Ming Buddhas

In the National Museum in Beijing I saw these three beautiful statues of serene Buddhas from the Ming period. The symbiosis of Buddhism and ceramics has to be seen to be believed. I was especially impressed by the large and colourful porcelain Buddha (photo below), whose buffed surface looked like any of the decorative Ming vases in an adjoining hall. If it were not for the serenity radiating from the face and fingers of the right hand held in the Karana mudra, warding off evil, I would have had a tough time guessing who this represented.

We nearly did not go to the museum; three weeks is not a long time in Beijing if you are also in meetings most of the time. The museum is not billed as one of the must-sees. After our visit we thought it is unfairly neglected.2015-05-28 15.35.36 In any other city it would be one of the star sights.

The immense building has eight large exhibition halls on each of its four floors, and more in the basement. We knew we didn’t have time to see everything, so our list of priorities was based on an abstract idea of classical Chinese art: ceramics, paintings, statues and jade. Each of these collections was enormous. We missed much, and we plan to visit the museum again when we come back to Beijing.

Daily lives

lecturer

In ancient China the emperor was the ultimate teacher. Next to the old Confucius temple in Yonghegong is the Imperial college, where the emperor would teach ethics to monks from the throne in the photo above. However, even earlier, in Marco Polo’s time a traveler could learn from anyone. I find that is even more true today.

Friday was the last day at work in China, and there was a relaxed sense of winding down. We went for lunch in little groups. I was in a knot of people with two of our hosts, in a very relaxed mood. Talk came round to children and their education. One of our hosts had a boy and the other had two girls.

The one with the boy was concerned about the future: she had to put aside 100,000 RMB a year for his education. But isn’t education free in China? Only if you send children to school in your own neighbourhood. She wanted a good education, so the school she’d chosen was in the university area. She could either move there, which would be more expensive, or pay for the school.

Moreover, as we had discovered some time earlier, it was common for the boy, or his parents, to pay for the wedding. Talking to my colleague I had the impression that there was more to it: the parents of the boy were supposed to set up house for the new couple. I joked about buying a flat outside the 6th ring road, currently the limit of the city, because the city would probably have an 8th ring road by the time the boy was old enough to marry. It turned out that this was not a joke, she had already done that. Were they far-sighted parents of a two-year old boy? No, this was common in middle class China.

My other host told us a modern Chinese saying: parents of boys were supposed to be construction bankers, parents of girls were investment bankers. The sex-ratio in China is heavily is skewed towards boys, so both of them agreed that this expense was inevitable, the market correcting social imbalances. They were aware that India also had significantly less girls than boys, although not as bad as China. So they were puzzled why in India the parents of the girls still had to pay for the wedding. I did not talk of the wide-spread violence against women in India; I had not seen or read much like this in China, but my experience is short and the news in China is never complete.

We talked about expenses in general, and both my hosts stated that life is not as comfortable as in the west, and that China is still a poor country. I could agree, but from my Indian perspective I thought that the middle class was quite comfortable. Their arguments centered around the huge costs of buying houses and cars. I see construction all around me even as I go from the hotel to work. The roads are choked with cars: on the road I see Volkswagen, Honda, Chevrolet, BMW, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes around me in traffic jams. In our trip to the 798 art district we saw local people buying art all around us. If my host’s complaints were correct, then there is incredible income inequality building in China.

This was confirmed when I challenged their statement about poverty by saying that costs of things I saw in supermarkets were double that in India. The answer they gave is that normal people cannot afford to buy these things. Maybe that is the reason why there are so many fake handbags in China. But China remains different from India, even among fakes there is a clear gradation of quality, with some good-quality fakes called AAA quality being very well made. In India you can often pay good money and get completely shoddy work. I used to put this down to the lack of a legal system, but China also lacks these laws, and they do better.

We talked mostly about China, but I sensed an immense curiosity about India. At one point I said I knew the names of only two animals in Chinese: the dragon (lung) and the elephant (xiang). The two laughed and said these are China and India, which was more powerful? I tried to be diplomatic saying that they never meet. This was an answer they liked, it was repeated a couple of times in agreement. But even so, every explanation about life in China was followed by a question about what it is like in India.

China and India are not direct rivals: the dragon and the elephant are not in a struggle. But both know that there is another power nearby. There are hostile voices in both countries. The struggle of the future will be to figure out how to avoid confrontation. Travel and mutual understanding may eventually help.

Tea

Chinese tea is so different from Indian tea that I don’t even know how to begin to list the differences. So, one of the exciting things you can do in China is to taste the teas. It turns out that the best place to do this in Beijing is to go to the Maliandao tea street. This whole street is lined with shops selling tea and tea paraphernalia.

My target was the Beijing International Tea Center, whose entrance is shown in the photo above. This was the only door flanked by elephants that I saw in China. In this one large building you can go from one shop to another tasting their tea. I did not meet a single person who knows English, but this should not stop you. The people here are not only good salesmen, but also seem to like tea. It is an interesting experience to sit down for a tea tasting and converse about tea without understanding the words which are spoken.

I met one young lady who surmounted the language barrier by typing her responses into her mobile, listening to the English translation through her ear buds, and then repeating it. Sometimes I would have to look at her mobile to see the English and say the words out correctly, so I guess I repaid her for the tasting by teaching her a little English.

But there were people who did not try to achieve this mechanical level of communication. The best experiences were with people who would spontaneously bring out a new tea in order to explain subtle differences in flavours and methods of infusion. I would explain the price range I was interested in, but that did not stop anyone from bringing out much more expensive tea for the tasting. I guess the cost of tastings is factored into the prices.

You can walk out of any tasting without buying tea by saying a few words. But I found that when I wanted something I could discuss the price. Getting the price down by a third was not a problem: in my experience there would be an automatic agreement. Starting at half the price would usually lead to a more prolonged discussion, with the final price settling at between 60 and 65 percent of the initial bid.

This was probably the most instructive evening I have spent. I wish there were similar wine markets in southern Europe.

Icecream

2015-06-03 13.15.31

Fortune cookies are unknown in China. In fact, most of the time you don’t get desserts on the menu in restaurants. But when you slide open the door in an ice-cream chest you see a really large number of colourful packets. It would be fun to trace the history of ice cream in a country where sweets are not a big thing. Many of the flavours are pretty exotic, I haven’t always figured out what I’m tasting. The Family has more experience in these matters, but she can’t always figured it out either. That didn’t keep us from trying them out again and again, especially since Beijing seems to have slid into summer a little early. I guess part of the fun is that we can’t read the wrappers.

Can anyone help with the wrappers in the photo?

Hairstyle

haircut

I’d seen a lot of young boys with very closely cropped hair and thought that was the standard. In comparison, this little guy’s haircut looked pretty funky. Then I began to see advertisement pictures where this haircut seemed to be the standard. Anyway, I still think it looks funky. Teenaged boys in Beijing seem to have a wider variety of hair styles than I’ve noticed in most countries.

Headgear

operahat

The Family first drew my attention to the elaborate headgear which young girls in China wore. One very common thing was a ring of pink synthetic roses worn like a crown. The other was this elaborate hat which we occassionally saw. In Xi’an I managed to photograph the young girl, whose photo you see above, wearing this beautiful hat. Eventually, when we visited the Summer Palace in Beijing we saw the Peking Opera and its costumes, and realized that this lovely hat comes from there. Another mystery unravelled.

Breaking the willow twig

What place under heaven most hurts the heart?
Laolao Ting, for seeing visitors off.
The spring wind knows how bitter it is to part,
The willow twig will never again be green.
—Li Bai

Sadly, our trip to China is coming to an end. The Family left yesterday. On Sunday evening we went to our favourite dumpling restaurant for dinner. As we walked there from our hotel we talked about China. Three weeks ago the crowded roads looked exotic: everything grabbed our attention, whether it was a bakery called Bunny Drop, or the fruitseller on his cart at the intersection. Now, we thread our way through the same traffic and crush just talking to each other, missing the exotica playing out right in front of our eyes.

We ordered our dinner. We knew the menu; the sense of panic at having to catch the waiter’s attention without knowing the language was gone. We knew a couple of words in Putonghua which would ease our way through the dinner. We ordered a couple of our favourite dumplings and added others we hadn’t tasted. The meal was nice, but not as good as the first time, when there was an expectation of the unknown.

It is hard to say goodbye to China, because we have seen so little of it. Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an are just scratching the surface. We saw a little more in Hangzhou. The Family agrees with me, we have to be back. But the next time will be easier, and if we come more often, it will eventually be like our trips in India. We will know exactly what to expect. The shock and pleasure of the unexpected will be missing. The first time is always the best, because it happens only once.

Through dinner we picked the things we liked the most. I will be in Beijing for a while more, finishing my work. I will use that time to post pictures of our joint favourite places. We felt a little sad, now that it is time to break the willow twig, to take our leave of China.

If you haven’t been to China, you must come here. It is different, sometimes a shock, but it is not something you want to miss.

Mildly goofing off

guardin guardchi

Guards will be guards. They are always posted at spots where large numbers of usually well-behaved people congregate, and most of the time they have nothing to do. So they take an occasional break to smoke. The guard from India and the one from China have similar furtive looks on their faces, when they realize that someone has seen them not looking their fearsome best. In a decade there will be guards who do not smoke. I wonder what they will do when they realize that the tourists do not need looking after.

Square peg, round hole

I’m beginning to understand a little of Chinese celestial architecture. Heaven (tian) is a circle, so the moon doors and round windows which you see in Chinese architecture are auspicious, since they have something to do with heaven. The bell is the sound of heaven. Every town worth its name has a bell tower, and a bell which tolls the beginning of the day.

The earth (di) is square, and the sound of a drum is the sound of the earth. No self-respecting town would be without a drum tower to mark the end of the day. The two words together (tiandi) mean everything, the universe. So what does the window in the photo below symbolize?

di

The tombs of emperors are laid out with the entrance and the buildings in it arranged within a manicured square. The burial mound will be a hill which is round in shape. The place where the two touch contains a Tower of the Soul. The entrance will face south, and there will be water in front. At the back will be mountains or a tortoise. All laid out according to the mystical principles of Fengshui.

Money money money

It is an interesting fact that the oldest of Chinese religions have a different concept of the universe and our place in it. This confused all early visitors from other cultures. Marco Polo was completely at sea when he wrote: “these people are Idolaters, and as regards their gods, each has a tablet fixed high up on the wall of his chamber, on which is inscribed a name which represents the Most High and Heavenly God; and before this they pay daily worship, offering incense from a thurible, raising their hands aloft, and gnashing their teeth three times, praying him to grant them health of mind and body; but of him they ask nought else.”

With no gods to grant daily gifts, how does one deal with the randomness of real life? The Chinese dealt with it by accepting luck as major force in living, and developing techniques to deal with luck. The practice of Fengshui is one such. The other is the offering of money which is everywhere in China. Anything which could bring you luck is worth bribing with a little money.

moneyball

The offering of money becomes a game. The photo above is taken in Shanghai’s Jing’an Su where you have to throw your money into a high pot to get luck. If your money is rejected, then you don’t get lucky. It is interesting that this happens in a Buddhist temple: this Indian export comes with a baroque set of gods who can also be prayed to in the way that other cultures are familiar with. Nevertheless, this is China, and people are not going to tempt luck by not making offerings of money. If you fall off a cliff tomorrow you are surely going to regret not changing your luck by donating a little money.

In the Confucius Temple of Beijing, every statue is awash in money. I do not understand the ritual meaning of these goats and pigs, or roosters and ducks which are scattered around the temple. Since they are animals which are eaten, could they be offerings? In any case, they are drowning in the money which people leave. There is also the money-eating dragon, Pisou, whose mouth is stuffed with coins and notes. I suppose these temples have earnings similar to those which some Indian temples have from offerings.

moneykingYou don’t need to be in a temple to see this aspect of the culture. In the tombs of the Ming emperors there is a recent statue of Yongle, the third emperor, and the one who brought the capital back to Beijing. The emperor can also bring you luck, it seems, because there is money thrown in front of him. I saw a goldfish bowl in front of a restaurant which was full of coins, and goldfish are not even divine animals. Perhaps the fact that they were imperial favourites is enough to make them channels of luck.

Perhaps one should not be surprised. In India people donate money to temples. In the West people throw coins into the Trevi fountain, and put locks on bridges.