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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.

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.