A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Are There Any Antiques Left In This Antique City?


What's in a name? Would that which we call a rose by any other name smell as sweet?… to misquote the great Bard.
I was pondering this very thought the other day when surfing through the web, looking for ideas of what to do at the weekend. According to chinahighlights.com, “For a cultural tour of Beijing, Panjiayuan Antiques Market is a destination that you shouldn't miss! It is a great paradise for the life-size Chinese antiques, including Buddhist statues, Chinese jade, Chinese porcelains, Paintings, calligraphy. On weekend mornings you can get great prices bargaining with the vendors.”
Travelchina.com, visitbeijing.com, english.people.com.cn and admissions.cn all take up the theme. “It is a heaven for buying and appreciating antiques, crafts, collectibles and decorations. … Actually, Panjiayuan Flea Market has become one of the must-go attractions of Beijing for tourists from home or aboard (sic)” they all gush with identical verbage (is there anything which isn’t plagiarised or copy-n-pasted in China?).
Panjiayuan, I learn, is a place devoted to “antiques”. With its flea market, street sellers, and practically every second building devoted to the trade, you can’t move an inch without rubbing shoulders with “history”.
But wait a minute! The customary definition of antique requires that an item be at least 100 years old and in original, unaltered condition; which means if the majority of this stuff is antique, then I must be as old as Methusalah (no comments please!).
Maybe a safer description would be "vintage" – as used on eBay, which is taken to mean anything that looks dirty and worn, or might even be old, so long as you don't know anything about history …
But today the masses have been attracted to the area, due in no small part to the fact that CCTV is recording an antiques road show; and literally hundreds of people are queuing up with their precious boxes of bric-a-brac no doubt hoping they might have discovered some amazing artefact in their attics.
Across the road from CCTV lies one of the buildings of Beijing Antique City, which is the city’s largest antiques trade centre, with more than 600 companies crammed inside.
Here, there may well even be the occasional antique here …possibly. But a number of different stalls have the same “unique” objects on display. What an amazing coincidence is that! And the asking price for an identical item I saw being sold in Hong Kong for HK$120 (¥96) just last year is going for a mere ¥800 here.
Antique or not, some of the objets d’art are rather stunning – like these coral pink parrots…
…or these roaring tigers (and followers of this blog will know I am very much into tigers!).
You’re after a clock or three? No problem!
And ever mindful of health and safety, the management of this centre has every eventuality catered for..
Given the sorry state of my bank balance, I head off for pastures new and soon find myself in “an unmissable antiques street in Beijing, where you can also get a great history lesson through strolling around” – if chinahighlights.com is to be believed.
Liulichang got its name from a renowned coloured glaze factory (琉璃厂) during the Ming dynasty that made glazed tiles for the palaces, temples and residences of officials. Most glazed structural components of the Ming halls and palaces were produced here.
According to china.org.cn, ciof.cn, sinowaytravel.com, dreams-trip.com, fcs-fusion.com, stmtour.com, beijingpage.com and a host of other copy-n-paste sites, Liulichang was a favourite haunt for scholars, painters and calligraphers that gathered there to write, compile and purchase books, as well as to paint and compose poetry. By the Kangxi period (1661-1722), Liulichang had become a flourishing cultural centre.
Nowadays, its whole raison d’être is to pander to the demands of camera-wielding tourists who want to pick up a souvenir or two to take to the folks back home. But having said that, it is a pretty place.
On the left hand side as you enter the eastern street is an entire courtyard filled with little shops.
It’s like a quiet oasis, with the noise of Beijing’s hustle and bustle outside deliciously missing.
Its little shops contain everything from mass produced Mao memorabilia…

… to cute wall hangings.
The main street itself is a mixture of state-run and privately owned shops as well as traditional teahouses and wine shops that are well geared up to try to part the tourists from their cash.
At the western end of the eastern street there are loads of art brush shops, and I can only wonder how many people in search of a brush would come here to buy one. Most artists would probably go to the real art shops in the Dongsi area, I suspect.
Ah. My musing is answered by a notice in one of the aforementioned shops, which also just happens to accept Visa and American Express – not something that is really that common in China.
Lest the unwary traveller has come across this street by mistake, there are other helpful signs around the place to put the (mainly American) tourists at their ease!
Crossing over to the western end of the street, which has much fewer tourists than its eastern counterpart, they seem to take themselves much more seriously, it would appear.
Some of the buildings have pretty carved motifs on their frontages, though these look anything but old.
A street calligrapher seems to be doing a roaring trade even though, or possibly because, most of the tourists confine themselves to the more-touristy eastern street.
You get the feeling that people here are quite passionate in their beliefs. For instance, I wasn’t aware that there is much of a ‘problem’ in Beijing with regard being served dog or cat meat in restaurants; but obviously others vehemently disagree with my preconceived ideas!
Mind you, I did see this sign in an Olympic Park eatery not that long ago…
But certainly there are no dog meat restaurants around here (that I can find at any rate), so I head off back towards the station, when my eyes fall on a statue blending incongruously into a grey brick wall.

A plaque explains all: Commemoration of Chinese Movies' 100th Anniversary, it reads. Filmed at Feng Tai Studio which located in Liu Li Chang in 1905, Peking Opera segment Ding Jun Shan is the first silent movie in China's history. Acted by TanXin Pei, the movie was first show in Da Guan Lou Cinema and lasted for only 6 minutes since which it has been 100 years now. (sic)
I do some homework. It appears that The Battle of Dingjunshan was a 1905 Chinese film directed by Ren Jingfeng and was made by Beijing's Fengtai Photography. It was based on an episode in Luo Guanzhong's historical novel ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ and consisted of a recording of a Peking Opera performance of the Battle of Mount Dingjun. The only print was destroyed in a fire in the late 1940s.
Now there’s an interesting thought. It was a silent movie which featured Peking Opera? I know many people who might think that is the best way to appreciate this art form (although I have actually rather come to like it, I have to admit, and regularly switch across to CCTV’s Peking Opera channel).
Before I reach the station I feel a call of nature and, holding my breath – as one is forced to do in such places – I pop into the local pissoir, as the French tend to call them. Immediately I see another candidate for my best Chinglish poster in Beijing contest.
Hey, it’s even worth popping out, and taking another large breath of (polluted) air before popping back inside to click the camera shutter. I sometimes wonder what the locals make of these weird laoweis!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Is this the worst named attraction in Beijing?

I always find it strange that if you ask anybody who lives in their native city about any famous tourist destinations there, invariably they will not have been. I guess it’s because it is always there and they just assume that one day they will go along, as sure as night follows day. The end result is that most of us know foreign cities much better than our home towns.
A classic case in point is here in Beijing. Slap bang beside the Forbidden City on its eastern border is the Working People's Cultural Palace (Láodòng Rénmín Wénhuà Gōng, or 劳动人民文化宫) – an appalling name for something that is almost guaranteed to turn people off before they actually set foot in the place. I haven’t as yet met anyone who has been inside. All the tourists go to fight their way through the crowds in the Forbidden City, while this place stands almost empty 24/7.
Even Zhongshan Park, standing as in a mirror on the western side of Forbidden City, seems to attract a smattering of extra visitors (though its emptiness when I visited was what I found so charming about the place). Finally I decided that whatever it was called, I should maybe pay it a visit. And I’m glad I did.
The Imperial Ancestral Temple, Ancestral Hall or Taimiao (太庙) was originally built in 1420 and was where during both the Ming and Qing Dynasties, sacrificial ceremonies were held on the most important festival occasions in honour of the imperial family's ancestors.
By the 1920s, it had been turned into a public park and in 1951 the ancient palace was rechristened the “Working People's Cultural Palace” and the historic buildings and gates were converted into a space for educational and recreational purposes for locals and tourists. It stretches from Tian'anmen Rostrum in the south to the Forbidden City moat, and from the East Thousand Bu Corridor before the Imperial Palace in the west to the eastern palace walls – fully one half the width of the Forbidden City. And yet, despite its location, it remains one of Beijing's best kept secrets.
The buildings that comprise the palace were used as shrines to the ancestors of the imperial family and emperors would often come and pay homage to the dead. The three main halls in the palace include the Ancestral Worship Hall which was the principal location for rites and sacrifice, the Resting Hall which held tablets inscribed with the names of the deceased, and finally the Remote Ancestral Shrine was used to store the sacrificial slabs of the imperial ancestors.
Nowadays, the temple grounds are laid out with paths lined with ancient trees and flowerbeds.
As you enter, a peace descends all about you. Just yards away the swarming tourists fight their way around the Forbidden City; but on this side of the wall you are almost on your own. I’m sure it must have been very different during the Ming and Qing dynasties, especially on occasions such as an emperor' s ascending the throne, a triumphant return from battle or the presentation of prisoners of war, when the emperor would first come here to offer sacrifices to his ancestors.
In later years, the traditional buildings inside the palace were converted into a library, an exhibition hall, a theatre and a stadium; and flower beds were laid out among the pines and cypresses to mark the rebirth of this ancient shrine. But now, the first thing that you see is a long line of mug shots of workers who have been smiled upon by the great Communist hierarchy above, lauding their efforts for goodly deeds, no doubt with a view to inspiring others – but with no one about, that seems a somewhat forlorn hope!
Inside the large park-like setting I think I have seen all of three other people. Bliss! Doing a right and left past the “inspirational” mug shots you very soon get to the Glazed Gate which is shaped like a decorated archway with three bays and seven towers featuring a yellow glazed tile roof (yellow was reserved for emperors) together with green and yellow ceramics.
The temple, which resembles the Forbidden City's ground plan, is a cluster of buildings in three large courtyards separated by walls. There is a plethora of illegible maps stuck up around the whole site, but they really don’t tell you much; although there are quite a few other notices giving you the run down on what you see, so I guess it really doesn’t matter much.
As you step through the Glazed Gate, you find yourself in a very wide courtyard-like setting with the Halberd Gate ahead of you, and in front of it, a series of little bridges.
The gate has a gradually upturned single eave hip roof covered with yellow glazed tiles together with a railing made of white marble, and gates on either side. A typical Ming official structure, it is the only important relic that has not been altered since the Imperial Ancestral Temple was built.
At the southern end of the courtyard are seven gorgeous little single-arch stone bridges spanning the Golden River (Jinshuihe). Each bridge is eight metres wide, with white marble guardrails and columns alternately adorned with dragon and phoenix motifs. The middle bridge was used by the emperor and the bridges on both sides were respectively used by princes, officials and ordinary people, reflecting the feudal hierarchy.
To the west of the bridges is the Well Pavilion – a place where offerings were washed before they were processed in the sacred kitchen. The hexagonal pavilion has a single eave roof covered with yellow glazed tiles and beams supported by gilded brackets. In the pavilion itself is a well with a hexagonal white marble rim.
Once you are through the Halberd Gate, you find yourself in a truly massive square. Ahead stands the Hall for Worshipping Ancestors, which is one of only four buildings in Beijing to stand on a three-tiered platform, which denotes it as one of the most sacred sites in imperial Beijing. It contains seats and beds for the tablets of emperors and empresses, as well as incense burners and offerings.
Flanking the courtyard in front of the hall are two long, narrow buildings. These were worship halls for various princes and courtiers. The Western Wing housed the memorial tablets of meritorious courtiers, while the Eastern Wing enshrined various princes of the Qing dynasty.
But what’s this? I thought I had this place practically all to myself? It’s only now I come to discover that this is one of the most popular venues in Beijing for newlyweds – or rather newly-about-to-be-weds to come to have their official wedding photos taken. They are everywhere, posing in gorgeous outfits of white, yellow, red and blue. It’s almost like a stampede as couples line up to take their turns posing in all the tried and tested spots.
Some of the females, especially, are obviously would-be prima donnas and the camera crews do their best to pander to their every whim, for which I am sure they charge appropriately!
The brides look like they are in their element, while the grooms, in the main, look terrified and out of place and you can see them fervently wishing it was all over!
The eves of the worshipping halls are, like everything else here, decorated with golden dragons; and I find myself wondering how often they need to be repainted or simply cleaned up, especially given the particularly filthy air we have to endure here in the Chinese capital.
Some of the stone dragons around the place are pretty cute. I have no idea what their purpose is, save for a bit more decoration, but they certainly look happy.
In the south west corner of this huge square is a furnace, which was used to burn silk. Built of plain bricks, it was modelled on a wooden structure with a single eave gable and hip roof, a bracket architrave beneath the eaves and a round column at each of the four corners.
But today it serves purely as a backdrop where the couples with their professional photographic teams can leave their personal effects as they strut their stuff and pose around the grand square.
Retracing your steps, and turning left as you leave the temple complex, you can meander your way east inside the park to find a large rockery, this one being much larger than that found in the gardens of the Forbidden City next door. There are some quite nice stones, but I suspect that for every aficionado of rockeries, there is someone else who wonders what all the fuss is about; though the Chinese as a whole appear to love them.
I step outside the Working People's Cultural Palace and sadly re-enter a world of crowds and tourists and touts, before heading east on some quieter back streets. Very soon, I find myself at Wangfujing Cathedral (Holy Jo’s, a.k.a. the East Cathedral), which was originally built in 1655 (the 12th year of the Shunzi Emperor) though it was damaged three times in the following 200 years. It is a mixture of classical western architecture and traditional Chinese detail. It was restored in 2000. But today, with the sun shining and blue skies, yet more happy couples are posing in front of it – this time wearing more western-style black and white wedding outfits.
I realise that I have never yet been inside this church, and make a mental note to correct that in the near future. But there is not the time today.
I also make an extra mental note not to bring any dangerous “protribited” articles with me then… like cigarettes (damages your health!), mobile phones (all that radiation around your cranium?), terrorist-style water bottles (is that what it is??), shoes (huh???), and a flash-camera (in case the flash causes an epileptic attack????).
I have been duly warned!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Here be Dragons!

We all know that English mapmakers of yesteryear placed the phrase "here be dragons" at the edges of their known world. I mean … it’s common knowledge isn’t it. Or is it? For I was recently reading an article written in April 1999 by Erin C. Blake, a cartographer, who reported a list of all known historical maps upon which these words appear: • …
There aren't any! Of course, she argued, it is not surprising that the English phrase cannot be found on maps from a time and place where Latin was the language of learning, so here is her list of all known historical maps where the phrase appears in Latin:
• The Lenox Globe (ca. 1503-07), in the collection of the New York Public Library which has "HC SVNT DRACONES" ("hic sunt dracones ") on the eastern coast of Asia.
...And that’s it. In other words, there is just the one!
According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, "The animal called a dragon is a winged crocodile with a serpent's tail; whence the words serpent and dragon are sometimes interchangeable… The word ‘dragon’ was used by ecclesiastics of the Middle Ages as the symbol of sin in general and paganism in particular. The metaphor is derived from Rev. xii. 9, where Satan is termed 'the great dragon'.”
Dragons are something that the Chinese knew much more about than their European contemporaries. You have only to go around the southeast second ring road in Beijing to Longtan Park and you’ll see what I mean.
Longtan Gōngyuán – 龙潭湖公园 (literally "Dragon Pool", to give it its proper name) – was built in 1952 and has a total area of 49.2 hectares. The park is a fusion of northern classical architecture and modern garden art, highlighting the Chinese "Dragon" culture.

OK. Longtan Park rarely features on must-see lists of Beijing’s many tourist sites, probably because it is within a (1.5km) flick of a dragon’s tail from the eastern gate of the Temple of Heaven; but it is no-less worth seeing for that. The park is relentlessly themed with dragons – with pavilions, bridges, gates, halls, islands, lake and trees and almost anything that moves having some kind of a ‘dragonian’ connection.
According to the official blurb, there are as many as 100 carved dragons scattered around the park, though I have to admit to losing count after I’d passed the 60+ mark.
You cannot possibly miss the entrances, all featuring golden dragons prancing around and doing what dragons like to do best – ie look awesome…
… and sometimes cute, but rarely frightening!
Lest you could possibly get lost in a place like this, there are maps liberally scattered with gay abandon throughout the park.
It is obvious that the designers have thought long and hard about where they could possibly cram in extra dragons. You just have to look beneath your feet and voilà, out pops another one…
Even the lamp posts have a kind of dragon motif on them…
… while the dragon trees, which always look so beautiful in winter and early spring are pleasing on the eye.
These trees even manage to steal one’s attention away from some of the beautiful structures behind them.
In common with so many parks and open spaces in Beijing, it is normal to find people practising their tai-chi or shadow boxing, and twirling ribbons or swords.
For the more adventurous, there is even a climbing wall, though today it has been closed to the public.
I often think that China is a place where you are forever being told what you’re not allowed to do. Longtan Park is no exception, and I am glad I never thought to bring any wheels with me on this jaunt.
Something that is definitely NOT dragon related is as equally unexpected, as I turn a corner and am confronted by an old MiG fighter jet with a No Entrance sign in front of it. Children are encouraged to stand on the wings to have their photos taken, while others pose in front of it. You can see much better examples of this plane in the Military Museum, and perhaps this is why this sad-looking specimen ended up here – the only place left they could dump it?
With 40 per cent of the park being given over to the Dragon Lake itself, it is of course impossible to miss. This patch of water has been expertly beautified to ensure charming vistas all the way around its banks.
A beautifully curving pavilion with a dragon roof and pillars – called Longyinge House – is decorated with golden dragons, and is the largest piece of wooden architecture in the park.
Elsewhere near a Lotus Pond in the southeast of the park, is a dragon-motifed wooden bridge which has the appearance of having been put there simply because they couldn’t think what else to do with the space. But I guess it’s pretty all the same…
For those of a less athletic bent, there is a double croquet pitch laid out where a number of seniors are expertly knocking their balls – hmm, I don’t think that is the correct expression to use  – through the hoops.
And again, in the Chinese tradition, the sounds of instruments being practised waft throughout the park. Today there is a man practising his mandolin, and just along the track in yet another dragon-themed pavilion is a saxophone combo.
Further on the sound of bouncing balls emanates from a special ping-pong arena.
Rockeries play a big role in Longtan Park, especially in the eastern sector where seemingly haphazardly placed rocks connect different parts of the lake’s bank.
One of the prettiest bridges in Longtan is a moon bridge located at the western end of the lake. Moon bridges are highly arched pedestrian bridges which originated in China and were later introduced to Japan. They were originally designed to allow pedestrians to cross canals while allowing the passage of barges underneath. They had the further advantage of not using up too much space from the adjoining fields for the approaches. In formal garden design, a moon bridge was placed so that it was reflected in the still water below; and the arch with its reflection formed a circle, symbolizing the moon.
Unfortunately, together with the pretty, is the comically trashy kitsch that the Chinese seem to love. Close to Wanliutang Hall in the northeast section of the park, is this dragon boat, for instance, used in the summer for pleasure rides on the lake.
But it is quickly set off by the more elegant looking dragons carved into the stone balustrades just a few paces away.
Meanwhile there is another pretty bridge, some 40 metres long, which connects two small islands in the middle of the lake…
Dragons are, literally, everywhere in this park. Can one ever get a surfeit of them, I wonder? A touch of “dragophobia” perhaps?
Who knows? But as it’s time to leave by a different exit, the last thing my eyes fall to rest on is a pair of columns covered in… yes, you guessed it …
But now it’s time to wend my weary way home, where I can finally find the time to catch up with the latest episode in the Game of Thrones series that has become such a worldwide phenomenon, featuring, would you believe… dragons!