This is not a story of middle earth. It is a story from the middle kingdom.
Every town in China seems to have a bell tower and a drum tower. They were used to keep time: the bell tolled the beginning of the day, and the drum, its end. They would also ring at various other times to mark various important divisions of the day.
In Beijing, the plaza between the two towers is full of tourists during the day. We chanced on it some time after the gates of the towers had closed. When we arrived, dinner time was already over for most Chinese families, and this plaza had been turned into a playground for children from the surrounding hutongs. They were out doing all kinds of things, with parents and grandparents keeping watch as usual.
The Family says, and I agree, that finishing dinner early seems to give you time to do many things before you fall asleep. Why can’t we do this in India? We never seem to have time between getting back from work, having dinner, and falling asleep.
We walked through several hutongs north of the bell tower of Beijing. Traversing several, we came across this quirky sight: a museum of ancient liquor! Not something that you will find in any guide book. It was dinner time, and the place was closed. But you should mark it in your list of things not to be missed when you come around here.
If you visit, please leave a comment on this page telling me how it was. I guess I will not have the time on this trip to go back to check. Such is life!
Some of the hutongs of Beijing are places for ordinary people to live, in a style similar to that which they have lived for a few generations. The Guowang hutong, off Gulou street is one such. This man seems to go door to door inside the hutong, picking up junk. We’d passed a courtyard earlier in our wandering where the junk was being sorted, so presumably this is part of the economy.
It reminded us of India where the junk dealers still come flat to flat and take away things. One of them had even taken away a washing machine from us! Made us wonder whether a similar junk dealer goes to the high-rises of Beijing.
Beijing is full of public art which have official sanction. Very often they are playful pieces like the one above: of children playing hide and seek. This one stands outside the Gouloudajie subway station in Beijing. We also saw a monumental water fountain in Xi’an near the hot springs, which is full of playful elements like this. There were dancing figures, sleepy kings with yawning attendants, musicians at play, and so on.
I wish India’s officially sanctioned public art would revert to the wonderful days when there was much more than statues of famous people.
One Sunday morning we sat in a park and watched families relaxing. Children skipped about or chased each other. Parents kept an eye on them, while talking to grandparents. The grandparents, in their turn, were unpacking large baskets of food for the children. There were photos being taken all around. The Family was relaxing into a deep sense of the universality of this scene.
I had to knock it down. We had already discussed the fact that China enforces a single child policy. So I followed the logic: each child grows up with two parents and four grandparents lavishing all their attention on her or him. This leads to the lovely scene we saw before us.
What takes some time to sink in is the rest of the logic. The child has no brother or sister, there is no rivalry at home, no need to learn to accommodate to a sibling, no lessons from parents on how to deal with disagreements. But more: no uncles or aunts, no cousins. No slightly older kid to help you grow up, no younger kid to whom you are a hero for a few years. No adults who disagree with your parents when they try to discipline you. Families in China are totally different from those in India, or in the rest of the world.
The Family and I grew up in a family full of aunts and uncles, forever changing our plans and putting everything into disarray. We grew up with cousins with whom we formed a secret society of non-adults inside the family. The most important part of this was the difference during one’s teenage years. As teenagers grow apart from parents and grandparents, the bonds with siblings and cousins deepens; they keep you tied firmly to a family. None of that in China! Behind the universality of human love that we see every day, there must be gulfs of difference modulating its expression.
What replaces these bonds? Do childhood friendships run deep? Are college friends a different family? The cracks in our understanding run out through everything we see before us. It will take time to understand China.
Walking along Tian’anmen square at night is an interesting experience. Everything along the vast and empty square is well-lit. As in most places in Beijing, there are guards and scanners at the main entry points: you put your backpack or handbag through the scanner, at night there was no pat down.
At the center of the square is the brightly lit up mausoleum of Mao Zedong. There seemed to be no entrance to the square at night. I did not explore this thoroughly, but if there was, then I’m sure I would have spotted some tourists at the mausoleum. There were none.
When you walk north towards the gate of heavenly peace (Tian=heaven ‘an=peace men=gate), you have to cross the wide Chang’an avenue. It is easy to walk east, skirting the national museum until you get to the entrance of the pedestrian underpass. You emerge near Tian’anmen.
The bright red walls, the iconic gate under a tiled roof with upturned corners, the gate with its massive portrait of Mao, the honour guard whose faces are impassive and stony as tourists click selfies with them, are among the most photographed sights in China. In spite of the gate and square being a symbol of the state, the atmosphere is distinctly relaxed. The panorama above was taken from the north-west corner of the square, and has the Tian’anmen at the left, the national museum in the middle, and Mao’s mausoleum to the right.
The lights go off at 10, and the subway gets pretty packed then.
If you are at a loss about what India and China share, just look at the electrical cables. They are as tangled in China as they are in India.
A Ming dynasty novel written about the travel of the monk Xuanzang to China is called "Journey to the West". I understand that it introduces some mythical travelling companions for the monk, one of whom is the popular monkey king. His role was to help the monk to cross borders. The monkey king seems to be a popular character for street-side entertainers. We saw the first one when we visited Hangzhou. In Xi’an they are even more common. This pair was vying for audience with two more pairs near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the place where Xuanzang lived after returning from India.
Vying may be too strong a word. There was a crowd around each. The monkey king seems to be a really popular character. I’m sure there is some difference between the two characters in the photo which I have not appreciated. Can anyone let me know?
If there is a photo which you can click in any country on earth, it has to be this! A child unable to tear herself away from the sight of balloons. Another universality which I’m fond of when learning a language is to listen to a child say the same thing over and over again. I do that a lot now in China.
If I were to say that the Chinese take more selfies than any other nation, someone would certainly point out that there are more Chinese than other nationalities in the world, so this is almost certainly going to be true. But it is more than that.
The Chinese seem to take more selfies per capita than the next ten nations put together. There is even an industry of selfie sticks: you can buy them from street vendors almost anywhere. At least in one place, the Olympic stadium in Beijing, I saw a person hiring them out. You pay a deposit equal to the price of the stick, and then when you bring back the stick you get some money back.