A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

You've read the blog... now get the book. The Blogger's Guide to Beijing is now available in eBook format in five volumes from Amazon. Click here for more details...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Playing Peekaboo with the Red Caped Enlightened Ones

It’s that time of the year again when the sun is relentlessly forcing its warmth through the steam bath that has become Beijing; when the birds are coughing their way through the early morning smog soup; and when a young man’s fancy turns to … well, getting out of the city for starters, and making his way up into the hills for a bit of respite.

So your favourite blogger finds himself searching the net for something a bit out of the ordinary and comes across the following write-up: “Hong Luo Si is a great place to see as an off-the-beaten-track destination when visiting Beijing. It is rarely seen by foreign tourists, and is located far enough away from the crowds of Beijing in more of a rural setting in the far northern Huairou municipal district to allow for a quiet and relaxed visit any time of the year. Spring, when the flowers begin to bloom, and Fall, when the leaves on the trees begin to change colors and the chrysanthemums are in full bloom, are ideal times to visit.”

I ask my colleagues at work what they know of this place, but – as usual, I’m afraid – I get the well-used shrug of the shoulders before the conversation turns back to bars they have got drunk in around the Sanlitun area.

I go back to my surfing…. “Hongluosi’s verdant environs have, within the past decade, increasingly become a popular venue for Beijingers looking for a casual outing. The many fruit trees as well as the trout stream also attract a number of Beijingers, especially during weekends. Cherry picking in early summer and trout fishing in late autumn always attract large numbers of visitors to the park. Surrounded by hills dotted with pines and cypresses in different shapes, this place of quiet contemplation is tastefully laid out.”

Sounds just up my street. But the problem is which street? Every site I look at has a different suggestion for getting there. Take the 936 bus from Dongzhimen, is a favourite. Take the 916 bus from Dongzhimen is another idea. But you see the common factor, dear blog readers? Yeah… Dongzhimen!

I search a Chinese-language web site that the bus authorities have set up and discover that the 936 doesn’t exist any more. I look up the 916 and find that it does exist but goes only to within 4 kms of the place before veering off to the east. I can find no other buses that go there. But I reckon that if the worst comes to the worst I can always get out in the general vicinity and then try my Chinese on a poor unsuspecting member of the cab driving fraternity. I set off for Dongzhimen!

The crack of dawn (well, 9.0am anyway, which is as close as makes no difference) sees me at the bus station and after a short shifty around I come across the 916 stop. There are hundreds of people queuing up there. The web site had said that the buses come every ½ an hour which means at this rate I’m likely to be hanging around here for some four hours before being able to board. But I know the Chinese are more canny than hanging around four hours for a bus. And eventually patience has its reward. One bus pulls in, it fills to the gunnels and groans its way out as another immediately pulls up behind it. And another; and another. I manage to squeeze onto the fifth 916 all of 12 minutes after I arrive.

Hong Luo Si, by the way – 红螺寺, or Red Snail Temple – is not so far from the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Covering an area of 16.6 acres, it’s the largest and most extensive Buddhist temple complex located in northern Beijing.

The bus journey is uneventful. We trundle in a north easterly direction for about 75 minutes along the expressway before I hop off at Huairou roundabout with the transmitter mast of a local TV station gracing the local scenery. Hongluo Si is well signposted, as indeed is the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall 17kms away, going off from the next exit of the roundabout.

According to the map that I have printed off in the office, I have to take a route around Hongluo Lake. I also notice a number of buses heading in the same direction as I’m going, but I keep on walking; and sure enough there ahead of me is a sign for the Lake Villa, a local tourist hotspot apparently – or so it markets itself!

The lake is pretty enough, though hardly outstanding in terms of lakes I have seen and loved…

I enter Luzhuang which is a “folk custom village” belonging to Huairou Town. It also happens to be the gourd cultivation and processing capital of the region and features 17 rainbow trout fishing parks for those sad individuals who think that killing fish for sport is somehow fun.

Ahead of me are the Huairou mountains with little temples dotted over its peaks, belonging to the Hongluo Si complex.

Nowadays the temple has no monks and has been turned into a resort. It was originally erected in AD378, but was later renovated and enlarged during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

It isn’t long before I arrive at the main gate, dying for a pee! As always, public conveniences are not hard to find in China – though the state of their cleanliness is highly variable. But today I strike lucky… a loo that doesn’t stink and is, on the whole, quite clean.

But what’s this? I know how much the Chinese love to put signs on any surface they can possibly find. The cubicle doors in this loo all have the following sign affixed:

What on earth are they on about? I turn to my friend MeiLing for an explanation:

The word 便 may mean "then" but also 便 can mean to shit or urinate,” she explains. “In this case of course, it means to do your no 2 business! So literally it means Squat to shit or pee. Obviously they just used Google Translation without understanding it.”

I look up Google Translate, renowned for its good taste and eagerness not to offend. And there in black and white is the translation, just as ML said: “Then”.

Mind you, if you go into a public loo and see loads of cubicle doors, I’m not sure you really need to rely on someone to tell you what you can do in the privacy of your cubicle, do you?

Could this possibly be why someone has apparently vented his anger / frustration on one of the urinals? Or maybe he tried to squat on it, not realising that the notices only applied to what went on behind closed doors? I guess I will never find out the answer to this conundrum.

Anyway, I’m now in a better frame of mind to face the beauties of Hongluo Si, and make my way along to the entrance. On either side of the path are numerous stalls selling incense, drinks and snacks together with the normal amount of tourist tack.

I am relieved of the princely sum of 54 kwai for my ticket (not 12 / 20 / 35 kwai as some web sites had helpfully suggested).

Red Snail Temple has been the most important Buddhist temple in northern China for the past 10 centuries, the signs around me say, as it has served not only as a traditional Buddhist place of worship, but also as a monastic centre for the education of Buddhist monks and abbots throughout northern China. Monks and abbots came from Japan and locations further afield in order to study here; and the temple was also frequented by Chinese emperors throughout the country's history. But nowadays the park is more akin to a Buddhist Disneyland!

First up, one comes across a Buddhist version of a coconut shy. Loads of people have bought special copper coins at the nearby kiosk to throw at a bell mounted in the middle of a large gong hanging under a bridge. Presumably if they manage to hit the bell (which very few do) they will receive some special prize … such as a promise of good fortune!

A few metres away, is a pool with loads of turtles minding their own business as they stretch out in the morning sunshine. Visitors – loads of them, not just a few – chuck paper money into the water which a minder with a stick then pushes deftly over to the turtles who sit there trying to ignore all the fuss. Maybe this is another way of gaining good fortune? Well, it certainly is for the management company running the whole show!

Now, I know you are all gagging to know why the temple is referred to as Hongluo – red snail – aren’t you? Well, it’s said that when the Jade Emperor’s two princesses descended to the world they became the embodiment of two giant red snails and lived in a local pool to protect the temples and common people. According to the legend the snails emitted strange lights at night and were thus worshipped by local villagers. Hence, the mountain was renamed Red Snail Hill and the temple, Red Snail Temple.

In true Disney-esque fashion, there’s a pool with a statue of the two princesses and loads of goldfish splashing about beneath the surface. Some of the visitors chance their luck in playing hopscotch on stepping stones that stretch across the pond … but the snails are obviously earning their keep as I don’t see anyone fall in to the water.

And I know the snails were described as Giant red snails, but surely they weren’t this big … were they?

Though the place is full of visitors, I don’t see a single non-Chinese amongst them – assuming, of course, that I am able to tell other Asian nationalities at a glance. Certainly I am the only European there. But catering for the possibility of an international in-crowd making its way here, there are signs in Korean, Japanese, Thai and Russian, in addition to the more obligatory signs in Chinese and English.

Luckily Disney-Buddhistopia doesn’t appear to reach into the actual temple itself, where there are plenty of the faithful burning incense sticks and praying for whatever it is people pray to the Buddha for.

But outside you can have a go at bonging the big brass bell for free – unlike other bell-bonging venues where you normally have to part with a few kwai for the privilege.

The temple itself is divided into five courtyards, the central of which serves as the entrance to the temple complex. This central courtyard is surrounded by the Hall of Heavenly Kings, Mahavira Hall, the Meditation Room, and a hall where Buddhist scripture is still taught. The other courtyards correspond to the four compass directions.

There is even a broadcasting centre in this complex – though I have no idea what outside broadcasts take place from here. I try peeking through the grimy window, but can see nothing of note.

Beyond the temple is another Disneyesque feature - a winding path lined with numerous carved statues of all of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. There are several representations of each animal, each one obviously created by different artists. Being a Tiger myself, I have no difficulty finding my personal zodiac beast.

Maybe less Disneyesque, but certainly one of the highlights of the temple park, are the 500 Arhat statues that are nestled in groups amongst the trees. There are so many of them that it’s impossible to see them all from one vantage point. They’re clad in red robes that make a striking contrast with the greenery of the trees.

There’s even a very large Buddha located alongside the 500 Arhats.

Well now; that’s the easy part out the way. From here on in is where your leg muscles really start to hate you. Assuming you pick the correct staircase, you can climb a mere 256 steps to get you to the Diecui (Double Green) Pavilion. Further up are the Xiao tian men (small heaven gate), Guanying temple and Sister Hongluo peak.

It is said that if you get to the very top, you can see the Great Wall at Mutianyu; but I give up after my first 623 stairs, no longer caring if I see another bit of wall!

For those who want the view with none of the pain, you can actually take a cable car up, and a chute down instead of the cable car for a combined price of 55 kwai.

But even from halfway up the mountain you get spectacular views – which are all the more likely to be amazing in the autumn when half the leaves turn red. Definitely on my list of places to return to in a few months time!

Clambering down the mountain side is almost as exhausting as climbing up; and my reward to myself is a hawthorne-flavoured ice lolly as I sit by a gently splashing fountain.

Of course one mustn’t miss the massive stone-carved dragon, or the stream that runs through the park, or the small fish pond in the old temple buildings…

But by now exhaustion is setting in. I stagger back up the path to the entrance of the complex and see ahead of me the sign for a bus station. It turns out the reason I never found this bus on the official bus map is that it goes a circuitous route once it arrives in Huairou and misses out all the connecting stops that I passed when travelling in the 916. Better still, the 867 goes all the way back to Dongzhimen.

However, it is a slow bus and takes an hour longer for the journey than it did coming out, visiting all the little villages and hamlets on the way. Not that it really matters I suppose. More than half the bus passengers plonk their ample situpons in their seats and promptly fall asleep.

Well, if you can’t beat them….

I awake with a jolt as we make a stop at one of the stations on Beijing’s subway line 15 which we follow all the way into town.

Over the next two or three days I mention my little expedition to a number of people – both Chinese and Westerners – but it arouses hardly the twitch of an eyebrow. Some of the Chinese have heard of the place. But it could just as easily be on the other side of the world for all they care. I guess that’s no bad thing. Let’s just keep it a secret between you and me and let’s not tell anyone else, lest it turns into another people-packed destination like most of Beijing’s other must-see attractions!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

How did Artists Cope in the days before Photoshop?

I have to admit that I don’t know a huge amount about Art – but I tend to know what I like and dislike. Many is the time I have gone into an art gallery and come away feeling pleasantly surprised and glad I made the effort. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of my foray to the National Art Gallery in Beijing.

The National Art Museum of China (中国美术馆), to give it its proper name, is one of the largest art museums in the country and is dedicated to the collection, research and exhibitions of modern and contemporary artistic works.

Its construction started in 1958, and took four years. It is one of the “Great Ten Constructions” to mark the occasion of the 10th Anniversary of the Founding of the PRC. (Other structures dating from the same era are Tianan Men Square itself, along with the Great Hall of the People, the Military Museum and the National Museum).

As a showpiece of the newly installed communist government, the Gallery functioned mainly as a showcase of communist propaganda. In the 1950s and 60s the museum was filled with idealized depictions of Mao, the Red Guards, Chinese Olympic Heroes or other noteworthy model-citizen examples for the Masses.

From the outside, it is quite an impressive building with its roof decorated by yellow glazed tiles. I’ve walked past it on numerous occasions and always meant to go inside sometime… but you know how the best laid plans don’t always work out.

Anyway, some have dubbed the look and feel of it as “Stalinist” with Chinese characteristics. Its high multi-eaved roof section in the central portion is balanced on both sides by long corridors extending East and West. It covers an area of more than 18,000 square metres with 17 exhibition halls from the first floor to the fifth. And it’s all illuminated by special lamps that do not emit ultraviolet radiation that could damage the exhibited art works.

It’s said that the museum houses more than 100,000 pieces of various collections, around the establishment of new China. It also collects hundreds of foreign works. A German couple apparently even donated 117 pieces in 1999, including four oil paintings by Picasso. I wonder why….

Anyway, the day I go there I find an exhibition of Chinese paintings by Tang Yongli – a graduate from Hebei Normal University who taught for many years at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts and the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Well, surprise, surprise – there’s a picture of Chairman Mao…

Oh, surprise surprise, there’s another pic of Mao with some of his friends…

Perhaps I’d be more impressed if Mr Tang hadn’t thought fit to put a photo of each of the Chinese heroes he has made portraits of next to his drawings.

For if they are turning left, then so does his picture; if they are facing right, so does his picture. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, I could probably have produced just as good a likeness by scanning the photo into Photoshop and using the sketch function. Cynical? Moi? Surely not!

I find I get very quickly bored with Mr Tang’s three galleries stuffed full of Photoshop’d Chinese heroes and move on to find something else to whet my appetite. Ah, another surprise! A couple of galleries stuffed full of calligraphy. Well, maybe writing out a poem or three in painted brush strokes is clever stuff, but it doesn’t do much for me; so once again I am in search of something more uplifting…

Aha. What have we here? A couple of galleries featuring Constructivism in Europe… “From Malevich to Kandinsky”…

The exhibition,” we are told, “which features paintings, sculptures, drawings and collages from a German private collection, highlights the important contribution East European constructivism made to modern art especially in the early decades of the 20th century. Particularly Russia gave avant-garde its impulses which spread over Western Europe. The exhibition brings together a wide spectrum of important works by Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Aleksander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Otto Freundlich and other artists who were all involved in the complex process of the avant-garde movement.”

OK! It’s official! Your favourite blogger is not only pig-ignorant but a philistine of the first order. Sorry, guys, but this is simply not for me. I go yet again in search of mental nourishment…

Perhaps I will strike lucky looking at photographs of construction in China?

I suppose construction can include Chinese buildings… and indeed these photographs, though nothing particularly out of the ordinary, are pleasant enough to look at…

Add in a few more Photoshop effects and some primary colours and you get some quite pleasing pictorial effects – I suppose…

I quite like this doctored photograph of the famous bridge at the Summer Palace – but only as I have never seen it under snow before. I wonder what has caused those mysterious circles?

Using Photoshop’s saturation controls can always be relied on to add interest to an otherwise unremarkable photo…

as can throwing in some goldfish into a frozen pond and using Photoshop’s feathering control…

but adding in a sunset on the north side of the Birds Nest? I don’t think so somehow! Call me a traditionalist, but I happen to like the sun setting in the west!

I move up to the fifth floor; the intervening floors are closed right now for renovation or the setting up of another exciting exhibition – I’m not quite sure. Here we have an exhibition of “Fine Folk Toys”, though what that’s got to do with art I’m not too sure.

Uh uh – just in case you didn’t see that sign properly, let me zoom in for you…

You’d think that someone somewhere would have bothered to make sure they could spell the name of the museum itself correctly, even if it isn’t in Chinese. The same mistake is proudly on display right through the entire building. I wonder if anyone actually got his (or her) bottom kicked for that? Oh come on – this is China FGS!

I read the justification for putting on this particular exhibition: Children love playing games as their natural instincts and toys are certainly the angles of children. Toys are not only the enlightening training aids to entertain and teach children, but also a source of character forming and wisdom cultivation. Comparing with current various kinds of toys, Chinese folk toys shows profound traditional cultural implication and folk-custom details with particular artistic form and represent the urgent hope of parents on cultivating their children to make achievements and gain outstanding talents.

I’m still none the wiser why this show takes up an entire floor of the art museum. Oh gawd – it goes on…

The purpose of Outstanding Talents (Treasure) from “Toys” Exhibition is displaying the series theme folk toys to improve the audiences’ deep understanding to traditional culture by showing them folk arts, make them interest in study in playing toys, keep them in good health, teach them knowledge, tell them what’s right and what’s wrong, enlighten their wisdom and make them value morals and set lofty aspirations to lay a solid foundation for realizing their grand life goal.

Nope. I’m still unclear why it’s here. But so as not to waste an opportunity of enlightening my wisdom, and setting lofty aspirations for myself, I go in anyway.

370 of the Museum’s 6000 toys have been selected for this exhibition “with careful planning and organization”. First up there’s a wall with kites hanging up on it. Some are even quite pretty. Maybe this is what they mean by art?

Or how about a few model armies of the Three Kingdoms period (no – they’re not that old… in fact they were made in 1987. Wow! That makes them … 25 years old! ) Actually I’m pretty sure L.U. would like them as he’s well into model armies …. But I digress…

There are also a whole load of pig pillows – circa 1987…

and cloth pigs … circa 1986 (spot the difference!)

and…errrr…that’s about it. Of course the children there can hardly contain their excitement, but they do so anyway … or is it that they have read the notices telling them not to chase and play around while blatancy is prohibited?

Oh, how I’d love to be blatant – but as I always do as I’m told, I struggle to keep my blatancy in check.

No. It’s no use. Unable to contain myself any longer, I break out of the Museum and head for the nearest subway station, which happens to be Dong Si (东四 – literally East Four) on line 5. On the platform there is a large area laid out to represent a game of Xiangqi (象棋) or “elephant game", often known in the West as Chinese Chess. Now that’s what I call art!