How to kowtow


Somewhere between the Yuhua garden and the Shenwumen (northern) gate of the Forbidden City we saw several elephants kowtowing. This posture is impossible for elephants, since their forelegs bend the other way at the knees. So this statue (and its partners) show that the sculptors had not actually seen elephants. They had seen people kowtowing, and just transformed the human posture to an elephant’s. So you can learn how to kowtow from these statues.

Beyond selfies


Whenever I think I cannot be surprised any more by the Chinese habit of taking selfies all the time, in any situation whatever, something happens to jolt me out of this. Inside the forbidden city I saw this selfie being taken with a camera and a tripod. Come on guys: a selfie is a mobile phone thing. The auto function on cameras was meant to give you time to join a group photo. A selfie with a camera is really pushing the boundary.

What is authentic


We walked through the Forbidden City and came across some renovation going on. A whole wall was being plastered with the lovely red colour that this palace is famous for. The wall was built in fired brick and the worker applied coats of plaster swiftly and efficiently. The work was clearly of high quality, and when finished, would be hard to distinguish from the other walls we saw.

The Family and I had already discussed the question of authenticity before. How does China have so many well-preserved monuments, when India finds it hard to preserve the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal? Part of the answer is a different notion of authenticity. In China authenticity seems to be a fluid notion. The Forbidden City periodically falls into ruins and is rebuilt, but still said to be the same. Buddha’s statues in temples, even the temples themselves, are often rebuilt, but said to be a thousand years old. Some things are recreated from ancient descriptions and then said to be the same as the original.

autheticbOne can think of degrees of change. Is the material used the same as before? Some castles in Germany have been reconstructed in this fashion after the war. Do we see them as authentic? The temples of Abu Simbel were moved when the Aswan high dam was constructed. Do they remain authentic? The prehistoric wall paintings of Lascaux have been recreated for tourists in Lascaux II, so that the originals remain undamaged. How authentic is the feel of walking through this cave? The Taj Mahal was recreated by Donald Trump in Atlantic City. How authentic is that?

One may say that authenticity resides in the social function of a monument. Then Abu Simbel cannot be authentic, since it has been recreated and the social system which gave it symbolic meaning has disappeared. The Forbidden City is certainly no longer forbidden. So is it just a disneyland? The Great Wall of China was rebuilt many times during its 2000 year history, but it has no function now except as an anchor for vendors of selfie sticks. Are the modern renovations then more inauthentic than the sections which are crumbling away into ruin?

One may say that historical authenticity resides in the material. Is Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, with its stone-by-authentic-stone reconstruction of the Ishtar gate, more authentically Babylon than the vandalized spot in the walls of Babylon from where it was taken? Does a tribal house transported from the rain forests of the Amazon into a museum in the frigid north of Europe retain its authenticity?

I have no answer. But I suspect that either the material or the function must remain. The Forbidden City feels like the Louvre: a museum within a disneyland. The Great Wall has a more authentic feel.

The dragon throne


During the 800 years when the Forbidden City was at the center of the power structure of China, the emperor met his subjects seated on the Dragon throne inside the Hall of Great Harmony. These subjects were all high noblemen. But the stories which percolated out to the commoner must have been of this Dragon throne. From the crush of people trying to photographs the throne, you can guess that stories about this still form part of the background history of China among the Chinese.

The word Harmony (he in Mandarin) seemed to play a role in the politics of that time similar to what the word People (renmin in Mandarin) plays now.

The gulf


In the crowded Yuhua garden I saw this person keeping a tender watch over his sleeping grandchild. He was completely unaware of me as I took the photo, but immediately afterwards he noticed me. I saw a shadow of some doubt cloud his expression, so I smiled at him and pointed to the baby. He seemed to understand, and smiled back.

Now, looking at the photo I see someone my age from China and realize that his youth was wasted in the violent upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. For me these events came as distant stories read, but not understood. It took me many years of reading testaments from people of this generation to understand how they grew up with a feeling of complete uncertainty. For this man looking after his grandchild is not just what you and I would imagine it to be. It must also involve a sense of wonder and relief that those years have ended and his grandchild will grow up in a different world.

Even if we had shared a language, even if the political system had been different, it would have been difficult to talk about these things with a stranger. But perhaps in some suitably round about way I might have been able to get some idea of how he views these changes. But that is two imaginary worlds removed from the one that he and I live in.

Bollywood and China

A modern bronze and copper panel in the style of the Qianlong emperor
A modern bronze and copper panel in the style of the Qianlong emperor

We had a fascinating talk with our guide, who called himself Louis. He was born in northern Manchuria, probably around 30 years ago, speaks excellent English, and lives alone in Beijing. He has an interesting discursive style of talking, which perhaps comes from having to explain every little thing to tourists. That was useful to us, of course.

We were asking him about prices of flats in Beijing when he told us that he is getting married soon. We waited and he continued telling us about his first wife who has now paid taxes in Beijing for five years and therefore is now entitled to buy a car and a flat in Beijing. We waited. He said that he couldn’t afford to buy a flat even if he had paid taxes, and that whatever savings he had would be drained when he marries. We sympathised.

Then he told us that his mother loves Bollywood movies, and lots of people of her generation watch every Bollywood movie that they can get. He grew up watching Bollywood movies with his mother, but now he thinks all the stories are almost the same. We agreed and waited for the connection. It wasn’t long in developing. In India the hero cannot get his sister married because he does not earn enough money to pay for her dowry. It isn’t like that in China. The groom has to pay for everything. We understood and sympathized.

The Family asked Louis whether he watches any Bollywood movies now. Louis said, "Only the big ones, like 3 Idiots. It was good." In Mandarin? No, in English, with Chinese subtitles. Does Aamir Khan know of this version? I did not ask.

But Louis wanted to talk about his wedding. When his friends got married he gave everyone 100 Yuan. Now when he gets married he thinks they will each give him 120 Yuan (all presents are in cash). Then, when they have kids he will give each of them 150 Yuan, and then maybe they will give him 200 Yuan. We could see the wheels of Karma moving.

His story was new to us. We had not heard anyone from the precarious edge of the Chinese economy till now. He took us to the tombs of the Mings and the Great Wall, and he told us the usual facts about the grandeur of ancient China, and some which we had not known. But when we asked more, he gave us a very modern analysis of how many people had died in building these marvels. It is not the done thing in the circles we usually meet to talk about politics directly, so we had no opportunity to ask him whether he sees any parallel with the new marvels that China is building.

Having seen a few recent Chinese movies on flights and on Youko, it seems that some of the melodrama that Bollywood movies are famous for have also found their way into Chinese cinema. Or perhaps such melodrama is an ancient constant in all cultures. China must be as diverse as India. To understand the country better, we have to meet more people like Louis and talk to them. Unfortunately, it is not easy, since English is not commonly spoken.

The tombs of the Ming emperors


The third Ming emperor, Yongle, brought the capital back to Beijing and began to rebuild the Wall. Thirteen of the sixteen Ming emperors, including Yongle, were entombed nearby. The site of these tombs is beautiful: mountains behind, water in front, “according to the principles of Fengshui” as our guide explained. We visited Chang Ling, the tomb of Yongle. Even on a weekend the place is fairly calm.

The emperor, his wife, and sixteen concubines are buried beneath the mound at the back of the complex. This is covered with trees, and has not been excavated. A visit takes in the buildings which lead from the gate up to the mound: the gate, the Hall of Eminent Favours, and the Soul Tower. The central road running through this belongs to the spirits, and is not supposed to be used by living humans.

We passed through the enormous gate (photo above) into the spectacular Hall of Eminent Favours. This is an all-wood construction, apparently containing no metal at all. The most impressive element of its architecture are the enormous wooden pillars: apparently built from the trunks of Himalayan deodar trees (cedar, nanmu in Mandarin) imported from Nepal. At the center of this hall a statue of Yongle has recently been installed, and the floor before it is strewn with money from favour seekers. The hall also contains an exhibit of imperial jade, including intricately carved pieces of soft jade.

soultowerYou can exit from the back into the second courtyard, and continue on to the Soul Tower (photo alongside). From this massive tower, which is the most peaceful part of the complex, you can see the tombs of other emperors. When leaving you are supposed to pass through the central gate in front of the Soul Tower in order to leave the world of the dead behind you. Most people do this, but a significant fraction break the convention of not looking back. It is hard to resist the impulse to turn back to take another photo of the complex before leaving.

We usually do not take guides, relying on audio guides, books and reading. Unfortunately, guide books to China, and even blogs, tend to concentrate on the practical, and leave out a detailed description of sights (I understand that the Blue Guide is an exception, but we did not get it before coming here). So, for this weekend he had with us a guide who did a good job of explaining the significance of various details we would have missed otherwise.

He explained to us that traditionally the Chinese associate tombs with bad luck, which is why the crowds are thin. Also, that one does not take photos of each other within the tomb complex. When we saw Chinese families doing this, he explained that they need guides.

Chinese foot massage

2015-05-23 16.42.40After the hot and tiring walk on the Great Wall of China we went for a Chinese foot massage. I had been looking for an opportunity for a massage ever since we arrived at the airport in Shanghai and saw a gigantic advertisement for massages. The Family had even found a masseuse who was willing to come to the hotel and give her a massage; it was only the thought of the INR 2000 which she was going to charge which kept the plan from turning to reality.

We sat down in an intimidating waiting room for a while. The walls were full of stern writing in Chinese, of which I could read only one character. There were charts which explained the esoterica of acupuncture and the divination of your entrails from how you respond to a foot massage. I was beginning to consider running away. I was not very happy with the thought that my pedimasseuse would know the intimate details of my bowels and kidneys, especially since I myself had only vague suspicions about their states.

2015-05-23 16.41.05Before I could escape, an attendant had brought in a steaming bowl of water with a tea bag floating in it. The first time I had gone to a restaurant in Japan I did not know what one has to do with the steaming bowl of miso soup: should I eat it up or wash my hands in it? Only by observing my fellow diners did I figure this out. The bowl of tea was not at all confusing. When a bowl as large as this placed on the floor, the only course of action could be to dip my toes into it. I did. Soaking tired feet in warm water is always pleasant, and it was this time too. Eventually I was told the bag was full of chinese medicinal herbs like saffron, not tea. Whatever.

The rest of the massage was farcical. I’m extremely ticklish. So I spent the next fifteen minutes stifling giggling fits. I’m not sure what my pedimasseuse thought of my liver, but I think I successfully kept her from guessing how ticklish I am. My first Chinese foot massage did nothing special for me. The Family claimed that Indian massages are no different, and last longer. Maybe Chinese traditional medicine is about to lose two potential clients.

Is it worth it after all?


If you guessed that this photo was taken outside the Beijing South Railway Station you would be morally correct. The crowds there can be quite fierce sometimes. But actually, that’s not where I clicked the photo, as you can see when I pull the focus back just a little, as below.


Yes, this is the Great Wall of China at Badaling, near Beijing. Badaling is the easiest to reach. Taxis will take you there. Numerous bus tours serve this point. On a weekend the crowds can be daunting. Many travellers despise the crowds, sneer at Badaling, and go off to further points. I’m from Mumbai. I love crowds. Chinese crowds are even better, since they seem to be more well-behaved than Indian crowds. So I went to Badaling.

You can climb up to the wall, or save time and zip up in the cable car. I’m not much for needless exercise, so I took the cable car and was up in a few minutes, walking along with the crowd. Is it worthwhile?


I think it is. The scenery is just so spectacular! Lines of hills roll away from you. You see the wall straddling the ridges, marking a line of military control over the hills. The panoramas are spectacular, and the crowds are just a small part of the whole picture. Why would I miss this? I think the stalls selling water and ice-cream on the wall are pretty convenient on a day when the temperature touched 33 Celsius. Having toilets up there is pretty useful as well.

As far as I’m concerned, it is Badaling forever.

The icon of modern China


If there is one image which I take away from me to symbolize the new China it will be the selfie stick. You see the twenty-somethings with cameras. You see the teens taking selfies with selfie sticks. No other country is half as obsessed with taking selfies as China. So, of course, there has to be a technical innovation associated with this. It is as inevitable as a tripod for a camera. Does this have something to do with kids who have grown up with six adults (two parents and four grandparents) doting over them, with no cousins or uncles or aunts to distract from their single-minded self-absorption?