Magical Mystery Musical Instrument


Near the north gate of the Summer Palace grounds, outside Beijing, I saw an all-women musical group playing this mystery instrument. It has a lovely mellow sound. The double lobed chamber gives on to three flute-like stems with openings which you can finger. I sat and listened for half an hour while The Family went climbing the Longevity Hill. Other audience came and went. Most listened in silence, some clapped at the end of a piece. I waited until The Family came back and joined me. We stayed a while, and then had to leave.

Does someone know the name of this instrument?

Stereo photo of a rockery

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Chinese gardens are full of wonderful rockeries, and the Summer Palace in Beijing is no exception. It’s difficult to convey the complexity and beauty of a rockery in a simple photo. Here is my attempt to present a stereoscopic view. Keep some distance from the screen, and try to focus some distance behind it. When you succeed, the left eye should see the photo on the left, and the right eye the one on the right. Some people tell me that putting a vertical piece of card between the two photos helps.

Why is China clean?

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Since we arrived in China, The Family and I have been surprised by how clean the cities are. There is no obvious reason for it. The Chinese spit on the street, like Indians. They generate large amounts of garbage, like all other countries. Street food vendors leave behind trash which is gone by the morning.

The Chinese do not litter as much as Indians do: handbills and empty water bottles are deposited into litter bins, which you can find in cities at every hundred paces or less. But the typical Chinese is not dedicated to keeping the city clean. So why are they clean?

Standing in Tian’anmen Square and watching the scene in the photo above, I had an epiphany. It is because the government knows that it is their job to keep cities clean. The municipal government invests large amounts of money in the infrastructure of cleanliness: the garbage cans along the street with bin liners in each, the huge army of cleaners constantly at work, the carts and other instruments they use. This is the big difference.

It is not the common man’s job to clean the city. In China you do not find ministers with broom in hand setting an example to the people. It is the government’s job, and the common man is only expected to give minimal help, like depositing litter in designated places.

Why do the people keep their side of the bargain? Because the government makes it easy. Why do the people not steal bins off the streets? Why do the civic employees not embezzle the city of bin liners? I presume the answer to both questions is that laws are enforced.

Just two simple things is enough to change a country.

Birdwatching in the museum

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The first time I encountered realistic Indian miniature paintings of birds was in the museum of the City Palace of Jaipur, a long time ago. Since then I have found little examples hidden away in galleries across the world. They are not as famous as the paintings of court life, but there seems to be a dedicated band of collectors and curators who love to acquire and display these.

2015-05-28 16.17.54From almost the earliest times, Chinese painters have delighted in depicting nature. The most famous subjects which the paintings deal with are grand vistas of landforms, and hidden away somewhere a few people, houses, boats, and domestic animals. They are beautiful.

Now, with a month of visiting museums and collections of paintings, I see that there is a less well-known stream of work: nature in the small, beautifully observed and rendered. The Shanghai Museum had two remarkable paintings: one of a praying mantis done almost calligraphically, with a minimum of brush strokes, and one of a lotus seed pod. I found later that the lotus seed pod is a staple, every master seems to try his hand at it. But also, over the weeks, I began to notice birds. Mandarin ducks are ubiquitous because they represent marital fidelity in the Chinese culture. But there are so many other birds which we saw.

2015-05-28 16.21.46Today, walking through the National Museum in Beijing, our birdwatching instincts came to the fore. We stalked through the galleries looking for birds, and we hit a jackpot. There are lovely pieces in the collection, but photographing them is not easy. There are multiple layers of glass between the painting and you. As a result, you can see my reflection in many of the photos here.

I wish I could have shared more details about the painters and their times. Unfortunately, many of the galleries in the National Museum only have labels in Chinese. There is an audio guide, but I could not get any information on them from the information desk.

The photos here show only the paintings. The jade and bronze galleries hide more birds. Herons and peacocks abound in the pieces of jade, but there are also other birds. A popular genre of jade carving was a scene in a forest. These are usually full of animals and trees, and, hidden in the trees, birds. Hidden among the displays of ritual bronze vessels are small figures of birds.

I wish there were good quality reproductions which one could buy, and information in English.

Jewels of the emperors


Emperors generally stored a large part of their wealth in the form of jewels. After visiting many museums in China I began to have the impression that in this country it was always in the form of jade. Chinese jade is delicately carved: the soft version is carved into intricate forms, but even the hard version is shaped and embossed. There is an enormous lore around jade: wearing it wards off evil spirits, it changes colour according to your mental state, and so on. It was a pleasant surprise to then see the jewels of the emperors on display in the Forbidden City. China also had a little of almost everything else: flaming red coral, silver, gold, and pearls. The wonderful piece above incorporates both gold and pearls. The only mineral that they did not seem to have were diamonds.

Peking duck

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Peking duck is available in some form or the other all over the world. Everywhere outside of China it comes in thin slices with pancakes and plum sauce. You learn to douse the slices of duck in the sauce and then lay it on the pancake, roll it up, and then eat it.

In Beijing we went to eat duck at the famous Quanjude restaurant. This is famous as Zhou Enlai’s favourite restaurant, not only one which he protected during the cultural revolution, but as one which thrived in this period. Today it is always full. There is a half hour waiting time if you arrive without a reservation. We have been there thrice in three weeks to eat Peking duck, twice with Chinese hosts, once by ourselves.

Peking duck in Beijing is an experience. The first thing which arrives on the table is a plate of the crisp fried skin from the breast of the duck. You roll this in sugar and eat it. Each little piece melts slowly in your mouth, releasing the sugar and the fat. Meanwhile the baskets of pancakes have been placed on the table. Soon the slices of duck arrive. This is the part of the Peking duck with which is familiar outside China.

As you eat the pancake rolls, the next part of the duck arrives: the brain (photo above). This is the only part which is not cut up into pieces which are easy to take up with chopsticks. This makes me think that traditionally this would not have been eaten. Meanwhile you could have ordered liver. This will be thinly sliced, and delicious, as you might expect if you have eaten foie gras. Another delicacy is the stomach lining: also thinly sliced, crackly and interestingly flavoured.

Finally, the rest of the duck arrives as a soup. I liked this the first time I had it, but the next times less so. On thinking back it seems to me that the difference was a little extra I had the first time: a plate of thinly sliced pears and cucumbers. This was a lovely palate cleanser which wiped the memory of fatty duck from your tongue, enabling you to enjoy the fatty taste of the duck. No wonder that traditional Chinese medical practice is so concerned with the state of your liver.

Noodle shops

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We discovered noodle shops in Shanghai as we walked through the lilongs of Xintiandi. At lunch time they filled up suddenly. The first noodle shop we ate in was crowded with young and well-dressed working people. The food was slow to arrive, belying the name of fast food places, but very good. There were all kinds of delicious little add ons. The one I tried is the famous Chinese tea egg.

After arriving in Beijing I tried a quick lunch in a noodle shop a few times. This was less pleasant. One of these places was run by a Muslim family from Xinjiang, and they made “hand-pulled noodles” right in the shop. This was fascinating to watch. Dough was fulled into flat sheets by hand, folded over repeatedly, and divided each time into thinner and thinner pieces, until you had thin noodles. This was quickly boiled, slapped into a bowl, filled with a simmering broth, pieces of lamb added in, and a hot sauce slapped on top (see photo above). Interesting to watch, but not great to eat.

We tried a few other noodle places, and were equally disappointed. I wonder whether the difference is between Shanghai and Beijing, or between a place frequented by salaried young people versus one which caters to students. Whatever it is, I gave up on noodle shops in Haidian very quickly.

The Big Pajama

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The CCTV headquarters is this exotic looking building above. The shape leads to the local name dà kùchǎ (大裤衩) meaning the big pyjama. We wandered around the Beijing central business district, which is full of tall towers, but did not find anything which is as cool as this. A ground level photo misses the two arms of the building on the ground which mirrors the overhang at the top. This may not be among the world’s ten tallest skyscrapers, but certainly takes your breath away when you see it. That overhang seems to defy gravity. How does it stay up without visible struts to take the stress from the upright parts?

A roadside shrine


One afternoon we walked into a hutong near Yang He Gong. Outside a house near the entrance was this impressive road-side shrine. The light was wonderful when I took this photo. A man came out to talk to us, but he spoke Mandarin, which we could not follow. We walked further into the winding lanes. People relaxed outside their houses. The shrine must have been extremely protective of the neighbourhood, because as we walked one tiny little dog tried to bite my feet. Fortunately my footwear defeated its teeth.

The Qianlong Emperor

We walked into a part of the Forbidden City called the Qianlong Garden. A plaque at the entrance told us that this section was built for the use of the Qianlong Emperor after he abdicated. Not being terribly familiar with Chinese imperial history, I had to look this up after getting back to the hotel. It turns out that Qianlong Emperor abdicated in favour of his son after ruling for many years. This was a political move, a show of filial devotion, so that his rule did not exceed that of his grandfather. We read that in actual fact he continued to control the politics of the empire.

From our earlier visit to the Shanghai Museum we knew that the Qianlong Emperor’s time was one where the arts were encouraged and flourished. We entered this section of the palace fully hoping to see wonderful gardens and artifacts. We were not disappointed. Right at the entrance was a wonderful rockery, marred only by large signs asking people not to climb it. Further inside was a gallery lined with panels of beautifully carved deodar wood (see photo above).

pavilionNext to it was this gallery where the not-emperor-in-name would sit with ministers and generals. The channels on the floor (see the photo here) simulated a flowing river down which the company would sail cups of wine for each other. while composing drunken poems. One wonders what matters of state were decided during these parties.

From what I read, the Manchu Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) essentially constructed the modern Chinese nation by conquering a huge territory. He is also said to be responsible for genocide in some parts of his empire. He put the Dalai Lama in power in Tibet, subjugated Xinjiang, Uighurs, Kazhaks. Mongols and Gurkhas. He was unsuccessful in conquering Burma or Vietnam. In his later days, presumably when he spent his time partying, he became dependent on several extremely corrupt officials. This, and his earlier wars depleted the imperial treasury.


Maybe part of this depletion was also due to the fact that he was such a staunch patron of the arts. Museums are full of the creation of this time. The Qianlong Garden holds elegant marvels such as this deer. Apparently a large part of the jade on display in the Forbidden City was collected by him.

He commissioned a catalogue of all important works of Chinese literature. It is claimed that this compilation was a means of destroying or censoring work which objected to Manchu rule over China, or was otherwise critical of the Emperor. It is said that books which were published during the Ming dynasty have suffered especially major changes or destruction.

It is hard to do much research when you are travelling, so I cannot say whether all this information is one-sided. However, if all this were true, then the Qianlong Emperor would be an appropriate symbol of the interesting mixture which makes up China even today.