Saturday, November 15, 2008

Dalian: East Meets West

Here are a few random shots illustrating just a few of the many ways in which East meets West here in Dalian. The billboard pictures were taken on a quick light-rail trip to Ka Fa Qu, a specially designated zone for high-tech investment by Western corporations just north of Dalian. The pictures at the bakery were taken in the Roosevelt Shopping Mall in downtown Dalian. The classroom pictures were taken on the day when I introduced trick-or-treating to my students. Our classrooms have no computers, no video or CD players. The departmental photocopier hasn't worked in weeks. Several of my classrooms do not have operating electrical outlets, so I have bought batteries for a boombox to take to class. There are rumors that the heat will be turned on soon, but right now (15 November) the students live and work in unheated dorms (eight to a room, no showers in most buildings). But look at these smiling faces! These students are an absolute joy to teach.

Beijing: Exploring the hutongs

Beijing still has many ancient neighborhoods known as "hutongs." The city's skyline is marked by countless new high-rise apartment complexes, but millions of residents live in the closely packed alleyways of the hutongs. These neighborhoods began as the homes of affluent imperial officials living just outside the Forbidden City. They were originally laid out as spacious walled courtyard dwellings similar to a Roman villa or a Spanish hacienda, but they gradually evolved into densely crowded neighborhoods consisting of small one-story buildings crowded around tiny twisting alleyways. Some of the hutongs remain much as they were in earlier times, but in a process that is familiar to Washingtonians some are being gentrified into comfortable up-scale homes, shops, and inns, while others are being bulldozed away to make way for new development. Our walk took us through several areas near the Forbidden City, including a tradtional hutong and one that is undergoing renovation.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Beijing: Summer Palace

We spent all day Monday wandering through the extensive grounds of the Summer Palace, a quiet country refuge for the imperial court laid out in the late 1700s and extended and rebuilt twice (in the 1860s and after 1902) by the Empress Dowager Cixi, one of the most powerful and enigmatic women in Chinese history. (She effectively deposed both her son and her nephew in order to rule as regent for half a century. Her personal excesses and political blunders led to the demise of the last imperial dynasty in 1912). The weather was sunny and warm -- perfect for a stroll and a picnic.

The Summer Palace consists of a large lake to the south and a steep hill to the north. The lake has numerous pavilions, artificial islands, charming bridges and causeways. The hill is covered with shady tree-lined walkways, palaces, temples, gardens, and living quarters for the imperial court. The names of these cool, peaceful spots are a delight in themselves: Hall of Jade Ripples (where Cixi imprisoned the emperor), Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, Garden of Virtue and Harmony, the Cloud Dispelling Gate, Hall of Good Sight, Hall of Heralding Spring, Pavillion of Forgotten Desires and Accompanying Clouds, Pavillion with Fish and Algae, Hall for Listening to Orioles, Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha, etc.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beijing: The Great Wall

The Great Wall was begun by Qin Shi Huang (d. 210 BCE) , the first emperor to preside over anything resembling a unified China. He is also the man whose unexcavated mausoleum near Xi'an is guarded by the army of terra cotta warriors. The Wall runs in various segments and byways for approximately 4200 miles. It was, of course, primarily intended as a defensive fortification (impressive but ineffectual), but it also served as a stunning piece of propaganda, a visible statement of the empire's military might and economic resources, a means of rapid communication, and a way to transport men and supplies over vast distances. In its heyday, it was manned by as many as one million soldiers. Some sources estimate that one to two million laborers died during its construction.

We hired a car with another couple and drove to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, about 55 miles north of Beijing. The countryside is rural, rugged, and steep. Many parts of the wall are little more than ruins today, but the section at Mutianyu (begun in the 6th century and extended in the 14th and 16th centuries) has been restored to its former grandeur.

As an added bonus, we got to take a ski-lift to the summit of the pass. After our hike, we rode back down to the base of the hill on tiny toboggans, racing like happy berserkers down a slick metal chute about one mile long.

Beijing: Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is an enormous walled complex of courtyards, temples, palaces, offices, gardens, and service buildings in the center of Beijing. It was largely completed by 1420, but was renovated and added to many times over the following centuries (sort of like our cabin at Horseshoe Springs). The Forbidden City was the home of 24 emperors and their concubines, relatives, courtiers, and retinues numbering into the thousands. It was also the seat of government, the focal point of sacred ceremonies, and center of the entire cosmos.

One could easily spend several days exploring every corner of the Forbidden City, which is often said to have 9,999 rooms. Impressive doesn't begin to describe its magnitude or its splendor. Still, we were more impressed by the quiet beauty of the Inner Court, the residential palaces and gardens reserved for the imperial family and their most intimate circle.

Beijing: Tian'an Men Square

We took a long weekend (Friday-Tuesday) to visit Beijing, a colossal metropolis of at least 18 million people -- and still growing at an incredible pace. Beijing (the name means "northern capital") became the seat of the Yuan dynasty in the late 13th century. Beijing epitomizes the contradictions of 21st-century China: ancient history and booming development, stunning wealth and heartbreaking poverty. One cannot begin to explore it in four short days or describe it in a brief blog entry. Susie found us a great place to stay only a few hundred yards from Tian'an Men Square. We hope to use it on future expeditions as well.

Tian'an Men (Heavenly Peace Gate) is the enormous public square at the heart of Beijing, bordering the Forbidden City on the south. It has been the site of historic events ranging from the proclamation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, to the huge rallies of the Cultural Revolution, to the notorious massacre of peaceful protesters in 1989. (The latter event, known as the "June Fourth Incident," is rarely if ever mentioned in the PRC.)

The square covers about 100 acres and can hold more than one million people. It is often said to be the largest public square in the world, but the new Xinghai Square in (of all places) Dalian is larger by more than 10,000 square meters (2.5 acres). As you can imagine, this is a source of great local pride. Here are a few pictures: