Saturday, November 24, 2012

Asian Chronicles - 4

China 4 - Beijing 3      9/29/2012

Tap the photos once to enlarge.

At a time just slightly later than the previous morning, our tour group descended upon the breakfast buffet like swarming locusts. Green and red lanyards holding name-tags rounded necks at nearly every table. We greeted one another while queuing for multi-national cuisine. I ate Asian (This was my third trip to Asia; I NEVER eat Western in Asia.) and pushed back before feeling full.
I’d watched an inflight documentary, Monk Beopjeong’s Chair, aboard Korean Air. Buddhist monk Beopjeong is credited for the proliferation of Buddhism after translating many texts into Korean. Additionally, he penned fifteen books and his royalties were estimated in the millions - though he practiced a life of no possession(s). His millions funded many university tuitions and other causes he deemed worthy. 
The documentary showed a young man entering the monastic, ascetic life. He stood on a scale, was weighed, and admonished to keep a stable weight throughout his life. He did so and film footage before his death in 2010 showed an elderly, trim, and fit man. He said, “Push back from the table before you are full.” I decided to push back before I was full during this trip through China. Little did I know that outside circumstances would aid my quest.
I believe Confucius said something similar though it evades my googling. 

The Irish have an old recipe for longevity:
Leave the table hungry.
Leave the bed sleepy.
Leave the table thirsty.

Inelegant albeit insightful, as it were. Despite our lives of American excess - I know this sentiment to be true.
“Its not about longevity,” my friends and family argue, “Its about quality.”
“Uh-huh, and your point is?” While not insurmountable, the mind-body connection is inseparable. Few possess Stephen Hawkins-ish intellect to overcome physical devastation. Rather, we succumb. Its all about squatty-pottys and tai-chi folks - I’m telling ya.

“Nē hoú,” Angela said once we were settled aboard the green bus.
“Nē hoú,” we responded.
“Very good,” Angela said. “How was your breakfast?”
My mind snapped to attention. She didn’t just set us up for this; did she? Yes indeedy!
“Ding-ding hoú,” we chorused followed by raucous laughter.
Angela laughed, immediately realizing her mistake and our propensity to answer every question possible - even those vaguely plausible - with ding-ding hoú.

Our bus growled through the cement canyon-lands of Beijing’s business district, around seracs of rock, sand, and steel in all  its forms. Floral displays along the roadside and medians were abundant as Beijing readied for its national holiday. 
City Moat
We crossed a river with steep walls - the city moat. Moat? Ancient Beijing was designed in concentric squares. The innermost contained the Forbidden City, home to the Emperor and Imperial family, his concubines and servants. The second wall protected the Imperial City (with the Forbidden City at its center) that was accessed through only six gates. The third wall encircled the Forbidden City, the Imperial City, and the Inner City. The moat, a water filled channel cut deep and wide, surrounded all inside an impenetrable fortress. Peasants farmed the lands of the outer city.
Inner City Wall Guard Tower
Because of these fortifications, the city whose name (Beiping) meant North-Peace, was indeed peaceful within. Unscathed by battle, the Imperial City endured until foolish Emperor Hongwu ordered it demolished in 1369 CE (AD) and moved the capital city south to Nanjing. Emperor Hongwu’s fourth son usurped the throne in 1399 CE (AD) to rebuild and rename Beiping. Beijing literally translates to North Capital, a name literally reflecting its past.
Mao ordered the demolition of remaining city walls. Some areas were planted as parks like The Imperial City Wall Garden, a long swath of greenery following the footprint of the old wall.  Few Guard Towers remain along the moat, monoliths to an ancient past.

Our destination was the Temple of Heaven and Angela began with its history and stories. Built in 1420 CE (AD) during the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor (thought to be the Son of Heaven) would make sacrificial offerings to the Gods and receive divine guidance in the Temple of Heaven. 
Like all cultures, many current holidays are based on agrarian celebrations for planting and harvest. We visited the Temple of Heaven on the eve of the Moon Festival - aka the mid-autumn festival of thanks for good harvest. 
Similarly, Chinese New Year is the first day of the first lunar month and spring festival - a time to plant. The winter solstice is the time to rest and give thank for past and future harvests. But I digress - as you know I am wont to do.

PAUSE IN THINK: A footnote regarding BCE/CE versus BC/AD. 
The Gregorian calendar is the most commonly used calendar in the world today. It was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 CE to reform the calendar used by the Church and resolve, among other things, the drift we accommodate with Leap Year, an inconsistency that, over time, dragged the spring equinox and thereby Easter, earlier and earlier in the year. One could not, after all, have the resurrection occurring at Christmas.
There is much written of the incorporation of pagan/harvest celebrations into Christian holidays but that is a different discussion for another day. 
The BC/AD notation is based on the birth of Christ. BC= before Christ. AD = Anno Domini = in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Gregorian calendar is clearly Christian while most of the world is not.
The BCE (Before Current Era) / CE (Current Era) notation can be traced to European Christians as early as 1615 and is neutral or sensitive to non-Christians because it does not explicitly make use of Christ and Domini (Lord), which are used in the BC/AD notation. It is gaining popularity of usage and I use it here in deference to Asia, a predominantly non-Christian country. End Pause in Think.
Me, Mom, Sis Gina, Niece Lael
The Emperor came to the Temple grounds to practice The Rite of Worshipping Heaven, which began in the 26th century BCE. (In my mind this date is suspect as written word in China dates back to by 1300 BCE”. But I digress yet again.) The Emperor would fast from food and other earthly pleasures before presenting himself for worship. The Rite was tightly prescribed beginning first with animal sacrifice, divine music and dance, the burning and burying of sacrificial animal(s), incense burning, jade and wine offerings, and prayer.

An arial view of the site shows a walled complex with a “Heaven Gate” at each of the four cardinal directions. The north wall is convex and semi-circular - a symbol of heaven. To the south, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest (Qiniandian) is surrounded by a square wall - a symbol of earth. This design reflects ancient Chinese thought that heaven is high and round; earth is low and square.
Inside the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, twenty-eight posts support a circular roof and three layers of eaves. Four posts along the inner circle represent the four seasons. Twelve posts along the middle circle represent the twelve months. The twelve posts along the outer circle represent twelve shichen. (A shichen is a unit of time in ancient China. One shichen equaled two hours so one 24-hour day was comprised of twelve shichens). 
Mural between stairs
The Imperial Vault of Heaven (Huangqiongyu) echoes the design of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest on smaller scale. The entire complex is built upon a base of marble, often carved marble. The stairwells were of particular interest to me. Stairs bordered intricately carved murals (now fenced off). The back-story is that the Emperor traveled by palanquin. His bearers climbed the stairs and as his chair straddled them, he passed over beautifully carved, marble murals.
The Temple of Heaven is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site and like many dynastic remnants - is a park belonging to the people. People entertained themselves throughout the park grounds with tai-chi and dance and mahjong. Near the entrance, a harmonica band played an enthusiastic rendition of a song for Chairman Mao, quite reminiscent of a polka.
Carved, marble bannisters and stairwells, small, carved roof tiles, ornamental mythical animals adorning roof corners, and intricately designed and artfully painted fretwork all point to the army of craftsman at the Emperor’s disposal. Restoring and maintaining these artifacts in a modern economy is more challenging.

The bathroom was our first that provided central sinks and toilet paper dispensers. Both men and women collected toilet paper from a central dispenser then went in opposite directions into male and female toilets. All returned to the central area for hand-washing. It was a bit disorienting at first, to see both males and females enter and exit through a single door. 

We left the Temple of Heaven after viewing only one of three major on-site features.  Covering 674 acres, one would require several hours to circumambulate the oasis where the densely packed business jungle of Beijing breathes a great sigh. 
Our bus was destined for the Chinese Herb Center aka Beijing Zhong Yan Wan Kang Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The Li’ang Tse Wellness Health Care Center had been the exclusive pharmacy of the Imperial Family for over 300 years. They practiced a 3000 year-old brand of traditional, Chinese, herbal medicine.
We sat in a large room while Dr. Fu, an older Chinese man wearing a white coat, lectured on yin, yang, and chi (energy). He trained in the west, he said, before returning home to practice medicine in China.
“Chinese people prefer natural herbs instead of chemicals. Meridian lines are invisible channels of energy. Herbs and acupuncture unblock our meridians to enhance the flow of chi.” 
“If you have eye problems, a Chinese doctor will treat your leevah (liver). If you have ear problems, a Chinese doctor will treat your kidney to unblock the meridians.”
“Chinese doctors don’t do any tests,” he continued. “They do a physical exam. They feel your pulse, examine your eyes, tongue, hands, fingernails. Therefore Chinese patients want to see a doctor with gray hair or no hair.” We chuckled at this. Dr. Wu’s dark hair was appropriately thin on top.
“Natural medicines have minimal side effect and are better than chemicals and surgery. Herbal medicines are more effective for senile conditions,” he said, “The conditions of aging.” As aging is the leading cause of death, he suddenly had my attention.
“Food and medicine come from the same plant. Western medicine has many chemicals, lots of side effect. Chinese medicine uses mineral-rich herbs to replace the deficiencies of our diet.”  

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” Hippocrates said. Hippocrates was a Greek physician in 460-370 BCE and the father of western medicine. That Western and Chinese medicine are rooted in food and herbs and sprouted during the same era can likely be traced to the domestication of horses and subsequent trade of knowledge and goods along the east-west axis of the Eurasian plain - but that too is a different discussion for another day.

“It is common for Chinese doctors to prescribe western medicines plus herbs. Herbs are living medicines and they deserve a place in your Primary Care.” Dr. Fu wrapped it up and brought it home for his little army of helpers. “We recommend that you take these herbs in addition to your current medications. Yes, you can reorder over the internet.”
“We will give you a free consultation and recommendation.” Of course you will. They flooded into the room in their starched white coats and sat down, reaching for wrists, putting their fingers on the pulse of the front-rowers.  
I casually leaned forward, released the clasp on my medic-alert anklet, and slipped it into my pocket. I am the physical picture of health and would give up nothing. Could they detect renal insufficiency through an abbreviated physical exam and a runner’s pulse. Highly unlikely. Call me skeptical.

Vinyl began spinning in my brain to an old Steely Dan tune:
Are you with me Doctor Wu?
Are you really just a shadow
Of the man that I once knew?

Are you crazy are you high?
Or just an ordinary guy;
Have you done all you can do?
Are you with me Doctor,
Can you hear me Doctor ,
Are you with me Doctor Wu? Fu.

Dr. Ma sank into the couch next to my mother. I scribbled furiously in my journal and he glanced over uncomfortably.
“How old are you?” She answered as he reached for her wrist.
“Please stick out our tongue.”
“Blood pressure okay?”
“Blood sugar high?”
“You have diabetes?”
“How is your cholesterol?”
“Any pain?”
“I think you okay. You have extended belly. You need this one,” he circled B1 on the brochure, “To mobilize your metabolism to lose weight.”

B1. Jie Du Yang Gan Fang (Detoxify and Nourish the Liver)
Main ingredients: Indigo naturalis, Amerbiae, Olibanum, Pieoniae rubra, Artemisiae scopariae, Curcumae, Bupleurum, Lysimachia, Istaidis, Salvia Miltiorrhiza, rhizome Cyperi.
Functions: Clear away  the internal heat and toxin, relieves the liver, invigorates the spleen, and resolves blood stasis.
Indications: The medicine cures various kinds of acute or chronic hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, fatty liver, and gall stones ... eliminates fat, removes speckles and wrinkles, reduces body weight and improves one's looks.
Dosage: Twice a day, 4 capsules each time, after meals.

He also recommended: #2 San Cai Jiang Tang Wan (Blood Sugar Reducing Bolus) - a cure for obesity and diabetes; and #5 Tong Luo  Huo Xue Wan (Main & collateral channel cleansing and blood activating bolus) - A cure for bone spurs, herniated lumbar disc, meniscus injury, sciatica, and all kinds of joint pains, swelling, numbness, limit mobility due to sprains and strains ... Parkinsonism, varicosity, etc.
You try all three for three months. Nine-hundred dollars please.

He turned to my brother-in-law Michael and recited his litany of questions.
“How is your sleep?”
“How is your sexual performance?” 
Overhearing many such health interviews, I noticed they asked men about sexual performance and women about their regularity of flow - as if a woman’s sexual health is determined solely by menses. Women are deemed sexually sound if their flow is regular. After all, their only function is to bear and rear children. But of course! Is there more? Grrrrr...
“Your abdomen is extended,” Dr. Ma touched Michael’s belly. “You need increased metabolism to lose weight.” He circled B1. on the brochure.

Twenty-one distinct herbal preparations were thusly described in their tri-fold pamphlet. Dr. Ma recommended a full course - a three-month trial. Each bottled herb cost 100 USD. A full course of any prescribed herb cost 300 USD. He recommended two-three herbs per person. 

They bypassed the young and the thin. I never did get my free consultation. But in this methinks, they are wise. Statistically, they know trim people have little disease. For their sales force, we are generally speaking, slim pickens’.
“I consider that elder-abuse,” my niece, a medical-legal defense attorney said after watching one couple shell out $2000. “They target the elderly.”
There is no silver bullet, no magic mushroom, no panacean herb.

Old Chinese proverb says: He that takes medicine and neglects diet, wastes the skills of the physician.
Later, my nephew Collin did a hella-raucous rendition. 
“Come heah” (here), he said, reaching for my wrist and pulse. 
“Let me feeo (feel) yo pulse. Stick out yo tongue. You have gray hayah (hair). You ode (old).”
“Can you heah (hear) me? If you no can heah, Chinese doctah look at yo kidney, not yo eah (ear). Sumpteen wong wi yo kidney. You anemic.” 
“Can you see? If you no can see, Chinese doctah look at yo leevah (liver). Sumpteen wong wi yo leevah.” 
“How yo blood preshah (pressure)? Cholesterah (cholesterol)? Seh-show pehfomance (sexual performance)? You all F’d up. We have herb fo you." 
Oh my gawd! We laughed till we cried.

We gathered for lunch at round tables seating eight to ten people. Complimentary beverages were always the same: hot tea, Coke, Sprite, and Chinese beer. We usually drank beer and other tables typically donated beer to our cause. 
Ever wonder why Chinese restaurants are filled with round tables? A circle is the symbol for family, wholeness, and perfection. Our table covering was vinyl flooring cut into a perfect and whole circle. Food was placed on the lazy-susan in the middle. 
We had been instructed to bring our own chopsticks and eating utensils. I brought collapsible chopsticks and nesting fork, spoon, and knife of indestructible plastic. Some restaurants provided hot tea or water for washing the tableware again. 
My lunch consisted of, not surprisingly, rice, onions, bell peppers, and watermelon. The food in northern China was dull and uninspired. People complained that it had no flavor. They served a bland soup at each meal that looked and tasted like whitish water.  It had no flavor, no vegetables, no hint of broth, zip, zero, nada. Collin teased that they had boiled their socks and served Dirty Socks Soup.
Our guide Derek explained. The white soup is the water in which the noodles are boiled. Northern China is cold, their crops are few. They grow wheat and eat noodles. Impoverished peoples discard little. This traditional, flavorless, white soup is indicative of their past, of poverty, a throw-back to stone soup.

“I would have preferred to stay at the Temple of Heaven,” I told Derek. “Than spend 90-minutes with the herbalist.”
“No can,” he said. “The government makes us take you.” Plausible - but probable?

Our afternoon would be spent traversing Tiananmen Square (T-Square) and the Forbidden City (F-City). The two complexes are adjacent to one another and a through-trip entails 3.5 miles of walking. Mom hired a wheelchair with a “pusher”.
“Tiananmen Square is the largest city square in the world,” Angela said into our ear-buds. Of course it is, I thought. Wikipedia however, reports it is the third largest behind Merdeka Square in Jakarta and Praça dos Girassóis in Brazil. Nonetheless, it covers 440 square meters or 109 acres. Its big! It is bordered at its northern edge by the Tiananmen Gate into the Forbidden City - built in 1415.
A raised, textured footpath ran along its edge. “This is for the blind,” Angela pointed. It was a little hard on the feet and definitely not for the unsteady but one could walk beside it, tapping it with a cane. 
T-Square was littered with people. Fantastical floribunda adorned the Square just one-day ahead of the national holiday. The national flag snapped sharply. Angela explained the symbolism of the Chinese flag. “The large star represents the Communist Party. The four smaller stars represent Chinese people from all walks of life under the leadership of the Communist party.” The young soldiers standing with the national flag are not unlike our Marines at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. All are handsome, of similar stature, and highly trained for the great honor of guarding the flag.

We watched a toddler toddle, his legs spread wide for balance, the split and contents in his padded, crotchless pants, very visible.
Chinese people begin toilet training as early as one-month and most babies are trained by six-months. By the time children can walk, they know to squat down in their open-crotch pants whenever they feel the urge. How do they do it? It starts with a stay-at-home Mom or Grandmother, a baby that is constantly held, and learning subtle cues. Babies learn to signal and mothers respond, holding them over a toilet or sink. Yes - a public sink - where one might wash one's hands. To say that we were aghast is putting it mildly.

The Great Hall of the People, where China’s new leadership was revealed just weeks ago and Memorial Hall, where the body of Mao is interned, are along T-Square. The line past his crypt, even now - 36 years after his passing - is hours long. His picture hangs prominently over the Tiananmen Gate, the very location where, in 1949, he declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Mention T-Square to a Chinese and they think of Mao and 1949. Mention T-Square to a Westerner and we think of a courageous man, a line of tanks, and 1989. “The Incident”, burned into the minds of the western world, is referenced only in hushed tonal Chinese. When Google was available in China, The Incident was not a searchable item.

Tiananmen Gate
We traversed T-Square and entered the Forbidden City (F-City). If you have never seen the movie The Last Emperor, do so. It was filmed in the F-City and recounts the fall of the last dynasty of China just 101 years ago.
“Notice that the buildings are red. Red is for good fortune, happiness, and to ward off evil spirits,” Angela said. “Brides wear red. Yellow tiled roofs are for the Emperor only. Outside you see gray roof tiles. The ancient city was gray with bright colors only in the Forbidden City.”
The F-City includes over 3000 structures and four gates - one at each of the cardinal directions - natch. The ground level surface is made of stone brick - FIFTEEN layers deep to prevent invasion by tunneling. The inner and highest court contains living quarters and The Hall of Supreme Harmony, where a sandalwood throne served twenty-four emperors. 
The Palace of Heavenly Purity was the emperor’s bedroom. Conversely, the Hall of Earthly Tranquility was the Empresses’ bedroom. Of course he would find earthly tranquility in the Empresses’ bedroom. But Chinese language is very literal and he had many concubines. We wondered about a Great Hall of Heavenly Liaisons - or something more graphic.
Large brass pots, big enough to boil several, large, European men at once, were incense urns. Sure they were. Within the F-City, Dragon statues have five toes. Only the Emperor’s dragons have five toes - don’t you know. The F-City was refreshed and refurbished for the Olympics and it shows, its colors vibrant in the waning afternoon light.
In ancient times, nothing towered over the F-City. Now Beijing’s tallest building, its World Trade Center, rises to 88 stories nearby.
The mountain behind the F-City (and similarly at the Summer Palace) was built from its diggings and fulfills the feng shui requirement of a mountain (hill) to the north. That these mountains do not landslide during great storms is beyond me and a testament to their engineering.

Street vendors swooped upon us at the back gate, peddling Red Army hats. I have a visceral reaction to buying and wearing a Red Army hat and realized that is likely due to the propaganda of my native land. Chinese youth sport them proudly. There is a reason Mao continues to be revered in China. We did not live under his autocracy but neither did we endure the injustices of dynastic rule.

We dined on Peking Duck that night and because there were three birthdays, there were three cakes with fantastical fireworks for candles. That the frosting did not melt  nor the candles take flight and orbit was sheerly by design. We wanted them, (Of course we did; we’re Chinese) then remembered we could not get them into the country. Rats & Tigers!
They sent us to our rooms with a small moon cake in hand. The Moon Festival and full-moon rose with the morrow and so began an eight-day national holiday. We would fly to Xi’an, the home of the terra-cotta soldiers.


  1. Too bad about the "free consultation." I SO wanted to hear what he said to you. I am skeptical also. But willing to explore. I have heard from friends that the food in China is tasteless. But most of the people I see in Costco could eat a little less. Sugar makes everything taste/look good, and Americans love their sugar. Sigh. There is much we can learn from the Chinese.

  2. Yes - and we LOVE our salt too. The food improved greatly as we moved south. What we know as Chinese food in the US is actually Cantonese food. But to real Cantonese food, we add tons of salt and sugar. Ugh!