Chinese Culture 101

Tonight a few of us (both Americans and Chinese) decided to visit the Laoshe Tea House, where they have a variety show dealing with various aspects of Chinese culture. No, it’s not a centuries-old establishment, but is less than ten years old. It’s done up in a traditional style, however. In the entryway is a musical trio:
Right to left, yangqin (zither), erhu (bowed instrument) and tuned bowls (can't find a Wikipedia article for those!).

Up on the third floor is the show room. For ¥380 you get all the tea you can drink, snacks, and the show.
The first act was the Laoshe Tea House Show Team. In Mandarin, the same word, yuedui, is used for both musical groups and sports teams.
The ensemble did a folk song, then a soloist came out with a variety of wind instruments.

No, that’s not his voice, he put a little whistle in his mouth that you can’t see. Still, it’s an amazing performance, and a lot of fun to watch.

Next up was a scene from a famous Peking Opera.
There was some mock sword fighting, a little bit of acrobatics (not from this character), and lots of cymbals crashing.

Next up was a woman doing a humorous song backed by a sanxian.
Parts of it were kind of spoken, and it must have told a humorous story since many people laughed.

The next act was three dancers wearing lanterns on their heads.
They did a stately dance. Notice the shoes, and imagine dancing in them.

Next on the bill were Shi Lei and Jiao Jiandong doing Hand-Shadow Drama. These guys are kind of well-known in China. I saw them on the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV.
This one involved the romance of a pair of birds.
The result was a baby bird in a nest.

The also picked a girl from the audience and tried to teach her to make a rabbit.
She eventually kind of got it after one of them moved her fingers into the right shape.

The next act was a magician who specialized in sleight of hand. For his final trick, he picked my colleague BR from our table to join him on stage.
BR helped him tie up his assistant, then they put BR in a jacket and hat.
BR and the assistant were covered by a curtain, much waving of hands ensued, and the curtain dropped, revealing BR’s jacket on the assistant…underneath her rope bindings!

The next act was the Olympic wannabe sport of tea pouring.
Five performers dressed in colors matching the Olympic rings danced around with long-spouted teapots and poured water into cups in the midst of their jumping around.

Next we got three acrobats doing the twirling plates routine.
And following that was a Sichuan Opera Face-changing artist.
He has a series of cloth masks and switches them so fast you can’t see the change. Just a pass of his arm before his face and it’s a different character.

The finale was what you might call Kung Fu Choreography: martial arts moves timed to music.
One of the guys broke a piece of metal against his head. I got to touch it, and it was indeed solid metal.
They jumped around a lot:
So maybe it’s a little corny, but it was a fun evening, and quite different from most of the nights out I’ve written about here.


Cinderella Story, Part Two

(Update 2008-07-10: Videos added.)

A few posts back I mentioned that veteran Chinese rocker Zheng Jun would be playing a concert in Beijing. He was on the last night of something called the Thirteenth Month Festival. My City Weekend magazine said it was all starting at 8pm, so around 7 I left my place and took the subway to Xizhimen. When I emerged from underground, I found that it was raining pretty hard, but luckily the venue wasn’t far from the station. I popped up my umbrella and started walking. By the time I got there, right at 8pm, I was pretty wet, and I found it strange that there was no crowd of people. I could hear music inside.

A guy came up to me offering a ticket for ¥100. The magazine had listed ¥180. I’m always a little wary of situations like this, but the box office was nowhere in sight. I pushed my way forward to the entry, and motioned for him to show the ticket to the person there. She looked at it and tore off the stub; I gave the guy ¥100 and in I went. On the ticket the start time was listed as 7:30.

The place was only about two-thirds full, so I just found an easily accessible seat and sat down. The band on stage was Buyi, a folk-rock outfit from Ningxia that I’ve seen before at 2 Kolegas. This was a radically different setting for them.
They handled the big stage and audience very well. But then they’re hardly novices: they’ve been around more than ten years and have played many festivals. I only saw three songs before they left the stage.

Oddly enough, the house lights were left dark while the crew set up for the next performer. I took the opportunity to pack up my wet umbrella and find a better seat.

Next up was a folk-rock singer-songwriter named Su Yang.
He was pretty good, with a rough voice and catchy songs. Like Buyi, he favors rousing sing-along choruses with lots of la-la’s. I’ve since downloaded a few tracks, which are on the whole better sounding than the live show. The guy behind Su Yang and right of the drummer played what I think was a suona.

For a couple of his songs, he had nice animated videos shown on the big screen above. This is a still I found from one of them:
When Su finished, I slipped out to get a bottle of water and check out the merchandise stand. The only products available were for bands that had performed on previous nights of the festival.

When I returned to the auditorium I saw a closer seat and moved up a bit.
Zheng Jun came out wearing a goofy pair of pink glasses.

He did his version of Coldplay’s song “Yellow,” which as you can probably tell, has Mandarin lyrics (I don’t know if they mean the same as the original, but the Chinese titles is “Liuxing” or “Shooting Star”):

This is what a concert looks like in China:
Is it pretty much the same everywhere these days?

He didn’t play any guitar during the show, leaving that to two of his band members.
I recognized nearly every song, and sang along with everyone else when he did “Huiguniang.”

That’s the first verse, which was interrupted by a fan with flowers.
He played a moderate length set – the show let out at about 10:30. I was pleased to discover that it had stopped raining, especially since line 2 of the subway was closed by then. It seems I’ve developed an aversion to taxis lately, so I walked to a bus stop, waited a while, and ended up getting home at almost midnight. Combining the late hour with the fact that earlier in the day I visited Badachu, I was pretty tired, and not much use the following day. And I hadn’t done my Chinese homework over the weekend, either.


This is why I always take my camera

This afternoon, I hopped on my bike and went out to find a spare battery for my camera. I was successful in that quest, but aside from that, I saw three things interesting enough to take pictures of.

After leaving the electronics mall, a stopped by KFC for a quick late lunch, and was glad I went in.

1. See? I wasn’t making it up!

I wrote a while ago about an amusing T-shirt I saw at a subway station. I now have photographic proof that it exists:
This is not the same woman whom I saw wearing it before.

2. Drama and thrills are everywhere

When I came out of the restaurant, there was a large crowd of people gathered on the sidewalk. They were watching a small movie crew shoot a brief scene at a public phone.
I’ve marked the two actors with arrows. I don’t know if they’re famous or unknowns. Here are some closer pictures of them.
Eventually they finished what they were doing. It was a short little scene where the man goes up to the phone, slips in his card, punches some numbers, has a brief conversation, checks his watch, hangs up, and walks away. A few seconds later, the woman comes up to the phone, but apparently doesn’t do anything.

I had to wait until they were done because they were set up blocking the spot where I had parked my bike.

3. China adds another ring

On the way home, I passed by Workers Indoor Arena, where Olympic boxing will take place, and saw a new sculpture being set up outside the south gate.
It looks like it will have some kind of electronic component, as there were a bunch of cables dangling off of it, not hooked to anything. Astute readers will notice that there are six rings here instead of the Olympic five. Don’t know what’s up with that.

Eight great sights

On the bus ride out to Xiangshan Park, I saw the entrance to another park that looked interesting. It’s called Badachu (Eight Great Sites) and features eight Buddhist temples spread about on three hills (so they say – seemed like one big hill to me). As with many other historical areas here, it was partially destroyed by the Eight-Power Allied Forces in 1900 and has since been restored.

Once again, it was a combination of subway (to Xizhimen) and bus to get there. The weather was particularly unscenic, but not actually raining, at least early in the day. Ironically, it seems that this summer has averaged much worse air quality than last summer, with far fewer clear days. It’s also rained a lot more.
I think that from this position, you should be able to see a hill in the background.

Just inside the entrance (¥10 or about $1.50) there is a waterway choked with lotus, some of which are in bloom:
Moving further along, you see the first temple. At least the first temple you get to – I’m not sure of the official numbering order. This is the Pagoda of the Buddha’s Tooth, part of Lingguangsi (the Temple of Divine Light). It is said to contain one of the four teeth found in the ashes when the Buddha was cremated.
Although it wasn’t very far away, it was largely obscured by haze. The rails of the stairway are decorated with lions, each of which is different:
The dragons are cool too.

Here’s a closer view.
In addition to incense, there are tables burning lotus-shaped candles.
In addition to lions, there are also statues of elephants.
A little further up the hill you come to a dragon-themed area.
For an extra ¥3 you can go in to see this:
It is a single piece of black stone (called “inkstone”) carved into a writhing mass of dragons.
It is not ancient, but carved recently, and took seven years to complete. It’s nice to know some of the traditional arts are still being done well in modern China. It is one of the most impressive things I have seen in China.

A bit further up the hill, there’s a resting area with some old stupa.
It was about here that it started sprinkling. Luckily, there was a refreshment stand that had a few cheap umbrellas for sale.

Sanshan’an (Three Hill Nunnery) is the next temple, and it is home to some cats.
The path up the hill was a bit slippery at times in the rain.
A little further along, you could hear music up in the trees.
It was a blind accordionist. He honestly wasn’t very good, but I really admired how he had come all the way up the hill to do his thing, so I dropped a few kuai in his bucket.

Here is temple number five:
The big characters on the sign say Cai Shen, which is the name of a famous historical figure noted for his generosity. Visiting this temple is said to bring good fortune.

From there on the trail got very steep:
Just kidding. That’s not the path.

A little further along is another temple (of course).
The writing says, Wu fang shijie, shi fang fo, fu du tianxia guanguangke. Which I really can’t make sense of, though I know several of the words. Something about the world and the Buddha. Guanguangke means tourist, which seems an odd thing to find in such a place. I’m open to suggestions.

Under the letters you can see part of a large round rock, under which is a little cave where a holy man is said to have lived for 40 years. It now contains a Buddha statue with many candles.
The temple just above the letters is said to have the best view out from the height. Not on this day.

After reaching the top, heading back down by a different path led to this:
This oddly decorated boulder is at the lower entrance to a gully filled with carved stones. Near one of the other stones is a plaque explaining how the rocks were left behind after the icebergs (that’s the word used) receded from the area at the end of the last Ice Age. They’re called “glacial erratics” in English.

So that’s Badachu. Maybe not one of the more famous Beijing destinations, but quite nice, and possibly even spectacular on a clear day.