you – as if you even need reminding - of what a civilised and clever lot the Chinese have been over the centuries.

Here’s Confucius, for instance: philosopher, educator and thoroughly good egg, who lived, as you will no doubt recall, from 551-479BC…

A few metres further on is Lao Zi – philosopher and founder of Taoism. According to the inscription below his statue, he lived to the ripe old age of 100 from 571 to 471BC.

This handsome devil of course is Sun-tzu who, as we all know, came from Qi and wrote the first discourse on the law of war in China: Art of War.

And so the history lesson continues. Were you aware for instance that the 16th century musician Zhu Zaiyu put forth the theory of equal temperament for the first time in his Complete works of Ritual Tonal System, which I’m sure must have been a best seller in its day….

Actually I learn that the Chinese invented almost everything worth knowing – next up, for instance, is a statue of Bi Sheng who worked out the principles of movable type printing, around 1040AD.

(Obviously the Arab claims that you find in places like Saudi Arabia and Dubai that most things worth knowing were discovered by Islamic scholars takes a bit of a battering at this point; but maybe these Chinese inventors were also Moslem? Hmmm. The inscriptions don’t say.

Now, the eagle eyed among you will have noticed that through the glass behind the statue gallery is a wall with a number of images carved into the yellow granite. This is the outer wall of the revolving middle section (or non-revolving middle section as the case may be) and on it are 56 national symbols representing the 56 ethnic groups of China.

And my guide book tells me that in the centre of the revolving building, there is a round 14-metre diameter stage area specially used for dancing and art performances. Unfortunately, today it is closed.

Inside the building, too, is the Beijing World Art Museum which specialises in collecting, exhibiting and researching art from around the world. Unfortunately, today it too is closed.

I wander out into the fresh air, down the steps, and out into the surrounding gardens and come across a millennium bell – a huge great thing that is the equal of anything I have seen in Beijing’s bell museum.

And thence out into the bustle of Beijing’s streets once again. On my right is the old CCTV building – so boring compared with their new HQ near Jintai Xizhao. But I love their satellite dishes. Oh for a couple of those on my veranda! I wonder if they’d miss just one of them…..

Monday, May 28, 2012

Spare a thought for Beijing’s millions of homeless flies

It must be tough being a fly in Beijing. The heartless bureaucrats in the Municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment have just come out with a new pronouncement that in future no more than two flies will be allowed to reside in any of the city’s public lavatories.

No warning; no negotiations with the downtrodden fly population. Just an announcement that, in effect, two’s company while three’s a crowd. And in future, overcrowding will no longer be tolerated.

To understand the problems that this will cause, might I refer you to a posting on a site calling itself the Beijing China Travel Blog. It warns somewhat apocalyptically that: “Old style Beijing hutong toilets have no sewer system, everything just empties into an enormous hole directly underneath where you squat. The hole slowly fills up through the week until the ironically named ‘hygiene truck’ arrives to suck it all out with an enormous tube. Visiting one of these establishments during a sweltering Beijing summer as a week’s worth of Chinese shit ferments a few feet below you is an experience to be forgotten if possible. The stench brings tears to the eyes and makes the head swim, you can actually feel the heat rising up from beneath you. The air blackens with thousands of flies and you walk out feeling as if you’ve just showered in that which you just got rid of. The smell, which you first caught a whiff of at the end of the street, will follow you for about three days.”

Pretty graphic, what, even if it does somewhat overdose on hyperbole? Notice that penultimate sentence: The air blackens with thousands of flies. Now do you see the problem?

Given that Beijing has hundreds of public loos – they’re on practically every street corner – that means there are going to be many millions of flies affected by this new ruling.   Actually, I read somewhere that officially Beijing has over 12,000 public toilets and they have long been a source of complaints from tourists and residents alike. Much was done to clean them up prior to the Beijing Olympics with the city investing 400 million yuan to give its public toilets a facelift from 2005 to 2008, with thousands of extra portacabin-type toilets also brought in for the jamboree. But those extras have long been removed and the complaints continue.

Even Michael Bristow of the BBC reported recently that "Beijing public toilets are not known for their welcoming appeal. People often smell them before they see them. I only venture in at the most desperate of times. And the word cleaning seems misplaced when applied to a public lavatory in Beijing. Dirty grey mops are occasionally dragged across a toilet floor, but not to any great effect. There is seldom toilet paper - or soap to wash your hands. The best (or worst) that can be said about Beijing public loos is that there are a lot of them about."

A friend of mine was even forced to complain when visiting the German Embassy recently at the state of their (western-style) toilets. The deeply ingrained yellow stains around the toilet rim showed they hadn’t been cleaned in months and when asked if she would now clean them properly, the (Chinese) cleaner shrugged her shoulders and walked away.

Now I know what you are asking yourselves. How could the city’s bureaucrats be so beastly when it comes to bringing out new laws that will have such a profound affect on the itinerant fly population? Well, it’s all to do with the latest regulations on making Beijing a more pleasant place for the (human) populace to live.

Having lived for about a decade in the Middle East, where the state of the average public loo is nothing short of disgusting – and that is putting it very mildly – I can on the one hand well understand how the authorities want to improve the lot of the average Beijinger when it comes to ‘enjoying’ the conveniences provided. 

However, the new rules, which, it appears, are only advisory, apply at the present time only to "toilet management" in parks, hospitals, shopping malls and railway stations. So I guess that lets the hutong restrooms off the hook – for the moment at least. The commission will soon carry out an inspection of all toilets around hospitals, bus stations and tourist areas – so the flies better watch out…

All toilets will also have to have bilingual instructions – in both Chinese and English. (Now there’s a thought. When was the last time you read an instruction on how to use a lavatory? We’re not talking about high-tech Japanese conveniences; just good old holes in the ground, squat toilets and urinals. Ask your friends. Is there really anyone you know who doesn’t already understand the process of answering a call of nature?)

They also set a limit on how badly the restrooms can smell, and apparently the smell of each loo will be rated on a 4-tier scale with 5 professional smellers assigned to smell each stink. According to the rules, if 3 of them consider it "over-smelled", the authorities will regard the toilet as having a substandard smell and something will then have to be done about it.

According to Global Times, there are 15 licensed professional smellers with the Laboratory of Odour Pollution Control, under the Ministry of Environmental Protection. China started using humans to detect pollution in the late 1990s and you can now find them in a number of polluted metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chengdu.

In the laboratories, these professional sniffers expose themselves to various odours that they have collected from garbage sites and compost fields and use their noses to determine the presence of pollutants. Six smellers sit together with a tester who smells the original samples of the odour and dilutes them. Then each sniffer takes three bags of three litres of odour, one of which is mixed with the sample collected, while the other two are just clean air. The sample is diluted in each round until all of them are no longer able to smell anything. Then the density of the odour is calculated by the level of dilution involved and a report will be handed to the local environmental protection bureau.

In general, the left nostril catches more smells than the right one, and women have a better olfactory sense than men. There are no professional qualifications to be a smeller. But anyone who wants to join the profession has to go through a strict test and you have to be a non-smoker, non-drinker, aged between 18 and 45, with no conditions that might damage your sense of smell. As well as avoiding many cosmetics, the day before tests, the smellers can't eat spicy food such as onions and any professional smeller who catches a cold has to be replaced while he or she is sick. The salary for new graduates is about 3,000 yuan ($475) a month. They also have to take a test every three years to make sure their noses are still functioning at full capacity.

Posts on Chinese microblogging sites numbered over half a million within two days of the announcement from the Municipal Commission. Heavy with irony, some pointed out that other cities, such as Nanchang in the south, had already passed similar rules but that those cities, being less important than the capital, permitted three flies.

It was also pointed out that this is not China’s first foray into fly management. Nationwide rules issued in 1998 were more generous, permitting up to five flies depending on the grade of the toilet, the state-run Beijing Daily reported.

Of course, in fairness there is a serious side to these regulations. Many people who live in the city's old neighbourhoods still do not have their own toilets - and have no choice but to use public conveniences.

One netizen also pointed out that the new policy will have an adverse affect on works of art. “One of the most profound and beautiful pieces of art produced in China in the past years relies on the flies of a Beijing toilet. The artist, Zhang Huan, covered himself in honey and sat meditating in a Beijing toilet for an hour while the flies quietly landed on him,” he wrote.

Perhaps one of the city’s many art galleries – or even 798 Art District itself - might consider throwing open their (loo) doors for the newly displaced fly population, thus being kind to the homeless whilst at the same time protecting Beijing’s raw material for its arts scene.

But this all somewhat begs the obvious question: Who, at the end of the day, is going to tell the flies?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

So Who Needs Disney?

 I was browsing the internet the other week looking for something new to discover in this fabulous city when I came across a blog site called Asia Obscura with a page posted in July 2011 inviting its readers to join up for a great day out at Beijing’s “Copyright Infringement Park”.

“Sure, it’s about as official as that Justin Beiber DVD you picked up at Tom’s last week, [err.. I think he means Bieber, but never mind], as likely to break down as that Rolex watch Woo bought her dad at the Pearl Market, but boy is it fun! Collapsed rides litter the walkways, while giant pineapple prisons and bokchoy cages drive overhead,” it enticingly said.

An article written some five years ago in the Hong Kong Standard gives more details: “With its slogan ‘Disneyland is too far,’ Beijing's Shijingshan Amusement Park features a replica of Cinderella's Castle, with staff dressed like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and other Disney characters. None of this is authorized by Disney - but that has not stopped the state-owned park from creating its own counterfeit version of the Magic Kingdom in a brazen example of the sort of open and widespread copyright piracy that has Washington fuming.”

Ever since Japanese media coverage of this park sparked indignation around the world, and Japanese bloggers posted pictures of some of its characters, it appears the amusement park has been doing its best to remove the most blatant violations.

Some bloggers even claimed that the park was illegally copying Disney’s Minnie Mouse; but in their defence, the park’s operators insisted that the character on the right of this screen grab is not a mouse, but in fact is a cat with very large ears. Seems a reasonable explanation to me!

And how anyone in their right mind could ever think this duck (Peking duck?) bore any resemblance to Donald, I really don’t understand. For a start to my certain knowledge Donald never wore blue trousers!

US companies are forever whinging that Chinese entrepreneurs deprive them of billions of dollars every year. A US congressional panel even went so far as to suggest that China's rip-off goods account for 15 to 20 percent of goods made in the country. But in fairness the Chinese authorities have been doing their level best to stamp this out.

When I go to one of Beijing’s many clothes markets, for instance, to buy my Tommy Hilfiger or Paul Smith shirts and Armani or Lee Cooper jeans I can at least rest content in the knowledge that while I can get them at maybe a tenth of what they would cost me in Europe, they are definitely 100% genuine goods. I know that for certain as every one of the merchants insists on telling me they’re genuine, and there are even official notices posted up around the market reminding vendors of their responsibility as good upright Chinese citizens.

OK, so maybe some of the original certificates of authenticity that invariably come with them have a few spelling errors – a bit like a copy of a Dan Brown novel I have, which is from the stable of that famous publisher “CORGL” Books and tells me that “When a new NASA satellite detesets evidence … a victory that hasprofound implications … impending presidential clection” and so on. But no doubt Corgi, and Armani and Paul Smith and their like have enough on their plates without worrying too much about getting every spelling correct. Huh! Aren’t some people such pedants!

So all these postings about the Copyright Infringement Park tap your favourite blogger’s spirit of adventure right on the head and I know this is going to be one of my next ports of call.

Shijingshan Amusement Park (北京石景山游乐园) is over on the west side of Beijing, a five minute walk from Bajiao station on line 1. Saturday sees my alarm clocks undertaking their regular weekend workout attempting to extricate yours truly from under the duvet. No problem. Today I am up before number 2 alarm – cunningly set 3 minutes after number 1 alarm goes off – has even a chance to exercise its electronic clarion call.

The subway, as is normal on a Saturday morning, is packed to bursting, but within little more than an hour I am over in Bajiao and make my way to the entrance of the park. Here they have a card system a bit like a subway card. Entrance is 20 kwai, but half of that is a deposit for your entrance card which you can top up with cash throughout the park to avail yourself of the many rides and activities, returning it at the end to get back your precious 10 kwai.

Sure enough, the many maps posted up liberally around the park boast of many splendid attractions…

including Batman, Poseidon, Jones Adventure, King Kong, Cinderella, Transformers and Jurassic Adventure. Oh boy! This is going to be fun!

Obviously an AP news report that the park was taking action following the foreign media coverage was all wrong! (According to this report, Disney characters which had been wandering the park only a few days ago had suddenly disappeared, and the banner that said “Disneyland is too far” had been replaced with an alternative slogan about celebrating spring.)

I step in through the main entrance with all the other expectant kids and their parents, eyes scanning for Mickey, Donald and Goofy. But in front of us is a statue of … errr … some characters I’m afraid to admit are a little bit “after my time”. No one else seems that taken with them either, and no one is intent on posing with them for the family snapshot album, which itself says a lot.

But the park is full of good wholesome family entertainment – such as this double decker merry-go-round which a few parents urge their little charges to go try out.

There’s even an animal corner with some real life Bambis and goats for children to go and stroke – though the only kid in there ran a mile when one of the deer came up to say hello.

Naturally the park has its fair share of rides, such as this one that bears more than a passing resemblance to one I saw many years ago in California’s Disneyland.

Actually the park is divided into two parts by a road, and you have to cross over a replica of London’s Tower Bridge (well, that’s what they say it is, though you could have fooled me!) to get to the other side.

Over on the other side is another of the many ticket top-up booths; this one reminding me at first glance of Potato Man. But how could I be so stupid? This is obviously Potato Woman. I mean… dughhhh!

I turn right and am reminded of another scene straight out of Disneyland – that of Main Street with the castle at the end.

But I think Disney has a bit of a cheek claiming copyright infringement, seeing as how they themselves apparently ripped off the very same idea from a theme park in Argentina which was built in 1951. Have a look at the web site of La República de los Niños if you don’t believe me!

Anyway, apart perhaps from inside Hong Kong’s truly abysmal Disneyland park – where the most welcome sight is the one that says ‘Exit’ - where else would you see Chinese signs over a Disney castle entrance?

As you would expect from the Chinese, safety is top of the agenda wherever you go. Warning signs menacingly suggest you could drown in this 80cm deep lake!

Naturally there are plenty of places around the park for picture posing, such as in front of these Inca ruins (I think that’s what they are supposed to be)…

or in front of this friendly chappy.

Not your cup of tea? How about with the ancient Egyptians then?

Or you could be snapped heading into the crocodile’s mouth as you ride in a log canoe into the Drifting Canyon.

You could even pose in front of Jaws – sorry, a big whale like thingy.

But in truth, no one seems that interested in posing in front of all these photo-opportunity-delights. Where’s Mickey? Where’s Pluto? Where’s Donald? Could they all have gone over to the Olympic Park where the pickings are so much better (10 kwai to have your picture taken with one of them over in front of the Birds Nest stadium!)?

Everywhere I go there is a dearth of Disney characters – or any other ripped off characters for that matter - in any form whatsoever. What’s this travelling overhead? Oh, it’s a giant bok choy cage giving kids a vegetable-eye view of the park. Hold on a minute – that’s a blatant rip off of a bok choy I saw in the market the other day. Oh, sorry. They’re not copyrighted (are they?).

I find some helpful signs a bit further along. The first tells me the way to “Kig Kong’s Spin” whatever that is.

Here’s one for “Jurassi Adventure”

Oh – and there’s even one to “Roman Chriot”.

Do you see a pattern emerging? Well, they don’t call me Superbrain for nothing. I reckon some canny person has gone around removing a letter from each of these signs so no one can accuse them of plagiarism. Yet, I find nowhere any indication of anything looking remotely like some lost dinosaurs, an overgrown monkey or some ancient Italian mode of transport. In fact to cap it all, many of the attractions stand steadfastly closed with nothing whatsoever apparently taking place behind the shutters and tarpaulins.

Rides, however, there are aplenty. This rollercoaster, for instance, appears to be quite popular with a number of courting couples daring one another to have a go. You can almost see the thought bubbles appearing above the macho guys’ heads: “Get her well and truly scared and she will be putty in my arms”.

It certainly looks scary, and the screams from the riders show that the macho guys have got their strategy down to a tee. But hold on a minute. Do you see what I see? Look carefully at that last picture. Better still, have a closer look… Is that a birds nest I see built in the curve of the rollercoaster rail? It’s certainly pretty large. Perhaps it belongs to a passing pterodactyl that has escaped from Jurassic Adventure? Hmmm…. It doesn’t do a lot to one’s overall confidence that these rides are all that well maintained!

Perhaps the last time it had its makeover was when they last decorated the Christmas tree … it is after all May now, FGS!

I decide the time is probably right to cash in my entry card to get my refund and head off back into the city. Not one Disney rip off have I seen in the entire park. Whether the moniker of “Copyright Infringement Park” was deserved in the past, the fact is that they have certainly cleaned up their act, whatever might have gone on before.

Not that Disney, in my view, has a leg to stand on. This park is way better than that awful Hong Kong travesty that is overpriced and underwhelming in the extreme. But more importantly, Disney’s record is not, it appears, as clean as the driven snow either.

The internet is rife with complaints that Disney might have been just a little bit naughty itself over the past few decades. For instance it is alleged that:
  • Atlantis was a rip off of Nadia
  • Epcot Center was stolen from Mark Waters' 1961 painting for Miniature World
  • "Finding Nemo" was a straight rip off of "Finding Nero", a French animated film
  • There have been lawsuits against them for Monsters Inc. and The Pirates of the Caribbean , to name but two.
Of course, Disney has been ripping off French, German and even Chinese fairy tales and others for ages and many clueless people in the USA seriously believe that Disney came up with those stories on their own and now own the rights to them.

But the most blatant Disney rip off appears to be “The Lion King”, which, if you believe all you read, was a 100% rip off of a Japanese animation called "Kimba The White Lion". Every character in “The Lion King”, we are told, has a matching character in Kimba, all the way down to the level of both having a sage mandrill mis-identified as a baboon. Disney’s official line is that their people had never heard of Kimba before The Lion King was released - even in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Have a look – you might be surprised!

And while you’re at it, why not pop over to YouTube for something else that might change your mind about Disney – such as a priest getting an erection in The Little Mermaid? Or how the word “sex” appears in loads of subliminal content in Beauty & The Beast.

Oh don’t you just love the internet! I could spend hours on it, it’s so educational! Now I wonder what attraction will grab my interest for next weekend?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Dazhong Temple Museum

Old friends of your favourite blogger will know that I used to spend a fair amount of time in the old days going around ringing church bells in towers the length and breadth of England. Campanology is very much a living art form in the UK and when rung properly, the sound of church bells can be a glorious noise.

So when I discovered there was an ancient bell museum located in the Haidian District of Beijing, it was a bit of a no-brainer that I would want to go along for a visit.

Built in 1733 during the Ming Dynasty (1644-1911), the Dazhong (giant bell) Si (temple) - 大钟寺 - was where emperors presided over rituals praying for rain. It’s the only one of its kind in China.

Bells are considered auspicious in the Chinese tradition; and during major ceremonies, they are often rung 108 times. It is said that there are 12 months, 24 solar terms and 72 hou (5 days in a hou) in the Chinese lunar calendar, which even using my maths comes to 108 in all. According to Buddhism, people also have 108 worries which will be removed by the sound of a bell. (Hmmm… 108 worries = manic depressive in my book!)

The museum, which was actually set up in 1985, has over 700 bells, made of bronze, iron and jade. The oldest ones were cast over 1000 years ago and there are exhibits from all over the world. There’s a display illustrating the evolution of Chinese bells and the history of Chinese metallurgy.

Actually, when Dazhong Si was built, it was originally called Juesheng Si. 10 years later during the reign of another emperor, a big bell was moved into the temple (of which, more later), hence the name. As well as bells, there are also extensive pictures throughout the museum. Here are some of Juesheng Si’s abbots doing whatever it was abbots used to get up to in those days…

There’s also a lovely old drawing of what the temple used to look like without today’s huge car park butting onto the Third Ring Road.

One thing that is interesting about this museum is to see how bells around the world compare with one another. Korean Buddhist bells, for instance, have unique structural characteristics at their tops. Not only are there handles but also tubes for adjusting the sound. Chinese Buddhist bells on the other hand, only have handles in the shape of a pulao (or dragon) for hanging. Korean Buddhist bells also have loads of figures such as flying apsaras (supernatural female beings) or Buddha while there are only a small number of such patterns on Chinese Buddhist bells.

This Korean bell was cast in AD771 by Won Kang Sik…

Apart from Korean bells, there are also quite a few other bells from around the world. The Museum has sought to collaborate with similar ventures overseas – for instance a decade ago it co-sponsored with the Institute of European Bell Art a highly successful "Sound of the Dragon" Ancient Chinese Bell Exhibition in Paris.

On display there are a number of “friendship bells” – exchanges with France, Belgium, Italy, the USA, Japan, Italy, Norway, Finland etc. Here is a Russian bell…

I only saw one British bell, however – this Gillett & Johnston one, cast in Croydon in 1903 and weighing 72kg. It used to hang in a French church.

Apart from the traditional bell shapes that are found across the world, there are also on display some chime bells, such as these relics dating back to the Chu State and unearthed in Heshangling, Xichuan County, Henan.

There’s no doubt about it; Chinese bell culture has a very long history. There are basically two sorts of Chinese bell - a zhong and a Ling. Zhongs produce sound when struck from the outside with a hammer; Lings, on the other hand, have their clappers inside. Here’s a really ornate Ling known as the Qingong Bozhong Bell…

One of the really nice things about this museum is that it is part and parcel of the temple itself. As you wander from courtyard to courtyard and from building to building, there is something to be discovered at every turn. Practically every building in the temple complex has something to do with bells and you never really know what you are going to see until you step through the doorway of each building.

Some are set up as galleries displaying a particular type of bell or concentrating on a particular period or geographical location. Buddhism and Taoism both played a major role in the history of Chinese bells. As long ago as the Sui and Tang dynasties, Buddhism was at its height. The amount of temples and monks increased rapidly. Wherever there was a temple, you could almost guarantee to find bells. The patterns on the bells became richer.

However, with the coming of the Song, Liao, Jin and Yuan dynasties, the casting of bells went into a decline, although a great amount of iron bells appeared in this period.

But with the advent of the Ming dynasty, the casting of Buddhist and Taoist bells reached ascendancy once again and many large bells appeared during this period.

Bells were also used for sounding the night watches in the centre of cities and were hung in specialised bell towers that first started to appear in the Han Dynasty.

One of the most beautiful bells on display is the Qianlong Court Bell from the reign of Emperor Qianlong who ruled during the Qing Dynsasty between 1736-1795. As its name suggests, the bell was made for the imperial court. It has 22 flying dragon motifs despite having no inscriptions. It has been designated a grade one state-level relic.

At the other end of the scale, there are also a number of Vajra Bells used to wake up and invite the Buddha and Bodhisattva in Tibetan Buddhism. These Vajra bells represent wisdom and virtue…

At the end furthest away from the main entrance is the building that most visitors come to see. This is known as the Big Bell Tower, and is circular in shape at the top and square below according to the Chinese saying that 'the sky is circular and the earth is square'.

Surprise, surprise… the Big Bell Tower contains – guess what! Yup. You guessed it – a big bell!

Made in 1403, the first year of Emperor Yong-le of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the bell was one of the three projects that he commanded after re-establishing Beijing as the capital. (The other two were the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven.)

The Great Bell of Yong-le weighs 46.5 tons, is 6.75 metres high, and is struck at the beginning of each Chinese New Year as well as the Spring Festival and other major celebrations.

The blurb tells us that its structure is technically perfect. Music experts at the Chinese Acoustics Institute found its tone to be “pure, deep and melodious” with frequencies ranging from 22 to 800 Hz. And according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, its loud and clear sound reaches up to 120 decibels and can be heard 50 kilometres away in the depth of the night.

Now, this bell was originally kept in the Imperial Longevity Temple. Shipping the bell from the foundry to the temple in the 15th century was obviously a big problem, since there was no vehicle or machine that could handle it. But these cunning Chinese had a wonderful plan. After the bell was made, they waited until the winter came. Then they dug a well every 500 metres, dug a ditch, which they filled with water from the newly-sunk wells and made an ice route. The bell was then placed on a huge sleigh, and hauled to its destination by oxen. In 1733 the bell was moved from the Imperial Longevity Temple to its present site.

Clever as this was, it is not the most impressive thing about the Yong-le Bell. The most difficult part of the casting was the 100+ Buddhist sutras inscribed over the entire surface of the bell both inside and out. There are altogether 227,000 Chinese characters inscribed on it.

But there’s more. Once one has finished wandering around inside the myriad temple buildings, it is time to enjoy the Nine Pavilion Bell Garden. This was founded in 1994 and is made up of a 2200 sq metre garden with, of course, nine bell pavilions linked by corridors containing 32 bells.

I don’t know if it is the open air that adds to their attraction, but these bells look gorgeous in their present location.

Of course, throughout the museum are endless notices exhorting visitors not to touch the exhibits. But I guess this little girl couldn’t resist the temptation; and egged on by her naughty parents, she grabbed a wooden stick lying on the ground and gave this flat bell a damned good thumping. Pure magic. One day I want to own a dinner gong like that. Hmmm... I wonder if this one’s been counted….

But any thoughts I have along such lines are quickly laid to rest when I spy a warning notice by the main entrance. Hey, I guess it would be too big to cart back on the subway to my place anyway!