Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Adventure in China Part II

My second day in China we went to the Beijing zoo. Just before we went in, some young people with a video camera grabbed me and asked me to do a video with them. It was supposed to be about China sending a letter to Vancouver, in a sense handing over the Olympics. I guess because I was white and spoke English, they had me play the part of the Canadian receiving the letter. I opened it up and got really excited, shouting, "Hi Vancouver!" That was my part. We did three takes. So maybe I`ll be on Chinese TV? And I thought those years of training as a TV comercial actress had been wasted. Crazy!

First we saw the brand new panda exhibit that they revamped for all the tourism surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I'd never seen a panda before; they're so cute! Why do we call them "giant pandas" in English? They're so small! About half the size of a person and so gentle and funny. Here's a picture of a really shy panda. Doesn’t he look like a little man wearing a suit?

And here's a video. Pandas really like carrots! They also like bamboo leaves, not just the "bark."

After that, we visited some other rare Chinese animals. This is a really cute Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkey:

And a bear who liked to sit like a person and stare up at us:

Some people say that "if you've seen one zoo, you've seen them all," but I definitely disagree. Every zoo has a "specialty" I think, and other than the large number of pandas and their huge exhibit, I really liked the Beijing zoo's nocturnal animal building. I had no idea China had so many night creatures. Here's the cutest one:

My favorite one was a monkey with eyes that took up over half its head. It looked like an alien! But I couldn't get a good picture because it was dark and the flash bounced off the glass, plus the little guy wouldn’t stop moving. Sorry.
Next we visited the big cats. I felt really sorry for them because they were all in tiny cages, pacing back and forth, probably bored out of their minds. My favorites were the white tiger cubs. Here's a cute picture:

And here's them when they're alert:

In the summer time, you can take a boat ride around Beijing zoo in the canal. In the winter it’s all frozen over, three inches thick. Here’s me on the ice:

It started cracking so I got off as quick as I could!

Then we went to the aquarium. I'm typically not as enthusiastic about fish as I am about other animals, but this was a really good aquarium. Here’s some Siamese kissing fish in action:

Here's the biggest tank with lots of beautiful fish:

We got to see a diver lady feeding the fish, which was interesting, and she even grabbed onto a sea turtle’s shell and "rode" it. Here’s a video:

They had a really amazing sea lion and dolphin show. I actually preferred the sea lions. I'd never seen them dance, synchronized to music before! That was really cool. But my camera ran out of batteries. Bummer!

After that we rendezvoused with Lu's friend Haidan (another Chinese student from TU) and she joined us for the rest of the zoo and dinner. Lu kept saying he wanted to see the "long necked deer" and I couldn't figure out what he meant until he said it was in the African exhibit.

"Oh, you mean a giraffe!"

"A giraffe?" he asked. "Why do you call it that?"

"I think it's based on the original African word."

"Oh. Why is English so complicated? Chinese names just describe what the animal looks like."

He has a point. Chinese names are like Japanese names in that they're usually words. Lu's name means "jade" in Chinese, as in the green stone. That's why it sounds so weird when you try to translate an Asian person's name or the name of the place they were born. It comes out sounding like, "I am Dream Flower from Northern Capital." (Beijing literally means "Northern capital.") So most of the time, translators just keep Asian names in the original language. Some English names are like that, (Hope Johnson from Springfield) but I can see how most English names, especially animal names, could be confusing for a non-native speaker.

So let me pause a minute and explain something that confuses a lot of people. Is it Peking or Beijing? It's neither, actually, as the Chinese word sounds like Pay-cheeng and is of course written in Chinese characters. The first European explorers heard this as "Peking," and so that's how they spelled it. In 1949, the New Chinese government adopted a romanization of Chinese words (called pinyin) to include on signs for foreigners. They spelled it "Beijing." It took a few decades for this to catch on in the west, but slowly it has. Some people still call it Peking because it's easier to say than Beijing. It doesn’t matter; you won't offend anyone if you call it Peking. On a nuance level, I've noticed that things that are part of old Chinese culture tend to be called "Peking" (Peking Opera or Peking duck for example), where things that are newer, especially after the communist party took over in 1949, tend to be called "Beijing" (like the Beijing zoo).

Anyway, we didn't get to see the giraffes because they weren't out. (Probably too cold for them), but we did see the penguins. They were African penguins just like at the Tulsa zoo, but the exhibit was much bigger and they were all pretty active. One came right up to the glass and tried to eat my ticket I waved in front of it. Very cute! Pictures from behind the glass are not good, so here's a picture of an African penguin that I took at Nagasaki Bio Park:

The zoo was amazing and we only saw half of it! If you plan on going there, give yourself the whole day, or maybe even two days!

After that, Lu, Haidan and I had dinner at the famous Quanjude Peking Duck Restaurant. Talk about fancy! We ordered Peking duck, of course, which was amazing! I love duck, but this was the best duck I ever had. They brought it right to our table and carved it in front of us. Here's me with our cook. Lu took this one on his I-Phone; thanks Lu!

We dipped it in sauce, added spicy vegetables, and put it in a thin flour tortilla. Lu also ordered jelly fish, but I definitely do not recommend it. I can stomach almost anything, but not that. Haidan also offered me the duck head, which included the eyes and the brain, but I wasn't brave enough to try it, and neither was she or Lu. At the end, they gave us the bones in a bag. Lu said his mother would make a soup out of them. They had given us a little bit of "duck bone soup" to go with the meal, and it was OK. I tried to pay, but Lu insisted on buying it all. I quickly learned that the custom in China is that if you invite someone somewhere, you pay for everything. Since Lu had invited me to China, he was intent on paying for almost everything! That was very kind of him; I hope I get the chance to show my gratitude when he comes to visit me in Japan.

Then Lu and I went to the Peking opera! Before the show, I got to look at all the beautiful costumes and learn the history. Opera actually began in China before European opera, and many of the older styles still exist today or are incorporated into newer forms of drama. But the style we saw (known as Peking Opera) solidified in 1790 when a number of Anhui (a region in China) theater troops came to Beijing to perform for Emperor Qianlong's birthday. They were so successful that their new form, incorporating singing, speaking, dancing, martial arts, and acrobatics, largely replaced the old styles. In case you're wondering, women sometimes play men and men sometimes play women, but both genders are present. Just like in European opera, there is usually a central "diva" who does most of the singing, dancing, and acting. It was very similar to European opera, actually, and it surprises me that two different cultures, separated by an ocean, could come up with something so similar, totally independent of each other. Then again, who knows? Maybe somewhere along the line they did influence each other. Is it a coincidence that during the same time Peking opera was so popular, Russian opera took off too? I need to do more research on that.

Just before it started, I got to watch the actors put their makeup on. This is another pictures from Lu's I-Phone; thanks Lu!

A full Peking opera is veeeery long, (think Motzart's Magic Flute), so we only saw two short segments of a comedy and a drama, each about forty-five minutes long. The first was called "dropping the jade bracelet" and is about a young girl (a rather air-headed girl) who while feeding the chickens meets a young man who wants to buy one. The spark between them is obvious. They flirt, but she ends up telling him her mother is away and to come back later. He secretly returns to deposit a jade bracelet, a token of his love, near the chicken coup. The girl finds it, and when she thinks no one is looking, she uses her handkerchief to pick it up. But the old match maker saw! She comes to the girl's house and, after teasing her almost to tears, promises to make a match between the two of them.

I could understand what was going on because there was an English translation (though a little poor), along the side. The singing was very nasal and cat-sounding, but the dancing and costumes were beautiful. The musical instruments (a Chinese three-stringed violin, a banjo-like instrument, drums, gong, clarinet-like thing, and flute) played pentatonically, not atonally, so they were pleasant to listen to. (Pentatonic music is based on a five note scale instead of eight. Think folk music like "Oh Danny Boy" or "Greensleeves." It has a more open feel. Atonal means that the music doesn't have a melody.)

Of course, video taping was illegal, so here's a link to a video on youtube. It's kind of long and the instruments are too loud, but other than that it’s identical to part of the performance I saw:


The next one was called "Stealing Silver from the National Bank" and was about a cunning snake that could turn itself into a woman. She steals silver from the "corrupt officials" and gives it to the poor in her town so they can start a shop and make a living for themselves. Sort of like Robin Hood! This is a very popular opera, especially in recent years, because it goes along well with the communist party’s ideals of bringing down the rich corrupt, raising up the poor, sharing resources, self-sacrifice, and women’s liberation. It included a lot of acrobatics as the “diva” character fought against the mighty general and his minions. These videos are not as good, but a lot shorter:



Notice that after every stunt, they freeze and look at the audience. Very interesting.

After the show while we were waiting for Lu's dad to pick us up, a pianist played in the lobby and Lu took me around to the four indoor bronze pillars and explained the ancient Chinese stories they told. Lu's a very good story teller! What a lovely evening. And what a wonderful day! I can’t think of a better way to spend it.
We left the theater pretty late, and I slept at Lu's friend's house again. That was my second day in China!


Rich said...

This was a lovely blog. Obviously, my interests cater toward zoology, but aside from that cultural and linguistic details fascinate me.

The Giant Panda is called "giant" to distinguish it between the much smaller "red" panda (think, medium fox size) which was known much earlier. Something I found very interesting is that the giant panda was considered mythical for a very long time, principaly by Europeans and Western Science, but also presumably by Chinese "lowland" authorities.

Chinese opera make-up amazes me. It is so very bold and striking! Lu told me how the make-up used, both the colors and designs, represent various personality types. Thus, the audience immediately knows who is a villian, a heroine, comic relief, etc. When I first saw the make-up designs, I was also learning a bit about the so-called Opium Wars (when the British imperialists crushes the Chinese into submission). I just had to think to myself: wow, what if the Chinese soldiers had worn make-up like that! Demons!

The "pay-cheeng" pronunciation is a good thing to know. I'm glad to have heard you explain it.

I was wondering, when you were talking about the Peking Opera, yo said there was an English translation ("a little poor") "along the side." Did you mean it was printed in the program, or live alongside the performance?

Rich said...

and how did you get "behind-the-scenes" to photograph the opera performers putting on their make-up? Or was that a photo you got elsewhere? I think it's fascinating they do their own make-up. I guess that's part of being a professional.

As a person well-aquainted with global non-western musical instruments, I would love to hear your formal commentage on the subject. The review in this blog was merely in passing. Or perhaps you've already posted a blog on music matters?

L.J. Popp said...

Thanks for your comments! That`s very interesting to know about the panda; yeah, we saw the smaller panda too, but it wasn`t that impressive. Ah, the translations were on tiny projectors beside the stage, like what you might see at the opera in America. The text would appear when a line was being spoken or sung, then the next line would appear and so on.

As for the "behind-the-scenes, the nice thing is that anyone who comes to the opera early can see some of the actors putting on their make-up! As for pictures and videos in China, they are allowed anywhere, even of professional performances and museums, just not in "sacred" places like inner shrines and temples.

Unfortunately, I don`t know much about non-Western instruments! I didn`t even know the name of the instruments the musicians were playing until I looked them up on that website I mentioned upon arriving back in Japan! I cheat when I write my blogs. If I don`t know something but want to talk about it, I look it up. So sorry I don`t have anything else to say on that subject, only that since coming back from China I have been listening to traditional Chinese music on my bike rides to school (the CDs Lu`s family gave me) and it is characterized as very "twangy", but much more tonal than Japanese music. Especially folk songs have a very clear melody and even some harmony and secondary or interweaving melodies. They often tell a story like "Ambush On All Sides." You can tell the part in the music when the ambushers overtake their victim. Or they evoke a mood or image, like "Spring on a Moonlit River." Court music and temple worship music (chanting, etc), tends to be more abstract and difficult to listen to. All I can say is take a look at the samples on the website! Eventually I may figure out how to add music to my blog, but unfortunately not yet. Any ideas?