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Drumming, Ringing, and Chinese Catholics

Matteo Ricci, in the front courtyard

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Today, I went to go visit the Nantang Cathedral (technically that’s redundant, as “tang” is the word for “cathedral”, but eh). It was originally founded by (interestingly, not “saint”) Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit and one of the first missionaries allowed outside Macau. The “South Cathedral” is the oldest church in Beijing, originally built in 1605. However a series of earthquakes and the Boxer Rebellion destroyed several earlier versions of the church. So, the foundation is really all that’s left of the original church. The Mass was well-attended, but there were some oddities. There was a team of people (as in about half a dozen) with CCTV video cameras wandering around the church throughout the whole Mass, and they appeared to be trying to film everyone in the building. It was quite odd, as it there didn’t appear to be any important church officials (archbishops, cardinals, etc.) present, and the cameramen went to great lengths to film people in the pews (that is, until they suddenly left). Then there was the little kid who, in between running around the back of the church, ran up to his brother (sitting next to me) and started yelling at him that they had to leave (or they’d die) because he’d seen some PSB (Public Security Bureau) goon out back. The whole thing was weird. It’s worth noting that Nantang is one of the state-sanctioned churches. I actually discovered that the bishop who oversees it is one of the few approved by both the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (i.e. the government) and the Vatican.

After that rather odd encounter with Chinese spirituality, I went to Houhai to visit the Bell and Drum Towers. These are actually two separate towers which were used during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties to sound the time. The Bell Tower houses a huge bell (about 40 feet top to bottom), which goes by the title “King of Bells.” The Drum Tower houses a hall filled with large drums (approximately 10 feet in diameter). Every hour, a team of drummers comes out to play the drums. I’ve included two clips of the performance below. Because the towers are fairly tall, you can also get a nice view of the surrounding area. The towers are actually built on a straight line with the center of the Forbidden City. The weather was a bit overcast, but I could still sort of make out the tops of some of the Forbidden City’s buildings. There were also several hutongs at the base of the towers, so you could also get an aerial view of some of those.

Policing and the Night Life

A police officer's uniform (1960's-1970's)

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Yesterday, I took a tour of the Beijing Police Museum, which recounts the history of Beijing’s Municipal Police Department (which operates under the eerily-named Public Security Bureau). Entering the museum was an interesting experience. As a student, I got in free (even using my UNC credentials). In the course of explaining my student ID to the front guard, I discovered that he was a fan of UNC’s basketball team. So, we got along quite swimmingly.

The museum was pretty interesting. It was small compared to some of Beijing’s other museums, but considering it focused exclusively on the Beijing Police Department, it was fairly comprehensive. The first floor contained a broad history of the department: its establishment in the late Qing; its different forms under imperial, Nationalist, and Communist rule (including its total destruction during the Cultural Revolution); and its more recent history through the 2008 Olympics. Some of the more interesting exhibits focused on the Communists’ efforts to root out remaining Nationalist elements in the capital after 1949. Apparently, they were still capturing Nationalist spies and radio sets well into the 1950’s. It’s been a fairly popular technique for the police to require “confessions” out of dissidents shortly before they’re executed. So, they had several of these confessions from prominent Nationalist rabble-rousers on display. Some of them were quite lengthy, running for two or three pages. The history of the department during the Cultural Revolution was also interesting. Several thousand of the department’s officers and commanders ended up getting purged in the course of the Revolution (with about 100 or so being executed), effectively eliminating the police force as a functioning entity.

The second floor covered some of the more ancient history of Chinese law enforcement. However, they also displayed some modern tools and methods. There were several different exhibits on various (grisly) crimes committed in Beijing in the last twenty years or so. The exhibits mainly covered murders and kidnappings, but there was a drug case thrown in too. They had the criminals’ weapons, bags, drugs, etc. all on display, along with pictures of the victorious team of detectives who brought the criminal to justice. Apparently, the Chinese can be quite nasty to each other. There was also a display on the Chinese prison system, which emphasized the Communists’ departure from simple imprisonment (used during the imperial era) in favor of “re-education through labor.” The Communists have something of a unique approach to criminal justice. In addition to the whole labor re-education thing, I’ve also read accounts where, upon release, the ex-con gets the bill for the cost of his imprisonment. Maybe California should consider something similar.

The third floor covered traffic enforcement and fire-fighting (which also falls under the responsibilities of the police department). There was also a memorial to Beijing’s officers killed in the line of duty. Judging from the plagues on some of the displays, it appears as if officers killed in the line of duty are designated as “martyrs.” I don’t know if that’s something just lost in translation, but it’s interesting to think about. If you hold up the state as the end all and the be all (as communism does), then logically it makes sense to christen those killed in its defense as martyrs.

That night, I took a tour of Tiananmen Square and the Bird’s Nest. It was a little foggy (or smoggy), but the lights were still pretty impressive. The pictures are included above.


Graduation Pictures

With one of my teachers

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I graduated from my program on Friday. So, I’ve uploaded some of the pictures from the event. There’s a few more pictures out floating around on other cameras, so when I get those, I’ll upload those too.

Planes, Tanks, and Automobiles

Out front

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Over the weekend (Sunday, actually) I went to go visit the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution. It was fairly infested with propaganda, but fairly interesting nonetheless. The first floor contained the Hall of Weapons, where you could go see (literally) dozens of tanks, planes, missiles, cars, etc. used in modern Chinese conflicts. Most of the exhibits tended to focus on the period from 1949 on, but there a few relics from the Republican and Civil War eras. There were also a fair number of American and European machines mixed in with the Chinese and Soviet ones. All of the signs describing everything were in Chinese, but most of the Western tanks and whatnot appeared to have been captured during the Korean War.

Moving up to the second floor, there were several cases of pistols, rifles, missiles, machine guns, etc. that you could gawk at. I kind of liked the spy weapons case, with its pen guns and glove guns and really small guns. They had also split open a few of the missiles, so you could take a peek inside the guts of a few of the missiles. This floor also had a section devoted to what appeared to be famous Chinese marshals and other influential military figures. China being China, people like Marx, Lenin, Deng, and Mao all managed to obtain (several) spots in this gallery. Most of the figures were busts, but there were also a few very large statues. At the end there were several busts that appeared to have very little relationship with Chinese military history. The most striking was the salesman, but maybe he was some sort of defense contractor?

The second floor also contained an exhibit on the Second World War (or as it’s more locally known, the War of Resistance Against Japan). It was pretty interesting. The little signs describing everything were unapologetically pro-Chinese, castigating the Japanese for their hideous war crimes. This was particularly evident in the Nanjing exhibit, where “Japanese” and “slaughter/massacre” were used in just about every description (it also included the skull of one of the Chinese victims- a little creepy). If you knew nothing else about the war, and only read the little placards (which, were also in English) scattered around the exhibit hall, you’d also come away thinking that the Chinese Communist Party pretty much won the war all by itself (while, of course, the Nationalists did everything they could to sabotage the Chinese resistance). Periods of significant Chinese defeats were described as periods of strategic non-advancement, while mention of Western influence in the Pacific theater was scant. The exhibits were very thorough though, containing original copies of memos from the party and military leadership in addition to all kinds of everyday tools used by soldiers in the war. Despite its shortcomings, it was pretty interesting.

The third floor had an exhibit on the modern Chinese military. There were several models of Chinese military equipment (including a nuclear bomb) and all kinds of pictures of the PLA training and saving people and whatnot. This floor also contained a room that held all of the gifts that the PLA has received from foreign governments and militaries. It was quite impressive, as the gifts tended to reflect the culture of the giving country. They had the room broken down into different sections based on continent, so you could wander through the African gifts onto the Asian gifts, etc. In the center of the room was a large, golden globe that was supposed to symbolize world peace or something like that. If you walked through the Hall of Gifts, on the other side of the floor was an exhibit on the European colonization of China. There were various artifacts from the two Opium Wars, the Sino-French War, and other conflicts with the West. Needless to say, the exhibit was not very complementary of 19th century Western foreign policy. There were also several large canons scattered throughout the exhibit, which apparently were used to fend off (mostly British and French) attacks on Chinese forts and ports. They actually one of the canons situated outside the museum by the main entrance, which would seem to indicate that while most Westerners are largely unfamiliar with China’s “century of shame,” it’s still very much on the minds of the military and political leadership.

The final exhibit (on the fourth floor) was on the Korean War, or “The War to Aid Korea and Resist America.” If I remember correctly, I think the Chinese actually sustained more casualties in this war than any of the other countries involved in the conflict (some people place it as high as 1.5 million). It was largely promoted as a war to check American imperialism on the Korean peninsula (which the Japanese have historically used as a staging ground for invasions of China) in addition to promoting international communist brotherhood and other such nonsense (hence the name). The exhibit largely reflected this theme, recounting the heroic efforts of the People’s Volunteer Army to save the Chinese from the imperialistic Americans. They also had a mock tunnel (they do seem to like tunnels) that gave you a glimpse of a soldier’s life in the trenches (so to speak).

I also managed to pick up a model airplane. Except this airplane is made entirely out of spent rifle shells. It’s pretty epic, my only concern is getting it on the airplane.

Hutonging It Up

The main courtyard

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The other day, my class took a trip to go visit a Siheyuan and a hutong. The Siheyuan is a small compound that serves as a home for approximately three generations of the same family. It’s walled in on all four sides, with the main buildings occupying the periphery. A courtyard occupies the very center of the siheyuan. There’s usually some trees and whatnot planted in the courtyard, and some places will even have ponds full of goldfish. It was a nice little place, but I thought that it was a bit small, particularly given that you, your parents, and your grandparents are all supposed to live in it together.

There were also several hutongs nearby, so we went to go visit one of those next. They were really little more than city alleys, so I don’t completely understand all of the hype that they get. Some of them are pretty old (as in hundreds of years), but the condition of the people living in them left a lot to be desired. There’s some debate over whether the government’s policy of bull-dozing the hutongs in favor of shopping malls and apartment buildings is a good idea. But I know, that I’d personally rather live in an apartment than in one of the hutongs. We talked to some people who lived in the hutongs and, they seemed to concur with this assessment. They made it quite clear how much they disliked their hutong. Apparently, American-style housing is preferable. Go figure.



Of Lamas and Birds

Lama Temple's Front Courtyard

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On Sunday, I went to go visit Yonghegong (or the Lama Temple). It is an active Buddhist temple (of the Tibetan variety), so mixed in with all the tourists was a fairly sizable group of people praying at and in each of the “shrines”, which made for an interesting experience. I felt a little awkward running around taking pictures while they were all burning their incense, but there were a bunch of other dopey foreigners there doing the same thing. So, I didn’t feel too guilty. The temple itself was quite impressive. There were several small buildings within the compound that contained little shrines, with statues and altars and whatnot set up. There were also a couple larger buildings that housed enormous statues. The largest statue was about 3 stories tall. I don’t really know enough about Buddhism to be able to say what the significance of all the different statues is, but it was fairly impressive none the less. There were also a couple small exhibit halls, which contained all kinds of miniature Buddhas and sutras, etc.

I had some time to kill after visiting the Lama Temple, so I next went up to the Olympic Park to visit the Bird’s Nest stadium. It’s a very large stadium (currently seating about 80,000  or so). There’s no cost to wander around the outside of it, but I figured it would be more fun to wander around inside. So, I bought a (fairly expensive) ticket and wandered around the inside of the stadium for a bit. You can go just about anywhere within the stadium. They’ll even let you ride a Segway around outside of the main field for the right price. However, the views from the 5th and 6th levels were quite impressive (especially since the weather was cooperating). You can get a nice view of the city from some of the look-out points they’ve made available. They also have an exhibit on the 5th floor that displays some of the instruments and whatnot they used during the opening and closing ceremonies (which I have actually yet to see- though I understand they were quite impressive). And of course, they have the torch. One advantage of the rather steep admission cost was a significant lack of other people in the stadium, so you could get up nice and close with the exhibits (which I did). I didn’t make into the Water Cube (though I did see it). There’s also supposed to be some sort of Olympic Forest that supposed to be pretty interesting. But I was feeling pretty wiped out at that point, so I may return later if I have some free time.

Art of Varying Forms


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I forgot to mention that last Friday I actually went to go see a Beijing Opera (or Peking Opera, if you’re so inclined) performance. It was interesting. The emphasis of the performance seemed to be less on the spoken words of the performers and more on their physical movements. From what I’m told, most native Chinese speakers cannot understand what the performers are saying (we were aided in this mutual deficiency by the presence of LED boards that displayed the actors’ lines in both English and Chinese). Additionally, there were relatively few oral parts in the performance (one act lacked any spoken parts at all). But the actors’ movements could, at times, be quite phenomenal and frequently resembled something of an acrobatics performance. The actors’ costumes and the accompanying band were also interesting (though the nearly incessant drum banging in Farewell My Concubine got to be a little annoying).

This week, I went to the 798 Art District. It was originally an industrial zone (before the artists invaded) and many of the galleries are housed in old warehouse buildings and factory buildings (as you can see in the above pictures). I saw several exhibits. A lot of the exhibits seemed to have a fairly political bent to them, as in the hutong recreation exhibit (which praised the simple lifestyle of Beijing’s poorer residents) and the sex worker exhibit (which didn’t really seem to be able to make up its mind about whether prostitution was a good thing or a bad thing). There was also an exhibit that re-created the life of Jesus, though in a rather odd way: every scene was garishly colored and all of the characters (including Jesus) were laughing (even post-mortem). There were also a lot of statutes about. My personal favorite was the Transformer, but there were a variety of other displays as well. We also wandered into a more “traditional” gallery, where there were pieces depicting trees and whatnot. Though, the place had a distinctly Western aire, particularly with the French music playing in the background.

Of All Things Wet and Shiny


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Yesterday, I went to the Beijing Aquarium, the largest inland aquarium in the world. It’s located within the Beijing Zoo (which also means you have to buy a zoo admissions ticket in addition to the aquarium ticket) in a large, conch shell-shaped building. You start by walking through a tropical exhibit, which contains several different varieties of some very large fish that I was unable to identify. You then enter the main lobby, from which you can access the Coral Reef exhibit, the sturgeons, and the “Touching Pool” a long, shallow pool filled with fish that you can touch. Of course, touching the fish is easier said than done, as they are quick little swimmers. There was also a large sea turtle at the end of the pool. You weren’t actually supposed to touch him, but most people did (it seems like most rules here are made to be broken). Though, the turtle seemed to have a routine down. He’d swim along the edge of the pool, people would touch his shell and grab his flipper thing, and he’d just keep swimming his circuit.

The aquarium also offers daily shows, which were reputed to be quite interesting. So, I went to one. You have to get there early to get a decent seat (I showed up about 45 minutes before hand), as the shows are quite popular. The first act involved a seal doing various tricks, including dancing, marching, clapping his flippers, etc. He also managed to jump out of the water and bop one of the plastic balls hanging from the ceiling. After the seal, a team of dolphins came out. They did the usual sort of dolphin thing, dancing around the pool, jumping in the air, etc. But they also had a dolphin rider, who managed to ride a pair of dolphins across the length of the pool. She then followed up by riding a single dolphin back across the pool, and then finished the act by having the dolphins throw her into the air. It was quite impressive. I didn’t think you could actually ride dolphins, but apparently that’s a thing.

I finished up my tour by buying what is probably the largest stuffed penguin the world (at a mere $15). I’m not entirely sure how I’ll get it home, but I’m going to chalk it up as the one of the greatest buys ever (and one that will probably make Molly very jealous).

Imperial Vaults and More!

The Long Corridor. When the Emperor made a sacrifice, this hallway would be lined with lanterns.

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Yesterday, I took a quick-ish little trip back to Tiananmen Square to go visit the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. It was fairly impressive. They don’t allow you to bring any bags, cameras, etc. into the Hall, which I think is largely related to the security concerns of running thousands of people through the place everyday. The wait was about an hour, as I worked my way through a rather long and meander line that wound itself around the Square. Just outside the main entrance you could buy flowers to place at the foot of a statue of the former Chairman (I decided to take a pass on this part of the trip). Then you got to enjoy the AC for a few minutes as the line wound through to the back of the building where Mao’s body was on display. It was extremely quiet in this part of the building, especially compared to the general chaos that seems to characterize most public venues here. I personally thought it was kind of creepy to see him just lying there. But then I also realized why many people claim that the body in the casket there isn’t actually Mao (many claim it’s made of wax, etc.). The only thing you could see was his head (the rest of the body was covered in a blanket), and his face had a very orange color to it. The experience was quite fleeting though, as the friendly communist stooges quickly waved me through the line. Once outside the building, there were a few gift shops set up. They mostly sold ornate pictures of Mao and Maoist jewelry. However, I was feeling fairly nauseated by this point, so I just took a quick peek and left.

I also went to visit the Temple of Heaven, one of Beijing’s more iconic sites. However, the pollution wasn’t exactly cooperating, so the quality of some of my pictures leaves something to be desired. I actually ended up walking through the park backwards. Typically, the emperor would enter through the south gate and proceed to the Circular Mound, then to the Imperial Vault, then to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. However, I came in the east gate (which also happens to be where the Metro stop is), and so went to the Hall, then the Vault, then the Mound. It was a nice little park. There were also two Cyprus forests on the grounds. Though, I think they may have been man-made, as most of the trees seemed to situated along straight lines.

Before heading back, I took a quick stop at the Pearl Market, located across the street from the Temple of Heaven. It was one of those large market deals, where you can buy nearly anything. The Pearl Market also sells pearls and tends to target foreigners for its customer base. I didn’t buy much (mostly just some panda-themed chopsticks in a rather snazzy box), but it was quite interesting. You bargain for everything, which is kind of neat as long as you know what you’re doing. The general rule of thumb is to not pay more than half of what the original asking price is. So, for my chopsticks: the starting price was 460 yuan, which she immediately cut to 260, which I negotiated down to 80. I also had someone try to sell me a belt. She wanted something like 300 for the belt, but I had zero interest in buying a belt (which she didn’t seem to understand). But it was kind of fun, because without me even doing much, she dropped the price down to 100 before I just took off. I found the trick was to sort of play dumb with the bargaining and then pretend to have no interest in whatever it is you wanted to buy. I also found that the best way to avoid being harassed by the shopkeepers was to simply keep walking (though this strategy was less successful when they tried to grab my arms). All in all, it was an interesting experience. There are several other markets like that in the area (the most famous be the Silk Street Market), but from what I understand, those can be considerably more intense.


Of Temples and (Nice) Trains

Shang Dynasty drinking vessels

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Update: In light of yesterday’s train wreck, I am currently re-evaluating my position on the D-Trains.

Our second day in Anyang, we spent some time touring some of the local cultural sites. We first went to the site of Yin Ruins, which are the site of one of the capitals of the Shang Dynasty. The Shang Dynasty is reputed to be the second dynasty (following the Xia Dynasty) in Chinese history, and the oldest dynasty known to exist (the existence of the Xia Dynasty cannot be historically confirmed). In addition to touring the grounds, we also visited the on-site museum which some of the Shell and Bone “manuscripts” (in addition to other artifacts). The Shell and Bone script was frequently carved on the “belly shells” of turtles, and if you look closely in the pictures above, you can see some of the carvings on the shells. The writing is quite small and doesn’t bear a whole lot of resemble to modern character styles, but it’s pretty neat to look at. You can see the evolution of a few characters in this chart.

Next we went to lunch. But on the way, our bus broke down (in the middle of traffic). It was slightly disconcerting being stranded on the side of busy thoroughfare, but after about 30 minutes or so one of our group’s other buses (we had three) came and took us to lunch. I was quite surprised when, after lunch, the formerly broken-down/stranded bus was parked in the restaurant’s parking lot. Apparently, it doesn’t take Chinese mechanics two or three days to fix an engine problem.

After lunch, we went to the Chenghuang Temple to watch a Yang Ge performance. It was something between drum performance and a dance, with the performers all decked out in red, beating on drums and, moving about in a fairly complex fashion. The temple also had some different types of artwork on display (and a few Buddhist shrines), so wandered around those for a bit. The temples had rather graphic visual depictions of hell, which were both intriguing and disturbing. It was a little graphic for my taste, with demons ripping people to pieces and spewing blood everywhere. It wasn’t exactly family friendly.

Finally, we went to go see the Wenfeng Pagoda, which was some sort of ancient Buddhist temple, or something along those lines. There were also two (apparently active) shrines next to the Pagoda. I snapped a few pictures of the statues, but there were people praying and whatnot in the temples, so I tried to tone-down my touristy side.

After wandering about the city for a bit (and a rather tasty dinner- we had, among other things, a blue soup made with laver?), we took the train back to Beijing. Except this time, we took a D-train, which is one of the slower bullet-trains that people are always salivating over. It was much nicer than the T-train. It still took about 4 hours to get to Beijing, but there were no people in the aisles, I had plenty of leg-room, the AC worked, it was clean, and I had a nice soft seat. It was a bit more expensive than the T-train (a ticket was 155 yuan, or about $24), but in my opinion, it was well worth the extra $10. I could comfortably ride a D-train again, while nothing short of a gun to my head would get me on a T-train.