Friday, July 25, 2008

Tech Support Note: Videos and E-mail

A quick note: many of you receive School of ROK updates by e-mail, which is totally cool. However, e-mail updates don't support video--and that last post was all video. So if it didn't make sense to you, take a peek at our main page:

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Beijing: Pensioners--Getting Out, Getting Fit

(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)

Wow, when was the last time we put up two substantive posts in a day? Though this one is less substantive than the last post on the Temple of Heaven--just a quick review of all the neat things Chinese pensioners, housewives, and other folks who are free during the workday do for fun. Seriously, you can find hordes of older folks out enjoying themselves and getting exercise in almost any public green space in Beijing. Most of the videos below are from the Temple of Heaven, though the last is from Jingshan Park.

Tai Chi, a blend of meditation and stylized martial arts.

Badminton (this is also big in Korea). My apologies for the jerky video--in retrospect, I probably should have stopped walking as I filmed.

Mass calisthenics, complete with groovy soundtrack. (By the way--"calisthenics" apparently has an "h" in it. Who knew?)

Ballroom dancing, without the ballroom.

Don't know what to call this--some kind of cool dance that involves keeping a ball stationary on a curved racquet while performing a number of elaborate moves.

On a side note, these ladies were really sweet when we asked if we could video them. And, like most of the people we met, they were really impressed with how well Nana could speak Chinese!

Beijing: the Temple of Heaven

(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)
Along with the Forbidden City (previous post) and Tiananmen Square (upcoming post), the Temple of Heaven is one of Beijing's most recognizable landmarks. As mentioned in our previous post, the Forbidden City, as the empire's main palace, was the ceremonial center of imperial power. The Temple of Heaven was the religious center of imperial power: it was the site of the central rites of the Chinese imperial religion, which was a mix of Daoism, ancestor worship, and prehistoric heaven worship, which you'll learn more about in an upcoming post on Dongyue Temple, a fascinating Daoist/court religion site in eastern Beijing.

For now, it's enough to know that Daoism (which Blogger doesn't recognize as the mainland-Chinese alternate spelling of Taoism--more information on the spelling controversies here), or at least the hybridized version of Daoism backed by the imperial court, features two parallel and interlocking hierarchies: one representing the order of the physical world, and one representing the order of spiritual world. What's unique and interesting about the belief system is that there is almost always a human who outranks any given deity. For example, a provincial governor outranks the city gods of his province, and the emperor outranks the provincial gods. Also, people are only allowed to worship the deities directly above them in the hierarchy--at least, without help from a priest or an official. At the bottom are the common people, who are only allowed to worship their lowly household gods. At the top is the Jade Emperor (almost always, depending on whom you ask), who is the ruler of heaven, and whom only the Son of Heaven (aka, the emperor, and second-in-command in the order of all creation) could worship directly. The emperor did so at the Temple of Heaven--along with the thousands of servants, priests, and courtiers who made up his entourage, of course.

The Temple of Heaven was originally built in the 15th century by the emperor Yongle, the same fellow responsible for the original Forbidden City. It sits on a north-south axis in the middle of an enormous arboretum, which is now a public park. It's central building is also its most iconic: the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, where the emperor prayed for (surprise!) good harvests, upon which the wealth of the entire empire depended. You can see us in front of the Hall below.

I have to say, of all the many examples of Chinese monumental architecture we saw on our trip, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was the most photogenic--though I might give the title for most beautiful to the Grand Mosque in Xian (upcoming post). Too bad I had to contend with some impressive smog.
You'll notice that the Hall is perfectly round, like many of the other buildings in the Temple of Heaven complex, whereas most traditional Chinese architecture is rectangular or square. There is a reason for this: in Daoism, the circle is seen as a symbol of heaven, and the square (or the right angle, at least) as a symbol of earth. These two symbols are joined throughout the Temple of Heaven--the round Hall above sits on three round terraces which themselves sit on a huge raised square plaza--reflecting the Temple's function as a place where heaven meets earth. You'll also notice that unlike in the Forbidden City, the roof tiles here are blue, the color of heaven, not gold, the color of the (later) emperors.

You can't go inside the Hall, which is understandable but still a bit disappointing, though an exhibit in one of the nearby buildings gives you a pretty good idea of what it looks like inside: here's a photo of the view looking straight up from the center.
South of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a long raised promenade called the Vermillion Steps Bridge (below), which links the Hall to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, where the spirit tablets corresponding to the Gods of Heaven were kept.
As might be expected of the home of heaven on earth, the Vault and its surroundings are mostly circular, including the perfectly round Echo Wall encircling the Vault compound, which can transmit even a whisper along its inside circumference.
Just south of the Vault, then, is the Circular Mound Altar, a raised circular platform left open to the elements (below).
As you can see from this shot looking north from the Altar (below), the Vault was remarkably close-by in a city famous for its immense distances. This is because the emperor had to carry the heavenly spirit tablets from the Vault to the Altar whenever he wanted to make an offering, and the slightest mishap during the ceremonial procession--and by "slight mishap," we're talking a sneeze, or an ill-favored pigeon, or someone slightly out of step--could be seen as an affront to the gods, and thus likely to bring down a plague or a famine. Yet another reason why it probably sucked to be emperor, even though the emperor was by a long sight the wealthiest guy in the world. So in short, the Altar was serious business, as was the Temple of Heaven as a whole. Today, though, the site is not without its opportunities for levity. I mean, just check out this weird gargoyle--since when do gargoyles wear sunglasses?

Tienanmen Square and Chairman Mao's Mausoleum

Tienanmen Square is big. How big? According to Wikipedia, it's the largest open urban square in the world, at 40.5 hectares. What's a hectare? Danged if I know, but what you see behind us here is a little less than half of it.

Behind us is the Forbidden City, which Justin blogged about in an earlier post. Ahead of us is the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong - the literal Chinese translation is "Chairman Mao Memorial Hall." We simply referred to it as the "Maosoleum."

The Maosoleum is closed on Mondays, which torpedoed me the last time I was in China, but was open this time. We actually found that we didn't have to wait long - we spent more time crossing the street and dropping our worldly goods in the bag check than we did waiting to get into the building. Wait, bag drop? You got it. Security at the Maosoleum was tight, and cameras are strictly forbidden (Wikipedia has a theory about that here). After the bag drop, you also have to go through a metal detector. Word has it that there have been a couple of attempts on Mao's body, including a rock tossed at the coffin.

So line for the bag drop, bag drop, line for the scanner, scan, line for the museum. During this time, some people popped out of line to buy flowers to set in front of the statue in the Maosoleum - if I recall correctly, they were yellow roses. While checking for the type of flowers on the internet, I ran across suggestions that they may be artificial flowers, and that when they're collected from in front of the statue, they're taken back out front and sold again. This strikes me as frankly kind of genius.

You go in, shuffling quietly in line, past a big carved quote by Mao on the main wall and a statue of Mao where the flower-purchasers step out of line and set the flowers out, often with a respectful bow. Then, you have a quiet, dark room with multiple layers of dense glass walls, and behind those walls is a coffin with a glass top, and in there is Chairman Mao. I wish I could say that my first reaction was something profound and reflective of Mao's significant role in world history and the shaping of a nation, but it actually was "Wow, Shasha was right. He is bright orange." For real. If you ever go, you'll feel the same way.

But then I did get a grip and have some profound thoughts, which unfortunately I can't remember four weeks later, and then we popped out the other side. Some people online complain at the speed with which you have to move through (there is even a rumor, at the same link as above, that it's actually a fake body in the coffin and they hustle you through so you can't tell) but I didn't mind the pace because there's not that much to see. There are, however, plenty of things to buy at the exit, ranging from cigarette lighters to giant desk trophies, which kind of takes away from the solemnity of the site. Still, overall, I recommend it.

Finally, this one goes out to YPMB readers:

"Another! Chinese Communist Party! First down! What?"

Monday, July 21, 2008

Beijing: the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park

(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)

With the all-important food posts (1, 2, 3, 4) out of the way, let's move on to some of the sights. We'll be posting them out of order, so try to to be confused if the posts don't match what you know about our itinerary.

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City (or the Palace Museum, as it's known to locals) is, surprise surprise, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of every tourist's first stops in Beijing. But the mobs of foreigners don't make it any less worth your time--mostly because they're there for good reason, as the Forbidden City is one of the most impressive sights I've seen in my life.

First, some background. The Forbidden City, besides being an essential Wonder of the World in Sid Meier's Civilization III, was also the Ming and Qing imperial palace, in service from 1420 to 1924. The place in its current form dates to around 1800, when a Qing expansion project was completed, though many of the structures in the current Forbidden City are older.

It is the world's largest surviving palace complex, and the overwhelming impression it leaves is of its immensity. Situated smack in the center of the city, and bordering Tiananmen Square to the south, the Forbidden City sprawls over a huge swatch of downtown Beijing. The current Forbidden City, which doesn't include the imperial courtyard gardens that were opened and paved over to make Tiananmen Square, is a rectangle almost 1 km long and 3/4 km wide. It takes about 30 minutes to walk from end to end without stopping, and exploring the whole complex (or at least the whole of what's open to the public) would take days.

The palace, like most monumental structures in East Asia, is laid out according to the principles of Feng shui, facing south with the main gate at the south end of the complex and with a hill our mountain at the back (north). Most visitors enter through the southern gate of the complex (above), which you'll learn more about in an upcoming post on Tiananmen Square. (Yes, that's a giant portrait of Mao on the front.) This gate isn't even technically the front door--two gates on the southern side of Tiananmen Square, almost another whole kilometer from the gate above, were the traditional entrances to the Imperial City.
The gate below, known as the Meridian Gate, marks the outer limit of the truly "forbidden" part of the Forbidden City: during the Qing dynasty, no commoners--and essentially no foreigners--were allowed past this gate. Violators were killed on the spot, as were any commoners unfortunate enough to glimpse the Emperor as he processed in or out of the gate--looking directly at the Emperor was a big no-no, seeing as the Emperor ranked only one step below the most powerful god.
Fortunately, the emperor wasn't home. There was, however, quite a strong military presence about--though understandably so, seeing as this is Beijing's greatest cultural landmark and a centerpiece of advertising for the upcoming Olympic Games.
Beyond the Meridian Gate lies the Gate of Supreme Harmony, across another cobblestoned expanse. The Gate of Supreme Harmony marks the entrance to the Outer Court, a series of gates, buildings, and courtyards used for ceremonial purposes. As you'll see, they're build mainly to impress, and they do a darned good job of it.
Between the Meridian Gate and the Gate of Supreme Harmony, a small man-made stream runs through the courtyard. This is a common feature of feng shui architecture. The stream is crossed by three bridges: one for the emperor and two for everyone else.
Don't tell the emperor that we stopped for a photo on his bridge!

Beyond the Gate of Supreme Harmony lies the centerpiece of the palace, the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony, in addition to being the tallest building (by statute) in downtown Beijing and the oldest surviving wood structure in China, was the emperor's ceremonial throne room. Originally, this was where the emperor would hold court, though eventually the Hall was reserved for major events, such as coronations.

Symbolically, the Hall was the center of imperial power in the Ming and Qing dynasties. That didn't save it from the ravages of imperialism, though. The cauldron below, one of hundreds used around the palace to store water for fire-fighting purposes, used to be covered with gold, which was taken by the British and the French. Fire also took its toll on the Palace: the Hall of Supreme Harmony alone was destroyed by fire a dozen times in its history.
This fellow fared better (it probably helped to be made of bronze): one of the stylized lion-dragons guarding the Hall of Supreme Harmony, enjoying a light-hearted moment with its cub.
Beyond the Hall of Supreme Harmony lies the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony (below). These buildings mark the transition from the Outer Court, which was the public wing of the palace, to the Inner Court, where the imperial family and its numerous people lived. The first was used as a place for the emperor to rest before and after ceremonies--remember, when you're emperor, going anywhere involves a giant procession, so if you're tired or hungry, you don't want to have to process a half a kilometer back to your pad for a nap. The second is a rehearsal space--court rituals were bewilderingly complicated--and the site of the last stage of the imperial examinations, which all public officials in feudal China's massive bureaucracy had to take.
Beyond the Hall of Preserving Harmony is the Inner Court, some of which is closed to the public today, but most of which has been converted to a museum on life in the Forbidden City. Below, you can see a replica of the empress's sedan, which would be carried by servants. If you look closely, you can see an ornamental phoenix on each corner--the phoenix was the symbol of the empress, and the dragon the symbol of the emperor. Together, they infest souvenir shops throughout central Beijing.
Here's a replica of the emperor's coat. As you may have noticed, the emperors liked yellow--it was a symbol of the imperial family.
And here's a replica (notice another pattern? many of the originals are either in storage or in Western collections) of the ancestral spirit tablet the emperor would have kept in his quarters for morning and evening prayers.
Further back in the Inner Court is the emperor's own personal arboretum (don't worry, it wasn't his only personal arboretum--see Jingshan Park below or the Summer Palace in an upcoming post). It's a pretty space, though the emperors often shunned it--they were afraid of the possibility of assassins in the trees.
Jingshan Park

The northern (back) gate of the Forbidden City opens up to a view of Jingshan Park, which Nana and I explored on one of our free days in Beijing.
Jingshan Park consists of an artificial hill built from the material excavated in digging the Forbidden Palace's giant moat. The hill was built to satisfy feng shui requirements: it was seen as good luck to have a hill at the back (north) of your house and a river or stream near the front (south--see above). It has the added benefit of being the highest point of elevation in the city, affording some of the best views of the palace.
This was also where, while shooting the video below, I was attacked by the world's worst pickpocket. (Not really.)

The park served as the emperor's spiritual retreat. It's dotted with little Buddhist pavilions, though most of the Buddhas are gone, having long since been pilfered by the British and the French.
Below, you can see some long views of the city: first, Beihei Park to the north; then the Jingshan Park buildings.

And, just to make sure we end on a happy note: below you can see the tree where the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty hanged himself. After the Forbidden City had been overrun, this quiet corner of Jingshan Park was his end.That's all for now. Stay tuned for some more of Beijing's Greatest Hits, including: The Great Wall! The Temple of Heaven! The Summer Palace (through an apocalyptic haze)!