China Marc Rotating Header Image


Drumming, Ringing, and Chinese Catholics

Matteo Ricci, in the front courtyard

Picture 1 of 35

Picture Archives

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)

Picture 1 of 56

Picture Archives

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.


Of Temples and (Nice) Trains

Shang Dynasty drinking vessels

Picture 1 of 49

Picture Archives

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.


Singing in the Rain


Picture 1 of 9

Yesterday it rained… a lot. I’m not sure if this is typical or not, but it was fairly impressive nonetheless. Throughout the city, there are several underground pedestrian walkways, which allow you to walk under an intersection rather than through it (which considering the state of traffic in Beijing, it’s definitely a good idea). Apparently several of them don’t have drains. So, when it rains, they fill up with water. I actually saw one that was filled with about 6 or 7 feet worth of water (and completely impassable as a result). The wonderful people of the Beijing Municipal Government did manage to have the whole thing completely drained (and cleaned) by this afternoon, though. I’m not exactly sure how they did it, but I’m definitely giving them a star in that column. Of course, the whole thing could have been resolved had someone had the presence of mind to put drains in the thing. I guess they’re able to make it work. I’ve posted a few pictures of the view outside my room as the storm started to roll in (at about 4pm).

Last night, I also realized that I had forgotten to bring an umbrella with me. The magnitude of this error was compounded by the fact that when dinner rolled around, I had no food and no umbrella. I got to be quite wet. Apparently, it’s not so easy to buy an umbrella here either, as the department store I went to didn’t have any that weren’t flamboyantly pink and less than $30. It was quite disappointing. I did manage to console myself somewhat by buying a 2L of Coke, but I was still very wet.

Street Scenes


Picture 1 of 3

Here’s a few shots of one of the main roads by my dorm. They’re taken from one of the pedestrian overpasses that bridge the streets. The first shot is looking away from the center of the city. The last one is looking towards downtown. It’s also worth noting that the dark sky is not caused by rain clouds but by the smog hanging over the city. Though, today was actually one of the better days, with the AQI clocking in at 176 (the air quality has been known to reach “Crazy Bad” proportions).

I may have some more pictures up tomorrow if I get a chance to do any more wandering.

Pandas, etc.

I did take a quick trip to the zoo the other day. Unfortunately, since it was something of an unplanned visit, I did not have my camera on me. However, considering that admission was all of $3 (and a certain someone’s desire for a stuffed panda), I do anticipate returning sometime in the future.

I am finding the traffic in Beijing quite interesting. I think it’s worth referencing the State Department:

Traffic is chaotic and largely unregulated, and right-of-way and other courtesies are usually ignored. The average Chinese driver has fewer than five years’ experience behind the wheel and the rate of traffic accidents in China, including fatal accidents, is among the highest in the world. Cars, bicycles, motorbikes, trucks, and buses often treat road signs and signals as advisory rather than mandatory. Pedestrians never have the right of way, and you should always be careful while travelling in, or even walking near, traffic.

The assortment of vehicles on the road is also quite interesting. Actual cars tend to be quite nice, but there are also some creative interpretations of the bicycle. My personal favorite is the motorized bicycle, which looks like a bike, but flies down the sidewalk (or more frequently, weaves in and out of traffic) at about 30 mph.

There are also some new links on the side of the page. The Engrish link is particularly amusing.