Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Adventures in China Part IV

Monday was most definitely my favorite day in China! I got up bright and early to go to Summer Palace with Lu`s friend Jing, the daughter of the family I`d been staying with the past few days. She`s the same age as me and her English, while not as good as Lu`s or Haiden`s who spent time in America, was mostly understandable. Because she works at Summer Palace at night, I was able to get in for free! How awesome is that?

The summer palace was built after Forbidden City and wasn`t nearly as big, but it was much more beautiful and lively than Forbidden City in my opinion, at least in the winter time. (But then, it`s called the “summer palace” because it was the Emperor’s summer get away he only lived in five months out of the year, so maybe it`s even better in July). There is a frozen manmade lake, one of the great fetes of ancient China. (They were building dams and canals and walls surrounding vast gilded cities when Europe was still wallowing in the misery of Black Death.)

When we arrived, there was a man singing opera under a pavilion. Here he is:

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This is quite a common sight in China. Random people doing tai chi, kung fu, dancing, or singing in public places. But they`re not doing it for money! They just enjoy it. Maybe they can`t do it in their cramped apartments without disturbing their neighbors. But really, I think it`s mostly for the attention. Only older retired people do it, and when others stop to watch them, they seem to put on extra pizzazz. It`s certainly not something you`d see in Japan, where everyone is so self-conscious and heaven forbid they ever stand out! “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” (Ancient Japanese proverb.)

Here are some statues. For Forbidden City I posted a picture of the lion statue representing the Empress. Here is the emperor statue in the Summer Palace. The ball under his foot represents the world:



This is a mythological Qilin statue. It`s part stag, dragon, and lion:



And this is a view from the top of Longevity Hill, overlooking the lake:



Longevity Hill was made from the soil they scooped out to make the lake, by the way. A very remarkable fete of engineering.

And for my brother Tony the architect, an ornate pavilion, sort of like a pagoda only three stories instead of five. Traditionally, the Japanese are fond of building things that are big, tall, close together and plain. The traditional Chinese like small buildings, lots of space in between, and many tiny details. Of course, modern China is another story all together.



I think I`ve mentioned before just how ornate Chinese art is compared to Japanese art. Just take a look at this pavilion roof. Notice all the little animals carved on it? There`s at least thirty hand-carved animals on that roof, each with intricate detail, and that`s just one roof! There were at least twenty of these roofs scattered throughout summer palace!



And definitely my favorite thing was the long outdoor corridor leading to the Tower of Buddhist Incense:



It must have been a mile long! I suppose the Empress (the most common visitor to the Summer Palace) would have used it to go on walks on a hot summer day to protect her from the rays of the sun, or when it was raining. And all of it hand painted! I could have spent all day there, just looking at the paintings. Here`s one of my favorites:



While we were walking along, there were many vendors selling things. I bought some hot corn because it was so cold, and Jing bought some of the famous Chinese hawthorn candy that I showed on my first China blog post. She let me have some; it was good but Lu`s Mom makes the best!

And this is a traditional Chinese gate. These were on almost every building, and you can find them in a lot of China towns around the world:



Near the end of our time there we ran into a Chinese tour guide who spoke very good English. He was leading a bunch of Americans around. But he didn`t really have many interesting things to say, except that at the time when the Summer Palace was most in use, anybody who was somebody had four wives, even if they were poor.

“How could that possibly be?” I asked. “There would be a shortage of women. Some men would have no wife!” But no one seemed to understand my question, going on about how things aren`t like that anymore, after the Marriage Reform Law of 1950. Seriously, how could a great number of men have four wives unless there were far more females than males, which is naturally not the case? The only thing I could think of was that there must have been a lot of foreign wars the men were compelled to fight, an influx of foreign women, or lots of celibate priests. Here`s a thought: in order to keep a dictatorial military empire expanding at an exponential rate (producing more people) and from having so many widows, a government can choose between two obvious options: force polygamy or compel “serial monogamy” (as soon as a woman`s husband dies, if she`s still of child-bearing age, force her to marry again). Or…women who lost their husbands might be compelled to go to the battlefield in their stead. After all, revenge is a powerful weapon. Hmm, terribly cruel, but an interesting concept. Could come in handy for a story someday. And here`s another thought. In a society where the women fought instead of the men, it would be the women with more than one husband. That is, assuming the cause of polygamy is a gender imbalance caused by lots of war and soldiers dying. Interesting…

As we were coming out of Summer Palace, there was a man flying a long string of kites. He was selling them, of course, but I enjoyed just watching him fly them. My grandpa loves kites, so I think he`ll like this picture:



Then I treated Jing to lunch to thank her for her and her family`s wonderful hospitality. We ate at a very fancy Chinese restaurant. I had real Chinese spring rolls for the first time, but I think I prefer the Tai version, which are crispier. Everything was very good, and afterward, there were some musicians setting up in the lobby to play their traditional instruments. I really wanted to stay and listen, but Lu was already waiting for us at Heaven`s Temple, so we hurried on there. But here`s a picture:



The instrument the man with the long hair is holding is called a Morin Khur, or horse headed-violin (because it used to be made out of a horse`s head and hair and was played by Mongolian warriors). But it`s played more like a cello, and sounds somewhere between a cello and a violin. Like these Western instruments, it is meant to imitate the human voice and most often plays the melody. Personally, I think the popularity of this instrument in ancient China is what made the cello and violin so popular in modern China. In modern Chinese orchestras, traditional folk songs played on this instrument are often reproduced on the violin or cello. The man beside him, I believe, is playing the zheng, also called the gezheng, a plucked instrument similar to the Japanese koto, or maybe it`s the yang-qin, Chinese hammered dulcimer. Isn`t it fascinating how such different cultures, separated by so great an ocean, came up with the same musical instruments seemingly independent of one another? But the music is so different. If you want to know what they sound like, you can go to http://www.philmultic.com/home/instruments/ for some sample songs.

The Temple of Heaven (literally “Alter of Heaven” in Mandarin) was very interesting. It was built in the early 1400s by Emperor Yongle, the same man who built Forbidden City, the Grand Canal of China, ordered the Yongle Encyclopedia to be written, and sent sailing expeditions to explore the known world. He was a pretty busy guy. He also killed thousands of people just for being related to those who spoke a word against him. A very interesting character, and the subject of my current short story “Emperor of the Dead.”

Anyway, Jing left and Lu gave me the tour of Heaven`s Temple. We also got in there for free, because Haiden`s mother worked there. The entrance was very beautiful, thickly forested with lots of people playing games, and at a pavilion I saw a woman doing tai chi. Lu took me to the Hall of Heavenly Music. I wish we could have heard it; from looking at the instruments I have no idea what they would have sounded like. Lu suggested that they were probably each a kind of gong that would have been hit with a mallet, with each tuned to a different pitch. Each monk would have had their one or two notes that they would play when it was their turn, and when all the notes were put together, they would form a melody and harmony. So Mom, it was kind of like an early form of hand bells! Here`s a picture.



Near there, Lu showed me a wall commemorating some of the atrocities done by the Japanese to the Chinese in World War II. The wall was the last remaining part of a concentration camp used by the Japanese to do experiments on Chinese people, like the Germans did to the Jews. They tortured thousands of Chinese to death in camps like these.

It`s not something the Japanese like to talk about, just like they don`t like to talk about Pearl Harbor. It`s not that they`re not sorry. I think that they`re so embarrassed and ashamed, even though it was their ancestors and not them who did it, that they don`t know what to say. And it didn`t really make it into the history books. Many Japanese people have no idea it even happened. But I think there`s still a lot of resentment. I`ve heard some non-Japanese Asians say they really don`t like the Japanese, and some Japanese people say they feel resented when they go to other countries. (Of course, part of that might be because they`re so rich compared to other Asian countries.) And there definitely is a sense of superiority among some Japanese, similar to the obnoxious patriotism displayed by some Americans. (There`s absolutely nothing wrong with patriotism; I love my country. But going around saying you`re better than everyone else when you`ve never even left “the great state of Texas,” now that`s just stupid.) It`s funny how we can still be mad about something that happened so long ago, before our parents were even born.

But things are getting better. Even though the Japanese complain about the “poor state of China,” they still admire their culture and give it credit for being the mother of Japanese culture. And China sure does love trading with Japan, especially CARS! (The traffic situation in China is so crazy!) I have a metaphor for how the world works, based on the history and perspectives of China, Japan, and the U.S., but it`s not very nice to any of the three parties, so I think I`ll just keep it to myself. (If you want to know what it is, you can ask me privately. Lu, I think you already know.)

So back on track, we met up with Haiden (Lu`s Chinese female friend who`s also a TU student who went to the zoo with us two days before) and continued into the actual temple part. What was the Temple of Heaven actually used for? To worship various deities in the Taoist tradition (and some that pre-date Taoism). The sun, the moon, the wind, the rain, the snow, the planets, basically anything in the sky or that comes out of the sky. Sacrifices were offered by the Emperor himself, who served as the main priest at this temple. (He was considered to be the Son of Heaven and the god`s way of letting their will be known on earth.) There were buildings for housing the items for worship and sacrifice, for sacrifice preparation, for practicing ceremonies, and for the actual ceremonies. It reminded me a lot of the temple complex in the Old Testament, only each god has its own alter and name plaque. Sometimes several gods shared a building, which always tended to be small. It`s interesting to note that there was a central, creator God with the largest name plaque, and it was written very similar to the Japanese name for the creator God, Amenonakumishi, God in the Glorious Center of Heaven.

There was also the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Alter where the Emperor prayed for good weather. Here`s a picture of the first one, one of the most famous buildings in China:



Then we went into the museum and I learned about the ceremonies performed there. The king came to the temple twice a year in a huge procession to pray mostly for a good harvest. Apparently these were very grand a showy, but no ordinary person could watch or enter the temple. So I don`t think Taoism, if I`m understanding it correctly, was a religion for the “common people,” but rather for the emperor and other high ups.

Then we proceeded to the “Center of the Universe.” If you stood there, it was built to precise engineering specifications so that your voice would be amplified. Anyone shouting from there could be heard miles away. Weren`t the ancient Chinese ingenious? Here`s a picture of me in the “Center of the Universe.” 



To answer my little brother`s question that he asked me all those years ago, Yes, Benjamin, I really am the center of the universe.

We even got to watch the sunset from the top, but I couldn`t get a good picture of it. As we were coming out, there was a place where you could dress up as the Emporer or Empress. Here you can see a guy dressed in the emporer`s costume:



For dinner we ate at a little “hole in the wall place” that served what common people eat everyday. It was very good, though I can`t remember exactly what we had. Typical stir-fry stuff.

After that, Lu went home and Haiden took me to the Beijing Exhibition Center Theatre where we saw the Premiere of “The First 3D Acrobatic Musical of the World,” Goodbye UFO. Wow! It was great staging, great music, great visual effects, great dancing, great acrobatics! I know you`re going to ask me this, Mom: the music was recorded, I think, because there certainly wasn`t room on or under the stage with all the performers and scenery and 3-D screens, but you really couldn`t tell. There was a director under the stage and the program said it came from the China National orchestra, so maybe there was a place for them and I just didn`t see it. It was filled with variety, from Western classical sounding stuff to 1920s vaudeville to very modern spacy stuff. But no traditional Chinese music; it didn`t have a very “Chinese” feel to it, though it was all traditional Chinese acrobatics and all the designers and directors and composers and performers were Chinese. It was a very beautiful mix of present form, futuristic nightmare/costumes and past traditions.

The story wasn`t so great, but that wasn`t the point, I think. The way it was set up is that there would be some dialogue advancing the plot, then a song and dance, then an acrobatic scene to accent the dance or incorporated into it, and all the while 3-D images of the location being displayed on the screens flanking the stage. Very well put together. Video taping was OK, and I don`t feel morally wrong about it because if anything, it`ll make you want to pay for a ticket to go see the show when it goes on tour! Let me just point out the highlights:

It took place in the future when the Earth is covered in trash (sounds like Wally, doesn’t it)? A little girl is wandering through the trash and bends to pick something up. It cuts her and she`s infected with some unknown virus, then everybody shuns her because they don`t want her to spread it. (How a blood-born disease could possibly become contagious was never explained, or what it did to her except turn her hair red, but as I said, most people weren`t there for the story.) She`s found by the “science lady,” a flamboyant blond who wants to recycle all the trash. She`s ignored by everyone, especially two scientists who want to contact aliens to come get rid of the trash. The scientists` cronies have to “jump through hoops” in order to round up all the trash. (Apparently that clich├ęd phrase exists in Mandarin as well as English) and after that, the trash still doesn’t want to be rounded up. Here`s the pinnacle of that scene:

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Then a robot comes along who was sent by the aliens to survey Earth to see if they can take the trash. The science lady and the robot meet and fall in love. Here`s a video of that acrobatic scene:

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She convinces him that they should recycle the trash instead of put it out in space. So she, the robot, and the infected little girl go on a journey to get public support for their endeavors. Along the way, they meet all kinds of crazy characters, like mutant tree insects and “rice balls from another planet,” which I called “star ladies.” They`re doing acrobatics with the traditional giant Chinese yo-yo. In this first video, I don`t know if you can see it very well, but they`re tossing the yo-yos off their strings into the air, flipping onto each other`s shoulders, and then catching them on the string again. Pretty amazing:

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And this is the robot showing off his skills, some of the more traditional yo-yo tricks. I thought you might like this one, Benjamin and Grandma, since you both love to play with yo-yos. Have you ever seen anything so amazing?

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But my favorite was definitely these guys. I have no idea who they`re supposed to be; the English program just called them “Dream—Equilibrium.” But I nicknamed them the “Terrian dancers” because their dance reminds me of the way my alien characters called the Terrians dance, only with them it`s always a guy and a girl, not two guys: (And in case you`re wondering, they`re not naked. It`s hard to tell in the video:

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In the end, nobody cares, so the robot and science lady aren`t able to convince people to recycle. But that`s OK, because the UFO comes and picks up all the “trash,” including the little girl who`s been infected. In case you can`t tell, the aliens and the little girl are balancing balls of trash on their feet while being tossed back and forth between the humans. Here`s that scene:

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Then it goes back up in the sky and everybody is happy. Hmm…a little deux machina problem here? Not to mention a bad message. “It`s OK to pollute the earth, because somebody else will fix the problem.” Sorry, sorry, it wasn`t about the story, that was obviously an after thought but I`m a writer and these annoying inconsistencies really drive me up the wall! But the show was absolutely amazing, and I thought of lots of ways to use the acrobatics and 3-D as embellishments of a much better story. Maybe someday one of my stories will have a show like that. Add a 4-D element and it would be ever better.

I understood most of it because Haiden translated. It was also quite funny. The two scientists acted as the comedians, and the science lady had a hilarious nickname for the robot. “Robot” in Mandarin is jiqiren. She called him “jien” for short, which is “You really tick me off.” So every time she called him that stupid nickname, so lovingly, the audience roared with laughter. And such talented actors! They could sing, they could dance, they could act, and they could do acrobatics! The robot was the most amazing: he juggled, sang, flew, flipped, balanced, danced, everything, all in what looked to be a very ridged, hot robot suit. The little girl was also particularly amazing. She couldn`t have been any older than ten, but she sang, danced, and did the most amazing stunts. Maybe she was a really skinny midget.

That night, I went to Lu`s aunt`s house to sleep. Such hospitality! Better than a luxury hotel. She even had a pink piggy humidifier in the room so my lips and hands didn`t feel dried out when I woke up.

And that was my fourth and favorite day in China!

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