Teahouse and theatre

I reserved a room in a hotel in the Liwan district of Guangzhou after a very shallow look at descriptions of different city districts. We were really lucky with the place we got: a large and comfortable room in the heart of some of the most interesting parts of this old trading town. Every day was a discovery, even when things didn’t pan out.

We decided to have a long tea one day and looked at the list that The Family had extracted. Where on earth was the highly recommended Taotaojiu tea house? A long search on the web, and we pinned it down. We need not have bothered. It has been so famous since it opened in 1880 that we could have just asked the concierge. We walked down Shang Xia Jiu pedestrian road to a building which looked like a very sweet pastry (above and the featured photo). The doors were shut! We peered in, and it did look like a tea house inside. There were notices pasted on the glass. I am familiar with perhaps 30 characters in Chinese, so I had to read the notice through the wonderful camera translation that Goodgle provides. The tea house was closed for renovation, as nearly as I could make out. We had to find another tea house for our Yum Cha

The Shang Xia Jiu pedestrian street (I never found the difference between that and the Di Shi Fu road) is full of beautiful repurposed buildings. The Ping’an theatre, whose facade you see in the photo above, used to be a place to see Cantonese Opera. It is a beautiful building from the late 19th century CE. Today it shows movies and the ground level is given over to shops. We never did get to see a performance of the Canton Opera. That is one of the things we need to do in future.


The discreet charm of Shamian Island

We walked down Qingping Road and came to the wide and very busy inner ring road. Past the sea of cars, straight ahead would be Shamian Island. An elevated pedestrian walkway seemed to lead straight into an equally busy flyover. Putting all our trust in the hands of town planners, we crossed the road, and found that the walkway dipped under the traffic flyover, and led straight on to the charming bridge over the narrow canal which you see in the featured photo. That is Shamian Island for you: walk blindly into the teeming brashness of modern China, and suddenly through a sideways opening in the world, you can step into an unhurried and charming little world.

Charming public art is scattered around this island. I haven’t seen Cantonese boys and girls with this kind of hair. So I guess this piece harks back to the strange history of the island. The maritime silk route led to Guangzhou two thousand years back, but this island entered history only in 1685 CE, after about a hundred acrimonious and bloody years of trade with the west, when the Qing emperor allowed British merchants to settle in this mud flat on the Zhujiang. The subsequent opium trade that the British started out of this base led to the first of the Opium Wars in 1839. This was the beginning of an upheaval in Chinese politics which lasted for a hundred and fifty years, led to the Cantonese diaspora, the destruction of imperial China, and the rise of a modern nation. Now, as these statues show, the view of those early years of contact with the west has taken on a somewhat rosy hue.

Shamian Island was once the exclusive preserve of the British and French. This is apparent the moment you walk across that lovely bridge. The buildings have been renovated with care, and now house government offices, museums, art businesses, and many restaurants and cafes. Much of the renovation of this district, and its conversion into a leisure area, dates from about a decade back. I don’t think the ornate door which you see in the photo above has much of history, but the building does.

The shaded leafy roads of the island, and the massive buildings, are typical of British and French areas throughout Asia. I can recognize them as coming from the same school which churned out the buildings of Bombay, Calcutta, and Rangoon. As a result, this part of historical Canton attracts many visitors from the rest of Guangzhou. A small bridge at the western end of the island permits quick access from a nearby metro station. I suppose the evening we spent in the island is more or less typical. It was full of families and young people enjoying a stroll.

We’d got up before four in the morning to take an early flight into Guangzhou. Airports in China are well outside cities, even in smaller ones, so travel between the city and the airport can take significantly longer than the flight itself. Now in the evening, we were too tired to do anything but stroll down the broad leafy avenue that you see in the photo above. We found a cafe and sat there for a while, we watched people, eventually we walked down to the waterfront for a beer and watched the light fade from the sky, as the city lights came up.

When we walked back across the island it had changed character. Parks and streets were lit up, and buildings were in shadows. A different set of people were here for dinner. The families and children were gone, young people were out for an evening of fun: couples and groups of friends. This gave us a good opportunity to check which were the most popular restaurants. After all, when you are in a foreign country, this is one of the easiest ways to find the best local food.

Serial lives

We had half a day free in Hefei after my work was over, and it had started to rain. The Family and I gave up the idea of a stroll in a park to see Hefei’s Lord Bao’s temple. Plan B was to go down to the Huaihe shopping street and look into a couple of interesting spots. One was the Mingjiao temple. There’s been a temple in this spot for more than fourteen centuries. The earliest one was destroyed in war at the beginning of the 7th century CE, at about the time chess was invented in India, and smallpox was first recorded in Europe. A century later, an iron statue of the Buddha was found in the ruins of the temple, and the Tang emperor Daizong ordered a temple to be rebuilt on this site. This was called the Temple of the Iron Buddha. Seven or eight centuries later, during the Ming era, it was renamed the Mingjiao. In the 19th century the temple was destroyed again in war, and rebuilt in 1886. During the 20th century it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The version that we saw was rebuilt in 2015. We’d gathered this much from a tourist booklet in our hotel before we set out in the rain to see it.

The temple looked pretty impressive even in the dull light of a very overcast and rainy day. I spent some time in the open area in front of it trying to get a photo. The temple is too long, and the area too short, to get the full complex into one shot. I gave up on it and climbed the stairs to the Shanmen, literally the mountain gate. The few people inside the gate were curious to know where we came from, and the word Yindu produced welcoming smiles. We entered our names in a book that was pointed out to us, left our wet umbrellas near the entrance, and walked in.

Just inside the gate was the usual outer hall of Buddhist temples, called the Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings. The main statue is of Maitreya (featured photo), the Buddha who will come in the future. The other kings were also impressive: you can see one above and another below. They are clearly very powerful beings. One of them sits on an elephant, and dwarfs it quite thoroughly. The other holds a lotus bud as he sits on a beast which looked like a lion at first sight. But when I looked closer it turned out to be the Suanni, one of the hybrid dragons of Chinese lore. The blue of the Suanni was quite striking.

The temple had a rectangular layout. Along the sides of the rectangle were rooms. We had entered through the main gate which was in the center of the longer, south-facing, side. Covered corridors ran along the inside of the rectangle, facing an open courtyard which we had to cross to get the main hall. This is called the Mahavira hall (photo below). It was raining too hard to pause in the courtyard to take photos, but I got a reasonably complete photo of this central hall from the corridor.

I can’t pass up an opportunity to take photos of elephants, even if they are made of stone, have three pairs of tusks and wear a red bonnet. This is a representation of the Elephant King incarnation of the Buddha. I don’t recall having seen this image in India (although there is at least one in Ajanta), but it seems to be pretty common in China. In fact, the introduction of Buddhism to China has been dated to at least the first century CE by tracing the appearance of six tusked elephants in Chinese art.

The rain was not going to taper off soon. The Family and I ran across the courtyard and up the steps of the Mahavira Hall. The golden statues and the yellow light inside looked warm and inviting. I was very impressed by the statues behind the main altar. This triplet of statues of the Buddha was too dimly lit for a good photo. It is possible that on a less gloomy day the light is sufficient for photography.

On one side wall were more statues of Bodhisattvas, previous incarnations of the Buddha. As I walked around and got to the back of the main altar, I saw a really impressive statue of Guanyin. This incarnation would be called the Avalokiteshwara in India, and Kannon in Japan. Somehow, in traveling from India to Japan, the gender of this Bodhisattva changes. I found it interesting that this statue is backed by an enormous wall-sized print of a forest glade with a woman in the center. In China, forests are deeply associated with Buddhism and its message of the renunciation of worldly desires.

At the back the Mahavira hall joins the northern part of the corridor. “How silly,” I said to The Family, “We need not have run. We could have just walked round the back, and we would have come here without getting wet.” She disagreed, “It was nice to come up the steps and see the Buddha statues first,” she replied. It was. The little hall behind is dedicated to the Buddhist monk Ksitigarbha (called Dizang in Mandarin). I like the offerings of fruit piled up in front of him.

There were many more statues of the Buddha in the side halls, but the only one I was allowed to take a photo of was this one in his last sleep, the Mahaparinirvana. I leave you with this photo of the Buddha, as, according to belief, he finally departs from the burden of serial lives.

Opening doors

I had a rainy afternoon free in Hefei after my work was over. The Family and I decided to go downtown to the pedestrian Huaihe Street. There were two things to see here, and one of them was called the Former Residence of Li Hongzhang. I learnt that Li Hongzhang (1823-1901 CE) was a farmer’s son who rose to become one of the most important ministers in the Qing court. In charge of home and foreign affairs, he was involved in the humiliating treaties imposed on China in those years, and came to see modernization as a necessity. His “Westernization movement” is viewed in China today as one of the key points in modern Chinese history. I was unaware of any of this when we passed two stone lions and walked into the one traditional house in a row of modern shops.

The complex is now protected as a historical monument of interest by the provincial government. We bought tickets at the gate and passed a courtyard into the front hall (photo above). This was a typical formal seating area, with heavy dark chairs pulled into a rectangular arrangments, with lights placed just above them. I liked the ornate mirror in one corner of the hall. In the gloomy light of a heavily overcast day, this was a bright spot in the black stained wood of the room.

Another courtyard separated this from the central hall. This hall is now the main exhibition hall on Li Hongzhang. The exhibits were labelled in both Chinese and English. I found the exhibits very instructive, and The Family and I spent some time looking at reminders of 19th century life, and the changes that Li Hongzhang tried to bring about. A beautiful screen in the back wall of this hall looked out into a blank brick wall. I was a little puzzled by it.

Crossing this wall we came to the Zoumalou building. This two storied structure seems to be the place where the family lived. We climbed the stairs and peeked into the large bedrooms laid out with period furniture. The halls below had more exhibits. We liked some beautifully embroidered coats, and spent a while looking at the ink-stones in the gift shop.

Behind this a little garden has been recreated. The museum has been careful about restoring the central hall and the Zoumalou building. I don’t know whether equal care has gone into making sure that the garden represents Li Hongzhang’s time accurately. I liked the door in the back wall, with its typically Chinese aesthetic of being overgrown. Much care is needed to make sure that nature does not actually take over.

Exiting from the museum to the busy Huaihe Street was a bit of a shock. But then I realized that this is what the museum is really about: the late Qing period that is on show here is the doorway between the isolated China of the 17th and 18th centuries and the dynamic country it is today.

Living in a ghost town

China’s ghosts are the ghosts of the future. After my first visit in 2011, it took me a couple of years to realize that I would often live in a ghost town. The featured photo was taken one morning in November 2011 from a hotel room in Wuhan, probably on the last morning before I left. Photos taken from the same window at night showed large patches of darkness with a few brightly lit buildings (photo below). The hotel was very good, priced very reasonably, but far from full. On the few nights when I was not at an official dinner I would walk ten minutes to a brightly lit mall nearby and eat at one of the many restaurants there. I never questioned why the roads were not as crowded as the ones in India.

In later visits I found that life on the streets can be quite as crowded and interesting as that in India; it depends on where you live. Other questions attached themselves to this bit of oddity. Why did colleagues speak of the difficulty of finding affordable housing when a fast train across China would pass town after town where very few people seemed to live? Search for “ghost towns in China” and you can piece together an intriguing story. My sources are secondary, so the story is probably more nuanced than I can tell, but bear with me.

More than a decade ago, the government decided to increase spending in housing a hundredfold. It created public and state controlled corporations which started building apartments at a very rapid pace. The industry created jobs, and fuelled the current explosion in the economy. (This has already improved living conditions: the pollution and haze that you see in the featured photo is not seen any longer.) Provinces converted some of the land earmarked for agriculture to construction, so earning part of this budget. In order to control land speculation, builders could not squat on land until the prices rose, but were obliged by law to build immediately. The result was a huge glut in the housing market. But people with money started buying up flats which they did not need as investment. This pushed up housing prices very rapidly. To curb speculation, the government created a class of housing which had to be occupied immediately, but the harm was already done; property prices had gone through the roof. Nobody could buy, so nobody could sell. The government can’t stop financing construction because then a very large number of people will lose jobs. The result is a speculative bubble which is simmering while flats lie vacant. This problem arises from precisely the same long-term planning that China is famous for.

Again, in a November seven years after my first visit to China, I stayed in a nice, very large, and awfully underutilized, hotel in Hefei, The hotel and the recreational area around it were well lit, and reasonably full at night. But when I took a taxi to work in the early mornings, or returned at dusk, I would pass kilometers of housing which seemed barely occupied. China is incredibly safe from street crime, otherwise they would be dangerous places to walk through.

I look at the lone lit window in the photo above and think of the hope which China has of providing housing to all of its people. This photo was taken on the hundred and first anniversary of the failed Russian revolution. The developed world is still living out the Reagan-Thatcher nightmare of shifting jobs, the Blair-Clinton pruning of alternative viewpoints. Has China truly discovered the middle path of publicly funded private enterprise with long-range planning by the government? These ghost cities wait for the future to answer.

Yu Garden

If you are a casual tourist like me the Yu garden of Shanghai could be the only classical Ming period (16th century) garden that you get to see. The featured photo shows you most of the special features of these gardens: white walls enclose it, pierced by round doors called moon gates, large areas of water are surrounded by trees and rocks, and there are pavilions where you are supposed to sit and enjoy the view. It is worthwhile checking out these pavilions, because the garden was designed so that the view from each pavilion is a set piece to enjoy.

What you see in the photo above is one of these set pieces. I was lucky to be able to capture this view in a little moment when there were no people in the frame. The garden was quiet, and I could hear the soft rustle of leaves. When the Ming dynasty official, Pan Yun Duan, had this garden built in 1565 I am sure the soundscape was also part of the design.

This becomes clearer in another part of the garden, a view of which you see in the photo above. The tiny waterfall is designed to produce a gentle sound of water. After meeting the sound of falling water in tens of upmarket shops across China, I am inclined to think that you are meant to hear a classical Chinese garden as well as look at it. This must be a part of culture which is so deep that little is written about it. In the same way no one really writes about the fact that a traditional Indian garden engages the sense of smell more than sight.

One of the pavilions has a view of the very special stone called Yu Ling Long (玉玲珑, exquisite jade rock) which you see in the photo above. Understanding why this is exquisite takes you to the heart of Chinese aesthetics, and its preference for artful asymmetry. The stone, said to have been collected and lost by the northern Song dynasty emperor Huizong, is said to be shou, zhou, lou, and tou (ie, it is slender, gnarly, full of channels and holes). The holes are said to be such that if you light incense at the base, the smoke pours out from each of the 72 holes in the rock. Also, it is said that, the channels are such that if you pour water at the top, it flows out of each of these holes. Since there is no demonstration of this, I expect these are the usual superlatives which you have to take for granted.

Around the tranquil pond in front of this, I noticed sparrows and turtles. Turtles are supposed to be symbols of longevity, and good luck, on par with dragons and the phoenix. Placing them in the pool was symbolic of good health and long life. Maybe I could have considered the sparrows to stand in for the phoenix. In that case I could count this as a wonderfully lucky sighting.

I am quite certain that this view is not meant to be special, just that foreigners like me find it very typical of China. The pavilion on water and the banana trees around it looked to me like a transformed village house from Assam, Bengal, or Odisha: the kind of parallel with a difference which I use as a private scheme to understand China. This garden has been destroyed many times, and rebuilt again. It is unlikely that there is a single unified design any longer.

This young girl who wheeled her suitcase up to the water’s edge and then sat down to start feeding fish, however, acted within the design parameters of the garden. The carp were seeded here to be looked at, admired, and fed. There was soon a crowd around her. She kept reaching into the suitcase and bringing out feed. That is when it struck me that the large number of people whom I saw wheeling around suitcases were not out-of-towners enjoying a stroll through Shanghai. They are locals. The wheeled suitcase is preferred over a backpack by many people in China. I find that a garden is a good place for people watching.

The garden of peace and comfort

One of the big tourist sights of Shanghai is the Ming-era (16th century) Yu garden. Looking through my photos I realize that I’ve been there in two seasons; once in late spring, 6 May 2015, and once in early winter, 2 November 2018. Did I find it worth visiting twice? In one sense this is a silly question, because gardens are always nice places to spend your time. But we were in Shanghai for only a day; so was it worth going into a garden which was still alive in my memory?

Take a look through my camera on my second day in China. Everything was new; the world vibrated with possibilities; my eyes were not used to China. The Yu garden is divided into six areas. In the third area we came across a beautiful stage called the Feng wu luan yin (literally Phoenix dance and song). My eyes snagged on the beautiful sculptures on the roof, which you can see in the gallery above. Rectangular windows with circular panels set into it also were new to me. I realized later in the trip that they symbolize the cosmos (tiandi); the rectangle is the earth (di) and the circle is heaven (tian). The almost symmetry of the lattice nagged at me.

Although I could appreciate the artistry of the fired-clay sculptures, I certainly missed the layer of literature and somgs which have gathered around the garden, which many tourists will know. The second view was different, not only because a garden is different every time you pass through it, but also because I’d grown a little more used to China. I found it interesting that this garden was being built at roughly the same time as the Mughal gardens in parts of India. The contrast in styles is immense.

Between the two visits, a chance look at a review of a book called The Classical Gardens of Shanghai by Shelly Bryant, made me decide to read it. This put the garden in a broader historical perspective for me. Standing again at the same spot, did I see different things? You decide.

Moon gates and dragon walls

I like to enter China through Shanghai. In my mind this is ChinaLite; many people can speak English, they are used to tourists, and the city is a mash up of old and picturesque China and the brash new China. We’d given ourselves a day of indulgence, full blown tourist treatment, before traveling on. Our hotel was a five minute walk from the famous 16th century Garden of Peace and Comfort: more popularly known as the Yu garden, 豫园. We had a long breakfast and walked over to the garden.

In this SaturdayLite post I wanted to show you that the garden is not just a place for foreign tourists. Nothing in China is. Just as in India, the local crowd of tourists far outnumbers foreigners. I did a bit of guerilla photography, but the trio posing at the moon gate in the featured photo noticed us. We had a nice conversation: their sentences peppered with a few words of English, ours with a word or two of Chinese. We established that they were from Shanghai, and we were from India. We walked through parts of the garden at roughly the same pace, and they continued to point out interesting things to us.

This moon gate is not typical, since there is a closed door behind it. But I like it for another reason: the lattice work on the door behind it (visible through the glass) is typically Chinese. When you look carefully at it you notice that the symmetry is very subtle. The top and bottom halves are not simply copies of each other. This subtlety, the refusal of obvious symmetries, is a hallmark of Chinese art and architecture.

So many more aesthetic alternatives become available when you reject symmetries. One example is in the undulating walls which separate different sections of the garden. When you look carefully above the gates which open in the walls, you notice that the undulations are the bodies of dragons; their heads are seen above the gates which pierce the wall. The one in the photo above shows a little toad below the dragon. Many animals in Chinese architecture seem to have symbolic value. The toad symbolizes longevity. Together with the dragon, it symbolized a long life full of good fortune. A very appropriate symbol for a garden of peace and comfort.

Private audience

At the northern corner of the Swarga Vilasa, a small door connects to an ornate room called Natakasalai. The name seems to imply a theater, but the information that you can read on your way in implies that Thirumala Nayak lived in this area. Other areas in the now vanished palace complex had uses which would need a theater. I could steer a middle step in guessing, and say that this could well be a private audience chamber. It is ornate enough to befit one of the richer kings of the south, whose kingdom encompassed a large part of modern day Tamil Nadu, and some portions of Kerala and Karnataka. The featured photo looks eastwards down the length of this hall.

The center of the room is sunk a little below the level of the Swarga Vilasa, and on the east the space resembles a raised stage. It reminds you of a modern theater with its raised stage and low seating. But in the 17th century the king would not have sat at a lower level. If this was used for dance or theatre, then the performers would have been in the center, with the king seated to the east. If this was an audience chamber, then again the king would have sat on the platform in the east.

The decorations here are finer than those outside. There were the usual winged lions rampant on the finials of the pilars, but below them the ornate leaves and vines were much finer and more delicate than the beautiful work I’d already admired in the outer chamber. I have not seen such fine work in clay before.

This area is used as a somewhat haphazard museum. Some of the sculptures on display are interesting, but perhaps the most interesting are the pillars with epigraphs which are kept in a small and bare side chamber.

At the court

My first sight of Thirumal Nayak’s palace knocked the breath out of me. When I recovered I walked along the side gallery of the audience chamber, called the Swarga vilasa. When you do this you cannot help noticing how closely the thick pillars are set. If I hadn’t known it already, this would have been my first realization that the palace does not use stone. Stone pillars could be more slender. These pillars are made of clay, excavated from the teppakulam of the Vandiyur Mariamman temple.

I walked down the corridor and looked up at the cupola in the corner. Using clay as a building material has its constraints. Walls and pillars are thick, and getting enough light into a space requires different solutions. The syncretic architecture that had grown after the incursion of the Delhi sultanate into Madurai offered the beautiful solution which you see in the photo above. A cupola in the roof allows space for a whole series of windows which let in light. I admired the technicality and the beautiful design on the roof.

The light filters easily down, lighting up a large pride of lions which looked down their noses at me. This was more work in clay. Madurai is not very far from mountains, and transporting stone would not have been out of the question. A professional historian would be able to shed more light on the choice of building material: was it economics, or familiarity with the material which led to the use of clay here? After all, the Meenakshi temple, rebuilt during the preceding century uses stone. Why not this?

I walked down the side gallery to the space behind where the king would make his appearance. The space is vast, but broken by pillars. The vistas that greet you inside the Meenakshi temple are absent. The pillars are said to be coated with a plaster made from powdered sea shell bound together with egg protein. The smooth white finish has attracted a generation of people to express their thoughts in pencil and ball pen, in defiance of notices which request people not to do so. If you thought that the internet is where you see the most interesting opinions, you could be wrong.

The largest dome on the roof lies over the center of this space. Every tourist stops below it to gape up at the interior of the dome. I decided to go with the flow. It is worth it. The ceiling is beautifully decorated, and there is enough light to admire this by. The complex is maintained by the state archaeology department. Typically departments such as this are starved of funding; even more so than health and education. In spite of that, I thought that they have done a fair job of maintenance.

Next to the central dome there seems to be a smaller cupola. I looked up at the painted ceiling; it looked coffered. Was it trompe l’oeil? I walked around below it and saw from the change is perspective that it really was coffered. I didn’t see any structural reason why this part of the ceiling needed strengthening. Perhaps it is something that is only visible from above. The design was spectacular, what ever the reason.

The area where the king would have sat is architecturally interesting. A series of cupolas and domes let in a lot of light, so the king would never be in darkness. The central cupola and the arches could also have been designed for its acoustics. I could not test that, but it seems possible given the shape of the area. Just in front of this is a vestibule and steps leading down to the courtyard. The vestibule is crossed by rods which could have held fans meant for ciruclating air through this whole area.

At the bottom of the steps were two beautiful stone sculptures which at one time would have shown horses with riders. The riders had been cut off quite expertly. It looks like planned plunder. The balance of probability is that the busts of the riders are gracing a collection somewhere in the wider world.