Interlude for geeks

I’ve been watching Star Trek in its various incarnations since approximately the first day it aired on TV back in 1966. But I’m one of those fans who’s had ups and downs with the whole thing. Face it, some of the original series episodes were downright stupid, many of the movies were pretty terrible, and Voyager was way too uneven to care much about no matter what it may have had on the good side.

Anyway, I was at first pretty ambivalent when I heard there was a new movie in the works, though I was encouraged when I found out who was in charge of it.

I managed to catch it in an American theater the night before I returned to Beijing from my last trip, and enjoyed it quite a lot, even if the plot seemed to exist primarily as an excuse for the young Kirk to get beat to a pulp. I always liked Spock better anyway, and this time, Spock gets the girl. Gotta love that!

I thought it would be fun to go see it again in a Chinese theater, so one evening I walked up to the new multiplex at Sanlitun Village. They’ve got something like 12 screens, basically patterned after the big multiplexes we have in the US, with a couple of differences. First, it’s underground. The entrance is on level B1 of the shopping center, and you go down one more level to get to the auditoriums.

Second, check this out:
Sarting from the top...

The theater is called Megabox, which pretty much sums it up.

The Chinese name of the movie is 星际迷航 (Xingji Mihang), which surprised me, since I always thought Star Trek was 星际旅行 (Xingji Luxing, literally Star Travel). You can look that up in an online dictionary. The title they’re using for this new movie actually translates pretty much to Lost in the Stars. I don’t get that – what was wrong with the original title? And it’s not like they’re actually lost at any time in this movie.

Next line is the date and time, nothing noteworthy there.

The next line is my seat location. 4厅4排17号(Auditorium 4, row 4, seat 17). Yes, it’s a reserved seat. Every movie I’ve seen in China has had assigned seating. Whether people actually sit in their seats is another question entirely.

Next is the ticket type and price. 成人 70.00 (Adult 70RMB, which is about US$10). In spite of the Chinese economy and average income, it costs exactly as much to see a movie in Beijing as it does in Seattle.

And there’s a barcode for validation.

At the bottom is standard stuff about how the ticket is good only for the stated date and time for one person, and complaints or questions can call this number.

See, I can geek out over a Star Trek movie without even hardly mentioning the movie itself!

All good – no bad, no ugly

One of the benefits of working in the entertainment industry is that sometimes you get entertained. Last week, my coworkers and I were offered free tickets to see the Ennio Morricone concert at the Great Hall of the People (人民大会堂 Renmin Dahuitang). Morricone is of course best known for the music he has written for movies, notably the famous score to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, plus about 500 others. He was in Beijing to conduct an orchestra performing his music. The Great Hall stands just on the west side of Tian'anmen Square, and I’ve seen it from the outside many times, but never been inside.
That’s a picture I took in January of 2007. The nearer building in the background is the Great Hall. It could be described as China’s Parliament Building.

After passing through security, we entered a large lobby.
Which was somewhat dimly lit.

The Great Auditorium is where the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Consultative Committee meet.
It seats about 10,000 in all, though for this event the second balcony was not used.
And of course there’s a big red star in the center of the ceiling.

The Maestro took the stage...
...and the orchestra played a bunch of music. I’d love to be more descriptive than that, but aside from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I didn’t recognize anything. A lot of it sounded familiar, of course, since I have no doubt seen many of the films, but couldn’t tell you names.

Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy it. It’s just that without a program (they had souvenir books, but ran out before intermission when I went to get one), I didn’t know what I was hearing. The full orchestra was augmented by a large and varied percussion section that included a drum kit, plus electric bass and electric and acoustic guitars.
The pianist also had a Roland RD-700SX electronic keyboard and a laptop. The synthesizer did mostly organ tones and sound effects; the laptop was used for some programmed rhythm parts on one piece. And, as you can see, there was a large chorus for the last part of the program. The orchestra was foreign, the chorus Chinese.
The featured soloist of the evening was a solo soprano vocalist who did the wordless singing so prominent in Morricone’s work. Musically, there was quite a variety, from delicate, romantic melodies to dissonant impressionistic clashing, from intricate counterpoint to jazzy flairs and rock rhythms.

All in all, it was quite a cool evening, with excellent music and a chance to see the inside of a building that not many see. Who knows, maybe I was sitting in the seat normally assigned to the representative from Kashgar.

Teach your children

As I continue my journey down the list of Beijing sights, I find myself at Kong Miao (孔庙), the Confucius Temple. It’s actually pretty close to my old office in the Gehua building, just a couple blocks from the Lama Temple (which I’ve been to twice but apparently never written about), but I never got around to it until last week.

I went with a Chinese friend who was very surprised that an American knew anything about Kongzi (孔子 551 BC – 479 BC ) at all. But I told her that while we don’t really study his teachings, we know his name and the cliché “Confucius says...” And since I’m interested in China, I know that Kongzi was a very practical philosopher who concerned himself almost entirely with down-to-earth things like how to get along in society, ethics, and how a country should be governed, not with supernatural things like gods and demons.
Anyway, Kong Miao is a relatively small complex originally built in 1306. It has been renovated recently, and has many exhibits about the man’s life, teachings and legacy, though they are not anything like the impressive museum at Jinsha in Chengdu.
Each of these structure contains a carved stele commemorating some event, like an emperor expanding the temple or rebuilding part of it.

The temple grounds are home to many old trees.
I think they are more than 300 years old.
And the vines hanging from some of them work as swings.

There are many exhibits covering the Master’s life.
This one illustrates his travels from kingdom to kingdom trying to spread his ideas.

Music is very important in Kongzi’s philosophy.
The smaller instruments in the front are guqin (古琴), the larger ones are a fancy version of either se (瑟) or guzheng (古箏) (without the bridges that tune the strings), and the tuned bells hanging behind are called bianzhong (編鐘) – I think, the ancient names of the instruments are sometimes not the same as very similar looking modern ones. There is also another instrument arranged like the bells, only with tuned slabs of stone that are struck with mallets.

That covers the photographic highlights of Kong Miao. Most of the exhibits didn’t lend themselves to picture taking. Although Kongzi’s teachings fell into disfavor – violent suppression, even – during the Cultural Revolution, there’s been a resurgence lately, with modern Chinese seeking to restore some of the traditional values they find lacking in modern society. And honestly, if you look more at the actual writings rather than some of the religious trappings that were later grafted onto Confucianism, it’s pretty hard to fault the values contained in the Analects. One of the things it is widely known for is respect for authority, both within families and in government, but that is tempered by two additional teachings. First, underlings are obligated to speak up when they feel leaders are going astray, even to the point of justified rebellion in the case of tyranny. And second, authority must be earned, not inherited, so leaders have their positions due to virtue, not just lucky birth or force of arms. It is these caveats that caused the kings he spoke to to reject his teachings. And in later centuries, when his teachings did become orthodoxy, the focus was often more on submission than virtue.

One of Kongzi’s prime teachings is the same as other philosophers around the world have come up with, though it is stated differently:

己所 不欲、勿施於人
jǐ suǒ bù yù, wù shī wū rén
Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.

That’s the translation of David Hinton. It should sound familiar to everyone, I think. And stating it as a negative, rather than the positive statement we’re familiar with as the Golden Rule, has the advantage of avoiding some of the problems that more modern thinkers have found with it. To divert into philosophy, the problem with “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is that it leads to silly things like, “I would love for someone to give me some bacon, so I should give my neighbor some bacon,” when the neighbor is a vegetarian. To be fair, Kongzi actually does encourage proactive reciprocity in other places as a means of enhancing the public good.

And the other thing we have to remember is that Kongzi himself never wrote down his teachings. Much as with other ancient religious and philosophical teachers, the writings we have were compiled after his death by his followers, and there’s no way to know what Kongzi himself actually said.

Anyway, back to ancient Beijing.

Next to Kong Miao is Guozijian (国子监), which was the Imperial College, and the same ticket (Ұ20) gets you into both.
In the center of the main yard is this lovely building:
If I understood correctly, it was only used when the Emperor visited the school. He would sit at the elaborate desk inside...
...and lecture the students who stood outside all around. The water was drained from the circular pool around it while one of the bridges was being repaired, but I can see it would be really pretty when it is filled.

There’s another statue of Kongzi.
And a mock-up of what an Imperial classroom looked like.
The professor is at the center desk, and the students would have been at tables on the two sides of him, outside the area of the picture.

The College’s main function was to prepare civil servants for the massive Imperial bureaucracy, which theoretically (by Confucian ideals) was open to students from all social strata, though in practice it catered to the aristocracy. Sons of poor families were needed to support their households and couldn’t afford to spend time on such things as studying.

The whole system started to decline a bit before the end of the last dynasty, and the College fell into disrepair until its recent renovation.

This is another of those Beijing locations I would not recommend unless you’re a Confucius buff or really into history. Or are small in stature and like to swing from trees.


Another brick in the Wall

One of the first things I did after coming to China was visit the Great Wall. Like most tourists, we went to the section of the wall called Badaling (八达岭). As you can see if you look at my old post, it was pretty crowded there and pretty commercialized. So this year when my sister and nephew came to visit, I wanted to show them something different – as well as giving myself a new experience instead of a repeat.

In my guide book, Simatai (司马台) was described as being less visited, less restored, and less crowded, which fit the bill perfectly. Of course, being all those things, it’s a little more of a challenge to get there. Luckily, I have some good friends who are locals and willing to help out. One of my friends told me that she saw a tour bus in the neighborhood, near the Sanlitun Youth Hostel, that said Bus to Jinshanling and Simatai the Great Wall on its side. She even wrote down the phone number on the bus. It turned out I had to arrange the trip through the youth hostel – the tour company won’t take bookings directly. So I went into the hostel and handed over a bunch of cash, signing up for the next morning (April 10).

We had to be there at 6:30, and the tour included breakfast on the road and a buffet lunch. All for Ұ260 (about US$38) per person, and actual entry tickets to the Great Wall were not included.

The “breakfast” was a pretty unappealing sandwich with some sweetened fruit juice. Really wish I’d taken the time to eat something beforehand. The bus ride was a total of about two and a half hours, with a stop at Miyun (密云) for gas, beverages and snacks – though the gas station had a pretty pitiful selection. I got a bottled coffee drink to wake myself up.

Miyun is a town in the Beijing Municipality and sees itself as the gateway to the Great Wall, so they use its image to decorate the town.
That’s a roundabout in the middle of town, not the real Wall.

After Miyun we headed into higher country.
We passed a little way into Hebei (河北) Province to a place called Jinshanling (金山岭), which basically means Gold Mountain. There is not gold in these here hills – it gets the name for the color of the trees in fall or something.
This section of the Wall was first built in 1368 and restored in 1567; parts of it have been restored more recently, though as you will see, certainly not all of it. And yes, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entrance ticket to this area is Ұ50.

The bus dropped us off here, and the guide gave us instructions on how to manage the ten kilometer walk to Simatai, where the bus would pick us up in about four and a half hours. No pressure.
The day was clear but hazy, so visibility was pretty good although the sky was generally not blue.
Note the relative – nay, complete – lack of tourists. This particular bit is obviously restored and in very good shape.
The start of the journey features some climbs which seemed a bit steep at the time. Little did we know what lay ahead of us.

As you go along, the state of the Wall deteriorates.
Note that the next guard tower in line is pretty far gone.
And past that is a section that you can barely walk on.
Note the lovely trees in bloom – I’m pretty sure they’re cherries. It was springtime, and things were starting to look alive.
The trend of steeper and more deteriorated continued.
Not long past this point there was a sign to inform us that we were entering the Simatai section of the Great Wall. This area costs Ұ40 to get in. There was a sign that said it was the ticket office of Simatai Great Wall, but there was no one there. At one point a woman was just walking along and checking our tickets.

There was a rather inconspicuous arrow pointing us around this tower.
Seems obvious that the path does not go through it, but many people tried, climbing up inside only to find out the other side was even less accessible.
We walked around it.

Here’s a picture that gives you a good idea what Simatai is like.
You can see that parts of the Wall are only a few feet high along here. And look at the ridge in the distance. See how the Wall continues up it?
That’s an area where it’s not very high.

As you walk along, you can see that aside from tourism, the local economy also includes agriculture.
Those are terraced corn fields. All along the Wall, we met up with locals trying to supplement their income by selling water, cola, beer, postcards, or guidebooks or (for the ones that spoke more English) offering their services as guides.

Between where the previous pictures were taken and the steep ridge in the distance is a river.
You have to cross a narrow suspension bridge (for an extra Ұ5) to cross it – not that you have a choice.
It’s a pretty steep descent to the bridge.
That’s another Great Wall ticket office. There’s actually a guy sitting on a folding chair at the other side. And that’s my sister and nephew not being exhausted.

From the other side looking back:
There’s a big sign near the Simatai parking lot to introduce the area. “Simatai Great Wall is most famous for its five characteristics: precipitous, dense, ingenious, peculiar and comprehensive...it is the only section that still keeps the original appearance of the Ming-dynasty Great Wall.” It also describes the “rope bridge” as looking like a “magnificent rainbow” – sure.

As tour members straggled in at Simatai, a minibus took them to a nearby restaurant for a buffet lunch. As it was after 2:00 and we’d had virtually nothing for breakfast and had just hiked 10k over rough terrain, to say we were starving would be an understatement. The food was tolerable, a selection of the most common Chinese dishes: gongbaojiding (kung pao chicken), tomatoes with scrambled eggs, and so on with steamed rice. Beverages were extra.

Outside the restaurant, there were ears of corn hanging on trees to dry. Though given that it was only April, this must be last year’s crop.
The trip back into Beijing took a lot longer than the trip out. Why? You might ask. Here’s why:
A bit after we passed the airport, we hit rush hour traffic. It was like this for something like two hours covering what should have taken 30 minutes or so.

I’m worn out now just from writing about it. But what a day!


This is not my homework

Ever since I started learning how to write in Chinese, I’ve thought about doing blog posts using my new skill. Here goes.


Well, that’s a pretty short post. Here it is in English:

On Monday after work I was riding my bicycle home, and another guy on a bike wasn’t watching the road and ran into me. My arm and legs were slightly injured, and my bike’s basket is broken.

I would like to give thanks to my coworker LX who offered some suggestions on vocabulary and grammar. 谢谢你!

I’m not sure who I think my audience for this kind of post might be, since people in China can’t get to this web site. To those who might say I’m just showing off, I’ll say, “I don’t think so.” I’m just enthusiastic about my learning and want an outlet for these things.

Chinese time machine #5

Moving back even further – though not a lot – we come to 15 February 2009. It was clear and very cold in Beijing, but I chose to venture out to Daguanyuan (大观园), which I’m not even really sure how to translate. The English maps give it as Grand View Garden, which will apparently do.

One thing about this place that is unique among all the places I’ve visited in China is that it is not old, and not only is it not old, but it was built as a set for a TV series. It’s hard to explain the cultural importance of the book called 红楼梦 (Hong Lou Meng, usually translated Dream of the Red Chamber) to the Chinese. It is one of the Four Great Novels, and you probably would be hard pressed to find a single Chinese person not familiar with it on some level. In the 1980s, China Central Television produced a series based on the book, and instead of filming it on soundstages, they built an entire compound designed to match every description found in the book of the place where the main family lives. It’s the story of a prominent family in decline, so grandeur is called for.

Here’s the front entrance.
Yeah, it was February, so prepare yourself for lots of pictures with bare trees.

At Ұ55 (US$9), the ticket is a bit on the expensive side compared to a lot of Beijing sights.

There are many buildings arrayed around various water/ice features.
Helpful signs tell you what parts of the book involve the buildings, which character lived there and so on.
As you can see, they did a very good job of imitating the style of construction you see at the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and so on.

Inside some of the buildings are figures dressed as the characters.
Most of the major characters in the story are women.
This compound within a compound is the nunnery where Miaoyu retired to a Buddhist life.

Here’s a view across the largest lake.
I’ve never before seen a sign that said “Keep off the lake” – though of course while it’s frozen solid, the meaning is correct. The Chinese is a little more verbose, and says that the ice is not safe, so please don’t go on the lake. I presume they change the sign once it’s not frozen.

Since the family in the story was highly placed in society, they had some special buildings made just for occasions when the emperor would visit.
Any resemblance to the Forbidden City is no coincidence.

Inside one building is a bunch of Red Chamber memorabilia.
These are photos of actors who have played the various parts in various productions of the story, not just the 1980s series that was filmed here.
And this kind of tree...
...is called a “Dragon Claw Tree.”

Some visitors are not impressed by elaborate buildings.
And for a price...
...you can dress in period costume and have your picture taken.

As I promised, you’ve seen lots of pictures of bare trees. It seems that such a situation is intolerable.
So the staff has provided some trees with a little help.

I guess there’s a new version of Red Chamber currently in production, and they had some promotional posters of the new cast.
I’m hoping that for the actual filming, they will have more authentic hairstyles.

There you go. I think about when I’ve visited Universal Studios, and it’s kind of hard to imagine sets like this ever being built for an American production.

Daguanyuan is in the Xuanwu (宣武) District of Beijing, not a long taxi ride from Changchunjie Station (长椿街站) on subway line 2. It is certainly not on the short list of Beijing places you must see unless you are a Chinese literature buff or maybe interested in TV production, but it was interesting, and I’ve already seen the things on the short list. There is also an underground theater at Daguanyuan where they show a computer animated 3D short feature that involves a dream in the Red Chamber. A character falls asleep and drifts through various scenes somewhat resembling events in the book. Or so I’m told – I haven’t read the book yet.