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Emma reports from Sichuan - but first, Beijing

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Jul 23rd, 2005, 08:31 PM
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Emma reports from Sichuan - but first, Beijing

Partly to atone for my own slackness in failing to file a China trip report I've decided to post (edited with her permission) some reports received from my daughter, who along with her sister, brother, boyfriend and an American pal recently embarked on a trip to Sichuan province. Except for my son they've all been teaching English in north China for some time and can manage some Mandarin. Her descriptions of rural Sichuan in particular are I think an interesting change from the usual tourist-trail reports, but her account begins in Beijing.
-Neil

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Today we went to the Lama temple by subway, which was a new experience. Temples are far from a new experience for us, but the Lama temple is a particularly interesting one. It's interesting to see this repository of Tibetan culture here in Beijing, especially as we are headed down to the parts of China where this originated.

Unfortunately the things that I found most interesting I was forbidden to photograph. I have enough beautiful temple roof photographs to last me a lifetime! Buddhas are not to be photographed, nor was the small but fantastic museum of Tibetan Buddhist antiquities.

Since I don't have photographs, I'll try to describe it. The museum was wonderful - select statues and pictures of various characters important to Tibetan Buddhism, given to China over the last 400 years or so. The statues are fantastic - this religion really has some colourful iconographry (why doesn't Christianity have some many-handed, blue, cow-headed gods? That would be more interesting!) Tibetan Buddhist gods and Bodhissatvas are extremely colourful, and I must say they seem a fairly useful bunch. I liked Green Tara best - she's extremely compassionate and always tries her best to alleviate the sufferings of humans. Her sister, White Tara, has 9 eyes (on palms, feet and head) but she is not nearly so generous.

The tiny little statues were a bit racy at times - there were at least 10 or 15 that featured the gods having raunchy sex, sometimes with many arms. It was in this museum that we learned a new thing - while it is common knowledge in China that it's illegal to have a picture of the Dalai Lama, we learned that it is not illegal to have a picture of the Dalai Lama if he is smiling with Mao Ze Dong! (there is a very ancient photo of the two of them together).

Once back into the temple complex, we discovered one temple where the same many-armed, somewhat beastly gods appeared to be having sex again (much bigger this time) but were modestly draped in curtains (hard to cover up 12 roaming arms!) I was dying to take some photos, but that is very disrespectful, and the roaming monks look fairly serious.

My favourite temple featured three rather angry gods, who I'm well familiar with by now. They are all blue and they all look like monsters. I've seen these guys in temples all over China, but I particularly like the offerings to them at the Lama Temple. I'm sure you've noticed, at Buddhist temples it's common for people to leave offerings of bread, incense and fruit for the Gods. I like the Lama temple - the offerings are a bit more imaginative. One kind soul had left the Lady Guanyin a 5 litre bottle of cooking oil - very useful, I'm sure. My angry blue guys each had 6 brass cups filled to the brim with a clear liquid. I wouldn't have noticed anything unusual, but Brendon leaned forward and proclaimed it to be baijiu. I had a sniff, it was true - even from a metre away it clearly smelled like good, strong baijiu. The guy at the end even had the bottle beside him!

Bron and I were very impressed with the artwork in the museums, so we bought some prints at the gift shop (first time I've patronised a temple giftshop). We got a picture each. Bron got a rather peaceful old print of one of the goddesses, sitting in the lotus position. I couldn't resist one of the blue angry guys, stamping on some animals with skulls around his neck. They are really great, the artwork and colours are lovely.

On the way to dinner we went for another walk through the hutong. It's a little depressing - I think Beijing may be losing all that is nice about it. Even since I've been visiting whole streets disappear, to be replaced with the most uninspiring architecture you can imagine. Tonight we walked through a mainly residential hutong. People everywhere sat outside. Old men and women sat in groups in the street, fanning themselves. Women were washing their hair in the street. Some people were cooking dinner on open fires. For the first time I noticed large numbers of people living on the street. Miniature shanty towns existed, and I counted a couple of dozen people stretched out on cardboard sleeping on the side of the quiet hutong. I've never seen that before, though perhaps I've only ever seen Beijing in winter. It is difficult to take good photos of the Beijing hutong, they are such private places. It is often like wandering through someone's backyard. It's fine if I walk or bike through it, but if I bring out the camera I feel very rude. Tonight at dusk it was very picturesque, but I think you'd have to be a very good photographer to capture it unobtrusively.

Tomorrow, Sichuan! Tibetan cowboys!! Yaks!!! Here we come!!!
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Jul 25th, 2005, 02:20 AM
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Neil:

What a great report!

I had to laugh a bit - hope you don't mind! The descriptions of the gods were pretty funny.

Gods joined in "sex" symbolizes the same union as yinyang, the joining of two opposites. Of course, doing it with twelve arms does make it much more interesting! LOL!

All imagery in Buddhism stands for deeper philosophical/religious thought. The theory is that on the lowest plane of understanding, one needs icons to understand, therefore the images. As one rises in one's levels of understanding, one abandons the need for images and icons and go on to more abstract levels. This is somewhat similar to the Christian belief that, at a lower level of understanding, God has to be anthropomorphic, i.e., human-looking and human-like, but that as one increases in understanding, God is more amorphous, somewhat like a floating cloud with no particular shape.

The wealth of Tibetan artifacts and buildings in China lies in the special relationship which the Tibetans enjoyed with the Manchus of the last dynasty. The Manchus were a non-Chinese, Central Asian people and they had a much better relationship with the Tibetans, the Mongols, and the Turkic peoples of Chinese Turkestan than the Chinese did - but all that is another chapter in China's long history.

I am so looking forward to your daughter's travels in Sichuan! Many, many thanks for sharing!

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Jul 25th, 2005, 06:13 AM
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The Manchus are from current day NE China. Probably also part of Russia and the Korean peninsula.

It's been confirmed recently that Qinlong, who's the most important emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and arguably one of the most important emperors ever, is a disciple of Tibetian buddhism. He's the one who invited lots of the high lamas from Tibet to Beijing, and build all the vairous lama temples in the Summer Capital of Chengde, NE of Beijing.

Qinlong also has its own little lama temple inside the Forbidden City.
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Jul 25th, 2005, 01:55 PM
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I'm a little embarrassed that I for one arrived in China with such a superficial knowledge of its history and culture and left in not much better shape. easy traveler, interesting comments on the place of gods in Buddhism, which I had wondered about. A legacy of Hindu gods, I wonder?
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Jul 25th, 2005, 03:59 PM
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Looking forward to the rest of her reports. Thanks for posting this!
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Jul 25th, 2005, 06:37 PM
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No need to be embarrassed, Neil! Most of the Chinese themselves don't know much about their own history.

I've heard so much junk issuing from guides in China and even Chinese visitors/students coming to the US that I wonder how brainwashed people can be.

Truth, as usual, is much more fascinating than fiction. China has benefitted as much from the (Chinese) Han people -in Southern China, they call themselves the sons of the Tang (dynasty)- as from the non-Han people.

In culture as well as in everyday life, China gained from cross-cultural links, especially through the Silk Road and the sea routes. India - and you are correct that some of the religious/philosophical borrowings were originally Hindu/Indian - gave China not just Buddhism, but also some very profound cultural influences, such as those in classical poetry. A lot of very learned Chinese who study Chinese poetry don't even know that some of the forms were originally Indian.

As for everyday life, I highly recommend Shafer's "Golden Peaches of Samarkand" which indicates that a plethora of products passed along the Silk Road and the sea routes. "Twice in the seventh century, the kingdom of Samarkand sent formal gifts of fancy yellow peaches to the Chinese court", so begins Shafer's tracing of all the exotica which went to and fro - domestic animals, wild animals, birds, jewelry, metals, plants, woods, drugs, textiles...

Even the name "China" comes from a non-Chinese, i.e., non-Han, dynasty. Or remember the earlier references to China as "Cathay"? Cathay is from "Khitai" - a people who were an earlier version of the Mongols. Thus, the Middle Kingdom is known to the west by non-Chinese names! Not many Chinese know even these facts, swaddled as they are in ethnocentric propaganda - "The Chinese are all one people all speaking one language" (hahaha, this last is really the most amusing of all for me, a once-upon-a-time linguist wannabe).

Kudos to rkkwan for being more broad-minded and giving us historical facts!

Neil, I'm still really looking forward to reading the rest of your daughter's trip report! Sichuan is, in a way, pretty much the "wild, wild West" of China. Thanks again for sharing!
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Jul 25th, 2005, 09:41 PM
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The way I understand (and use) it, Han = Tang, when it comes to people. Both Han and Tang are names of powerful dynasties in Chinese history.

I definitely consider myself a "Tang" people, and I definitely consider myself a "Han" people. I can't think of how and why one can be Tang but not Han, and vice versa.
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Jul 26th, 2005, 01:41 AM
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I've heard enough stories from these English teachers to get a feel for the sometimes jingoistic indoctrination that Chinese kids (and adults) are subjected to. Some can be funny - like the middle-school kid who, invited to write a letter in English to an imaginary foreign pen-pal started off promisingly ("Hello, Japanese person. In fact, I also admire you!") but soon got off the rails with "But, all Chinese hate you. You know why? I tell you. In 1931 your country invade China and kill 2,000 million Chinese. Yes, 2,000 million!".... and so on.

Well, all governments get into this sort of thing when they need a diversion, my own included.

I've just posted Emma's Chengdu report - not news to experienced China hands, I guess, but may be of interest to those who like me would like to visit.
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Jul 26th, 2005, 09:07 PM
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Agree with rkkwan, Han=Tang =Hua or HuaXia. Chinatowns is called "Tang ren(people) jie(street)" in chinese.

easytraveler, you should learn a little more about "dao", then you will understand more about chinese culture and influence from other cultures.

Neil, you are right that all govern do brainwash and you can meet brainwashed idiots all over the world. Most of my hate of Japanese came from my grandfather, who was a soldier fighting with Japanese army for 8 years, he told my father his own war stories every night as american parents read star wars to kids before they sleep. The president of my college claimed publically she will never treat any Japnese visiting group as she can never forget her personal experience how Japnese bombers bombed her hometown even 60 years has passed. BTW, in official chinese histry text book, the chinese casualty during the war is 30 million not 200 million.
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Jul 27th, 2005, 12:20 AM
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frose, you're right - I meet brainwashed idiots every day here in Australia, and they have less excuse than that Chinese kid. Also, I fully appreciate that the Chinese people will have difficulty putting behind them the events of the 1930s and 1940s until the Japanese government and people honestly acknowledge those events. But if that's not going to happen, how long should we live in the past?

Don't forget that many of those Americans who read "Star Wars" books to their kids had fought the Japanese during WW2, and many lost friends and part of their lives in that conflict. And I have met Australians who had bitter memories of their time as prisoners of the Japanese, but most of them eventually decided that there was no point in hating the descendants of their guards - sooner or later, we must move on, or we will waste our lives re-fighting past battles. One former Australian PoW decided to try to better understand his former enemies, and as a result wrote a book. The title? "The Brave Japanese".

By the way, the abovementioned kid quoted 2,000 million, not 200 million, lives - but this was probably because he was having difficulty with the English translation of large numbers.
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Jul 27th, 2005, 08:54 AM
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Neil. Thanks for your input! I indeed understand what you want to say. But most of us are normal people who have hate and love. In USA and Australia, only small portion of population have direct experience of the war with Jap, china's whole population was involved for long time. on such a large base, no one should be surprised that there are lots of anti-jap chinese, as in Korea. China and Japan still have disputed islands as result of past wars, which may bring big tension.
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Jul 27th, 2005, 09:50 AM
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Since many people are interested in chines e culture, here I talk a little about "gods in china". China maybe have more gods than any other country, either domestic or imported gods, national gods or local gods, they live happily together in china. chinese people respect all gods and they don't think one god is better than another, although some may be more powerful than others. There is no absolute difference between god and evil, god may become evil and evil may act as god at certain time. Heaven is not neccessary the best place to live, we believe couples have love are happier than thoese lonely god. There are many stories god were attracted and attempted by normal people's life. People can become gods by "xiu xing", "ru shi"(go to normal people's life" is higher staus than " chu jia"(become a monk or hide in moutains) in "xiu xing". Gods in china are not supposed to be aggressive and never plays import rules in politics.
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