A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chinese Exercise: The best way to get over a trauma is to meet it head on

Hardly a week goes by these days when someone somewhere isn’t handing me a special card – whether it’s a store discount card for the likes of IKEA, Wumart or Ito Yakudo, or a subway metro map courtesy of some health provider, restaurant or manufacturer of women’s sanitary products (do I LOOK as if I need such things, I ask myself when these objects of desire are pushed under my nose?), or even a hospital outpatients card courtesy of my local China-Japan friendship hospital.
To add to my growing collection, I have just acquired two new ones – following my decision about a month ago to pamper the body beautiful and sign up to my local gym.
Now close friends of your favourite blogger know all too well the mental turmoil I must have gone through to sign on the dotted line. It seems only yesterday that one of the defining traumas in my life took place when I was working at Heathrow Airport. Living as I then did to the south east of London (with Heathrow, of course, firmly to the west) my daily commute around the M25 motorway could easily take up to 3 hours in each direction if the traffic gods decided to have their little bit of fun on the hapless commuters.
Accordingly I hit on the brilliant plan of leaving home at some ridiculously early time, before the sun had even woken up to the possibility that another day might lie ahead, in order to avoid the worst of the traffic congestion. And then to kill time until work started, I would sign up to a gymnasium in a local Heathrow hotel and end up with the perfect body for all and sundry to admire.
Alas, for the best laid plans of mice and men….
Well, you know those machines on which you lie on your back, pushing weights above your head? Yes, you know… you have to push upwards, stretching your arms against the relentless force of gravity … yeah, that one! OK, so I have just heaved one of the weights onto the bar and am thinking to myself what a he-man I must be in straining with all my muscles Schwarzenegger style, when along comes this petite young thing, throws eight of these weights onto her machine and begins thrusting voopah-voopah-voopah as if it were but child’s play.
I’m not sure my male ego ever got over that little episode. Certainly that was the last time I set foot inside a gym, preferring instead to swim a few lengths in the next door swimming pool before starting a day of gruelling work (taking journalists on joy rides airside around jumbo jets, driving across runways and gawking at Concorde as it roared off just feet away from us, deafening everything in its wake, etc etc etc).
Ah, the good old days! But despite the decades that have passed, that trauma in the gym has stayed with me to this very day. Until, that is, a month or so back.
Many of my expatriate colleagues regularly attend a local gym, about 15 minutes walk from the office. But life-trauma is life-trauma, and I was never tempted to sign up. And then someone tells me there is another gym much nearer, if only I can find it, that also has a swimming pool, and that maybe, in the many free hours I enjoy, I might care to fight the ravages of time that will undoubtedly kick in one of these fine days.
I can see the logic in this argument, even though I still feel I’m in the prime of life. So I decide to check it out anyway, and then make up my mind once I have seen it whether to humiliate my lovely carcass one more time.
So one fine morning sees me walking up the road, looking for the sign to the Xiaoguan Subdistrict of Chaoyang District People’s Government. (How could anyone miss such a thing?).
I turn left and look for my next landmark – a sorting office for China Post, which happens to be almost across the road from my local Wumart hypermarket that I go to once or twice a week…
Now I head into a residential area and am glad to see there is a comprehensive map on display near the entrance. The problem is, which of those hieroglyphics represents a gymnasium?
Undaunted, I follow the footpath along in an anti-clockwise direction. My nose picks up the aroma of chlorine. I follow in the direction of my nose and come to a little side street with the catchy name of North Fourth Environment East Road.
And sure enough, as I turn the corner, the whiff of chlorine is ratched up a few notches and I find the building I am looking for.

您好!你会讲英语吗?(Hi – do you speak English?) I call out in my well worn opening gambit to the girl behind the reception desk. There is a half muffled giggle, an embarrassed shake of the head and an internationally accepted mime for please just wait a minute.
I wait two minutes, and a slightly podgy girl – not, one has to admit, a very good advert for a health club – waddles up to me and in broken English asks how she can help me.
I ask if I can be shown around her establishment with a view to becoming a member. What? Can a laowai really be interested in joining this club? Can it be true? She gives once again the internationally accepted mime for please just wait a minute and scurries off to the back room.
This time on her return she is accompanied by a guy sporting rippling muscles who gives me the once over and obviously reckons that if ever a potential new recruit needed some physical exercise, he is staring at him right now.
He prattles away in fast Mandarin, hardly giving Ms Podgy-Chops time to translate for me before launching off into another expose of, well, who knows what? But this time I am bidden to follow Mr Rippling-Muscles down some stairs to a basement laden with every kind of muscle-building machine I have ever seen – and many I have not.
And there before me, by sheer coincidence, I see a face I recognise … the HR guy from my office (the one who has since been terminated, not the new one) who greets me in broken English like a long lost friend and immediately hijacks the conversation.
Here is a room full of cycling machines, he says pointing to a room full of cycling machines, before adding as an afterthought that perhaps I am a bit too old for this kind of exercise? (Funny how you can go off some people really fast!)
Here are some machines to build up your muscles, he says, pointing as he does to that “bête noire” of a machine that has haunted me all these years.
We move quickly on through the entire downstairs floor before he asks me if I could possibly be interested in seeing the swimming pools. I assure him that I could indeed and am invited to follow Mr Rippling-Muscles and Ms Podgy-Chops while Mr Terminated-HR-Man brings up the rear.
Here is where you will learn to swim, I am told as we reach the second floor. But I can swim, I find myself protesting. Mr Rippling-Muscles and Ms Podgy-Chops exchange knowing looks while Mr Terminated-HR-Man thinks he might not have heard correctly.
No, no! This is where you can learn how to swim, he says, hoping the extra words might help me to understand him better. Yes, but I can already swim, I reply, hoping the extra words might help him to understand me better.

There is a barely disguised shrug of the shoulders, as if to say let’s humour this laowai, and once again we mount more stairs up to the top floor of the building where there is another, no-nonsense swimming pool for the big boys.  Perfect, I tell them, and after returning to ground level once more we get down to the nitty gritty of some tough negotiations.
How much is your membership, I ask them. How much you want to pay, comes the reply.
I try a new tack. How much does it cost to use your gym and swimming pools, I ask. 2000 kwai, says Mr Rippling-Muscles, not waiting for an official translation.
Ah, sorry, too much, I answer.
Oh, wait, for you special guest just 1,500.
For how long?
Six months.
Sorry, too much.
But you like here very much
, he insists with a look of chagrin written all over his rippling face. Ah. To you just 1,000.

I do some rapid mental arithmetic. The Americans who signed up to the other gym paid 1,200 and they don’t even have access to a swimming pool. 1,000 kwai is around £100 which surely isn’t bad for six months membership.

OK, I say, I am going on holiday in two weeks time, so I will join on my return.
No worry
, counters Mr Rippling-Muscles, not bothering to disguise the fact he has understood everything I have said. You join now and we give you seven months for 1,000 kwai!
I am beginning to suspect that he served his apprenticeship at Yashow Market where horse-trading has been refined down to a fine art.
OK. 1,000 for seven months. I will bring the money around tomorrow.
(a crestfallen look on his face) you no have it with you?
No, I insist, but I will bring it with me tomorrow morning around 10.30.
Í am asked for my full name and phone number. And sure enough at 10.32 the next morning as I am rounding the corner next to the China Post sorting office, my phone goes off.  Where you are Meester Brian? I assure Mr R-M that I will be with him very shortly and sure enough, a couple of minutes later he is at the door waiting to greet me.
I hand over the wad of cash I have brought for him and sign a pile of papers, not knowing what the hell I am actually signing.
Next I am invited to buy a padlock (naturally I will need to lock my things away in a locker) – special price for me of 35 kwai. Kerching!
Next I am invited to buy a swimming cap (I have never worn a swimming cap in my life before). Tsk tsk, obviously I cannot be a serious swimmer if I have never worn one of these things. But rules are rules and must be followed at all times and I am rapidly relieved of yet another 35 kwai. Kerching!
Perhaps I would like to buy some goggles too? A mere 50 kwai. I decide to draw the line here and graciously decline the offer.
I would like to swim now? My membership card will be ready when I leave. I am shown to the men’s changing room, shown how to use the afore-purchased padlock, and given a shower-card that I leave in the locker as I have no idea what it is for.
I tramp up to the top floor in my swimming gear, nod hello to the pool attendant and am invited to slip into the beginners’ lane.  (All the lanes are clearly marked in Chinese: beginners, card-certified swimmers, slow swimming swimmers, fast-swimming swimmers.)
I thrash up and down a couple of lengths and the pool attendant comes over. He speaks near-flawless English. Ah you can swim. So good Meester. Maybe you like to go into other lanes?  I readily acquiesce leaving the first lane for others to thrash about in.
The Chinese obviously take their health seriously here. Everywhere are notices stuck up around the pool of who is NOT allowed in to swim. Heart problems? Skin diseases? Sorry, but you can’t come in!
And lest anyone should even think for just one moment of having a little fun while thrashing up and down this pool, then they should definitely think again!
I have written before of how the Chinese as a race just love to spit at every available opportunity, and I discover that the swimming pool is no exception. Where else in the world, I wonder, are you likely to come across a swimming pool with spittoons at the end of each and every lane?
They all do it. Thrash thrash thrash through the water, reach the end, heave themselves up and gob in the direction of a plastic-bag-protected-bin before turning around and heading for the other one at the opposite end. Oh Yuk!
Half an hour later, having gently worked up 20 lengths (and avoided the urge to spit), I climb up the ladder, pick up my towel and head for the stairs. Meester, you need sit down I think, calls Mr Pool-Attendant. No need, I reply. But you must not over-tire yourself, I am advised. I gratefully decline his invitation and head for the changing rooms.
It is now that I discover what the extra card I have been given is for. The canny Chinese know that some people just love to stand under a hot shower for hours on end and gossip away the day. Well, there’s none of that here. To get the shower working you have to stick your card into a slot and a measured amount of water squirts out of the shower head while a count-down timer tells you how much time you have left.
I should add at this point that there is no place to hang a towel in the shower room, so everyone just pads in as naked as the day they were born and stands under one of the eight showers until the water runs out, before making way for someone else.
And it’s now that I finally get to understand the rumours, tales and innuendos that I have heard since time immemorial. Yes, I can finally reveal that it is true what they say about Chinese men! Not to put too fine a point on it, their appendages are TINY. I don’t mean small, I mean MINISCULE! Pussy fur they have a-plenty (maybe that’s why they all have smooth hairless chests … the fur all ends up between their legs)! Some guys even have so much pussy that it completely envelopes their family jewels.
I turn around in my shower cubicle and witness the ongoing battle as eight pairs of eyes are desperately forced away from staring at Junior. Can it be true? Can it really be that a laowai is so well endowed?
I mean, you know me… I don’t like to boast, but… eight pairs of eyes follow me out of the shower room as I go back to the changing room, where a few more pairs of eyes look on in envy as I open up my locker.
Forget about adverts from sex companies for penis enlargement … if a westerner is at all worried about his tackle, I can strongly recommend he takes his next holiday in China and visits a swimming pool every day. Such an act would surely put a number of those companies straight out of business.
There are some nationalities, I guess, that I would not choose to be. I have just added another to my list.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

If Confucius had been Catholic, he’d surely have become a saint by now!

I’ve lost count of how many times I have visited what must be one of the best Buddhist temples in the whole of Beijing – the Yonghegong Lama Temple. Whenever visitors come to the capital, it is one of the must-see attractions they are taken to.  Little did I realise that just a stone’s throw away from its portal lies another temple complex that is totally different but just as must-see as its neighbour.
I’m talking of The Temple of Confucius at Beijing (北京孔庙/北京孔廟), the second largest Confucian Temple in China, after the one in Confucius' hometown of Qufu.
At RMB30, entrance is 5 kwai more than the Yonghegong Si, but it’s well worth it, and takes a lot longer to go around than the former.
The temple in Beijing was initially built between 1302 - 1306 and renovated during the Ming (1368 - 1644) and Qing (1644 - 1911) Dynasties. Officials used it to pay their respects to Confucius until 1911, when the last emperor was “shown the door”. The compound has been enlarged twice and now occupies some 20,000 square metres (5.4 acres).

It was originally called Guo Zi Jian (Imperial College) Confucian Temple since it was built with the Guo Zi Jian on the left and the Temple on the right.  On the central axis are the Xian Shi Gate (Gate of the master), Da cheng Gate (Great Success gate), and Ching Sheng Memorial Temple where sacrifices were offered to Confucius and his ancestors. Signs tell us that in 2008 the site hung out its shingle and was opened to the public!

Confucius, as we all know, was one of the greatest philosophers and teachers of all time and on a par with the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and Socrates. His father, Shulianghe, was a general in the state of Lu, known for the role he played in the battle of Fuyang when he famously held up the closing city gate, saving the lives of many Lu soldiers. Confucius, we are told, inherited his father's unselfish spirit!
As for Shu’s wife, the story goes that when praying at Ni Hill one day, Yanzhengzai suddenly felt a pain in her belly and gave birth to Confucius in a cave. To thank the god of Ni Hill, Shulianghe named the boy "qiu" – or hill. You can see Qiu’s position on this family tree going back 10 generations…
Confucius was born in 551BC, and his morals and principles still form an integral part of modern Chinese society. Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty adopted his policy of proscribing all non Confucian schools of thought and espoused Confucianism as the orthodox state ideology. Confucianism thus became the mainstream in traditional Chinese culture.
On education, Confucius advocated providing education for all irrespective of background. On schooling he emphasised teaching students according to aptitude. He founded the first Chinese private school and accepted students from all walks of life.
But enough of the background and back to this amazing place! When you enter the grounds, you can see 14 stone stele pavilions constructed during the Ming and Qing dynasties that hold various historical documents all carved into the stone, such as the successful suppression of a riot in Qinghai in 1725 and the completion of renovations in the Temple in 1769.
The temple also contains 198 stone tablets positioned on either side of the front courtyard recording more than 51,624 names of Jinshi (advanced scholars) who passed the Ke Ju examination – the last being in 1904. The examinations were a prerequisite for work in the government’s vast bureaucracy and passing these exams was considered a great accomplishment.
Throughout the grounds are a number of old trees that really add character to the place. For instance, one cypress which was planted in the Yuan Dynasty became hollow and collected a load of dirt inside it. And then some careless passing bird managed to drop a mulberry into the hollow trunk. The result? There’s now a cypress tree which has a mulberry tree growing out of its centre and hence is called Bai Shang Sang (Cypress on top of Mulberry)!
Another cypress - Chu Jian Bai (Touch Evil Cypress) – was said to have been planted by Xu Heng, the Ji Jiu (i.e. president) of Guo Zi Jian during the Yuan Dynasty over 700 years ago. On one occasion a famously corrupt official in the Ming Dynasty – a certain individual named Yan Song - came to offer sacrifices to Confucius on behalf of the emperor.  As he passed by, a flurry of wind sprung up and a branch of the cypress knocked off his black gauze hat (worn by Imperial officials to indicate their position). Later the tree was said to have the ability to distinguish wicked courtiers from loyal ones, hence its name.
Another much celebrated tree is this scholar tree said to have been planted by Xu Heng, yet another Ji Jiu of the Yuan Dynasty. (Obviously tree planting was written into their work description in those days!) Anyway, during the 16th year of Emperor Qianlong’s rule in the Qing Dynasty (1751) when the 60th birthday of Qianlong's mother was celebrated, the tree which had been withered and considered dead for a long time burst into life. Hence its name: Fu Su Huai (Fu Su means “coming back to life”). Around its base are hundreds of prayers hung up to catch the four winds.
The complex itself includes four courtyards aligned along a central axis. From south to north, you first pass through the Xianshi Men (先师门 - Gate of the First Teacher), followed by the Dacheng Men (大成门 - Gate of Great Accomplishment).
The gates remain some of the principle features of the Yuan Dynasty and are impressive to say the least.
They’re glazed with yellow tiles, showing how important the place was in feudal China (yellow was the colour used by emperors). There are also some stunning carvings including a famous carving of "two flying dragons playing a pearl among clouds” - a rarity seldom found in other Confucius temples as dragons were usually solely reserved for emperors.
Further inside you reach the Dacheng Hall (Hall of Great Accomplishment, 大成殿) together with the Chongshengci (崇圣祠 - Worship Hall). These are the main buildings in the temple, where the memorial ceremony for Confucius was often held by successive emperors.  Dacheng Hall is about 16.4 metres wide and 5 metres deep.
Around it is a pretty moat simply teeming with goldfish such that when the sunlight strikes the surface of the water it appears as if there is a red path lining its sides.
There are also loads of lotus flowers adding to the overall charm…
Inside Dacheng Hall is a throne on which the Emperor used to place his situpon when lecturing his subjects in the ways of enlightenment. It looks none too comfortable, though no doubt they also gave him some cushions to sit on. Maybe it’s his subjects who really deserve more sympathy…
With so much space reserved for the temple areas, it’s easy to forget for a minute that this is actually a place of learning. The Imperial Academy was the highest educational institute and administrative setup in feudal China; and the BJ Imperial Academy - which spanned the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties - is the only well preserved former site of higher learning in feudal China.
During the reign of Emperor Hanwu, the state became unprecedentedly prosperous and powerful. Representatives of the Confucian School proposed the construction of the Imperial College and the designation of distinguished masters to turn out accomplished disciples. Emperor Hanwu accepted their proposal and founded the Imperial College in 124BC, symbolising the birth of higher education in the country.
The unification of the country by the time of the Sui Dynasty brought about a systematic education system; and in the third year of Emperor Suiyang (607AD) the Imperial Temple was redesignated as the Imperial Academy. It was composed of six classrooms which streamed students and recruited foreign students.
The middle yard was essentially the teaching area. The connected rooms on the east and west sides along the verandas which served as classrooms were called the Six Courts for Jiansheng (students). Learning consisted mainly of classic works of Confucian schools, history, literature, calligraphy etc which would be prescribed in the imperial civil service exams. Policies, laws and current events were also included.
You can enter one of these Courts on the eastern side, where there are copious explanations of the vigorous examination system together with models and tableaux showing what things might have looked like all those centuries ago. (Did their trestle tables really have metal folding legs, painted to look like wood, I have to ask myself!)
Over on the western side of the courtyard, filling the three Courts, was something even more appealing, I have to admit. It was an art exhibition, only there for a very temporary rest before it moved on to other premises…
The celebrated artist Song Weiyuan (Xiaoming) was born in 1957 in Beijing, and this exhibition was giving a broad display of his work. In 1980 Xiaoming went to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he graduated in 1984 and then stayed as a lecturer. He is well known for his paintings of figures, landscapes, flowers and birds as well as calligraphy, seal cutting, poetry and ancient painting identifications.
Some of his works included zodiac animals – and being a Cancer, I was of course drawn in to this pair of cute and cuddly little crabs…
while some of his bearded men were simply a delight!
One of the most impressive things on show at the Confucius Temple is what are known as The Qianlong Stone Tablets. These were 189 slabs of stone onto which were carved 13 Confucian classics containing more than 628,000 Chinese characters, all written in regular script by Jiang Heng, a Gong Sheng (scholar recommended for further studies in the Imperial College) from Jintan, Jiangsu Province during the reign of Yongzheng. Starting in 1726, it took him 12 years to complete the initial writing. In 1791 work then started transferring all this writing by engraving the tablets, and that process took 3 years. Now they stand in six rows in a long air conditioned room…
The steles of the Qianlong scriptures originally stood in the sixth classroom and were used as a standard handwriting for the students to learn. As you can see, the standard of handwriting/carving is amazing…
… or, as the explanatory engraving would tell us, the calligraphy is neat, beautiful and lusty!
They were moved to their present position in 1956 when the university underwent repairs. The steles themselves were massively restored in 1988 and officially put on display in 1992. Most look like they were only carved yesterday, though some look a little the worse for wear, albeit well held together with metal ties.
Really! I’m not bullshitting …. As if I would!
Seen enough? No way…. there’s yet more to see in this complex.
Next it’s on to the classical Chinese music house where there is a large collection of ancient Chinese musical instruments located within the Hall of Great Perfection, along with the central shrine to Confucius.
Still not had enough? OK, then let’s turn to the exhibition about Confucius himself.
This is all contained in a long narrow building on the right side of the second courtyard. The room displays extensive information on the life and history of Confucius, his family, his accomplishments and his back ground.
Here you’ll find yet more musical instruments on display, since it is explained that when Confucius heard Shao music for the first time in the state of Qi, he was apparently so intoxicated with the sound that he “even forgot the flavour of meat”. Hmm, I can think of one or two modern day bands that have a similar effect on me!
Of course, Confucius is probably best known for his views on family life. He believed that benevolence came from filial piety and that piety is based on the equality of parents and children concerning human dignity. This means the existence of a merciful father, a dutiful son, a friendly brother and a respectful younger brother, a righteous husband and a loyal wife. He opposed both the one way obedience of children to parents and the one way commanding of parents to children.
This so-called filial piety is still much in evidence in China, and some modern day universities even insist on proof of filial piety before they will offer a student a place to study!
Once outside again, one comes across a well, known as The Ink Lake.  This was a shallow well which had a reputation for its sweet and refreshing water. It was said that men of letters who drank a cup of holy water from the well would be able to produce excellent pieces of writing in copious quantities; and calligraphers who used ink made from the water in the well would be able to produce fantastic handwriting. Emperor Qianlong conferred the title The Ink Lake to the well.
When I peered inside it looked anything but tempting to drink, so fans of your favourite blogger should not expect to see a change in my writing any time soon, I’m afraid…
We’re nearing the end of our visit. Along one wall is a row of Confucius statues very near the entrance of the Chong Sheng Memorial Temple.
Just nearby is a notice that something is happening each hour on the hour. Whatever can it be? Vast armies of tourists start to congregate in front of the Chong Cheng Memorial Temple (which was not built until 1531 during the reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty, BTW. The hall was used for offering sacrifices to five generations of Confucius’s ancestors.)
A large screen raises an air of expectation …
And then suddenly some music starts wafting from loudspeakers and actors in cute uniforms emerge from the temple doing what looks like an unknown variety of callisthenics.  Heaven knows what the relationship is - if any – that the performances have with the teachings or life of Confucius but they are enjoyable to watch.
There are 20 performers/dancers in all, and the costumes are vivid and certainly eye catching.
I particularly like the feathers that could certainly be used to do unspeakable things in someone’s deepest fantasies! (No questions on that score, please!)
But enough of such thoughts! The performance itself lasts for all of 12 minutes, and before long everyone is making their way out of the makeshift arena and heading towards the main gate.
30 kwai for this afternoon of delights? It’s a snip!